Cafe au lait

Everyone's got a story to tell. This is where mine begins.

I was born the youngest in a blended family. The only child of my parents’ marriage, but technically the eighth child. My mother had five children from a previous marriage, and my father had two.

My father was a native New Mexican, his family had lived on the same plot of Northern New Mexico soil for generations. He worked for the highway department, maintaining miles and miles of road: east to the gorge, north to the state line, south to the mile marker near Suzie’s Cafe, and west somewhere around Hopewell Lake. The winter months would often dump feet of snow on the highways, which meant that he had to work overtime; even on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter (spring blizzards weren’t unusual). The west highway would get such huge amounts some winters that it would be closed until spring. Our house was just off the highway and I could hear the plows, knowing it was my dad out there providing safe passage to travelers. Plowing the snow and assisting those who had slid on the ice. He worked hard and I think he loved his job more than anything. It seems now that it gave him purpose.

My mother was from the Midwest. She was a stay at home mom. Except for the brief time she worked at McDonald’s. I had to go to daycare, and I hated it. Whether it was a week or a year I don’t know, but it seemed like an eternity. They expected me to take a nap! All the other children didn’t seem to take issue with it, but I was appalled. I couldn’t understand how they could all just grab a mat and a blanket and sleep in the middle of the day, just because they were told to. My recollection of naptime in this place consists of looking very closely at the nap of the carpet until it began to look like a landscape viewed from a great height: valleys, hills and roads. Or playing with the bits of dirt and sand that gathered in the corner between the wall and the floor. They were very pretty. White and crystal like, and pink with black specks.

Taos County is historically diverse and eclectic. The Taos Pueblo has been inhabited by natives as far back as the collective memory goes. The Spanish would eventually settle into the corners and valleys all over present day northern New Mexico, along the Rio Grande and its adjacent rivers and streams. Parcels of land claimed by Spain. Then by Mexico, then by the United States. Battles were fought, blood shed, and grudges held.Taos eventually became the home of the Taos Society of Artists. They painted in the intense light the incredible landscapes and cultural nuances. The hippies came in the 1960s. By the 1980s, it was a booming scene of art galleries and tourism. People drawn to the vast space, art, landscapes, culture, skiing, rafting, and mountain climbing. Something for everyone. It was here where I lived from infancy, 30 miles from the town of Taos. Somehow, my parents lives had led them both to the same tiny town where they met in the mid 1970s.

My father’s hispanic heritage was evident in how he looked. His eyes and skin were very dark, and his hair was curly and black. A stark contrast to my mother’s fair skin and blue eyes. She’d often told me that I was an intended pregnancy. She thought the combination of genetics would be lovely. She sometimes referred to me as her cafe au lait baby. Coffee with cream. The way she liked it. I wondered if I was a science experiment in genetics, or perhaps a recipe for the perfect brew. I’m not sure. But I ended up olive skinned, brown eyed, and brunette. Smaller than most at every age. Growing up half Hispanic and half Gringo (a term meaning non-Hispanic white person). Not really a fit in either heritage. While it wasn’t unheard of in Northern New Mexico, it was different enough to make me a target for name-calling and teasing. The Hispanic children at school were quick to let me know that I was a half-breed.

We were poor. There were a lot of mouths to feed on a single workers'  salary. I usually didn’t notice. But then there was payday. We would load up any combination of kids in the car, sometimes beyond maximum capacity and head into Taos to the grocery store. Tensions grew between my parents (we didn’t need that, we had to have this, we couldn’t afford the other, money doesn’t grow on trees). By the time we’d made our way through the store to the middle aisle, I was sure there wasn’t that much in the cart. It just had to be organized. I busied myself by neatly stacking and organizing the items. A futile attempt at easing the tension.

Sometimes my brother Tommy (that’s what I called him then) would whisk me away from the grocery shopping. He would walk me down to the TG&Y or the Revco in the same strip mall as the grocery store. We would look at the toys, or watch music videos on the televisions on display. We’d make our way back to the Safeway and he’d ask me if I got my allowance. It was usually just loose change, but I really liked the idea of an allowance, so I’d always ask for one. I’d proudly show off my haul to my brother. We’d stop at the vending machines and he’d drop my change in so I could get a “pop”. Always a root beer. “I’d better test this to make sure it isn’t real beer”, he’d tease. I think we both knew that I would share it with him unquestionably, but we would always play our game. I would squeal in response, “Don’t drink it all!”

The tension between my parents wouldn’t cease at the grocery store. Thirty miles home was long in the best circumstances, but these drives back were eternal. Bickering, arguing, silence, anger, tears, or any combination of conflict could exist. It could go on into the next day, or forever. I eventually learned to tune out, but in the early years, I hated conflict and I wanted everyone to be happy. I wanted to fix it. I would sometimes find myself in the position of messenger, relaying messages between them. Thoughtfully hearing each one’s complaint against the other. Offering up ideas and solutions.

My early years consisted of extremes. The scale of the physical and emotional landscapes that surrounded me, and the feeling of being ever so small and helpless.The weather: cold, long winters and hot summers. Riding through the storm in the backseat, my feet cold but lovingly tucked under my sister’s leg. My parents’ resentment of each other buffered by the attention and affection of my siblings. Bitter and sweet, like coffee and cream.

 

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