Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
Brooke Ann Zantell- 1994
In the following pages is my personal interpretation of several stories that I have been told by my family about my grandmother. Anything in quotes was actually spoken by the person in the story.
While they went to bury my twins, the militia came and tore down all the tents but mine, and one guy said he was going to light a match to it. There was another soldier, and he said, “l won’t burn it. I’ll kill you before you hurt her.” So whoever he is, I always say a prayer for that boy. I’d have been gone. And I’m still here.
I’m still here. But she’s gone now. Buried in between Grandpa and Violet amidst sunken tomb stones, yucca plants, rosebushes, and an occasional rattlesnake. Up there, on that dusty dry knob, people still haul water from the river just to keep the dust down, less long to grow a flower. From up there you can see the Spanish Peaks-the piñons-the arroyos. An eagle riding the warm updrafts rising from the concrete highway that brought only those who knew where they were going to the little town, couldn’t have seen much more than I can standing inside the black iron fence that makes a twelve-foot square around myself and three others. Maybe that’s why they called it Aguilar-the eagle. But I’m not so sure that you’d feel like you were rising above it all if you were caught down there in that little town, in a little house with a little kitchen, two bedrooms and ten kids. I don’t think you’d fee! like an eagle down there at all. I’m convinced that whoever named the place that now consists of about 100 wooden houses, a schoolyard, a gas station, and a church must have been standing up here. Right here. Where I’m standing now.
So it makes you wonder, you know? Which came first, the town or the cemetery? I guess I’ll never know. But judging from the stories I know about Aguilar that are more than half a century older than I am, I’d guess that the breaking earth ceremonies for each occurred simultaneously. Maybe it wasn’t so much the hard times-the deaths in the mines, the lack of food, the disease, the blacklists, the never ending arrival of new babies-as it was the view from up here that caused the steady flow of European immigrants to migrate to the town and then right on up this hill. If they weren’t digging a vein, they were digging a grave. Oh well, it doesn’t matter which came first because it’s easy to tell which of the two places was and is the most popular. There sure arc a lot more people enjoying the view from up here, soaring above it all, than there are down there.
The wind picks up, and the smell of warm earth and sage fills the air. Each breath seems to suck the cool moist air out of my lungs and leave me gasping for more. I hear them coming now. Behind me. Picking their way through the clumps of wild iris blooming white and violet after what they call down here “a wet spring.” Their boots kicking up the dust, their breath ing heavy, I hear their silence that is so loud. They’ve passed me now and are making their way around the black iron fence. One lifts the latch and opens the gate for the one who carries a shovel. They step inside, and the gate swings shut behind them. The sound, metallic and unnatural, echoes past me and away from this place.
We are a solemn group, the three above and the three below. We have finished our work here; the last of the weeds and grass cuttings have been taken to a pile of similar debris just down the hill, beyond the graves and family plots-a pile that has doubled in size several times since the beginning of this last weekend in May. We are lost in our own thoughts; I sense that none of us wants to go, to leave this place, to leave these peo ple. Are we each flying our own eagle’s flight as we look down on Aguilar, or up to the Spanish Peaks? Each lost on a personal updraft of warm and soothing memories, lifted higher, carried away to another time, another place. Through the wind I hear a strange sound. It ruffles my feathers, and my wings become heavy. It is my father’s voice calling me back to earth. The spell is broken. Las aguilas land. Three pairs of eyes stare at three headstones. A comment about how much better the plot looks now than when we arrived, and I know that our departure is approaching.
I notice that although the grass is sparse, the blades clinging to life within the iron square despite the dust and wind, it is the only grass I see. She’s been dead for eight years, but I know Grandma is responsible for this grass. For sixty-five years she walked a mile from her house in Aguilar to bring water to the grave of her first child to live longer than a day. “With Violet, we thought we had everything, you know, after losing the others. For a short time, then we lost her, too.” Every day, unless the weather was too terrible, my grand mother came here. Saw the same things I see, smelled the same things I smell. I wonder what she thought when she stood here, as I stand here now. Did we think the same things, or was she too tired to think at all … the supper to be cooked, the clothes to be washed and mended, the vegetables to be picked and canned, the children who were sick, the boys who went out at night and came home smiling and tired, the girls who resented having to help with the chores, and the dog that climbed ladders and liked to run around on the roof. The prayers to be said. The husband who was in a mountain, down a tunnel, in the dark, laying dy namite, digging coal. The sound the screen door made when you were standing in the kitchen kneading bread at 6:00 p.m. every evening. He’s home; he’s safe-one day’s prayer answered.
