The only gift is a portion of thyself. The poet brings his poem….
the painter brings her picture– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sound vibrates in my four-year-old bones. Banging on the base note keys, pretending to play the piano in the deserted hall, I don’t know I’m almost deaf. No one knows yet that a fevered bout with Meningitis two years before burned out most of the nerves in my inner ears. I picture a forest fire that destroyed every tree except one. That lone tree represents my fifteen percent residual hearing in low toned frequencies.
When I was born in 1944, the world was at war. My father served as an army cook and now, he’s a chef at a country club near Bisbee, Arizona, a copper-mining town on the Mexican border. My parents, baby sister, me and Mammaw, my mother’s mother all sleep on cots in a storeroom off the kitchen. One night I awaken to see my father arguing with my mother who’s curled on her cot, crying. Rubbing my eyes, I turn over telling myself it’s just a bad dream.
I ask her days later, “When’s Daddy coming home?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “He went to buy a pack of cigarettes but didn’t come back.”
We never see him again.
I miss playing the upright piano in the sunlit social hall, but I like our little house on Douglas Road across from Evergreen Cemetery and sitting on the slanted porch drawing black-and-white spotted cows grazing by the graveyard fence, penciling in their big heads, kind eyes, and their twitching tails swatting flies. Thunder grumbles on rainy days as I sculpt cows in moist gray clay, inhaling the scent of sagebrush and after-rain.
My mother’s a surgery nurse at Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee and Mammaw takes care of us. When not cooking, gardening or chasing us with a switch, she reads her black leather Bible with gold index tabs. Next to her chair an empty coffee can serves as a spittoon when chewing snuff–she calls her consolation.
Parked at her knee, she teaches me to sing, The Old Rugged Cross, belting out, lost sinners were slain, vibrating the high notes. Mammaw’s face glows when singing hymns, but sometimes when she sits by the window in her lavender housedress smelling like starch and snuff with her worn Bible opened on her lap, she’s weeping.
Soon after we move in, my sister and I are making mud pies in our yard when two edible airplanes fashioned from Lifesavers and Juicy Fruit gum land at our feet. An old woman in a sun bonnet peeks through our sweet peas climbing the fence. “Welcome girls. I’m your neighbor, Pee Wee!” She looks like Mammaw, but older and smaller with leathery sun-scorched skin. She and Daddy Jim, who always wears overalls, are over eighty.
My new friend and I traipse into the high desert hunting for fool’s gold and cow chips as she calls them. We stuff the stinky lightweight discs in burlap bags and drag them home to fertilize her flowers and vegetables. Behind her house of tiny rooms, I help her feed baby goats with a baby bottle and gather warm eggs in the musty-smelling chicken coop. Kneeling amongst her healing herbs of sage and thyme, Pee Wee teaches me how to plant seeds in a row.
Once a week, she dons her flowered cotton church-dress, we pick the biggest blossoms in her garden, and we make our way across the road to Evergreen Cemetery.
“Be careful not to walk on the graves,” she says. “People are lying under the ground, and it would be disrespectful to step on them.”
Laying our flowers on chosen graves, we sit side-by-side on a large tombstone in the shade of the cypress tree and Pee Wee tells me all about her family members buried there. I cannot remember the stories, her exact words, but even now I can hear her voice. I can see her moist eyes as afternoon shadows move across the old tombstones, shapeshifting across her church-dress and straight white hair, her wrinkled hands and face. I can still smell the fragrant base notes of our wilted bouquet, the sweet earthiness of cows and new graves.
That fall, I start kindergarten in the brick schoolhouse at the end of the road. My teacher, surprised I know the names of all the colors, encourages my love of finger-painting. When Daddy Jim dies, my mother takes me to see him at the Bisbee Baptist church. He’s not wearing his overalls and doesn’t look like himself. In Evergreen Cemetery, I hold Mammaw’s hand as two men lower Pee Wee’s husband into the ground and shovel dirt on top of him.
Roaming the desert, I collect dead bugs, lay them on beds of cotton in empty jewelry boxes, bury them by the daisies and stick crosses on their graves made with twigs and twine. I’m not afraid of death. Not yet.
Months later, on a quiet night, quieter than my flawed perception of quiet,ghosts and tombstones lost in shadow behind the cemetery gate. The Milky Way glows in the indigo sky above Douglas Road. I’m reaching up trying to touch that starry band of light when an ambulance stops in front of Pee Wee’s house. Red lights flashing. I don’t hear sirens but in my five-year-old wisdom, I know the white monster has come to take away my friend. My first thought is to make her a gift. I run into the house, plop down on the linoleum, fold a piece of construction paper and draw a red crayon heart inside.
My impulse to give my friend a gift of my creation, a portion of myself, even at such a young age, is an artist’s response to life. Like the poet bringing his poem, the gardener her flowers, the painter her picture, I rush back outside just as Pee Wee’s frail body is eased into the ambulance, place my card in her hands and say goodbye.
Flashing red lights disappear. A gust of wind blows a tumbleweed across the road into the high desert behind our house where Pee Wee and I hunted for cow chips and fool’s gold. It seems darker than usual on Douglas Road as if God plucked the Milky Way from the night sky.