Case V: Salvation & Sabotage
Chapter 1: Dueling Divas
Isabella Duncan met regularly with La Doña Jaramillo, at least once a quarter, typically for a modest lunch at one of several family-owned restaurants near Old Town. Each of these establishments was also a beneficiary of Señora Jaramillo’s community support. Señora Jaramillo never interfered with the day-to-day operation of La Vida Aureo. The primary purpose of these luncheons was simply to serve as a constant reminder to Isabella that La Vida Aureo existed because of Señora Jaramillo’s largesse and that her very high standards of excellence were inviolate.
Isabella knew that she would have to update Señora Jaramillo about all of the recent incidents that had occurred at La Vida Aureo and how she had dealt with them. Isabella had known Señora Jaramillo long enough to assume that she was already aware of many things and Isabella could not leave out any of the major details. She decided to focus on the potential impact of each incident on La Vida Aureo and how, in dealing with it, she had strived to protect the institution and its residents.
Señora Jaramillo was pleased that the death of the Maintenance Man had been an accident and that young Maria had been exonerated (Case I, September 2014). “I know her family quite well and she is an intelligent girl with a bright future. I’m glad that Paloma has taken her under her wing. I expect you to encourage Maria to pursue her education. That drug business was potentially very damaging but you were able to resolve it quickly without any adverse effects on La Vida Aureo (Case II, October 2014). I remain upset about the death of that woman and the complicated circumstances surrounding it and I understand that the District Attorney is still reviewing all the evidence (Case III, November 2014). I am grateful, Isabella, for the way you dealt with Martina Trujillo and her difficult situation. Father Michael has talked to me in depth about the situation at Our Lady of the Valley and enlisted my help. I am confident that we can provide some level of assistance (Case IV, December 2014). Father Michael also mentioned that you have been fortunate to have located a valuable ally among the residents, one Señor Dudley. Tell me about him.”
“Oh, Señora Jaramillo, he has been quite helpful and I appreciate his support more each day that passes. It was actually Paloma who was instrumental in my discovering him. He had known her children before and she was the one who enlisted his help in the death of the Maintenance Man and the accusation of Maria. I’ve asked him to remain at La Vida Aureo and serve as our resident Handy Man. I’ve encouraged him to sell his home with the hope that he will stay indefinitely. He is an interesting man and has many qualities that will benefit the residents and me, but, most importantly, he shares my vision for the future of La Vida Aureo.”
“He has no family?”
“He is a widower and his children live far from here. He has a group of friends locally that he meets occasionally for coffee, but seems to be growing more content in his role at La Vida Aureo.”
“You must suggest that he and his friends try the coffee and pastries at Saville & Sons here in Old Town. The owner, Hector Guzman, is an old friend of mine.”
“I will certainly mention it to him.”
“Isabella, I am pleased with the progress you are making despite these unfortunate incidents. I know you will remain ever vigilant for the safety and wellbeing of all residents. I would like you to start thinking about the future of La Vida Aureo in more detail. I grow a bit more concerned each day about our ageing population and what the future holds for them. I know we cannot accommodate everyone, nor meet every need, but I want you to begin to develop a plan for the future.”
“I agree, Señora, and commit to doing so. That is another benefit of Señor Dudley’s involvement; he has considerable experience in planning and I plan to call upon him for his input.”
Isabella enjoyed these conversations with Señora Jaramillo and believed that all her comments were intended as constructive. She knew that Señora Jaramillo had confidence in her and her ability to manage La Vida Aureo. Isabella was relieved, nonetheless, that the incident with Warren Pearson (Case IV, December 2014) wasn’t mentioned. That situation just raised many more questions than it answered and Isabella was content to follow Hannah Halverstrom’s advice and let sleeping dogs lie.
At this point, Isabella assumed that the meeting was over, but remained seated out of respect. She knew that Señora Jaramillo would be the one to indicate that the luncheon was over, typically by asking Isabella to give her regards to Isabella’s husband, Edward. Instead, Señora Jaramillo leaned forward and said, “Isabella, I want to ask you to do something for me”
“Of course, Señora, anything.”
“Señora Ynes Tafoya Barela, one of my oldest and dearest friends, has recently suffered some serious health problems and I believe that she would be more comfortable at La Vida Aureo. I would greatly appreciate it if you would take her in as a resident.”
“Certainly. Can you tell me a bit about her and her situation so that I can find the most appropriate arrangements for her?”
