Recently I was digging around in some boxes of old photos my mother gave me before she died, and among copies of tintypes and really old pictures I found one of a woman and man standing in a stiff, late-1800s/early-1900s pose. Written in my mother’s hand were these words: Mary Ellen Riggs Morris and husband Porter (Half-sister).
The photo stopped me for a moment. I looked closely at this half sister and thought, half sister of whom? The two of them were young and handsome and I stared at them for a while to see if I could discern any family resemblance. I thought she faintly favored my mother’s clan and suddenly I recalled a conversation out of my childhood.
Let’s set the stage. My mother’s folks were/are LDS, or Mormons, and have been since the early days when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were leading Mormons across the American continent from upstate New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and on to Salt Lake City in a quest to find a place to practice their religion.
When I was a youngster, I recall that my grandmother, mother and sister took off for Tucson on a shopping trip. They were gone all day leaving me to watch Felix the Cat and Heckle and Jeckle on TV, play baseball, go swimming. When they returned I asked where they’d been. My sister blurted, “We went to see Aunt El in St. David.” (St. David is in Southeastern Arizona just north of Tombstone.)
“Who’s Aunt El?”
My mother glared at my sister and the subject was promptly changed to new clothes, new shoes and the drive back from Tucson.
“Who’s Aunt El?’
Grandmother turned off her hearing aids and Mother went into the kitchen to heat some water for Grandmother’s senna tea; and Sister looked guilty and finally whispered, “Grammy’s sister.”
I knew my grandmother’s sisters—May and Emily—but no El.
Sister whispered, “Polygamy.” She grinned and rolled her eyes and nodded her head so hard her brown curls bounced.
Evidently Aunt Ellen or El, my grandmother’s half sister, was the result of a polygamist marriage between my great grandfather and some woman I don’t believe I ever heard mentioned.
Family history was important to my mother for both personal and religious reasons. Genealogy was important, too, but when it came to taboo subjects like polygamy, it seems to me she (and other members of her large family–I’m talking cousins and aunts and uncles here) needed to hide any mention of them.
As time went on I’d capture tidbits of info on Aunt El. She went to the pen. That was a shock. “The penitentiary?” “For what?”
“But Mormons don’t drink booze.”
“It was really her daughter (name unknown to me). Aunt El took the rap.”
And that was the last I heard of Aunt El. I suspect she’s buried down there around St. David or Benson, Arizona, and has descendents living in the region, cousins of mine, a few times removed, but still cousins.
As I look at the old photo of Aunt El, she seems kind. She seems polite and neat and clean and frankly, she seems a little frightened.
I don’t know why she looks frightened. Maybe it’s because her expression tells me something bad has happened, or is about to happen. I think the photo is old enough that she wouldn’t have been involved in bootlegging yet. That wasn’t really prevalent in the 1920s.
As I look at the second family photo in this blog, the photo of the other side of this polygamist family, I see my grandmother sitting in the lower right-hand corner. My great-grandmother, Clarissa Ann, is sitting in the middle. Both seem to be looking out of the photo at something or someone. My grandmother wears a bemused look. Or is it a look of derision? Who is she looking at? I wonder if she is looking at Aunt El.
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Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. William Faulkner
Memory may be the only thing of value that we carry out of this world when we exit. Memory revealed its strength to me the last few weeks as Betty and I peregrinated around the southwest. After screening our documentary film BRAVO! in my old home town of Casa Grande, we took a drive up around the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson towards San Manuel on our way to Benson, Arizona.
A range of mountains to our north came into view and even though it had been over thirty years since I had last seen those mountains, my memories of journeys into and along that range sprang right into the forefront of my attention. Galiuros…that was the name of the mountains, the Galiuros.
I remembered camping trips in the fifties when we hiked up the rough run of Aravaipa Canyon, and hunting trips into the deep cut flanks of the Santa Catalina foothills in the seventies and eighties. These memories were gratifying on some level that I am not sure I understand. Was it memory itself that made me satisfied, or was it the memories of those moments?
Those thoughts simmered inside me as we drove off the main highway between Tucson and Superior and took on the corduroy washboard they call the San Pedro-Reddington-Cascabel Road around the back side of the Santa Catalinas and the Rincon Mountains. This road is carved by arroyos exposing the geology of the country, the aggregate and white rock that glares when the sun beats on it. What surprised me, besides the pilgrims who had moved into the country over the thirty years since my last visit, were the forests of saguaro, the forests of cholla and ocotillo and prickly pear. The country in southern Arizona has become so developed that the large groupings of desert flora have been diminished to one or two examples of each species so that the developers can show their customers they are maintaining the integrity of the land as it was before the rush of folks from back east or California.
