A Mockingbird and a Memory

One of the challenges of playing “the step game” on the road, is finding a place to do it.  Hotel corridors work, eventually, but they are terribly BORING!!!  So are treadmills.

This past weekend I was the keynote speaker at the Desert Dreams Writers Conference in Scottsdale which was held at Chaparral Suites on Scottsdale Road.  Between the time the appearance was scheduled and the time it occurred, the hotel had been sold to Embassy Suites and is currently undergoing a massive remodel.  (Our room, by the way, had already been completely remodeled and was lovely!)  The restaurant is currently open, but under a massive outdoor tent called the Pavilion with service that is not unlike that found in an army mess.  Under the circumstances, the food was surprisingly good.

The hotel includes a large conference center and an equally large parking lot which, for this weekend at least, was entirely underutilized—by everyone but me.  I found what seemed like several acres of empty parking lot entirely suitable for walking, and I quickly established a 2000 step lap.  Most people—the ones who aren’t looking for steps—tend to park very close to the building.  That means the outer limits of the lot are generally wide open.

One has to be wary when walking in a parking lot environment.  For one thing, you have to be on the lookout for DWTs—those driving while texting.  I suppose doing that in a parking lot is less dangerous to yourself and others than doing it on a street would be.  Still it is not recommended.  You have to watch out for motorcycles.   There may have been a Harley convention somewhere in the vicinity.  They tend to give plenty of advance audio warning concerning their proximity because the noisier they are the better their owners seem to like them.  As for everyone else?  Not so much. There were any number of occasions when I would cheerfully have throttled their throttles!  

The parking lot is surrounded by a block wall.  Just inside the wall is  a narrow strip of desert landscaping chock full of mesquite trees, creosote, and oleander. Most of the people I saw lingering in the parking lot were workmen who left their pickups parked in the shade of leaning mesquite trees and came out to their trucks to eat their lunches.  You would be amazed at how much heat a little bit of dappled mesquite shade can remove from a baking piece of asphalt.  

And so I walked—10,000 steps a day for three days.  And despite the fact that I was in the middle of the city, I discovered an interesting collection of wildlife.  There was a medium-sized jack rabbit.  A number of years ago, there were people who went on a single-minded campaign to obliterate oleander in Arizona and California because the leaves are supposedly poisonous to wildlife.  Obviously that one jack rabbit in particular knows better than to nibble on the stuff.  I also saw a very scrawny feral cat who came tiptoeing across the parking lot late at night to take up a position close to the trash cans.  I’m guessing the kitty comes more for mice and rats than for the garbage.

Mostly what I noticed on my solitary walks were the birds—a pair of glossy black Phainopepla; a dozen white winged dove—which locals refer to disparagingly as rock pigeons; a fly-over Canada goose whose squawking was surprising similar to the bark of an unhappy dachshund; a pair of nesting quail; some house finches; a hummingbird feasting on a blooming desert spoon.  And finally—a mockingbird.  It was that bird, with his uncanny ability to imitate the sounds cars make when they are being unlocked remotely with key fobs who took me on my trip down memory lane.

In the spring of 1966 I was a senior at the University of Arizona.  In order to receive my teaching credential, I needed to do a semester of student teaching.  I was assigned to Palo Verde High School and commuted there with another Pima Hall girl, Sarah Sue Sparks.

Sarah Sue—always both names—hailed from Bisbee’s sister city and chief football rival—Douglas, Arizona.  She was a year older than the other girls in our class because she had spent a year between high school and college working as a clerk typist at Fort Huachuca in order to earn money for school.  

Sarah Sue was the quintessential “good girl.”  If she was assigned a duty, she did it promptly and well and without complaint.  She abided by the rules.  When the rest of us got caught up in some kind of high-jinx?  Sarah Sue didn’t participate.  She wasn’t an obnoxious goody-two-shoes about it, either.  She didn’t do those outrageous things, but she didn’t cast aspersions at the ones who did.

