For nearly 50 years the Miss Cochise County Beauty Pageant has been the biggest event in the area. Every 16, 17 and 18 year old girl with an elevated sense of self image spends hours honing her talent, studying current events and perusing fashion magazines while mothers delude them with visions of tiaras and roses.
Miranda Saunders was a legend. For three years in the early 1980s she dominated the contest. Her body developed early in age and by the time she was 16 had grown very comfortable in her curvy skin. Her confidence and poise on the runway could not be matched. The runners-up and their mothers protested Miranda’s three year dominance prompting the organizers to change the rules to one girl/one win.
Miranda was very aware of her beauty, becoming insufferable after her third victory. She dumped her boyfriend of two years so other suitors might benefit from her loveliness. By graduation she had moved on from “boys” and dated older men exclusively. It was not uncommon to see Miranda accompanying men in exchange for gifts. Jewelry, clothing, even a new Trans Am; her services did not come cheap and her “suitors” expected no less than the full treatment.
It was December 31, 1983. Prompted by a late period, Miranda took a home pregnancy test which showed positive. Whether denial or ignorance, she chose to disregard the dangers of drinking while pregnant and attended a New Year’s Eve party. In the early hours of the new year, her date grew tired of running into men who expressed interest in getting to know Miranda better and caught a ride out with another couple. As the room emptied and it grew obvious she would be going home alone, she staggered to her car and fumbled the keys into the ignition.
A week later, Miranda woke in the hospital. The nurses were pleased she was awake, but treated her coldly as they took vitals and monitored the machines surrounding her bed. When Miranda quizzed them about her what had happened they refused to answer. A doctor entered the room and informed her she had been in an auto accident, had been badly hurt, but the baby was fine. The baby. It was obvious by Miranda’s reaction, the pregnancy had slipped her mind . The doctor told her to relax and left the room.
When she had been brought into the emergency room she had a severe concussion, a broken collar bone and more cuts and bruises than could be counted. A deep laceration over her left eye would leave a life-long daily reminder of the accident. Upon inspecting her purse, hospital staff found the opened pregnancy test box containing the used stick. Until they were sure about the results, they decided it was best to keep her in a drug-induced state of unconsciousness. When the blood tests confirmed the results, the doctors continued with the coma-like state until mother and child were both alcohol free and stable.
That was how I spent the first few weeks of my unborn life; drunk and stoned. Miranda would never win Mother of the Year after that.
Shortly after the doctor had left, a police detective arrived. He asked if she had any memory of what had happened. No, she answered. He explained, she had been drinking, left the New Years Eve party alone and while driving had jumped the curb and struck a group of pedestrians returning home from a celebration of their own. He asked again if she remembered any of this. Again, Miranda said no, though this time it was barely audible through her tears.
The group of people were struck from behind not knowing what had hit them. Two were killed instantly, another is still in intensive care and two others suffered multiple broken bones and had been released from the hospital. There was a witness from across the street, saw the whole thing.
Miranda tried to speak through her sobbing. The detective stopped her, telling her she was under arrest and she should not say anything until she had been informed of her rights. He told her the nurse could bring her a phone if she needed to call someone, maybe a lawyer. She would not be able to leave the room except with a police escort. The Department of Corrections would be by to collect her as soon as the doctors said it was safe for her and the baby to travel. Did she understand? She nodded her head tentatively. He needed her to say it. “Yes.”
The next day, Miranda woke to find a pamphlet tucked into her hand advertising the right to choose. It was sponsored by a Tucson area abortion clinic. A nurse observed her reading the literature and within 15 minutes a priest was at the door asking if he could have a moment. He spent the next hour explaining to his captive audience the evils of abortion and finished his pitch with the ultimate guilt trip, “Haven’t you taken enough lives?” Miranda chose life.
As promised, three days later the Department of Corrections arrived to move her to her new home to await trail. The bruising had subsided, but the gash in her forehead was still puffy and red. The pain in her head and shoulder were dulled by a little white pill given twice a day. The corrections officer had a week’s supply for her, courtesy of her physician.
Life in jail was tough from the start. Miranda’s celebrity in the county did not translate well inside the walls of the jail. Notoriety was not a benefit. Miranda was taunted and jeered. She was pushed and beaten numerous times, losing a couple teeth. She requested to be moved to solitary until the baby was born. Her request was denied. One occasion, she was nearly scalped, a large chunk of her once beautiful blonde hair lay on the linoleum, blood dripped from the pieces of skin still attached. It was three months later at her pre-trial hearing the judge saw her black eye, missing hair and teeth and ordered Miranda placed in the infirmary for the duration of the pregnancy. The trial was set to start two months later.
