I cannot remember the first time I met her and her lovely husband. It seems to me that we were friends from the minute I arrived in the valley about 19 years now, so it was a good while ago; and likely at a Soledad Chamber meeting, where she was an enthusiastic attendee to everything community-oriented. Quiet and unassuming, she had a way of making you feel so very welcome in a crowd and it didn’t take long before we were the hugging kind of friends; her arms open wide with a great big smile on her face as soon as she saw me.
She was a huge supporter of the Soledad Mission and, on occasion, I’d catch her working as a volunteer in the rose garden or the gift shop. For the Mission lunches and fundraisers, she was always there, working away in the back, the well-lived lines of her beautiful face as wisely deep and furrowed as the fields around her.
She told me that she collected china teacups and saucers and we talked about the English tradition of tea. She invited me for tea at 3 at her home and we worked hard to introduce her husband to the concept gently, because holding a delicate, bone china teacup is not something that comes exactly naturally to a rancher. We had so much fun at our tea parties — what a great sense of humor she had. I would take along the very best coconut macaroons for her husband’s sweet tooth, that he adored, but was absolutely not allowed. She let me get away with it, because it was me.
One time I bought her a gift of her very own English china teacup and saucer all the way from England for her lovely collection in her china cabinet. That truly delighted her. She was delighted by so many things; so very grateful and humble for all her many blessings. She always asked about my sister with heartfelt concern, during the many years when sis was ill. She knew the agony it was for me being so very far away from her. “How’s Rosie?” she would ask, her big blue eyes full of compassion. She would listen carefully and cheer me along when I stumbled.
She was a huge supporter of literacy and I remember when she and Bud would volunteer to read with the students at San Vicente Elementary School. I heard about their quiet donations to local libraries and loved them for it. Whenever I had a book signing, they would be there, quietly supportive and loving. I know of other local authors who received the same thoughtfulness. I went to their sweet church one time in Gonzales and discovered that they were huge supporters of the food pantry next door, run by their daughter. There were few charities in our little valley that escaped their benevolence.
She told me she would look across the valley to my home and be so very glad that I lived there. She thought she could see my house from hers and that gave her comfort. I remember standing with her in her beautiful garden and seeing the valley from her side of the street, as it were. “Gosh, Paula,” I remember saying. “My view is so much better than yours!” We laughed about her living on the good side of the street with the lesser views.
The Gabilans do get so very crusty brown in the summertime, yet the lush Santa Lucia Highlands stay verdant with the greens of healthy grapevines and that was the backdrop to her home which she loved so very much. You could not go to visit without leaving laden with tomatoes, or canned goods, lemons or avocados. Their generous bounty was endless.
If ever there was an example of the good side of Christianity, Paula was the perfect example. She would not thrust any beliefs down your throat or try and preach in any way; but her acts of kindness and charitable spirit alone illustrated how very pure and godly she was without trying; the essence of a real Christian, I’d say. I’d call the house and get her wonderful throaty voice on the other end of the line. She had the most marvelous deep chuckle that I’m glad to be able to remember so well. She loved having her daughters around and always boasted of the love and care bestowed upon them, especially as they aged and could do less for themselves.
When my author friend told me of Paula’s passing, I thought of her peacefully traveling on to paradise within the blissful sanctuary of her own home. For sure, there’s some folk that are guaranteed a safe passage. She would have been surrounded by love, as she departed, just as she was her whole life. She was, likely, tired and ready to leave her earthly body behind. She had lived a very long and, she would say, fortunate life.
Her graceful spirit will be felt in the valleys around her home, certainly in the scape of bounteous fields and the flow of the Salinas River between our homes. I looked across the valley, when I heard of her passing, and felt her looking back at me. I almost waved. I heard her delicious chuckle. Some friendships transcend.
“Tales from the Hammock” by Paula Sarmento (published in the local paper some years ago):
“I love my hammock. Actually, it’s his. I bought it for his birthday. I found it to be so comfortable in the shade under our olive trees. The breeze sometimes rocks it gently. At our age, getting into and out of it gracefully is a challenge that is not often met. He fastened a rope around a tree limb with a handle on the end to assist me in getting into and out. Well, recently I could not find the rope to assist me in getting out. I can’t describe what happened. It was not a pretty sight. Old people should not rest in hammocks. I fell on his dog. Now he doesn’t speak to me. Mac, not my husband.”