The Blanket

After my mother died I craved her.

A memory: My mother’s face, brows pulled together, lips drawn back in disgust.

I was reading from my book Green-Wood. This part I don’t remember: Was I reading only to her, or did she sit in an audience listening. I read the part about Joseph of Arimethea, who craved the body of Jesus. Her breath blew out in a puff of disgust. I registered her flinch like one of those needles that records the shaking of earth. That’s how scientists far away knew about the first thermonuclear explosion set off in the Marshall Islands—from the jumping of a needle in California. I knew she understood the phrase as sexual, homosexual no less. She regarded my work like it was a bomb about to go off—a bewildering device, impossible to disarm, to resolve into sense.

I didn’t get a chance to tell her: The phrase is Biblical, from the Gospel of Mark. The word crave in the Greek of the Bible is aiteo. It means to insist, or demand, but it carries the lubrication of submission. It is a word used when addressing a superior. Joseph was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council that condemned Jesus to death. He also was a secret follower of Jesus, and his friend. Joseph approached Pilate, the Roman governor, as a powerful man speaking to one even more powerful.  He respectfully requested the body of his friend, but in no uncertain terms. He craved it.

The truth: I could not have told this to my mother because I didn’t know it at the time myself. I only registered that word—crave—a burn throbbing through two thousand years.

With us, it happened like this: We watched my mother die, my dad and I. Or we stood, we orbited her. We sat and prayed and spoke to her. I spoke a mantra over and over, about happiness, ease, and freedom. I think this annoyed my father. He gave a little click of impatience and prayed, speaking over me, in the proper way, to Jesus.

In truth, we didn’t know for sure when she died—not the instant—but a moment came when it was clear. I thought from movies we would watch her take her last breath and there would be some release, relief.

Instead, we left the room with her body and orbited the house, untethered. My father disappeared upstairs. I remember that alone-ness after days, weeks, of circling her, who became our only center. I think we each called different people. There was “news” to be shared. The hospice nurse came, god bless her, for the cleaning of the body. A person who was living and now is dead—it’s too big for the mind. The mind breaks a little. Bless the same nurse who met me out front to prepare me for the last time I would see my mother. She waited outside the house for me, god bless her. She readied me for the encounter with the not-living, not-yet-dead version of my mother.

Then some men came from De Vargas Funeral Home. They were young men. I remember little else about them but the feeling—they spoke to my father and me in tender tones of compassion. They promised to treat my mother as one of their own. They showed us a vibrant red woven blanket. They said they would put this over her. I felt—even then, in the moment—the tug of our colonial threads.

So this is part of the story: Diego de Vargas governed the New Mexico colony, whose capital was Santa Fe. In 1692 he led an expedition to “pacify” the territory and take it back from the Indigenous people known as Pueblo Indians, who had rebelled and forced out the Spaniards in 1680. The city of Santa Fe celebrates this “reconquest” annually, though resistance and reprisals continued for years. Local men compete to represent the historical de Vargas. Many businesses carry the de Vargas name.[1]

The De Vargas Funeral Home and Crematory is located in the town of Española in a valley at the confluence of three rivers—the Rio Grande, Rio Chama, and Rio Santa Cruz—a wellspring of green marked by cottonwood trees, trunks gnarled and rough like the land. Locals call this area “the Valley.” Immediately north and south are five of the eight northern Pueblos, including Ohkay Owingeh, once known by its colonial name of San Juan. The Spanish founded their first New Mexican capital nearby in 1598. Los Alamos lies twenty miles to the southwest, 7,300 feet up on a plateau, a town formed in World War II as a nuclear fortress.

