Nonfiction by Jenny Forrester: Up the Mountain to Leadville

I got the call – the one we all get at some point. When we get it is the story and who it’s about is the metaphor and our transformation is the meaning.

My call came in the afternoon when my daughter was still a baby, and I was still in my 20s. The call came from Mexico about my mother.

It wasn’t fair. My grandpa had died and the farm was sold and so mom never had to worry about money again, and after raising us in a singlewide trailer beside the highway of a small western Colorado town, everything seemed to be coming together.

In literature, that’s when we know to wait for tragedy.

There’d been a diving accident. There was an issue of money. Did I have money to get her body back to the U.S.? The man said things could be delicate when returning bodies to their home countries, but if I had $2,500.00, things would go more smoothly. I borrowed the money, and the man nailed the politics. He had her body sent to Leadville, the closest mortuary to her last home, a trailer in Dotsero, at the confluence of the Eagle and Colorado Rivers.

Mom had met some people in a hotel on the Yucatan Peninsula on her vacation just before the school year was about to begin again. They decided to go cave diving.

The rules for cave diving were clear.

  1. Reserve more air for your exit than you use going in.
  2. Bring more than one light.
  3. Lay your own line – don’t depend on the lines already laid down by previous divers.
  4. Don’t go beyond the limits of your training.

My mother and eight other people entered a cenote, a sinkhole. Inland fresh waters and ocean waters blend into haloclines as the tides push in and away again through the dark and narrow limestone passages.

There are two smaller holes in the limestone ring and a larger ring where the sun shines down into the sinkhole. Looking up from the water, you see two eyeholes and the gaping maw of the cenote’s namesake, the skull – la calavera.

If there’d been light inside the water-filled cave, the water would have been bright blue against the white walls. The stalagmites and stalactites like vampire’s teeth. The only times mom woke from her nightmares screaming in my childhood, there’d been vampires threatening.

I had to gather her things. I slept in her bed, smelling her clothes – like roses. I read her journals. I know, but I did. She wrote about Sheck, a cave diver who died, she missed him. She wrote about Vern, her long time boyfriend. She wrote about a nightmare that I was overweight again. I cried rage at her. My body, one of my ever expanding and contracting bodies, gave her nightmares. I looked through her checkbook – she just bought tires for my brother, home from the service, struggling.

She wrote this about Thanksgiving, the last one, “At dinner, Jenny told me a story about a panther that lost her paw when she put it through a fence at a wildlife sanctuary. She said the owners thought the panther should’ve known better than to stick her paw in where the lions were feeding. Can’t stop thinking about that poor panther. I’ve been so sad about it. I hope this is my last Thanksgiving.”

Mom always quoted Shakespeare. An educated woman living so long in the uneducated town of my youth, a town that steeled itself against education with a mythological foundation that education doesn’t create jobs, that work creates jobs. Mom knew literature. She knew the elements and it may have been too much.

Driving up to Leadville with Uncle John, mom’s younger brother, along the highway winding past our old farm by the river, the grocery store where I stole a piece of candy and she made me apologize to the clerk and I never stole again, passed the school where Mom taught in the town of Red Cliff, braving the icy roads past the red quartzite cliffs, scarred by mine tailings, old and new. I bawled the whole way up. Uncle John cleared his throat.

We passed the bend in the road where Uncle John ran his jeep off the road in 1970, back from Vietnam. His jeep had landed on a ledge. If he’d missed that ledge, he would’ve hurtled hundreds of feet to the bottom of the narrow canyon into the raging Eagle River. It was a spot marked by ritual – there’s where Uncle John went off the cliff.

When we got to the casket in that dark, ghost-filled room at 10,000 feet in elevation. The pioneer ghosts sat on their haunches around me, too exhausted to look up from under their bonnets, dead babies in their arms. I heard the swishing of ghost pebbles in hopeful pans – Leadville, the home of gold hunters. The mountains made of stone and money.

Uncle John and I held hands by the casket. I kept crying. He blew his nose – the way a man like him cries.

I told him I wanted to make sure I grieved properly because I’d read that if you don’t grieve properly, you carry your grief into the rest of your life.

He said with his Minnesota accent, his war and weather-hewn voice, “Well, I think you’re doing a fine job grieving.”

We buried her at a cemetery in Gypsum, with Hard Scrabble Mountain in the distance, in the café con leche colored hills above the Eagle River.

Vern was one of the pallbearers. He wasn’t our father, but he’d been our mother’s boyfriend for a long time. They went two stepping. He was a logger by trade. He taught us to hunt and drive a stick shift.

What I knew about Vern when he lifted one corner of our mom’s casket was that he wasn’t just the man who laughed at me when I cried every time we hunted. He wasn’t just the champion arm wrestler who used his strength against my mother.

In that moment, what I knew was he was wearing a tie and a jacket.

His best cowboy boots were shined.

I’m both haunted and comforted by Mom’s ghost, the ultimate transformation. I ask her, “Who was the first person you saw when you died?” and “What do you know now, that you didn’t know then?” and “Will we always be sad if we were sad in this life?”

Jenny Forrester has been published in Hip Mama, the Literary Kitchen, Nailed Magazine and elsewhere, including in Indiana Review and most recently in the Listen to Your Mother Anthology published by Putnam. Her work can also be found at KBOO and at her website: She curates Portland’s Unchaste Readers Series hosted by Literary Arts. The website is

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