“Ynes came to Albuquerque as a young girl when her family fled Spain during the Franco years. In those days, it was not safe for a woman to speak out for women’s rights and Ynes’ mother was quite active in the women’s movement in Madrid. She was arrested while speaking in public many times and imprisoned for over one year and frequently tortured. When she was finally released, she was a broken woman. The family was able to escape the country and eventually made their way to America. Her father decided that New Mexico would be the most suitable place to settle and they came to Albuquerque in the early 1960s. Señor Barela was an educated man and was able to become a lawyer and provide for his family by assisting other Spanish-speaking immigrants as they arrived. Although they had a relatively comfortable life here, Ynes’ mother never fully recovered from the abuse she endured while in prison. She was constantly troubled by nightmares and endured periods of extreme physical duress. She never took any of this out on her young daughter, but remained distant and unable to provide Ynes the love and nurturing a young girl so desperately needs. Ynes gradually withdrew further into herself as a means of protection and grew to be a lonely and often bitter woman. On the outside, Ynes appears strong and confident and a very capable woman and has assumed the persona of a wealthy and privileged Spanish aristocrat. It is my opinion that she has assumed the role that she always wanted for her mother. But, underneath, Ynes is deeply insecure and afraid. She hides this well with her external persona which can be quite irritating at times; one might describe her as haughty and arrogant. Because of this, she has had few friends in her life and certainly no romances that lasted very long. Despite these things, she has always been open with me and I consider her a true friend.”
“Years of living this very rigid life style have taken their toll and her physical health has suffered. She remains quite capable for the present, but I can see that soon she will need more care. Since she is alone without any family, I believe that La Vida Aureo would be the most appropriate living arrangement for her.”
“I understand, Señora Jaramillo and I am certain we can make her comfortable at La Vida Aureo. There are other women there who feel alone and I would hope Señora Barela could eventually develop some friendships, if only just casual ones.”
“Thank you, Isabella. I will make all the necessary arrangements and you can expect her by the end of the month.”
A few weeks later, a limousine arrived at the front door. Isabella had been thoroughly briefed and assumed she was totally prepared to welcome their new resident. But the woman Isabella saw exiting the limo could only be described as “imperious”; “haughty” was not an adequate adjective to capture the total effect of Señora Barela. Despite her years, she was strikingly beautiful in the classic Spanish sense, tall and dark with a fine-featured face. And the way she carried herself!
During her first few weeks at La Vida Aureo, Señora Barela proved to be quite difficult. She treated everyone with disdain, particularly Paloma and any other Spanish-speaking employees or residents. She considered herself an aristocrat from Spain and all of these other people were really not to Spanish; their Spanish blood had been mixed with a variety of peoples from the New World. Although she had been in America most of her life, Señora Barela preferred to speak only in Spanish and in a dialect common to Spain rather than New Mexico. Señora Barela eventually pressured Isabella into inviting a local priest to speak at La Vida Aureo and within short period of time, she had arranged to for a Catholic mass to be held in the chapel several times a week.
Paloma approached Matthew Dudley one day and shared her feelings with him. “I believe, she said, that Señora Barela is really a good person in her heart. I believe that the way she behaves and treats people is really nothing more than her way of keeping people from getting too close to her. I had a brief conversation with Señora Jaramillo to learn a bit more about Señora Barela. I believe much of her unhappiness is because of the loss of her mother when she was still young. She is afraid to let anyone close to her for fear they might die or leave her much as her mother did. I would like your help, Señor Doc, to try to break through that hard exterior shell and find the true person. But I will need you to keep a secret so that we do not upset other residents, particularly ones like Mrs. Branch. I would like to prepare a traditional Spanish dish of paella for Señora Barela and Señora Isabella. Could you help me set up the small conference room next Isabella’s office to serve this meal? It is my hope that this meal would begin to let Señora Barela know that she is welcome here and that she could develop friends. There is nothing for her to fear here.
Dudley thought this was a very positive gesture from Paloma, particularly in light of the way Señora Barela had been treating her. She had referred to Paloma as simply a servant. That had offended Dudley and made him realize what a remarkable woman Paloma Angostura really was to suggest this special meal. Dudley began the necessary preparations, doing most of the work late in the evening after most of the residents had retired. He was particularly careful to avoid the prying eyes of Mrs. Millicent Branch.
