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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 6

...As usual, Daddy left early the next morning to check his traps while Mama attended to seemingly endless domestic chores. She was sorting laundry, looking for clothes to be washed when she undid his bedroll.

Mama was stunned at what she saw; silky red pajamas. Another woman's pajamas! The very pajamas Mama had once admired when Thelma Ruth was showing off her purchases after a shopping trip to Albuquerque!...

Famous artist Bertie Stroup Marah continues her vivid life story.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit

To see some of her pictures click on

After trapping on the bombing range, Daddy's next assignment was near Pinon, New Mexico, a dot on the map midway between Alamogordo and Artesia. There we shared a house that was partitioned off to provide two living quarters. Willie's first grade teacher lived in one side.

Pinon was named for the trees that cover the area hillsides. Mama could not have imagined at that time that many years later one of those lovely peaceful hillsides would become her final resting place.

Not long after our move, Daddy made a quick trip back to Estancia on a job-related matter. With Willie now in school we couldn't go along. We all missed Daddy and in anticipation of his return home, Mama washed her hair and put on lipstick. When he walked through the door he was greeted with hugs and kisses from us kids; Mama waited for her turn until last.

"Did you see Jim and Thelma Ruth?" Mama inquired. There was no telephone in the area and she was hoping for news from her best friend.

"Yeah, just for a little while," Hollan shrugged. "They said to tell you hello." He quickly changed the subject as Daddy then gave Jessie an extra hug and handed Willie a brown paper sack. "Here is some candy I brought for you kids. Don't eat it all before supper."

Although Mama was disappointed, she didn't think it peculiar that Hollan had so little to say about the encounter with their friends. He had his moods and was not a big talker in general.

As usual, Daddy left early the next morning to check his traps while Mama attended to seemingly endless domestic chores. She was sorting laundry, looking for clothes to be washed when she undid his bedroll.

Mama was stunned at what she saw; silky red pajamas. Another woman's pajamas! The very pajamas Mama had once admired when Thelma Ruth was showing off her purchases after a shopping trip to Albuquerque!

Mama began shaking and felt sick to her stomach. She sank down onto the edge of the bed. This was a direct message from Thelma Ruth, a message that could not have been clearer had it been painted across the sky in big red letters—she wanted Mama to know that her husband was unfaithful.

Mama could not hold back the tears. This betrayal of her best friend and her husband was cruel and unthinkable. She had barely gotten over the heartache of her first love . . . and now this.

Jessie and I knew there was trouble but couldn't imagine what it was.

When Willie came home from school we ran to meet him. "Somethin's wrong with Mama," Jessie said. "She's just been layin' on the bed all day."

We marched behind Willie through the house and to Mama's bedside. Sure enough, she was huddled on the mattress, her face turned to the wall.

"Mama?" Willie finally whispered, "What's wrong? Are you sick?"

Mama sighed. For a minute nothing happened. Then she drew Willie to her, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and said without much conviction, "Nothin's wrong, honey. I'm fine. Everything is going to be all right."

We weren't so sure.

When Daddy came home that evening Mama was waiting at the door and my brothers and I were watching from the kitchen. He no sooner stepped inside when Mama thrust out her hand with Thelma Ruth's bright red pajamas. "Do you know anything about these?"

Daddy opened his mouth and shut it again. He just shook his head.

"I found them in your bedroll," Mama said. Her voice was low and steely.

Daddy shook his head again. "I don't have any idea how they got there," he said.

Even as young as we were, we kids knew he'd made some kind of mistake. And then he dug himself in deeper because he kept on denying. "I just bedded down in their bunkhouse, Bee, that's all."

But the guilt in his eyes spoke louder than the lie on his tongue.

"It's bad enough that you did it," Mama said. "It's even worse that you lie about it."

Daddy held out his hands, palms up. "I'm sorry, Bee, but she's been after me a long time. Listen to me, hon, I swear it won't happen again."

My brothers and I had no idea what they were talking about or why Mama was so upset about a pair of red pajamas. We figured Thelma Ruth had some more and wouldn't miss that pair too much.

More words of contrition followed that night and for days after, but the trust was broken. With three kids to consider, Mama decided to make the best of it. She would try to hold the marriage together. But their relationship was seriously damaged and the distance only grew between them.

We could not understand why our Mama and Daddy stopped being happy and didn't hug much anymore.

Years later when recalling the story of Thelma's pajamas in Daddy's bedroll, it struck me odd that her anger wasn't directed toward Thelma, instead of Daddy. I asked, "Mama, why were you so mad at Daddy and not Thelma Ruth?"

Mama sharply replied, "Thelma never made me any promises; your daddy did!"

From Pinon we moved to the small hamlet of Hope, which is 27 miles west of Artesia. The only positive thing about the place was its name. The few trees in the area were scraggly and shadeless. They struggled from the earth just inches from the perimeters of dilapidated buildings, seeking some sanctuary from the harshness of the prairie.

There was an earthen tank not far from our house in Hope where Willie loved to try to catch fish. It mattered little that the only fish in the tank were small, ugly catfish unfit to eat; the challenge to catch them was what mattered to Willie. Like tiny disciples, Jessie and I followed him everywhere he went.

