My birthday was always the coldest day of the year. If not literally true, it was family legend, and everyone knows that myth is much stronger than meteorology, even in the north country, where the snow lies deep on the mountaintops, and houses are built to keep the heat in, not out.
This particular legend had its origin—reasonably enough—on the date of my birth, January 11, 1952. My family lived in Flagstaff, but the family doctor had been having a difference of opinion with the hospital board, and had moved his practice to the Williams Hospital. So, when my mother went into labor early in the morning, my twenty-one-year-old parents were obliged to drive thirty miles over a two-lane ice-slick road, through the teeth of a driving blizzard, in order to get to the doctor.
When I was finally born, just at dark, my father was so unnerved by the entire experience that he went out to a nearby restaurant and ordered ham and eggs for dinner—forgetting that it was Friday. (Way back when, Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays.) Driving the thirty miles home through snow and black ice, he ran off the road twice, got stuck in the drifts, and—as he later recounted—managed to free himself only because he couldn’t stand the thought of freezing to death and leaving my mother with a one-day-old child.
At the age of two days, I too made the perilous trip through the dark pines of the frozen landscape, to become a third-generation native of Flagstaff. There aren’t a lot of us, if only because Flagstaff isn’t that old.
Among the early founders of the town were my great-grandparents. Stanley Sykes was born in Yorkshire, England, but at the age of fifteen, was diagnosed with consumption. The only chance, his doctor told him, was to leave England; go to Arizona, where the warm, dry air was good for the lungs (well, it was 1868, after all; the midwesterners hadn’t got here with their damn mulberries and bermuda grass yet). Stanley heeded this advice, and with his elder brother Godfrey, set sail for the New World and the healing balm of the desert air.
Like many another outlander—my husband, for example—who thought Arizona was a desert, Stanley was startled to find that the northern third of the state sits atop the Colorado Plateau, and that the San Francisco Peaks are covered with the largest forest of Ponderosa Pine in the world. In search of desert, Godfrey went south… but Stanley stayed, seduced by the rush of wind through the pines and the clear dark skies of the mountain nights, thick with stars.
Great-grandmother Beatrice Belle Switzer came from Kentucky, along with her seven brothers and sisters, when the family farm was flooded out. It must have been a flood of biblical proportions, because once the Switzers started moving, they didn’t stop until they came to Flagstaff, which—at 7000 feet—they evidently considered high enough ground to be safe.
The air in Flagstaff may not have been hot, but apparently it was dry enough, since Stanley lived to be 92, finally dying on a vacation to San Diego (that fog will get you every time). I was four when he died, and still have a vivid memory of him in his armchair, the smoke from his pipe drifting in the lamplight, as he taught me the delicate art of building houses out of cards—a skill that’s stood me in good stead since.
His son, Harold—my grandfather—became the mayor of Flagstaff—and thereby hangs another family tale.
It was a scandal, in fact—or so everyone said—when my mother, Jacqueline Sykes, the mayor’s daughter, descendant of one of the First Families of Flagstaff, fell in love with Antonio Gabaldon. Tony was smart, handsome, athletic, hardworking—and a Mexican-American, born in Belen, New Mexico. In 1949, in a small Arizona town, this was miscegenation—or so everyone said.
My mother’s friends said so. Mrs. X, her English teacher, said so, telling her firmly that she couldn’t possibly marry a Mexican; her children would be idiots. The parish priest who refused to marry them said so; such a marriage would never last. The “interested parties” who took out a public petition against the match said so; it was a scandal. Her parents said so—and at last she was persuaded, and reluctantly broke the engagement.
My mother’s parents sent her south, to the University of Arizona in Tucson, to leave the scandal behind; to forget. But she didn’t forget, and six months later, on a dark December night, she called Tony and said, “I still want you. If you still want me— come and get me.”
He drove down from the snow-covered mountain to the desert and brought her back the same night—and they were married at 6:30 the next morning, by a priest from another parish.
It was a long and happy marriage—dissolved only by death—and thirteen months after the wedding, I arrived, the third generation born on the mountain.
We (and the fourth generation) live in Scottsdale, but I still keep the family house in Flagstaff, and escape there regularly to write; to me, the ideal weather for writing involves a gleaming portcullis of icicles to keep out all intruders, soft white drifts on the pines and the sidewalks, and the muffled grind of cars in the distance, crushing cinders into the slippery packed snow as they labor uphill. No salt on these roads; the San Francisco peaks are in fact one mountain, the remains of an extinct volcano—or least we hope it is extinct; the U.S. Geological Survey is not so sure.
It’s 72 on this Christmas Day, and the dogs are swimming in the pool. My husband gives me warm slippers, though, knowing I’ll need them soon. My birthday, after all, is always the coldest day of the year.
(Oh… Mrs. X? You were wrong.)
Arizona Diary Essay (Copyright © 1999 by Diana Gabaldon. All Rights Reserved.)
Top image: Arriving on the Red Carpet at Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills on January 10, 2016. (Getty Image). Second image: At the Grand Canyon in 2012. (Photo by my husband.) Image of the San Francisco Peaks is from summit.org. Lower image: 2012 winter view from a household deck in Flagstaff, Arizona. (Photo by me.) This page is also located under the "About Diana" menu.