Author's mother (left) and her brothers
  • Author's mother (left) and her brothers
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

When my mother tells the story of her life, she says she knew not to marry a man like her brothers. She escaped as women usually do, by marrying a man from out of town. What she escaped from is picturesque, violent, and ordinary, like all lives told in anecdotes. There was the time she cut her head ducking under barbed wire and her hair turned red with blood. Her brother’s friend pushed his hand under her sweater, her brothers fought, her Mormon father rolled his own cigarettes. She saw a car wreck once in the canyon, and a dead girl lay like a doll on the rocks. In times of heavy rain, my mother and her brothers would go down to the ranch and watch the river flood its banks.

All of this happened in St. Johns, Arizona, between 1937 and 1955. In the photographs of my mother’s family, dust seems to have grazed and pitted the camera lens. The boys’ hair, combed wet for the camera, sticks up. No matter how clean their shirts or how formal the studio, male hands are stained by sun, ropes, dirt, and dry air. The pictures taken outside, those posed on the dirt itself, have a dust-bowl effect, so plain and dry is the desert and so pale is my mother’s skin. The tint of dark surfaces is not sepia but beige, the beige of wet sand, flesh, and shadows in blond hair. After years and years in shoeboxes, the photos are scratched like the Indian pottery shards my grandmother picked up on her walks at the ranch and carried home.

These broken bits were left behind in Navajo cemeteries that became dry ranches, a word defined for me in childhood by miles of dust, piñon trees, cattle guards, and wind. My mother’s house, uninhabited now, sits on a hill at the southern edge of town, where mesas and arroyos form the principal view. The house itself is white. It would be a cottage in another country or in New England, but there are no cottages in the West. My mother’s father formed the adobe bricks, as though he were a skillful relative of the wasp, then he covered them with wood, and then he painted the house white.

My Uncle Terry, the second from the oldest, keeps the house now that all the others have died or gone away. He’s the curator of glass, pottery, arrowheads, guns, photographs, and old western magazines, of which' the most prized is the one about Frank LeSuere, the handsome great-great-uncle on my grandmother’s side who was shot and killed by outlaws while riding in a posse. Now and then a relative out for a Sunday drive will point to a bluff and say, “Isn’t that where Frank was shot?”

The glaze on the broken pottery is scratched and faded to a waxy gray on the outside, terra cotta on the inside, curved as a cheek. Once I was given a sackful to take home, but the paper bag got softer and softer until it was like flannel and finally I threw them away. But in St. Johns, my grandmother put things under glass, in wood, on velvet. Thus the arrowheads — hard little points cleaned by sand, heat, and my grandmother’s pocket — are spread out in a vitrine like a hand of cards.

Once, while using a backhoe in the valley below the house, my uncle found a pair of tusks and the cracked skull of the mastodon now displayed in the brown stucco house that is the St. Johns Museum. You’ve seen museums like this before in small towns. Nothing is impressive about them except the gap between civic pride and history. Rusty farm tools, a pair of spurs, a woman’s fur stole, a man’s fur hat. So my uncle’s find must have seemed a godsend, proof that something of scientific interest happened here. Archaeologists and reporters came to St. Johns to examine the bones, to pull them carefully from their grave, and my uncle took photographs. Since then he’s found other bits of extinct animals who died and turned to stone, but they aren’t, it seems, of scientific interest. They sit in the old family house — a jaw here, a tooth there, the parts set out like the parts of an engine that someone with enough skill could reassemble.

Outside the windows, chimes touch together. They ring exactly as they did when someone lived here, when Blue Willow china was set on the table and cows were milked in the barn. They ring above a garden of stones, wagon wheels, a dry well, a concrete cherub who holds a bowl of rocks above his head, and rusty horseshoes in the shape of luck. They can be heard in the cottonwoods, through the hedge, before the crunch of gravel under your wheels has stopped. The chimes are nearly weightless, but the stones in the garden are heavy and still, bowing the head of the cherub and holding the dust in place. Chunks of petrified wood and purple quartz lie in serpentines and circles, forming paths as through an English shrubbery. Although my uncle grows corn every summer and the orchard still blooms in spring, the grass is scratchy, and the hedge, still thin after 50 summers, is a rooted lattice.

The bottle tree stands in the corner. It’s only a tree in the sense that a coat rack is a tree, but I thought it was a real tree in my childhood, something supernatural like the Mormon legend of the tree of life, where the fruit is “white to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.” Bottles rest on the metal rods, and they form blue lines above each other, like the bulbs of an unlit sign. The blue does exceed all blueness, and when relatives come to visit the house, they always want a blue bottle and a chunk of petrified wood, something my uncle, like a good curator, finds outrageous.

Those bottles not impaled on the tree lie in dusty wire bins that are stacked six feet high along the gravel drive that separates the yard from the cornfield. Most of these bottles are the color of eyeglasses and windows clogged with spider webs. Rainwater and snow have dried inside them and left stains the color of dust. Some are shaped like elephants or lilies. Some are baby bottles. It’s hard to imagine them coming here one by one or two by two, clinking in my grandmother’s apron, burning her hand as she reaches down into the trash at the county dump, sure she’ll find something to save. Now they seem, like all collections, to exist en masse. They are legion.

