Border Talk (8)

dope 2Ron and a few buddies were out hunting javelina when they came across a kilo of marijuana a half mile from our house. It speaks to Ron’s tracking abilities to notice something no bigger than a loaf of banana bread among the creosote and mesquite. The guys waited until they got back home to open it. It was clear by the cellophane wrapping and the dank, musty herb, that it had been left behind by a smuggler quite some time ago.

There is much to contemplate when finding a bundle of marijuana so close to the house. Most obvious, who left it behind and why? I wondered if the smuggler followed a random cow path through the desert or if our property is on a map commonly used by drug mules. The next day, while hunting another part of the ranch, the guys came across a camouflage backpack, the second one found by hunters this season. How many more were out there?

dope 1This is one kilo of dope in sea of controversy. Drugs are a social and economic problem. Incarceration of first-time offenders is ripping apart families and causing greater division and disparity for minorities. Smuggling drugs into this country has led to a political frenzy dividing our country- build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Try sharing your opinions on border issues at a dinner party, and you will soon find out who your friends are. I am more curious about who these people are. Where did they come from and who did they leave behind?

I put myself through college as a server at a Greek restaurant in Milwaukee. The kitchen staff was made up entirely of illegal migrants from Mexico. I was taking eighteen credits a semester and waiting tables full-time. The people I worked with became my friends. We were a big, extended family who took care of one another. The guys worked long hours and crashed in an old house owned by The Greek. Many of the girls dated and eventually married the cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, my youngest sister among them. We met after work in backyards where we grilled meat and drank beer around campfires. We celebrated baptisms, birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings with delicious Mexican food and shots of tequila. There was a lot of drama, laughter, and confusion. Milwaukee girls in love with Mexican boys. A culture clash ending in happily ever after for some and disaster for others.

It was the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was President, Seinfeld was a hit, and Madonna and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts. My friendships deepened, and I traveled to Mexico to meet families and attend parties. This was my life and it seemed normal, but it wasn’t normal. My Mexican friends had complicated lives. All of them had come up through Nogales, Naco, Douglas, and other border towns after paying a king’s ransom to coyotes who guided them through the desert. Often, a friend would return to Mexico after learning a family member was sick or dying. Months would pass before he returned to work. I had no idea what “crossing the border” meant. The topic was off limits. We knew not to ask.

Twice in the four years I worked for The Greek, the kitchen was raided by immigration officers. “La migra!” someone shouted, and in the blink of an eye the kitchen was deserted, leaving customers and waitstaff stunned. Both times the restaurant was closed while food spoiled, and we were grilled by immigration officers in navy blue windbreakers. How many illegal immigrants work in the kitchen? Where do they live? What are their names? “Illegals? I don’t know any illegals.” We lied to protect our friends, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands.

dope 3Cartel kingpins don’t lug backpacks loaded with bundles of marijuana through the desert. No, they are at home with their families behind stone walls guarded by thugs. The guy risking his life in the desert heat to avoid Border Patrol is low man on the totem pole. Is he dangerous? Yes. I certainly would not want to run into him while working in the orchard. But I think some of these folks have a lot more in common with my Mexican friends from the restaurant than they do with their cartel bosses. Many of them are poverty-stricken men and boys who left home hoping to find jobs in the United States to support their families. Some make it as far as Milwaukee where they find work. Others are not so lucky. Hungry and out of options, they are recruited at the border to smuggle drugs.

Believe me, I was alarmed when Ron came home with the kilo of dope. I want that guy caught and locked up. What I wrestle with is how sometimes good people choose to do bad things, especially when their choices are not as black and white as we are led to believe. It is much easier to stamp a label on a collective whole (those damn drug smugglers) than it is to see people as individuals.

I am grateful for the four years I worked at the Greek restaurant. Those experiences and relationships shaped how I see the world. In some ways it’s ironic I ended up in living on the border in the same desert my friends crossed to get to America. In other ways, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stories, language, and laughter I collected while waiting tables, drinking around campfires, and walking miles of open country deep in the heart of Mexico live inside me.