For its atomic bomb project, the government commandeered thousands of acres on the Pajarito Plateau, including an elite boys’ school, dozens of mostly small ranches and homesteads, and lands sacred to the Pueblo people. Hispanic landowners received a fraction of the money that white owners got for their land, and in some cases got nothing at all.[2] In 2004 the U.S. government paid a settlement to several families—a sprinkling for the loss of soil that once sustained blood and bones.[3]

No one farms anymore in summer on the plateau. The nuclear weapons lab sprawls across these mesas, most evident at night from the blazing security lights. Los Alamos forms an island of wealth, largely white, inside one of the nation’s poorest states, where most people identify to the government as “Hispanic,” “American Indian,” or both.[4]

In Los Alamos when I was growing up, my mother and other adults used “the Valley” as code for “different,” for “danger.” They forbid us to go off the Hill on weekends. But Los Alamos had no funeral home or crematory, so it relied on the people of Española for this labor.[5]

The men from De Vargas emerged from the bedroom with my mother on a stretcher. She would have loved the blood red weaving draped over her. The blood forms a trail: Pueblo people practiced weaving from time immemorial, using yucca plants, fur, feathers, and later cotton. The Spanish arrived with sheep and forced Pueblo people to tend the animals, and produce woolen weavings in the Spanish style for export to enrich the colony. The forced labor threatened the ability of the Pueblos to grow cotton and weave for their own needs. Colonial records from the late 1600s indicate Pueblo communities relied on “meagre” handouts of wool for their clothing—wool from the sheep they themselves had tended.[6]

In the decades after 1848, when the U.S. instigated war with Mexico and took these lands, Indigenous and Hispanic weavings became sought after collectibles. Weavings by Diné from the Navajo Nation captured the attention of traders. I do not know the origin of the blanket that covered my mother. I only remember the red, “a color that persists through the ages as dangerous, hot, big,” notes the pigment expert Heidi Gustafson. “Across deep time and space and into rituals of today,” she writes, “red … is used to help bury the dead and reconnect a soul with the heart of Earth.”[7]

The De Vargas men paused with my mother by the front door. My father bent to kiss her. I did not know if I wanted to touch my mother. I lacked any ritual to guide me through this encounter. I put my lips to her forehead. Surprise prickled through me. She was already cool. The blanket made no difference. It wasn’t for her.



A memory: Sitting around a large wooden table—my father, sister, and me—each of us with a small plastic water bottle branded De Vargas Funeral Home & Crematory, Inc. I took a blurred photo of my father across the table with the water in the foreground. We had come to discuss arrangements and deliver the urn that would hold my mother inside the columbarium. A local potter and longtime Los Alamos resident created the urn at my parents’ request when my mother went on hospice. The potter worked, not in a hurry, but with some haste. The urn featured a blue New Mexico sky with mountains and trees. My father has one nearly identical.

As we sat at the table, I kept thinking about my mother somewhere nearby, maybe staying cool in a drawer. They asked did we want to dress her. She died in her nightgown. No. Why dress her to go into the fire? They asked if we wanted some of her ashes. No said my father. He seemed repulsed by the thought. I didn’t know how I felt about this. Maybe I did want some of her ashes. But my father’s claim to my mother was superior. He had more authority. I swallowed what might have come out of my mouth.

My mother made it clear that she wanted to die—for years, really, a fact made manifest in the addictions that ate her. On one particular night, she asked me to express this wish to my father. Tumors from the lung cancer left her unable to speak above a whisper. Neither of my parents could hear well, so I accepted the job of translator, leaning close for her words, then speaking them out loud to my father.

On that night, she had requested lamb, her favorite, for dinner. But the meat would not go down her throat. Each bite left her coughing and spitting into the napkin clutched in her fist. She gave me an exasperated look and rolled her eyes at me. The look was so rebellious, so full of teenage energy, and directed only to me—I felt lit up in its conspiratorial glow. My father sat next to her in his chair, at times pausing his dinner while sobs convulsed his body. This my mother ignored. She did not want the weight of anyone else’s grief. She allowed no visitors. She tried to refuse even me and my sister, but with help from the hospice nurse, we convinced her that my father might need the support.

At first, when she asked me to say that she wanted to die, I declined to pass the message to my father. He had just finished a prayer expressing gratitude for her continued life with us. She had seen a news item on TV about right-to-die laws in California, and she wanted to make this choice for herself. You need to tell him that, I told her. But she held her throat and gave me a burning look. How could I refuse her? I took her whispers into my ear and let them ring with my voice in the air.

