Death, his last goodbye, the errant father

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I hadn’t seen him in nearly 15 years. Still trying to seem bigger than he was. Drunk, of course. Overwhelmed by the death of his father, truly the only one left in life who was forced to care for him.

I don’t think he recognized me, back in the crowd snapping pictures. His eyes were too blurred by Bud, the strain of trying to always make himself bigger than he is. His grief, too large.

I felt like I was spying, taking this picture, but also that I had a right.

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Roads on Her Face #43: Mom Speaks

I think that, didn’t’ I tell you I met your dad in 78. Then we traveled a little bit and ended up living in Tucson a few months. SO the summer of 79 I just realized is when we went to Alaska, so we talked about that. And that was probably September. We had a little bit of money so I think we backpacked around, we must have ended up somewhere in the southern part of the states, probably southwest because it was warmer.

Did you hitchhike?

Yeah, we did hitchhike some. Took the train, couple of places, Amtrak, I don’t think we ever took the bus. It’s kind of all blurry then but I remember somehow we ended up in Lee Vining, were there for a while with this older couple Blanche and Frank, I forget their last names. And we got hired on in Mammoth Lakes at the Motel 6. And that’s, I was pregnant with you already. So it was just a little village back then, I’m sure it’s grown quite a bit since then, it’s become a big resort town. But it was nice, we had a room and a hot plate we cooked our meals on, I craved hot fudge sundaes. There was a little ice cream bar across the street.

I love ice cream, so it must have been me.

Laughs. There were a couple of nice girls there, one was an Indian girl we became pretty good friends. She was working there too.

Indian from India?

No Native American. And of course that job ended, I got tired easily and I was starting to show by then I think. And I don’t know where we went from there, I have no idea.

Well you ended up in Lake Havasu.

Yeah, and we ended up living in a bus. So I think we probably went to Quartzsite from there, because I think that’s where we acquired the bus.

Had dad been there before, was he circling around to all these places like Quartzsite, or…

I think he had already traveled that route. Course they had big swap meets there in the winter and you can live on nothing.

How did he figure out this lifestyle? It’s not something his dad did so..?

No definitely not. I don’t know he was a drifter when I met him.

And that was after the war, right, Vietnam?

Yeah he just couldn’t, stay in one place for long, couldn’t settle down, things would get a little too tough with responsibilities or schedules and he’d just take off and go somewhere else.

Roads On Her Face #41: Melba

Melba had a little sewing and quilting shop on the main drag of
Glenwood, across from the Crab Apple Cabins and next to the creek that
bubbled under the highway. We’d walk through town as kids and stop at
the creek in the shade, to pretend there was a troll under the bridge
or to watch the kids in the summer in town with their parents for
vacation. The strangers in town were always tourists or hunters. The
teenage girls knew when the Forest Service would bring in the Hot
Shots to fight fires in the mountains. As the season got drier and the
heat began, so would the hormones heat up in town. Tan muscled guys
who’d been spending weeks in the mountains would come rolling into
town and the smell of sweat and desire was rank.

Melba gave me another job in exchange for sewing lessons. I helped her
in the shop, and gave her massages after work. Pressing her doughy
flesh as she sighed in her room, I decided I didn’t want to be a
massage therapist.

Our first Christmas I was the charity case for the women’s quilting
group. I imagine the meeting they had as they picked their deserving
recipient.

“That little homeless girl in the trailer, Mary’s daughter? You know
she’d just love a quilt, ladies. Let’s stitch her a new life made of
goodwill and tiny stitched dolls wearing flowered dresses.”

It was a sweet gesture. I wished I hadn’t had to give her massages,
though. I made sure I was as busy as I could be so I could tell her I
didn’t have time anymore for sewing. I never made clothing that fit me
quite right, anyway.

I participated in everything. I went to the ladies’ oil painting group
and painted colorful quick paintings, two to a month, while the older
ladies had been working on the same thing for a year. I livened up
their day and made them laugh.

Lynn took me under her artist’s wing, because I loved to paint so
much. She’d come in with her brush and refine my splashes and swirls,
add color and depth when I didn’t take the time. She could tell I
needed a little refinement.

People started asking me to babysit their kids, and I still didn’t
know how to say no yet so I did. After one last overnight with a
couple of little boys who wanted to sleep in the bed with me and tried
to run roughshod, I realized I didn’t have to do this anymore. I was
making enough money at my other jobs…

Windstalker hired me to tie the hundreds of pottery chile ristras they
hung at the door, their best sellers to folks looking for a New
Mexican souvenir. My fingers were raw and bled as I knotted the cords
together and burned the ends with a lighter to prevent them
unraveling.

