… by Jim W. Dean, VT Editor with Peggy Pond Church
in Memory of Edith Warner and The House at Otowi Bridge
“Whatever you may have felt here of peace and stillness came from the great Source of Life and will be here always. I was but a channel, for which I am most grateful.”…Edith on her deathbed
[ Editor’s Note: Dear Readers, we bring you an unusual Christmas story today as a continuation of always trying to dig out gem stories from the past that slipped through the recognition cracks. VT, if nothing else, has been a channel, as Edith described in her last days, although of a different kind than her wonderful and unique contribution.
Most of the world has never heard of Edith Warner — but Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and most all of the other top nuclear scientists knew her well during the early days of Los Alamos’ contribution to the Manhattan Project. They dined at her little house at Otowi Bridge on the road into the town that did not officially exist during WWII.
Edith found herself in New Mexico as a young matron recovering from one of the many illnesses of the day, where doctors prescribed living out West in the rough. She fell in love with the area, the nearby Pueblo and the Indians living there; she was an Easterner who had landed on another planet.
With limited funds at the end of the Great Depression, she took a part-time job as shipping agent to look after the supplies coming in by the local railroad for the small community of Los Alamos and their weekly shuttle up into town. And there begins a great American story of the old world crashing into the new.
To have a roof over her head, Edith had to begin remodeling an abandoned house with the help of local Indian labor. And when she realized she could not survive on the $25/week pay, she opened a little western mini market for passersby.
This grew into the “reservations only” restaurant that she became famous for among the Los Alamos crowd, as she was the only eating place that they were allowed to patronize, and all those who did experienced being in her world. This left a mark on all of them with the world times, the escapes they had from their work for the candlelight dinners at Edith’s.
In Peggy Pond Church’s wonderful book on Edith, The House at Otowi Bridge, she quotes one of Edith’s patrons, Dr. Philip Morrison from a letter to Edith in 1945.
“You will realize that we have all been changed by our years on the Mesa. We worked passionately for the great end that we achieved…We had to learn again in all its meaning how strong is the bond between science and the life of men…What was new was the life around us that we began to share…Not the smallest part of the life we came to lead, Miss Warner, was you. Evenings in your place by the river, by the table so neatly set, before the fireplace so carefully contrived, gave us a little of your assurance, allowed us to belong. We shall never forget.”
When responding to Mrs. Church’s request to use his letter in her book, fourteen years after Edith had died, Morrison replied, “Miss Warner, her home by the river, and her spirit of grace remain a part of everyone at Los Alamos lucky enough to have known her… Edith stands in the history of those desperate times as a kind of rainbow…a sign that war and bombs are not all that men and women are capable of building.”
We all should be so lucky to earn such a tribute after we have passed, and even more by such a group of men. What is it they all experienced in Edith’s presence I cannot really explain in the space I have available here.
Edith did not record much of her life’s experiences in New Mexico. But beginning in 1943 she began writing a Christmas letter to friends and family of her past year.
They are gems, so I will excerpt from them to let you hear Edith directly. This article itself is a fluke, as I just happened to finish the book two days ago, brought here by my new wife from Los Alamos, Erica, or Editor 4 as some of you might know her. We met in the VT comment boards and began a long distance relationship that grew into a 4th of July marriage this year.
VT had enriched her life, and she has mine. Our VT community is known for passing along life lessons learned to others who might care. As we bring 2015 to a close, sharing Edith with you on Christmas Day is in keeping with that tradition. If you can find a used copy of the book I suggest you grab it up.
Our thanks go out to the late Mrs. Church for her written memorial to Edith, and in a way, to us all. That life is a journey is an old cliche. Edith’s irony was that while she sought solitude and intimacy with the New Mexico heartland and native American, the nuclear world walked into her kitchen and asked “What’s for dinner?”… Jim W. Dean ]
A year ago doubts assailed me. Could I swing this business with the gas rationed. Ought I put aside selfish desire and go back to the outside world and a war job…
Into this fairly remote section last December came the Army, commandeering Los Alamos School, Anchor Ranch and the small native ranches on all of Pajarito Plateau for some very secret project… the whole area is guarded by soldiers. Santa Fe calls it a submarine base…
Along about April the X’s began coming down from Los Alamos for dinner once a week, and they were followed by others…the civilian head was a man I knew. He had stopped some years ago on a pack trip… and now was to be my neighbor for the duration…
That beginning has increased until there are one or two groups on most nights for dinner…and are booked up for weeks ahead…they are mostly interesting and so solve my need for people.
Soon it will be Christmas Eve and Tilano [her pueblo friend] will light the little pitch wood fire out near the well to welcome those spirits that draw near on that night…The essence of this land fills me at such times — as whenever I give it opportunity — and I know that I have been given more than one human’s share of joy.
My wish for snow was fulfilled beyond my expectation and the Christmas Eve fire was surrounded by fresh white snow. Only the oldest men in the Pueblo remember so much snow on the ground…
Temperatures fell to 16 below zero…There was hoarfrost on every tiny weed stalk and juniper berry and the rising sun made a magic world for me to go out into for wood and water.
Los Alamosans came all through the winter five nights a week for dinner until my arm rebelled. So after several weeks’ rest I reduced the weekly average to three nights…
How long they will be here is as secret as what they are doing. Spring was late in coming but when it did the snow-fed ground burst forth with flowers I had never seen. The juncos, bluebirds, towhees, that fed at the window tray all winter stayed on, and many others came.
It is good to go up to the level above and look out across the world and back into the past. That is especially true now with the Pueblo boys in France, England and the Pacific. Slime was wounded on D-Day in Normandy…Brownie’s ship sails soon…Hilario’s destroyer has seen action.
