Hasta la Vista

hands across the generations

Multiple generations share a rich tradition of owner-built homes and true community in northern New Mexico.

This article first appeared in Winter 2008 Su Casa

When I moved to New Mexico, 1,600 miles from my Pittsburgh origin, I noticed the closeness of family life here as I marveled at New Mexico light. I was newly married with nary a child on the landscape, but there was a deep sense that we would settle. Not in the sense of settling for something less, a recent aberration of the word, but in the sense of a settler coming to rest, a breath of relief as our beckoning family hunkered down. This landscape would become our history and owner-built homes a common mark of our self-sufficient, nouveau pioneer ways.

In the early ’70s the chile-growing, weaving-making traditional village of Chimayó would attract a wave of newcomers. While Taos was home to many communes, in Chimayó the back-to-the-land movement folks built their own houses or settled in an old adobe on the old plaza. The people I met learned Spanish, had a community apple press and cider parties, and helped one another build. We had a natural food co-op, play groups to give the stay-at-home moms a breather, and for each child born, we made a quilt. Of our friends, Laura and Johnny Abrums were the rare native New Mexicans. Many of us hail from other parts, such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and California, and were educated at Berkeley, Harvard, Tufts, or Boulder—you know, the usual counterculture suspects.

I’ve gone to the Abrums’ for Christmas Eve since I first set foot in their house in 1976. Their round house looked like a great birthday cake lit with luminarias. The hearth in the center with vigas radiating into a large open space is a visual image of what our lives would become, families spiraling out into a larger definition of kin.

When I became part of this community, living there for a year as we built in adjacent La Puebla, I felt I was part of something larger than my own life, newly wed to the land. I was home one day, alone with a new baby and toddler, and Laura Abrums showed up at my door with a quilt. The sense of belonging I felt then may be what this story is about. There was the building of homes and the building of a cultural identity for ourselves and our children.

John and Laura Abrums had moved from their native Albuquerque to live first in Truchas, both camping out in the mountains for six weeks and then renting a place. This impulse to live close to the source stayed with them, and they found land in Chimayó, lived in a neighbor’s green school bus, and drew a circle in the dirt that would become their house plan. Blind faith was the architect for this young couple who thought they could build. “It was an adventure,” Laura says. “I guess we felt close to nature, closer to God in that environment.” They hoped to become farmers and make a living off of the land. At one point they had 150 beehives and always a large garden. They cut and peeled their own vigas and made their own adobes down below. Laura motions to what is now the garden.

Of their house design Laura laughs, “The circle seemed huger and huger as the walls went up, so we put bedrooms inside the circle.” John tells of times during building when they’d wake up and find that a horse or a goat had invaded their sacred circle, grazing on the weeds. They’d have to carefully chase the animal out so it wouldn’t wreck the adobe building site. John and Laura obviously enjoy reminiscing. We all feel grateful to have stories built into our houses.

Their house has always been a pleasure to enter, with good food, a woodstove now mostly gone to counter space, a solar greenhouse, and bathroom that came much later.

When they purchased those 12 acres, they thought of the children they didn’t yet have. “When we bought this land, that was our intention, that we bought enough so that we could give our kids some if they wanted it, like the families around here. . . .” Laura explains. “I never really dreamed that they would want to.”

Four children later—Dana, Gabriel, Ely, and Rachel, who are each a lovely addition to the community—the dream would come to fruition. The surprise came when the eldest child, Dana, who always seemed to me the most independent of our kids, returned to Chimayó as a young adult.

At college, Dana Abrums met lots of city folks and learned to appreciate where she came from. Dana graduated from Colorado College, became an educator, and after a year in Italy, married Roy Hughes, an awesome skier. The young couple considered moving to Albuquerque, until John offered them some land to build on. After Roy and John talked, they had to convince an uncertain Dana, but they succeeded.

Dana now remains as strong and sturdy as their new house and convinced they made the right decision. She works at the Chimayó Boys & Girls Club located at her old elementary school. “I really am working in this community where I never thought I would,” Dana says. “When you’re a teenager you always envision your life totally differently than what it really becomes.” She admits that deep down she always thought she’d have a big garden and lots of space. That’s just what she has, and even better because that garden is shared with her mom and dad. Now she says there are times she doesn’t want to go anyplace—“I love living here,” she explains.