We spent days at the Catwalk in the cold water of the canyons,
exploring under the rocks and back away from the trail. We swam in the
deep dark swimming holes beneath giant boulders, climbed barefoot up
the cliffsides and swung from trees like monkeys. One of my best friends Adele and I parked with boys in the parking lot of the picnic grounds late at night, watching the stars, and I sighed and was bored as she made out in the backseat. I still looked
like a little girl with zits  who didn’t know how to dress, and her
curves and breasts had been womanly for years already. When would I be
desirable? I was in such a hurry and the time was so close. I felt
like I had so many years to catch up on, not realizing the length of
the years before me. I always knew I would want to slow down time,
though, and it’s been a recurring theme in my journals since I started them at 8 years old.

I have always known I’ll be looking back in 10 years, then  20 (if luck favors the bold), wondering where did the time go?

Roads On Her Face #40: All I Ever Wanted Was Room

My diary tells me all I wanted was my own room. A place that didn’t move. People who knew me, boys who looked at me and wanted me and asked for my number. Only I’d never had a number. The only telephones we used were pay phones, at a corner behind the casino in Winnemucca while the dust blew by and the clouds settled in, while Dad played cards and drank somewhere inside and we sat outside and tried to be still and patient, tempers growing thin and us fidgeting, hungry. In front of a Bashas’ grocery store in Parker, Arizona, from the safety of a grocery trip that got Mom and I away from the desert on our own for a whole day to civilization, ice cream, the library. She’d check in on Granny, call her friend back in Georgia. Let them know we were still alive – did they wonder how long? But she’d made her own choices, they’d say, shaking well-coiffed Southern heads and not even trying to understand. She always was a little wild, that Mary. I didn’t know the wild Mary existed. All I’d ever seen was a sweet cowed woman that loved us more than anything.

Kids don’t know any better. They’re programmed to want to conform, to fit in, to survive in the herd and not be noticed. If I’d continued on the road as a teenager, if we’d kept going while I decided who I was going to be I would never have been able to stop. I know it in my bones. They say “You’d still be on the road, baby. You’d be somewhere in South America by now. On your way to China.” And I ache to be that person that I might have been. The person that I am feels hollow, too light to pull myself free from the clay of the earth and the roots growing round my feet. I imagine the flutter of leaves breaking free from branches, the flight of each one flashes of tiny freedoms and bursts of joy.

Roads on her Face #38: Grandpa

I did go visit him partly for self-serving purposes, partly because I might could write him onto a page and feel as if I understand him better, give him a more real place in my life and in my story. One visit won’t do that, of course, and so I will go visit him again. He’s 90, living now in a tiny town near the Arizona/Mexico border, a town with one restaurant and a fast-food joint and a whole hour from his VA hospital. I can easily imagine myself in his shoes, all alone and waiting to see which year of the next 10 will be his last. Which of these breaths will suddenly stop? I know how quickly I will be there looking back. I hope someone will visit me then, and I partly go to build up stock in my karma bank for when I’m old too.

But visiting him was a wealth of surprises and feelings, stories I’d never heard and someone else’s explanations for things that were wrong. The more explanations I hear the more I feel as if I could draw a thread out of all of them that would be closest to the true beginning of the cloth, the one true explanation woven of pieces of all explanations.

I remembered him as a smiling presence, a husky soft laugh like my dad’s, vague memories of him taking out his false teeth and clacking them at me, liquor on his breath and that ha, ha, ha; Grandma with her louder cackling laugh and smell of cigarettes, all of them laughing at these teeth and me looking at him with no expression the way I often did. I always liked him well enough.

I decided to visit Grandpa since I’m living close to him again, for a few years signed on to the ebb and flow of the desert, the way it brings me closer to the younger me, to the family we had that passed for nuclear, to the traveling and the moving of my dreams each night. To the empty howl of a train, the night sounds of crickets and whippoorwhils and the dark silhouettes of saguaros against brilliant jewel-toned Arizona sunsets. To what passes for home.

I called him once and got the answering machine, leaving him a message that I’d call him after work. “This is- this is your granddaughter. James’s daughter,” I said, picturing him knitting his brows on the other end and trying to pick out which of his 50 grandchildren this could be. When I called later that afternoon, he picked it up right away as if he’d been sitting beside it staring at it, willing his hearing aide to work.

