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.

Mom Speaks: About Her Boyfriends

Where were we? Talking about your boyfriends.

Gene Benton from first grade.

Go ahead, talk about Gene.

Oh..it. It was first grade boyfriend. Laughs. What is there to say?

I don’t know what that is. I never had a first grade boyfriend.

Well, it’s just, you know…it was just a title. First grade boyfriend. Wasn’t anything to it. Let’s see- I think I got my first halfway serious boyfriend in sixth grade. His name was Mark Faulkner, and his best friend Buddy Aldridge, was my next boyfriend and I ended up marrying him right out of my second year of college. I stayed married for about a year and a half, and of course I was 18 when I got married, so we just grew apart. We were just kids.

Were you guys married from sixth grade, or?

Umm…no, I had a black boyfriend in between that time. Laughs again..

What was his name?

Joseph Hipp.

How did that happen?

It, just I was being rebellious. We had just integrated school in about the eighth grade, and some of the girls were interested in some of the black guys. So I just got involved with some of those girls, and they got me involved with a black boy, and that didn’t go over very well cuz then the whole town found out about it. The principal said I was “struck down in the prime of my life.” Laughter.

Wow. Who was the principal?

Old…white-haired man. I can see him. Uh…Mr Baloo. Yeah! His name was Mr Baloo.

Did he tell you that, that you were struck down?

Yeah. Yeah. It was the day that everyone (interrupted) that the whole school found out, because the, the black boy that I was going out with, his sister was pissed off at one of the other white girls cuz she was going out with her boyfriend. So she told the whole school and it was a huge deal so the principal took a couple of us girls home, during school that day, to get us out of there I guess.

Roads on Her Face #35: Winter is Coming

Ahh fall…the time of endings and beginnings both, lovely saturated colors and sleeping in too late, coffee and hoodies, crisp nights and short days. I get the urge to travel in the fall and spring more strongly than the rest of the year combined because it was our habitual move time. It was about to get too cold somewhere and just right somewhere else, and it usually meant floating away to the next spot like dandelion fluff. It gets a little easier each year to stay put, as I grow older and more settled. I hate saying older and settled. Those two words were never part of my life-view. I wanted change, constant excitement, wandering, new experiences, never-stay-put and a hundred different loves. I still want all those things except for all the loves. It makes me too scattered and takes up too much time. I’m happy with my one, and 10-20 non-person-type loves, like beer and pizza and Halloween.

Is it just that we settle for less as we grow up? Or is it that we are more content with life as it is right now? I like to think it’s the latter, but who the fuck knows. Settle for too long and all you end up with is dead.

I had a lot of friends – Mom speaks

He was a good guy.

Yeah. He was a good man, my dad.

Did he treat you any differently, as a southern only daughter?

Oh yeah. I was probably spoiled rotten. Daddy’s little girl, I mean he took me everywhere with him. Going to town, to Monticello, because he was a very sociable person. So he’d go and visit his friends, Mr. Glover at the furniture store, and at the barber shop Billy Ray Tyler, he’d go see him and I’d go with him. Just, all around town and he’d take me with i\him.

How big was Monticello?

Probably no more than 30,000.

It is a very southern little Georgian town. What did you think about the community, how did you feel about the people?

Uh, I had a lot of friends. It seemed like I knew most everyone in town. I liked growing up in that little town. I liked leaving there.

Just a pretty blonde little southern Monticello girl. Prom queen, homecoming queen?

No. I wasn’t any of that, but I was in the clique. The popular clique.

A lot of boyfriends?

Mmm…no/

How about friends?

Yeah, I had a LOT of friends.

Mom speaks

My name is Mary Ramsey….Roethle.

Why the pause in your name?

Chuckles. I wanted to make sure Ramsey got in there cuz that’s really who I am. Roethle is you guys’ name.

Why did you take that name?

Cuz I wanted to have the same name you guys had.

Did you ever legally take that name?

Uhh..no. Not really. Kind of. Laughs. Right after I met your dad and he wanted to get married…we just kind of had our own little ceremony. So I took my Ramsey driver’s license…we were living in Prescott, Arizona. And.I was young, and I was….pretty and there was a man in there that was the DMV officer, and I told him that I had just gotten married and I wanted to get a new driver’s license. And he didn’t ask to see any proof. Laughs.

What year was this, do you think?

1:25

Let’s see…met your dad in 78. It was probably around 1980 maybe.

So what was your ceremony like?

