Della’s Green Chili Stew

Grandma Della

The summer after I graduated from college, I was jobless and lying around at my parent’s house pondering my existence in the world. My grandma, Della, called me and told me to come see her. Della and Don Corleone shared this sort of control over people, when Della told you to do something you didn’t argue. Della had been sick, and since I was not working, and she needed help, it made sense for me to go. I was glad for the chance to escape since I hadn’t a clue what to do with the degree or my life. I was on the plane the next day heading for Pueblo, Colorado.


I wasn’t prepared for the woman who awaited me at the airport. She had lost weight and looked older than her sixty-five years.

“I am dying you know,” she said after we hugged.

“We’re all dying,” I replied. In my family, the women are the backbone. Weakness of any kind in the girls is considered one of the deadly sins.

Della wasn’t exactly cover material for Redbook. She was definitely not a blue rinse, Bloomingdales sort of lady—she clipped coupons, a scarred survivor of the Depression and was prone to hoarding cans of SPAM—and when the grey started weaving its way into her thick head of hair she opted for Lady Clairol’s Cherry Silver. She gave me a couple of days to enjoy our time together before we hit the Dialysis Center, and visited with her Doctor. Our meeting with him set the tone for the next couple of weeks.

“Your kidneys are failing, and dialysis is no longer a viable option.” Dr. Mong was matter of fact. “Mrs. Ortega, there is little we can do for you at this point. I suggest you tidy up your affairs and make final arrangements. Is there a Mr. Ortega? I’ve seen a couple of gentlemen come and go, but I wasn’t sure if one was a Mister.”

“There hasn’t been a Mister for quite some time, but there have been several SOB’s since Mr. Ortega left.” Still smiling, Della continued, “How much time is left on my limited warranty?”

“Limited warranty?”

“When is my time up? It can’t be that hard a question to answer. Is it hours, days, or weeks? Is the answer somewhere in those papers you are looking at?”

“Mrs. Ortega…” He paused for several seconds before lifting his eyes from Della’s chart. “It’s difficult to put an exact date on your warranty, but I suggest you gather your family and take care of any unfinished business. It’s a matter of weeks.”

“Thank you, Dr. Mong. Come on Hijta, let’s go to Passkeys Bar and have a cold beer, maybe some lunch, make some plans, and celebrate.”

“Thanks, Dr. Mong. OK Grandma, lunch it is.”


Over the course of the next week, the rest of the family flew in and took care of the final arrangements. I was at her side for whatever she needed. It was only fitting since she had always been there for me over the years. I had one more lesson to learn she told me the last night we were together.


“I haven’t given you my recipe for green chili stew,” she said.

I knew how to make it, had for years. I spent too many hours on her heels in the kitchen while growing up not to have learned how to make it. Since we were snuggling on her bed, I didn’t argue.

Her shunted arms pulled me in tight. The Este Lauder Youth Dew perfume she was so fond of wearing wasn’t strong enough to mask the smell of illness, which clings to the body after a hour in a hospital bed.  We lay intertwined for a long while. She drifted in and out. I hadn’t had to confront death before nor was I sure what I was going to do without Della. She was always there with an answer, even before I knew the question.

“Hijta, I want to tell you how to make Green Chili Stew because you won’t find this recipe in Betty Crocker.”

“OK, Grandma.”

“You need some pork, buy the cheap cut, pork shoulder is best and then cut it into bite-size pieces, fresh or canned tomatoes, and only use  fresh roasted green chilies and jalapeños, chopped onions, fresh chopped garlic.” Then she explained how to cook it, “First you have to brown the pork, after it’s browned, smother it with flour, and brown that too.” She was specific with the ingredients, but vague with the measurements and the time required per task.

“I won’t be here to help you along Hijta. Life is not something you can measure out in cups and teaspoons. Remember this, and you will get along just fine. Cooking chili is a good place to find the answers you are looking for.”

I listened attentively because I wanted her voice to go on and on and never stop. After she finished explaining how to make chili, she asked me if I got it. I did. I understood. Life was not something I would find in books nor could I measure it out perfectly, and regardless it might come out differently depending on the conditions.

She closed her eyes for the last time.



What do you do when you are struggling with a life challenge?  (I cook.)


45 thoughts on “Della’s Green Chili Stew

  1. Jo

    I am so glad you had her in your life and so sorry she had to leave so soon. When life is difficult for me, I clean and cook and if that doesn’t ease my mind, I sleep.
    I absolutely love this post. The dish of life you wrote about is so accurate and so important.

  2. k~

    Very touching moment shared, thank you.

    It depends on what the challenge is… sometimes cook, clean, walk, take photos, stay busy in some fashion.