But what I was seeing out on that washboard road was straight out of my recollection of what the Sonoran Desert around Tucson used to be, before Del Webb and Pulte and all the other big-name builders showed up to mow down what got in the way of golf courses and club houses and streets and homes.
We arrived in Benson and spent a day and a half chasing birds around the San Pedro Riparian Wildlife Conservation Area outside Sierra Vista and in Portal Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains on the New Mexico/Arizona border. My previous excursions in the region had only been pass-throughs, but memories of them floated up as we watched redtail hawks, white-breasted nuthatches, pyrrhuloxias and loggerhead shrikes. The southeast area of Arizona was home to some of my ancestors and even though I have little evidence of what happened to them there, the knowledge that their graves are in the old St. David cemetery and neighboring locations conjured up images of draft horses and Apache raids, and I wondered if those were manufactured in my own mind or remnants of a racial memory.
We journeyed on to Fort Davis, Texas, and two days of listening to cowboy poets and musicians ply their tunes and poems. Fort Davis and Alpine (where they had the cowboy poetry event) sit in wild country with cliffs and valleys and peaks that rear up like volcanoes we see in movies, like anvils and great monuments built in some kind of fantasy land where what is constructed is beyond the hand of man, created by a greater race of beings, now long gone with no signature but the rugged country that sings to our remembrance.
Then on to Big Bend and the wild jumble of Rio Grande country, the mix of Mexican and American heritage a permanent stamp on the culture. A culture still lodged in the memory of my youth.
The mountains at Big Bend look like they were shoved into mounds and blocks and pyramids and the land changes from grassy terrain to conifer heights. Bear, cougar and elk inhabit rugged topography not far from surroundings inhabited by desert denizens like diamondbacks and peccaries.
We spent a night in Terlingua, Texas, or more specifically, Terlingua Ghost Town which sits about five miles west of modern Terlingua. Terlingua Ghost Town is what remains of a once prosperous community whose citizens mostly worked in the mercury mines that were so important to the munitions industry in the first half of the twentieth century. Most of what remains of the ghost town’s glory is kept in the memories written down in books and portrayed in old photography.
Upon our arrival we were delivered a big surprise. We needed to go to the Terlingua Trading Company to check into our lodgings for the night in the ghost town and instead of goblins, ghosts and zombies, we found one of the most lively places we’d been in since arriving in the southwest part of Texas. The Trading Company is located in an old building with high and wide Texan porches. Gangs of people sat along walls and the edges of the porch, playing guitars, singing, palavering, drinking beer. They were a wild array of folks, old hippies, young hippies, Marines, cowboys, turistas, and then there were the dogs, mostly pit bulls and occasionally a mongrel of indefinable lineage.
Contrary to their reputations, these pit bulls were mellow, and it reminded me of my notion that dogs’ personalities reflect the personas of their masters. There were big signs along the wall of the Trading Company that read, “No Dogs on Porch,” but the dogs didn’t seem to mind the warnings and it was apparent they had yet to learn to read.
Terlingua Ghost Town has a “durn good” restaurant named The Starlight Theater and is housed in the same location as an old movie theater that showed films back in Terlingua’s mercury mining heyday. Now it serves margaritas, beer and some mighty fine green chile.
The next morning we discovered our biggest treat in the ghost town…the cemetery. Most of the folks buried in this cemetery died during the influenza epidemic of 1919-1920, but there are markers for earlier deaths and surprising to us, folks are still being buried there. The graveyard is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the site of an apparently well-attended Day of the Dead celebration held in early November.
The graveyard is a work of art, in its own way, with simple wooden-cross grave markers next to complex adobe monuments. The individual graves are crammed up against each other with lots of ornaments lying around on particular gravesites. Jars for money, beer cans, flowers, and other mementoes make this the most interesting cemetery I’ve been in, and that is quite a few.
The funny thing about my impressions of Terlingua Ghost Town is the memories the experience evokes: When I was a kid, of barbeques down on the washes that ran through the Arizona of my youth; a cow carcass, butchered and marinated in salts and peppers and oils, then buried with searing mesquite coals; and friends of my parents with cans of Coors and plates piled with spicy potato salad and garlic bread. Or later, when I was a young man, frying chicken in Dutch ovens out west of Casa Grande, or if not chickens, then calf fries. Playing softball and volleyball. Drinking wine and whiskey watching the kids play, hoping they didn’t find a rattlesnake. Listening to Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix.
Besides the cemetery, the images around Terlingua are ghostly, the hard white and sun-faded hues of the peaks, the arroyos that have chopped the land in their haste to make a meeting with the Rio Grande. These images as they filter back into my mind are like goblins dressed in long white gossamer gowns that remind me of Halloween or the times when I was a child when my grandmother (who lived with us) used to cry out to her long dead mother. Memories.