I grew up in in the mountains of New Mexico in a roadside attraction built by my father.
With the exception of, “I love you,” I have probably spoken this one sentence more than any other. I defined myself as the daughter of Ross Ward, the man who created Tinkertown Museum.
I did not mean to write a book. After my father died from complications of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, I sat down with my journals to try to understand what had happened to me and to my family in a five-year period that began just before I turned thirty.
I often say that caregiving is all about being just hands and feet. You’re running and doing. You’re putting out fires (in my case both real and metaphorical,) without any time for introspection or emotion. As I burrowed into my stacks of yellow legal pads, it was the head and the heart that I was after.
I sat with all of the pages and all of the photographs I’d taken and tried to pay attention to where I felt a kind of heat. I wrote to figure out where I’d been. I wrote to understand what I’d lost. As I wrote, I began to see not just my journey, but the journey of my family. As I wrote, my compassion deepened. I wrote toward questions. Eventually, I wrote my father back to life.
“Leaving Tinkertown,” was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2013. I have such a hardwired connection to my family and to the glorious red dirt of my home state that it makes a lot of sense to me that I would find my identity as a writer by telling the story of my relationship with my dad.
In the years since the book came out, many people have gifted me with their own tales of my father. Other readers, who didn’t know my dad in life, tell me they feel as though they’ve made a new friend. I’ve met other caregivers and joined my voice in the chorus of those working to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s. We need to find ways to provide respite and home care. We need to increase federal funding for research and ultimately we must find a cure. To achieve these noble ends, it’s my belief that we all need to see the faces of those affected by this terrible disease. We need to hear the stories. All the stories. Writing and publishing “Leaving Tinkertown,” has expanded my life in so many surprising ways. It’s a fitting memorial to the man who showed me how to live with humor, creativity and joy.
When Dad was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we were all sad and angry and afraid, but with Dad’s carny credo, “The show must go on,” as our mantra, we kept moving. The “show” is still on the road. Tinkertown Museum is open to the public and my kids sell tickets during the summer months. They never got a chance to meet their grandfather, but he is a big part of their lives. I’m so glad they have the old stories to keep them company as they begin to tell their own.