Monthly Archives: July 2008

Listen, listen, listen

My sister Carmen, to whom this site is dedicated (see first post), has been on the scene lately. She died in 1995, and so I find the following stories very interesting and very moving. Here are the Carmen sightings of late….

My youngest sister, who was very close to Carmen and who helped so much with all the financial and hospital details of Carmen’s last days, reports that she felt Carmen’s presence so strongly on a day recently when she was doing church board work that all she could do was weep. A friend who sees things others don’t says to my sister that Carmen is there, hovering. My sister thinks, this hurts my heart so, and words come to her, my children’s hearts hurt, too. My younger sister has a strong sense that she must check in on Carmen’s children.

The day that my youngest sister tells me this story, Carmen’s daughter tells another, not because we’re talking about Carmen. In fact, we haven’t shared the first story at all.  Carmen’s daughter has a two-year-old son. He was looking at a family picture taken when Carmen was alive. Carmen is in the photo. There’s Papa, he says, pointing to Carmen’s husband and my niece’s father. There’s Uncle Gene, pointing to an uncle who is especially close to him. And then he points to Carmen. And there’s my angel, he says. My niece smiles when she tells me this. I find out she hasn’t taught him that, that more than likely he’s not seen a photo of Carmen before.

And finally, that being told, my niece has another story, of one of her brothers, very close to Carmen, her oldest. This son of Carmen has small daughters under five. One of the daughters touches his back in a place his mother–my sister, Carmen–used to touch often, an affectionate scratching place of old, a certain exact spot. (We mothers often scratch our sons’ backs because it is the only way they let us touch them after a certain age.) She told me to touch this and say hello, his lisping daughter tells him, and he becomes so upset–no one knows of this but him and his mother––that he jumps in his car and drives away as fast as he can.

There’s a song from the group Honey in the Rock. The dead are not dead, the lyrics go. They are in the fire that is dying, in the grasses that weep, in the whimpering rocks. Listen, listen, listen, the lyrics say. Carmen, we’re listening.

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Just trying

I’ve been in Alpine, at the top of an area of Texas called the Big Bend, teaching at a summer writing academy. It’s an interesting area, desert and mountain and big open spaces with views that make your heart open and your breath catch. Apaches, Pancho Villa, Buffalo Soldiers, railroads, cattle, oil, Mexico once its owner and everywhere its influence.

Two people have made the writer in me sit and take notice. One was an 85-year-old rancher who walked stiffly and slowly––I’ve been broken up so many times I finally had to get down from my horse, he told me later––into a coffee shop and then talked with me for a while. Pressed chinos, polished boots, straw cowboy hat, crisp shirt, he was authentic in a way I seldom see.

He came to the Big Bend at fifteen to survive the Depression and cowboyed on every ranch in the area, eventually owning one himself and becoming an influence. His card said simply, cattle and investments. There’s a local memoir about him called The Last Campfire. And he’s written a memoir himself: Shades of the West.

Some of the things he said: Life has been good to me. Children step on your toes when they’re small and on your heart when they’re grown. I used to have 18 cowboys and 100 horses. Now you can’t find 18 cowboys between here and El Paso. His dignity was immense, and later I realized that I had gotten to meet what was likely one of the last real cowboys. His name is Ted Gray.

The second person to raise the ghost of my writer was a waitress in Marfa. She reminded me of an actress called Lois Smith who was in East of Eden with James Dean. Smith gave off a vulnerability that was haunting in that movie. The waitress was slim, quiet, young, a tautness to her. I asked her if she was from the area, and she said no, she was from Alpine. Alpine is about 24 miles from Marfa. I assumed she was a student at the university in Alpine and had to work. The area’s magnificence has its grimness, too, a lack of easy ways to make a living. So, I asked if she was a student at the university, thinking to myself, she couldn’t be more than a freshman. No, she said, with a swallow and quick glance at me. I’m just trying to raise a family. The words hit me hard, and I’ve been thinking about her since. I don’t know her name.

At the mercy of the times

The cats and I were talking about the books I’ve read lately: four about queens and princesses and royal mistresses, and the cats agree, only the role of mistress was worth the price life extracted. (As Camilla has proven.) Madame du Berry, Catherine de Medici, Princess Diana, and Mary Queen of Scots were the heroines.

Their lives were hard—Madame du Berry the exception, more later—at the mercy of the times, the mores, the power held by husbands, hard even for our beautiful 20th century Diana, who broke the mold by rebelling against her role–– refusing to passively sit by while Charles loved his mistress. Because of Diana, Charles was able to marry Camilla in 2005. I wonder if either of them, or should I say, the three of them, appreciate the irony? Mary Queen of Scots is the most hauntingly written: a sense of other worldliness, of Fate, of goodness unable to out maneuver the cunning of the French Guises or overcome the barbarism that was Scotland in the 1500s, its bonechilling misogyny, incarnated in preacher John Knox, who wrote a book called First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Du Berry was another story, beautiful and lazy, mentored (some might say pimped) by someone who parlayed that beauty and easy laugh into her becoming Louis XV’s last mistress. She was essentially an 18th century call girl, and she made the big time, and she enjoyed every moment of it, and apparently, so did Louis XV. In the end, she probably stepped out of her role as pampered beauty to help those struck down by the French Revolution. I like that act of courage. She died on the guillotine, shrieking, “Don’t hurt me.”

The books:

  • Catherine de Medici, Renaissance queen of France by Leonie Frieda
  • Mary Queen of Scots by Carol Schaefer
  • Madame Du Barry: the wages of beauty by Joan Haslip
  • The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown

Cold magnificence


I just saw a movie in which there was no false morality. It was “Mongol” about the genesis of the great warrior and conqueror Genghis Khan (1162-1227). In this story, his wife is stolen and when he finds her again, she is big with another man’s child. Genghis or Tumujin, as he was named before he became the great khan, puts his hand on her belly and says to a friend who has helped him make war on the tribe that has stolen her, “This is my son.” Accepting that she has survived, but only as another man’s bedmate.

When he is sold into slavery, he manages to get a message to her that he is alive, but to make her way to where he is, she has to beg admittance to a caravan. The caravan leader looks at her and says, “How will you pay?” And she replies, “You know how I will pay.”

The imprisoned Tumujin is set free by a veiled woman covered in tinkling silver jewelry, his wife. When she frees him, there is no question from him about “Where did you get that jewelry?” or “What did you do to earn it?” Or about the daughter with her, not his.

They are often separated by the harshest of circumstances, and each must survive, and does. And when they are reunited by a coolly punishing Fate who extracts her due, there is no false honor, no question of how or why the other lived, just a steadfast gratitude that the beloved is there. It’s as free and vast and wide and somber and coldly magnificent as the Mongolian steppes.