For Nadezhda, Rose, Sandy, Ruth, James and Grace. And for the Gila Valley.
Back when I was a kid, we used to rub Aloe Vera on our selves for a sunburn. “Sunburn”—even the word evokes what back then was assumed an OK thing to be. Even though it was the 1980s, it was before we really knew about skin cancer. The hole in the ozone was a liberal conspiracy (never mind that it was one I believed in wholeheartedly even at an early age). At home, we had several Aloe plants around in our funky, multi-tiered cabin made from old parts of an airplane hangar, two creosote-soaked telephone poles and salvaged windows. We had no curtains because we had no neighbors within sight. I fell asleep watching an endless ocean of unobstructed starlight for the first ten years of my life. My mother was nearly always naked until mid-afternoon. She wasn’t a person who felt guilty that she wasn’t off looking for a job, pounding the pavement. She was thinking about other ways to get by, ways that involved being there for her children, all of us uncovered by the world, living at peace. She did what she liked to call “cottage industries” which included growing and selling organic alfalfa sprouts to local restaurants, making tie-dyed handmade greeting cards or tutoring local kids in reading, writing and math.
My mother grew a garden then, filled with tall tomato plants and a strawberry patch fighting to survive. It was a place filled with chickens and turkeys and the occasional guest-star household pet of a goat, pig, burro or horse. We lived in a land of tiny oak trees with perfectly shaped diamond leaves and the wide, rustling of elm trees in the springtime breezes that dried everything even more than it was already in the high desert. On summer nights, huge toads would gather under our porch light and croak a tune.
Strangest of all, we were not alone in this. I grew up a child among several whose parents lived in some manner akin to this. Whether redneck or hippie, our small town was filled with people living on the land, raising their children at a pace that would likely astonish most urban dwellers these days. For example, we usually only went to town once a week for groceries and we didn’t have a television. I remember then, thinking my mom was good at all the things she did. This was because in many ways I never saw her falter or scare at the daunting task of providing for children and the stray men she took in. They usually stayed ten years or so, once one left my sister for us to love.
My best friends were the daughters of Rose and Sandy. We were held by the same arms; essentially raised by each other’s mothers. This to me, is the most unusual piece of all in this modern world where families are cordoned off now by the strain of economy and education. But then, we were constantly cradled by the curves of these multiple mothers who loved us and guided us in different ways. Rose taught us abundance. Dinners were fried potatoes, meat, creamed corn—all items foreign to a palate accustomed mostly to brown rice and broccoli. Their life was ranch life, and there were sharp edges of cruel animals and gas-powered machines. Her father smoked in bed and watched a million old westerns. He was a true icon of the west, of a certain kind of powerful maleness, a magician, a wild man, a trickster, a loner.
Her mom loved me, I knew, unconditionally. To this day, their family appears in my dreams night after night, and I somehow know we will remain a part of each other forever though now distances of thousands of miles and time separate us from that era. It seems impossible to love other families so much that are not your own.
On the other end of the lifestyle spectrum was Sandy, a die hard, self-willed, true force of nature. Her figure was a soft one with long dark hair that she’d comb out each night into shining perfection. But her hands were rough and callused by endless hours of making life come into being. She seemed to will gardens, houses, the lives of her family into being with a force that was almost unearthly. Unlike my own mother who never seemed to have a real plan, though she had lots of ideas, Sandy always, and I mean always, had it all planned out. It was one of the most comforting things about her. She seemed to know so much and taught my friend, her daughter, how to live in this world in a way that I feel I will always strive for.
They lived right off the road in a white and green striped trailer that had an addition built onto it made of bamboo and siding. Every night when I was over we would sit down to dinner at a small table and eat the most delicious, home-grown meal imaginable. Every time it was amazing. All the food came from the garden that she spent most of the summer working in. We’d eat okra, carrots, strange vegetables I’d never heard of. The meat we ate was from the chickens and ducks she had raised. Most of the meals were vegetarian though. Meat was a treat. Sandy kept honeybees too and somewhere I have a photo of her making goofy faces with another friend after she had accidentally gotten stung and her whole face and body appear in double size.
Sandy drove an old, bright orange Datsun truck with wood rails on the side. She drove that thing for probably 15 years, until it simply wouldn’t go again. And I remember us, sometimes coming home late at night, three or four people crammed in the front of that truck, with the whir of the fan doing its best to combat summer heat, and the periodic shifts we would make in our tiny, sweaty bodies every time the gearshift had to move. All of us, children falling asleep in a world where we were completely safe, in the wildness and the rhythm of a life outside of the mainstream.
Sandy died a few weeks ago. And I never got to say goodbye. We hadn’t spoken in years, in fact. She didn’t say goodbye to anyone. She drove off the road near her home in Northern California. N said she thought her mom might have had a bit of dementia and maybe she just checked out for long enough to go off the road. It may have been one of the few things she hadn’t plotted out with perfect timing and precision. But we’ll never know. She had lost a few of the sharp edges of her fine mind. She loved anyway. When I spoke with N on the phone a few days later she told me how much her own children loved their grandmother. I imagine how quietly prideful that must have made Sandy, how much joy she must have felt to see her family multiply. For so many years it was just she and one girl.
I remember her now, in moments that are unexpected. I think of her in a sunhat with her singular laughter. This is how it goes when someone you love goes out of this world. You may have not felt their memory in years but suddenly they return, and with them all the images of a childhood longed for, of a perfect exception of living in this world. I loved her, yes, but it sounds strange to even say that. Because to love someone you have to feel or see them as something outside of yourself. Yes, we hadn’t spoken in years, why would we have? She was inside me, a part of what my mother used to refer to as “our constellation.” We were all part of a set of floating fires in a dark sky together. She was not separate, as us three girls and our mothers can never be in my mind. They are the country dust I rub against my deepest memories to polish them, to perfect them, to keep them as clear as those bright stars above. In my heart, the bumpy dirt road out in front of the small headlights of an old orange truck goes on forever.