On my way out for the night, I bent over her chair so I could look right at her. Her eyes seemed luminous, a lighter blue, as if she had stepped closer to her own windows. “I’m going to pray for you to be free, Mom,” I told her. “Yesssss,” she whispered back with all the force she could muster, eyes blazing out of her face.

She would not let my sister and me sleep in the house with her and my father. We stayed down the Hill at the home of a family friend in White Rock, the town’s satellite community. “Bye, Mom,” I called once more as I pulled open the door. She did not look but raised her hand in salute.

I drove across town, looping around the canyons that cut into the mesas. Los Alamos sits on ash, the remains of ancient fires. Over millions of years, rock from the core of the planet, rock so hot it moved as liquid, swelled beneath the Jemez mountains above Los Alamos. Finally, it burst forth and buried the land and everything living in blasts of ash hundreds of feet thick. The ash hardened to rock, and water and wind carved steep cuts. The resulting mesas form roughly the skeletal fingers of a hand holding the townsite and the Lab.

A coyote stopped in the middle of the four-lane road and turned its face to me. I felt something set loose and starting to build. By the time I rounded the bend in the cliff road down the Hill, waves of rage shook me. I pulled off at the viewpoint over the Valley. Monsoon thunderheads towered above the mountains, on fire in the setting sun—a sight that supposedly inspired the Spanish to name them Blood of Christ, Sangre de Cristo. I sat alone in the car and howled in anger at my mother—for checking out of her life, all her life, and mine—and for leaving me for good this time.

Laurie D. Webster is an expert on things that perish, in particular weavings and textiles of the Ancestral Pueblo people. She pores over colonial records and studies centuries-old scraps of cloth to discern, across the silences and the eroding forces of time, something about the lives of those who brought these materials into being with their hands. She categorizes types of cloth, techniques for weaving and embroidery, and attempts to track the imprints of colonialism, war, and resistance in the coverings people wore. “Contemporary Pueblo people use virtually the same styles of ceremonial garments as those worn by their ancestors five to six hundred years ago,” she writes.[8]

Traditional Pueblo weaver Louie Garciá is Tiwa and Piro Pueblo from southern New Mexico, among the first Pueblo people the Spanish colonists encountered as they crossed the Jornada del Muerto. Garcia speaks about preparing to weave as analogous to preparing fields for planting. He likens the batten, the wooden tool used to push the weft threads into place, to a planting stick, and calls it sacred, “one of the basic tools that were given to us at the time of our creation . . . this would be our main tool used to sustain us as Pueblo people.” The weaving connects to the planting of seeds that, he says, “represent all of our hopes, all of our prayers, all of our wishes . . . not only for our families but for our communities, so they can continue to survive.”

In a video for the National Museum of the American Indian, Garcia speaks of his decision to cultivate his own cotton as his ancestors did, which he then hand cards and spins for his weavings. He speaks of the cotton in ceremonial mantas, or blankets, bringing into connection everything needed for life—sun, earth, and especially precious rain that falls in summer monsoon storms. “In essence, each garment, each manta, in and of itself,” he says, “is a rain cloud that we then wear.”[9]

I did not feel, or know, any of these connections as I watched the monsoon thunderheads building that evening. The reason I did not know: White supremacy erased the Pueblo world around me. My culture oriented me to the Midwest, New York, northern Europe. I studied German at Los Alamos High School, and Spanish only later. I read Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, not Simon J. Ortiz or Leslie Marmon Silko. I breathed my first breath on land sacred to the Pueblo people. The Rio Grande and the Chama murmured through my childhood, but they did not speak life to me. My world floated, detached—my ignorance part of the long record of colonial violence.

Neither this detachment, nor the scientific complexity of Los Alamos, with its world-ending abilities, exempted us from summer monsoons—they shaped my childhood. The first slash of lightning pushed us out of the municipal pool after a morning spent in the chlorine glare. The crackle and fast clap of thunder meld in my mind with the La Mesa fire that burned across the plateau when I was six, and we watched embers fall sizzling into the pool.

