Friday, August 29, 2008

Searching for Teresita

The events of one’s life take place, take place. How often have I used that expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. - N. Scott Momaday

“Could you help me find Teresita?”

Should some perplexed traveler stop me with that question, I’d have a quick reply.

“Sure. Head west out of Franklin on US 64. When you get to Cartoogechaye, turn left on the Old Murphy Road. Follow that to North Jones Creek Road, look for Gillespie Chapel and you'll reach Teresita, between Pine Mountain and Black Mountain."

While that’s a reasonably accurate answer, it’s not what writer and critic Edmund Wilson wanted when he raised the question forty-five years ago. More on that later.

This story began when I heard N. Scott Momaday read a piece called “Riding is an Exercise of the Mind” from his book, In the Presence of the Sun. It’s amazing how a few carefully chosen words can possess the power to transport a person through space and time, and bring back a flood of memories. Momaday’s words did that for me:

One autumn morning in 1946 I woke up at Jemez Pueblo.

Two decades later I would be the one waking up at Jemez Pueblo, and at about the same age as Momaday was in 1946. The twelve-year-old Momaday had come to the place of his growing up, as he put it, and found a place much like the village I saw in 1968. He described the scene:

The village and the valley, the canyons and the mountains had been there from the beginning of time, waiting for me. So it seemed….

The landscape was full of mystery and of life. The autumn was in full bloom. The sun cast a golden light upon the adobe walls and the cornfields; it set fire to the leaves of willows and cottonwoods along the river; and a fresh cold wind rand own from the canyons and carried the good scents of pine and cedar smoke, of bread baking in the beehive ovens, and of rain in the mountains. There were horses in the plain and angles of geese in the sky.

Hearing those words from Momaday took me back to Jemez. I could smell the wood smoke. I could taste the bread from those beehive ovens. I could revisit my own adventures from the time I spent there. I remembered:

One afternoon, my new-found friends at Jemez asked if I liked apricots. “Follow us,” they motioned, and in just a minute we came upon a tree loaded with apricots ripened to perfection under the New Mexico sun. The heavily laden limbs beckoned and we began enjoying the golden fruit. I had never tasted apricots more delicious, either before or since.

I had never felt more at home anywhere else, before or since.

Suddenly, my trilingual buddies were yelling frantically to one another in a language I did not understand. They took off running as fast as they could go. I turned around slowly and saw an old man at the back door of his adobe house, holding a shotgun and scowling. Surely he wouldn’t shoot a skinny little tow-headed boy for raiding his apricot tree. Or would he? And how could you blame him if he did?

I didn’t wait to find out.

Edmund Wilson’s visit to Jemez Pueblo had preceded my arrival by almost 40 years. When N. Scott Momaday began a correspondence with him in the 1960’s, Wilson wrote:

There was a beautiful Indian girl there named Teresita…If you should meet her, please remember me to her.

Momaday never found Teresita, but later reflected on Wilson’s comment:

In his long lifetime, Wilson knew a great many people and traveled widely over the earth….It fascinates me that he should recall to mind a girl in the Jemez Mountains after a span of thirty years. But why should it?

If in August, some year, when I go to see the Pecos bull run through the streets of Jemez Pueblo, I find the old woman, I shall indeed remember him to her.

One indelible memory from Jemez was when the old ladies came around selling freshly cooked tamales. Every evening they'd carry baskets of steaming hot tamales wrapped in cornhusks. I wonder about Edmund Wilson’s Teresita. Since she had been a young lady in 1930, she could have been one of those tamale vendors four decades later. Or perhaps I saw Teresita in Jemez Pueblo taking bread out of a beehive oven. It might have happened.

Now, if a perplexed traveler were to ask me for help finding Teresita, I would hesitate before answering.

“Well, that all depends. Which Teresita are you looking for?”

There is great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one's life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistably. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them, walked in them, lived in them, even for a day, we keep forever in the mind's eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there. - N. Scott Momaday

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