A tenderfoot in Taos

An exhausted mother. A lively baby. A compassionate drunkard.

 

On a gray morning in late May, I'm sitting on a wet park bench in Taos, nursing my 8-month-old daughter and trying to prevent a wardrobe malfunction. She flails her sturdy arms and legs against my stomach, each kick threatening to throw off the blanket covering her. Sometimes, this tussle makes us both giggle; today, it makes me sigh with exasperation. I feel like a wrestler overmatched by a midget.

My daughter, my husband and I are two hours into an eight-hour road trip, the last leg of a week away from home. Nobody slept well last night, we've already taken a wrong turn, and the rest of the day stretches out bleakly before us, more rounds of driving and diapers and threefold grumpiness.

In the park, I clutch my daughter and squint judgmentally at crowds of black-clad Harley riders, roaring up the narrow street on their way to a nearby rally. Showoffs. I roll my eyes at the quiet little craft fair arrayed on the grass beneath the cottonwoods. Junk. I wrinkle my nose at the smell of hot dogs and Frito pies. Yuck.

My daughter -- clearly a less critical soul -- meets the world with calm curiosity, taking it in with her huge blue eyes. She acts as if it has always been this way, and for her, it has. Not for me. Even the dry Colorado land I love and call home looks suddenly alien; after the seismic shock of birthing a baby, I long for my own birthplace, for the rusty, leafy Northeastern river town where I grew up. I haven't missed the place for almost two decades, but right now, I want the ancient and familiar.

Each day I search the ground around me for recognizable shards, trying to fit them together. Writer, wife, friend, reader, hiker, desert dweller: These pieces I know, or thought I did. Mother: This giant, gorgeous new piece is mesmerizing, but shouldn't it belong to someone else? Mother fits with wife, though a little awkwardly at first; I can also see how mother might add a great deal to writer, and vice versa. But at the moment, they don't seem to pair at all. Mother and friend is tricky. Mother and reader? Ha, I wish.

I know I'll find ways of joining all these pieces, combinations that create a sum greater than its jumble of parts. But today the mosaic of my life is ragged-edged and full of holes, and the holes look less like possibilities and more like just a mess. I sit on my damp bench, clogged with sleep deprivation and ill humor.

A tall, gaunt, gray-haired man, dressed in a shabby flannel shirt and blue windbreaker, approaches from the direction of the Frito pies, waving to interrupt my sour reverie. "Hey!" he says. "You should cover up that baby's feet. Those feet might get cold."

And another thing, I think crabbily. Why does every freaking passerby think they can hand out parenting advice? You try keeping these wild little feet covered.

"She's fine, thanks," I say without enthusiasm.

But in the next instant, I realize my advisor is drunk, very drunk, at the inauspicious hour of 10 a.m. I've seen booze release cruelty and courage, stupidity and joy, but never have I seen it reveal an intense concern for baby feet. This guy, whatever his reasons for being plastered and alone in this park on a Saturday morning, must have some sweetness at his core.

"Thanks," I repeat, this time with sincerity.

My advisor, already distracted, lurches away. I gather up my daughter, pat her full belly, and, yawning, begin my own unsteady walk back to our car. I smell the rain in the desert, look at the mountains above town, and silently concede that this drive has some pretty nice views. My daughter smiles up at me and I pull her blanket tight, tending to the universal business of keeping a little girl warm.