Full circle

My butt is cold.

That’s probably not the classiest way to start a blog entry, but it’s what I’m thinking as I sit on this ancient metal lawn chair in front of the motel I bought exactly a year ago, watching the tumbleweeds struggle to free themselves from the barbed-wire fence across the highway and waiting in the brittle night air to see whether the coyotes will serenade me again like they did last night.

Like the tumbleweeds and their namesake motel, I am a latecomer to this ancient land.

Uprooted and directionless, I blew in from the east and found myself caught on the fence of a life unlike anything I’d ever known.

A year later, I remain unsure of why I thought this was a good idea, but I am certain it was the best idea I’ve ever had.

At 11:38 a.m., Feb. 15, 2010, I became the proud owner of the historic Tumbleweed Motel, which now consists of five lovingly restored rooms, an office, a functional wringer washer, a pair of clothesline poles that I still haven’t gotten around to sanding and spraying with Rust-Oleum, a developmentally disabled handyman who calls me “Sissy” and walks two miles to the truck stop next to the interstate off-ramp every morning to buy canned tuna for the feral cats that skulk around the edges of the property, an espresso machine, a collie mix rescued from a barbed-wire fence, four cats rescued from a culvert during a rainstorm, a dark-eyed man with a wry sense of humor who became my boyfriend in April and my husband in October, a feisty teenage desk clerk whose rightful title probably ought to be “assistant manager,” and a three-month-old fetus who waits silently for the right moment to make a grand entrance into a world full of everyday adventure and fiery sunsets that never fail to take my breath away.

I tumbled into town with a splitting headache and a heart full of grief, orphaned, jobless, uncertain of my future, with nothing to lean on but a small insurance settlement and the publishing rights to my father’s music.

A year later, sitting here on my own property next to Route 66, with my freezing butt and my freezing fingers and a faster Internet connection than I had a year ago, waiting for a visit from unseen coyotes, I feel my shallow chaparral roots beginning to deepen, having probed this dry land and found enough love and beauty to heal a broken heart and support a life whose quietude somehow manages to dazzle me more than the glitter and flash of the city I left behind.

My butt is cold. My life is beautiful. And with that note to open their song, the coyotes are just beginning a lullaby wild and familiar.

– Sierra


I can’t sleep. I don’t know why. I’m tired. Exhausted, in fact. But I can’t seem to shut down, and when I can’t shut down, I fidget. Fidgeting is fine when you live by yourself, but when it’s 2:30 a.m., and your husband has to be at work in four and a half hours, it’s probably best to get up and find something to do while your mind races from one topic to another, panicking over a plethora of deadlines that don’t really have to be met.

So it is that I find myself curled up under a hand-crocheted afghan in the lobby of this old motel on this cold northern New Mexico night, listening to the new Neil Diamond album and dreaming of my father through a haze of sleepy tears.

I’m not sure I should have downloaded this album. Diamond’s voice has always reminded me of Dad’s, and his latest project is a soft, stripped-down, contemplative collection of covers with a simplicity as elegant as the minimalist photo on the front of the album. That familiar voice — world-weary and gentle — carries the whole thing, and on “Alone Again (Naturally),” it breaks my heart. If Dad had recorded another album, this could just as easily have been his song. If I hadn’t stumbled into the lobby of the Tumbleweed a little less than a year ago and wandered into a life unlike anything I’d ever imagined for myself, it could have been mine, though unsung.

I wish Grant didn’t have to work in the morning. I wish I could wake him up and put on “A Song for You” — oh, my God, is it sublime — and melt into his arms and dance around the lobby in the middle of the night with nobody around to wonder why the hell the principal and his wife are awake and slow-dancing in their living room at 2:30 a.m. on a school night.

I wish … but of course I can’t, because I am a grownup, and more importantly, he is a grownup, and so I will just sit here under one of Miss Shirley’s afghans and listen to Neil Diamond and think of my father and have a good cry by myself in the dark.

At least it’s a good cry.

— Sierra

Wedding gift

At five minutes after seven tonight, Dad’s agent, Valerie, pulled up in front of the Tumbleweed in a rented Lexus and presented me with a small package wrapped in yellowed paper with wedding bells on it and a slightly frayed silver ribbon around it.

