This month the JOY Writers are having one of their two yearly public readings at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. It will be held in the Bassett Auditorium on January 21 at 2:00 pm. The reading is free and refreshments will be served. As part of this yearly tradition, we are bring out The JOY Reader, a collection of work from the group that will be available at the reading in January and at a reading in February (the 18th). The collection will also be available online at LULU.com. I’ll include a link in this blog post.
Anyway, I have a contribution to the reader that I am including here. The group read it, gave me some feedback, I’ve revised it, and I offer it here. It was fun to write. It’s titled “Numinous.”
Some years ago, I’m not sure how many, but over thirty, my oldest cousin Sammy went to the family ranch with his 35mm camera and took pictures of the place. He also took a rather becoming portrait of my paternal grandmother. Later he found them, rich images in that unmistakable palate of Kodachrome, a subtle and poetic light washed over all old places and faces of childhood. He had the images made into large format prints and arranged in an oversized album. The first time I saw his picture of the ranch house I felt a shutter of love and recognition. There stood the old place in sharp bright lines.
A well-made photograph stops time, a moment is turned to stone or is trapped in amber, a moment that might otherwise be lost. There is something (other than historic data) powerful about an artistically delivered photograph. It allows me to study what I did not understand at the first or even the hundredth glance. It allows me to look at an expression of eyes, an expanse of sky and land, a home that can never be again. Oh, it is a dark mirror, a dark window, and I see through it but dimly, but I do see through it, and I remember.
It was in the Guadalupe Mountains, a place called Dark Canyon. When the family would go there, we would turn off the main highway right after Seven Rivers and head up to Klondike Gap, where the road evolved from blacktop to macadam, to sparse gravel, to a dirt and rock cow path that wandered into the wilderness.
The wilderness would rise up around us in scrub Juniper, Afgan Pine, and the smooth pink trunks of Medrone trees. The canyon would drop stepwise into a cool grotto of gray and white rock with an eternal pool of green water under a cliff overhang, and then there were a set of little rises in the bottom of the draw which eventually opened into a meadow where the cattle guard stood as a gate to the ranch.
The McCollaum Ranch was the well-head of my father’s family. The cabin looked as if it grew out of the mountain as naturally as the Live Oak that stood in front of it. The wire fence around the cabin stood tall, it seemed nine feet to me, but I was young in those days. Everything was tall. The fence was decorated with the antlers of deer and elk bleached white and spongy in the high mountain sun and thin air. The place had a growth of ranching structures that sprung out of the mountainside in the practical and random style of mushrooms at the foot of a great tree. The cabin itself grew along the flat of a narrow saddle in the topography, the oldest room being built of cut pine logs and caulked with a peculiarly formulated plaster, short on pretty but long on stout. It had two windows, one facing west and one facing south to catch the winter sun and provide a bit of warmth to a room I remember as cold even in summer, and downright brutal when the desert snows blew. From it grew another bedroom, a store room, a living room, a kids’ room, a root cellar, a kitchen, a wash room and finally what my family called an “indoor privy.” In its time the privy was state of the art, a room with a toilet and a shower stall and a drain in the center of the floor. By the time I visited, it was a child’s terror, a room with a dank cement floor and a colony of Daddy Long-legs of astonishing complexity and vast numbers.
The sink stood outside the privy door in the wash room, and it had two separate faucets, one for hot water and one for cold. Though the privy had a shower, when we visited we were discouraged from using it. As “town kids” we had no sense of water economy, and the family would fret and stew every minute that the water ran. Going to the ranch was a study in rural frugality and toughness, not things typically valued by little pink girls.
I never saw my Grandma McCollaum do laundry. I later learned that she only did laundry about once a month, waiting for the opportune day when the water tank was full, the breeze was light and the sun was shining to wash all the linens and clothes the family owned and hang them on the clothesline, the tall fence, and even on some shrubs and short trees so that between washes all the family had clean clothes to wear.
Grandma McCollaum was a study in all the grand proportions the ranch required. The largest and most hospitable rooms in the cabin were the kitchen and the living room, her special provinces. The kitchen had walls of storage cabinets and two stoves, one wood and one gas. She had cast iron pots and pans and Fiesta Ware dishes, and the table from which she served meals was long, wide, and sturdy. The family sat packed together on three benches, two long and one short because the fourth side of the table sat against the window sill of the big south facing window that had no curtain. The light dappled and glittered through the leaves of the Live Oak, and the steam rose from platters of fried chicken, bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy, sheet pans of scratch biscuits and hot water chocolate cake.
There was a severe English purity to the way things worked at the ranch. The men went out to the shop or the barn and tinkered with equipment or fed and doctored animals, and the women stayed in the house cooking. They cooked and cooked and the food smelled like heaven, and we were NOT allowed to snack, not one nibble, until mealtime. We kids were often sent out to play because after a couple of hours of smelling the feast in process, we were fully gaga with hunger and ready to engage in tragic theater or theft if we had to.
My Uncle Ben’s kids went to the ranch every weekend, and they evinced a superior attitude it would be impossible to describe. It had both obvious and subtle elements, a knowledge of the secret and special ways of the place along with responsibilities which set them apart from the rest of us. We were the pretenders. They were the genuine. However, if we were wise enough to swallow our own pride, a genetic trait handed down with two fists by the angels, we could follow our cousins’ leads in play that was often fun and occasionally thrilling with danger. Cousin Mary Ola was particularly gifted in fantasy, and she showed us ways to picture a mountain meadow as a village green with little houses mapped out in our minds by logs pulled into floor plans, flat stones as tables and chairs, pebbles from the creek bed shaped like lipstick tubes and round like compacts.
Eventually we would tire of even this delight and sometimes play on a rusted out roadster stranded along the path to the shop, pretending to drive and slamming the doors. We would finally give up and wander to the swing made of an old ox harness that depended from the limb of the Live Oak and listen at the window to hear if the women were ready to serve. When they called us, they did not have to wait on us.
The great manner of service at the ranch gave children a break, for anyone under twelve was served first. The men were then seated with their wives. Cousin Susy (Uncle Ben’s oldest) would return grace. She always said a very formal prayer with the same words. I was a teenager when I learned it was a Catholic prayer. Until that revelation I had no idea I had Catholic cousins. At the ranch the land was the religion, Grandma McCollaum was the high priestess, and even the dogs were members of the congregation.