I was standing beside him one warm afternoon as he prepared to cast his line into the murky water. "Stand outta the way, Bertie, I'm gonna catch me a golly whopper!" he shouted, thrusting back the pole.

I had just bent over to retrieve a marble when the fish hook snagged my panty-clad rear end. It scratched and stung and I began squalling at the top of my lungs, "I hurt! I hurt!"

For several agonizing minutes, Willie tried to free the hook from my drawers. In the end, my stamping and screeching made his task impossible. We lurched back to the house with me firmly attached to the end of his fishing line. I can't recall what action Mama took, but my lack of desire to ever fish again was probably influenced by that incident.

Our parent's relationship continued to deteriorate, going from bad to worse and for us kids from sad to sadder. They did not argue all the time, but there was an air of hostility between them that made family life uneasy.

In the summer of 1942, we moved from Hope to Sixteen Springs for a brief time and then to Weed, a tiny village in the Sacramento Mountains. The nearest town of any consequence was, and still is, Alamogordo.

Back then there were only three homes in Weed with inside plumbing and electricity. The schools had electricity but it would be eight years before indoor plumbing was installed.

My grandpa and grandma Counts, along with Mama's brothers, Bill and Murrel, moved to Weed about the same time we did. World War II had started and Mama's brother, Dick, had been drafted into the Army. Times
were tough and everyone had to work hard to make a living. Bill went to work on the Circle Cross Ranch as a cowboy. Mama's parents and Murrel lived in Blue Water Canyon. There Grandpa decided to go into hog farming using some of the money Dick had sent home from the Army. The decision to use the money to raise hogs was made without Dick's knowledge or approval. When Dick came home on furlough from the Army he wasn't very happy about owning hogs and told Grandpa in no uncertain terms, "Get rid of those hogs, Dad, I ain't cut out to be no hog farmer." Grandpa sold what hogs he could and butchered the rest. This was a good thing as far as Willie and Murrel were concerned because numerous times they had to herd the hogs out of the neighbors Lloyd and Mabel Burgess's cornfield. An old sow was the main culprit in breaking out of the pigpen to invade the cornfield.

"I think that old sow can climb straight up a wall," Willie told Grandpa."There ain't no pen gonna hold her in."

Having her family close was a comfort to Mama as her marriage was failing. To us kids, having our relatives around was fun. Willie and Jessie played with Murrel and Grandma and my uncles doted over me.

When Uncle Dick was discharged from the Army, he rode the bus back to Estancia where he had left the nineteen horses he owned. His favorite was a big bay named Rusty that he had broken as a colt. With Rusty as his mount he moved his herd of horses to Weed. He started with nineteen in Estancia and arrived in Weed with twenty-one. How he came by the extras is anybody's guess. He drove the herd through the Malpais and into the Sacramento Mountains. The trip was over two hundred miles and he stopped only for the horses to drink and graze. He arrived in Weed and rented pasture land. He had not been in Weed many days when he decided to ride his beloved horse, Rusty, up the canyon to the Village of Sacramento. This was the last time Dick was to ride Rusty. Two miles out of Weed, Rusty fell to his knees and died. Dick was so broken hearted that he auctioned off the rest of his horses and never owned more than one or two horses the rest of his life.

My grandparents and uncles lived in the Weed area for a couple of years, then for a time in Cox Canyon, near Cloudcroft. Next they moved to Sixteen Springs to work in a sawmill. While they were living at the sawmill there was a dispute between two neighbors over a wooden barrel used to catch the rainwater draining from the roof of the house. The argument became so heated that one man shot and killed the other. This incident illustrated how important water was to New Mexicans. Without access to cistern water, drinking water had to be hauled in barrels. This meant long trips to natural springs, creeks or wells. Runoff rainwater was valued.

In 1944 my grandparents left Sixteen Springs and moved to Taos, New Mexico for a year or two and then on to Albuquerque.

Although I was only four years old, the reason I remember so clearly the day I talked Jessie into wading into the flooding ravine, was because the following day our big heartbreak came calling. Daddy came home from a long absence on one of his trapping jobs and my parents' marital problems came to a head.

The memory that stands out most regarding my folks' marriage was the final showdown that ended it. I cannot recall their actual words, just bits and pieces of a loud argument that ended when Daddy walked out the door. We were all crying, with Jessie crying the hardest.

"Daddy, don't go! Daddy, don't go!" he screamed as he clung to his pants leg.

I ran to Mama and hugged her leg. "Mama, I don't want Daddy to leave us. Why is he goin'?"

Mama picked me up and hugged me to her breast. "Hush now," her voice cracked, "we're gonna be all right. You'll see Daddy again."

Daddy gently removed Jessie's clinging hands from his pants and with tears streaming down his own face, walked out the door. As the door closed, Jessie collapsed to the floor, his shoulders heaved with sobs. His grief was palpable.

I felt so sad and empty, partly because Daddy was leaving but mostly because Jessie was so devastated and heartbroken. This empty feeling of heartbreak would be a binding tie for the rest of our lives.

Although life had been tough to that point, we had no idea that the hardships would grow worse throughout our childhood.


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