Stories from the Muddy

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Independent Woman

      By Naomi Lewis

            My great Aunt Laura May Gentry was born in St. Thomas, Nevada, a town forgotten when the rising waters of Lake Mead made it a subterranean haunt for lake inhabitants after the building of Hoover Dam.  She grew up in a pioneering family who ran a hotel, mercantile company, the freight lines and the first PostOffice.  Her brother was President of the first water company in the Moapa Valley.

I first met Aunt Laura when I was three or four.  She came alone to our ranch in the Upper Muddy in a dark green Jeep.  The bed was covered with a gray tarp and I was quite incensed that she didn’t lift me up and let me rummage through the hidden mysteries.  She was a mysterious stranger I didn’t get enough of and felt a loss when was gone.

Aunt Laura was the first woman to study geology at Columbia University.  As she described it, “It was ten men and me.”  Later, as she was engaged to an engineer and planning to move to South America where her soon-to-be-husband managed a project, her mother came down with an illness.  Aunt Laura stayed home and took care of her the last two years of her life.  Laura never married or had children of her own, but became everyone’s Aunt Laura.  Aunt Laura also made and generously spent several fortunes through her interest in prospecting, but by the time I want to tell you about, she lived on social security and the ambitious projects I watched her complete – planting a beautiful field of beefsteak tomatoes, a huge field of melons and working as a cook for a scout camp on Mount Charleston.  I was amazed at her ability to cook for so many.

The summer I turned thirteen, this enigmatic woman became my guardian, while my mother was away.  That summer was entrance into a world I barely knew existed.  One in which an independent woman, making her own way, came and went as she pleased, unheard of in 1961.  The lifestyle appealed to me, making her a rare model for my own life.

That summer, she took me to her cabin at the Vermiculite in Gold Butte, old-time names from a world now lost, in a remote area in the western desert-edge of Nevada, without running water or electricity.  Aunt Laura made a refrigerator out of a box draped over with wet burlap.  From the self-styled cooler, we drank cold milk, had fresh eggs and scraped solid butter over toast made in a wood-burning stove.

One of our missions while we were at the Vermiculite was to clean out the well.  Aunt Laura climbed down the wooden ladder to the bottom and I hauled the bucket up hand over hand, one scoop at a time until the well was mostly dry.  Sometimes, I let a little water slop over the edge of the bucket and rain down on her.  She yelped because the water was cold, inciting gales of laughter from us both.  The more we laughed, the more I couldn’t help it if water spilled out of the bucket.  At night, we slept on cots under the stars and she told me stories of her life.  She said when she was young, she couldn't say Massachusetts.  She called the venerable State Mass-a-two-shits.  I laughed so hard, I thought I would fall off my cot.  Honestly, that story still makes me giggle.

            Aunt Laura taught me how to change Jeep tires, by digging out the earth underneath, until there was wiggle room.   We visited an old miner, Bill Garrett, who still lived at Gold Butte with his many cats.  I was horrified at thirteen to watch him feed them from his own plate, being afraid of “germs.”
            On a sizzling day, we left the desert floor, driving up a steep gravel road into a pine forest that seemed to be the top of the world.  Aunt Laura cut open a watermelon so ripe it burst in my mouth at the first bite.  One of the most evocative experiences of my young life was sitting on a rock in a cool breeze above the desert with the fragrance of pine trees in my nose and the flavor of the perfect watermelon in my mouth.  The day reminds me of the Jimmy Webb song, "Macarthur Park," sung by Richard Harris.  "Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don't think that I can take it, 'cause it took so long to bake it, and we'll never have the recipe again."  That night, I slept in the bed of her Jeep and she slept on the ground by a fire.

            The next day, we drove out into a volcanic desert where I found a dime.  It’s unbelievable to think of finding a coin in such an out-of-the-way place, but especially because it was tarnished the same color as the blackened landscape.  Aunt Laura made a big fuss about my visual prowess. 

            We stopped at the Nay ranch on Bunkerville Mountain to water the orchard while the owners were away.  I saw a red and white striped snake at the bottom of a peach tree.  I cried, "A snake, a snake."  Aunt Laura jumped behind me, "Where?"  She wanted to know.  The snake shot up the tree and I saw it among the leaves.  Aunt Laura claimed she used me as a shield because she didn't know what kind of snake or if it were at her heels.  That was her excuse, anyway.  Snakes were obviously her weakness.  We laughed about that for years, even though she looked a little sheepish. 

Driving back from Gold Butte, we took an ancient, unused road across the Mountain.  There was a mountain on one side and a precipice on the other.  She was as happy as if she was driving a freeway, but I was afraid we would plunge to our deaths.  When we arrived safely back in Mesquite, I sighed relief and spent my blackened dime on a lime Slurpy.

Only a few moments, memories of summer days, but through the years, I was able to watch the panorama of Aunt Laura’s abilities from learning to play guitar in her late sixties to gardening and building a house.  If something needed to be done, she didn’t wait for a man to come along, she just did it.

Because of her powerful influence, I didn't grow up thinking there were things I couldn't do because of my gender.  Years later, my husband, Steve, laughed when he heard about the Women's Liberation Movement.  He said, "My wife has always been liberated." 

It was during those pivotal days of my adolescence, when my mother was in the hospital struggling for her life, that Aunt Laura, with most of her life behind her and a fledgling like me with all my triumphs ahead, cruised around the Nevada/Arizona desert in the heat of summer, without air conditioning like nothing in the world could go wrong, that I experienced for the first time how marvelous it was to be an independent woman.

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