Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

Myrtle’s husband did not enjoy farming, but with almost no job opportunities he did his best at it. Then World War II brought the top-secret Manhattan Project to Los Alamos, and he found work as a carpenter there. But at about the same time he did, Myrtle turned 50 in 1942, and decided she wanted to pursue a new course in her life.

Her daughters were married by then, and had given Myrtle and Carlos some grandchildren. But a grandson named Ray developed leukemia. He was treated at the medical lab in Los Alamos, but the disease, which was almost always fatal in that era, killed him. In her sadness, Myrtle decided to become a lab technician to help fight cancer.

When she tried to follow through, however, she found that no school would train anyone over the age of 45. Frustrated, she discussed the situation with the head of medical research at Los Alamos. He was impressed, and said he would train her himself. She became proficient in hematology and cytology, and passed her registry exams. Until  1969 she worked as a technician. But she left the job when her ill mother moved here.

After her mother’s death in 1973, Myrtle began to jot down her reflections about life along the Rio Grande. She showed her work to the editor of the weekly Rio Grande Sun in Española, and he was sufficiently impressed to offer her a column for which she would be paid $2.50 a week. It was the start of her third career. Her column won prizes in journalism contests, and came to the attention of Smithsonian Magazine, which in 1996 featured her prominently in an article about the residents of Velarde.

She continued her “Housewife by the Rio Grande” column--full of tips, recipes, musings and stories--until 1999. But then she quit--even though by that time her pay had been raised to $7.50. “I just decided that, at 91, I was tired of writing,” she explained. “I just didn’t want to drag that heavy typewriter out to my kitchen table anymore.”

In retirement Myrtle remained active in the Velarde United Methodist Church, where she was married, and she has been a generous volunteer and piano player at the Hacienda del Salud Nursing Home. There she likes to visit “elderly friends,” some of whom are 30 years her junior. But at night she returns to the home that she and her husband built in the 1930s. She still does housework, but now refuses to mow the lawn.

Her greatest pleasure at this time in her life is her extensive family, with many members living nearby. There are eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. And Myrtle likes to remind them wisely: “Doors close, doors open.”

Photo © 1999 Steve Northup