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.

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.

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 #30: And There Were Four

First there was me, brought forth in the Lake Havasu City hospital with my mom there all alone while Dad cleaned the bus from top to bottom. Mom said it smelled like bleach and Pine Sol and that not a trace of dust could be found. I like to imagine him worrying, waiting, with no phone and no way for anyone to contact him – for him that was a loving statement and it made Mom smile. But that mental picture is always erased by the one of my mother having a baby alone, with nurses whom she said looked at her like she was trash. Great, another woman here to have a baby for free, great, a homeless little hussy who will go straight out and sign up for welfare. I didn’t know the whole story until recently, now that Mom and I have gotten to that point in the interviewing process. A doctor with liquor on his breath pulled me out with forceps and tore her tender skin. The next day they wheeled her outside and Dad pulled up in the bus and loaded us in, and off we went toward California.

Rowdy came next, in a hospital in Needles three years later. He was a hideous baby, a little gremlin. I was happy to have a brother and annoyed by his extreme attachment to me. Reno arrived about two and a half years later, at the same Needles hospital, a squalling red-faced ruffian who could turn in a second to a sweet huggy little guy (he’s still exactly the same). I haven’t yet asked Mom if they planned where she would have the babies, but I imagine they did. Finally, 8 years after me came Sophie, at home in our trailer park in Barstow. All little dead towns in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve always been glad to be the sole Arizonan. I feel at home with the people, the desert, the little outpost towns. I can see myself settling there when I’m old, becoming a snowbird.

We’re not as close now as we used to be, spread geographically apart and not in touch with the others’ daily lives. I know many families lament that spreading, but there’s no way to prevent it unless you all live on a couple of blocks of property right next to each other the way many of my dad’s family members still do. Three of those siblings have even settled on a piece of land with their partners, retiring together. I want to start a compound and have my family build their own houses near mine. I know our relationships would be different now, less bickering and more understanding. I’m sure we’d still throw down occasionally but that is the way family operates.

We had a complicated hierarchy in those traveling years, with me at the top because of birth order and the forced caretaker role I often had to take. It wasn’t fun, because as a sibling you don’t get the respect or thanks a parent gets but are still trying to enforce the same rules. It’s an ugly place to put a child. That meant I was most often a tyrant, still feeling the competition that thrummed between us like a guitar string, still not mature enough to step back and let things be. Always a control freak, sometimes a bitch. Rowdy and Reno were gunning for the second spot, depending on who was getting along at the time, or sometimes teaming up when I wasn’t allied with either of them. Sophie got the shortest stick, the youngest and the easy one to pick on. Though she was so much younger than I, age mattered less because we were our only friends and playmates. I taught her to tie her shoes and the ABCs, and also to hate me. I talk to her now the most often, maybe because we are the females and have that communication chromosome.

But then, there were the times when it was us against the world. No one else knew what our lives were like, the things we’d seen. All of our jokes were inside jokes. We all have the same dry sarcastic sense of humor, and when we get together we laugh until our heads might explode. Mom will laugh so hard the tears flow freely, tears of happiness and gratefulness for her family. If nothing else, from those 18 long years with Ed, she prizes the results of their union and we would collapse without her.

Roads on Her Face #29: Stifled

When you’re told to be quiet, you learn to be quiet. My brain works quickly, but my tongue does not. I argue in my head, and can write beautiful speeches, but often I trip over or mispronounce words. I prefer to be quiet in a large group of people I don’t know. I would rather text than call. My oldest-younger brother Rowdy (Rowdy, Rowdy Piper, bim-boom-bam) manifested our stifling in the most noticeable and physical way, but we all suffer from stunted speaking skills. My sister speaks in monotone, Reno doesn’t speak much, my mother has to work to talk about herself. He stuttered so hard his face would flush like wine added to water, tears springing to his eyes, his neck muscles bulging with the effort of setting his words free. “Duh-duh-duh-duh ddddddon’t!!” But by then it was too late and the don’t had been did. “Spit it out, boy!” My dad would yell in his face, close enough for his eye-beams to spark a fire in the beautiful feathery blond hair of my brother. I would step in and tell people what he wanted to say so often that Dad would look at me and say, “What the fuck is he saying?” I translated for him whenever I could. He didn’t stutter as much when it was just he and I, it was the pressure and the anger of my father that would set him off into paroxysms of the mouth. I understood how he felt, and the seething rage beneath my quiet face grew every time I saw Dad push Rowdy to his edge.

After Dad was gone, the stuttering gradually subsided until Rowdy came back from boot camp, muscled and calm and looking nothing like the brother I remembered trying to shelter. He spoke, and the words came smoothly underlain with something new. Confidence. I haven’t heard him stutter since.

Reno, and he will hate it if he sees this (sorry, bro), pissed the bed for far longer than most kids do. Nothing Mom tried seemed to stop it, but I knew the reason and I imagine she did too. I feel bad that his private story is now part of my public one, but the effects of a tyrant in the home are felt by all. I almost wish I had physical effects myself, the snipping of the words coming from my mouth, the enuresis of the fear warming my bed at night. Now I am left to wonder what my effects are, what hidden reactions lie in my emotions or body waiting to break free. Am I an angry person? Selfish? Do I hold myself too aloof? What black things hide in my soul?