 

 

Angels We Have Heard On High

christmas tree with baubles

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Thirty years ago, I gave my beautiful daughter up for adoption. My life was in shambles and without a strong support system, I did what was best for her. Intellectually I have always known this. My heart, on the other hand, never reconciled my decision. Each Christmas I took her adoption box from my closet and spread out the items I had collected during and after my pregnancy on the bed. The little hospital band she wore on her wrist, no bigger than a bread tie, held her DNA and remains the most precious thing I own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, she stayed three years old in my thoughts. An age in which she could walk and talk but would have still been completely dependent on me. This was the little girl I mourned for all those years.

After a long and emotional search, my daughter and I finally found one another, and I have been twice blessed to have traveled to Wisconsin to see her this past year. She is an extraordinary, accomplished young woman with a lovely husband and four precious children. All the things I feared would become of her life because of my decision have been laid to rest. She grew up with loving parents who continue to have her best interests at heart, and as a result, she has a full life.

This is the season of giving and receiving, of forgiveness and new beginnings. Of love. For thirty years I roamed the earth in a fog, paralyzed with guilt and sadness for what I had done. I kept my story mostly to myself in fear of judgement. Seeing my profile and long fingers in my daughter, marveling at her smile, and embracing her after all these years gives me hope for a better future.

The sun has set on this most blessed day of the year. The gifts are sorted in neat piles, leftovers are stacked in the refrigerator, and the house is quiet. This Christmas, the adoption box and the broken dreams associated with it remain in the closet. I am so grateful my prayers have been answered and that my daughter has accepted me into her life, making this a very Merry Christmas!

Border Talk (Part 8)

MoccisiansMy husband stumbled across a backpack about a mile from the ranch left behind by an undocumented immigrant. Ron brought it home where we opened it together. Inside we found a few t-shirts, a pair of underwear, and a baseball cap. We also retrieved a phone with cords, a charger, and an extra battery. Phones are essential for human traffickers and drug runners who are moving cargo. These criminals often strap carpet remnants to the soles of their shoes allowing them to traverse the desert undetected. The carpet booties we pulled from the pack were hand-sewn and resembled moccasins. The owner of the backpack was most likely spotted by Border Patrol agents and opted to leave his things behind rather than risk getting caught. These packs are strewn across the border landscape like archaeological talismans of a troubled present-day civilization many of us ignore.

quartzI shook the pack to make sure it was empty, and a piece of quartz fell to the floor. This was the real story; a clue to the pack’s owner. Before finding the quartz, I imagined a hardened criminal strapping on the booties over his shoes. Someone stout and muscular with cruel eyes and powerful hands who wore a pistol at his hip. This was the kind of person I could reason into existence. A camo-clad criminal who preyed on the weak and who might show up on our doorstep in the middle of the night. The thought of this guy traveling so close to our house left me examining each item in the pack as though Ron had unearthed a monster in our midst.

What kind of drug runner would pick up a dusty piece of quartz? Certainly not a grown man with evil in his heart. I looked over the clothing again and realized that the t-shirts were size small, and the baseball cap was fitted for someone much smaller than me. The pack most likely belonged to a kid who had been recruited by cartel members to smuggle drugs. I imagined a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen crossing the desert, shielded from detection under a night sky. Alone and afraid, he may have wandered off the trail he had been instructed to follow. I wondered who he had left behind. Was his mother at home crying because her son did not come home from school? Did this boy agree to smuggle drugs because the money would help his family or because someone big and scary wielded a knife? Did he cross the border because he saw no other future for himself?

