On her way to the hospital the day I was born, my mother wanted to stop and eat a hamburger. She was hungry, and maybe wanted to fortify herself against the brutally hard work of pushing out a baby, a task that lay immediately and ominously before her. It was raining hard, and the streets were badly flooded. My father, a prudent man, wanted to be sure I was born in the hospital and not in his car. He loved my mother tenderly and was unlikely to deny her anything within reason, but he denied her this, and so I was delivered safely from the watery world of her interior to the watery exterior world of the Arizona desert in a cloudburst.
In the desert, rain is always a cause for jubilation. July and August brought the ferocious seasonal rainstorms on which all life, including mine, depended.
I was brought home to a house my parents had built of adobe on the last ten acres of my grandfather Fred Ronstadt's cattle ranch. He had sold it off in parcels during the dunning years of the Depression and relied on the thriving hardware business he had built in downtown Tucson at the end of the nineteenth century to supply a living for my grandmother and their four sons. It bore his name proudly as the F. Ronstadt Hardware Company and took up nearly a city block. I remember it as a wonderful place of heavily timbered floors and the pervasive smell of diesel oil. Inside it were tractors, bulldozers, pumps, windmills, bins of nails, camping supplies, high quality tools, and housewares.
My grandfather, having been born in Sonora, Mexico, did business with all the Mexican ranchers who were within a three or four days' drive by car, a journey often made by my father. In those days, the border was a friendly place, and easy to cross. We knew many of the families in the north of Mexico, and we attended one another's balls, picnics, weddings, and baptisms. My parents often drove us across the border into Nogales, which had wonderful stores where we would shop. After that, they would take us to the cool, plush recesses of the Cavern Café, and
we would be served a delicious turtle soup.
I deeply miss those times when the border was a permeable line and the two cultures mixed in a natural and agreeable fashion. Lately, the border seems more like the Berlin Wall, and
functions mainly to separate families and interfere with wildlife migration.
My father, in addition to working in the hardware store and going to the University of Arizona in Tucson, helped my grandfather on the ranches he owned. My mother, who was called Ruth Mary, told us that the first time she saw my father, he was riding his horse up the stairs of
her sorority house. He was pursuing someone who was not my mother, but his eye was soon drawn to her.
In 1934 she'd made the three-day journey by train from her home state of Michigan to the University of Arizona, where she was enrolled to study math and physics. She was passionate
about math. When she was worried or couldn't sleep, we would find her at three o'clock in the morning, sitting at the dining room table, working a problem in calculus.
Her father was Lloyd G. Copeman, a well-known inventor, with the electric toaster, electric stove, rubber ice cube tray, and pneumatic grease gun to his credit. He also operated an experimental dairy farm in the Michigan countryside and, early in the twentieth century, invented a milking machine. He used to demonstrate one of his inventions, a 1918 version of the microwave oven that he called "cold heat," by frying an egg through a newspaper. Thinking that the oven was too expensive to manufacture, he never patented it. He worked closely with Charles
Stewart Mott, then chairman of the board of General Motors, and developed a great deal of what was then state-of-the-art equipment in the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan.
Old Mr. Mott was fond of my mother and came many times to visit us in the wilds of Tucson. In the fifties, he was caricatured with his enormously bushy white eyebrows as General
Bullmoose in Li'l Abner, a long-running comic strip drawn by Al Capp. We read it regularly in the Tucson Daily Citizen.
Coming from such a background, my mother must have found my father, and the Arizona desert that had shaped him, to be richly exotic.
My father, known as Gilbert, was handsome and somewhat shy. He rarely spoke unless he had something worthy to say. When he did speak, his words carried a quiet authority. He had a beautiful baritone singing voice that sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante, the famous Mexican matinee idol and singer, and Frank Sinatra. He often sang at local venues like the Fox Tucson Theatre, where he was billed as Gil Ronstadt and his Star-Spangled Megaphone. He serenaded my mother under her window with pretty Mexican songs such as "La Barca de Oro" and "Quiéreme Mucho." Added to this was the fact that when my mother was introduced to
my grandfather, an autodidact, he dazzled her with his knowledge of geometry and calculus. My mother surely thought she was marrying into a gene pool that would produce mathematicians, but my grandfather was also a musician, so musicians were what she got.
