Thursday, October 14, 2010

August, 1967

Now, a picture says quite a bit by itself but I'll go ahead and narrate this one...

Newly married couple moves from New England to New Mexico in 1966 or 1967. Buys a concrete house with concrete walls and proceeds to have a porch built. It's the American Dream. The woman above is 25 years old in the picture, partly excited about moving out of New Hampshire but a little disillusioned with the suburbs of a growing New Mexico city. Is this all there is? Her husband is working at a military base which leaves her time to ponder her life as a stay at home something. There are no children yet but that seems to be the obvious plan. Why have children? Everyone else seems to be doing it. Did she marry out of custom or as a way out? Hard to tell from her expression.

She was born in Vermont in 1942, and grew up in Durham, New Hampshire going to school in what we might think was a Leave It To Beaver world but as anyone will tell you was filled with drama and intrigue as all eras are. Her older sister took JFK's challenge and joined the Peace Corp so during high school and college she and her parents read about exciting locations and cultural exchange in hand written letters delivered by the mailman in the cold as their white breath co-mingled in the airspace near the front porch.
"Another letter from Egypt. Joanie sure gets around," comments the mailman.
"Want to come in for a nip," my grandfather says with a wink. He wasn't a drinker but Vermont natives knew an offer warmed the heart as much as the drink itself.
"No," responds the mailman. "Lots of mail yet to deliver." And he moves down the snowy path, past the gigantic cars my grandfather never stopped driving. My mother and her parents would then read the letter by the wood stove and my mother would fantasize about leaving New England herself one day.

So, here she was in her own home, purchased for maybe $5 or $7 grand in a big dry and hot southwestern state. This could, she realized, never change. She could be content here as the the older Mexican women who shuffled on worn feet from their cleaning jobs at the mansions nearby. The nearby cave dwellings of Indians suggest that people clung to their habitats and the shine from the wedding crystal was beginning to wear off. What did she really want from life? Was it enough to make flowers out of plastic to glue to the concrete walls because hanging a picture involved drilling a hole? And the heat dried out all her flowers. Where were the lilacs of New Hampshire? Where were the colors of fall? Where were the bubbling brooks and icicles? Replaced by adobe and cowboys and Navajo rugs and fake turquoise jewelry.

Vermont natives in 1950 did not fall under the spell of false Hollywood emotions. This picture is evidence that if you asked her to pause and look at the camera then that's what she would do. Unlike us media whores today, she didn't look at every picture as a "Kodak Moment" or something that would eventually be submitted to a beauty pageant or end up on the Internet.

I never saw my grandmother or grandfather ham it up for any photograph but in real life they talked and joked like the Honeymooners. My mother's father told woodchuck rhymes and Vermont humor involving wooden nickles and yellow snow. The fact he had told a joke before never prevented him from telling it again. And he liked to steal my nose and hold it in his hand, something I bet he did with my mother when she was young.

What does this picture say to me? It says that my mother was her own woman, not out to impress anyone with her charm or disguise her feelings behind a rouge of happiness. If you've ever lived in New Mexico then you'll know that only in America would anyone voluntarily decide to move there. It is desolate, waterless, dry and unchanging. Wagon tracks from the westward expansion still criss cross the flat lands. Why would anyone live there? Charm, as Edward Abbey writes, can only be found in the smallest details of the desert; the cactus flower that blooms once a year, the stealthy scorpion and rattlesnake, the flitting fly catcher birds, the lizard mentality of living in a habitat without water are all the elements you can attend to.

Vermont natives are people of the earth. My mother, as honest as a train track is straight, loved flowers and plants and gardening as my grandmother did. Farming and gardening give back exactly what you give and anything that hints of fraud like trading stocks and flipping houses or phony salesmanship is demonic to those born in Vermont. In 1967, the place to be was not central New Mexico where the race to the moon, the summer of love, the communist threat, Muhammad Ali's efforts to avoid the draft, the Rolling Stones, the Vietnam war and most current events were not pertinent. The things that most interested New Mexico citizens was the weather, the humidity, gas prices, air conditioning, and golf course conditions. The military was testing nuclear weapons but that was in Arizona and California. Sandia Laboratories where her husband worked quietly produced things like diamond drill bits and passenger tire formulas and anti-tank armor. Nanotech, military, energy, bio-chemical, space technology: these are the fields Sandia works with. When a battery that lasts a ridiculously long time and is light as a feather and recharged by body heat is produced the chances are it will come from Sandia Laboratories. None of this impressed the practical woman in the red dress who came from Vermont with a suitcase full of home made dresses and probably a single color of lipstick. She didn't wear ear rings and isn't wearing a necklace in the picture though the dress certainly begs for some ornament. That wasn't her style. Though she is wearing lip stick in the picture it wasn't long before she grew her hair out and wore peasant shirts, painted walls in high hip jeans and ceased to wear any cosmetics at all.

She took a risk by leaving New England but she knew the world was bigger than Oyster River, bigger than Boston and bigger than the United States. She'd go one to live in many countries and her sons would travel the world with her blood in them, carrying the same cosmetic free expression.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.