The Child Who Spoke Poetry
One moonless night, when we lived in rural New Mexico, I drove eleven-year-old Toni Jones home. As usual, she had spent the weekend with my husband, family, and me. It was a normal weekend. She played with Barbie dolls and plastic horses with my children in the flowers and dirt of our backyard, then practiced her flute on the porch.
It was dark when I drove her back to her family’s cabin in the mountains outside of our town. We chatted in our VW bug as we passed dark fields and lighted ranch houses. The stars were bright above us and the mountains were black to our left. “How are things with your granddad?” I asked.
“The Old Man was cussing at me yesterday,” Toni said, her voice angry. Then she broke into a big grin. “And all at once, God just smiled at me over the Old Man’s shoulder, and I smiled back.” She laughed. “And the Old Man got flustered and cussed harder, and I just turned my back and walked away.”
Filled with Toni
Sometimes I feel filled with Toni, the girl from long ago. I remember a winter afternoon in New Mexico when the sky was blue and the mountains clear. It was 1975. My husband David and I, our three kids, ages 10, 8, and 7, and our friend Louise and her three kids, Peter, aged 12, Toni at 11, and Eric at 8 hiked back from the canyon, through two feet of snow, dragging an enormous, snow covered Christmas tree.
Toni jumped ahead, laughing and throwing snow-balls at the rest of us. She made it back first to the former chicken coop Louise’s family lived in and put more wood on the fire in the small stove that kept the room warm. When we arrived, lugging the enormous tree, the coffee was warm.
Louise and her children lived in the tiny coop behind her father’s house, the only place he would let them stay when Louise, who was white, came home in disgrace to the ranch with two half-African American children. The Old Man, as Louise called him, was especially cruel to the kids. Still, Louise felt unable to cope with life in town and swore she would never leave the land again. When Toni was three, Louise gave birth at home to Eric, a blond child without a named father.
Spun of Gold
One time in the summer, we three adults and six children climbed up the mountain on the other side of the road from where Louise had her small home. We headed to the high barn where Louise cared for some cattle for a man named Les. Les, like Louise’s father, was cruel to children, and I especially worried about him around Toni.
That morning, when we all finally made it to the barn, the six kids climbed into the hay mow and slid down the hay. I have a colored photo of them in the hay, lit by a side window. Toni and her other brother Peter have brown skin and dark hair, while their younger half-brother Eric’s hair seems spun of goal. Toni called him the “golden boy.” With light coming through the window, Eric’s hair glowed like a halo.
After the picture was taken, Toni sat in the barn’s second floor window and dangled her legs out. Her knees were red and scraped from her running and jumping. The tips of new breasts pressed against her T-shirt. God, keep her safe, I prayed. Toni called down to us and laughed her deep chuckle.
David, our kids, and I moved to Wisconsin not long later, but Toni visited us. A carnival met across the street from our house at the same time, and the kids spent long hours over there, with me supervising them as much as I could.
Toni, now aged 13, met a boy working the Ferris Wheel named Jesús and suddenly fell in love with all her 13-year-old heart. Now I watched her constantly, letting her laugh and joke with Jesús, but as far as I knew, not be alone with him for long. When not with him, Toni sat on our porch stoop and whistled loudly at him. Across the street and from back in the carnival, he whistled back. I stood back from them as they said goodbye.
Toni visited us from time to time, but the carnival was gone and her exuberance had lessened. I do know she treasured her small packet of letters from Jesús. Then, when she turned fifteen, she ran away from home in New Mexico. She talked about living with us, but it never quite worked out.
At times, she lived on the streets. She gave birth to a daughter and stayed with the parents of the baby’s father, then ran away again. Much time passed.
Finally, Louise called me. Obviously, something terrible had happened. “Toni’s dead,” she said as if it was hard to breathe. “Murder.” The act was very violent, and Toni’s body was not found for some time. They never knew who’d done it.
I was overcome with grief and guilt for having not intervened in Toni’s life in some effective way.
We went back to New Mexico to perform Toni’s memorial service. Afterward, I stood on the hillside overlooking the chicken coop in which Toni had been raised. The wind blew, and I thought of the birch tree that we were planting in memory of her.
I remembered her telling me that the “old man” cursed her, then God smiled at her over his shoulder, she triumphed and she walked away. Decades later I still actively mourn Toni.
Other tragedies rocked Louise. Peter was arrested for burglary and sent to prison. Eric grew into a young man, fought in the first Iraq War, came home with PTSD, and shot and killed himself. Now Louise lives alone in the house she inherited from her father, whose land she never left. Louise often doesn’t see people for days at a time.
She doesn’t feel alone, however. She has a large portrait of Eric above her bed, and she talks to the spirits of her children. Finally, Peter was let out of prison in Denver where he was held. He contacted Louise, and they have a warm and loving phone and letter relationship. She also has framed photographs of Obama and his mother set around the house.
I’m not sure why I included Toni’s story in a blog meant to be basically energy-inspiring during the hard times we are all going through. But Toni’s memory has always inspired me to try to make things better for other children. She has always seemed so real to me. The little girl who spoke poetry and for whom God managed to smile.