I opened the package. Inside were a CD and a small envelope containing a note written in a familiar hand:

Dear Sierra,

I wanted so much to be there to give this to you myself. It breaks my heart to think that after missing so many moments of your life through my own selfishness, I’m missing this one through a cruel trick of fate, but I console myself with the knowledge that I am there now in the same small way that I was there when you lost your mother.

The enclosed CD is my wedding gift to you. Do with it as you will. I hope you enjoy it, and should you choose to release it, I hope and pray that it will be the most successful album of my career. I’d like nothing more than to provide my daughter a proper dowry.

I wish I could have met your fiance. I wish I could have heard you squeal with excitement and stumble over your words, giggling breathlessly, while delivering the news of your engagement. I wish I could have glanced down and seen my own dark eyes sparkling up at me, your mother’s smile spreading across your beautiful face, on the way down the aisle. I wish I could have hugged your husband and congratulated him and whispered, “Welcome to the family, Son.”

Some wishes are impossible. Love and a dozen songs will have to suffice.

I love you, Sweetheart. I always will.


P.S.: I am proud of you, even if I’ve no right to be.

I have no idea when or how he recorded it without my knowledge, but it couldn’t have been too long before he passed, because in addition to ten songs I’d never heard before, the album includes the song Dad was singing while we looked at the stars.

It also includes a cover of “Coldwater Morning.” Really.

— Sierra


I always get a little wistful as the days grow shorter, the nights grow cooler, and baseball season winds to a close … but this particular autumn feels unusually bittersweet.

I walked outside last night to watch the stars glitter against the blue-velvet dusk, and it suddenly struck me that this time a year ago, Dad — frail and fading, but still possessed of a poet’s heart — was with me, probably trembling against my shoulder on the old metal glider on his deck, looking up at stars I am pretty sure he could no longer see, holding my hand, singing a song he’d just made up about the steady, irresistible imposition of evening.

I sniffed the darkness once, dropped my coffee, and ran all the way to Grant’s house to collapse in his arms, sobbing hysterically until I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but cling to him and cry, remembering and longing and forgetting to be grateful for all I have instead of mourning all I’ve lost.

God, I wish Mom and Daddy could have met him.

I wish Mom and Daddy could meet me. I’m not the girl they knew. Sometimes I wonder whether they’d even recognize me.

— Sierra

How cool.

Grant was late to dinner tonight, because he stayed after school to see what was going on in one of his teachers’ classrooms. A second-year English teacher noticed a bunch of her kids were falling behind on their assignments, so she stayed after school until about 6 o’clock to help any of the students who wanted to stay late. She brought in a bunch of snacks to motivate the kids and to let them know she cared about them, and whatever work they did was graded and recorded on the spot so they could see how much difference a little effort could make in their grades.

Grant said it was really inspiring to see how well the kids responded. Some of them were having trouble with other subjects, and he wound up sticking around later than he’d planned to help tutor them.

I told him to let me know if this teacher decides to hold another tutoring session, because I would certainly be happy to donate some cookies and kettle corn to the cause.

I love it that Grant is willing to stay after school for the better end of three hours just to hang out with the kids and help them with their homework. Something about that reminds me of the principal I had when I was in first grade. Mr. Morris would always make homemade ice cream in the cafeteria and hand out little scoops of it as rewards for good behavior, high test scores, cleaning our plates at lunch, etc., etc., etc. It wasn’t particularly great ice cream, because he had to make it out of powdered eggs and government-issue sugar and milk and stuff, but the taste wasn’t really the important part. The important part was that it was a reward, and it was a reward that Mr. Morris had taken the time and effort to make especially for us. We knew he loved us, because he made us ice cream.

Nearly three decades later, if I close my eyes, I can almost taste that ice cream.

I’d like to think that Mr. Morris would approve of Grant. They have the same sensibility about what school should be and what a principal is supposed to do.

— Sierra

Unexpected visitors

Brother Jerry came by yesterday evening to check on me after I missed the morning service. I told him I hadn’t been feeling well and left it at that.

