Friday, November 2, 2012
Growing up in New Mexico
I had two distinct childhoods, with slight overlap. When my parent's were married, I took dancing, piano, swimming, and even accordion lessons. We had a piano. I attended a private parochial school, and my dad bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas when I entered first grade. My mom told me I was beautiful and smart, and I believed her. More importantly, she didn't work outside of the home, and while my dad traveled for business, mom counted out 100 pennies from a giant Schlitz bottle-bank almost every day so we could go to a matinee. We saw all the glorious classic movies of the 40's and 50's there, many of which featured heroines like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell. I was the only child until my brother was born when I was 7-years-old, which also coincided with my parent's divorce. My mother got all the furniture, me and my brother, and a lifetime of hard work and sexual harassment. She was 31. My dad got self-indulgence, selfishness, and self-interest. I still loved my father, and began to resent my mom. Nothing made sense.
After the divorce, Mom moved back to Santa Fe. We ate dinner at my grandparent's home most days. The Gallegos were strange. Both my grandmother and aunt were paraplegics, so every suppertime included two wheelchairs. My grandfather cared diligently for my grandmother; he sat her on her bedpan and emptied it, wiped her butt, wheeled her to the dining room table where he washed her face, and brushed and braided her hair. He made her every meal, and wheeled her back to her bedpan (chamber pot) when she needed it. So he seemed like a good guy, but he was an alcoholic and pedophile. My aunt was especially interesting. She could swing her legs up over her shoulders, and even crook them at the knee to provide a headrest. She did it in one fluid motion like she was a member of Cirque du Soleil. When she left them sticking straight out, I'd often crash into them and knock off her ballet slippers (I was only 7 or 8), which covered only three toes on each foot cause that's all the toes she had. Other than that, she had quite a bit of sexual allure from the waist up and attracted male admirers, especially from the VFW. It's all so weird, but even more so in the telling. Sounds sort of carnivalistic. And it was. I missed my mom. And what had passed for normalcy back in East Texas, which wasn't all that normal. In the bathroom back there, my dad had pasted up these pictures of Vargas girls (google them), so they were an early influence. Beautiful girls. He drank a lot and beat the dog. And my mom.
I started first grade at the age of 5. They let me into St. Rita's because I could already read. With the divorce and the move to Santa Fe, I attended a barrio school catty-corner to my grandparent's house. On the first day of 4th grade, I walked onto the gravel-strewn playground and approached a line of students waiting to go inside. They were a ragtag group. None of the girls wore petticoats (this was 1957-58), and their dresses hung limply down their dirty legs. Most didn't wear socks. One boy picked his nose. This turned out to be a kid named Tom Glass who had allergies. He wiped his snot on the wall of the school. My mom and I had carefully picked my outfit. Not only were my skirts plumped with a starched petticoat, but I had lace-trimmed socks with patent leather shoes and a purse to match. Mom had twisted my hair into Shirley Temple curls. I smiled big and said, "Hi, y'all." Remember, I had just moved to NM from East Texas. Silence. They laughed and picked up gravel to throw at me. After that, I had to stay close to the teacher on patrol during recess. To make matters worse, I was academically ahead of everyone in my grade.
Mom got a job as a cocktail waitress and worked 10-11 hour shifts at night. She was exhausted and not up to see me off to school. Within weeks, I looked like everyone other kid in my grade and lost my accent, but I still had that onerous O'Briant last name which made me a target. Wanna-be chollas attacked me all through grade school and jr. high. One bright year was 7th grade when I got to go to St. Francis school. They gave my mom a break on tuition because our neighbor worked as a teacher there. One of my proudest days was when I was told I had to wear glasses. All the smart girls wore glasses. After 7th grade, my choices were either another barrio jr. high or a private parochial girl's academy. We couldn't afford the latter. 8th grade at Young Jr. high was the beginning of my absentee-daydreaming-nightmare school years: I rarely went to school. My only saving grace was that I read, and read, and read everything the Public Library would allow me to check out. I missed so much school my mom thought I'd be a drop-out. She did nothing to forestall the inevitable. Her hands were full with making a living and my bratty younger brother. We could no longer communicate. I blamed her for our misfortunes and for being gone from my life and since my dad was absentee, I idolized him. Mom and I fought. I moved out a lot. Mom always took me back. I had all the symptoms of depression, except suicide. There seemed no hope and no way out for me.