    • Thanks, K. Ah, photo taking, what an inspired thing to do. I can see it taking pictures completely distracting the mind. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Brenda, my God(s), sorry to hear your grandma had to leave you so early. The wisdom she’d left for you was immense. (And I hope it’s not inappropriate for me to say that your Grandma Della was a really cool lady. She sounded like a rock star in the Doctor’s office.) And you were smart enough to pay close attention to what she was saying then. She must be very proud of you.

    For me, I take walks, eat, read, freewrite and sleep until I’m ready to meet those challenges. (I can’t cook well. I baked previously, but stopped after a few too-wet, then too-dry cakes, and a smoking oven accident.)

    • Ah Claudine, my sweet friend in Singapore, you know as well as I do, life is a mystery. And yes, very cool for you to say this, because she was, even if I do say so myself. Of course. I am dying to hear about the smoking oven! Smiling… I don’t like to bake, but I do enjoy cooking.

  4. Wow, Brenda. Your grandmother was a wise woman. And I know I’ve said this before but I see so much of Stella in you. Or maybe I should say I see so much of you in Stella. I have the utmost respect for both of you. You’re such strong women.

    • Kelly – it’s interesting to me you mention this because as I reread my novel once last time (with my final changes) I am surpassed how muc of me and other aspects of my life are woven in the pages. I suppose this can’t be helped in a first novel, but I had no idea until reading it for pleasure and not as work. Lucille, has a bit of Della, and my other grandmother. Amazing to see this now that I have stepped back from the book.

  5. June O'Hara

    What a beautiful story, Brenda. The love between you and your grandmother was described so lucidly. It was a powerful read. I hope it means something to you that she allowed herself to die at that moment, so close to you, and after sharing something so special. Heartwarming. And I’d LOVE that chili.

    I used to cook, and yes, it could be therapeutic. Now I don’t have enough kitchen space. It’s yet another of my oft expressed laments.

    • June – thanks, as ever. Della as a force unto herself, and she was a strong woman, despite the life she lived. I am frail compared to her. You would love that chili. They have lots of it here in Santa Fe… too yummy. I feel a post coming from you about kitchen sizes…

  6. What heartbreaking story- yet filled with so much inspiration. “Cooking chili is a good place to find the answers you’re looking for.” It might have taken me longer than you to figure out the symbolism of her recipe-giving!
    I do spend time in the kitchen when pondering life’s challenges. I also run. I mean run a 5k or something, not run away!
    Beautiful story, Brenda; thanks for sharing. Brings back memories of my own grandmothers.

    • Astra – I suppose in hindsight it is heartbreaking, but now a I look back, it isn’t. She gave as good as she got, and if truth be told, she was a hell of a woman. She didn’t have it easy, but she stood by her choices. I strive to go out with as much grace as she did. I am envious of your running. I walk a lot.

  7. What a special memory and a wonderful gift. She sounds like she was an amazing woman and I love that she asked for you and spent this extraordinary time with her young vibrant soulful Brenda.

  8. —Beautiful memories of your Grandma Della. –Nobody has a voice like yours, dear.

    I am finding that “”cooking & life”” are really quite simiular.
    Sweet. Bitter. Burnt. Saucy. Salty.

    I smell the chili simmering on your stove, Brenda. Xxx

    • Kim, you too are a vixen of the kitchen. You, chocolate, and red wine. I do find cooking to be realizing or a way for me to unwind from life’s nonsense. Thank you, for always taking time to read and leaving wonderful comments. Much appreciate.

  9. I love this story. I would love to have her kind of strength. Oh, we all are strong in our ways…I just like her sassy demeanor! I can appreciate how she took the news of her impending death, so pragmatically. I’m glad you could be with her. What a gift.

    When I’m stressed I love to bake. I like the process and I like the outcome. I also love to take long walks.

    • Miss Michael Ann-I do hope you are well, you’ve been on my mind. You are correct, we are strong in our own ways, each of us has our own special armor we use to shield us as needed. I have my both of my grandmother’s amazing strength, not to mention my mom and her sisters…

  10. This is so beautiful! I love that you were intertwined on her bed, the most perfect. It must have meant so much to her to have you so close in the end. You made her feel so worth something, wanting to leave her legacy. Thanks for writing it.

    • Thanks, Jodi. She was a force, and when I am feeling the weight of life I recall her spirit in my heart and draw on those memories to help me through whatever it is I am dealign with. My family and all their stories are in everything I write. I take bits and pieces and weave into my words. Hard not to, really.

  11. I loved reading this. It made me a little sad but grew me up with the anecdote in the end. Sweet memory and I can see how you connect with Ms Della through your love for cooking.

    I clean up. I paint. Go to sleep. Go for a walk. Get on the phone and talk about everything but so I can laugh. I crotchet. All depends in the deepness of the challenge.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Totsymae-I didn’t mean for it to be a sad. It was a sad story, but Della lived a good life. It was hard, but she lived life by her rules, something I admired in her. She had spunk. Thanks for stopping bye.

