Sunday, December 01, 2013
Lady in denim, leather, and lace
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
We were on a deer hunt the first time Kathy visited Minnie Rice in her home.
I am not sure now if they had met previously, but that visit, in Minnie’s sparkling white kitchen, is emblazoned in her memory. We sat visiting as Minnie finished her ironing. Kathy’s eyes got big every time Minnie switched to a hot iron and banged it on the ironing board where a pillow case, or an apron, or a doile was being ironed.
The scene was like a foreign movie without a script. Never had Kathy witnessed ironing a starched apron much less ironing with an antique iron heated on a butane stove. There were three irons. One was heated and ready to go, one was being reheated after use, and one was being used while it was hot.
“Why doesn’t she just use a normal iron?” Kathy whispered after Minnie left the room with a finished pile of white treasures.
“Because there is no electricity here!” was the answer.
My first distinct memory of Minnie was in Ma’ Rice’s yard. I had climbed a tree by the gate coming in the west side from the road. Just a little guy, I lost control and slid down the trunk like a fire fighter sliding down a brass pole. My belly and chest were skinned from bottom to top. It was a near death experience.
That was made far worse when the Merthiolate was brought out. I was held down while it was applied generously across my exposed midriff. The horrors and the automatic use of that stuff still amaze me. Turned loose to stumble away to recover from that nightmare, the comments were the same.
“That’ll teach you to climb that tree!”
What I remember next was Minnie holding me and offering soothing comfort. She told me I was going to live as she blew gently over that ravaged scrape. My memory of that set the tone for her memories thereafter.
Blue and Minnie Rice were my great uncle and aunt. They lived at the end of 16 miles of dirt road north from Cliff under the Mogollon front on what most folks still refer to as the “Rice Ranch”. Any visit to their home remains an enduring memory. Built in the bottom of Sacaton, I can hear the wind blowing through the ponderosa pines in the yard.
Pieced together when she first moved in as bride, the house was scrubbed clean. With no electricity or telephone and water from the creek, it could only be termed a ranch camp in modern parlance. To every one of her grandchildren and those who wished they had been, it was a home of modest proportions, but immeasurable warmth.
Situated in the juxtaposition to the immensity of its setting, the house was a shelter from that raw magnificence. It was a place Minnie projected discipline of order and calm. I am convinced that the dominance of white from the paint to the curtains and precious possessions was her shield against the harshness outside. She brought feminine charm to that ranch world that soldered everything together. She gave it substance.
Energetic and constantly moving, she was a real hand. When protected from head to toe with felt, denim, and leather, she was a cowgirl.
From the diary and memories
I have parts of the May (Shelley) Rice diaries. ‘Ma’, as we knew her, was Minnie’s mother-in-law. For years, she would write of the daily drama in the lives of her pioneering clan. Minnie was a diary regular. Multiple visits a week to ‘the river’ and Ma’s were chronicled. Seldom was there any suggestion other than work. Blue and Minnie would deliver a load of wood. Blue would go to the field on a tractor or change water. Minnie would pick fruit, gather eggs, doctor a calf with screw worms, or fix supper. If she was going to town it was to pick up parts, salt, or something that was needed for a task. When supper was shared, Minnie would have three apple pies or a cake. The entries suggest constant motion, and that is exactly my memory of her.
Writing any part of Minnie’s story cannot be done without Blue. In the diary entries, they would stop by after working all day, visit, and then be gone off into the dark for Sacaton and chores that still awaited them there. They were together whether it was horseback, building fence, or greeting guests. Few can imagine that relationship today.
Forever regretful, I found myself at odds with Minnie only twice. Once is for another story and once I failed to inform her (or Blue) I was on the ranch. I had dodged school to hunt a deer. It was bow season, and, since I didn’t really want anybody to know I was playing hooky, I didn’t check in to reveal the transgression. I intended to cross Rain Creek and hunt on the Forest. Coming off the Rain Creek hillside, though, I spotted a good buck and he just wouldn’t leave! Quarrelling with myself and knowing better, I finally stalked him. I was within 30 yards or so of him in thick brush when I heard what could only be a horse coming off the hillside straight toward me. I couldn’t believe anybody had seen me, but I was on thin ice since we simply never hunted on Rice deeded land without permission. The buck finally tilted away and I was sitting there when Minnie rode right to me through the thick brush.
“Hi, Stevie,” she began in that soft Minnie voice. “You know I expect you to come to the house when you are here.”
She might as well have whipped me with her rope. She dismounted and we sat there on the hillside and visited. Her first words were only words of lecture, but they were profoundly effective. I never again knowingly disobeyed her wishes and she never said a thing to anybody about the whole episode … as far as I know!
Minnie has now been gone a number of years, but there are constant reminders in our life of her. If we have a white cake, better than even chance it is her recipe. It is one of those old recipes that produce a piece of cake that drops to the bottom of a glass of milk like a lead sinker. I love it and I think of her each and every time I am scolded for cutting a good piece of cake only to dunk it in milk.
We have numbers of her hand written notes. Her beautiful cursive handwriting is the stuff of museum quality. It was always in … blue.
Her messages were never incidental. She was always on the run and she would sit down long enough to write her message based upon something important to her and to us. It was never about her.
As we have faced the strife and likelihood of federal legislation that poses every threat to destroy our way of life, I often think of Minnie Rice. In many ways she represents the microcosm of all those things we attempt to describe about our ranching heritage, but find it almost impossible to describe. She gave herself completely to every task. Her words were always metered. They were straight, disarming, and barely audible, but when she spoke everybody listened. She taught us the difference between honesty, and … honesty.
Most of all, her disciplined stewardship and the adherence to a superior work ethic were essentially biblical. Following her examples still elevates the customs and culture within our way of life to levels few understand and fewer duplicate. She was an unexpected pathfinder.
The last time I saw her I had run home after grape harvest in California to again hunt a deer. Minnie was in the hospital in Silver City, but I wasn’t going to leave without seeing her. My vehicle was loaded and the fresh venison was still in the form of a dressed carcass so my visit had to be short before I left for an all night, nonstop journey home. It was long past visiting hours, but a kind nurse allowed the visit.
I slipped into the dark room and listened to her soft breathing. She was obviously asleep. I sat there for a time and silently thanked her for many things. As I got up to leave, I touched her. She felt it and asked who it was. I told her. The words will remain ours, but I cherish her memory dearly. She was the absolute, archetypical partner and ranch wife.
I remain so blessed … to be one of hers.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Never weighing over 105 pounds, Minnie Rice was a most powerful influence in many lives. A beautiful, Native Daughter of the American West she was.”