I don’t remember her major.  Home Ec, maybe?  But whatever it was, we both had to be all the way across town, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and in our respective student teaching classrooms at six AM on the dot, five days.  At the time many of Tucson District #1 high schools were all operating on double sessions.  

Even energetic twenty-somethings require some sleep in order to function at that hour of the morning.  Back then freshmen girls at the U of A had to be in their dorms by 10:30 each night.  Upper class-men had an 11:30 curfew.  Birthday parties inside the dorm were usually celebrated after that 11:30 deadline, but for those of us who had to be up and out at the crack of dawn, 11:30 PM parties were out of the question.  We had to hit the hay much earlier than that.

Please remember, these were the “old days.”  We slept in bunk beds on sleeping porches.  The dorm itself was air-conditioned; the upstairs sleeping porches were not.  By about the middle of spring semester, the windows on the sleeping porch were left wide open in hopes of capturing the smallest breeze, but it was still warm in those upstairs rooms and not exactly conducive to sleeping when there were other people out in the hall, laughing and giggling and have a great time.

And then there was the damned bird—a mockingbird who had taken up residence in a nearby palm tree.  He raised hell each and every night screeching and squawking to his heart’s content until all hours.  I’d be almost ready to doze off and then that bird would go off on another screaming banshee tantrum.  

I was on one sleeping porch.  Sarah Sue was on the other one, but we’d both stagger downstairs at five AM each morning, setting off bleary-eyed to do our student teaching on much less than the daily recommended amount of sleep.  Eventually we made it through the semester and graduated.  The next thing I heard, Sarah Sue had a teaching contract in Las Vegas.  That was where my first husband’s family lived, and so that Christmas when we went there for the holidays I gave Sarah Sue a call.  I don’t remember all the details of that conversation, but I came away with the general sense that she was very lonely in Vegas and that she and her boyfriend, a guy from school whose name I have forgotten, were involved in a long distance relationship.

After that single conversation, Sarah Sue and I lost track.  I heard from someone else that she and the boyfriend had married.  He came from a well-to-do family—something to do with a chain of newspapers, I believe—so theirs was a bit of a Cinderella/Prince Charming story.  Within weeks or maybe within days of learning she was pregnant with her fist child, Sarah Sue also learned she had cancer. I have no idea exactly what kind, but now that I know a little more about such things, I suspect it may have been ovarian cancer.   That often strikes young women, and Sarah Sue couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 at the time.

Worried about her baby, she refused any and all treatment until AFTER the baby was born.  I believe the baby was a girl, but I don’t know that for sure, either.  Remember these were the old days when making a long distance call was a budget-busting event.  There was no Facebook, no twitter, no Internet.  I know that she and her husband and baby moved to Texas where he paid for the best cancer treatment money could buy at the time—probably at M.D. Anderson.

So Sarah Sue Sparks is who I was thinking about as I strode around the parking lot at Chaparral Suites—Sarah Sue and her baby.  That “baby” is close to fifty now.  But I wish I could reach out to him/her and be able to say, “I knew your mother when she was a young woman.  She was gentle, wonderful, and smart—a Pima Hall girl through and through.  She wanted your desperately—enough to risk her life to save yours.  You can’t ask for a better mother than that.”

Right now, saying those words in my heart and in this blog is the best I can do, but if there’s anyone out there who can guide me to Sarah Sue’s “baby,” I would love to say them in person.

6 thoughts on “A Mockingbird and a Memory

  1. What a gift to Sarah Sue’s baby! I hope it makes it to him/her. If it does, this will be a treasure of the heart.

  2. Suggestion: Post on Pima Hall old girls’ site “Seeking Sara Sue >>>> class of ’66. Contact Judy (maiden name) Jance with any info. Thanks!

  3. Thanks to a fan, I now know that Sarah Sue died of Hodgkins disease in 1970. So very young!! I also know the her husband’s name was Bruce D. Charles, so the search for him and for Sarah Sue’s fifty-something “baby” is still on.

  4. If you haven’t seen a movie called Failure to Launch give it a look.
    Couple of mocking bird scenes that are hilarious.

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