Laughs. We were in Las Vegas. We were standing out in front of Circus Circus hotel, just out in front there. And we said a little ceremony to each other, and that was it.

I always hated Circus Circus.

It was a creepy place.

Why did you decide to get married?

Because I loved your dad. I was in love with him. And I was perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life with him. So I thought. At the time.

Things change, huh?

Yeah.

So how old were you, and how old was he?

I met him when I was 20, I was just getting ready to turn 21. And he was 28 or 29.

You guys were young. That’s a lot of years together.

Roads on Her Face #34: Valentine’s Needles

Needles. Before we were there without Dad, it had been a place of howling wind and desolate desert days camped far outside of what town exists there. It was a sentence, a penance, and for extra pain we were often in Needles during the Santa Ana winds in the fall. That time of year is like Iraq with fewer bombings, the heat so dry that your face felt like it was peeling off in one long strip of dust mask. The sand would sting your skin if you ventured outside, but it was too hot to be inside the natural oven of a metal trailer. It meant suffering was inevitable. If there had been a hole to crawl into, I would have been there with the clever snakes.

We had left Dad farther north, where it was cold enough at night that he told us later for sympathy that he had burned the stock of his carbine rifle for warmth (I wondered, Why didn’t your drunk ass look for firewood?). It was fall again, and we headed for Needles because Mom didn’t have any other plans. She called her southern belle mother and asked her for money, using the ace-in-the hole “I left him, mama. We’re through.” The great joy Granny felt resulted in more cash than we had ever seen at once, and consequently our pretty blemish-free Airstream.

This finally felt like what I imagined real life must feel like. We would walk to school from the trailer park with the other trailer trash kids in the morning sunshine, like normal kids are supposed to do. We had bookbags, and running water at home. Mom was smiling more often. Life was beautiful.

We had come from the wilderness like a lost tribe, wondering at civilization. Here there were people, there were wide streets and lights at nighttime with the flick of a switch. We got a TV and VCR and watched rented movies. It felt posh, pampered, summertime and the living was so easy. We didn’t have a shower, but Karl was hot for Mom and we used his shower weekly. The in-between days were spongebath days.

Shyness in my case was only the result of limited interactions with people, especially boys who were not my brothers. A garrulous social butterfly was fluttering about my insides, unsure how to escape from the quiet me-caterpillar. I set my sights on a boy that I didn’t plan to talk to, just admire. My first memory of liking the softer, gentler boys– as far away from my father’s anger and harshness as I could get– was Stephen with a “ph.” He was slower than most at reading aloud, his written letters more painfully formed. When the teacher was impatient with him, if she asked him why he wasn’t on the right page, Stephen would cry publicly, right there in class. My heart went out to this gentle boy who never said a mean word to anyone. He was pretty, almost like a girl, with long thick lashes and soft camel-colored hair. I liked the most feminine boy because I had never seen one up close. He was different. I knew that he must be nice, that if we spent time together I might even fall in love. Valentine’s Day came, and as it was before the fateful day when some bureaucrat decided that no child should feel left out and we should do away with activities that could cause a girl to feel left out, or a boy to know he was not as popular as the jocks, we gave each other Valentine’s Day cards. Everyone was to place their cards in handmade heart-shaped mailboxes that we made from colored paper and cardboard and hung at the front of our desks. I bought one box of pre-made cards and carefully selected all of the students I would give one to. I was gratified to see the stack of cards in my box the next day, after we had all sneaked back into the classroom after lunch and delivered our mail. I looked at each cartoon cat with hearts and silly elephant with flowers, reading who they came from and feeling popular and liked. At the bottom, I found Stephen’s card to me. With his pencil he had painfully and painstakingly drawn two penciled hearts under my name, pressing so hard that they showed through on the other side of the cardstock. I glanced at him, and he blushed and looked away. That was enough for me.

Roads on Her Face #33: Nighttime Escape

When I look at the stars at night, I can teleport instantly back into the velvet blackness of the Mojave desert of Arizona. Just as the sun began to drop behind the darkened purple mountains, no longer the faded colors of old bleached clothes that they and the sky were in full day, the life that had been hiding and gasping in shade that never cooled off enough to allow full breaths would stretch, shake off the dust, and emerge. Birds cheeped hesitantly and then broke into song, the coyotes scuttled in around the creosote with pink tongues lolling. As it grew too dark to see the ground, we would kick off our shoes if we wore any, and get up on something to avoid the snakes, scorpions and spiders that were now free to walk on rocks and sand that had recently been the temperature of a pan just snatched from the oven. Out at Jim’s Place, there were always vehicles scattered around our homesite, little boats in a night ocean. If we could, we would jump from one to the other and let the cooling metal creak and pop underneath us as the heat rose in waves. On cue, the breeze that the sun released would begin to stir through the low washes, tickling hair and bringing the scent of flowers too delicate for the day.

