The Baby, The Prostitute, and Me: My New Idea of Living
2023 Traveler's Tales Solas Award, Honorable Mention
"Certainly, travel is more than seeing of sights: it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the idea of living." - American historian Miriam Beard
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The Missoula Cemetery was an emerald-green oasis. Huge hardwood trees shaded the headstones nestled beneath them while busy summer sprinklers twirled, sputtered, and hissed great streams of water onto the grass, overshooting onto access streets. Above, squirrels chattered, cedar waxwings and chickadees sang for the delight of being there, and a woodpecker worried a tree trunk. Somewhere in the back of the cemetery unseen, a lawnmower throbbed and chattered, coming close, then further away.
Up a few steps and at the end of a long sidewalk, inside a small, flat-roofed cinder-block building was an empty desk. Inside, the office was quiet, but I sensed a presence in the back. My shoes squeaked on the linoleum as I tiptoed toward the inner office.
“Hello?” I called. A tall man with salt and pepper hair stared back smiling. “Can you help me find my family?” I asked.
“Of course,” the cemetery superintendent said as he got out a piece of paper and laid it on his desk. “You’re here.” He drew an x, circled it, and ran a jagged yellow line through it and then made and circled another x. “Go down Russell Street and make a left on North Street. Your grandparents’ row is between Marigold and Balsom Streets. They’re on your left.”
Initially amused that cemetery streets are named, I quickly found that without that, finding anyone would be hard. Row after row of headstones and plaques - over 21,000, I later learned - were set into the soft, thick lawn.
After several wrong turns, tucked back at the end of a long row of headstones, there they were, my grandparents’ headstones, but not Baby Jackie’s. Perplexed, I was sure I had seen his headstone after my grandfather’s funeral. Where was he? I returned to the office but when the superintendent looked again he found nothing.
“No, there’s only the two of them,” he said. “Everyone who’s here is listed in the registry. He’s not here. Maybe try the Catholic Cemetery out by Lolo?”
My grandparents were Presbyterians.
“I saw his grave after my grandfather’s funeral. I know I did." Didn’t I?
At the Missoula Cemetery on a quest to find Baby Jackie’s headstone, I had traveled to Montana for a reunion and stopped to take a picture of his headstone for Cindy, an avid genealogist and cousin in Minnesota. The photo would complete an entry in an online registry she’d been working on. I acquiesced though I was apprehensive about going to the cemetery. I’d had a complicated relationship with my grandmother. She and my grandfather were buried there.
Grammie was a strong-willed Swede who ran her immediate family. She didn’t have much use for me, she was besotted with babies and seemed fonder of my cousins. Adopted, I attributed that to a bias for flesh and blood. Grammie was intermittently tolerant and critical, never affectionate, so when we visited her, I stayed out of the way. Curiously though, when she died in the eighties I cried, and I wept in the alley behind her house on my last visit to Missoula. This trip I resolved to shun sentimentality. I had no stomach for introspection or tears. I’d get in, take the shot, and leave. But then Jackie was missing.
His death certificate, dated in 1925, said he died of inanition, “a state of exhaustion or bodily disorder” arising from a lack of nutrition or water. I suspect my grandparents were broken after 10 days of listening to their writhing, shrieking firstborn. They'd buried him there. But now, even his headstone was gone.
“No, you didn’t dream it,” my cousin Darlene confirmed from New York when I went outside and called her. Our fathers were brothers. “Jackie’s buried there,” she insisted.
So, I drove out Russell again and made a left on North. As I walked my grandparents’ row, I scanned headstones.
“Bruce, Lizotta, Lawless, Tucker, Tucker, and Smith.” Where was he?
I checked around each headstone for fresh dirt but they’d all been there for years. No one had moved Baby Jackie. He’d never been there. I didn’t go back to the office.
“I tried,” I texted Cindy. “No photo. Can’t find him.”
I was disappointed but relieved, most of all that I hadn’t cried. I hate to cry.
There was no trace of my infant uncle who had lived just 11 days in 1925. I drove away from the cemetery conflicted: glad to escape but sad too. I knew I’d never come back. But then it occurred to me that I was the last one who would ever come looking: Darlene has little reason to come West anymore since old age and COVID made us both orphans. No, if I didn’t find him, Jackie would be missing from history forever. That bothered me. How could he, how could anyone be inconsequential and forgotten? How could I allow that?
