Words by Khia Guerrero
I remember waves of orange trees growing in dry patches; I remember even the weeds curling underneath the sun. I had been in the wet Georgia heat for so long I had forgotten how dry California was until I came back. Almonds, strawberries, oranges, and rice farms shared the land with tall white fans gathering energy from the air. I watched people bike to and from work on the hottest of days—the town itself was busy. However, Murphy North Carolina, where my grandma had lived for a period of time, is the complete opposite. Lazy snakes take refuge in the tall Kudzu vines, while old folks sit in the rocking chairs on their aged porches. We all live under the same sun, but Chico’s has distinct aggression that cannot match the gentle loving sun Murphy has. You can smell the honeysuckles complimenting the earthy air, everything touched by Earth.
My grandma, Yaya, wasn’t born in Chico. She was born in Willows but Chico reminds me of her. Her skin is dark like the trees we would pass by, from working in the orchards. Her husband at the time owned an almond orchard that she worked in—our family name of Guerrero is attached to olive oils and almonds. Her ex-husband gave jobs to immigrants that were willing to work in the hot fields. She owned a little house on the freeway that connected to the town park we went to almost every day. I remember the torches lighting up the special little area behind the garage where ping-pong tables sat in waiting. A fat black bee would come buzzing through. We always had to pause our games in an attempt to ensure nobody would be stung.
Yaya encouraged the outdoors as much as possible, much to my younger sun-sensitive skin’s dismay. We had mud fights, played in creeks—the forest that surrounded her house was full of laughter. Chico had charming little shops set up on the streets, waiting to sell you art or fresh blueberries. Murphy has the same homely feeling, but it’s quieter—whereas Chico is a constant rush—both carrying generations to come. Yaya, in her own way, is every part Murphy, North Carolina, as she is Chico, California. Her voice is prominent like cicadas in the summer, her cool atmosphere like the sweet tea kept in old glass.
Yaya was never outwardly religious, but she is Christian. When we eat a meal she goes to pray in her room, or we say thanks at the table. She’s always been stubborn, believing in coming to Jesus moments and work.
When I interviewed her, immediately, Yaya spoke of clients she cleaned houses for. She regarded it fondly, “I went to Jack’s on Friday, and he followed me around the house while I cleaned. He’s hard of hearing but likes to talk to me about his past and his wife who passed.” Her job is to clean their houses, but she says she does it to provide friendship. Yaya is humble but knows well enough to not pretend what she does is effortless—her constant reminder to do good unto others keeps itself printed in her mind. Oftentimes, people will say they’re kind without thinking about it, but not her. She said she was sent to church in an effort to get out of the house more, and from there she wanted to carry on the influence that there was something more than us—maybe not God, but something.
If you asked me what I first thought of when it came to her, it would be aprons. Growing up, I used to think that she went to sleep with an apron on, because as soon as I woke up she was already in it. Yaya has a secret magic, like everything she does is fact. The sky is blue, winter is cold, and Yaya will make sausage in the early morning if you’ve slept over. When I was younger, it seemed like she had made a special vault of information in her mind, always remembering her grandchildren’s dislikes and likes. She pours her soul not only into her food but into the people around her, and everyday it feels like I’m a little closer to doing the same. I offer my friends homemade soup when they’re sick, and I try to be genuine in my thanks at dinner. I continue my habits that remind me of her—not because I want to be her, but because she is the influence that I want to carry on.
Yaya didn’t just teach me that we had to get the best cheese and grate it by hand, or that cookies have an insanely unnecessary process. She taught me to accept that sometimes I deserve good things. She buys name brand foods and doesn’t accept cheap bread, buys clothing that can be worn to work or to an outing. When I argue about the quality of some things not mattering, she shuts me down with a look from the eyes we share. None of us kids really cared about how we preferred apples—food was food. But, Yaya cuts our apples thinly sliced into a pretty bowl that matches the rest of the kitchen. I wish I could say I’m applying this kind of wisdom to take care of myself—I try to apply it especially when I’m around her or she’ll roll her eyes. In the smallest of ways, I think I could some day. I make good food because I enjoy it; I pour my soul into it. I still remember the processes of ridiculously good 24 hour cookies, but I will deliberately ignore having to hand grate cheese when it could be bought shredded. I think someday I’ll be able to enjoy the better things in life.
Yaya, above all things, is the land that we cultivate and love. She is the berry bushes that stick their thorns like fine fingers to scrape against the cars. She is the pretty church that stands proud near Candy Mountain road. She is the river that runs through Murphy, specifically near the old torn down bridge where she took us on a walk. She is the creek on McDonald road where she was baptized. Yaya symbolizes old but fierce love, equal halves Murphy and Chico to make a whole.
My name is Khia Guerrero, I am a seventeen year old highschool student at Tri-County Early College in Murphy, North Carolina. I am passionate about philosophy, ethics, helping others, and I enjoy baking for those I love. Some of the things that are most important to me include my dog and family. I plan to graduate high school with an associates degree and continue my education to earn a degree in English education, from there I hope to become a high school English teacher. Whatever the future holds for me, I hope to continue writing.