About the Author
Linda Ronstadt has received twelve Grammy Awards, two Academy of Country Music Awards, and one Emmy Award, as well as several Tony and Golden Globe nominations. She lives in San Francisco with her family.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Simple Dreams 1
ON HER WAY TO the hospital the day I was born, my mother wanted to stop and eat a hamburger. She was hungry, and maybe wanted to fortify herself against the brutally hard work of pushing out a baby, a task that lay immediately and ominously before her. It was raining hard, and the streets were badly flooded. My father, a prudent man, wanted to be sure I was born in the hospital and not in his car. He loved my mother tenderly and was unlikely to deny her anything within reason, but he denied her this, and so I was delivered safely from the watery world of her interior to the watery exterior world of the Arizona desert in a cloudburst.
In the desert, rain is always a cause for jubilation. July and August brought the ferocious seasonal rainstorms on which all life, including mine, depended.
I was brought home to a house my parents had built of adobe on the last ten acres of my grandfather Fred Ronstadt’s cattle ranch. He had sold it off in parcels during the dunning years of the Depression and relied on the thriving hardware business he had built in downtown Tucson at the end of the nineteenth century to supply a living for my grandmother and their four sons. It bore his name proudly as the F. Ronstadt Hardware Company and took up nearly a city block. I remember it as a wonderful place of heavily timbered floors and the pervasive smell of diesel oil. Inside it were tractors, bulldozers, pumps, windmills, bins of nails, camping supplies, high quality tools, and housewares.
My grandfather, having been born in Sonora, Mexico, did business with all the Mexican ranchers who were within a three or four days’ drive by car, a journey often made by my father. In those days, the border was a friendly place, and easy to cross. We knew many of the families in the north of Mexico, and we attended one another’s balls, picnics, weddings, and baptisms. My parents often drove us across the border into Nogales, which had wonderful stores where we would shop. After that, they would take us to the cool, plush recesses of the Cavern Café, and we would be served a delicious turtle soup.
I deeply miss those times when the border was a permeable line and the two cultures mixed in a natural and agreeable fashion. Lately, the border seems more like the Berlin Wall, and functions mainly to separate families and interfere with wildlife migration.
My father, in addition to working in the hardware store and going to the University of Arizona in Tucson, helped my grandfather on the ranches he owned.
My mother, who was called Ruth Mary, told us that the first time she saw my father, he was riding his horse up the stairs of her sorority house. He was pursuing someone who was not my mother, but his eye was soon drawn to her.
In 1934 she’d made the three-day journey by train from her home state of Michigan to the University of Arizona, where she was enrolled to study math and physics. She was passionate about math. When she was worried or couldn’t sleep, we would find her at three o’clock in the morning, sitting at the dining room table, working a problem in calculus.
Her father was Lloyd G. Copeman, a well-known inventor, with the electric toaster, electric stove, rubber ice cube tray, and pneumatic grease gun to his credit. He also operated an experimental dairy farm in the Michigan countryside and, early in the twentieth century, invented a milking machine. He used to demonstrate one of his inventions, a 1918 version of the microwave oven that he called “cold heat,” by frying an egg through a newspaper. Thinking that the oven was too expensive to manufacture, he never patented it. He worked closely with Charles Stewart Mott, then chairman of the board of General Motors, and developed a great deal of what was then state-of-the-art equipment in the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan.
Old Mr. Mott was fond of my mother and came many times to visit us in the wilds of Tucson. In the fifties, he was caricatured with his enormously bushy white eyebrows as General Bullmoose in Li’l Abner, a long-running comic strip drawn by Al Capp. We read it regularly in the Tucson Daily Citizen.
Coming from such a background, my mother must have found my father, and the Arizona desert that had shaped him, to be richly exotic.
My father, known as Gilbert, was handsome and somewhat shy. He rarely spoke unless he had something worthy to say. When he did speak, his words carried a quiet authority. He had a beautiful baritone singing voice that sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante, the famous Mexican matinee idol and singer, and Frank Sinatra. He often sang at local venues like the Fox Tucson Theatre, where he was billed as Gil Ronstadt and his Star-Spangled Megaphone. He serenaded my mother under her window with pretty Mexican songs such as “La Barca de Oro” and “Quiéreme Mucho.” Added to this was the fact that when my mother was introduced to my grandfather, an autodidact, he dazzled her with his knowledge of geometry and calculus. My mother surely thought she was marrying into a gene pool that would produce mathematicians, but my grandfather was also a musician, so musicians were what she got.