Roads on Her Face #28: And Then Came a Settling

An hour later and Dad was gone. And this time, he stayed gone. You never bring the cops into the picture, ok Mary? Didn’t you ever learn?

I started out thinking I would only write about my childhood, the interesting part of my life so far. Then I realized that wouldn’t be the whole truth. I am trying to tell the truth, and it’s easier to tell the far-away truth of your childhood than the truth that comes closer to your present life, the time when you should have no excuses and should “know better.” The whole gallivanting around the country thing stopped when I was 12, when we settled in a little New Mexican mountain town called Glenwood. It has its share of interesting characters, stories, and beauty, and I’d be remiss not to include them lovingly – and sometimes not so much – in this accounting.

We weren’t going to settle. We had never settled before. It shouldn’t have been any different than the thousand other times we’d stayed somewhere for a while. Except that this time it was.

When you roll down the hill on 180 into the little green valley around Whitewater Creek and the Gila River, you pass a tiny campground on your right just a second before you roll right on through town in approximately 3 minutes, 2 if you’re speeding. I don’t recommend speeding, because there’s always a local cop who doesn’t have anything better to do waiting just after the bridge over the creek. You’re welcome. Big Horn Campground has maybe 10 spaces crammed into a parking-lot-size area near the wash that splits the parkland from private property. The private property across the creek is owned by one of the couple of families that own Glenwood, and have for many years. Likely since their ancestors settled here and homesteaded, but I never cared enough to do the research. They’ll make sure you know they’ve been here forever, goshdangit, so don’t you worry about how long exactly.

Like most Forest Service campgrounds, you could stay in this one for free. Though most people would stay for the weekend, we were definitely going to take advantage of the two weeks. And we did, plus maybe three weeks, until a nice ranger told us it was about time we moved on. I think Mom was struggling to put some roots down quickly. She had always loved this little town, and so had Dad. They’d dreamed and talked about staying here through the years, so close to where she’d picked him up hitchhiking in her little yellow Bug. She probably knew by then that those were just dreams, that she’d tied her life to a man that could never settle down and didn’t know much about roots.

The old patriarch of the family in town- I’ll call them the Luthers, and him Coy, just in case they’re out there Googling around (I used an online List of Redneck Names to name these people from my recent past, I hope they will forgive me)- had watched my mom come in to the general store/gas station that he owned with us kids for a while. Coy had watched Dad, too, I’m sure, stumbling back up the campground after drinking at the bar Coy owned. He probably sat in his house next to the old hotel that he owned, too, and thought about what he could do to help her out. That pretty little blonde thing with all them kids and a drunk-ass husband. Mom’s always been good at getting help without looking for it. I don’t know if she was asking around for a job, but in no time at all she had one bookkeeping for Coy and we had moved the trailer onto the private property just on the other side of the wash from the campground. We had electric hook-ups and running water! It was a goddamn windfall. Knowing that little town as well as I do now, I can just imagine the rumors and hearsay spreading scarlet-letter style through the grapevine, which had tendrils pushed into every house in a 10-mile radius. It didn’t come back to our insulated little family, and we kids were happily oblivious. What we knew was that we had a nice quiet place with water. We had lights that worked, and Dad set up an outdoor shower. We had met some  kids that lived on the other half of the land, in a house butted up against the hill that separated our little haven from the rest of town. Cole, Coy’s son, and his wife Lynne lived there with their three kids. Mom was even talking about enrolling us in school. Then Dad started drinking harder, and a pall hung over all of us. We could see the dark clouds gathering, and inside I resigned myself to moving on again soon. I hadn’t seen the hard light glittering in Mom’s eyes, though, or counted on the set of her jaw.

He was sitting in a camp chair behind the trailer, and the sun had just dropped behind the hill. Long shadows touched my feet. Mom was cooking dinner inside. He stood up and stomped on a beer can, the sound one I hear often when I think of him. Stomp, crush, stomp, crush. He hacked a loogie, another sound I hear because my brother takes after him.

Slightly off-balance, he pulled himself up the trailer steps and joined Mom in the kitchen. I didn’t go inside, but I could tell she wouldn’t be looking at him.

“Tomorrow, we need to pack all this shit up and get out of here,” he said. “It’s time to head back toward Arizona.” She didn’t say anything for a minute.

“I think this is a good place to stay for a while, don’t you? The kids like it here,” she said, quietly.

“We do what I say,” he said, his voice rising. “I don’t think I asked you what you thought.” The trailer rocked with the building anger.

It took about 15 minutes for the screaming and shouting to start. Five minutes after that Mom was rushing outside and grabbing my arm.

“Listen to me, ok?” Her blue eyes were rimmed in red, the pressure of all those unshed tears. “I need you to run down to Cole and Lynne’s house and ask her to call the police, ok?” I nodded and took off, the way I always did when she asked me to run. All the running practice made a difference at times like this.

An hour later and Dad was gone. And this time, he stayed gone. You never bring the cops into the picture, ok Mary? Didn’t you ever learn?