My mom died 22 years ago today. Here are some of things I remember about her:
She was born in Clovis, New Mexico and her grandmother was from the White Mountain Apache reservation east of Alamogordo. The grandmother, who I think was named Minnie but I don’t know her last name, was a cleaning lady for a Mr. Morgan, who started the Alamagordo newspaper in 1898 and ran it until 1948. He was originally from Walsenburg, Colorado.
During the course of Minnie’s employment, Mr. Morgan raped her and she became pregnant with my grandmother. The Morgan family had other, white daughters and Mrs. Morgan, who was mean as a snake, ran off my great-grandmother but kept the baby, naming her Ruth and hardly ever letting her out in the New Mexican sun because Ruth would turn “brown as a berry and then what would people think?” Ruth’s real mother came by once when my mom was about 12 and growing up in Winslow, Arizona. According to Mom, they sat in the shade and Minnie told her the story of what happened in the family. I met Ruth’s half-sister, Mildred Morgan, in the early 1990s at the county home in Alamogordo and visited her every year for a few years until her death. When I gingerly asked her about all of this she turned purple and shouted, “There ain’t no injun blood in this family!” I never asked her about it again.
Mom said it was hard to find out more information on that side of the family because everyone was dead and the county courthouse burned down in the 1930’s, including all the birth and marriage records. She also said that growing up, having Indian blood was like having Black blood in the South and you just didn’t talk about it or acknowledge it.
My mom’s father, William “Step” Martin, was born in a whorehouse on the U.S.-Mexican border near El Paso to a Native American woman whose name and origins are a mystery and a white father. The father came to New Mexico by wagon at age 10 as the oldest of 4 children with his mother at the reins, all the way from Martin County, Kentucky. His father, my great-great grandfather, died from black lung and that’s when his mother packed up the kids and headed west, so her sons, the oldest being Step’s father, would not have to work in the mines and die young plus there was railroad work out west.
Step injured himself on the railroad in his 20s and had a limp. That is how he came by his nickname. He was a big guy, 6’4” tall and a crazy drunk. He ran the Knotty Pines Motel and Bar on Route 66 in Winslow for 30 or 40 years and sold Indian jewelry on the side. One or two beers would put him in a blackout. Mom said that was because he, like the rest of us, didn’t have the enzyme to metabolize alcohol. The phrase “Indian drunk” applied to him, and would to us, when we drank.
Mom was abused by Step physically, sexually and verbally. She said he told her repeatedly to forget about college because she was, “too tall, too smart and no one was going to marry her.”
But she set her sights on college and was the valedictorian of Winslow High School in 1951. She landed a few scholarships to the University of Arizona at Tucson that fall, including a National Riflemen’s Association scholarship for marksmanship, a rare honor for a woman, especially in 1951. Mom said she was mortified her first week of her freshman year at UA because the newspaper featured a photo of her at target practice with her .22 and a headline that said, “Freshman Out To Get Her Man.”
She arrived at college not knowing how to play one team sport because there was no physical education for girls in the Winslow schools. And she was embarrassed about her handmade clothes, which she had to make herself since she was 6’ tall.
Her freshman year she was in a bad car accident coming back from Nogales with a bunch of drunk college students. She broke her back and suffered from that injury for the rest of her life, although once she started doing yoga in the late 1960’s it helped her a lot.
When she came back from college after her junior year, Step tried to abuse her again and her brother Dee, who was born on D Day and only 10 years old at the time, picked up a baseball bat and told his father that if he ever touched Nancy again he (Dee) was going to kill him. Grandpa never touched her again.
Mom met a guy whose name I guess I’ll never know around this time and together they went to New York in 1953 to protest the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Mom was against capital punishment the rest of her life. I think she said he was from Madison, Wisconsin. The two of them married but she got an annulment at some point soon afterwards.
She looked into going to law school at UA but was discouraged at the prospect of being the second woman in the class of 1958 there and as she put it, “Having to try so hard and kiss so much male chauvinist ass.” So she started teaching school but I think she wished she’d gone to law school. Then two of her kids did.
She met my dad in 1959 and they married in 1960.
Mom knew she was smart and could be arrogant about it, subtly making fun of those less intellectually endowed. But she also spent a lot of time helping others. She went to the University of Northern Arizona for a masters in Special Education at nearly 40 and took us kids to some of the classes and field trips with Downs Syndrome children. We were never allowed to say the word “retarded” and I find it offensive to this day. I don’t know if she finished the masters degree. I know she never used it or taught special ed after we left Flagstaff for Crested Butte in 1972.
Mom started Montessori schools on Hopi, Navajo and Zuni reservations in the mid 1960’s, before we moved to Misawa, Japan. We were very little at the time in the mid 1960’s and she took us with her to play with everyone. After we returned from Japan, she also took us to peace marches, to Cesar Chavez rallies for the lettuce pickers and other farm workers who were trying to unionize and improve their deplorable living and working conditions. We never bought grapes because of all the labor problems associated with farming them. At the rallies I remember hearing Joan Baez sing and then when it was dark, eating fry bread with a bunch of brown kids while the adults drank beer and talked.
She had a lot of causes. She protested the Vietnam War, rallied for farm worker rights, marched for Gay and Lesbian rights, camped out at San Onofre to protest the building of a nuclear power plant on an earthquake fault, attended Grateful Dead concerts, and wrote endless letters to her elected representatives about any number of topics. She started surfing at 50, about 3 years before she died, even though she had cancer. She was beautiful too but insecure, especially in crowds. Even though she was loved, she had a hard time believing it.
She was also as crazy as a hot day in the middle of winter and just as unpredictable. Her instant fury could sear me with one sentence but then she would turn around and make fresh donuts from scratch before I had to catch the 6:30 a.m. bus to Gunnison High School. She took in stragglers and runaways if they had no place to go and needed somewhere to crash for a few days. Her compliments to us kids were not frequent. I remember her saying, “I’m very intelligent but you kids are fucking brilliant and that’s evolution.” Oh and once she also told me I “had the best nose in the family.”
Even in the midst of complete chaos, which was more often than not, when the electricity was turned off, the rent unpaid and the food stamps running out, she used to say, “Everything is in Divine Order.” Then she would roll herself a joint and start laughing.
I still think about her almost every day and wonder what life would be like if she were still around, now at age 74, almost 75. I think we’d be good friends.