But within minutes Cindy texted back, “Jackie’s buried 20 blocks from them!”
So, I went back into his office and the superintendent found Jackie’s headstone in a part of the cemetery that was filled in 1925. It was near the intersection of Yew and Balsam Streets, not between Marigold and Balsam. Instead of an “o” and one “r” in his last name, the clerk recorded an “e” and two “r’s” on his burial receipt. Preoccupied, my grandfather signed it and didn't notice.
When I finally found Jackie’s simple gray granite marker, there was an image of a frisky lamb next to his name and I knew immediately that my parents, sheep ranchers, had helped replace his headstone. They liked images of sheep on everything from stationary to salt shakers and sheets. My eyes watered at the thought that they didn’t want him to be forgotten, but I didn’t cry.
Jackie had been found. I was relieved and pleased. My cousins and I had reconnected him with my grandparents, if only in a database. My cousins and I had resurfaced him. I had rewritten the end of his story. Jackie had been forgotten but now he would be remembered. That seemed enough at the time.
But then I learned about a Prostitute who had also been forgotten. In 1896, Dutch Em, a mining camp prostitute froze to death when she and her madam took a late-night hike in the snowy Idaho backcountry near Atlanta. Dutch Em was a so-called soiled dove. Her nickname was given her by the miners she serviced and not much else was deemed important enough to record for posterity. When I decided to go see Atlanta, I didn’t know that much.
“Let’s go see what’s there,” I challenged my husband one hot July morning. “Remember that little road sign off Hwy 20 that reads, “Atlanta 42 Miles”, and leads off into the National Forest? Don’t you wonder what’s there? Wouldn’t you like to go-see?”
“Atlanta?” He tilted his head. “In Idaho? I guess we could.”
So, we mapped a big loop from Boise to Atlanta and back through the forest. We had no idea we were in for 234 teeth-shattering, dusty, butt-busting, are-we-there-yet? roundtrip miles. We drove over high mountain passes going, and for hours next to the sinuous Boise River returning. Our exhausting journey to see-what-we-could-see took 12 hours, start to finish.
Before we got there, atop fire-scarred James Creek Summit on Bald Mountain, we stopped to read a monument to Dutch Em and her madam, Annie “Peg Leg” Morrow. Though the inscription was cryptic, I later learned on the Internet that after a night of drinking in an Atlanta bar, the women were surprised by a late May blizzard while trying to walk eight miles across the mountain to a neighboring town. One website claimed Dutch Em died wrapped in Annie’s undergarments and Annie was found incoherent in the snow a few days later. Both of Annie's feet were amputated due to frostbite. Dutch Em was buried in the Atlanta Cemetery.
Once I read the memorial I couldn’t get them out of my mind. Annie was memorialized as an entrepreneur, an owner of brothels, many mining claims, a whiskey seller, and prostitute on the side. But little is known about Dutch Em. That haunted me. For weeks afterwards it was as if she sat on my shoulder whispering, “What about me? What’s my story? Will you tell it?”
When we reached it, Atlanta, with its year-round population of 35, was a sleepy mountain town about 5,400’ above sea level. Well-kept, decaying, and decrepit houses were scattered indiscriminately about. Ancient board and batten wooden buildings were in various stages of decay and restoration. Some rusty tin roofs and multi-paned windows were covered by lush green vines. Full-time homes were interspersed with short-term rentals there on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. The grass between buildings was still tender and green despite the summer heat and wildflowers were still sprinkled here and there. It was quiet. Peaceful.
In Dutch Em’s day though, Atlanta was a bustling town full of stores, bars, hotels, and brothels. I didn't stop to think about that. I was looking for the cemetery because I thought her grave, if I could find it, might tell me something more. We drove up, down, back, and forth on Main, Pine, Coffin, Alturas, and Alpine Streets looking for it. I was starting to think outsiders aren’t supposed to find the cemetery when inside the town’s only bar still standing we found a local willing to give us directions.
