ONE PICTURE, 1,000 WORDS
Over cups of hot tea on this chilly morning, my husband, Ross, sat reading aloud from random articles out of the May issue of New Mexico Magazine. We were both struck by the photograph of the tiny ofrenda featured in David Pike’s article about Abiquiú, “The Answer Man” (mynm.us/answermanofabiquiu). In the photo, a pair of tiles displaying the number 16 rests above the small statue of Santa Rosa de Lima. Celebrated as the first Catholic saint of the Americas, she was beatified for her youthful piety. Only in New Mexico would a gesture so private, so small, so seemingly insignificant be featured in the state’s magazine. "No one really knows what this means,” Ross sighed. “You need to tell the story.”
Three years ago, on Labor Day weekend, Ross and I were driving home through Abiquiú from Chama. The traffic slowed to a stop at a sharp turn in the road, and as we waited, we saw emergency vehicles ahead. Our conversation shifted to the scene, wondering, worrying. We slowly passed by a mangled motorcycle and the rider beneath the white sheet, only his leather motorcycle boots exposed. I remained stunned and quiet for the rest of our trip home.
The ofrendas and roadside memorials that stand sentinel by the highways of New Mexico have always stirred me. Marking the sites where loved ones have lost their lives seems to satisfy some deep desire in us to make present what is absent.
I thought of the lone motorcycle rider passing along the ribbon highway, beneath the sandstone buttes of Ghost Ranch, and down the winding road beside Río Chama into the green valley of Abiquiú. It was a gorgeous summer day, the silver-bellied clouds hovering over the pink mesas stretching wide and open from Pedernal to the Sangre de Cristos.
Two weeks later, I received an e-mail after more than 20 years from Scott, our son’s best friend from high school, to inform me that their mutual friend Jimmy had been killed in Río Arriba County on Labor Day weekend. The message explained that Jimmy had been traveling through northern New Mexico on a road trip from Texas on his motorcycle. It was then that I remembered the black leather boots of the lone motorcycle rider.
There is nothing reasonable or logical about the need I felt to fashion some make-shift memorial to Jimmy after I heard the news of his death. There were no answers for why his pilgrimage through this life had ended in New Mexico. I only knew that we had been there so close to the moment of his last breath.
I had never met Jimmy’s mother. And we never heard from Jimmy after we moved away from Corpus Christi, Texas, where the boys had grown up together swimming and sailing in the canals off Padre Island. I could only remember Jimmy at the age of 16 going with our son Jacob and their good friend Scott to celebrate a quinceañera. In white tuxedos and bold fuchsia shirts that matched the gowns of their high school novias, I remember the three boys standing together holding pink rose corsages for their young dates.
Jimmy was forever 16 in my memories. Boisterous, full of laughter and silliness, he rolled in and out like a gypsy. Although 20 years had passed and our lives had scattered us to far different places, the moments, the losses, the dreams of the three young men seemed to be dissolving like soft adobe walls into the red earth.
I went to the neighborhood store and gathered an odd assemblage of items to carry to Abiquiú with Ross the following weekend. I bought two plastic flowerpots and a bunch of red silk chrysanthemums, a wooden cross, and the blue tiles with sunflowers and the number 16.
We made the pilgrimage to El Santuario de Santa Rosa in Abiquiú on a golden October morning. We set the humble memorial inside the open ruins of the old church. Beside the rolling Río Chama and the rustling yellow cottonwoods along the bosque, we marked this place in honor of Jimmy—for the three young boys who once spent summers swimming together, for his mother, who would never hold the son she cherished, for this magical landscape that had given us sanctuary for the past decade. Ross took photos of our ofrenda, and we left it there for the winter months ahead, expecting it to slip into tattered ruin and be discarded with the new season. I imagined the mayordomo of this ancient church finding the inexplicable hodge-podge memorial and sweeping it all away during spring cleaning.
Passing through Abiquiú during a spring visit to Chama months later, we stopped at the ruins of Santa Rosa de Lima to pay our respects to Jimmy’s memory. The gnarled cottonwoods were just budding out, and the desert mesas were losing their nakedness, covered in a thin patina of green. Ross and I stood together in the open crucible of this earthy sanctuary, stunned for just a moment. The blue tile plaque had not been discarded at all, but tenderly placed in the sacred nicho above the icon of the forever young saint, Santa Rosa de Lima.
—Michelle Hall Kells
WHAT DOES ‘ONLY IN NM’ MEAN TO YOU?
If we print your letter, you’ll get a cool cap with this clever logo: “New Mexico: not really new, and not really Mexico.”TM (You can also buy the hat at shop.nmmagazine.com.) Send your contribution with name and mailing address to onlyinnm@nmmagazine. com, or mail to Only in NM, New Mexico Magazine, 495 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501. Letters will be edited for style and space considerations.