Even though I have a penchant for exaggeration, I did not make up anything in the following story. I even have a witness.
On Friday, September 16, 2011, I woke up early, kissed Fred as he walked out the door to go teach, and finished packing for my long weekend in Taos with my friend Marty. I walked the dog, watching the sunrise. It was a perfect day for a long drive. The aspens were just beginning to turn in the high country; the clouds shifted constantly and with them the light on the mountains.
As much as I like a long drive, packing is not my strong suit. Maybe because of, or in spite of, having traveled extensively, I now seem to pack like a Kardashian, minus the Louis Vuitton luggage, publicists and personal assistants. I took enough clothing for a three-week trip that might include hiking or running in snow, rain or sweltering heat, none of which were actually planned, plus a few cowgirl chic barn dance outfits and the odd black cocktail dress. While I no longer drink, packing for this weekend trip indicated otherwise.
Once I was on the road to Marty’s house in south Denver, a drive I used to do five days a week, the sea of traffic parted and what used to take at least 40 minutes, took only 19 and I wasn’t speeding.
Marty packed a perfect, tiny suitcase and as I opened the trunk I said, “You know, I want to wear my mom’s jewelry for the trip.” Marty loves Indian jewelry and I know she wanted to see those bracelets as much as I did. So after I dug around in the trunk and found Mom’s Navajo squash blossom bracelet, the one she bought in 1954 when she was 20, and her Hopi silver cuff, I slipped them on my wrists. I always feel closer to her when I’m wearing those bracelets.
We drove out onto I-25 and Marty said, “Hey do you want to take the scenic route down 285?” Looking at the traffic heading south down the Front Range, I said, “Sure, we’re not in a hurry,” and we headed off on Hampden. Good conversation and the long, beautiful drive through South Park and the San Luis Valley loomed ahead.
At the base of Kenosha Pass, we were halted by construction for at least forty minutes, maybe longer. But once we started back up again and the traffic thinned out, cresting Kenosha Pass, with the breathtaking expanse of South Park before us, made us both smile widely. We passed fresh-cut hay rolled and ready to put up, at least five herds of antelope grazing, and red tail hawks drifted high above us.
We even forgot to put on any music because we were talking, with occasional interruptions to look at the shifting light on the mountains, the rolling rainstorms, yet another herd of antelope, and more hawks circling our journey south. In no time we were at the junction of Highways 285 and 50, and Marty said she’d never been in downtown Salida. It was 11:23 a.m. and I took a left towards town. Sleepy little Salida is no more; and we could not find parking anywhere. As we circled back away from downtown, I pulled into a side street and parked in the last spot I could find. We stretched and noticed a small, Italian restaurant across the street. We walked over and asked the elderly couple sitting on one of the benches outside when the restaurant opened. “About thirty seconds,” said the woman. Then she looked at Marty, “What an interesting ring.” And she noticed my mother’s turquoise bracelet, “Did you know that is Navajo?” I said I did and asked where they were from. “Arizona,” she replied. And with that the doors opened and we all went in.
Marty ordered her food at the cash register and sat down while I went to the restroom. Then I ordered and, as I was walking towards Marty, I passed the elderly couple’s table. I don’t pretend to know what prompted me to stop. I just did. And I asked them, “Where are you from in Arizona?” The woman with the snowy white hair smiled and said, “Northern Arizona.” “What part of northern Arizona?” I said, now curious. “Winslow and Flagstaff.” So I said, “Did you ever know a woman named Nancy Martin?” The woman looked at me hard and replied, “She was my best friend.” I smiled, incredulous, and said, “I’m her daughter!” The man with her laughed and said, “Look at her, that’s Nancy’s smile, of course!” Turning to me he said, “You look just like her!” My voice was gone, but then I croaked, overcome, “Oh my God!” and burst into tears.
I tried to compose myself, but that wasn’t happening. “My name is Marie Drake, it was McHale. Can I sit down here?” Which I did and then I jumped back up to tell Marty I’d just met my mother’s best friend.
Their names were Lorraine and Gerry. I sat with a thud in the extra chair at their table. “When did you know her?” Lorraine said, “From the time she moved to Winslow around age 10 until the time she went to the University of Arizona at Tucson.” 1944 to 1951. Eight years. I couldn’t control my tears. It was like something was wrenching loose, something I didn’t even know I was holding onto.
