It was a beautiful sunny June morning in Taos, New Mexico when Krista, her husband George, and two teenage sons, Jonathon and Joseph decided to stop by the farm Krista had lived in as a child on their way back to their home near Boulder, Colorado. She hadn’t been back to the farm since her family had sold the farm to a Tree Frog lady named Olive twenty or so years ago.
“Do you remember how to get there, hon?” George asked as they took the Penasco exit off of Highway #67 for the first time since she had moved away.
“I’m pretty sure we can’t miss it, the highway ends with the dirt road we lived on”, Krista replied, growing more and more excited as the green meadows of Llano de San Juan came into full view.
Krista was amazed at how little this quaint village had changed over the last two decades. If there were any new homes, she didn’t notice them. The village was perched atop a small mesa, called a llano, with a small stream called an acequia by the locals, nourished the fields and orchards of each farm, which were lush and green this summer.
Along the acequia were lots of small willow trees and scraggly oak, and the fields were filled with alfalfa, sweet sorrel, sweet grass and dandelions. The houses were mostly all adobe, with large, geometrically fashioned woodpiles dotting the fields in a haphazard, poetic fashion.
Suddenly, in what seemed to be a much shorter distance than Krista remembered, their minivan was pulling into the driveway of her old family farm. An older tan woman was outside working on a motorboat and nobody else was around. Krista recognized her immediately and called out to her,
“Olive, is that you? I’m Krista, you know, Rainee and Lucas’ daughter.”
Olive climbed out of the motorboat and approached Krista in a friendly yet curious manner. When she reached her, a broad smile broke across her face as she exclaimed,
“It’s great to see you, Krista! How many years has it been? I still remember Rainee’s dandelion wine. It was the best.”
“It’s been twenty-two years now, Olive. It’s good to see you! This is my husband, George, and my two sons, Jonathon and Joseph”, Krista said as she ushered her family closer to introduce them.
“Wow, Mom, this place is really cool! Is that Tree Frog over there?” Joseph asked with his usual 11-year-old enthusiasm, pointing to the neighboring farm with freshly plastered adobe houses, and a large wooden A-frame painted brick red.
Olive said, “We had to sell Tree Frog many years ago, but we kept the A-frame to practice Tai Chi in. Would you like to see your old house?” Krista beamed and replied, “We’d love to! George, Jonathon, and Joseph, follow me while Olive gives us the grand tour.”
Olive opened the front door and led Krista and her family into the kitchen/living room area. Krista couldn’t believe how beautiful her old adobe home had become. It had been only a 3 room house when Krista lived there with her parents and little sister, Lana and little brother Logan, but now it was a good size four bedroom house, and the front room now had a cathedral ceiling with skylights which illuminated this area well. There was also a ladder leading up to a loft, situated directly over where Krista’s old handmade loft used to sit over her mother’s upright piano.
“My mom used to sing and play the blues on that piano at night when I was trying to go to sleep, and my bed was right there!” Krista pointed to this area of the room which was now a small office, complete with a small computer and desk.
“We had a fire several years ago in the kitchen, so we decided to renovate” Olive commented as she led Krista and her family to her own bedroom.
The bedroom was quite large, with large cedar vigas (large, sanded and varnished logs) and latillas (smaller logs fashioned the same way as vigas) arranged in a circular fashion rather than the usual vertical, meeting in the center where an oak tree had been sanded down and painted, but still held its old tree shape enough to give the appearance that it had grown up out of the floor and was holding up the ceiling.
A large hardwood bed was attached to the tree and picture windows looking out at the Sangre de Cristos mountains in the distance added to the room’s charm. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and brought tears to Krista’s eyes. Olive also had built a beautiful large bathroom with Spanish tile, a Jacuzzi bathtub and a large window looking out to the pasture, acequia and willow trees in the back of the house.
“I’ve been thinking about this place a lot for the past few months” Krista told Olive. “I was wondering if I could take my family to see Zander’s grave, if it’s still there”.
