We were one of the first families to settle in our small neighborhood in El Paso. It was so new that the neighbors had yet to wage the war with nature to produce lush lawns, and mountains of fertilizer and manure adorned every house's driveway as the new residents tried to make the soil something it was not intended to be. At that time, the desert was near enough to walk to, and I spent hours away from home watching snakes and scorpions and playing in the metal remains of automobiles and building supplies. It was hot and peaceful, and no one ever came looking for me there. I liked to read in the ruins, and I learned respect for the other creatures who took refuge in the shade, predators who left you alone if you left them alone. I was more comfortable with rattlesnakes than people. My father had been stationed in El Paso, and he was working on his master's degree in mathematics after returning home from Vietnam. I remember my father as being mostly angry, my mother as sad, and my sister as happy and mischievous. We didn't do much together as a family, but once in a while we would go to Juarez or travel to nearby states. My mother was good at making friends who loved her dearly, and they always wanted her to come and visit.
My memories aren't always clear, but I remember lots of visits to places full of brown skinned people who did not look like me. I remember tortillas and fry bread and rich stew. I remember laughter and the pungent smell of alcohol. I remember beautiful jewelry and tapestries and almost naked babies. My mother was so beautiful. She drew people in like a bonfire on a cold night, head cocked to one side, eyes dancing, laughter bubbling from the core of her.
I can't remember why, but one trip we saw a man painting a beautiful picture on the ground with sand. There was a light breeze, and even before the sand connected with the ground below, some of it was caught by the wind and swept away. I was not one to talk to other people, particularly when I was surrounded by a crowd. So, I stood there at the edge of the circle, watching the man work, watching him create something new, being torn in two by how ephemeral his creation was. It scared me in ways that I had no ability to articulate. I waited in the silence until the crowd thinned, and the man nodded to me. I stumbled forward in spite of myself, and he poured a bit of copper sand into the palm of my hand. It was cool and gritty and ran through my fingers no matter how hard I tried to keep it all in one place. I thought he would be angry at me for wasting his sand, but he just smiled at me and asked me if I wanted to ask him anything. I whispered, "Won't you be sad if it gets messed up?" He just smiled. "Everything ends. It doesn't have to last forever to mean something beautiful."
I don't know how many years have passed since my mother died. I only know that she started to die more than 20 years ago, we changed who we were to one another, and then she was gone. By the time she died, she had been sick for more than 10 years. When they told us she had days left, she continued on this earth for more than 3 more months. I longed for her to continue on this earth with me. I longed for the realness of her, for her presence. And even when she was no longer with me, and even some days now, I still long to wrap her up in my arms, look into her lovely brown eyes and see her soul. Even when I knew it was time to let go, even when I understood that her release from suffering needed to outweigh my own selfish mother hunger, I wanted her here. I suppose I thought that all of the beauty that she encapsulated would disappear like grains of sand on the wind with her death, but finally I think I am beginning to understand what the artist was trying to show me all those years ago.
We took road trip the year that my son graduated from high school, and it was full of art and music, and family, and laughter, and tears, and life. One of our stops was to the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. It was unbearably hot that day, the kind of heat where even with the air conditioner on full blast, you still feel like you're in an oven. The kind of heat that punches you in the belly and pushes your face down in the dust. The kids were just as hot and hangry, and we were all out of bottles of water, still I was determined to see something new, something beautiful. We couldn't really see the cars from the side of the road, just ugly fields and balding sky. My wonderful husband, who is always goal-directed and certain when there's a mission at hand, too the lead, walking sure-footed towards the cars while little Lady satellited around him. Sir Talks A Lot and I ambled along more slowly, taking in the teenage douchebags painting penises on every surface. He was the first to pick up a stray paint can. He made a swoosh in green. Lady picked up the next can -- hers fire engine red. Soon, we were all making our marks. And the joy, the beauty, was in that particular moment, knowing that we were a part of something communal, feeling connected to the history of the place, and understanding that the impermanence was exactly what made the experience special.