“There was a creek, and I’d carry water with a baby in my arms” to the cemetery. “I come home dead; I was passed out. It seemed like I had grief so that I had to do it. I worked hard. l think work keeps you going.” Leonard was three when his older sister died in the arms of his father. Violet hadn’t been sick, but influenza and diphtheria were spreading through Aguilar, so they had a doctor come to their home and give them each a vaccination. “In January it was cold, and the little dog kept getting in between, wouldn’t let the doctor get near Violet.” The vaccination killed her, you know. It made a perfectly healthy little girl get sick and die. She was five years old. She was the fifth to die. “I went into the bathroom and kneeled down and started pray ing. I said, ‘Leonard’s going to go, too.’ But he came back. The flesh all come off his fingers, that little boy, and then right here on one leg, it’s like fried steak. They give me a shot, and I just had a new baby. I didn’t faint, but my breast busted open on both sides.”
My Uncle Leonard was three when they buried Violet and three when he started coming to the graveyard every day with Grandma; and he still comes, but now there are two more graves of which to take care. It’s funny. I associate those trips of mourning and duty with Grandma, yet he’s come to the family plot for eight more years than his mother did. Seventy-three years have passed since he first tottered up this very hill. One little arm stretched high to reach his mother’s hand, the yucca and iris towering on all sides, he concentrated on following the bare spaces of hardened earth that flowed together into one long meandering path that always took him to the same place. As he got older he could play leapfrog over the headstones, but only when his mother was not looking. For he knew, as they all knew-that unspoken knowing more powerful than any official explanation-that this wasn’t a place for leapfrog and children’s games. This was a place where babies were buried and women cried, where rosary beads clinked in weary fingers and Hail Mary’s were whispered in the wind.
So he played secret games inside his head-an Indian scout one day, leading the way through a dense forest, and a circus-trainer the next, looking for rattlesnakes and mutant jackrabbits to put into his show. Sometimes he had fun and the time there passed quickly. Some times he got scared. Every snapped twig, every sudden gust bending the slender, spiny yucca leaves toward him and howling through the piñons and junipers were the bony fingers and moaning voices of the ghost babies and children coming to get him, to take him with them down, down, down. But always, he felt alone.
This is the seventy-third Memorial Day weekend since the first grave was dug in the Zanetell plot. Four others have been buried, but they lie in Trinidad. I don’t even know if they had names. I only heard them called “the twins,” two sets of them. “The twins” is a lot less painful way to remember your own flesh and blood than by the names you had picked out for them. Names they owned for a few hours filled with loving arms, warm milk, and tearful goodbyes. Much has happened to Leonard in seventy-three years. He hasn’t been able to come home for every Memorial Day, but he’s prob ably been to most of them. During World War II, Grandma prayed that they would not have to add a second reminder of Memorial Day to the family plot, and they were all thankful that he didn’t make it home that way. It would have been one tragedy too many. The last weekend of May might not have seen him home every year, but since Grandma’s death in 1985, he hasn’t missed one. Neither has my father. There they stand together, near the yellow rosebush they cut back every spring and every spring return to find that it has annexed even more of the measly grass and the unyielding dirt into its stubborn and thorny grasp. One the oldest living child, one the second to last with a total of five brothers and sisters, and fifteen years, in between.
This is the third time I’ve stood before Grandma’s grave, but I can’t say that it looks any different today than it did three years ago. Grandma’s grave. You’d think she was the only one here. I guess it’s just because I never had the chance to meet the others. Not even my Dad knew Violet, although everyone knows about her. I was born four days before Grandpa died. My mother always said that amidst the sadness there was a joy. I entered Grandma’s life twelve years before she left mine. For the last year of her life, she spent several months living with my family. I’d come home from school and mom and dad would be gone, but she would be there waiting, sitting on the couch, the cro chet needles gently tapping, the little dog beside her in the square of lazy afternoon sun. She would sit very straight in her simple blue cotton dress, the pantyhose gathering near the ankle of one of her legs, her feet firmly on the ground. Always a lady, always dignified. No complaints, no demands, no bitterness, no anger. We’ll never know how much pain was hidden behind her brown eyes until, perhaps, we experience the pain of a body worn out. If we’re lucky. My father told me once, “Your Grandma used to say, ‘More young meat goes to market than old.'”