The only light was from our kerosene lantern in the trailer, and the brilliance of the stars. The depth of them out there is incredible, with no light pollution and endless hours to watch them. If you lay flat long enough and stare into the sky, gravity appears to flip-flop and you feel as if you could suddenly fall downward into their depths instead of floating upward. Rowdy and I would often sleep on top of the big white Army truck, an old box-type truck with a broad flat top just right for sleeping bags and with no slant to encourage rolling off. High up there the breeze could become almost chilly, and snakes and bugs could never reach us. My parents might sleep on the hood of the station wagon, and the little ones with them or inside where there was no fear of a fall from car-height in the middle of the night.

We would all be spread over vehicles in the morning when the sun greyed the eastern sky, like refugees stranded on tiny islands after a shipwreck. At the first sign of light we would scatter to do our business and get anything done that needed to happen before the sun arrived, resigned to what was coming.

No one went straight to bed in the summer, taking time instead to enjoy the blessed cool and the absence of the angry sun. Dad would sit on one of the cars or the front of the Army truck, his radio tuned to NPR or story time from the 40s or 50s. I would feel my soul grow to fill the night sky, happiness and a whole-body gratitude for the night. I’m a night kind of girl. I feel safe in the quiet dim light, I think better thoughts, and magic doesn’t sound far-fetched.

We would all gather around and point out the stars, familiar constellations above us taking the place of other families’ TVs. We could all find the North Star, the dippers, Orion. We would pick up star books from the library and sit out with them and a flashlight, pinpointing the red star Arcturus or lesser-known constellations Cassiopeia or the Northern Cross. The flash of battery-powered light would be enough to kill your night vision for a moment, and eyes closed we would wait to for it to return, watching brilliant colors dance across our closed lids.

Sometimes late at night Mom and I would huddle in a circle in the trailer with our books placed flat, sharing  the flickering round circle of light cast by the lamp. We would read until our eyes were too tired, enveloped in the peace of being the only ones awake. She would smile bigger then, no one watching her, no voice commanding her. She would sneak a cheese ball covered in almond slivers out of the refrigerator we were never allowed to open because we had to conserve propane. Stifling giggles like little girls, we would open a box of crackers, trying not to rustle the wrapper and awaken anyone who might have disturbed our peace. Luckily, the boys who slept on the floor in the front of the trailer lay like stones.

It was her only escape, out there. I know that now. I’m glad she let me escape with her.

Roads on Her Face #32: It Wasn’t All Bad

Things I admire about my dad (he’s still kicking around, but the man I knew is probably different from the one today, hence the past tense):

  • He didn’t give a shit about you, or me, or anyone, if it didn’t suit his fancy.
  • He was a stylin’ dude. Black snakeskin boots, shades, slicked-back hair and muscles. I might have picked him up on the side of the road, too, if he’d had his thumb out and I wasn’t his daughter.
  • No one dared to give him shit. He thought he was a hard ass, and so did everyone else. He wasn’t scared of you, your mom, or your big Russian mobster brother. He somehow managed to portray a personality larger than life, bigger than his problems, much stronger than himself and all of his 5-foot-6-inches.
  • He ruled by fear with a fist of absolute power. We can all aspire to such heights of total dictatorship.
  • No matter where we were or what we were doing, he could handle it. He could fix any engine, patch together any broken thing, talk himself into a job, or ask someone for money. His minions had complete faith in his abilities and never doubted him, except when he was drunk or in jail.
  • He didn’t need much. He could live just fine with a backpack of odds and ends and a .44 in his jeans. He taught us all how to live sparely.
  • He’s got amazing genetics. His whole family is beautiful, high cheekbones, dark hair, strong bone structure.
  • Somehow, he learned the survivalist skills of Bear Grylls and could take off into the desert for weeks living off the land. Maybe it was growing up with 14 siblings that made him closer to our caveman roots. Grabbing food when you can, working your butt off, just surviving, surrounded by the needy mouths of your pack.
  • He’s a well-educated guy without ever going to college. He read constantly, Updike and conspiracy theory and Slocum and Rolling Stone and the Bible.
  • He is somehow able to go through life without taking responsibility for any of the things he causes, genuinely believing that none of it is his fault. It must be easy to live like that. Or maybe he’s a good faker.
  • He’s a virile little shit. Like the rest of his family, he spreads his seed like wildfire and his offspring pop up in his wake as if sprung from the dirt. There is no fear that his family tree will fall in the foreseeable future.
  • People follow him as if he were a disciple. He has strong ideas expressed with such utter belief in the truth of his words that it is difficult to doubt him. He could easily convince droves to drink his Kool-aid if he wanted to.
  • He always has done what he wanted, when he wanted, and never let anything stand in the way of that. I find myself often doing things I don’t want to do these days, and then I think of him. I wonder- has he ever been happy? Has living this way made him happy? I think not. I think he would say he has never chased being happy. But then what the hell has his life been for? What are any of our lives for?
  • He loves strongly, even if that means he runs away from it. I never doubted that he loved me. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter and it is not enough.