Lorraine teared up too. She told me her father and my grandfather, Step Martin, worked together on the railroad. I countered, “Yes, he left the railroad when he got injured, that’s why he was called Step, you know, from the limp.” “No, no, no”, she said, “He was fired for his drinking and he was a big drinker. And Nancy’s mother Ruth drank too but I think they called that ‘nervousness’ back then.”
Lorraine talked and told more stories. The heaviness in the center of my chest, the thing that formed and defined me in so many ways the morning my mother left us in the Philippines when I was ten, started to feel differently, lighter, as if I’d been doing a bunch of backbends in yoga. Even eating Italian food for lunch, I felt lighter. So I smiled and cried at the same time, because the world was cracking open. Here was my mother’s best friend telling me stories about a tall, smart, well-liked girl with who was funny, had friends and dreamed big dreams. So I listened. For once.
Jerry said, “Your mom had all that trouble with alcohol and drugs and then the last we heard she was a ski bum. I couldn’t understand it. She was so smart and could have done so many different things. You know your mom had a big crush on me in 8th and 9th grade, but she wasn’t my type, she was so tall and smart and us boys were all scared shitless of her. Lorraine is my type. You know Lorraine and I met again at Winslow High School’s 50th reunion of the Class of 1951 and got married in our 70s. And Winslow High’s 60th reunion is next weekend. Do you want to come down there and speak to all of us? Also, I made a DVD for the reunion and Nancy is in it—and at all the reunions she is always on the Gone But Never Forgotten wall. No one will ever forget your mother. I’ll send you a copy.” “Thanks” was all I could manage. Then Gerry left for a previous commitment.
Lorraine kept talking and I started crying again, falling apart in a small Italian restaurant in Salida in front of people I didn’t know. But I did sort of know Lorraine. And she knew my mother when Mom was young and probably happier than most of time I knew her. Hearing Lorraine talk about the fun they had started to round out Mom’s childhood for me. The few stories I’d heard about childhood were not good ones.
Lorraine interrupted Gerry leaving and my blubbering, “She was my best friend. She was a great friend. I wish we’d stayed in touch more after her first year or so in college in Tucson. You know she was fearless, right? When we were sixteen, she drove me to the worst bar on Route 66, where all the Mexican knife fights happened. She walked right in, bought a bottle of wine from the bartender and walked out. We drove somewhere and got drunk for the first time. God she was so smart too, you know she was valedictorian, right?” ”Yes.” I’d become monosyllabic.
“She was already a drinker in high school,” said Lorraine. “I’m not surprised,” I managed to say.
Marty decided to go scout art galleries while Lorraine and I sat on the bench outside the restaurant and talked for nearly an hour. As we walked outside, she looked up at me and said, “My, aren’t you a great big girl. How tall are you?” Well 6’1” Lorraine.” “Nancy was about that size wasn’t she?” “Yes, 6 feet.”
After sitting down Lorraine said, “I can tell you love her so much.” I nodded. “Now didn’t you have a younger brother and sister?” “Well, no, Mike is 3 years older and Kate is 18 months younger.” Then I told her how proud I am of them and the families they have and the lives they’ve created. Lorraine invited us all to come to Salida and spend time with her and with Gerry. “You know Gerry would never say it but he won multiple awards from the Federal government and the Navajo tribe for his work with the Navajos. He worked on the reservation for thirty years, maybe longer. If he set his mind to it he could have been a millionaire! But he has too big a heart. Wasn’t your mother teaching on reservations?” “For a while,” I respond. “We couldn’t believe she became a ski bum.” Silently I think about what could have been, but I feel now I was supposed to grow up how and where I grew up. I finally feel like everything that happened, especially all the painful stuff, gives me so much in the way of experience to help other people. Plus Mom wanted to have fun, and to impart that to us. What better way for her to do that than to move to a drug-filled, no boundaries, ski town in the 1970s?
I was thrilled at every tiny bit of new information about my mother. Lorraine was so generous. I wanted to ask her everything she could remember. It was like Mom was standing silently by, playing a loving little trick on me that day, here in the heart of the Rockies she loved. And just when I was least expecting it, not that I could ever expect something this good.
