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Nina de la Tierra

Okay, last time, I had us in New Mexico and I was revisiting (in my memory) the estate sale we had after my parents passed on. But, I was taking a short break from that just to talk about my mom and dad a little, who I felt I was short-changing.

So, I’m going to do my mom this time...

She was a small woman...very small, over five foot two but not by much...with very delicate features. I realized later she was an extremely beautiful woman as well, something I somehow missed as a child, which is something you do when you’re very young.

She was also very, very dark...dark haired, olive skinned. She was so dark that in New Mexico she was always being mistaken for Hispanic and people were always speaking Spanish to her -- a problem given that she spoke very little of it, in spite of her heroic but only marginally successful attempts to learn the language.

I never knew what accounted for her coloration, though I do have my suspicions. She was born in 1933 in Traphill, North Carolina (1), though I gather she was raised mostly in Virginia, in particular near Chincoteague, home of the world famous ponies.(2)

I don’t know much about her family or her ancestry. There were all sorts of stories about them, though. The most common tale, which I heard several times from several relatives, was that she was a mix of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee--which actually makes some sense. When Andrew Jackson and his enablers sent the Five Civilized tribes on the Trail of Tears, at least some of the Cherokee people elected to defy the U.S. Government (again, defiance) and stay behind. Supposedly, they mixed in with local white settlers and were soon lost to history. My mother’s family was settled in the area where that could have happened easily.(3)

But getting back to my mother’s personal story -- her childhood was hard. Very hard. I said my father’s early years were difficult. Hers were infinitely worse. She was born into the very real poverty of the Southlands in the 1930s. Her mother came from farming folk...poor farming folk. Very poor farming folk. Her father was a sawyer, and worked in sawmills for most of his life, which, alas, was short. He died when my mother was still a teenager.

I never knew what killed him. My mother elected not to tell me. But I gather it wasn’t an easy death, or a quick one.

My mother, out of necessity, grew up tough. Poverty and need will do that to you. Though, here’s a story to give you an idea of what she was like, even when she was still a teenager. Her father was dying. He was in one room of their house. It happened to be drawing near my mother’s birthday. She decided to throw a birthday party for herself. Why not? No one else would. But, it so happened that a pompous and meddlesome local minister decided that this was inappropriate and came to rebuke my mother a day or so before the party.

This...was a mistake.

The story goes that she threw him out of the house with a torrent of invective that would have done credit to a 103-year-old sailor with a dirty mind and a serious attitude problem. If you’ve ever read the Tintin stories, think a tiny, delicate, pretty teenage girl ...with the vocabulary and the sheer volume of Captain Haddock.(4) I’m guessing the poor fool of a minister never quite recovered from the experience. Which served him right, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway...she grew up. Things slowly improved for her family. She ended up working as a waitress at a drive in. And, one day, a handsome young sailor dropped in a for a burger and a malted...

About the photos: Several of my mother today. First, a shot of her when she was very, very young. I’m guessing this is a headshot from her high school days.

Once more, skipping ahead. By the time I knew her as “mom,” she was living in comfort in Albuquerque, N.M. For the first few years of my life, I think, she did her best to be what society had said she should be...i.e., a housewife and a mother. But, from the very beginning, she was uncomfortable with that. She found herself simply incapable of living her life to please other people. Fortunately, for domestic tranquility, my father understood this about her, and very much encouraged it.

 Second, a photo of her at the last Christmas we spent together. This was, I believe, 2012 or 2013.

So it was that when I was in grade school, she was off to University to get her degree. She was also an early and ardent convert to what is today called “Feminism.”

Then she was teaching in, first, the Bernalillo, and then, second, the Albuquerque public school systems. Somewhere along the way, and again with my father’s aid and comfort, she got her Ph.D.

Which is where her story takes an odd turn--sort of like the way my father’s story took a turn with SDI. Once she had the Ph.D., she should have gone on to teach at the college-level. That is what should have happened.

Third, her Ph.D. diploma from, interestingly, Austin, not far from where we now live.

But it didn’t. Why not? Because the academy is not always a nice place. It preaches tolerance and acceptance but may not practice them.

And there was my outsider, a woman in her 50s (5), a woman who had no connections in the Academy, a woman who didn’t always say or think the right things (6)...a woman who, well, had an edge...

It just wasn’t going to happen, was it?

So, just as my father was finding that there was something missing in his career as a physicist, my mother looked up and thought “Is this really the way I want to go forward?”(7)

The answer was no.

And so, my mom and dad, both at about the same time and for about the same reasons, set out together...hand in find what they really wanted to do with their lives.

Or, to put another way...

To discover, one more time, what they wanted to do when they grew up.

More to come.

 And, finally, a strip from an old fashioned photo booth that I found in their papers. This was on our Day Of The Dead altar in 2016, or just after they had both passed.


1. Traphill would have been a perfect place for my mother to be born. It, too, is beautiful and stubborn as a mule. It is a rural community, still very much a place of fields and forests, but which was famed for its obstinate Unionist and Abolitionist sentiments during the Civil War. According to its Wikipedia entry, Traphill became virtually a separate state, harboring anyone who opposed the Confederacy, and defiantly flying the Union flag even while North Carolina itself was one of the heartlands of slavery and secession. Later, during Prohibition in the 1920s, Traphill was famous for its Moonshiners and casual disregard for the Volstead Act. See:,_North_Carolina

3. Unfortunately, if so, it doesn’t turn up in my DNA. According to the results of my DNA profile, there isn’t a drop of Native American blood in my linage. As of September 17, 2023, my DNA results were 41% Scots, 39% “English and Northwestern Europe,” 12% Scandinavian, 7% Welsh, and a whopping 1% Finnish. Yes, folks, I paid a considerable sum to learn what I already knew--i.e., I’m the whitest white boy in civilization.

Still, my mother’s line could still carry Cherokee. Maybe it just didn’t get passed on to me.

5. Honestly, in spite of its many claims to the contrary, the Academy is one of the most Ageist places on the planet. The people at the top of the department may be creaking antiques, but a newcomer had better be in their early thirties at most.

6. This showed up in weird ways. My mother was, for instance, very much a Feminist, but she was a “second wave” Feminist,  and she was inspired by people like Betty Friedan. By the time she was looking for a job in Academe, the Second Wave had been replaced by Third Wave and even Fourth Wave Feminisms, and those movements were not always sympathetic towards “the bored white middle class former housewives” who had made up the movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

7. Honestly, things are even worse now for the Academy then they were when my mom was looking for a job there. As it has become dominated by professional managers and business interests, the “professor” has become very much a second-class citizen.  Increasingly, what little “teaching” is allowed to happen is done by underpaid “Part-Time Lecturers,” and resources are expended on  Sports Complexes and Administrative Centers.

I always thought the perfect metaphor for current higher “education” was this story: “$1 Million Of Frugal Librarian's Bequest To N.H. School Goes To Football Scoreboard,” by Bill Chappell, NPR, September 15, 20165:27 PM ET,

Copyright©2024 Michael Jay Tucker


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