I might not have believed him if I had never taken a walk through the cemetery in Aguilar. The dates on the markers are a testimony to her words. Yet, despite the back that doesn’t want to bend, the legs that don’t want to support, the hands that don’t want to hold, the eyes that don’t want to open, they do … and she was thankful to be alive to the very end. Thankful for her life, her eight children, their children, and their children’s children.
As the screen door closes behind me, she lifts her head. The sound is familiar, yet different. I lay down my backpack and walk into the living room. A happy smile, a nod of her head, a movement of yarn and half finished doilies onto the floor, and I am sitting next to her. Up close I can see that the blue dress has a floral pattern that is just a pale reminder of the garden that once grew there. She asks me how my day was, and I ask her about hers. She laughs at my stories of junior high love triangles and congratulates me on how many free throws I made at basketball practice. She doesn’t have as much to say. The days can seem similar when they’re all spent on the same couch with the same dog and the same afghan. The only things that seem to change are the color of the yarn and the pattern of the doily. So we talk about the past. Actually just her past, because my past seems too much like the present to her. We take turns talking and listening and sharing our lives with one another, disrupted occasionally by the dog that needs out, the dog that needs in. Some times I look into her eyes, beyond the glasses, beyond the wrinkles. Other times I watch her mouth-my father’s mouth, curving up slightly on each side. Even when she isn’t smiling, she looks content. But no mat ter where I look, my eyes keep finding their way back to her hands. The needles haven’t slowed since I came home. They move so fast, the doily seems to emerge from thin air. Her hands, a blur of knotted knuckles and blue veins. I stare at these hands, twisted by arthritis, hardened by work, that just won’t stop. Shouldn’t they be tired by now, the fingers in and out, in and out, the needles whurring? How long can they keep going, these restless hands that have never been still? How many doilies can two hands make? How many washboards can two hands rub? How many buckets of water can two hands carry? How many fevers can two hands doctor? How many cinnamon rolls can two hands bake? How many tomatoes can two hands pick? How many children can two hands love? We talk and talk and talk, and the square of afternoon sun that made the dog tired and her side warm has moved up to her face and hair. I love her. I’ll always love her.
So I guess it’s just sort of natural to think of Grandma when I think of Aguilar. I don’t know why exactly Leonard and my dad come down here every May, but I know I come for my grandma, and I come for them. As much as it is being with her, it’s being with them, too. The memories of the past intermingle with the present when you’re standing inside a twelve foot fence with the Spanish Peaks above and Aguilar down below. The eagles had to learn how to fly before they could soar.
In a week I turn twenty-one years old. A college student, a dependent of my family, I’m leaving here with my dad to go home for the summer. When Grandma was twenty-one she didn’t have a home to go home to. At twenty-one she had just married and wits living in one of many tents that dotted the valleys below the coal mine. By her twenty-second birthday she had been pregnant twice, given birth to two sets of twins, watched four babies die, and almost died twice herself. But I guess the daughter of a coal miner knew what she was getting into when she married a coal miner, both union members. Or maybe she just didn’t know any different. In 1893, she was born in a primitive shack that her parents called “home.” Because her dad was on strike, the coal mine owners would neither give him a job, nor a house in which to raise a family. Grandma was one year old when the mine owners tried to silence her father’s objections to the conditions m the mines by blowing up her “home” with dynamite. No one was killed but she learned at a very young age that some things were worth fighting for, sacrificing for, risking death for.