“I was shocked, to be honest with you,” Laura says of their decision. “Dana was the one who when she was 14 said, ‘When I grow up I’m moving to New York City. I’m outta here!’”

Roy says the land where he and Dana built their home has 12-foot cliffs and cacti. “I think John had been thinking about it for the 30 years he lived there,” he adds. The house they built is across the acequia from John and Laura’s. John, a licensed contractor and owner of Chimayó Trading & Mercantile, knew how to site the house, berming it into the cliff and orienting it for solar gain. Dana and Roy, with some help from John, designed an 1,800-square-foot house, and square is the operative word. We’re talking 90-degree angles, simple and to the point, an open kitchen and living space. No wrestling with a circle here. The vigas are huge, and again the community was called upon to help lift, my son among them.

The normal challenges of building were sometimes compounded by the family dynamics of this very dynamic family, but it was worth it. Dana’s husband agrees and adds, “The day the construction ended, all the stress went away. It’s been wonderful. Now we just have great neighbors.”

And Dana and Roy have been great neighbors in return, offering up two grandchildren to grace the landscape—Cole, age four, and Lilah, one. Other life forms include pygmy goats, chickens, and two turkeys my husband promised to kill for Thanksgiving. The sense of being close to the source didn’t stop with three generations of this large extended family. For a too-brief time, four generations lived on this beautiful and lush New Mexico paradise.

Lucille and Walter Westman, Laura’s mom and dad, were present for their grandkids’ lives. They moved north from Albuquerque to Chimayó, but Lucille was very social and couldn’t leave her Thunderbirds square dance group or the Coronado Club where they danced. I remember them at every event, wedding to baby shower.

What nobody could imagine was that the elderly Westmans would spend their final days with their Chimayó kids. Walt and Lucille, as sweet as high school sweeties until the end, both lived in Dana, Roy, and baby Cole’s new adobe. How many young couples do you know who would share their new home and young family in this way? The model is remarkable as Dana with little Cole in arms hosted her two aging grandparents.

As their health failed, both of Laura’s parents received exquisite care surrounded by those who loved them. Laura, a hospice nurse, would have it no other way and admits that she couldn’t have done it without Dana and the other members of the Abrums clan. After Walt died, Lucille lived just over a year in a house of her own, set against the Chimayó cliffs. At my son’s wedding a year ago, Lucille was the last guest to leave and said how much she loves a party. This past March she confided to Laura that life wasn’t fun anymore and soon passed away.

I think one secret of how this extended family weathers the hard times and powers through the ordinary is that they know how to have fun. I catch John Abrums at Chimayó Trading & Mercantile, surrounded by pots from nearby Pueblos, jewelry, rugs, and local art. “It was all about grandchildren,” he says. “Kids, kids, kids, it’s what makes life fun.”

He explains that the children were raised to have fun. Laura’s mom would pick up Walt after work at Sandia National Laboratories and go straight to Conchas Lake, where they had a houseboat. Sometimes they’d have the grandkids water-skiing for two weeks. Laura Abrums’ parents were friends with the owner of Taos Ski Valley and launched the entire family into avid skiing.

Along with the Abrums family, we grew in the magnetism of family and community. This cultural bonding with Chimayó led to the unexpected surge of our children returning to build near us.

“It’s so Hispanic,” says former neighbor Margaret Jaramillo. “It’s just what we do.” I could name four other returnee kids, and my own are within an hour’s radius. This generation shares poker nights, play groups, and making quilts for the grandchildren. We’ve made at least 15 of these. The younger women are the honchos. We elders sit back and feel satisfied.

The 12 acres these 20-year-old kids took on in the 1970s evolved in ways nobody could have imagined. Whenever I get to tell our story, I feel so happy and proud of what young visionaries we all were. Now I’m still marveling at the light and how the three generations are indeed bonded and living in proximity.

At grandson Cole’s birthday party, I sit wedged between John and Laura on the porch. We’re remarking at how many of these new parents we have known all their lives. “Where do you get this?” Laura asks. “Appalachia, Cambodia, Berkeley?” I suggest with a laugh. We re-created village life with amenities, true new community, exactly what so many on earth feel only as longing.

Joan Logghe teaches poetry from Santa Clara Day School to the University of New Mexico–Los Alamos to Ghost Ranch. She lives in her owner-built solar home, beautifully made. For her books visit joanlogghe.com.