I lived most of my life in the West, quite a departure from the early Wisconsin years. I write this on a United Airlines flight, rocketing across a black starry sky back into the West yet again, a vast desert landscape dotted with mountains and strip malls and the constantly pumping veins of freeways clogged with anonymous western humans.
Funny that I’m happy to be going this time.
For the first time ever I realize this, I am going by choice, I want to go. The West came to me as a young girl so suddenly that I had no dreams created to soften it. The journey there, several non-stop days of riding lodged into the back of a sixty-four VW Beetle, stuck into an area as narrow as my skinny-kid hips, clothing and personal belongings of all varieties, belonging to myself, Dad, and Billy piled to the ceiling, covering the floor up to seat level, and totally obliterating the small oval back window.
It was hot. The heat was the most salient quality of the ride. That, and I did not know why or where or for how long I was being taken away from Kenosha and my mother. Just a knobby -kneed kid going along for the ride.
Blue Diamond, Nevada is quite an amazing place. Or, at least it was to me. The desert in summer. So stark. Cactus? Never saw those before. And it was nearly treeless. It was as if green was a forgotten color there. The long, silent two-lane road. Mirages wavering ahead of us, always staying ahead. I thought, if we could just catch up to one, I’d hear the splash of our tires going through the water like back home at Pet’s Woods.
Mountains made of naked red rock. Country music. And at night a dome of shooting stars like I’d seen at the Planetarium in Chicago once.
Off in the distance, a glow. “That’s Las Vegas,” Dad said. “A bad place. We’re not going there.”
He took us to Blue Diamond. For a visit. Aunt Honey and Uncle David lived in a small stucco ranch house. Not an actual ranch, but there were horse stalls just a few blocks away. Aunt Honey was my mom’s sister, a smaller red-ponytailed version of my mom. When she tucked me into bed, I closed my eyes and imagined she was Mom; her voice sounded nearly the same. Uncle David was a tall man, with dark hair and crinkles around his eyes, crinkles I would soon learn that were both from living in the bright desert sun and from laughing.
They were animal crazy, these cowboy relatives, and this probably sealed the deal for me when I came to learn that Dad was going to drop Billy and me off there indefinitely. I could definitely stand to live in a house with an actual chipmunk named Mike who sat on our shoulders and ate out of our hands at meal times, a huge German Shepherd named Rip, a white Persian cat named Idgit, a goat named Easter, and a horse named Christmas. I was allowed to go to the stalls alone and feed and groom Easter and Christmas. I fed them the wrong grain for a while and they put on some extra weight, but I didn’t get in trouble about it.
Aunt Honey and Uncle David seemed happy together and also happy enough to have us with them. Billy and I fell rather easily into life on the desert. Though I cried a couple of times initially, Aunt Honey was always proud to remind me in later years that I cried even harder the day Mom showed up to get us.
By this time summer was over and we were attending school, making friends, learning to square dance and ride. We’d also each been given our own pet to care for, Billy got a puppy and me a kitty. Billy dressed up as a Vegas showgirl for Halloween, and I was a nun. We began to look forward to the next holidays, and a promised camping trip over Christmas.
So, it was a surprise when Uncle David drove off one day and came back several hours later with our mom. She swept into the house, smiling a smile so brilliant that I immediately wondered how I had ever thought she and Aunt Honey looked alike. I took in her blonde hair, cut in a bob just like my Barbie doll’s style, navy blue capris, crisp white midriff top neatly knotted at the waste, and high heeled sandals.
“Ally, you look fantastic!” said Aunt Honey.
Mom laughed. “I feel fantastic.”
This was a woman no one could ignore, no one could leave, no one could resist loving. I wished Dad were there to see her.
Billy and I gaped at her, unable to move until she moved in front of us, stooped down and enclosed us tightly in her arms. She smelled wonderful, like soap and spice.
“I’ve come to take you home,” she said, deeply dimpled.