“How’s your mom?” I’m often asked these days.
She’s doing remarkably well, is my response, which is honest. Whenever I talk to her, that seems to be true.
And the reality is, she is doing remarkably well for a woman in her 70s who is undergoing chemo for the kind of breast cancer that doctors treat aggressively. In fact, she’s doing remarkably well for anyone who since March has been biopsied, lumpectomied, prodded, inserted with a chemo port and pumped full of chemicals. She has a short break before six weeks of radiation begin. These days, she rocks a turban, and most times we talk on the phone, her spirits are high.
For this, I must give credit to her doctors and nurses — and to my dad, who has been by her side every step of the way.
But I also have to give it to El Tiradito, the crumbling altar in the barrio just south of downtown, near my favorite college hangout, Cushing Street Bar. Even though my Midwest-raised parents — Bob and Marcy Wrenn — moved us here more than 50 years ago, we learned about it only a few years ago when an artist friend took my sister Susie there seeking help with work issues. Miraculously, the issue was resolved within a week.
Ever since my mom’s diagnosis in February, it’s been our regular stop-off on the way home from the airport whenever Susie or I come in from California.
It’s a ritual. First, my dad parks the car at El Minuto for a dinner that starts with a cheese crisp — a reminder of the ’60s when we were kids and Casa Molina was our go-to restaurant. Afterward, we head to the adjacent lot, where the centuries-old adobe wall provides the backdrop for offerings of handmade wreaths, altars and a plethora of tall candles in glasses with pictures of the Virgin Mary and other saints. There are racks, too, for candles like in Catholic missions and churches.
El Tiradito translates to “the little castaway,” though its gringo name is the “wishing shrine,” which is kind of cheesy, though that’s exactly why people go there. As for its origins, “Many explanations have been proposed, but no one seems to know for sure exactly why the shrine was built except that it involved broken hearts and a crime of passion,” says the Arizona Women’s Heritage Trail website. Versions of the story abound, but it’s not exactly your traditional Bible story (one involves a man, his mother-in-law and a shooting) — though that apparently doesn’t diminish its appeal for those who come to pray, seek guidance or just make wishes at its altar.
What our family loves about it has nothing to do with story and everything to do with the soulfulness of the place. There’s something about standing there reflecting as we breathe in the desert air — crisp in winter, sultry with warm rain in the summer — the randomly flickering candles, and our family’s shared sense of connection to the desert and this city.
It’s been decades since I’ve lived in Tucson, but I’ve come to appreciate that it’s part of my DNA. When my daughters were asked to bring food to a school potluck that reflected their heritage, I brought chimichangas. The influence of Indian and Mexican folk art are all over the walls in the house where I grew up — and in my home in the Bay Area. And they’re definitely a part of my mother’s ceramics. In fact, the summer monsoons inspired her “monsoon pots,” a signature series of dishes in glorious blues and reds.
Before her surgery in March, she closed up her studio, though only temporarily, or so we all hope.
And so we visit El Tiradito. My mom opens a box filled with candles (this place is strictly BYOC), and we each choose one and solemnly consider where to place them. I always look to balance the symmetry of light, hoping to somehow weave my small flame seamlessly into the greater whole.
Then we each write a wish on a small piece of paper, fold it up and set it on fire. We watch as the ashes disappear into the night. For a family that left the church decades ago, it’s a profoundly spiritual rite.
The shrine’s origins may be mysterious, but there’s no mystery about what our wishes are for.