“I made sure to keep the plot of land where he was buried. Others were buried there too, after your family moved away. I’ll be glad to walk with you out there”, Olive replied. Jonathon, Joseph and George all walked with the two women to the old grave, back by the willow trees.
“Can you tell us the story about Zander, Mom?” Joseph and Jonathon asked in unison, as they passed by the shell of one of the old school buses covered in psychedelic paint which used to be parked at Tree Frog.
“Well, my parents bought this farm back in the seventies, a time when thousands of young people were flocking to the mountains to get away from society. They had both been activists during the Sixties and protested the war in Vietnam, but this second wave of movement and change that was sweeping across the country brought our family to these very mountains. My sister Lana and I milked the goats, fed the chickens, a pig and a horse, and our garden was right over there. I also chopped wood and could start a fire in our wood stove and even cook dinner, by the time I was 10. Many times people showed up at the farm in answer to my parents’ ad in the Mother Earth News, but we weren’t able to keep a commune going. The people always left after my mom and dad put a chore list up on the wall”, Krista began.
“That’s funny mom, but can you get to the point?” Joseph asked in his usual slightly petulant manner. “Just tell us about the summer you babysat Zander, ok? I like this story”. Joseph was small and wiry, like Krista herself, and he had her big blue eyes and blonde hair, tan skin and big smile. He was a great student and loved sports, but he also loved to give Krista, George and Jonathon all a hard time. He was good at that, but to Krista he was still her baby and she sometimes doted on him a bit.
“Ok, young man, just hold your horses”, Krista answered as they reached the graveyard and sat down on the thick sweet grass growing by the willow trees. “First let me tell you how happy Mama and Daddy were back then. They were both still young to have two children, in their late twenties, very much in love, and trying for a boy baby. Mama was so beautiful then, with long brown hair and a golden tan in the summertime, her eyes big and brown and she had a Cheshire cat smile.
Daddy was tall and muscular with a well-kept beard and tan skin, hazel eyes and a kind smile. He sold Amway in Santa Fe while Mama did medical transcription at home for a hospital in Taos, and she also made the most beautiful Ojos de Dios (God’s Eyes) with dowel rods crossed in the middle and brightly colored yarn of purple, indigo, magenta, orange, red, yellow, green and blue, and traded them with the dentists for our checkups.
This was how we survived as my parents worked on making our family self-sufficient. They believed the end of the world was coming, and that we were supposed to be in the mountains when this happened. As you remember, they joined that Paulean Catholic church, but they loved to drink beer and dandelion wine with the hippies from Tree Frog. They became good friends with Olive and Outdoor Don from the Outdoor Family”, Krista started, when Jonathon interrupted her this time,
“Mom, please just tell us the story about Zander, we’ve heard all this before, plus we all know the world hasn’t come to an end”. He was usually her more patient child, so Krista realized that she needed to get to the point. Jonathon was tall for 15, at least 5’11”, and he loved hearing about the hippies. He had long brown dredlocks and hazel eyes, gaged ears and a sincere smile.
“Okay, okay, I promise. Here we go. It was the Summer of 1971, and our family had been on our farm for a little over a year, and we’d become tough and strong living on the land. There were lots of hippies next door at Tree Frog, and sometimes some of the younger mamas were too stoned out to give consistent care to their young kids. Frequently there were as many as 30-40 people staying in those three adobe houses you see over there,” Krista began, pointing past the large red A-frame.
“My mama, Rainee, had already trained me to babysit my own little sister, Lana, who was now 7 years old and had very curly blonde hair and blue eyes and fair skin, and the sweetest smile with dimples. She was my best friend when we were growing up together. I helped babysit her and my little brother Logan, who was 4 years old at the time, a bright, vivacious little boy with brown hair and bright brown eyes, who loved riding his little coyote car everywhere.
I inherited my mama’s adoration and devotion to babies and young kids, so when I saw some toddlers walking around with snotty noses and unwashed hair along with unchanged diapers, I was horrified. I was drawn to an extremely adorable young boy who appeared to be nearly three-years-old, named Zander.
