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In August 1952, when I was 15 years old, my father’s sister asked me to drive from California to New Mexico with her to visit her friends, two Catholic Presentation Sisters who were living in Pecos. My aunt was single, very proper, and had little contact with teenagers. She insisted I wear a dress or skirt each day, plus nylon stockings, in a car with no air conditioning. Needless to say, I was miserable and behaved miserably. Nevertheless, I loved Pecos and Santa Fe from the minute we arrived. One day the sisters took us to Taos, where they had a friend who was a writer and lived in a circular adobe house full of pueblo artwork and Navajo rugs. I was never so intrigued by a home, before or since.

On our way to Taos, we stopped at San Ildefonso Pueblo and watched a friend of the sisters remove her freshly baked pottery from the fire. As the potter pulled out each black-on-black piece, she examined it closely to see if it was perfect. One piece did not pass the visual test and the potter turned and presented the piece to me. The two sisters were astonished and told me later the artist, Maria Martinez, was a renowned potter. As a 15-year-old, this did not mean too much to me, but I brought the pot home to California and placed it on a shelf in our home.

I returned to New Mexico with my aunt the following year. I don’t know why she put herself through the misery of dealing with a homesick teenager, but she did, and I don’t know why I went, since the previous trip had been difficult for me as well—and I was still required to wear nylon hosiery daily.

Our family moved three more times in California before I finished college, married, and moved to San Diego. My mother took care of the pot and made sure it was safe each time the family moved. I felt a kinship with this piece of artwork, and at some point in the 1960s, I brought it to my own home.

Through the years I remembered New Mexico with fondness and in 1972 took my family there. We spent time in Pecos and camped on the Pecos River. It was on this trip that I began to understand the fine artwork of the pueblos and appreciate it. After my children grew up, I began planning annual pilgrimages to New Mexico in 1982. I have amassed a good collection of pottery, carvings, and other artwork. But it is the “Maria pot” that is my favorite piece, even though it is the one with no monetary value. I am the last living person to have witnessed the interaction between the potter and the teenager.

I have been very fortunate in my personal and professional life to have traveled the world many times over. When people ask me if I have a favorite place, I never hesitate to say “New Mexico.” It is the natural beauty of places like Bandelier and Chaco Canyon, the amazing Native art, the agreeable people, and the town of Santa Fe and its wonderful restaurants and museums that have held my interest all these years. Who would have thought that a 15-year-old Californian, suffering teenage angst, would have found her favorite place on earth 62 years ago— and never wavered.

Sheila Murphy Pickwell
La Jolla, CA