Roads on Her Face #37: A State of Being

Does it make any sense to speak of the road as a place, as a state of being? Long-haul truckers will recognize the feeling. Bus drivers recognize their office. The vagrants and vagabonds of the world know. It is a constant state of flux, of change passing outside the windows of your sealed-off little universe. It is the thrum of tires underneath you, the ticking of miles rolling through the odometer. The smell of gasoline, French fries, dirty clothes. A stiff, sore butt. It is the feeling that any second you can get back in the car and drive, to anywhere, for as long as you want. It is unmoored, exciting, and frightening. I feel complete ease only when driving somewhere, anywhere, my thoughts at their clearest and my emotions at their most known.

As a kid all you want is to be like everybody else, desperate to fit in and be accepted. I would imagine other families, my face pressed close to the glass of a car window as we passed some evening, the red sun sinking behind skylines of cities that we wouldn’t remember.

The people in those families, pulling up chairs around a dinner table, everyone’s rooms waiting for them after they ate. These unknown people with their normal lives, with friends and phones and parents with a plan. My parents’ planning involved maybe knowing where we would stop for the night, and a rough sketch for the next couple of days. The man with the plan, had a plan to have no plan. Planning was for dipshits, for all these sheep. He wanted to be the wolf among them. Momma’s plan was to take care of her children, to keep them fed and hope they might have some kind of life when all of this was done. Because she knew, somewhere down the line, it would be done.

Roads on Her Face #36: The Safari Photo

There is a photo that sits, dusty and generally unnoticed , over my mom’s bed next to mementos of her travels and souvenirs brought back from mine and others, family photos, and “art” pieces made by her children out of clay or popsicle sticks over the years. It’s the cover of a pre-made greeting card, and there’s a note inside from the photographer saying she had enjoyed meeting us. We had few visitors at Jim’s Place in the desert outside of Parker, Arizona, and when I try to imagine what they thought when they arrived I smile. Did Jim and Bobbi Jo bring friends out there to show us off, like a circus attraction? Did they prove their generosity by parading the family of vagrants they had living on their desert land, marvel at our hard life and self-sufficiency? I don’t know. I know this woman who took the photo was moved by us, these hardscrabble little desert rat children in the middle of the punishing heat of the Mojave. We are in a posed group, the four of us, on white plastic chairs or standing. We look scruffy, and so very young. My sister, the youngest, must have been 2 or 3. We wear torn and dirty thrift store clothes, and at least one of the boys wears a once-white baseball cap with the velcroed-on shade flap for the back of his neck, patented by my mother’s brother as one of his frequent get-rich-quick schemes that never quite panned out. Our smiles are shy but proud, as if we never considered that others would look at us as people to pity.
I don’t even remember if the woman and her husband were friends of the landowners or people who happened to be driving by. We could hear vehicles coming almost as soon as they pulled off the highway onto the dirt road, 40 miles away. It was a hum in the air, a faint change in the atmosphere before we could hear the sound clearly. The county road was about ¾ of a mile from our trailer. We could be at the turnoff to Jim’s Place to meet visitors long before a vehicle traversed the miles from pavement. Did Dad sit out there with a chair and a beer, creating a figure that the curious would have to stop to inspect? Or did he meet them in Parker at a bar or the convenience store? I’ll ask my mother, and see how her memory as an adult differs from my perspective as a child. I will ask her if she was embarrassed for people to see her this way, if she worried that others might think she wasn’t caring for her children properly. She kept us as clean as you can keep active kids in the dirt of the desert, kept us clothed and fed and healthy. But she’d lived in “normal” society, in a house with two working parents in a neighborhood in a town where others watched how you behaved, judged you by how you dressed. She must have felt a kind of shame knowing how others might think of her. If not how other perceived how she cared for her children, did she consider what they thought about why she put up with the domineering treatment of the man she’d chosen to share her life with? It was apparent even to strangers that my mother was a second-class citizen and not a partner, blatant in Dad’s gruff commands to fetch him a beer, in the way he talked down to her and told rather than discussed.
I imagine this stranger with her clean clothes and fancy camera asking to take our picture, and us gathering around as if it were a fun occasion instead of a wildlife safari opportunity. I’m sure she was a mother, and tenderly gathering this trophy as a vacation highlight instead of as a hunter of photos of the disadvantaged. I myself, now, from the comfort of my middle-class life, would have taken the same photo of us or of children in Africa with flies at the corners of their eyes.