My mom's family had vestiges of old Spanish tradition. Mom rebelled against all of it. She got the confessional door slammed in her face by the priest at church, after which she simply stopped going to mass. I have no memory of sitting in the pew with Mom. I do recall Dad sitting with me and my brother Larry. Mom still prays the rosary. Or she did, up to a couple of years ago when mini-strokes brought on by a lifetime of smoking caused her to believe she's in a different place and time. 

Mom was the second oldest daughter of seven children, and in Spanish tradition that meant you were tapped to be a worker and not the boss. The oldest son was heir apparent; everything of value went to him. And the oldest daughter--my Aunt Sophie--she, too, was special. She got the role of doling out the work. Which meant Mom and her younger sisters were all told what to do not by their mom, but by their sister Sophie.

Mom didn't want the role of worker in the home, and fortunately, she lived on a ranch where she could escape outside with her brothers. Like her older brother Pat and younger brother Robert, Mom would jump on the backs of young sheep and calves, which is what most young boys on ranches did, on their road to becoming rodeo cowboys. Uncle Robert did briefly compete in rodeos during his young adulthood. Uncle Pat became a teacher and a racehorse owner. And Mom, well, Mom turned out to be the most unconventional wife and mother you could ever imagine. 

When I was young, our school bus would drop off all the kids from our cul-de-sac at the beginning of the road. My friend Lori's house was the first we'd come to, and often I would stop there before continuing home. I loved going to Lori's after school. Her mom would have a snack, really more like a meal, waiting. Usually it was something that filled their home with exotic and delicious aromas, like kibbie. Lori's dad was Lebanese, and I loved that spicy sweet-salty taste of meat. If I could have, I would have gone to Lori's every day after school, but something--maybe my parents had told me not to over-extend my welcome, or maybe Lori's mom had frowned once when I appeared yet again!--kept me from stopping in daily.

Our kitchen was also often filled with interesting smells and sensations. When Mom and Dad had no kids, they had taken up the hobby of playing poker with friends on some weekend nights. Once kids came along, Dad gave up poker, but Mom continued. She was part of a group of cigarette-smoking women who would play some evenings, as well as during the day a few times a month. Poker was hosted at a different player's house each time. When it was Mom's turn to host, the six to eight women would sit around our kitchen table smoking their cigarettes and drinking their 7-Up or Coke. It was this smoky haze that greeted me when I opened the door some days after school. I remember the click-click of chips hitting the kitty, the quiet murmer of the women and finally that burst when they all revealed their cards and saw who'd won. They'd all be talking at once, double-checking hands. Then the sound of all those chips being swept up by the winner, and stacked.

When I got to my mid-20s, I became curious, obsessed really, about why Mom was so different from every other mother I knew. She shared that Dad had written three letters, this when we were children, imploring her to stop playing poker. He wanted her to apply her card-playing savvy to a more "respectable" game. Dad's co-workers and their wives played Bridge, and Dad tried to convince Mom, in the tidy and small hand-writing of his letters, that with her know-how, the two of them would excel at the game. He must have had visions of them winning. They bowled in a league with Dad's work friends, and Mom was good. She regularly scored in the 180s. Dad knew that when Mom was good at a game, she was really good.

But Mom resisted the notion of playing Bridge with Dad. He was the one who babysat the kids if she was out on a weekend night. I imagine he also had visions of the two of them doing the things parents did with their kids on Friday and Saturday nights in those days. Like piling into the car and going to the drive-in theater. Which we sometimes did. Or Dad liked ice-skating and roller-skating, and I think I remember him taking us to the skating rink. I don't recall ever seeing Mom on skates. In the letters--I still have two of them tucked away in my "box of life"--Dad threatened divorce. It was an empty threat. He loved her. My siblings and I often say he was a saint. He vacuumed the whole house on Saturdays, his day off. He doted on her and gave her everything she asked for. He just wanted her to be "normal."

Growing up, I guess I also wanted her to be normal. I wanted her to take me to the movies, like Lori's mom did with her daughters. The Barbara Streisand films I saw between the ages of 12 and 15--The Way We Were, Funny Lady, and A Star is Born--I saw with Lori and her mom. I wanted Mom to take me to modeling workshops when Dillards offered them for girls that were 13 or older. I did attend those classes, but again, that's because Lori's mom, not mine, took me. 

I didn't start to appreciate who and how Mom was until I graduated from college and began work in a Santa Fe advertising agency. Our clients were gallery owners, land developers, even an English duke and duchess whose second home was a ranch in Tesuque. I felt inconsequential in that world. I was surrounded by people who were "richer than God," as I liked to say. So many Santa Fe homes were no longer owned by the families who'd built them. Property taxes combined with huge prices forced many to sell. The homes would get renovated and resold for millions. There was something unsettling about seeing these beautiful adobes become shells whose contents were long gone. 

I had this urge to not lose my own past. During that time, my sister Janet and I took Mom back to the ranching town of Cimarron where she grew up. We stayed in the haunted St. James Hotel and went on a search for Grandpa's best friend, Jiggs, who we were told didn't have a phone but showed up at 10 every morning at the post office. Sure enough, we found him there, and that afternoon he answered all my questions over cheese, crackers, and wine. I spent hours in those years talking to Mom, reading the letters Dad wrote to her, getting Dad's side of the story.

I can't claim to know exactly what made Mom tick, but I did get a glimpse into why she was a rebel. She told me that for years before she finally gave up afternoon poker games, she had come to dislike those get-togethers. Mom by this time was in her 50s, and some of her fellow players older, in their 60s and 70s. Many had by then experienced strife and tragedy in their lives. One had a son in prison for drugs. Another's husband had run off with a younger woman. Mom told me one or two of the players would cut down others by bringing up the addict son or the cheating husband or throwing out whatever insult they could use. Mom got to where she couldn't handle this meanness, yet she kept playing. She told me that the more Dad begged her to quit, the stronger her resolve was to play. 

It wasn't just that she couldn't stand someone telling her what to do. I now wonder, was the world in which she was raised so different from the one she and Dad were living that she couldn't resolve the two? She had one foot in her suburban marriage and family, and the other in the untamed Cimarron of her youth. She made sure to have a hot meal on the table every evening for dinner. And, she could sit at any poker table with any group of men and hold her own. 

Even later, long after the smoky games in our kitchen and after Dad died, she'd ask me and my sister Bobbi to take her to the casino to play Black Jack, and she insisted we go on Friday nights. She knew Friday nights were when the younger men would cash their paychecks. These were serious players. I used to hate going to the casino on Friday nights. If you made the wrong move, if you hit when the dealer showed a low card, those men would get disgusted with you and leave to play with the real poker players. But Mom, she was the real deal. She didn't want to sit around with a bunch of people her age or players who bet 50 cents or a dollar per hand. She craved a table filled with action.

Mom turns 97 in less than a week. She is, as I've said, in a different time and place in her mind. She seems to be back in college, which I think may have been the most carefree and happiest time of her life. But she's not only in that place. She's also present to this moment. She still knows who all of her children are. She often asks me if I've sold anything good lately. She still knows all of her grandchildren. When her grandson Adam called her last week, the first question out of her mouth was, "Is that new wife of yours pregnant yet?" It seems she is still navigating two worlds: the happy college days of her past, and being "Mom" and "Nanny" to all of us. 

Mom has done exactly what she has wanted all of her life. She has taught each of us to do the same, to become who we are versus who others expect us to be. Two of my sisters and I pulled out a deck of cards and played Black Jack with her last week. For money. She knew when to hit and when to hold.