Five good things happened in my school years: 1.) The girls in my neighborhood all stayed inside their homes, but my mother put no restrictions on my outdoor activities and I was allowed the full glory of tomboyhood. I played baseball w/the boys, rode my bike all over Santa Fe, climbed moving freight trains and jumped off, explored all the dark storm drains looking for treasure and/or dead bodies, climbed trees and built cardboard treehouses, created snow ramps on discarded car hoods to use w/our sleds. The last four of these were all my ideas and the boys followed my lead. 2.) Mom worked at a popular restaurant and jazz club owned by a renowned lesbian. Two of her patrons, another lesbian couple, gave me a subscription to National Geographic. I learned that there was life beyond the narrow confines of Santa Fe. 3.) A young male friend of my mom's was traveling to Spain to study flamenco. He gave me lps (vinyl records) of Gershwin and Ravel and Mozart. 4.) A girl's club opened up and even though Mom wouldn't let me take free piano lessons because she said the teacher was a lesbian, I've held close to my heart that woman's endorsement of a never realized talent. 5.) My senior year I confronted my Algebra II teacher after class for picking on me. I was frightened, but very angry. Didn't notice the girl sitting over in one corner. She was the class valedictorian and became my friend. No one had spoken to me about college, either at home or at the school. Gloria told me all I needed was a 2.0 to get into UNM. She took me w/her family to the financial aids office, and she became my first roommate there.
College was simultaneously tough and glorious. Hard because I had no discipline, didn't know how to write an essay, had a hard time following instructions, and my daydreaming, while it had kept me alive and away from big trouble in high school (boys, drugs, and driving fast), now threatened to drown me: I'd miss whole sections of lectures. The glory came from no one, almost, knowing who I was. O'Briant didn't matter. I was still weird and isolated and my social skills were severely lacking, but it was 1966 and everything was cool. Also, in those days you could be a liberal arts major and not worry about any future employability. I was curious and interested in everything, and fortunately all the reading I'd done while not attending middle and high school helped me.
I am so grateful for the tremendous opportunity I received. Worlds opened up for me, but I was still very frightened of people, and forced myself to speak up more in class. I went to graduate school because I wasn't sure what else to do w/myself, but I'd finally conquered academia. U of Texas and Arizona State U both accepted me, but ASU offered more money. In retrospect, I see that I needed more growing up time and graduate school provided that. I have a masters in secondary education, but I've never used it. My life went in another direction.
Julia: Sandra, shared with me that often time people romanticize New Mexico, but that growing up there (as she's shared) was rough. There weren't civic programs for the youth and if you were poor, exposure to the arts was no where to be found. I thank Sandra for sharing what it was really like growing up, because I think our past and childhood has a lot to do with what we choose to write about as authors. Sandra shared, "I will point out that it's (the above interview) in stark contrast to The Sandoval Sisters (except for the mob scenes) and accounts for my sharp sense of irony, which I also make use of in the story. It doesn't include my mom's silly sense of humor, which I often found embarrassing, but which I've thankfully inherited. Pilar (the tomboy character in my book) is a bit like Mom . . . and me. The sisters represent the female trinity in my thinking: maiden, mother and crone. When you've lived through them, you discover that they're not distinct. Layered is more like it."
It's a fascinating book and I wish Sandra lots of success! Click below to purchase your copy. You may visit and or contact Sandra at: www.thesandovalsisters.com