His skin was darker golden brown than my mom’s, with very curly golden-brown hair and the biggest smile, and when I walked over to him, he put his arms up to me, so I picked him up. I asked his mother, Morning Sun, a beautiful yet distracted young woman who looked like she was about 20, if I could take him to our house, and she distractedly nodded yes.
She was doting on a grungy looking man with a long scruffy beard and a scowl on his face who didn’t seem one hundred percent pleased with the young beauty by his side, whose name was Davis. Mama told me later that he was part of this band of renegade hippies called Los Malos Amigos, who rode around on horseback and lived way further up in the mountains than we did.
They frequently visited both Llano and Penasco to do things like rob the Town and Country Store, or slaughter one of the local people’s cattle and take only the choice pieces, an unforgivable sin in a place with such long, harsh and snowy winters.
Anyway, she seemed to be paying a lot more attention to him than she was to Zander, who was nearly 3 years old. My mama rounded up a couple of other kids, too, and we took them to our house, where my dad washed their hair with kerosene to kill the lice, and Mama and I combed the nits out, fed them and gave them all a lunch I’d helped prepare on our old woodstove.
Within a few weeks, I was watching Zander almost every day and Mama and I had become the Pied Pipers of Tree Frog, with Lana always by my side helping keep the children occupied. She helped entertain me and all the kids and we all had a great time. Zander was always my favorite, though I did love Buddha.
Zander was so cute and so precocious for his age, talked all the time, and he was so happy to spend time with me, that I fell in love with him. One day when I was giving him lunch, he said, ‘I love it here, Krista, this food is so yummy! I don’t like it over at Tree Frog. Can I live with you and your Mama?’ Mama was horrified that a child so young would ask to leave his own mother at such a young age. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying, Zander’, Mama said, as she gestured to me that it was time to return him to Morning Sun.
This time when I took Zander back to Tree Frog, Morning Sun asked if I could babysit for him for a whole week while she went to a concert in Colorado. I hadn’t told her about Zander’s wish to live with us, but she had been paying closer attention to him ever since I’d started grooming and feeding him almost every single day. It wasn’t hard to get permission from Mama to keep Zander, as she was always a pushover for small children. That week was one of the best weeks of my childhood.
I guess it was during this week that I began to dream of the day when I would have children of my own. Zander followed me and Lana everywhere. We took him with us to our fairy glen in the pinon trees across the road and played for hours and hours. Zander fit perfectly on my right hip, and when I put him down as he grew heavy, his little hand fit perfectly into mine.
Zander was such a joyful child, and when he was well cared for, he never cried, instead he laughed frequently, his laughter like angel bells which made me, Lana, Logan, Mama and even Daddy to smile and giggle along with him. At night I would pray, “Please, Mother Mary, please let Zander come live with our family. I love this little baby boy. Please watch over Mama and Daddy and Lana and Logan and Zander.”
The week passed all too quickly, and when Morning Sun and Davis arrived to pick up Zander, he didn’t want to leave my arms. He actually cried when his real mom pried him out of my arms and took him with her to Tree Frog, crying “Krista, I want to stay here!”
I did my best to be brave for Zander, but I couldn’t help feeling worried. All day long I found myself thinking about Zander, and almost burst into tears when I asked Mama if I could go fetch him again, and this time Mama said, ‘No, honey, he needs to be with his real mother. He was here for a whole week, and didn’t you have a wonderful time? He sure is a sweet little boy.’ Mama and Daddy had been friendly to Morning Sun and Davis, but when the two left with Zander, they talked about what an irresponsible mother she was, and I actually defended her,
‘She does love Zander, she really does, Mama and Daddy, and she’s been taking better care of him lately, I’m sure she has!’ I told them emphatically, hoping that they wouldn’t decide to not allow me to care for him anymore.
‘Seriously, Krista, what kind of mother leaves her two-year-old with a 10-year-old girl for a week?’ my Daddy asked.