basketMy mother has a Native American basket hanging on a wall in her spare bedroom. My grandparents found it in the attic of their first home, a farmhouse not far from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The people who sold them the house had left it behind. I stay in that room when I visit my mom and have often contemplated the basket. It’s utilitarian, void of decoration. My grandparents purchased the house during the Great Depression. People in that part of the country were getting up in the morning hungry and out of options. Over weak coffee, many families agreed to flee their farms in hope of finding work in the city. A basket like that would not have been considered a necessity or an heirloom, so it didn’t find its way into a moving box. It was probably made by an Oneida Indian woman and found on the property when the fields were cleared for farming in the late 1800’s. I am surprised my grandma didn’t throw it out. She wasn’t one to collect things unless it was tied to her Irish heritage. In any case, I am the beneficiary of her wisdom to hold onto it and to pass it down to my mom. It is a reminder of the past and our part in it. The Oneida lost much of their land in bogus state treaty deals. The 18,000-acre Reservation southwest of Green Bay is a fraction of the land they once occupied. Like the booties, I may not know the maker of the basket, but both items represent a dark time in American history. A sort of cultural complacency that has allowed for injustice to occur on this soil.

Ron and I threw out the contents of the backpack, but we held onto the booties. They are the physical evidence of our nation’s shared role in agreeing to turn a blind eye to poor kids smuggling drugs across a desert border because their lives and those of their families depend on it. Like the basket, the booties are also evidence for future generations to contemplate.

The piece of quartz has a prominent space on our mantle, a reminder that I can always do better.

 

Come On Baby and Rescue Me

tank 1I called out to the juvenile Great Horned Owl born on the ranch this past spring. She returned my screech, and I was surprised to hear it coming from so far away. I hollered again. This time I realized she was somewhere down by my father-in-law’s place, a half mile away. There is an old cement water tank on his property. For an instant I feared she flew into the tank to snatch a bullfrog and got stuck. Coyotes yipped and cackled from the east. It was after dark, and I was outside with the dogs. I gathered them up and went into the house, forgetting about the owl. This was two nights ago. Yesterday, while hurrying to finish chores before a trip to Tucson, I mentioned to my husband that I didn’t hear the owl while feeding the hummingbirds. Errands in Tucson took longer than expected, and I returned home late last night too tired to walk the dogs or call out to the owl.

Ron left early this morning to help a friend. I had the house to myself and made a fresh cup of tea before sitting down at my computer to grade papers. The animals were fed. The dogs and I had been on a long walk, and they were sprawled out like rugs at my feet.

A subtle shift in the air poked at me. It was too quiet outside. The owl was gone. Her absence created a palpable void. I ran outside and the dogs followed as I screeched for her, hoping to hear something on the wind. It had been thirty- six hours since I last heard her. I wiped away tears knowing I was too late. I shouted at the dogs to keep up as I ran toward the tank. My anxiety kept them at bay.

owl 1The Great Horned Owl is a powerful spirit animal. In some Native American cultures, they are a sign of death; in others it is believed that they harbor the souls of the dead. A visit from an owl in a dream may signify transformation in our lives. They are symbols of wisdom and are keen hunters deeply committed to their mates. Aware of all she represented, I had ignored her screech, her cry for help. I had done a terrible thing.

I reached the tank, and before looking over the edge, I prayed for forgiveness.

The water was low, and her talons were sunk into a small patch of algae that grew on the cement. Her waterlogged wings drooped at her sides, but she was alive. “I’m so very sorry.” I cooed, not having a clue how to rescue her. “I’ll be right back.”

bullfrogThe dogs ran next to me as I rushed home. After securing them in the house, I went looking for anything I might need to save the owl. The above ground tank is fifteen feet in diameter and five and a half feet tall. Bullfrogs the size sewer rats live in a three-foot-deep rotting stew of plant and insect decay covered in two feet of algae-covered water. I prayed I could rescue her without wading through the muck and grabbed a rake, shovel, and hoe. I dug a cat carrier out of the barn and found a long-sleeve shirt, my husband’s rain boots, and a pair of leather work gloves at the house. I tossed it all in the bed of my pick-up truck and stopped at the woodpile on my way out to drag a seven-foot tree limb to the truck.