  12. I walk, I write. Write a lot of bad poetry.

    Your grandmother was a wise woman. Sounds like she lived till she died. So many don’t–their minds and souls die long before their bodies. Her chili/life recipe is a good one.

    • Angela – me, too (bad poetry) although, I read some stuff in the New Yorker and wonder, really I do. I suppose it’s because I like my poetry with a little meat on the stanzas. You are correct, many women stop living their lives. Why?

  13. You were very fortunate to have the love and guidance of such a wise woman. Her care shows on you, still.

    As for me, I write or daydream or sing (badly) and when I’m ready to truly know what to do, I quiet and listen to the voice within.

    • Beth – I am so glad you sing (even if it is badly), it’s good for each of us to have something to get lost in when the noise in life is too loud. I sing worse than badly, but that doesn’t stop me from blasting out my lungs in the car when I am driving down the motorway. As for writing, well, it’s a cure all…

  14. That is the real essence of life just like your grand mom’s Green Chilli Stew. What a wise woman to have in your life Brenda. When my life is difficult, I too cook and clean.

    • Rimly, you have a rich family history, too. Those photos you posted a while back show a family rich in tales. Glad you enjoyed and stopped by.

  15. Brenda, wonderful piece as always!

    I was 17 when my grandmother got her 6 months spelled out. We never talked about what would happen when she was gone, and I never had the nerve to bring it up. Even now, 16 years later, I regret not saying the things that were on the tip of my tongue.

    And I still wonder how she made the best fried tripas I’ve ever tasted. The things were breaded perfectly, and we ate them with mashed potatoes and buttered corn. I can still smell it like it was yesterday!

    • Hey Jen- So glad to see you here, have missed all your wonderful posts. Latin families are all different. I never told my dad howI felt and it’s a regret I carry around. I like to believe he knows, as I am sure your grandmother knew how you felt.

  16. Elaine Kehoe

    What a lovely story. Your grandmother was quite a woman–love the “SOB” comment, ha! What a gift she gave you–not just the chili recipe but the chance to be there with her before and at the last.

    I read, crochet, go for walks. Sometimes I fall apart, as I did several times while caring for my mother over the past few years. Then I pray.

    • Elaine, thanks much. Della had quite the influence on my life. I realized after writing this how much I draw from my own life when I am creating stories and characters. Hard not to. Walking is a great way to stomp out the negative and work through things. Thanks for stopping by.

    • True words were never spoken, Daphne. My eyes and heart are keenly aware of the world around me. Still, I will miss something now and again. I’ve never stopped learning, this is a good thing I think.

  17. I love this story. I can picture your grandma and I think I had one just like her in my family. Mine was a family of matriarchs. My mother had five sisters and her mother had three or four. None of grandmother’s sisters had married and all lived together in a little house with a big open patio in the middle and a hen house in back. I so loved spending time with las tiitas. They were the best, most loving and would cook up a storm. The aromas wafting through their place, I’ll never forget. I love how your grandmother, facing the ever after, was worried that you didn’t have the recipe. This is written so well. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ah, Monica, seems you know a bit about strong Latina women. All of my tias married, each has their own story, stories I need to weave into a bigger story. It is the scents that linger, haunt, come back to us when we least expect them. Yes? I miss her sometimes, wonder how she would react to my stories. I’ll never know, but it’s something to consider.

    • So glad you enjoyed. It was actually fun to write, even though it was sad, I have fond memories. And YES, I’d be honored if you did share. Many hugs..

  18. Oh dear Brenda, once again you have touched my heart with your words. What an engaging story about Della. What a metaphor for life! Are you publishing this remarkable story, because you should. It’s powerful and poignant. And just beautiful.
    Also, I had time to catch up with you today, so I commented on the recent literary post too. Another wonderful message! You got it going on girl! You just do!

  19. Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. I’m not really sure I have a tried and tested way of coping with life’s crazy moments, but I do cook. I cook when I’m happy, sad, bored, hungry, excited… You get the drift. You know… I reckon I eat to cope with life! No wonder I could lose a pound or ten… must be getting the measurements wrong *wink*

    • Gill, it was in interesting post to – post – because I learned quite a few people cook or engage in some other physical activity to deal with life’s noise. I am always reminded of my mom’s coping method, she would vacuum at odd hours of the night. Oh the secrets she shared with our trusty Hoover.

  20. Brenda…I LOVE this post. Everything about it. Your writing, your perspectives, what you remember, what meant something to you, your grandmother, your insight and your emotion. This is meant to win a contest. Already has. I am sure of it. You just havent heard about it yet. So there. Happy week, dear beauty.

    • Thanks, Brynee. I do love writing about my family and weaving them into other aspects of my writing. How can I not? They are a part of me, and even if I defined who I am now, they are in my foundation. Big hugs to you too, and the week was pretty good. Wishing you a warm weekend, it’s raining here.

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