Life was easier for Miranda in the infirmary though she received little in the way of special treatment from the staff. It was hard to find anyone in the town who was not touched by Miranda’s carelessness.
A public defender was assigned to Miranda’s case. She wanted to plead guilty to all charges, but her attorney counseled her to plead not-guilty and take her chances with the jury. Chances are she would be spending some time behind bars, but if they got a good number of drinkers who like to have a couple pops at the neighborhood bar before heading home; ones who say “There, but for the grace of God…”, their odds may be fair. The fact she would be nearly ready to give birth by then would not hurt.
He was wrong. The trial was over in two days. The Public Defender did a fair job, but Miranda was judged harshly. In sentencing, she was given 25 years. She would not be eligible for parole and she would relinquish all parental rights to her baby. Miranda gave no response and showed no emotion.
I was born in the infirmary of the Cochise County Correctional Center. The state appointed OBGYN was accompanied by two nurses, a jail administrator and the State Department of Health and Welfare counselor assigned to my case. The birth was without complication. I was taken from the room before my mother had a chance to see me. If she cared, she did not show it. I spent two nights in the infirmary and was released to the couple I would come to know as my parents, the Barstows. The court registered my name as Maria. We lived in the next county , away from the press, my family’s past and the prison that housed my mother.
The Barstows were as perfect a family as I could have hoped for. Both Ellen and Mark Barstow had been adopted and felt strongly the importance of knowing ones true heritage so when old enough to understand, I was told I had been adopted and over the years was given details of my birth mother’s trials and tribulations. It was hard for me to imagine someone with so much promise could go so horribly astray. A strong sense of humility was instilled in me from a very early age.
That was thirty years ago, now. I’m married, with a daughter of my own. I am back in Sierra Vista. My husband’s family has a long established restaurant where he is a chef and I work as business manager.
It was a year ago, I met Miranda for the first time. I’d seen her around town, begging for handouts on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant or sleeping on the bench in the park, but we had never come face to face. I had to assume she had no idea who I was.
I was in the local laundromat with my daughter, Kerri. We were folding napkins from the restaurant at the large table in the center of the long room. I did not hear her come in, but was drawn and repulsed by the sound of someone hacking up something wet and chunky from deep in their lungs. There she was. We were trapped. I continued to make small talk with Kerri, hoping Miranda would walk by. She continued down the aisle, sticking her boney fingers in vending machine money returns looking for loose change. The laundromat customers did their best to ignore her. She drew closer. I tried to keep Kerri’s attention off the approaching crone. She was directly across the table from me now. Keep going. Miranda stopped. I glanced up to meet her gaze. Miranda looked like she had seen a ghost. Her jaw dropped. Her yellowed eyes stared into mine, wide and bewildered. She reached a hand slowly toward my face, stopping short of my cheek then back to her own. It was as if she was looking into a mirror stuck thirty years in the past. The face too pretty for words, the fine golden hair, her big blue eyes…her eyes. She drew in a quick, deep breath and held it for what seemed an eternity. As she let it out slowly the word, “Yoooouuu.” rode her breath.
Kerri said, “Mommy…?”
“Just a minute, Sweetheart.” I pulled her close to me. “Miranda. Please, keep walking.”
Miranda raised her arm again, pointing a stick finger at me. “This is all your fault.” She glanced at Kerri who was shaking in my arms and hissed, “Your mother stole my crown.”
A crowd had begun to form. They all knew who she was and most knew our relationship. Miranda noticed the mob and thought it wise to go, but before she left she barked, “Your fault, damn it!” She left the laundromat checking one more machine for change as she went.
I haven’t seen her since. We do our best to avoid downtown and bought a washer and dryer for the restaurant. Kerri asked me once about the Cochise County Little Beauties Contest, but I quickly changed the subject. I like to think I am nothing like my mother. The nurturing I received from the Barstows was strong enough to squash any over-stimulated vanity I may have inherited from her. Maybe Kerri would be fine too. She sure is pretty enough. She may just winthat pagent. Can you imagine? What would her talent be? She would need a coach. Of course, Maggie Cogglin would probably enter her daughter, the snaggle-toothed little…