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Desert Dream

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The drive along Highway 89 from central Utah to Tucson, Arizona, takes about 11 hours, down a corridor between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, to the east of the Grand Canyon, and over the Glen Canyon Dam. It traverses breath-taking landscapes and is, on this March day, relatively low stress, owing to light traffic, good visibility, and ample passing lanes. My husband and I have picked up our children, Kai and Rory, early from school. We are teachers and we are on spring break. We drive.

*

On our first day in Tucson, we visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Kai and Rory quiz me as we drive there. “Is it a museum, Mom?” asks Kai.

I tell him that it is a museum… and it isn’t.

“What? I don’t get it,” says Rory from under the rim of a Hello Kitty fedora.

“You will,” I say. The Desert Museum is a vegetation-rich place where visitors roam maintained paths, spotting birds and animals, and pausing to admire strange and beautiful desert plants. It is a gateway for learning the language of and kindling a connection to a region that bursts with biodiversity, and the best way to understand it is by experiencing it.

We take the kids to the raptor free flight. Falcons, hawks, and owls soar by, inches from our heads. Kai and Rory snap photo after photo. (The museum is also a photographer’s paradise.) The kids rush to acquire a new vocabulary:

saguaro (sah-WAR-oh)

cholla (CHOY-ya)

ocotillo (oh-koh-TEE-yo)

palo verde (pal-oh VER-day)

Rory points to a bright fuchsia wall: bougainvillea. Kai crouches to smell delicate orange orbs that proliferate alongside the prickly pears: desert mallow. We hear a singular chirp, and, after a few moments of searching, find a dusty brown female cardinal in the underbrush. Kai spots an aloe stalk that stands taller than we do and says, “It’s like an alien!” Later, he discovers a cluster of spiny teddy bear cholla: “That looks like an army of renegade muppets from hell!” he shrieks, clearly impressed.

“This is not like the desert I imagined,” says Rory, whose entire stance transmits the sense of buoyancy I’ve felt since we crossed the state line. “I like it.”

I like it too. My husband and I attended graduate school in Tucson, and in those few years formed an abiding love for the desert. We worked our first adult jobs, purchased our first home, and had our first child. Kai is the reason we’ve come back to visit. I want him to know where the story of his life begins.

*

We can’t go home again, but we try anyway. We stand outside the condo where Kai spent his first months. We knock. The tenants have put up brown craft paper as curtains. A gray lizard scuttles by; its throat flares orange. No one answers the door. I photograph Kai, posing outside the front entryway, as he did ten years ago. Though we are disappointed, I can tell Kai’s mind is clicking Tucson into place.

*

In Sabino Canyon, we sway on a flat bench as an aged trolley, groaning and sputtering, carries us into the Santa Catalina mountains, where passengers dismount to explore trails. We begin the downward trek back to the visitor center: 3.7 miles in all. Kai and Rory don’t complain. Tall saguaros surround us. Palo verde trees and mesquites shade a lush carpet of yellow blooms. We hear Sabino Creek trickling by, and stop to cast off our shoes and splash in one of its cold, clear pools.

As I sprawl on a pale, smooth boulder, luxuriating in the rock’s radiant heat, I watch a group of girls playing on the rocks across the pool. They look about Kai’s age. One of the girls, wearing orange shorts and a white tank top, squeals when a male mallard with lustrous, inky plumage alights on the water’s surface. “A duck!” she yells, pointing for her friends. “Look, you guys, it’s a duck!”

She runs to grab a bag of potato chips, then hurries back, stretching over the water’s edge to offer the duck a chip. I call out for Kai and Rory, and splash! The girl’s fallen into the pool, neck deep, mouth in a shocked O. She brings herself to her feet. “That was fun!” she exclaims, and quickly amends herself. “That was awesome!” She dries off and returns to feed the duck the remainder of her chips. Her friends gather around her and giggle, while her mother warns: “Be careful, now!” Within minutes, she dubs herself Girl Who Swims With Ducks.

A second mallard joins the pool and partakes of chips, though they turn up their beaks at nacho-flavored corn chips. The ducks glide along. I leave the scene feeling delighted by a moment of wonder in the desert.

*

I’ve been an ‘other’ for most of my life: immigrant’s daughter, born abroad; minority of Ukrainian descent, presumed Jewish, growing up in the lowest socioeconomic bracket of Coney Island; only child with three half-siblings; non-Mormon working at coffee shop and attending college in predominantly Mormon community; married in grad school; liberal Yankee in a traditional southern family; employee of an international school in a rural setting; interloper in Mormon pioneer country. Even in the classroom, I adopt the role of ‘other’ to provide a more balanced perspective for my students.

In the desert, I am myself. The sand doesn’t differentiate my footsteps from anyone else’s. The saguaro does not hide its spines or conceal the holes burrowed by the creatures it houses. The desert feels as close to home as I can describe on a spiritual level.

*

At dinner on our last night, I order a piece of pie for the four of us to share. An elderly couple who’d been sitting at an adjacent booth joins us in line for payment. “I thought,” says the smiling man, “that I was the only crazy who did that!” He laughs. I laugh, because I have a fondness for forthcoming people.

His twinkly-eyed companion says: “Once, in Kansas, he ordered a piece of pie and eight forks. The waitress looked at us like we’d gone mad, but, really, all we needed was a little taste.”

“Just goes to show…” the man continues. “The more you travel, the more loonies you meet!” He slaps a hand against his thigh, chuckling. His face is ruddy and furrowed with wrinkles. I have the impression he’s lived through a great deal and come out on the optimistic side.

“It’s inevitable,” I add, grinning. I resist a strong urge to adopt them both.

*

Is a little taste enough? Three days in the desert is not enough to visit Bisbee, with its iodine-colored mining “lake” or the Inn at Castle Rock, which is a quirky and delightful experience onto itself. It is not enough to visit the artists of Tubac or drink margaritas across the Nogales border or admire the riotous splendor of Madera Canyon’s avian population. It is not enough time to properly explore the Rillito Wash—not east by the Jewish Community Center or west towards First Avenue—or to meet with old friends and co-workers. It is barely enough time for mimosas at the Blue Willow and eggs and gunpowder at the Cup. But sometimes a little taste is just enough to whet the appetite.

As we pack our bags to leave, Kai fiddles with his shoelaces and sighs. “I don’t want to leave, mom.”

I hug him and try not to cry. “Me neither. But it was a good trip, wasn’t it? Would you like to come back sometime?”

Kai’s smile answers for him.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Crush With Buttermilk

Memories and flavors three generations deep…

I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street.  I watch Grandpa across the table.  His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun.  Grandpa lowers his head to say grace.  “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.”  Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head.  “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.”  His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap.  “In Christ’s name, we pray.  Amen.”  I amen a couple of beats too late.  The wind chime tinkles.  Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!”  He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well.  I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.”  He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath.  His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists.  He hands me my bowl with a wink.

Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia.  For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing.  My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked.  Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches.  I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch.  Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail.  I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.

More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side.  My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth.  Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness.  Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.

As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks.  So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk.  I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat.  I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits.  I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family.  Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep.  I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.

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