When miners went on strike, there was never a shortage of “scabs” to take their place. There was never a shortage of coal being rolled out of the mines on cars by men who could not read the numbers on the scale, who did not know that when the cars weighed 5,000 pounds, the weighboss wrote down 4,600, who did not realize that the food they bought at the company store with the company scrip was twice as expensive as it should have been. They were separated from others who spoke the same language so that no one could say that he thought things seemed unfair and be understood. They did not know that working twelve to fourteen hours a day was killing them and that children should be in school. They followed their dreams of opportunity and freedom down tunnels to the center of the earth where the sunshine never reached and the only reminder of the outside world_ w s the little canary who gave up its song to save their lives. Even a m n newly arrived in America, whose days on the ship coming over outnumbered his days in the mine, only had to watch so many men be loaded onto their own coal cars and rolled outside to the heartbreak of a wife in tears or the cold reception of an unmarked grave to realize that things were wrong in the mines. Terribly wrong. So those who’d been in the mines for a while, who’d picked up enough Italian, Croatian, German, Austrian, Spanish, and Slovakian to say, “We must strike for justice,” found themselves living in tents with $4.00 a week from the union.
For every miner who went on strike, there were twenty immigrants waiting to take his job. For every miner who was crushed by falling rocks, run over by coal cars electrocuted or mangled by machinery, or killed by an explosion of gasses and coal dust ignited by the open flame lamp on his head, there were twenty immigrants waiting to take his Job, waiting to lift the pickax from where it had fallen and begin swinging at the same coal vein. A new day, a new miner, a new striker, a new death. A miner learned very quickly that he was replaceable, coal was not.
No, the owners of the coal mine weren’t concerned that they wouldn’t be able to find “scabs” to take the striking miners’ places; the owners were concerned that the strikers were getting loud, having meetings, writing senators, gathering strength and gaining numbers.
The owners weren’t stupid. They knew that any man willing to live in a tent with his wife and children, buried under three feet of snow with no food, no money, and no hope was a desperate and dangerous man. He was a man who could not be bribed with money, intimidated by death, or silenced by fear. A man can get to a point where he’s felt so much pain, seen so _much wrong breathed so much black dust, and earned so many cold bodies, that there’s not much left in the world that’s going to shock him or scare him or make him feel uncomfortable.
The mines kept on operating, but the strikes threatened the way in which they operated. Strikers demanded the enforcement of safety regulations, their own weighboss and correct scales, child labor laws, and an eight hour day. They wanted company scrip to be abolished and the right to live and trade where they chose. They wanted their voice to be the United Mine Workers Union, and they wanted the coal mine owners to listen to it. The owners thought they wanted too much. All the miners wanted was for the owners to keep their promises about liberty and justice for all.
But the strikers and the owners learned their lessons quickly. Strikers learned that in company towns where sheriffs were paid by the coal mine operators, Justice was a thing called power. The owners learned that the only way to get rid of a striker was a bullet through the heart. And the poor and the hungry and the destitute kept working, swinging their pickaxes to the rhythm of the mountain, the beat of a heart, the song of a canary. Little did they know that above the mine a chorus of canaries was singing for them, to improve the conditions in which they worked, sacrificing their own personal songs to save the miners’ lives.
So when the secretary of the United Mine Workers asked Emma Oberosler to marry him, she was not sur prised that her new home was canvas shelter in the Forbes tent colony. Whether 1t was a marriage of convenience, we’ll never know. Everybody knew it was easier for a man and a woman to survive together than it was for a man or a woman alone. If a man died m the mine or by a strikebreaker’s bullet, his brother would move in with the widow. But the circumstances of Joe and Emma’s marriage didn’t matter because a love grew between them that lasted almost seventy years. So she moved her things, which weren’t much, into the tent with Joe. A curtain separated their bed from the cook- stove, chairs, and a table.
Before long Emma was pregnant, and in April of 1914 she had two babies, a boy and a girl. The wind was howling outside the tent, and the women who came inside carrying wood to heat the stove and buckets of water were covered with snow. It smelled musty in the tent as the wet dresses began to dry out from the heat of the fire. She lay in bed and prayed that the pain would soon end. Looking up, she saw the canvas sagging under the weight of the snow, but she was too tired to worry about it. She clenched her fists and grit ted her teeth, glad for the wind that concealed her moans. Oh, but when the babies came, they were beautiful. Big and healthy, crying for their momma and reaching for her milk. She loved them so much. She held nine months of love and hope in her arms. Her babies. Their skin was soft and warm, and she gazed in awe that two things so fragile could have been created in such a cold and hard place. But she saw the looks on the faces of the women who stared at the babies and then at her. The wind quieted for a moment, and she could hear the babies wheezing, struggling for air. No, she thought, No! My babies aren’t going to die. She held them tighter to her breast, but the women took them away from her, one at a time. She held two babies, then one baby, and then eight hours later there were no more babies to hold. “We couldn’t get help, you know, couldn’t get doctors. There was just women getting scared, running in and out. Them days, we didn’t know anything about it.”