The most important room in the house, the den, is dark. My grandmother’s sewing machine sits in the corner. Since her death, dust has collected on glass, wood, stone, and shadow. The room has been uninhabited for 15 years, but the old things are still in their places, as in the house of Beatrix Potter, who gave her house to England on the condition that everything in it remain the same, a form of immortality not even God promises. In my grandparents’ house, immortality is constant collection, and no pilgrims are expected, so around the old relics lie boxes and boxes of my uncle’s things. The former life is half-buried, like rocks on the edge of a rising sea.

On the mantel, below a polished slab of petrified wood called picture rock, sits a framed photograph of the four brothers who were raised in this room and who dressed every morning beside the fire. Mining and gambling and broken marriages awaited them, and in their fading baby pictures, a vengeful fairy might be standing just out of frame, leaning over the cribs to say, “You will strike a Navajo girl who curses you in class and lose your teaching job,” and “Your adopted son will be shot in the head and killed before his 26th birthday,” and “Eight months after your wedding, you’ll die in a car accident that your wife, who is driving, will survive.”

And what does the fairy say as she leans over my mother’s crib? That blond child, the one who’ll be beautiful and ashamed of her teeth, who at 20 will have a starlet’s figure and a Mormon education; who at 30 will have two children and a trip to Spain; who at 40 will learn Spanish and teach the rules of the past imperfect in hot, second-story rooms. “When you are 55,” the fairy says, because the fairy never hesitates, “the doctor will find that the cancer is too advanced, and when you wake up from the operation, you will have one breast.”

But in the den these fates are impossible. The light through the window, like the squeak of the screen door opening, is the light of possibility, the sweet pure light of the West. In summer, the breeze from the back yard smells like mint, alfalfa, and horses. Cotton falls from the trees like down, worms darken the crabapple pies, and mint is boiled into green jelly. My Uncle Nick is a good dancer, Terry goes to Korea with the marines, Harris takes his first wife, and Mike is a missionary in Germany. My mother sits at the machine of new dresses — the machine of dances, fairs, scholarships, and college, where she will study the home arts. When her tuition comes due each spring and fall, her father will sell a cow and her mother will sell a quilt. This will make it possible for her to marry a man who neither buys nor sells cows, who is not and never has been a cowboy.

My mother raised me at the slanted counter of the fabric stole, flipping first to the chapter called Bridal and Evening Wear, then Dresses, then Back to School. The books were enormous and heavy, oversized. The fabrics the models wore were never stocked by House of Fabrics or Threads ’n’ Things, but I didn’t know that. I always felt that I would find them, somehow, in the bolts, and from the bolts would come a dress to turn me into someone else. On rainy days, on sunny days, on days when the snow fell fine and cool on the roads and parking lots, my mother and I sat at the white counters and flipped through Simplicity, McCalls, Vogue, and Butterick. We strolled past the round islands of fabric bolts and touched the raw edges of cloth. We studied the price per yard, written in ballpoint on the white core of the bolt, and computed the cost of Evening Wear and Back to School. I never felt, in the fabric store, where the ceilings were high and the fabric smelled like new paper, that an obstacle existed between me and haute couture, between me and the models in books. Presented with raw materials — with zippers and thread and bolts of new fabric and the fat bundle of the pattern itself, with its colored drawing on the front and measurements on the back and filmy brown pattern pieces folded up inside — I always felt that I loved to sew, that sewing was glorious, and that I would soon be glorious, a fashion plate, a clotheshorse, a belle.

I can remember mistakes made in the sewing room, can recall the texture of the white twill on whose floppy back panels I sewed and topstitched a pair of upside-down pockets. I can recall the way a certain blouse, puffy-sleeved and lace-collared, tugged at the pits of my arms the year I fell in love with Matt Denhalter. The same mistakes I made in the changing rooms of department stores were made again in the sewing room, where the clothes that looked so perfect on the front of the pattern puckered at the wrists, ballooned at the chest, and hovered well above the ankles. Sewing was the art of transformation, an attempt to make the fairy godmother’s art your own, but only my mother had faith enough, and when I left home I gave it up.

After the operation, my mother was fitted for a prosthetic breast. They made a flesh-colored sack of jelly for her and gave her a list of stores in northern Utah that sell post-mastectomy bras among the bedpans. The sack would spare her the pity of strangers, but first she had to go to the store of illness and try it on. In the sewing room, the classroom, and in church, it lies there heavily, detached from her, disguised by the clothes she’s made.

In the front yard, she grows a patch of mint. It grows inside a border of oiled railroad ties that are supposed to prevent it from invading the rest of the front yard, which is nothing like the garden in St. Johns. My mother has never been fond of stones. But if you close your eyes, the running ditch can sound like the river flooding, and the mint, Mentha spicata, smells like the opposite of death.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader