Won’t you take me to Tinkertown? Tanya Ward Goodman’s memoir
The world’s largest ball of twine is in Cawker City, Kansas. Spring Green, Wisc., is home to the House on the Rock. Cadillac Ranch looms near Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas. And Albuquerque, N.M., has Tinkertown.
Quirky destinations along America’s roadways have provided relief for the road-weary, providing entertainment for families on long trips to somewhere else. But for Tanya Ward Goodman, Tinkertown wasn’t just a quick stop -- it was home. Her father built it.
Years ago, I was briefly in a writing group with Tanya, who was the nicest and most talented among us. Tanya left Los Angeles to take care of her father, who had been daignosed with Alzheimer’s; that story is at the heart of her new memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown,” published by the University of New Mexico Press. She answered my questions about the book via email.
What is Tinkertown?
Tinkertown Museum is a roadside attraction built by my father, Ross Ward, in the mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The museum opened in 1983 in the backyard of the house where I grew up. Dad built it to display his miniature, animated, wood-carved western town and circus as well as a lifetime of other collections. Visitors can see antique mining implements, vintage wedding cake couples, circus memorabilia, the shoes and pants of Louie Moilanen, who was once the world’s tallest man, a chuck wagon, a 1920s sailboat and so much more. Walls Dad made from over 50,000 glass bottles, rocks and cement surround the entire place.
When you were growing up, did you realize how unique your childhood was?
I grew up in the mountains of New Mexico in the 1970s, so a lot of our family friends were artists. We knew more than one person who lived in a geodesic dome and other folks who built their own houses out of adobe, so our house and up to a point my childhood, didn’t seem too much out of the norm. When I started public elementary school in second grade, I started to realize my family was a bit more colorful than other families. Because my Dad worked as a carnival show painter, we sometimes had a haunted house or sideshow set up in our driveway and he always worked the State Fair in Albuquerque, both as a painter on the midway and as an exhibitor when the western town was in a trailer. I’d sell tickets or help him out with painting and it gave me a little thrill to have my friends from school see me in this world. I was in high school when Dad opened Tinkertown and from then on, whenever I felt less than interesting, I’d spin stories of “life in the museum.” Truthfully, my unique childhood was something I coasted on socially for a long, long time.
Had you planned on writing about it?
Though I’ve been telling these “museum stories” for much of my life, I hadn’t really thought about writing a book. I don’t think I had a handle on where to begin. Dad’s diagnosis gave me a reason to share our family story. As a writer, the thing I value most is my memory and with Dad’s memory vanishing and my own being genetically called into question, suddenly it seemed imperative to get these stories down on the page. My Dad had Alzheimer’s, his mom had Alzheimer’s, and her sister had Alzheimer’s. My great-grandmother had it too. With a scary line up like that, you’ve got to get to it.
What was it like to go back to New Mexico to take care of your dad with your writer’s perspective?
I think I always had a writer’s perspective because writing is observation and I have always been an observer. For me, returning home pulled me out of observation mode and into action. So much was happening that I began to think of myself as only hands and feet. I was doing and running all day, but not so much thinking or feeling. There really was no time to process. My family goes to bed very early and so I wrote about what happened during the day in lieu of talking. I also wrote a lot of e-mails to my boyfriend (now husband) David. Writing for me was a way out of loneliness. All those yellow legal pads gave me a safe place to respond honestly (and often messily and with a lot of sadness and anger) to the events of the day.
Did writing provide relief? What did the other people in the household do for a similar relief?
I was working on a screenplay with a partner when I moved home from Los Angeles and we continued to work on the script together. On several occasions, he flew to Albuquerque so we could write and I flew to L.A. for meetings. It was stressful to try to keep a foot in both worlds, but working on the script kept me connected in some way to my life outside the museum. My writing partner was a great support during my father’s illness. Our script never got made, but we did have a spectacular meeting at Universal when my father joined us and began to make his own rambling pitch. The executives, to their credit, let him speak and Dad was thrilled for days after to have “made it” in Hollywood.