The nearest doctors lived in the company towns and were paid by the coal mine owners. The danger in the tent colonies was immense. A doctor had to trudge through snow and cross streams to get to Forbes, and once there had to dodge bullets just to get inside the tent where the sick person lay. Without a sewage sys tem, running water, or electricity, disease was rampant in the colonies. In those conditions there was only so much a• doctor could do. But even if a doctor made it to Forbes, the danger awaiting him when he returned to town was still greater. A man paid by the mine owners simply did not help a sick striker or his family. Doctors, like miners, were easily replaceable, and those who made visits to the tent colonies found themselves visiting the cemetery next.
Emma could hear the horses that would carry her babies to the graveyard in Trinidad neighing outside the tent. The gusts of wind shook the tent and tore at the canvas flap that served as a door. Suddenly, the snow blew in, the fire sputtered, and she could make out Joe’s solemn face in the doorway. His eyes asked a question, and she nodded her reply. She’d be all right for a few hours. The tent flap closed, and it grew calm and silent again inside, despite the storm that threat ened to lift the tent right off the ground. Exhausted, she dosed her eyes. She could hardly remember what had happened or why she was there.
When she awoke, the wind was screaming outside the tent much louder than before. She tried to ignore the sound, but she could not make it go away. Then Emma realized that it was not the wind that was screaming, but women who were running through the colony. She could hear their panic. Then she began to hear the machine gun fire, muffled by the wind and now. She was scared and tried to sit up, but a wave of nausea and dizziness rolled over her. She lay back down. The door flap lifted, and the wind and scream ing roared into the tent as a woman ran inside. The Colorado militia was at Forbes, burning all the tents and killing anyone who got in their Way. Luckily, most of the inhabitants of the colony had already been evacuated. But the women who had stayed behind to help Emma, who was too sick to be moved, were defense less against the soldiers who systematically threw them out of their homes and set fire to the canvas. The flames from some tents stretched high into the sky, and a rain began to fall hard and fast on Forbes as the snowflakes melted on their way down. The smoldering remains of the first tents to be burned steamed in the puddles where the snow once stood. The militia had been com missioned by the state governor to disband the colonies because the strikers were hurting the future of the coal industry in Colorado. The governor got paid by the mine owners, too.
The wind and screaming roared again, and two soldiers came inside the tent. They told Emma to get up and get out. She could not. Terrified, she lay in bed and stared at them, barely able to keep her eyes open. One of the men took a match from his pocket and lit it. Her eyes met the eyes of the other man, who was probably no older than she, and she saw compassion there. He turned to the other soldier and knocked the match to the floor. A swift twist with the toe of his boot and the flame was extinguished. “I won’t burn it. I’ll kill you before you hurt her.” He spoke directly to the other soldier with calm resolution. The two men stood face to face for a few seconds, and Emma knew that her fate was being decided. The soldier who had lit the match grunted impatiently as he quickly turned around and left the tent. The second soldier, who had saved Emma’s life, turned once to look at her again and then left quietly, turning the flap down behind him as he left. When Joe returned from the burial, his tent stood beige and forlorn amidst the charred remains of every other tent in the colony. He lifted the canvas flap with hesitation. Emma lay sleeping inside.
Love was the only thing Joe and Emma had to hold onto. And hold onto it, and each other, they did. Even after the hardest days, when food was scarce and stomachs growled and they could not remember what life was like before they lived in a tent, they found comfort there. Inside the tent, on the same bed on which Emma had given birth to twins, they found reason to keep on living. Each day brought its own challenges, but somehow they made it through. Somehow. New tents replaced the old, and the Forbes tent colony lived on. Chinooks began blowing down from the Spanish Peaks, melting the snow and filling the arroyos with muddy torrents. The burnt remains of April’s pillage provided fertile soil for wild iris, and it grew abundantly on the valley floor. The warm winds dried their tears and brought hope to the strikers’ hearts. By June, Emma was pregnant again.