He assured me that all would be well, and that any problems I might be facing would sort themselves out in due time, and in a way that blessed everyone concerned. Then he took a little card out of his pocket, and in a graceful script, wrote:

Jn. 8:32

When he left, I looked up the verse:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

What is the truth? And from what am I being freed? Fear? A relationship? Something else that I haven’t thought of yet? The verse should have made me feel better, but it just led me further into the bowels of a labyrinthine confusion whose passages seemed to be closing behind me.

Clutching the card, I sank into my bubble chair and closed my eyes. I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I didn’t hear the bell announcing the arrival of a visitor. I opened my eyes to find Abuelito standing in my lobby, mumbling to himself as he arranged three jar candles on my mantlepiece.

He carried a small leather satchel, from which he removed a matchbox; a sage smudge; and an assortment of tiny objects. I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing, but all that came out was a hoarse squeak, which he ignored as he bustled purposefully about the room.

He walked over to the desk and picked up a small, framed picture of my father, which he set in front of the middle candle. Then he lit the sage and walked around the room, waving the pungent smoke into the corners and swirling it around the front of my chair until it made me cough.

When he’d finished smudging the lobby, he laid an ashtray on the mantle in front of Dad’s picture, set a cigarette in front of it, and lit it. Then he took another object out of his bag and held it in the match’s flame until it began to melt.

Bacon and cigarette smoke. Grandma’s house.

Abuelito reached over to the radio behind the desk and turned it on. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when my father’s voice floated out, just as it had on that awful afternoon in the waiting room when I was 15.

I’m dreaming, I thought. This cannot be happening.

As quickly and quietly as he had arrived, Abuelito disappeared. I’d met him only once in my life — and yet, somehow, he had reached into my past and left an assortment of symbols obviously meant to comfort me in my present. I examined the items on the mantle. There were milagros: a heart, a pair of eyes, a kneeling woman. A Zuni fetish bear for strength. The ashtray. Dad’s picture. An atomizer bottle containing a few drops of my mother’s perfume. A small, spindly tumbleweed. And in between, popping and flickering and casting strange shadows on the walls, the three jar candles: St. Julian the Hospitaller, St. Joseph, and St. Vincent Ferrer. I had to Google them later to figure out that they were the patron of innkeepers, the patron of doubt and of fathers, and the patron of reconciliation.

In their uncertain light, I looked at the cigarette. It was my grandmother’s brand. I suddenly remembered a painting Grandma kept on her living-room wall. It was one of those paint-by-numbers pictures kids used to make, and it showed the angel Gabriel addressing the Virgin Mary, with the words “FEAR NOT” written below the picture in elaborate calligraphy.

I propped Brother Jerry’s Bible verse against the St. Joseph candle and walked out into the clear night air to finish Grandma’s cigarette and listen to the coyotes. I’m still not sure what it all means, but between Brother Jerry and Abuelito, I’m a little more willing to believe it will turn out OK in the end.

— Sierra

Face from the past

I was sitting out front late Saturday night, sipping an iced mocha and listening to the wind and the distant traffic, when Dad’s former drummer pulled up in a ’59 Corvette with a very young, very blonde California prospector riding shotgun.

He walked up to me to ask if I had any rooms left, did a double-take, and then blanched as if he’d just seen a ghost.


I laughed. “Good to see you, Steve,” I said, setting down my drink.

I wish you could have seen the look on his pretty young companion’s face when her latest claim scooped me up in a massive bear hug, and spun me around until we were both dizzy. (Evidently the fact that my boyfriend was sitting right next to us escaped her, because she didn’t relax until she figured out that I was old enough to be her mother. It must really suck to be that insecure. But I digress….)

Steve was just passing through on his way back from a trip to Chicago, but we sat up until 3 a.m., catching up on where we’d been since we lost touch after Dad fired him in the middle of a tour 18 years ago (a circumstance for which I am partly, if not entirely, responsible, although it’s probably best if I don’t go into the details).

Paul Simon would have been proud: Steve and I “talked about some old times, and we drank ourselves some beers,” and I can confirm beyond any shadow of a doubt that we are, in fact, “still crazy after all these years.”

I love this place. I truly have no idea who is going to show up at any given minute….

— Sierra