My stepmother, Carla (or La as I’ve always called her,) found relief in horseback riding. Trail rides in the forest above Tinkertown gave her a chance to clear her head and the barn in Albuquerque where she took lessons in the winter was a place of refuge for her. Her passion was and continues to be an inspiration.
My brother, Jason Ward, wrote some amazing songs about our family and played in a band called Starsky. It was really wild to go to one of his shows and look around to see all these twenty-year-olds singing along to the story of my dad’s diagnosis.
What was your dad like before Alzheimer’s?
My dad was the original “maker.” He was never without a project. In addition to the carnival art and sign painting he did for a living, he made paintings, drawings, etchings and woodcarvings. He was always creating and consistently engaged in the world. He was an extremely thoughtful gift giver and a great letter writer. He was also incredibly encouraging to anyone who expressed a desire to create art of any kind and often gave away his art supplies or peeled off a few bills and presented them as a “Tinkertown Grant.”
How did the disease change him?
Just after his diagnosis, Dad painted some amazing self-portraits where he used his brain scans to create these ghostly floating faces and spent weeks decorating and furnishing a gigantic surreal dollhouse. As the disease progressed, his enthusiasm remained, but his skill diminished. He grew frustrated with his tools as he forgot how they worked. He continued to build bottle walls and to take visitors on guided tours of the museum and drew constantly in sketchbooks, on napkins and place mats at restaurants and in scrapbooks he’d kept throughout my life. Of course, his mood changed. He was sometimes angry and frustrated, but he continued to draw and paint even after he was moved to an Alzheimer’s care unit. Throughout it all, he was consistently happy to see my stepmother, Carla. His love for her seemed to keep one little light on in his brain even after most everything else had gone dark.
When working on the book, how did you balance his story with your story? How did you decide when to write about yourself and when to focus on him?
I didn’t start out to write a book, I was just jotting down scenes or episodes when they came to me. It was only after I took a class at UCLA Extension with Samantha Dunn that I started to think of it as a book. She (brilliant writer and teacher that she is) helped me shape the story and encouraged me to put myself in it. To see her loopy handwriting inquiring “but where are you?” was such a gift. I think for a long time, I’d left out my own feelings as though it were impolite or something to write down what I actually experienced. I also felt like my dad was the more interesting character. Not to sound self-deprecating, but I thought who in the world is going to be interested in me when this guy is in the room? But I kept writing. My first draft was about 400 pages. To cut it down, I kept asking myself “what story was I telling?” It wasn’t the story of my short-lived screenwriting career or my recovery from a break-up, it was the story of losing my dad. To lose him, I had to find him for the reader. And that was my mantra. I needed to show what I’d lost and then lose it. Along the way I realized I needed to show not just what was lost, but also what was found. I found my husband and found that in my stepmother, I have another parent as tightly tied to me as my mom and dad.
Would you call your book a sad book?
I wouldn’t call it a sad book. Losing someone you love is sad stuff, but it’s ultimately about how we as a family kept going. It’s a love story more than anything. Love stories are sometimes sad, but in the balance, I think we found a lot of joy. We hang on to that. I hope that’s what readers will take away.
Do you have a favorite element of Tinkertown?
It’s hard to think of one thing. I love the little wood carved girl, “Emily,” who has been jumping rope for so long, her wooden feet have left grooves in the miniature boardwalk. I love the sound of rain on the bottles and the tin roof and the way the hummingbirds spend all summer zooming from flower to flower along the front walk. I love especially the way the whole place functions as a kind of crossroads. Every time I work the gift shop, I meet the most amazing people. A lot of folks feel compelled to share something marvelous with us. The last time I was there, a woman sang the names of every country in the world. It took nearly three minutes and we were speechless when she finished.
Will your book be on sale at the Tinkertown gift shop?
It will. It’s in a rack next to a small book written by my Dad and my stepmother, Carla, and another called “Behind the Mast,” written by my Uncle Fritz, who sailed around the world on the 1920s sailboat that made its final docking at Tinkertown Museum. I’m lucky to be in such good company.
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