I moved cautiously, but the owl appeared terrified as I worked to wedge first a rake and then a hoe under her to lift her to safety. She would have none on it and flapped around until I feared she would drown. I heaved the tree limb over the side of the tank creating a makeshift ladder she could use to walk up onto the cement rim. I stepped back and waited. When she didn’t climb out on her own, I peered over the side of the tank. “Sorry, girl. I need to leave again. I promise to get you out of there.”

tree limb There are no procedures to follow for this kind of thing. No set of instructions. No employee handbook. I cataloged everything we owned as I drove home. I would need to go into the tank after all and that meant finding a ladder. I made a mental note to make sure that I took my phone with me. I would be no good to anyone dying alongside her. I would need to secure her, so she didn’t flap out into the middle of the tank. Just the thought of those giant bullfrogs gave me pause. I could use a bucket, but once I covered her with it, how would I get her out? Years ago, I volunteered for a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization. I learned on the job that an old sheet is a volunteer’s best friend. Whether I was rescuing an injured bird of prey, a den of motherless coyote pups, or a baby javelina separated from her squadron, throwing a sheet over an animal’s head had signaled lights out, and created a calming effect for all involved.

I scoured the barn and the basement for equipment and materials and headed back to the tank where I stepped from the truck and was greeted with a familiar screech. While I was gone, the owl had figured out how to walk up the tree limb and was resting on an old wooden post, her tail feathers dripping dank water.

She had spent the better part of two days in that tank. Disturbing her while she rested would have been cruel. I went home and waited an hour before I drove back to where I had last seen her. She was gone, and I worried she was off somewhere in the thick shrubs, dying.

I drove home cursing my stupidity. I should have followed her calls the night she went missing. I parked my truck and was greeted by a cacophony of songbirds in the pine tree on the west side of the house. It was their silence that had alerted me to the owl’s disappearance. The songbirds were frantic because the predator was back in their tree. I walked over and looked up. The owl’s feathers had dried, allowing her to fly home. “Welcome back, sweet girl,” I said.

She screeched as though greeting me, and the world and my place in it felt right again.

Saying Goodbye

 I found Sydney wandering with her mom when she was four weeks old. I didn’t want another dog, but there was an instant connection that lasted nearly thirteen years. Though we were very close, it wasn’t until she ran away during a thunderstorm several years ago that our relationship morphed from dog owner and dog into something I still struggle to define. A neighbor had told me he had seen Sydney running down the road toward the river about a mile from our house. I scouted the area for hours calling her name until she finally emerged from the tall grass. She ran toward the sound of my voice and without hesitation jumped into the river where she sunk like a stone. The water was deep, and I jumped in to pull her to shore. We lay together wet and cold on the bank in the mud staring at one another. “I will never leave you,” I said. She was dazed and panting but managed to raise a paw and rest it on my shoulder. A cosmic transcendence between species opened a new kind of relationship. I belonged to her and she belonged to me.

Over the years people often commented on our relationship. When we were home, we were never out of each other’s sight. When I traveled, my husband would report Sydney appeared anxious awaiting my return. I called her the love of my life much to my husband’s chagrin, but he also understood it to be the truth. I prayed that day while looking for her. I would not survive the uncertainty of not knowing where she was and begged God to return her to me. While I had God on the phone, I promised to be Sydney’s faithful guardian. I spent months after our reunion worried that some unforeseen event would take her from me: a car accident, a snake bite, valley fever. Time passed and the signs of old age and illness crept into our lives. It started with a chronic runny nose. There were tests, medications, X-rays, and even a CT scan. Meanwhile Sydney and I remained loyal to one another. Nature was taking her slowly from me while God granted me time to come to terms with what was to come.

