Jo Baeza is sitting at a long table in the St. John’s library in St. John’s, Arizona. If this state could have historical and journalistic royalty it would be her. A few minutes ago she walked into the room that was reserved for the authors to meet the readers and buyers in this farming and horse lover’s town. The best thing about being here for her is talking to people and the authors with their own stories.
Baeza is diminutive and clear eyed: A source of great information, as I overhear her say to someone that whenever there was conflict in this state it was due to water. She has horses and two grown step-children; she says many times how much she loves children…and horses…and her freedom. “Freedom is more important than being loved,” she says.
Her thoughts were similar back in the 1960’s when she loved the children of Joe Brown and married him and raised them. “They didn’t have a mama in Mexico,” she says, and as she goes back in time and moments on this windy cold day in St. John’s, her love of her own life is revisited.
“A defining moment for me was when I became a Catholic in 1981 and made a decision to remain single. I do really well by myself. I’ve accomplished a lot in 30-years,” she says.
Baeza graduated with a B.A. from Stanford University as an English literature major and went to the University of Nottingham in England for a year. She still talks to the family she lived with when she was a student. She says she is not an academic and getting through school wasn’t the easiest thing for her.
On this table are two of her books: “Eagles at Noon,” a collection of her poems over the past 35 years and “Arizona: the Making of a State.” She uses a cane to circulate around the room talking to the other writers disappearing from her table as her pull is to listen and learn and know about others: A historian, who admittedly enjoys the company of American Indians, and Mexicans. She walks back to her table and I place a chair next to her as I know this is a moment that will not come around again. Seize the opportunity, I think. And so for awhile I was the listener and clung to her gestures, soft words, honest woman-to-woman sharing that she says she is comfortable with. I am moved by her enthusiasm to be open with me.
“I wake up happy,” she says. Her life has been a series of gains and losses with family and loved ones, but all the while she wrote. When her step children were small she wrote the “Ranch Wife,” under the name Jo Jeffers. Over the years of marriages and growth as a historian her jobs as teacher and journalist have sustained her love of her horses. She was a well established reporter for the White Mountain Independent in Show Low for almost two decades.
This week her name was the lead author in the flyer that announced the Apache County Authors book signing event. Who hasn’t heard of her and when I mention it she is unfazed. Again, like any good story, she is here to absorb and learn about “us.”
Her heritage is mixed and was the only child of an intact family. Almost immediately she tells me her age, “I will be 83 on Monday,” and her medical diagnosis of scleroderma that led to a recent surgery on her hand. Her hand is bandaged and she hasn’t been able to use it for three months. I am eager to hear about her travels and I keep staring at the woman in front of me who gave punctuation marks to the history of Arizona.
Her life began in Minnesota. One day, when she was 18-years-old and traveling across Arizona in 1949 with her parents, they stopped in Holbrook to get gas for the car. She said she went into the restroom and when she came out her father had bought the gas station. She never left Arizona after that day.
As I listen I keep thinking that she is part of the stories because she didn’t let them die. And although she didn’t create the stories she fortified the life of Arizona, including the battles and the details of the surrounding states, because she recorded the history.
I think about her while she is talking and how we chat like old friends excited to get caught up. At times she speaks in a lower tone --- when the private part of her life comes up I tap the page and say… “Okay for this?”… she says “yes” or “no.” Her generally private stories tell me where her voice to write came from, and where the motivation for choosing her life’s work and other material she wrote about … and why she chose the topics she has. “I love writing because you can never be good enough…you have to keep at it,” she says. I am listening to the history of the historian of Arizona. My focus can’t leave her face, I write quickly almost envious of my own eyes that observe more than my pen can keep up with. There is little filtering between us … reporters of history and creators of a new past that will begin as soon as we both leave this room … two women writers, talking and sharing.
The table where she sat and I took the liberty of sitting by her is getting folded and placed back onto a dolly. The chairs are collapsed and the book lovers are still going in and out of the library, like a store for the family on the weekend. The kids walk past greatness; the doors open and close and Baeza is on her way to the next adventure in her life. Then she slips off into the rainy Saturday afternoon with her books, knowledge and independence.
After I left, and drove home, the wind had a revitalized mood. The elements that led Baeza to this event will be around for a long time. The Juniper bushes will send allergens into the next generation and Baeza’s writings will be rooted in time and history.
On a highway of her own, journalist and historian, Jo Baeza keeps driving.