When I think of you, the scent of beeswax candles is the first thing that comes to mind. Your house was built without electricity and so most of the light came from these candles. Of course there were flashlights and the big kerosene powered Coleman lantern, but flashlights shine too often in the eyes and the Coleman's light was accompanied by the roar of the burning fuel. The candles were silent and flickering and their warm light seemed to boost the efforts of the pokey fire in the wood stove.
You were a teacher. First at Cedar Grove, the place I still refer to as "that hippie co-op," and later at San Antonito, the public elementary school where I started in second grade. You wore round, wire rimmed glasses, woven ponchos and tall, brown leather boots. I remember you kneeling in front of me on the playground as you zipped my coat.
My brother and I often spent the night at your house because we were both friends with your son. After school, you'd pack us into your orange Volkswagen Beetle and we'd make the long drive into the San Pedro mountains to your home. The road seemed like little more than a jagged path cut through the rocks. As you maneuvered around boulders, we bounced in the the back seat of the VW, cackling when our heads hit the curved ceiling of the car. I thought that like the tables and chairs in my elementary school, the enormity of these rocks would shrink as I grew, but when I drove your road myself a few years ago, I realized (with great pleasure) that some things do not diminish with time. Those rocks are indeed huge.
In the winter, when the house was so cold we could see our breath in the air, we unrolled our sleeping bags in a loft built in the corner of the living room. Your son slept with a Curious George doll and I usually brought my stuffed hippo, Bernice. My brother traveled with a little metal suitcase filled with Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars figures.
In the summer, we'd sleep on the roof and look for constellations. In the dark sky, the stars were so bright and so plentiful it seemed that we could almost reach out and rearrange them into animals of our own imaginings.
Spring marked your annual egg hunt with a special appearance by the Easter Bunny. Every year a different grown up would zip themselves into the white fleece suit and bounce around in the dust making smart aleck remarks while dolling out chocolate eggs. I wonder now, as I never did as a child, where the suit came from. At seven, eight and nine, I took it for granted that you had a bunny suit in your closet. Why wouldn't I? You had a teepee set up in the woods behind your house and you seemed to understand the meowed language of cats.
Your piece of land was a magical place to play. In a grove of Pinon trees, we braved sticky sap and splinters to fill brown paper bags with pine nuts. You'd roast the nuts in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop until they smelled toasty and sweet and we'd crack them open with our teeth and suck the meat from the tiny shells. The back side of the house was bare of trees, an almost moonscape of jagged limestone and shale, dotted with spiky cholla cactus. On this side, you'd left an old iron bedframe. We would take turns bouncing on the rusty springs. With our hands gripping the iron headboard and the wide expanse of the canyon in front of us, this bouncing was almost like flying.
Now I get updates on your life from my Mom. You are an energy healer and have taught Mom how to "zip up" to keep good energy in and bad out. You make brightly colored felted wool hats and add tiny faces and hands to turn pine cones, seed pods and bent sticks into fanciful woodland creatures. When your last cat died, she gave a little mew of good-bye and curled herself under a painting of my father's. You swear the painting glows with life -- even in the dark.
I can hear your laugh; can hear the way your Midwestern upbringing still flattens your vowels despite years and years spent in the mountains of New Mexico. I can just as easily imagine you in your long, patchwork skirt and bandanna, presiding over the annual egghunt as I can trolling the aisles of a thrift store with Mom on "senior discount day." You are a thread (a particularly bright and vibrant strand) that weaves through the whole of my life.
See you soon.