Desert Blooms

Grandmother KingLoretto Ione: Loretto means laurel, an evergreen shrub, also can mean crown; Ione means violet flower. So. My granny’s name means purple flower crown. She deserves one.

I am lying on a vinyl-covered, two-person contour lounger. It is smooth and tan. It is firm, but comfortable. It feels strange to be lying down in my grandmother’s living room and I find it hard to relax. I haven’t had a cigarette in 4 days. I am only just now beginning to accept the deprivation.

My mother doesn’t know I smoke. My father just passed away 3 months ago from lung cancer after smoking for over 40 years and I don’t feel like having a conversation about the dangers of smoking. I have been on the road with my mother, trapped in a car. Unwillingly, but necessarily, giving up cigarettes for 4 days. Up at 6 AM, on the road by 7, we wind our way from Kansas City to Green Valley, Arizona. We drive through the densest part of the Rocky Mountains and from the first mountain pass to the last, we spiral up and down the mountains. But I am spiraling only down into a depression so deep that I fear our car trip might never end.

We pass gas station after gas station, sign after sign of cheaply-priced Marlboros. I make plans upon plans of how to buy those cheap cigarettes. Where to smoke them. Hiding out in gas station bathrooms and chain-smoking during our brief rest stops. What would I do about my breath, the smell of my clothes? What if she walked in to use the bathroom? I should just tell her. I should just tell her that I smoke and then buy a carton of cigarettes and then smoke them all the way to Arizona. I begin to feel that we will never reach Arizona. That Arizona doesn’t exist anymore. That our home in Kansas City doesn’t exist anymore. That I don’t exist anymore. That the only things in existence are these endless mountains, rocks and road. And infinite packs of unsmokeable cigarettes.

So. It’s nice to be lying down, but this lounger might as well be on another planet. I close my eyes and listen to the light music from the radio and to the sizzling from the kitchen. I enjoy these few moments that I have to myself. I don’t have to look into my mother’s mournful eyes. I don’t have to surrender to my grandmother’s attention. I can inwardly focus for just a few moments before I resume the constant emotional care of those around me. I begin to relax. That feeling is brief. I sense that someone is standing near me. Over me. The shuffling of feet, the sounds of breath, the change in light even when your eyes are closed. The warmth of another person’s body even when you are not touched. I open my eyes and my grandmother is standing over me. Her eyes are wide and expectant and staring into mine. They are my father’s eyes. The ones I dared to memorize just 3 months ago. They have those deep dark circles that have always been there. They are red and wrinkled around the edges. The pain in her eyes is so deep and intense, unknowable, unnamable. The pain has simmered into relentless fear and settled in her eyes. I wait to be chastised for sitting. Lying. Relaxing. “You look like a movie star.”

The tears come, swell and pause. I have no make-up, my hair pulled tight in a low-slung bun, I am wearing blue long johns and a blue sweatshirt, faded and snagged. I have no trace of redeeming feminine qualities and this wonderful woman just told me I look like a movie star when I thought she was about to correct me. She’s close enough that I can whisper. “I love you.”

This brought a smile to her scared, desperate face. I do love her. I love her instantly, in this moment. And not just because she tells me these beautiful things. And not just because she is the one person who does not tell me how to look, talk, act or dress. I love her because we are the same. We are the same terrified woman clinging to life. We both have been terrorized by the men who claimed us. I couldn’t know her until this moment because she escaped to Arizona 10 years before I was born. I couldn’t love her until this moment because she was only known through the heart of my father. We play scrabble day and night. I eat asparagus and crisp bread for the first time. I take showers in a bathroom with a skylight. I sun myself on an ant-filled patio. I cling to her stories and words. I see her for the first time. I find her in the desert 40 miles from the Mexican border.

She blooms for me. A bloom that may only raise its unique and precious face every 40 years. A rare cactus flower in the spring after the mountaintops of snow have melted into the valley.

The floods of emotion wash away the isolating wilderness and refresh us, the Languishing Residents of Green Valley, AZ. We might as well be on another planet.

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