Now that we have taken pause to reflect on my mom, I think it would be her wish to not be in the spotlight so often. So in keeping with the mom-theme, I'd like to tell a story about my mother-in-law, Lenore "Lee" Baron.
Grandma Lee as Andrew refers to her, lived her whole life in New York City. Aside from Miami-area getaways, she rarely left the Big Apple. So in April 1982, while my wife Sue and I were living in Las Vegas, it was a monumental moment in her life to venture so far to see us.
When Easterners go west for the first time, specifically to Las Vegas, they are usually awed by the sight of the barren, moon-like mountains that surround, "Sin City." In my short story, "AMOS AND ARCHIE," I even have a character say, "Only a New Yorker could look at those big, dull rocks and call them beautiful."
I don't recall Grandma Lee fixating on them but I remember that she appreciated the wide open spaces. The casinos were secondary to her so on most days, before I went to work, we went on local day trips to: Red Rock Canyon, Bonney Springs Ranch, Hoover Dam and Mount Charleston.
On my day off, we set out on a major search for Americana by taking her to Death Valley National Park. It was 3+ hours through Nevada's back roads and into the California desert.
On this starkly hot day, Grandma Lee was fascinated by the rugged terrain and enchanted by the contrast of snow covered peaks. About fifteen minutes after we zoomed past Pahrump, Nevada, she asked for a lady's room. I reminded her that in the wilderness, civilization even in the form of the tiniest town, are well-spaced. For the next twenty minutes, she was patient. But with no trace of porcelain in the foreseeable future, she voluntarily requested to do her business on the side of the road. She must have had to really go because I tried to talk her out of it my mentioning the real possibility of rattlesnakes, scorpions and who knows what.
She gained a lot more respect from me when she strode behind a Joshua Tree. Then like it was no big deal, she did what she had to do. My admiration for her was compounded when she didn't complain even after her darling daughter snapped a picture during her awkward moment.
90-MINUTES INTO OUR TRIP, GRANDMA LEE'S LOOK OF RELIEF AFTER WATERING THAT VERY JOSHUA TREE. NOTE THE SNOW COVERED PEAKS.
BEFORE GOING TO THE VISITOR CENTER, WE PULLED OVER FOR A PHOTO-OP. THE PICTURE ABOVE DEMONSTRATES HOW HARSH, UGLY AND FORMIDABLE THE LAND IS. STILL, WHATEVER GRANDMA LEE MIGHT HAVE BEEN HOLDING BACK AFTER SEEING THE LAS VEGAS MOUNTAINS, EXPLODED INTO THESE TEARS OF JOY AND HER SIGNATURE STATEMENT, "THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY!" IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE HER INCREDIBLE SINCERITY AND PROFOUND INSPIRATION OF THAT MOMENT, PLEASE NOTICE THE MARKINGS ON THE GROUND TO HER RIGHT. THAT'S WHERE SHE CLAWED UP THE CONCRETE-LIKE DESERT FLOOR AND IS HOLDING THAT EARTH IN HER HAND.
She was right, it was only the beginning of a wonderful day.
We visited all the points of interest and left after sunset. On the way back home, our spirits were high as we recalled the beauty of our adventure, the history of the area and the miracle of creation itself. Our euphoria was broken by the announcement that Grandma Lee needed another potty stop. Unencumbered by traffic on one-lane, Route-190, in the absolute blackness, it took ten minutes before we passed a mileage sign: DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION 19 MILES.
I said, "Can you make it fifteen minutes?" She said, "Yes." I was relieved because with coyotes, snakes, Gila monsters and other things that go bump in the night, this was no place to tempt fate by getting out of the car.
Five minutes later while I was going over 80, Grandma Lee informed us that...while gambling on games of chance isn't part of her nature...risking her life to avoid one of life's greatest embarrassments...is. I stopped the car. I can't speak for my wife but as we stood guard on her flanks, I was shivering in my boots. The two minutes that it took her to water the desert crops felt like an eternity. I was never so happy to get back into my car.
I was thinking how brave Grandma Lee was as we pulled into Death Valley Junction. We had no need to stop as we flew through the empty outskirts of this former borax mining boom-town, (Borax is a compound of boron, best know as an ingredient in detergent). THE TWENTY-MULE TEAM WAS AN ICONIC IMAGE FOR A HOUSEHOLD CLEANSER CALLED BORAX. IT WAS THE PRINCIPLE SPONSOR FOR THE TV SHOW, "DEATH VALLEY DAYS." RONALD REAGAN HOSTED THE PROGRAM FOR TWO OF ITS 18 SEASONS, (558-EPISODES), WHICH SPANNED THE 1950's AND 1970's.
At the heart of Death Valley Junction was a lone flashing yellow light. On three of the corners were a general store, a post office/bus depot and a gas station. On the fourth was the darnedest thing, a theater. What was more amazing was that in this god-forsaken outpost, people were flooding out of it as we cruised by. This incongruous sight would remain in latency in the back of my mind for years. Until 1984 when Sue and I visited Grandma Lee, in Rockaway Beach, New York.
Grandma Lee's TV had, "RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT," on. I LIKED THE SHOW'S CONCEPT AND ITS HOST JACK PALANCE BUT I HAD NEVER SEEN THE SHOW.
At first, I wasn't watching until Palance introduced the story of Marta Becket. He said, "She was born on August 9, 1924 and now lives in Death Valley Junction, California." Palance had my full attention when he added, "Marta started in show business as a ballerina. She got a big break when she became a Rockette in Radio City Music Hall." He also mentioned that she appeared on Broadway in such shows as; "SHOW BOAT," "A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN," and "WONDERFUL TOWN."
Later in Becket's career, she toured the country doing a one-woman show. In 1967, she had car trouble near Death Valley Junction. While waiting for it to be repaired, she fell in love with the little hamlet and decided to stay. She rented Corkhill Hall and used it as a theater. She began performing her show daily. She eventually bought the building, did renovations and renamed it, the Amargosa Opera House. Ms. Becket even painted the interior walls with a mural of faces so that whenever she performed, she would feel like it was a full house, even when there was no audience.
THE BUILDING WAS ORIGINALLY USED BY THE PACIFIC BORAX MINING COMPANY AS A MEETING CENTER.
She received a lot of recognition when a "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC," camera crew stumbled into town. Later an article in "LIFE," magazine boosted her into national awareness.
In recent years, she cut down to one performance a week. After the 2009 season, she stopped performing. Believe it or not, as incredible as this coincidence might be, it is all true and I witnessed it.
Marta Becket is still alive in Death Valley Junction. Unfortunately Grandma Lee, the ultimate trooper, passed-away twelve years ago come October. And my mom who would have had the big eight-oh yesterday, left us eight months ago.