Too Tough To Die 

Sometimes it takes a manners monitor to bring a family together

This is my second time to Tombstone, Ariz., which shouldn't be a surprise since this is a family trip and graveyards were always a big draw for my family. Some of my fondest childhood reflections were of those times when my mother packed us all into the family Fairlane and off we headed to the local cemetery to watch the deer eat flowers off of fresh graves. Good times.

Anyway, Tombstone bills itself as the place "too tough to die," and you gotta admit, for a place hardly bigger than a few city blocks situated smack in the middle of the giant-ass dust basket of the Arizona desert, it's fairly astounding that it's still around. It's the cactus of little towns -- not the flower, mind you, because flowers die -- but the cactus.

By all accounts, it should have shriveled up and croaked long ago, but it survived on its own bloody notoriety as a roadside attraction, of sorts, for those traveling between Tucson and Bisbee. "Famous Gunfight Site of the O.K. Corral!" billboards blare. The nearby Boothill Cemetery draws attention, too. Years had to pass for that to happen, though, as the old dead are a lot more acceptable as a tourism curiosity than the fresh dead. For example, you can't really charge money to see the fresh dead; that's something you just have to luck into during your daily activities.

So the road to Tombstone stayed open, and the people here nurtured that tiny tributary with what they had: a gunfight site, a graveyard, a few former brothels turned bar-and-grills and gift shops that sell re-creations of authentic ad bills, such as the 1881 Boothill Cemetery advertisement that boasts, "Why Walk Around Half Dead When We Can Bury You for Only $22.00?" One by one, the people stopped by and a lot of them stayed, many of them exactly the kind of outcast you'd expect to be attracted to a place like this -- the handlebar-mustache, silver-spur wearing saloon-keeper kind. So Tombstone grew, but not too much, and today it's a lovely little enclave to visit.

I'm here to spend Thanksgiving with my family at the house of my brother, to whom I've hardly spoken in years. My little sister, to whom I speak all the time, arranged it. I'm reminded of when we were kids and our parents used to assign a "manners monitor" to the dinner table; someone who would remind us to keep our elbows off the table and not chew like a chimpanzee. My sister, Kim, made the best manners monitor so she was assigned the duty a lot. When our father died it was sudden, and we were all too young to behave horribly toward each other. Then our mother went and died a slower death just a decade later, just as we were blossoming into maturity and old enough to blame each other for her sufferings, and that type of pain and blame will last forever if you let it. Believe me, I was the worst offender.

During this time, my sister Kim kept our channels open to each other, intervening just as one of us was in danger of estranging ourselves from the other forever. In short, she is still our manners monitor. She is the one who arranged the family trip to Nicaragua this year so we could visit my sister, Cheryl, who probably moved there to get away from us. Kim practically had to stick a hook in my tongue and drag me there, but I've been back on my own accord twice since then. It turns out I love that place and I still love my sister Cheryl, too.

My brother lives nearby in St. David. He moved to the middle of the Arizona desert years ago to be near his wife's parents, who themselves had moved there to retire. I always thought these desert retirement communities were weirdly like those far-off lairs where old elephants go to die, but I might be wrong. Sick old elephants don't play golf all day, for one, and they don't host pool-house "mixers" every third Thursday, either. So, though I'm not totally sold on the idea, I'm at least open to the possibility that, by the time I'm 700 years old, the idea of a Tuesday-night doily circle might seem enticing, especially since I hope to spend those years hopped up on morphine.

Anyway, here we all are, together again by my sister's insistence, doing the family thing. I usually act like it's a big bother, but now I realize the bigger bother is keeping up the act. My brother's house is off a dirt road next to a strange oasis of orchard trees owned by his neighbor. Other than that, there is nothing around. When he comes out to greet us, from our vantage, with the sun setting on the empty landscape in the distance, we are the only people on Earth.

Everybody hugs, and Kim can breathe easier now. She has done her job, she has kept our connections open, and love can survive like that. It really can. All it needs is just a tiny tributary. Then, as long as you keep the road open, you can nurture it with what you have, no matter how meager that offering may seem, and it will survive on its own bloody notoriety until it thrives again.

Because love ain't no flower, believe me. It's tougher than that. Love is a cactus.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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