A Loving Wind

By Harrison Candelaria Fletcher


My grandfather, Carlos, heard the call of the road. Orphaned at eight, he ran away from a Santa Fe boarding school to seek the shelter of a mountain cave near Marquez. In the Twenties, he hopped boxcars. During the Depression, he drove produce wagons to the Dust Bowl ranchers of the Rio Puerco. Tall, silent, with a face carved of cottonwood, he came alive whenever his powder blue pickup rolled through the buckskin plains of New Mexico, his eyes shining like stream pebbles, riding shimmering currents of memory.

A few months before he died in November 1989, he visited my mother’s Albuquerque house for supper. As she prepared his favorite red chile enchiladas, he leaned in the threshold of her kitchen gripping his gray fedora. “Listen,” he said.

A week earlier he’d been sitting at his own kitchen table when he became dizzy and blacked out. All at once, he felt arms take hold of him. Lift him. Then he was driving. Gripping the wheel of his F-150 through a valley of apricot trees, alfalfa fields, adobe homes and barbed wire fences. Tires hummed beneath him. Sunlight flashed through a crack in his windshield. At that moment, he felt a warmth wash over him. “I don’t know how to say it,” he told my mother. “Un viento amoroso. A loving wind.”

*

I sit alone at night on my front porch step in Denver thinking about my grandfather’s story, what he had tried to tell my mother, and what she, by passing it along, had tried to tell me. Decades removed from my New Mexican home, with a wife, two children and life of my own, I sometimes regret my decision to leave. When I do, I rub between my fingers a smooth desert stone. A coin of red shale, it is a gift from my mother, who found it years ago in the dunes above the Rio Grande.

“Take it,” she told me. “For your collection.”

Opening my hand I heard, “Remember.”

In our family, my mother is the story keeper. The third of ten children, she was born in a house of river clay in the farm village of Corrales, just west of the Rio Grande. As a girl, she scattered seeds into the black soil, gathered wild asters from the llano, and watched the sun rise over the broad blue shoulders of the Sandia Mountains. Often, she traveled with Carlos to the Rio Puerco badlands delivering peaches, corn, squash and chile, scooting close to him in the buckboard for stories about hidden wellsprings and quicksand swallowing cattle whole. Always, she collected. Nails. Roots. Stones. Skeleton keys. She slipped them into tobacco pouches and laid them on her pillow at night, drifting to sleep with the smell of rust, iron, dirt, dried grass and old wood. Like Carlos, the land nourished her. Relics became her touchstones, her vessels of memory, her portals home.

When my father died in 1964 and left her widowed with five small children, my mother turned to Carlos, whose family had been shattered, for help reassembling the pieces. Tipping back his fedora, he suggested they go for a drive, and we piled into her peacock green Comet for a shepherd’s hut in the red stone cliffs of the Jemez Mountains where he had stopped to catch his breath while clearing hiking trails for the Civilian Conservation Corps. As soon as we arrived, my mother and Carlos brushed their fingers along the coarse shack walls as if reading Braille, grounding themselves in a shared past, when a respite on a journey was a gift from God. While they whispered, my siblings and I bathed in the current of a snow-fed stream, forgetting, for a time, our father’s death.

In the years that followed, we went on to explore arroyos, mining towns, adobe ruins and camposantos, following cattle trails to see where they led, driving just to drive, getting lost to find ourselves, drawing strength from the bare bulb sun and the steady llano wind. And as she’d done since she was as a girl, my mother collected – bird’s nests, shotgun shells, broken chairs, coffee cans, driftwood, whatever caught her eye. Rescuing, she called it. Saving the “real”New Mexico, before it was gone. She’d wipe and the dust and cobwebs from these artifacts and nail them to our living room walls, assembling mosaics she called her “little shrines.” In the evenings, she’d light a stick of piñon incense, settle into her antique rocker, and drift back to a time as vivid to her as a Kodachrome snapshot - turquoise skies, shimmering streams, miles of ripening farmland.

As boy, I entered her world completely, arranging plastic cowboys and Indians on a graveyard of grinding stones and sun-bleached deer antlers, reliving family tales about a Robin Hood cousin with Mexican silver spurs who vanished like a mirage into the yellow hills above Cubero. The landscape was magical to me, a dream space where my mother’s words and my grandfather’s adventures became as real as my own skin. Memory and myth became one.The mountains, rivers, llanos, and the relics we gathered like fruit, became sources of nourishment and healing, even as I grew into a man and moved away.

And yet, when I visit Albuquerque now, I am lost. On a recent visit to my mother’s North Valley house, I pulled onto the shoulder of what had been alfalfa and pasture, at an intersection now called Culture Road and Renaissance Boulevard, dizzied by the signs around me: Starbucks. McDonalds. Keva Juice. Arby’s. KFC. Home Depot. 7-Eleven. Stepping outside, I scanned the ground for a bit of barbed wire or an old chamisal root, compelled, like my mother, to rescue touchstones of my past. Even as I raked my fingers through the hot sand, I knew I could not. That time has gone.

On my porch step in Denver, I ask myself: What, exactly, was I hoping to save? What was my mother trying to enshrine? What was Carlos chasing?

Nostalgia? The good-old days?

Maybe Carlos, adrift in his youth, found a sense of permanence in the red stone cliffs of the Jemez Mountains. Maybe my mother, recovering from my father’s death, found strength in the cycles of the llano. And maybe, as I fight a chill of middle-age regret, I can still find direction in their spiraling roots.

Maybe my family ventures into the wilderness not only to chase memories, but to emerge from them, to awaken, to remind ourselves we are part of something larger, something deeper, something made of story as well as stone, something that will endure long after we’re gone. Land is not static. Maybe the 7-Eleven is as much a part of New Mexico as the adobe chapel. Within that contrast, that complexity, lies its soul.

Home is a feeling. A faith. A way of seeing. A choice to belong. The land reminds us of that. It forces us to confront what is – not what was – or what we want it to be.

Maybe this is what Carlos had tried to tell my mother. The road back lies within. Each artifact is a compass to the heart. The loving wind is a warm current connecting us all to that place, no matter how far we might travel.
My mother and I still drive into the desert. We still wade through rivers of chamisal, breathe in dust and pollen, and place odd rocks in our pockets. We still gaze toward the horizon to see decades behind us. We still follow that shimmer.

My mother and I know exactly where we are.

 

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is author of Descanso for My Father: Fragments of A Life, forthcoming in March 2012 from the University of Nebraska Press, American Lives Series edited by Tobias Wolff. He is a New Letters Literary Award winner, National Magazine Award essay finalist, Bakeless Literary Award Finalist and four-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals including New Letters, Fourth Genre, Cimarron Review, New Ohio Review, Water~Stone Review, South Loop Review, Puerto del Sol, Palabra and Sweet.

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