In the late nineteenth century, my grandfather was the conductor of a brass band called the Club Filarmónico Tucsonense. He taught people how to play their instruments, conducted the band, composed and arranged, and played the flute. I have the cornet part written in his own hand from an instrumental arrangement he wrote for The Pirates of Penzance in 1896.
He was a widower when he married my grandmother. A daughter from his first marriage, Luisa Espinel, was a singer, dancer, and music scholar who collected and performed traditional songs and dances from northern Mexico and many regions in Spain. She can be seen in a brief comedic appearance as a Spanish dancer in The Devil Is a Woman, a 1935 film that starred Marlene Dietrich.
In the twenties, she wrote a letter home to my grandfather from Spain, where she had been performing. In it she reported that she was hugely excited about a guitarist she had hired to be her accompanist. She said he was such a brilliant player that he could hold the audience when she left the stage to change costumes. She wanted to bring him to the United States because she was sure he would make a huge hit with American audiences and eventually establish his own career. His name was Andrés Segovia.
When we were small children, visits from Aunt Luisa were wonderfully exciting. She taught my sister how to do the shimmy and how to play the castanets, and allowed her to try on the beautiful regional Spanish costumes that she had worn as a dancer.
She had lived many years in Spain and been married to a painter who was a Communist and had supported the cause to establish a republic in the Spanish Civil War. My aunt had been friends with the poet Federico García Lorca, who used to play her guitar while he recited his beautiful poems. We found her deliriously glamorous. Many years later, I would take the title of a collection of Mexican folk songs and stories she published called Canciones de Mi Padre, and use it to title my own first recording of traditional Mexican songs.
My mother and father married in 1937. Between that time and the beginning of World War II, they produced my sister, Suzy, and my brother Peter.
When the war started and my father joined the army, our mother went to work at night in the control tower of Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, the base outside of Tucson. Toward the end of the war, the planes that flew out of there on their way to war were mostly brand-new Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. After the war was over, all but a few of the B-29s that could still fly came back to Davis-Monthan, part of which became a graveyard for the decommissioned planes of World War II. Their flight path took them directly over our house. My mother would catch the sound of their engines and run outside and wave at them frantically. We kids would wave too. She had launched them into battle from her control tower, and she must have felt some obligation and no small amount of emotion to welcome home the ones that made it back alive.
I was steeped in the sound of the B-29s in my childhood and often tried to emulate it in the string arrangements in my recordings. It seems to appear in the grind between the cello and double bass, particularly in the interval of a fifth.
In the treacherous currents of the Great Depression and World War II, my grandfather nearly lost his hardware business. His unwillingness to foreclose on the farmers and ranchers who were struggling in the same way didn’t help his bottom line, but he was loved and respected throughout the valley and beyond to Mexico as a good man who kept his word.
During the Depression, my father turned down an offer from Paul Whiteman, by far the most popular bandleader of his time, to tour with them as their “boy singer.” Over the years, other singers with the Whiteman Orchestra included Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Billie Holiday. I believe it was a decision that caused him some disappointment, but family loyalties prevailed. He and his brothers helped my grandfather with the ranch and the hardware store, finally selling off the ranch and plowing the money back into the store. They managed to survive the Depression and build the business.
There was never any extra cash, but we had what we needed. My mother used to joke that when she first met my father, he had a red convertible, a horse, a ranch, and a guitar. After she married him, all he had left was the guitar. He had my mother too. They rarely quarreled, and when they did, it was well out of earshot of their children. They were always on each other’s side, and their marriage lasted until my mother died in 1982.
Newcomers to the desert are shocked when I suggest to them that the most dangerous thing in it is not the poisonous Gila monster or the sidewinder rattlesnake that also makes its home there. It is water. Water is not quick to be absorbed into the hard-packed desert floor. Instead, it runs all over the surface of the ground and reflects the gray clouds that temporarily mask the pitiless heat and glare of the summer sun. This gives the sky and ground a silvery luminosity that is particular to desert landscapes, and transforms the desert itself into something that looks like a delicate construct of shimmering Venetian glass.
