I like to think of Arizona as the place I found my sense of wonder for life outside myself and where my mother lost her ever loving mind. Despite finally having the house of her dreams, the husband who loved her and the children who were for the most part were well behaved, my mother became even more miserable. For the first time, she was working as a maid at a local hotel while I was at school and my sister stayed with my fake grandmother. If possible, she became more depressed and withdrawn from us when she was home. Her behavior concerned the family so much, my grandmothers showed up on our doorstep one day to save her.
Having her mother and mother in law under the same roof did not ease my mother’s nerves. If anything, she became more high strung and volatile. My grandmother, never one to be shy on her opinion, chastised my mother for allowing us to go native. We were dirt covered tanned tomboys claiming lizards as pets and immersing ourselves in nature. We were determined to be savages and my grandmothers begged my mother to return home to civilization. It didn’t help you could hear the coyotes howling in the dark of night and dirt devils were becoming a daily event.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the grandmothers left and we were left behind. Mother became what can only be called unhinged. There were a lot of slamming doors, locking herself in the bathroom and rampages over spills. We learned to avoid her at all costs. My father, in his infinite wisdom, had a perfect solution. He would begin taking her out to the bars for date night.
There were three bars and no grocery stores in our small town. Priorities were determined. So, every Saturday night, my dad put on his cowboy boots and ostentatious silver belt buckle and mom pinned her hair back and they went to the Silver Spur. As excited as we were to have our parents out of the house, we were subjected to a steady stream of baby sitters that got progressively worse.
There was the one who boiled two cartons of eggs and made the largest bowl of egg salad I’ve ever seen. The entire house smelled of eggs and cigarettes and her Shalimar perfume. I begged my parents to never let her step foot in the house again. Then there were the young teen girls who snuck boys in the backdoor and made out on our sofa. The worst was an older woman who was saddled not only with my sister and me, but Micah and Russ.
Russ in all his deviancy could be entertaining with the babysitters. He was determined to either make them cry or leave. He felt he was too old to be under supervision. The babysitter that evening was sweet and determined we would have a good time playing monopoly or watching television. Instead, Russ began a standoff in the bedroom that lasted for hours and resulted in our parents being called home early and the door being taken off the hinges. Micah and I camped in the hallway and begrudgingly admired Russ for an amusing evening.
Going to the bar meant my parents made new friends. One couple in particular was as far removed from the locals as possible. The wife wore heavy make up and low cut blouses, unheard of in our small town. The husband was witty, charming and cared whether he had dirt beneath his fingernails. There house was on the outskirts of town, a rambling two story jammed with paintings and art. There was always music playing and weekend barbecues to attend. They served raw oysters on the half shell and I found it decadent beyond belief. I wanted to be adopted into this family.
Every weekend I spent on a barstool in the kitchen painting bird houses or stenciling mirrors with my friend’s mother I had taken as my own. While all the children were off riding bikes, I was listening to Etta James and Billie Holiday with the father. I felt as if I belonged to these people and hated to go home. How could you not love a mother who shaved chocolate onto big dollops of whipped cream in your hot chocolate?
Their creativity was never more apparent than at Halloween. The mother’s love of all things Halloween and her determination to decorate every inch of their house, inspired many parties I threw well into my adulthood. While I was accustomed to plastic face masks and ill fitting Barbie pajamas as a costume, she would make intricate costumes for her children.
Her son that year went as an African American baby. He wore a sky high afro wig, black face and a white diaper as a costume. Racist? Sure. But in our small town of Arizona there were no African Americans. The only minority was the Native Americans who resided in small hovels at the edge of town and on the reservations. My family was shocked having grown up in a much more diverse area.
The daughter was a beautiful butterfly. I would sit on the stool and watch the mother dot the gauzy wings with glue then sprinkle with glitter. I wanted to be a butterfly. Instead, my mother decided I would be a hobo. Easy enough costume. I would look upon those wings the days before Halloween with such envy, wanting to wear them myself and my friend’s mother could tell.
She pulled my mother aside and said there was still time to make a second set of butterfly wings. My mother, not entirely uncreative, balked at the idea. Looking back, I think she saw my longing for something else other than the life I was leading. It was her first indication I would not be like them, nor would I ever be. I would always want something else and she felt rejected. We left my friend’s house that day and never returned. I saw them on Halloween night, the boy in his black face and my friend in her beautiful purple and pink butterfly wings and black leotard. The mother looked at me in my ill fitting hobo costume and patted my shoulder. She leaned over and whispered, “Someday you’ll make your own butterfly wings.”
She was right. Someday I would create and make, despite those who told me I couldn’t. I missed those weekends spent painting and talking about the perfect color blue. My mother had cut me off from the lifeline of my creativity, but she had not killed it. Instead, I would cut beautiful pictures from magazines and save them in a box. I began writing down the words floating in my imagination and recreating that world I found at someone else’s house. My butterfly wings were words that carried me far away and she had not even realized it yet.