After nearly an hour I hugged Lorraine goodbye and walked to the gallery where Marty was buying an oil painting of two deer butts. It was a nice painting, as deer butts go. We went by Safeway for drawing paper and while I stood in line at the Starbucks there, I saw Gerry again, who told me he was going to send me the DVD he made for the 60th Winslow High School Reunion. Then he said, “Nancy was a queen, did you know your mother was a queen?” I shook my head. Was he thinking she was like a queen because she had a regal bearing I never noticed or was it just the fact of her being six feet tall? “She was a homecoming queen at the University of Arizona down in Tucson.” “Really?” “Are you sure you’re thinking of the same woman?” I’d never heard this before. No one in the family had. Then Gerry added, “You know the last time I saw your mother she was in graduate school at Northern Arizona University in the early 1970s and I was teaching there. She was going through a bad divorce and told me your dad loved his planes more than he loved her. I wish we had connected more.” “Me too Gerry.” For the second time in 90 minutes we hugged each other goodbye.
The next morning I woke up at 4:30 a.m., unable to sleep. I’d been thinking about this encounter, my mother’s life, how fleeting our time is here, and how I wished I’d known this younger, happier version of her. Sneaking out of the motel room, trying not to wake Marty in the next bed, it appeared there was nothing going on in sleepy little Taos at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday. So I bought bad coffee at a gas station and watched the sun rise. Then my phone buzzed with an email. It was from Gerry. He had attached a beautiful, two-page letter of memories of my mom, two pages that he’d written after meeting me the day before. He wrote, “
“I want you to know the minute you told Lorraine and me that you were Nancy’s daughter it gave us such joy to reach back and capture once again, for only a short time, that persona that was your mother —a wonderful and unique example of what the crucible of Winslow has produced.” He added, “I most often clearly see your mother that day in 1947, standing aside one of those little diners prevalent throughout the Southwest. As I drove those many miles across the Navajo rez I entertained myself with songs that brought back fond memories of Winslow. “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” (Sinatra’s song about his wife/daughter} was a favorite and always brought a vision to mind of your mother and for some reason, “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from Broadway’s “Finnegan’s Rainbow” also brings her back in my heart and mind. It was later in life that I learned your Mom was Homecoming Queen at the University of Arizona that I reevaluated my chance to have been closer to your mother.”
Well I’ve reevaluated my chance to have been closer to her too, Gerry. What could I have done differently? Turns out a lot. But I wanted to grow up and find my own way. I was exhausted by her, exhausted way before she had cancer or fell into the deep crevice of her drug addiction, the one she never did climb out of. I’d been taking care of her for a long time in many ways. We all had. Parents with mental illnesses mostly don’t mean to do that to their kids, but I sure felt seared with responsibility at young age, and by my late teens I was flat burned out. I wanted my own life. I was growing up, which meant growing away from her. It’s just too bad that occurred in her last years, and that neither of us knew how to talk about it. Plus I had the epic denial of the young; I assumed we had years and years ahead of us for interesting trips and visits, long talks on the phone, and eventually living in the same area again. But we didn’t. And she would not have wanted me to swim around in a sea of endless recrimination, I know that. It’s a form of self-indulgence too. So if there ever was a time to forgive myself, it might be now.
When I arrived at my office the Tuesday after the weekend in Taos, there was a package waiting for me from Gerry and Lorraine. In it was the DVD Gerry made for Winslow High School Class of ‘51’s Sixtieth Reunion. I watched it right away. There was mom in a plaid skirt and bobby socks, in Thespian Club. And again there she was in the group photo for the staff of the student newspaper, The Meteor. And, to my surprise, a photo of the commencement program from the spring of 1951. It said, “Nancy Ruth Martin, Valedictorian. Her commencement address was titled, “Onward with Democracy.” Finally, there was a photo of her in cap and gown, the future stretching out before her.
The class of 1951 had 76 kids in it and they include whites, Hispanics, two black kids, Navajos, Hopis and mixed bloods. Lots are gone now sixty years later and I wish Mom wasn’t one of them. I think they’d better start having a reunion every year.
This is not a story I can tell yet without crying. And I find each morning, whether I put on a suit or jeans, I wear my mother’s bracelets, bracelets that were on her tanned wrists through thick and thin, from the early 1950’s on.
On the drive back to Colorado, Marty said to me, “Maybe this isn’t about some sort of healing gift for you, maybe it’s about a healing gift for Lorraine and Gerry. Maybe you’re the gift.”