‘She did know you and Mama were here to help if I ran into any trouble’, I defensively replied to them.
‘Well, you didn’t run into any trouble, but we both feel that a week is too long for babysitting, so this is the last time, Krista’, Daddy said.
I had had such a good time that week I hadn’t realized that it might have caused a bit of a hardship for my parents to have an extra child with us for a whole week. Especially because our house had only three rooms and we didn’t have an indoor bathroom or a hot water heater, so we had to heat up all our water for bathing on the stove. I was just so young and actually enjoyed the hard work as I still had plenty of time to play and read tons of books”, Krista paused and realized she was putting off the rest of the story because a lump was growing in her throat and she didn’t want to cry in front of everybody.
She took a deep breath and continued, looking down at Zander’s grave,
“I went next door to find Zander the next day, and Olive met me at the fence with the news, ‘Zander’s dead, Krista, he’s dead!’ sobbed Olive, taking me into her arms in an attempt to comfort me. I was dumbfounded. How could he be dead? He was just fine when she returned him to me the day before, not even a runny nose. It didn’t seem possible.
‘Morning Sun already called the State of New Mexico for permission to bry Zander here at Tree Frog, without embalming him, and they said that was okay. His burial will be at sunset in a couple of hours. You can go say goodbye to him, Krista. She’s laid him to rest on the bed at Happy Trail’s Shack,’ Olive gestured to where Morning Sun was sitting next to Davis, wailing and weeping and looking like she was somewhere far, far away”, Krista couldn’t help herself now, and simply burst into tears. George, a handsome tall and thin man with blue eyes and a gentle smile, put his arms around her.
“You don’t have to go on, Krista, it’s okay”, he said as he kissed her on the forehead affectionately. Jonathon and Joseph looked at her sympathetically and Joseph noticed some purple hyacinths growing under the willow trees and went to pick some to put on Zander’s grave.
“I can do this, I’ll be okay”, she replied as she stood up and held the flowers Joseph had just picked. “I asked Olive how this had happened, and she told me that MorningSun and Davis had been going to Taos in the old VW bus that had broken back doors. Zander was sleeping on the floor, and they forgot the door was broken. When they went up the hill on the road to Taos, Zander quickly slipped to the back of the van and fell out onto the highway before anyone could catch him. He died the instant he reached the pavement.
My parents and Lana had noticed something was wrong and had come to join me. Mama, Lana, Logan and I all began to weep, while Daddy went white and became very quiet. We all walked together to Happy Trails Shack (a tiny ramshackle house fashioned out of an old VW van and discarded uneven pieces of wood), to say good-bye to Zander. He looked like he was just sleeping, but when I picked him up I noticed a huge bruise on one side of his face. I held him in my arms, sobbing and sobbing, while Mama and Lana both stood by my side, comforting me, and Daddy stood behind me whispering some words of comfort.
Never again would Zander lift his little arms up to me, or laugh his angel bell laugh, or hold my hand with trust and confidence in my ability to keep him safe. I was heartbroken, and so was everybody around me. Nobody ever expected something like this to happen,” Krista gently placed the flowers on Zander’s grave, and Joseph asked,
“Why didn’t they have a car seat?” he asked, “I had to sit in my carseat until I was 4 years old and a booster until I was 6! What was wrong with these people?”
“Well, carseats weren’t really heard of back then. Some people had them, but most people thought they were being overprotective. Times have changed since then, Joseph”, Krista answered, with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Morning Sun and Davis wrapped little Zander up in a blanket and carried him out here, and laid him gently in this grave. She put some crystals and a teddy bear in his little hands, and the other Froggies started shoveling dirt on top of him. When all the dirt was packed down a bit, we each began to bring stones from the acequia to put on top of his grave instead of a gravestone, because gravestones are so expensive, and Morning Sun and Davis didn’t ever have very much money.
