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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 77

"I kept in close contact with my family, and although I remained concerned for their welfare, I no longer carried their burdens,'' writes artist Bertie Stroup Marah, continuing her memorable autobiography.

P.G. developed lung cancer in 1983 and underwent surgery that same year. He no longer worked on the horse ranch. Instead, my folks had moved to a small house in Palisade, Colorado where they worked for Gloria and Tell during their peach harvest. One morning before going to work in the peach sheds they were sitting at the breakfast table drinking coffee when P.G. looked out the window into the back yard.

"Bee," he observed casually, "someone stole your ol' Chevy."

"You're shittin' me!" Her chair flew over backward as she raced to the door. "I guess I'll have to call the damned cops."

The police informed her that the '69 Chevy had already been found only a few miles from home abandoned by the side of the road. She called Gloria.

"I'm afoot, can you come get me? Some thievin' jackass stole my old Chevy but looks like they've located it up by the park."

Mama's anger flared as they approached the scene of the crime. She got out of Gloria's car and walked slowly around her Chevy, kicking the tires and muttering things best left to the imagination. The car was "trashed," in this case meaning that hamburger wrappers, wrinkled napkins, and Coke cups were strewn around the floor.

"Ma'am, this old Chevy looks good," the cop remarked, noting her
agitated state. Then in a patronizing tone, "Are you trying to keep her in prime shape?"

"Keep her in prime shape?" Mama said, "Sir, right now I'm just tryin' to keep the son of a bitch!"

P.G. liked to reminisce about his own car stories. Years before, he'd been so successful in his insurance scam when he burned down the house in Weed, he'd decided to take another stab at larceny. This time his target was a newly purchased used two-toned Pontiac, a real lemon. He believed the insurance people who insured that car were just as guilty as the salesman who'd sold it to him. An attitude no doubt influenced by his mistrust of any man wearing a suit and low-cut shoes. After several futile attempts at repairing the yellow and green Pontiac, it began to weigh like a stone around his neck. Further repair qualified as water down a rat hole. The way P.G. figured it, the only way he could break even on his investment was to make certain the car was totaled. That way he could request full reimbursement.

His challenge was to wreck the car without suffering injuries. P.G. happened to possess enough imagination to meet the challenge. After minutes of contemplation, P.G. had his solution—he would roll it over a cliff.

There happened to be a steep and dangerous hill leading into Durango, Colorado on the road from Aztec, New Mexico. P.G. and Mama were living in Aztec at this time. Because of New Mexico's Blue Laws—laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays—P.G. had taken the forty-five-minute drive many a weekend to reach Joe's Bar, on the Main Street of Durango. Now he had found the perfect incentive to mix pleasure and business—drive to Joe's, and on the way, dispose of the hated Pontiac. However, in his eagerness to get to Joe's Bar, P.G. was a little careless. His plan called for a roadside stop when he would pretend to pour transmission fluid into the Pontiac. He did so quickly, because his thirst was intensifying at an alarming rate. When the coast was clear, he kicked the car out of gear, slid out from behind the wheel, and slammed the door. Then he shoved the car toward the edge of the steep incline. In his haste, he failed to realize his jacket sleeve was caught in the door. By the time he realized his mistake, the car was headed over the hill. In his terror, he exerted superhuman strength, tearing the sleeve out of his coat, and literally saving himself by a thread. Hours later he was still celebrating at Joe's Bar.

But the piddling amount of the insurance settlement certainly wasn't worth the gamble of his life.

It was 1985, the year of the Oil Shale Bust, and the Western Slope of Colorado was economically depressed. We moved to California and stayed for four years while Mike continued to work in the earth moving business.

Unfortunately the metropolitan environment of Southern California dampened my creativity. I simply could not paint. I missed the rural and mountain area of Colorado. To fill my time, I kept books for Mike's business, sewed, went to the beach, and visited the many attractions around San Diego. I especially enjoyed the horse races in Delmar. The setting was beautiful and the horses even more so. We still went dancing a lot when we lived in California.

Kelly had moved his family to Los Angeles about the same time we moved to California so I was able to spend some time with them and bond with my grandchildren. I would drive to Los Angeles and spend the day playing with them, and sometimes stay all night. We took trips to the beach, the zoo, Marine World and Disneyland. When they stayed with me I sewed clothes for them and cherished every moment in their presence.

In 1985 my folks moved to Lovington, New Mexico to help take care of Grandma Counts and Mama's brother, Dick. Grandma was aging and fragile and Dick was bedridden with emphysema. When it became obvious they could no longer take care of one another, Willie moved them from Torreon, New Mexico, to Lovington to take care of them.

Willie had been divorced from Mary Jo for several years; however, his second wife, Dianne, agreed to help him take care of them. When Willie and Dianne realized it was more than they could handle, my folks moved there to assist them. My folks had to live in a tiny camp trailer until Willie bought a place with two houses. But Mama didn't mind the inconvenience because she was near her favorite child.

Four years later, in 1989, while Mama was recuperating from a botched hip replacement, Grandma fell ill with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. That was during the time we were living in California so I traveled from there to help. Soon after I arrived Uncle Dick had to be hospitalized; and, within weeks, finally gave up his long struggle with emphysema.

Grandma was grief stricken but still maintained a sense of humor. As she began dressing for the funeral she glanced at her flat little chest then back at the bra dangling from her bony old hands and shook her head.

"This thing would fit better on my knobby knees or elbows," she sighed.

I had made a dress for Grandma to thank her for the many clothes she made for me when I needed them most. It was a Robin's egg blue, her favorite color, with a beautiful lace collar. I was bewildered and a little hurt when she wouldn't wear the dress—even to Dick's funeral.

In 1989 our dear friend, Tell, was killed in a car accident. I flew from California to be with Gloria, and my folks and Reita came from New Mexico to comfort her as well.

Unfortunately for me, the week before, I had tried to rid myself of unwanted hair on my upper lip. I had not properly followed the instructions on the box of the electronic depilatory device and I wound up with a mustache of scabs. Although I tried to unsuccessfully hide it with makeup, I fooled nobody. As I greeted friends at the funeral I could only guess what strange disease they thought responsible for the condition of my upper lip. Gloria later confessed that laughing about "Bertie's mustache" and my family's presence were the only things that held her together during that awful time.

On March 23, 1990, at the age of ninety, I found out why Grandma Counts had not worn that beautiful dress I made for her many years earlier. She was saving it to wear to her own funeral.


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