“Didja go out there down Main Street?” asked the burly man at the end of the bar, wiping hot day, cold beer bottle condensation on the belly of his t-shirt.
I grinned. “Yes, several times. Main Street, and every other street in town.”
He shrugged, jerking his chin over his shoulder, “It’s right back that-away. Didja see the apple trees? It's just past ‘em on your right!”
My eyes followed his gesture, and I arched my eyebrows. “By the little pullout next to the big boulders? But there’s no sign.”
“Oh yeah! That’s it! You can see it from the road,” he insisted and his buddies nodded like bobble heads.
We returned to the boulders where there was still nothing to see from the road but big piles of cleared brush and a small, steep track leading between thick bushes. On faith, we made the short hike through poison oak and there it was: the Atlanta Cemetery. Another local had told us Dutch Em’s grave was off to the side in an area for undesirables: prostitutes and those who had committed suicide. There it was. Nickname, place of death, and date. Her headstone told me nothing I didn’t already know.
It bothered me to think of her as a mere sidekick, her history a footnote in Annie’s story. Where did she get her nickname, where was she from, and how did she end up in Atlanta? I couldn’t even find a photo of her online.
One website theorized she might have been born Emma von Losch in East Prussia in 1846. When I researched that name, Emma was said to be the daughter of a ship’s captain, a widower who lost everything to the bottle. Her older sister ran away, Emma married, came to America, and later divorced. She had a daughter. Census records in 1920 and 1930 show an Emma von Losch in Boise.
I had so many questions. Was Dutch Em also Emma von Losch? Was the monument wrong? Did she live past 1896 or was that her namesake daughter? Why were two women walking by themselves over a high mountain pass in a blizzard? What was so important that couldn’t wait until morning. Why hadn’t they worn gloves, hats, and coats? Did Dutch Em have a come-to-Jesus moment? Did she call out for her mother and sister, for her daughter, or was she too drunk to notice that she was dying? Were her last words, “Please let me sleep Annie, I’m so tired.”
I’ll never know, and neither will anyone else. Most bothersome though was the thought that only a handful of people seemed to care. She’d been forgotten by history and unlike Jackie’s, her story could never be rewritten as anything other than fiction. I got no answers.
Months later, I was still pondering why the Baby and the Prostitute’s stories troubled me. I eventually wrote about my trips to Missoula and Atlanta and pushed the two of them from my mind. I thought I just wanted history to take note of them, but I would learn there was more to it.
“When you die,” a friend asked me one day, “what would you like written on your headstone?”
“She got a lot done’,” I said without hesitation. I didn’t choose a favorite scripture, or even the trite, “rest in peace”.
What a curious answer, I thought. But maybe, I considered, someone who got a lot done, who achieved things, would be consequential and remembered. Where did the fear of being forgotten come from? And then I remembered a repeated dream I'd had of my childhood home.
It was a peaceful place, the home on my parents’ Northern California sheep ranch. Thirty miles as the crow flew from the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by orchards, vineyards, and oak woodlands, their place lay under a tall, shady canopy of trees. By June each year the arid climate would bleach green hillsides golden. All summer long irrigation sprinklers tsk, tsk, tsked water onto the parched, cracked earth. For years after my parents sold the ranch, I longed for that place.
In the dream I was always looking in from just beyond a old rusty gate that was closed across the driveway. On either side of the gate were large wild rose bushes that bore fragrant yellow blooms in May. I saw the narrow, curvy sidewalk where my chubby legs furiously pumped my tricycle pedals. Thick smells of lanolin and sheep manure wafted from the barn where ewes bleated urgently for wandering lambs.
The dream was so real that I longed to fling open the gate and sit under the sycamores where Dad would grill garlicky lamb chops while Mom banged pots in the kitchen and wind chimes tinkled in the cool evening breeze. But I never opened the gate in the dream and my parents never appeared. I would awaken to feelings of loss and the conviction that I was not part of that place or them. Great salty tears would slip down my cheeks, into my mouth, and onto my pillow.
What was behind the gate and why did I weep? I had never dared ask. After what I learned about the Baby and the Prostitute I wondered why. I needed to go and see. I thought that if I went and stood by the rusty gate and pondered questions about my life there, even though my parents were no longer living, answers would pour out like hordes of bats leaving a cave at twilight. But when I finally did travel home there were no immediate answers there either.
