“Do you have a list of things you always wanted to do in Tucson that you never got around to?”
The question came from Linda. She and Mike (John’s son) had moved to Tucson the previous fall and were exploring all things new and exciting about living in the southwest. It was fun showing them some of our favorite places and activities. But now our situations had reversed. I had decided it was time for me to leave Tucson for a place better suited to aging in place and had put my name on a waiting list for just such a place — Becketwood, a senior coop in Minneapolis where I had history and daughters.
Now I faced the reality of leaving a place I had lived for thirty-some years and grown to love. So the answer to Linda’s question was yes. There were things I’d always wanted to do that would not be that much fun (or even possible) alone.
So we began to check them off: The full moon tram ride to the top of Sabino Canyon, the weekend in Ramsey Canyon, The Buenos Aires Nature Reserve, breakfast at Hacienda del Sol, the All Saints Procession celebrating Dia de los Muertes, the festive Tucson version of Halloween.
There was one more: La Posada and Mariachi Christmas Mass at St. Augustine Cathedral in Barrio Viejo in downtown Tucson. La Posada takes place four nights leading up to Christmas Eve when members of the congregation reenact the story of Mary and Joseph going from inn to inn seeking shelter. On the final night, Christmas eve, their walk ends at the cathedral, mass is performed and Christmas officially begins.
So on Christmas Eve, the three of us joined a dozen or so others at the Capillita San Cosme, the tiny chapel/community center where the walk was to begin. Most of the others seemed to know each other, probably members of the church community. But they welcomed us and a few other “wandering strangers” there for the experience. They passed out booklets with the words for the carols we would be singing — in Spanish. The folks in charge solicited volunteers to carry the ceremonial box containing the baby Jesus. So the procession began. Neighbors along the way waved their greetings from their front porches on the mild winter evening. Some joined in the singing. We stopped at the downtown fire station and sang a couple of carols to the crew on duty and they had cookies ready for us. We did our best to sing along in our accumulated bits of Spanish, but mostly we just hummed along. No matter.
After five blocks or so we approached our destination, the cathedral, gleaming white, lights aglow..
St. Augustine Cathedral is imposing on the outside and cavernous on the inside, a white stucco sanctuary of classic Spanish architecture. The tile floors pick up every click of heels, yet there was a respectful quiet that pervaded the business of settling in the young families that came for the mass, the elderly members from the neighborhood, the walkers like us from the posada and the mariachi band that gathered in the choir section.
Now none of us are Catholic and none of us is fluent in Spanish, so the particulars of the mass left plenty of time for private devotion and observation (which was actually quite lovely and satisfying). Then suddenly the solemnity and seriousness was over, the mariachis played and the joy of Christmas began. Out in the adjoining garden the hot chocolate and cookies were quickly set up and served and the mariachi dancers snapped into action. Two young women in brightly colored skirts made of yards and yards and yards and yards of fabric twirled in circles to the music. The guys strutted in their heeled boots, shiny black suits with silver conch buttons and their sombreros that somehow miraculously stayed on their heads. They danced on the garden patio as we sat around the bancos, so close we could almost touch them.
Then the mariachis began inviting the spectators to dance — truth to tell, it was the old ladies they invited to dance. The shyer ones declined but eventually they got to me and I leapt at the chance. How could I not?
As the evening wore down we gathered our little trio together and began to wonder exactly how we were to get back to our car. We asked directions of one of fellows who seemed to be in charge and he said, “Oh, I’ll give you a ride back to the chapel,” and pointed to his car (which frankly was past its prime). The door gave a rasping squeak as he opened it. “Mexican car alarm,” he explained wryly. As he drove through the barrio we had walked with its adobe and stucco houses, he pointed out which were occupied by the same families for generations. Many of the porches, gates and mesquite trees were brightly lit with Christmas lights and traditional paper flags. There was an intimate feeling of neighborhood I’d never felt in Tucson before.
Back at the car we exchanged every expression of thanks and blessings for Christmas and parted ways. As we headed home nobody spoke, so unwilling were we to break the spell. Then Linda summed it up. “Now THAT,” she said, “was the best Christmas Eve ever!” And I will always remember my last Christmas in Tucson when I danced with the mariachis.