Silver Heels Mountain: A Monument to the Helpers.


Photo credit: https://peakery.com/mount-silverheels-colorado/

(Silver Heels Mountain/ I usually use my own photos, but I didn't have one of Silver Heels on hand. Photo credit linked. Thanks, internet!)

I stretched out on Opal's yarny, mustard-colored rug while her guinea pig, Lightening, rattled his water bottle behind my head. Opal's face was wide with expression, stretched like when I used to put putty on a comic strip to transfer the image, then pull and manipulate the features. I could feel the certainty of my being there at just the right moment. Missed moments have happened, missed moments are bound to happen, but in the example of this little pocket of time, I was right where I was needed to be for my girl, to receive her thoughts like apples from the tippy top of the tree before they fell and hit the ground. 

Opal, who's ten, had been reading a book called Trails, Tales, and Tommyknockers, a Colorado History book that had been written by the kindergarten teacher of Opal and Ruth's preschool teacher. The feel of the book is that of a tiny slice of history, same as the dress fabric of my mother's dolls. Who knows how many hands have held this particular book, how many fingers have turned the pages, which are a bit jaundiced.

Opal has always had a thing for old books. Even as a preschooler before she could read, she'd pick out the oldest version of any particular book from the used booked store we frequented in our neighborhood. You sure you don't want Brown Bear, Brown Bear? we'd ask. Nope. This 1930 edition of Treasure Island will do just nicely, thank you. I'm quite sure she has never actually read any of these books, they serve a different purpose, tokens from days of old. They had their own shelf, their own place in her room, as they did with their previous owners—many who probably existed some multiple decades before her birth. 

Now, it's different. Opal is an avid reader. And though her collection of antique books never crossed over into her world of couch-reading, she still loves real and true stories, just now in a more literal way. She has a voracious hunger for non-fiction from across the spectrum of time and place. She is currently simultaneously reading an autobiography on Misty Copeland, a book on 9/11, and gulping down as many short herstories as she can muster in any one sitting from podcasts like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. 

When this special book on Colorado history landed in her lap—by way of her preschool teacher from years back finding and offering it to her—she immediately set up camp in the corner of her closet, sunk into her chill-time beanbag chair and got to business. She didn't get too far before a chapter called Silver Heels in the Sky stopped her in her tracks. 

***

In summary, the story went like this:

A beautiful dancer came to the mining town of Buckskin Joe, just outside of FairPlay, Colorado, in the mid 1800's. She wore silver shoes and a silver ribbon in her dark hair, hence the nickname, Silver Heels. She worked at a place called Billy Buck's Saloon, and made it her business to dance with and entertain the rough, weary miners. That winter, her boyfriend became ill with small pox (said to have been brought by two men driving sheep through town) and died in her arms. Small pox spread like wildfire through the mining camp. Saloons, dance halls, gambling houses and mines shut down to slow the spread. The town was dreadfully low in hosptials and medical professionals. A telegram was sent to Denver asking for nurses, but few were willing to risk their lives or their looks, since smallpox often leaves its victims pockmarked for life. 

"But Silver Heels was not afraid," the story goes. She spent the long, dark winter caring for the sick and comforting the dying. When she eventually caught smallpox, "the townspeople nursed her tenderly for many weeks." She recovered, the spring returned, and the terrible sickness had passed. 

The miners collected $5,000 (which would be close to $150,000 now) to express their gratitude to Silver Heels, for her continuous acts of fearless attendance when the town needed her most. But when they went to deliver it to her cabin, she was not there. She had disappeared.  

Legend has it that a woman in a black veil (thought to be warn to cover her scarred face) still hangs around that local cemetery where many of the miners had been buried. But, when approached, she vanishes into the trees. The people of Buckskin Joe vowed never to forget her, so they named a mountain after her, as a beacon to keep her story alive forever.

***

Opal recounted the details of this story to me, gathering her muster as she went along. She chewed on the pieces in the telling of it—the beautiful, exceedingly generous woman named Silver Heels, the mining town and the small pox, the ruthless compassion of this woman, and how she disappeared, leaving behind a legend of a veiled woman in a cemetery and a gorgeous Colorado mountain as her namesake.

"Mom, the author says she doesn't even know if it's true!" 

I told her, it doesn't matter if it REALLY happened because the same story—regardless of the specific details—really did happen somewhere.

As I was saying it, I realized my wording didn't make a ton of sense, but I guess that was my point. Specifics didn't matter as much as the essence, the pulse of truth that lies under the (often mis-spoken) words. 

"Yea," she said, nodding her head. "But the Big Names are everywhere—Malala and Mother Theresa and Ghandi. They are so famous. But what about the ones who aren't famous? How do we hear their stories?"

***

I twirled the yellow fringe of her rug around my fingers, a rug that has journeyed from our bedroom to the office to the laundry to Ruth's room and then to land in Opal's room, where it does look most like it belongs. 

I savored this moment, and found that I began to mourn its completion even just as it began. I wanted to say something profound and imprinting. Something that leaves the conversation in a satisfied dead halt—the cottony after-air where god and all things holy live.

But I didn't. 

The flip side of living during a pandemic, during a time of protest, genuinely fucked-up politics and a continuous lack of genuine humanity in the news, is that it's fertile ground for un-named heroes. People are rising up all over the goddam place. 

"Let's think of a few right now, Opal," I said. 

She and I both had stories from Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls on our minds, since we binge-listened to five in a row during a recent lengthy car ride. 

Opal piped in, "What about Simone Biles? She would never have become a gymnast if her grandmother didn't adopt her!" 

And for each story we recalled hearing about amazing women leading incredible, paradigm-shifting lives, they all had a hero who showed up for them. Another one that I cannot shake is Alicia Alonso, world renowned Cuban ballerina who lost her eyesight and had to lie still in bed for an entire year after an eye surgery. Her husband, also a dancer, would dance out classical ballet movements in her palm using his fingertips, again and again, so she could envision herself on the stage, where she ultimately returned, with more muscle memory than sight to carry her through.

Very few people make it anywhere joyous or successful without heroes along the way, providing them with scaffolding, support, love like an IV drip. Caring for your granddaughter as if she were your own or sketching out the ballet Giselle in your palm.

***

Same as the parents who are giving online schooling their A (or B or even C, no judgement) game, and the teachers who are online teaching from their kitchen table while their child is on his computer, 'at school,' in the other room and the baby is (not) napping. Mercy, we are living in an era that is swarming with ordinary heroes for sheer volume of need! We must rise to our personal occasions right now—is there any other option?

And, we need help more than ever. So many of us are falling apart on a regular basis with no end in sight, from emotional small pox or long-suffering overwhelm that wrecks us like a blind woman who is dying to dance, but immobile in bed. Or we are in need of adoption from any number of parent-figures out there who can lead the way for us because we really don't know where the hell we—as a nation, as a species—are going.

Where is the hope? 

In the helpers, as Fred Rodgers would say, Look for the helpers. We take an active role in not allowing ourselves to drown in the muck of this era by consciously having deep gratitude for those who are helping us in any-which number of ways right now. It has to be at the forefront. Gratitude is the antidote to depression and hopelessness.

That is half of the equation. We must also be the helpers

As Opal said, what about those stories?


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