In the late nineteenth century, my grandfather was the conductor of a brass band called the Club Filarmónico Tucsonense. He taught people how to play their instruments, conducted the
band, composed and arranged, and played the flute. I have the cornet part written in his own hand from an instrumental arrangement he wrote for The Pirates of Penzance in 1896.
He was a widower when he married my grandmother. A daughter from his first marriage, Luisa Espinel, was a singer, dancer, and music scholar who collected and performed traditional
songs and dances from northern Mexico and many regions in Spain. She can be seen in a brief comedic appearance as a Spanish dancer in The Devil Is a Woman, a 1935 film that starred Marlene Dietrich.
In the twenties, she wrote a letter home to my grandfather from Spain, where she had been performing. In it she reported that she was hugely excited about a guitarist she had hired to
be her accompanist. She said he was such a brilliant player that he could hold the audience when she left the stage to change costumes. She wanted to bring him to the United States because
she was sure he would make a huge hit with American audiences and eventually establish his own career. His name was Andrés Segovia.
When we were small children, visits from Aunt Luisa were wonderfully exciting. She taught my sister how to do the shimmy and how to play the castanets, and allowed her to try on the beautiful regional Spanish costumes that she had worn as a dancer.
She had lived many years in Spain and been married to a painter who was a Communist and had supported the cause to establish a republic in the Spanish Civil War. My aunt had been
friends with the poet Federico García Lorca, who used to play her guitar while he recited his beautiful poems. We found her deliriously glamorous. Many years later, I would take the title
of a collection of Mexican folk songs and stories she published called Canciones de Mi Padre, and use it to title my own first recording of traditional Mexican songs.
My mother and father married in 1937. Between that time and the beginning of World War II, they produced my sister, Suzy, and my brother Peter.
When the war started and my father joined the army, our mother went to work at night in the control tower of Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, the base outside of Tucson. Toward the end of the war, the planes that flew out of there on their way to war were mostly brand-new Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. After the war was over, all but a few of the B-29s that could still fly came back to Davis-Monthan, part of which became a graveyard for the decommissioned planes of World War II. Their flight path took them directly over our house. My mother would catch the sound of their engines and run outside and wave at them frantically. We kids would wave too. She had launched them into battle from her control tower, and she must have felt some obligation and no small amount of emotion to welcome home the ones that made it back alive.
I was steeped in the sound of the B-29s in my childhood and often tried to emulate it in the string arrangements in my recordings. It seems to appear in the grind between the cello and double bass, particularly in the interval of a fifth.
In the treacherous currents of the Great Depression and World War II, my grandfather nearly lost his hardware business. His unwillingness to foreclose on the farmers and ranchers
who were struggling in the same way didn't help his bottom line, but he was loved and respected throughout the valley and beyond to Mexico as a good man who kept his word.
During the Depression, my father turned down an offer from Paul Whiteman, by far the most popular bandleader of his time, to tour with them as their "boy singer." Over the years,
other singers with the Whiteman Orchestra included Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Billie Holiday. I believe it was a decision that caused him some disappointment, but family loyalties
prevailed. He and his brothers helped my grandfather with the ranch and the hardware store, finally selling off the ranch and plowing the money back into the store. They managed to
survive the Depression and build the business.
There was never any extra cash, but we had what we needed. My mother used to joke that when she first met my father, he had a red convertible, a horse, a ranch, and a guitar. After she
married him, all he had left was the guitar. He had my mother too. They rarely quarreled, and when they did, it was well out of earshot of their children. They were always on each other's side, and their marriage lasted until my mother died in 1982.
Excerpted from Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir by Linda Ronstadt. Copyright (c) 2013 by Linda Ronstadt. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.