That was before, when fire season had a beginning and end and monsoon rains reliably fell. The summer my mother died, we watched with anxiety the spots of smoke ascending from dry mountain ridges. My parents had fled from fires before, and my mother fretted about having to escape with her oxygen tanks. I woke during the nights to my sister coughing from wildfire smoke.

On that last night, the rains fell finally. I arrived after dark at the empty house, my sister gone home briefly to tend to her own family. I felt spent, venting that rage, and slept. In the morning, when I saw my father calling on the phone, I almost didn’t answer, thinking no.



In the weeks before my mother died she insisted on getting her hair done. We bundled her and her oxygen tanks into the car and drove her to Smart Set Styling Salon, where she had been getting cuts and color for thirty years. It seemed that she and the owner Gina Garcia had a contentious relationship; they may have actively disliked each other. My mother seemed perpetually dissatisfied with Gina’s labors. We all traipsed inside, and Gina gave us a tight-lipped smile. I hadn’t seen her since she’d styled my hair for my sister’s wedding in 1992. After she had finished with my mother, she handed me a card with an appointment for a cut and color five weeks in the future. We exchanged a look. I doubt she ever wrote that appointment in her books.

My sister tells this story: “Mom wanted to get her hair done so she would look good for the funeral. Afterward she said, ‘Damn, I forgot I’m being cremated!’”

This sounds more like my sister filtering a version of my mother—more sarcastic, more lighthearted than her. I never heard my mother say these words. What was quintessentially her: pushing the vacuum across the kitchen tiles, with her hair coiffed and her pink nightgown on, wrestling the vacuum cord and oxygen tubes along behind her.

After the men from De Vargas left with her body, the house fell out of sense, empty. My father disappeared again upstairs. My sister had just boarded a plane back to us from Oregon. I felt estranged. Unstill. I turned to taking photos with my phone. I took a picture of the mark of her lips on a wineglass. I photographed the indentation from her head in her leather chair. I took a picture of her glasses and hearing aids arranged on the bathroom counter. Her make up bottles. Her hairbrush with strands of hair. I took a photo of her worn slippers, still holding the imprint of her feet, one upside down where she had last kicked them off.

It occurs to me, on that last night, I never prayed, as I had promised, for my mother. In truth, until my mother died, I never prayed at all.

What I meant to record has nothing to do with what I have written here. I wanted to record what happened at the funeral. Not funeral. They called it a celebration of life. My mother planned it in advance with my father and their pastor, Nicolé. Pastor Nicolé radiates energy. She wears flowered dresses with her religious robes and collar, and a halo of bright blond hair surrounds her face, like a sunflower. She seems incongruous as the head of the Lutheran church, the sober church of my childhood, subduer of miracles. She calls people “friend” in a way that is familiar, loving but exasperated. She referred even this way to my father, disregarding the heft of his presence, the force field of his grief.

A service occurred, people sang and said things, including me. That part didn’t matter. Then we all went outside to a small adobe wall that looks across the Valley to the Sangre de Cristos. The wall serves as the church’s columbarium, and it is a modern addition. It is the only adobe structure in the church, which was built in the 1950s.

Older buildings in Los Alamos have a drab, military feel, or the vibe of postwar suburbia, like the yellow ranch house of my youth. More recent constructions use stucco to create an adobe look. This style is called Pueblo-Spanish Revival. It defines nearby Santa Fe. White city leaders invented it in the early twentieth century by appropriating Pueblo and Spanish colonial building practices. They wanted to remake the city into a fantasy of the Old West for tourists. Santa Fe enforces strict zoning laws to maintain this look. Los Alamos has a mishmash: log and stone buildings from the ranch school that pre-dated the war, war-era houses, U.S. architectural styles from every decade since 1940, and, especially in higher-end homes, Pueblo-Spanish Revival, which is not a revival and has little to do with traditional Spanish buildings or contemporary Pueblos.[10]

We stood in front of the columbarium beneath ponderosa pines, and the human trace of Los Alamos disappeared inside the kaleidoscope of mountain and mesa, light moving across the Valley floor. Nicolé spoke some more words. Then someone removed a metal plate, placed the urn with my mother’s ashes inside a little cubby, and screwed the plate back into place. Then everyone, all the family, left together. But I could not go. I could not leave the urn inside that wall. I ran after Pastor Nicolé. “I want some of her ashes,” I told her. I craved my mother.