Roads on Her Face: Parade time

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2007

We made balloons and costumes out of paper bags, then put on a parade….of sad, pathetic poor little children. My siblings were lucky to have me around to come up with these ideas and keep them amused…I can only imagine how hard it was for my parents not to laugh as the 4-person parade marched by throwing candy…

Roads on Her Face #31: A.D. 1 After Dad

Glenwood was a microcosm of the whole world, in which it was relatively safe to try out this thing called normal life. With Dad out of the picture, it took a while for family dynamics to fall into a new routine. We fought, and postured, and Mom always looked exhausted. I think she wondered if she had done the right thing, but there was no doubt in my mind. It had been time to chase him off, and when the cop showed up that day to pick him up Dad nearly spat in her face as he hissed “This is the last time you’ll see me, Mary” as if that were a threat that might hurt. I didn’t see him get in the car, or drive away. I didn’t think of him in jail that night, or know if he had been locked up. I tried to feel some sadness because I thought I should. I loved him, right? He was my dad, right? But there were precious few feelings left in my heart for him. The years with his anger and abuse had systematically pulled each feeling out and ground it into the dirt with their endless heels.

I felt, most of all, a lightening of the weight on my shoulders. For the first time in my life my attention began to focus outward, away from the eternal internal. I’d spent all my time thus far in deep inner reflection and boundless imaginary worlds, and I had learned enough about myself to trust in my feelings and intuition. I didn’t quite have the verbal expression down yet, but I grew braver every day. I got a job washing dishes at the Blue Front Bar and Café, the greasy restaurant built over a ditch in the middle of town and owned by the ever-present Luthers, of course. I started to get to know people in town, and made my first girlfriends there who eventually pulled me into public school for my last two years in high school. Mom worked at the Blue Front, as well as another restaurant, Maxine’s, up the hill that’s since become a goat-milk soap shop. She found a boyfriend in no time at all, a cook in Maxine’s kitchen who was looking for a mommy.

I’d made my closest high school friend when Dad had still been in town. She was tall, skinny and pretty, the daughter of one of the big rancher families that lived north of town. She said I reminded her of an elf, with my ears poking from behind my braid. Early in our nascent friendship, I asked Mom if I could go to the ranch with Jen. We spent the day giggling in her room, messing with each other’s hair, the typical budding teen stuff. Her mom drove me home late in the afternoon for dinner, and when I walked into the trailer Mom didn’t look up at me from the dinner she was preparing. Something was off, and I immediately made myself scarce–which in the trailer meant hiding in the back “room.”

“Where the fuck was she all day?” My dad asked my mom, beer and sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“She was with her friend,” Mom said quietly.

Somehow Dad had discovered that Jennifer had an older brother– who we had seen for a couple of minutes on his way to his room that day. “Don’t you know what can happen?” Dad’s rage boiled over. “Hanging out with fucking boys all day, do you know what can happen? Don’t you fucking think, Mary, doesn’t this shit cross your pea brain?” He slammed the rest of a beer. “She is not to ever go over there again. They only think about one thing, getting their hands into panties, don’t you know what they’re like? Do you want a slut as a daughter? You’d probably like that, wouldn’t you Mary?”

I felt the familiar sick rising in my stomach, the twisted knots caused by the knowledge that I was not to be trusted, a slutty girl, that he would never release this iron grip he had on all of us. I gave up the idea that I could have a friend, could try to have a normal life, could someday even have a boy who would be interested in wanting things to happen with me. I knew I was too quiet, too weird, too poor, to awkward. And Dad made sure I knew it, when he wasn’t telling me how fat my ass was. It took me years before I realized I was one of the thinnest people I knew.