Stone Fish Totem

carved stone fish from Mexico

My hair was brown, parents roamed the earth, and love was just in bloom

The fish has emerged from underneath the snow. You know, “the fish.” The carved stone fish from Michoacán from 1978. We’ve carried that thing everywhere we’ve moved.

My wife and I had barely gotten together. My parents were renting a home in San Miguel de Allende and invited us down for a few weeks. That was before the drug wars, but Mexico was pretty scary, anyway. Not as tense as hanging out with my mother and father, though. San Miguel de Allende, Jesus. We didn’t know what the hell to expect. All the way down there in a ’65 VW Beetle, hardly a word of Spanish between us. When we finally pulled into San Miguel, it was instant Middle Ages! Narrow cobblestone streets, beggars, here and there a donkey. There were houses hidden behind walls with massive wooden doors. My parents rented one of them.

It was all so crazy. Still the John & Helen Show, but down in Mexico. There was a woman who washed our clothes by hand in a little shed out back. Her name was Juana, and I’m afraid I called taking her the laundry “putting ’em in the juanawasher.” A fellow named Francisco stood in the yard and held a hose to water the trees. Inside, the house was normal enough, with lots of tiles and funny bathrooms. There was no TV or even radio that I remember. At night you ate and read or in my parents’ case, got drunk and threw things.

There was an expat community of some size then—it’s surely bigger now—and all of them were nuts. I think they mostly got together to booze it up and chase each other’s wives, which must have suited Dad just fine. They also smoked a lot of cigarettes and spent time looting the nearby towns of handicrafts and objets d’art they’d buy for next to nothing. Some of them, like my mother, were genuinely interested in Mexican culture and did their best to learn the ways and mores of the people in the markets and the countryside. We were on just such an overnight excursion with my parents into the neighboring state of Michoacán when we found the guy in the woods on top of a mountain selling carved stone fishes by the side of the road.

Mexico was like that then. Maybe it still is, but I doubt it—serendipity and bags of human heads don’t mix well in my imagination. Michoacán was beautiful, though, something like a wet New Mexico. And here was this fellow with the fishes, in the middle of nowhere, really, and my wife bought one. That one, up there. It was good we stopped, in any case, because riding in the back seat while my father chain-smoked made me carsick.

But there’s the fish again. I love that thing. So stark and pure. Wherever it lives, my wife does, too. I’ll either be nearby or in a memory, so mark it well.

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  • Jim Moore January 22, 2013, 11:08 PM

    Always funny to me how we have trod some of the same paths, John. Mary Lou and I spent New Year’s and several other days 1978 at San Migeul Allende. Rode the Aztec Eagle down from Nuevo Laredo. Stayed at a former monastery called Casa de Nunjas for about $15 a night. Amazing place with Saltillo tile and giant kiva fireplaces in the corner and cast iron beds. Had a great time. Mexico was my territory as a TV correspondent so I spent a lot of time down there. But I haven’t been back since the forest fires in 99-00. And I will never go back.

    • JHF January 22, 2013, 11:16 PM

      No kidding, ’78 as well? That’s wild. Our month or whatever it was in San Miguel was our only time together down there, although 10 years previous to that, I rode across the mountains on the train from Ojinaga to Saltillo to Los Mochis with another wife! Other than walking across the Rio Grande to Boquillas in ’64 to buy warm beer with a couple buddies of mine, that’s it for me and Mexico.

      Still can’t get over you guys being there that same year.

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