Dolores Smith-Mejia: 20 March 1936 — 9 December 2015
She was known around Boonville as the Stick Lady, a gaunt, listing figure in hip-length khaki, high-water trousers, a leather Australian bush hat securely fastened to her head, a predictable sight every afternoon, rain or shine. On hundred degree days she'd walk in the morning. On rainy days Dolores would walk up and down the grandstand stairs at the Fairgrounds. Her daily effort may have extended her life, or abbreviated it. She refused to see a doctor, ever. I told her the story about my mother, a registered nurse in her working life who made it to 90. One day I heard a young neurologist ask my mother when she'd last seen a doctor. "Never!" she exclaimed. "Why do you think I'm still alive?" The story resonated with Dolores.
Dolores existed on a starvation diet of brown rice, kale, carrots, boiled eggs and cheese, and not even much of these austere viands, which she nibbled at all day rather than downed them as meals. How she could get her emaciated body out the door for three to four miles a day on foot amazed us for the five years Dolores lived with our odd collective, as you might call the several persons who shared our place with some ragged semi-feral cats and a bedraggled flock of chickens.
Dolores and her late husband, Jesse, had been friends of mine back to the middle 1980s when, from San Francisco, they subscribed to the Boonville weekly. Jesse was a heavily decorated veteran of World War Two and a retired school teacher. He was from El Paso, Dolores from Coldwater, Michigan. They'd met as substitute teachers in rural Michigan where Dolores' father was a newspaperman, her mother a Norway-born housewife. Jesse was somehow estranged from his family, but both he and Dolores, a pair of ascetic peas in a leftwing pod, were always, in my experience of them, very much of the present. They never talked of their families. Dissenting politics, literature, music sustained them. Dolores, when she began to seriously slip a month ago, blurted out the unbearable information that their son and only child had been claimed by the Golden Gate Bridge. We hadn't known she had a son. She'd never mentioned him, nor had his father. Her conversation was strictly political and, truth to tell, often tedious in the way only the religiously politically correct can be tedious. Dolores was all Big Picture business, and she was never, in my life with her, encouraged by the news.
When her husband Jesse passed in 2002, Dolores returned to the family home in Michigan where she cared for her brother until he died. She said she had two brothers, both of them special forces military men. Dolores was hardly a militarist, and it was one of the great ironies of her life that she was surrounded by veterans and went out of her way to hand out cash to the homeless vets she encountered in Ukiah. She viewed them all, including her brothers, as victims of delusional imperialism.
When her Michigan brother died, Dolores wrote to me to ask if she could come out and live with us. She said she felt more comfortable with us than with the few remote relatives she had, none of whom she was in touch with and none she wanted to live with. And she didn't want to stay in Coldwater where, she told me, "I can walk all day and I never see another person on foot." I assume she was the sole left winger.
When we met her at the train station in Emeryville Dolores was so much changed I didn't recognize her. It's not as if she'd been a robust person, but when I'd last seen her in San Francisco six years before, she was spry, and a great city walker. Lean but not emaciated. I asked her if she'd been ill. Her gait looked to me like that of a stroke victim. Her left side seemed frozen. "I'm fine," she said. She always said she was fine even when it was obvious she wasn't. "The train took three days and the food was so bad I didn't eat." Dolores had always had crank diet tendencies, but she clearly wasn't well. We drove to the city where she downed three orders of egg foo young, a concoction the Chinese had invented here to please what they perceived as occidental palates and to sell their leftovers.
Then it was on to Boonville where Dolores, a social isolate except for us, was quite happy for the next five years, traveling to Ukiah every Tuesday on the bus, folding papers for us every Wednesday, tottering out for her spectral walkabouts, every afternoon. That was her day, every day, that and reading and the radio. KZYX was a great comfort to Dolores, especially the more left talk of Democracy Now and Jeff Blankfort's bi-monthly program. And she was also absolutely transported by the classical music shows of Gordon Black, Susan Jewell, Richard Herr, and the knowledgeable young man who hosts Wednesday's classical morning hours. She told me once how, as a young woman just out of college, she and a female classmate had driven to California in an MG convertible! I always had trouble reconciling that carefree image with her frightening ascetism.
A month ago, her conversation began to become quite odd, and it was obvious senile dementia had set in. She was convinced that fracking had interfered with the efficient functioning of her body. One day she brandished my electric toothbrush and demanded, "How exactly is this consistent with our mission here?"
As recently as last week, she was coherent most of the time, but last Saturday Dolores hit the wall. She could no longer control her movements and she was incoherent. I called for help and Dolores was hospitalized. The doctor said her body was "shutting down" and she'd developed pneumonia which, hospital staff assured us, carried off the elderly with a minimum of pain to them. She had a few lucid intervals in the hospital after which her attendants came away saying, "She's quite a lady."
Dolores had repeated in her five years with us, and with an almost mantra regularity, that when it was "her time" we were not to keep her alive. We honored her wishes, and so did the hospital about which I can't say enough good.
Monday, three hospital staff had had trouble with Dolores. She had ripped out her lifelines and was trying to get out of bed when David Severn, a kind of old lady whisperer, walked into the room and Dolores was instantly calmed. But she was slipping, and slipping fast.
I'd seen her at noon Wednesday and was unable to rouse her. The day before she'd recognized me, said my name, and had gone back to sleep, which turned out to be the eternal one. Dolores passed seven hours later, Wednesday evening.
* * *
Dolores, In Her Own Words.
Killing Us Softly With Software
Take a bow, you’re on the computer now!
Sucked in and swallowed byte by byte,
You didn’t even put up a fight!
You get instant oblivion at the touch of a key,
And nobody can hear your silent scream.
— Dolores Smith Mejia
Ghosts Of Reality: What’s Real?
(June 2002) — Michael Lloyd knows as evidenced in his “Ghosts on the McNab” in the May 22, 2002, AVA.
To discover your place in the natural world is to find your true home. That life-long effort is a humbling experience. It is the price you pay for the true self, that moment when you truly see “open-eyed, conscious and informed by love” (Joseph Conrad), that nature is the source of life and death — a garden and a graveyard.
“Overwhelmed with gratitude,” Mr. Lloyd “bears witness to the unfolding beauty and wisdom of nature,” but in doing so he finds it important to remind his readers that there is no refuge in mysticism: Death is the final negation — there is no immortality in his opinion.
If there is any form of immortality it is to be found in his home in nature (his house is… “saturated in memory.” … “I believe nature is the living sanction of memory, the metaphor of life. Death, the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns” brings eternal rest, peace, at last, after the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Sleep after toil, Port after storm
Death after life, Does greatly please.
— Dolores Smith Mejia