[Autumn] Wild geese flew south on many days, circling, honking, reforming their silver V to continue on their certain way. The flight of the geese, the deer track on the mesas, the first green and then the final golden leaves on the cottonwoods, Venus low above the mesa–all these recur…As the flames of the Christmas first leap into the night, I shall think of my friends with gratitude and with joy.
New Years day of this historic 1945 held no hint of the atomic era. There were no blasts from the Pajarito Plateau making discord in the song of the chorus as I sat in the sun on an old portal at San Ildefonso [pueblo]. Teen, just past two, watched the dancers with me and later demonstrated the steps of the little deer…
On January 23rd it was time for the ceremonial Buffalo dance and once again I took Tilano over to the house where all the dancers would make themselves ready…I leaned against an old adobe house as the deep drum tones rolled and the song called the men who danced as godly animals.
For hundreds of years a chorus has called and a line of women waited at the foot of the hill–waited to touch these men and take into themselves that intangible spiritual power sometimes attained by human beings…
The climax came on that August day when the report of the atomic bomb flashed around the world. It seemed fitting that it was Kitty Oppenheimer who, coming for vegetable, brought the news…
Now I can tell you that Conant and Compton came in through the kitchen door to eat ragout and chocolate cake; that Fermi, Allison, Teller, Parsons came many times; that Oppenheimer was the man I knew in the pre-war year and who made it possible for the Hill people do come down; that Hungarians, Swiss, Germans, Italian, Austrians, French and English have been serious and gay around the candle lit table.
It has been an incredible experience for a woman who chose to live in a supposedly isolated spot. In no other place could I have had the privilege of knowing Niels Bohr, who is not only a great scientist but a great man. In no other way could I have seen develop a group feeling of responsibility for presenting the facts to the people and urging the only wise course–international control of atomic energy and bombs.
On this Christmas Eve some of the Pueblo boys will help light the little fires. Others will be homeward bound. The war is over. Peace is still to be secured. The scientists know that they cannot go back to their laboratories leaving atomic energy in the hands of the armed forces or the statesmen.
As the pitch wood of the fire releases its stored energy here by the river when Christmas Eve darkens, the mesas my thoughts and wishes will go out in all direction to you, my friends.
Edith’s Christmas letters continued to 1950. In early 1951 she had unsuccessful surgery for cancer which was found to have already spread. This post war development with the bridge construction at her house had forced her and Tilano to retreat further up into the mesas where they build a new house with the hands and hearts of those who loved them, a house where the growing old Tilano could spend his final years with Edith taking care of him.
But it was she who retreated from the hospital at Los Alamos to spend her final days as home with her nurse. This was her final letter:
“After weeks in a hospital it is especially wonderful to be here in Tilano’s room– which is the winter living room. Here he can rub my arm to relax me and give me his calm and strength. From the bed I can see the first light on the mountains, watch the snow clouds rise from the glistening Truchas peaks, follow the sunset color from the valley to the sky. I can feel the mesas even though I do not seen them and almost here the song of the river.
It is a good place in which to wait for the passing from a rich full life into whatever work lies beyond. You, my many friends, have contributed so much to the fullness of my life through the years and in the past months have given of your thoughts and prayers, as well as more material assistance.
Whatever you may have felt here of peace and stillness came from the great Source of life and will be here always. I was but a channel, for which I am most grateful.
Since I cannot be well to take care of Tilano, I am happy and at peace. I would have you think of me that way.”
Edith died on May 4th. Those who loved her have preserved her legacy for what we may gain from it, as we do from others that pass through our lives. We hope to be able to contribute something worthy ourselves, especially those of us who write or type.
Edith Warner apparently used a loaf pan for making this cake, and you certainly can, too, by adding a couple of minutes to the baking time. We find the cake more attractive, though, when prepared in a round pan and sliced in wedges. The instructions assume you’re baking at sea level, but they require only minor tweaking to adjust for high-altitude cooking. For example, at our 7,000-foot-elevation home we decrease the baking powder to 1 teaspoon and increase the milk by 1 tablespoon.
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1½ ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1¼ cups confectioners’ sugar
2 heaping tablespoons cocoa
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 to 3 tablespoons coffee
For the cake
Preheat oven to 250° F. Grease and flour 8-inch round cake pan.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Melt chocolate with butter in a small heavy pan over low heat. Pour sugar into mixing bowl and pour melted chocolate over. Combine with an electric mixer until grainy.
Stop mixer. Add flour mixture and milk; beat 1 minute, during which batter will lighten considerably in color and texture. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs; beat 1 minute more, until batter increases in volume and holds its shape like softly whipped cream. Spoon batter into prepared pan and smooth top.
Bake about 1 hour total. After 15 minutes, raise heat to 275° F; after another 15 minutes, raise heat to 300° F. Continue baking at 300° F 30 minutes more, until toothpick inserted into the cake comes out with just the barest crumb. Place pan on baking rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run knife around inside edge of the pan to loosen and unmold cake. Turn it over so that top side of cake is up and let cool completely.
For the icing
Sift together confectioners’ sugar, cocoa, and salt into mixing bowl. Add butter and mix. Pour in 2 tablespoons of coffee and beat, then add just enough more coffee that the frosting has a shiny, easily spreadable consistency.
Place cake on serving platter. Ice cake, ideally using an offset-handled spatula. There should be enough icing to give a thin but thorough coat. The cake will keep well for another day. Let frosting set before covering. Seal well, but try to keep plastic from contacting directly cake’s top.
Recipe compliments of New Mexico Magazine
Jim W. Dean was an active editor on VT from 2010-2022. He was involved in operations, development, and writing, plus an active schedule of TV and radio interviews.
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