Sometimes water can get trapped behind brush and debris that has blocked a dry streambed or arroyo, and when the pressure becomes more than the brush dam can bear, a flash flood is the result. The water takes on the appearance of a twisting, angry animal. The sound alone could scare you to death. There are huge boulders being rolled along at the bottom, making a menacing, growling rumble, and then the roar of the rushing wall of water, which can contain anything from huge logs to sections of some rancher’s fence—even his pickup truck.
As very young children, we were warned to head immediately for high ground if there was any sign of rain on the horizon. We knew not to linger in the usually dry rivers and washes where we would spend hours hunting for sand rubies, Indian pottery shards, or maybe even gold. My father had taught us how to use a shallow pan and patiently wash the sand until you “get a little color.” The earth in Arizona is so mineral rich that sometimes we did see something glinting in the pan, but not very often and not enough to make us rich too.
It was hot work moving around in the desert. We often went barefoot, but the ground in summer would become so hot that it could raise a blister. The remedy for this was to wet our feet, then dip them in the dry, powdery clay dust, then a little wet mud, and then back into the dust again until we had built up layers of earth to insulate us from the heat. We called this making “mud huaraches,” or sandals. It was very effective. If one weren’t near a convenient hose or puddle, one simply ran from shade to shade, which seemed to exist in a sadistically meager quantity. The minute we were tall enough to climb onto the back of a horse, we added yet another layer to cushion us from the punishing hot ground.
The first thing I remember ever really wanting, besides the close proximity of my parents, was a horse. My desire for a horse was as fierce as hunger and thirst. I stared at pictures of them in my little books, and drew and colored them with my pencils and crayons—usually colors like pale turquoise, lavender, and rosy pink, and not the more prosaic buckskin, bay, and sorrel colors that I observed on the hides of real horses.
There was one little girl, two years my senior, who lived near enough to visit. One of eight children, her name was Dana, and she was friendly, smart, and had the thing I yearned for most, which was a pony of her own. Her pony was spotted black and white, his name was Little Paint, and a saintlier beast has never been born. Shetland ponies are often mischievous and can be quite naughty, bucking and biting and refusing to budge for their tiny riders. Who can blame them after all that we make them do, encumbering them with saddles and rigid metal bits and then expecting them to haul us around in the hot Arizona sun?
Little Paint, a Shetland crossbred with the more sweet-natured and slightly bigger Welsh pony, was a perfect gentleman. Since there was only one of him, Dana and I would clamber up on his round back and ride double. He was a sturdy little fellow and bore us uncomplainingly wherever we bade him. We would also hitch him up to Dana’s pony cart, and he would pull us alongside the blacktop road all the way to the Fort Lowell drugstore, which had a soda fountain. It was like having a car at age four.
I began to beg my parents for a pony of my own, drooping around the house and visibly pining, hinting that without a pony I might not be expected to live. It being within months of my fifth birthday, my father, showing true mercy, decided to buy me a pony. In those days, this could be done for surprisingly little money.
Dana’s father operated a small farm nearby and was also a photographer. He photographed people’s children dressed up in a cowboy suit and mounted on Little Paint. He had a second pony who had not been a successful picture pony—most likely because he was all Shetland and less patient with the business of having cowboy-suited tots loaded on and off his back all day. His name was Murphy, Dana’s last name being O’Sullivan.
Murphy was small and black, and with his shaggy winter coat, he looked exactly like a giant caterpillar. I fell in love with him immediately. My father made arrangements with Mr. O’Sullivan, and Murphy came home to live with us.
He was somewhat ill tempered and used to dump me off his back and run home, work the lid off the galvanized steel can where we kept his oats, and commence to eat his dinner. I would find him there chewing away after I hiked back, beet red in the face from the heat and the mortification of having him buck me off. I retaliated by taking Murphy inside our house, much cooler than his stable, and feeding him ice cream.
Sometimes he would wriggle under the wire fence of his enclosure and cross blacktop roads humming with traffic to find the nearest subdivision, where one fellow grew a clover lawn. This was much tastier than the Bermuda grass we grew on our lawn. The owner of the clover lawn, much annoyed, would call my mother. ...
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