In December of the same year, two months before she was due, Emma gave birth to two babies, a boy and a girl. “They looked really strong and nice.” For a time she held them and loved them, but like the twins before, she felt their little bodies grow cold in her arms. When the last baby had been taken from her, she dosed her eyes, and drops of sweat began to form above her temples. She felt she was falling backwards off the edge of the bed, spinning in a downward spiral through empty space. The women from the tent colony applied cold compresses to her head. Within a year they had delivered four babies in this tent, and they had watched the light die in the mother’s eyes a little more each time a tiny heart stopped beating. This time the light was almost gone, but they would not lose her.
They were familiar with her pain; each of them had lost one or two babies since they moved into the tents with their husbands. Life in the colony was not kind to anyone. The odds against something so small and helpless, no matter how beautiful or how well loved, were tremendous. The women were sad, but not sur prised, each time they took a baby from its mother’s arms and handed it to the husband to be buried. But letting a mother go was different. They were strong, and they had survived so much together. And now the midwives had one more job to do. They had to deliver Emma from the fever which held her tight in its arms and covered her with sweat. It would not let her go. Emma lay on the bed, eyes closed, fighting a silent battle.
Hours passed, and the women worked hard. They kept the fire going, changed the compresses, and rubbed salve onto her weary muscles. After a time, the atmosphere in the tent assumed a methodical and rhythmic quality as the women performed their tasks, united by the common goal of saving her life. Therefore, when the woman putting firewood into the stove heard the women near the bed grow suddenly quiet, she took a deep breath and made the sign of the cross on her chest. She turned and saw them standing still and si lent, staring at Emma. They had each felt her body become calm beneath their touch as she surrendered to the fever. The eyes of every woman in the tent were fixed on Emma’s face. A serene peace emanated from her. “All at one time, I heard the prettiest music you ever heard, and that music was carrying me, you know, and the lines were so pretty. When I heard that music I thought I was going with the babies, dying you know.” Time seemed to have stopped in the tent, and the women stood there, without moving or talking. Suddenly, the curtain of calm was lifted, and the beads of sweat streamed down Emma’s face more profusely than be fore. She was alive! The spell that had mesmerized the women was broken, and they all began to cry tears of joy. “They said I was gone, but I came back to life.”
The sunset hovers over the Spanish Peaks. Piñons and junipers form dark silhouettes against the amber sky, and the last rays of sunlight cast a golden glow onto the dusty hills. TI1e wind has died down, and it is peaceful in the cemetery. Leonard and my father have begun the slow movement toward the car now, pausing here and there to read the name on a marker and to tell any old stories they have about the person. I watch them go ahead, and I can hear the crunch, crunch that their boots make on the gravel. I look once more at my Grandma’s grave: Emma Oberosler Zane tell, March 24, 1893-January 6, 1985. I am reluctant to leave, although I know that she is always with me. I just can’t help thinking that twice during her twenty first year she looked death in the eye and survived. A burst of laughter from my uncle and father reminds me that if things had happened any differently, if she hadn’t been as strong, none of us would be here today. I carefully close the gate behind me so that it doesn’t make a sound. Leonard and my father have already reached the car at the end of the gravel strip separating the two rows of graves and family plots on either side of me. I begin walking toward them when a strange sound behind and above me causes me to stop and turn around. I consider the darkening sky and listen for the sound to guide my eyes. Ah …there it is, a golden eagle gliding in slow, easy circles over the hill side. It’s probably watching a cottontail or a rattlesnake hiding behind a tombstone. It completes a few more turns and then begins an upward spiral of smaller and smaller circles until it becomes a dot and finally dis appears. My feet start carrying me toward the car again, although my eyes want to linger on the scene behind me. I see that Leonard and Dad have been watching the eagle, too. My shadow is long and reaches the two men long before I do. They are opening the car doors, and I can tell that my father has asked Leonard if he would want to be buried next to Grandpa in the family plot. I climb into the backseat, and they get into the front. After the last door has closed and the engine is humming, Leonard replies, “Talk to me in the next century.” My father and I laugh, and I know that in us, her spirit lives on.