This did not cause Nicolé more than a moment of hesitation, god bless her. She led me to the church kitchen. We found Ziploc bags and plastic spoons. She located a screwdriver. We hurried. Relatives waited for me in their car. The plate came back off, the urn came out. Nicolé pried at the lid. Glue held it closed, but it was not quite dry. It came off in her hands. Inside was a plastic bag, closed with a metal tag singed black and stamped with numbers. Bless the people of De Vargas Funeral Home for keeping the promise, undeserved, to bring my mother’s body to the Valley and treat her as one of their own. I had faith that this plastic bag contained the lovingly cared for body of my mother.

We worked the bag open, goopy glue getting all over our hands. Moving as fast as we could, we scooped plastic teaspoons of soft grey ash into a sandwich bag. We two women, the one I trusted with my craving not to shame, or deny me. Bless her. I rode away with sticky fingers. I never told my father.



[1] Johnson, Kenneth Steven.  “Diego de Vargas in New Mexico 1692-1704: Re-thinking the myth of the ‘Bloodless Re-Conquest,’ California State University, Dominguez Hills ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2014. 1526025.

[2] The complexity of heritage in New Mexico makes single terms difficult. A study by anthropologists found that in a survey, 44% of Spanish-speaking respondents in New Mexico preferred the term “Hispanic,” with Nuevomexicano/a the most common second choice. Hunley, Keith; Edgar, Heather; Healy, Meghan; Mosley, Carmen; Cabana, Graciela S.; and West, Frankie, “Social Identity in New Mexicans of Spanish-Speaking Descent Highlights Limitations of Using Standardized Ethnic Terminology in Research” (2018). Human Biology Open Access Pre-Prints. 128.

In her book Nuclear Nuevo México, the scholar Myrriah Gómez writes “Nuevomexicanas/os are the population of Spanish-speaking New Mexicans and their descendants who acknowledge both their Spanish and Indigenous lineage and who rejected the term Mexican American after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.” Myrriah Gómez, Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2022), 9.

[3] “Civilian Displacement: Los Alamos, NM,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, July 26, 2017:

“Hispanic Homesteaders and the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” National Park Service:

[4] New Mexico Economic Development Department, “New Mexico Census Data,”

“Hispanos in Los Alamos,” Atomic Heritage Foundation, June 28, 2017:

[5] Myrriah Gómez, who grew up in El Rancho near Los Alamos, refers to the binary of Hill and Valley as more than geographic. It is constitutive of the ongoing colonial relations in the region. Nuclear Nuevo México, 6.

[6] Laurie D. Webster, “The Economics of Pueblo Textile Production and Exchange in Colonial New Mexico,” in Beyond Cloth and Cordage: Archaeological Textile Research in the Americas, eds. Penelope Ballard Drooker and Laurie D. Webster (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000) 179-204.

[7] Heidi Gustafson, Book of Earth (New York: Abrams Books, 2023) 73-76. I’m grateful to Daniela Molnar for this reference.

[8] Laurie D. Webster, “The Economics of Pueblo Textile Production and Exchange in Colonial New Mexico.”

Laurie D. Webster, “Perpetuating Ritual Textile Traditions: A Pueblo Example” (2000). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. 808.

“Three Southwest Weaving Cultures,” adapted from Beyond the Loom: Southwestern Weaving Traditions exhibit, CU Museum:

[9] “Louie Garcia on the Cultural Roots of Traditional Pueblo Weaving,” Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, April 9, 2019:

“Pueblo Weaving: A Story of Cultural Identity and Continuity,” Museum of International Folk Art, March 14, 2020:

[10] Chris Wilson, The Myth of Santa Fe. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 105-200, 258.

Gabrielle Rachel Harlan, “‘Playing Indian’ in the American Southwest: the Development of the Pueblo Revival Style, 1890–1930,” PhD Diss., 2013, Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of Virginia.