Although there was no particular reason for it, Millicent Branch took an immediate dislike to Señora Barela and decided that she would use Matthew Dudley as the focal point for her displeasure. She complained often that La Vida Aureo was becoming too Spanish for her. It further irritated Mrs. Branch that those individuals who spoke Spanish seem to gather and talk together. She began to refer to Isabella as Queen Isabella, just another one of those Spanish bitches. One day she told Dudley that she was concerned that pretty soon everyone would be required to speak Spanish to live at La Vida Aureo. And it will only get worse from there she said, this used to be a place a nondenominational service on Sundays and now it looks like the Catholics are taking over and there won’t be any place for anyone else. “Someone has to do something about this terrible situation”, she said. Dudley realized that Mrs. Branch’s underlying discomfort was that she felt that she was no longer the most important female.
As is too often the case with people like Millicent Branch, her behavior and its underlying cause, was not that dissimilar from what she found so distasteful in Señora Barela. For generations, the Branch family had lived in rural Oklahoma where they had initially settled as Sooner Pioneers. They were God-fearing people who farmed the land and lived a modest life. The Branch family were not prosperous but were self-sufficient and satisfied with their life-style. But then the rains so necessary for their survival stopped and the winds started to blow with ever increasing frequency and intensity. The crops failed and the family began to struggle. Millicent‘s mother was most affected by the constant wind and the ever-present dust that seemed to be everywhere. Millicent was a young girl at the time and was unable to understand why her mother would just sit for hours and rock back and forth. Often, her mother would go outside and scream at the wind to stop blowing so much dust into her simple prairie house. Finally, Millicent’s father realized that the situation was hopeless and that staying would only further jeopardize his family. So, he packed what few possessions they had and loaded the entire family into his pick-up truck and headed to California with its promise of a new life.
Perhaps it was the prolonged exposure to the blowing dust, but the truck began to falter after just a few days on the road. They had just passed Grants, New Mexico when the truck coughed its final smoke from the engine and died. Millicent’s father looked around and decided that this open space looked much like Oklahoma and decided to try his luck at farming here rather than attempt to get to California with a worn out family and exhausted truck.
Conditions for farming in Grants were not much better than those they had left behind. It wasn’t so much the wind, but the ground that was more rock than farmable soil. Despite valiant efforts, the Branch family struggled almost from the outset. They bought a few cattle in an attempt to become ranchers as well as farmers, but with little success. Hope was fading and Millicent’s mother had become almost completely withdrawn into a constant state of depression. Her father planned to make another attempt at reaching California when a large deposit of uranium ore was discovered on their property. It was the late 1940s and the United States was soon to embark on its Atoms for Peace programs. Uranium was perhaps more valuable than gold and its discovery changed the Branch’s fortunes forever.
The family became wealthy almost overnight and the fear of survival vanished almost as quickly. Millicent’s father bought more cattle and the feed and supplies necessary to insure their success as ranchers. But this was not necessary to support his family; the royalties from the uranium mining company provided income sufficient to live comfortably. Millicent and her sisters were sent to private boarding schools in Santa Fe while her father stayed in Grants to care for his wife. Millicent’s sisters were hesitant to leave, but Millicent realized that her mother had been essentially gone for many years. Millicent assumed the role of surrogate mother for all of the years that the girls were away at school, forcing her toward adulthood while bypassing those adolescent years that are often so full of joy.
Millicent never married; she felt that she simply did not have time for such frivolous pursuits. To everyone who met her, she was the mature, responsible, intelligent young woman with so much promise. Deep inside, however, Millicent was a lonely little girl who longed for the love and tenderness that her mother was incapable of providing. By the time Millicent’s younger sisters finished school, married and moved away, Millicent had accepted her fate as a woman who would remain alone her entire life. In subsequent years, several young men had shown an interest, but none ever seemed to measure up to her standards. Eventually, she did marry a man from Grants whose family owned the land adjacent to the Branch’s. They met at a public meeting held by the mining company to discuss a series of recent accidents that had occurred at the mine. Millicent considered their union less a marriage based on love than a joining of forces to combat unsafe practices at the mine. Unfortunately, her husband developed terminal cancer soon thereafter and died a painful death. Millicent believed that his death like too many others in the area were the result of the mine’s unsafe practices and she was determined to press for change if not permanent closure of the mine. She fought an unsuccessful battle for several years without success; uranium was just too important a commodity to allow an individual to impede progress.
Eventually, Millicent realized she had been defeated. She sold her interest in the mine and invested the proceeds in companies that she believed were more responsible and respectful of the environment and their employees. She also sold the land and moved to Santa Fe where she became active in social programs. The significant amount of family wealth generated by these careful investments provided a source of income for Millicent and her sisters for their entire life. At some point, she decided that she needed to be in a safer and more secure living arrangement and after some investigation, decided to move permanently to La Vida Aureo.