My story started before I was adopted, before my birth and relinquishment. My flawed ideas about life began in the womb when I bonded to my birth mother and was separated from her at birth. Babies remember, studies have shown. It’s been said that this breaking of bonds and separation is a kind of death, both of the mother to the child, and also to the child’s self and wholeness. Of course, no one knew that then, least of all me.
If I remembered that pain that’s been described as almost cellular, I no longer consciously did. And trauma persisted. Records from my adoption file said that right after I was born and given up, I had emergency surgery to remove a cyst on my trachea and spent two months recovering in the hospital. These were followed by four more months in foster care before the paperwork was completed to relinquish me. At six months, my adoptive mother told me later, my foster mother delivered me to her with a note saying, “Don’t hold the baby too much, it spoils her.”
What happens to a baby when she cries, and no one comes? I learned that I was the only one I could trust to meet my needs. I might have recovered when for a time as an only child I was the center of my parents’ affection, but less than a year later they adopted a son, a fetal alcohol syndrome baby with night terrors who slept little. I appeared to be content so meeting his immediate needs became more important than mine. In time any trust I had placed in them as nurturers was destroyed. I yearned for their love and simultaneously rejected it. Especially my mother’s.
When I asked years later why she didn’t know I needed her, she said only, “Your brother needed me more. You seemed happy. I used to put you in your crib. You liked it. You reached for it.”
And then, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
I came to my parents wounded and they did not fix me. So, I perfected my flawed idea of living. It was an idea of insignificance, of abandonment and loss. I was hyper-vigilant, changed friends like clothing, and people always disappointed me. I trusted no one.
My earliest memory was when at age 4, my parents picked us up at the babysitter. We were riding home in our old red station wagon. It was hot. I was sticking to the vinyl backseat, fists clenched, sobbing and furious because they had returned from shopping bringing my brother a pair of pants and me nothing. My anger had nothing to do with clothing.
“Oh, Teri,” my mother said in disgust. “Stop it! You’re so selfish! Stop it now!”
Her words shot at me like fiery darts and established her expectation. I was to be the good child, but I wasn’t. Inside I was angry, bitter.
“You need to understand your brother,” my mother told me when I was older. “He can’t help himself. It’s not his fault. He needs our understanding and love. He can’t act differently.”
Except he could when he had to. When he finally met someone who held him accountable, a judge who put him behind bars in Folsom prison for three years for manufacturing drugs, he was scared straight for an entire decade. While those were the happiest years of my parents’ lives, once my mother passed, he returned to dysfunction. I tried to forgive all of them, but I couldn’t. My parents never understood that theirs was a responsibility I would not shoulder.
When my mother died, we had a very tiny window to reconcile our mutual disappointment. I was eleven hours away from the hospital and asked her if she wanted me to come home to say goodbye.
“I won’t be there,” she said flatly. So, I didn’t go.
Hours later, after my brother and father said their final goodbyes and left her at the hospital to die alone, I called her room to ask for an update.
“She’s resting comfortably,” said the nurse. “But her eyes are following me around the room. I can hold the phone to her ear if you like.”
Mom liked to accuse me of having to have the last word. This time I did.
“I love you, Mom,” I said. “It’s ok to go now.”
I imagined that had she been able to speak, she might have repeated it to me. I still didn’t cry.
My New Idea of Living
The Baby and the Prostitute slipped beneath the waters of history without making a ripple until I found and tumbled their stories in my mind, searching for meaning. Their stories and mine were puzzle pieces that were part of a bigger picture. I was afraid of the waters that covered them. Afraid that they would similarly erase any trace of my life, of me.
Had I not traveled, had I not encountered them and their stories, would I, could I have changed? I don't know but am thankful.
As Miriam Beard said, travel confronted me with myself and showed me truths I had never entertained. Now, my new idea of living embraces the past - as it was - without needing to rewrite or regret it. What and who I am is enough. My present and my future are what matters. While I can never rewrite my beginning, I’m crafting a better ending.
I think that someday I may learn to cry. And not hate it.