When this pile of stones you see here was finally placed on his grave, we held hands and ohmed for about ten minutes. Then we sang songs and each person said what they had liked best about Zander. When it came to my turn, I said I liked his angel bell laugh most of all, and this made Mama and Morning Sun and Olive and all the hippie mamas there burst into tears, and everybody else still had tears in their eyes.
I walked back to our little house with my parents and Lana and cried in my loft for hours and hours. It took me a long time to smile again. Mama and Daddy and Lana all tried to cheer me up, but it took a few months before I began to feel like a little girl again”, Krista sat down again and fell silent.
“Mom, thank you for always being there for us”, Jonathon said as he handed Krista a handkerchief so she could blow her nose.
“Yeah, Mom, and thanks for using carseats”, Joseph replied, suddenly much more somber than he usually was. “Thanks for coming to our football games and all that other stuff you do”, he stopped there because he didn’t like to show his compassionate side very often. He felt he had to be the tough guy, maybe because he was still small for his age.
“I hadn’t realized how hard this had been on you, Krista”, George said as he kept his arms protectively around Krista. “I just want you to know that I’m so glad you’re my wife. You and the boys are my life, and I will always be there for you, honey”.
“I feel much better now”, Krista replied, as she blew her nose and wiped the tears off her face. “I hadn’t realized how much I wanted to come back here and visit Zander’s grave until today. I’m so glad you made time for us to come here this morning, George. Thank you for being my husband. I love you so very much”.
Olive gave Krista a big hug. She’d been silent through the story, and when Krista had come to the part where Zander died, tears had come to her eyes as well. “I’m so glad I didn’t sell this piece of land, Krista, and seeing you today makes me so glad I made that decision. There’s Davis’ grave over there”, and she pointed to another mound of stones right next to Zander’s.
“What happened to Davis, Krista?” George asked.
Krista took another deep breath and said, “Well, I never told anybody this part. Mama and Daddy were both very angry about what happened, and they confronted Davis about it. Mama lost her temper as she’d had a little bit too much of her dandelion wine, and she yelled at him, ‘May Jesus Christ enter your heart and blow your mind!’.
The next week he was shot by another of Los Malos Amigos at a bar in Albuquerque, in the head and in the heart. He died instantly, and Mama always thought it might have had something to do with what she said, but seriously, it was just a coincidence, you know”.
The family walked with Olive back to their forest green minivan and they all said their goodbyes.
“You can call me anytime”, Olive said as she handed Krista her phone number on a slip of paper. “I’m really glad you stopped by today, Krista. I hadn’t realized how hard Zander’s death had been on you. I took it hard as well. His death was such a tragedy for us all. Thank you so much for telling us the story,” and she gave Krista a big hug.
As Krista and George and Jonathon and Joseph climbed back into the minivan, they took one long last look at the farm where Krista had grown up.
“Mom, our family is so cool. I loved hearing about all those hippies”, Jonathon said as he took some pictures with his 35 mm camera. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a hippie and play reggae music, and I’m going to move to New Mexico and start my own commune”.
Krista and George looked at each other knowingly and smiled. “Well, Jonathon, we’ll see what happens when the time comes. We strongly suggest you go to college first. If the two of us hadn’t gone to college, we wouldn’t be able to take vacations like this”, George said sensibly.
“That’s right, boys, we both went to college so we could be teachers and take good care of our boys, and also bring you on vacation every summer”, Krista added.
“Well, I want to go back home now”, Joseph said impatiently, “right now I’m missing our home, in Colorado”.
George put the key in the ignition and the family drove back down the little dirt road until they reached the tiny post office and grocery store which was the village’s only store. Krista took an rose quartz crystal heart out of her medicine bag and held in her hands as she waved goodbye to Llano de San Juan.
This story is about my family living in the mountains of New Mexico in the early Seventies. I was my mom’s right hand helper and am the character Krista. The names have all been changed, but represent actual people. As strange as it may seem now, carseats for babies and toddlers really were barely even heard of at the time. There were portable bassinet for infants, boosters for toddlers, but only the upper class used them. Nothing like the very protective carseats we have today.