In the end my prayers were answered. I had been granted the gift of letting go slowly. I shared this story with a friend who said he knew someone who worked in hospice. My friend had asked him how he would want to go knowing this man had seen a great deal of death in his profession. His answer? Cancer. He said that was the way to go. He said it’s best for the person dying and family and friends. As cancer is eating away at a person’s body, her mind, emotions, and spirit are still intact. This gives patients and their loved ones time to come to grips with what is to come. We hear of an old many having a heart attack or someone getting hit by a bus and we say, “That’s the way I want to go.”  Is it? The last fifteen months with Sydney were painful as I watched her body and mind change. But I had time to grieve and to let go. I cried countless tears fearing the worst, so when it was time to say goodbye, I could be with her, to hold her as she passed on to the next realm.

I find myself reaching down at my side scratching the ear that is no longer there or running to her aid when a crack of thunder ascends on the house. I am still grieving, but not in the ways I imagined. I did the best I could for her and her for me. In the end, that is all anyone can ask for.

 

“War Paint” The Musical, Right Here on the Border

helena_rubinsteingettyimages_0Last week I stopped by to see a friend who is working to restore the adobe buildings on one of the old cattle ranches in Sonoita, AZ. He said that in the day it had been owned my a “famous make-up lady.” I did some digging and discovered the ranch had belonged to Helena Rubinstein! This name may not ring a bell with some of you, but as a girl who once had aspirations of becoming a fashion designer, my jaw dropped.

Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer in the cosmetic industry along with Elizabeth Arden. She was one of the wealthiest women in the world. This is the same Helena Rubinstein who found the borderlands so captivating she purchased a cattle ranch in what was once, and still is, in the middle of nowhere. After twenty-five years of living down here, the stories along the borderlands still amaze me. Do you know of a house in a border town that was once owned by someone famous? If so, we would love to hear about it! IMG_3080

P.S. Elizabeth Arden would turn over in her grave if she knew that every door in Helena’s house is red, Ms. Arden’s signature color!IMG_3079

Geronimo Surrenders

Skelteton CanyonThe heat is unbearable! So, if you are in the mood to get lost for a while, take Highway 80 north out of Douglas, Arizona where a lonely stretch of road, flanked by the Chiricahua Mountains to the west and the Peloncillo Mountains to the east, cuts through spectacular grasslands and high desert. Sightings of other vehicles are rare, but if you are lucky, you may run into is a herd of prong horn. These beautiful animals can usually be found grazing off in a pasture across the highway from East Rucker Canyon Road. You won’t find a gas station or restaurant along the way, but if you get into trouble, ranchers in the area are willing to lend a helping hand.

Geronimo Memorial 2Forty miles northeast of Douglas start looking for the Geronimo Surrender Monument at Apache where you’ll find Apache Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse that is still serving kids today, and the old Mattingly’s General Store, an impressive stone building that has stood the test of time in the harsh desert climate. Other than that, there isn’t much to it. Except there is if you pull into the small parking lot and step out of your car. Geronimo surrendered just southeast of the monument up in Skeleton Canyon. When the air is still, you may hear the whisper of those who were there on that fateful day of September 6, 1886. Look west to the Chiricahua Mountains, a majestic range where Geronimo and his followers hid and avoided capture for years. There is a small ramada where you can picnic out of the sun if you’re so inclined.

Geronimo memorialIt is rumored that Geronimo still roams the mountains. For those of you curious to find out, take Portal Road just outside of Rodeo, New Mexico and head west toward Portal, Arizona on Portal Road. Follow the road to Cave Creek and stop in at the Friends of Cave Creek Visitor’s Center. They can help you find a trail that fits your ability and schedule. Tread lightly on your journey, and you may hear Geronimo and his friends just beyond the next bend or through the trees. On your way back, stop in at either the Portal Peak Lodge, Store & Cafe or Sky Island Grill and Grocery for something to eat. And when you get a chance, send me a note. I’d love to hear that Geronimo is still out that way.