Part One, Psyche
[A mythological note: The Devil’s Tower, the U.S.’s first national monument, plays a minor role in this story as it stood at the center of the landscape of my mother’s life.]
The following statements are either true or false: there is much i know about my mother. There is much I do not know about my mother. There wasn’t enough time to learn it all and had there been, then to remember it would just have been an exercise in despair.
You would think time would be more important to this story than it is, at the least chronological time, but it is not. It is both true and false that time means nothing when you are dissecting the life of someone you know. It would seem to be relatively easy to lay out the facts, but as we know them, they only offer a shell of character, the carapace that holds what we’re truly after and that may only be available to us through the myth we build in truth’s place.
For that is what we do when facts are few—myth building. It is far easier to build a parable, an allegory, a legend, or a religion around the behavior as explanation, a poultice for the wound of weakness of character, than it is to live life as it comes to us with its slings and arrows.
I know the facts; date of birth, date of death, hair color, eye color, the beauty mark between her brows, her favorite color of lipstick—dark red; that she was pretty in a thin-girl-kind-of-way, the shock of white hair that eventually sprung from the crown of her head like a geyser, but those are just things, a list of outward appearances and statistics that only make her a demographic and not my mother (at least not the mother I remember.)
What I don’t know: how it felt to be abandoned by her mother during the Dust Bowl years. To have been ‘farmed out’ with her younger brother so her mother could focus all of her attention on her new marriage and new child. How that uncertainty and loss must have felt and how she managed to have set aside what anger there surely must have been and continued to love and forgive her mother forever and ever, amen.
How it felt during those very difficult years to watch her half-brother live in comparative luxury and to be fawned over and loved by her step-father while she and her brother lived as virtual slaves on a stranger’s farm outside of town. What excuses could her mother have given her?
This one, this one then, the first escape into the arms of Eros—his first name Dorse (Eros with a “d”) and she was swept away, lifted up, up & away, a flutter of white feathers and love-tipped arrows, her beauty and her youth, all exceptions to the setting; in Recluse, Wyoming, at the edge of the ancient Sundance sea, powdery, dry and red and found under every nail, creased into the backs of necks and crooks of arms and the dark sills of weathered unpainted sashes and slipping between the bricks of sod that balance at the top, like broke down cowboy hats, the roof.
What escape, banishment, exile was there for a young woman then, but marriage? There must have been a rush of relief (a sudden rain shower) for all, one less mouth to feed. The rolling blackout of the Great Depression had cast a dark shadow over most opportunities and now when you see her, now when you find her laying here in the cradle of the leeward wash; schist, shale, and slate pillows cradling her head—they sparkle with mica, a halo, as she scans the far horizon, the sun (her in-law) too bright, too far away to help do anything but illuminate her dilemma (itself a glass coffin) as it shimmers in the winter sky, the light glinting off patches of snow, up lighting nothing.
It’s now she knows she won’t be a mother. The one thing that would have secured her future has been denied and repudiated, invalidated. It could be she knew beforehand, but the loss, the miscarriage (of marital justice) makes her future (the one she had so carefully nurtured and held dear during her misbegotten childhood) cloud over, the darkness borne on the wings of a zephyr, forcing her hard against the land.
Laying here, she feels the cold stone creep into her, breaking through the outer layers of clothing, consuming her skin, her vitality, converting her blood, each corpuscle turning hard, the atoms and molecules slowly marmoreal. This time (as if time mattered) there is not the sense of freedom or the sense of release there will be the second time when she rises from the ashes reborn.
No one has reported her missing, no one will discover her here years later, skeleton weathered & cleansed by this harsh life.
Mythology–Part Two, the Phoenix
If you look closely, you’ll see a woman standing on the eastern slope of the Missouri Buttes, a few miles from a geological marvel, a volcanic cone, an igneous uprising known to the Lakota as Mato Tipila. Her hair will have ignited in a nimbus of ochres and oranges in the fading light of an autumn day. She’ll be dressed in dark gabardine slacks, crisp white shirt with pearl-buttoned breast pockets, cowboy boots (now they could be dusty from her day, and slightly worn down). It’s possible that you will hear a horse snuffle in the long grass, but it will be off camera and unimportant to this story.
She’ll stand there, silent, unmoving. If you were to close your eyes for the briefest time, it could be that her image would not stay in your mind’s eye. Tall and thin against the setting sun, the smoke from her burning hair pulled into the darkening sky to the east by the prairie wind; it always picks up as dusk settles on this open land and carries with it the stories and scents of wayfarers and passers-by, native and alien, those who are at one with it and those who oppose its existence.
It may concern you that her hair is on fire, but look closely now, see that it does not appear to harm her, and as you examine her fate, her face, her fleeting existence at this moment in the revolution of the earth—hold still, look up and see the stars spin in the quickening night—you’ll not notice any discomfort. Her stillness, her position, her stature, so carefully constructed: words and deeds, action and inaction, forgiveness and unforgiven, muscle and fat, water and flesh.
Can you smell the ash? Can you hear the fire? A prairie fire roaring from her head, the crisp, crackling snap of falling pines and falling lives, the snake skin-shedding, the tanning of deer hide like the smell of death, the click of bone on bone and woven into this basket of a life, filled with oat and wheat, hay and corn, prairie grass and prairie dogs, diamond backs and grizzly bears, rusty old pick-ups and Nash Ramblers, the smell of whiskey with a beer chaser, cigarette smoke and chewing tobacco, cattle drives, ranch dogs and “just-passing-through-ma’am” itinerant shepherds, sealed with the sweet sweat of cowboys and horses.
All of this flying ash, blowing east-north-east and away from her; still standing at last alone, cleansed and turned to the next star. It could be now, that in the starlight and the moonlight of this most western of western moments (an Ansel Adam’s photograph) you’ll see her aloft, her feet pointing down and the blur of motion seems to be hovering around her, her shirt shimmering in the darkness, a smudge of bluing, but still, but still she does not move, patience truly one of her virtues.
She had poured her love, her life, her work, her laughter, her intellect into this moment, kerosene and buffalo fat, beeswax, a candle, a spark igniting the flame and she tended the fire—her training, her gender demanded it. If you saw her at the feed store or the drugstore or the saloon on a night-out-on-the-town, oil and gas, cattle and hay, wildcats and tomboys and old men living out the rest of their chapped existence in the hope of making that one last hit, a strike that would set them up for life, “yessiree, that’ll be the day I’ll sit on my front porch and watch that pump go up, go down and I’ll never worry about another thing until the end of my time.” If you saw her then, you would see that she was loving and fun-loving and kind and kind-hearted and happy. And because we’re looking so closely at her, you will also notice her despair and unhappiness as the words leave her burning lips, “how many lives does it take to find the life you deserve?”