Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spent her childhood years on a sprawling ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border, an experience she chronicled in Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, written with her brother, H. Alan Day. O’Connor revisited the ranch in Chico, a picture book about six-year-old Sandra’s adventure with her horse, and now returns there again in Finding Susie, published by Knopf. Illustrated by Tom Pohrt, this picture book tells of lonely young Sandra’s yearning for a pet. After caring for and subsequently releasing several animals back into the wild, the girl finally finds a suitable pet, an affable dog named Susie. Bookshelf spoke with the Justice about her latest book and the ranch that inspired its setting.
Do you remember longing for a pet as a child?
Very definitely. I grew up on a remote ranch and for 10 years I didn’t have brothers or sisters. It was just my parents, the cowboys and me. Like any child I of course thought it would be great to have a pet, but my mother didn’t want to have any pets in the house. I did take in some animals—a bobcat and tortoise and all the others I included in Finding Susie, plus some others as well. And in each instance I did eventually realize that these were wild animals and they were better off where they came from. But that took a little learning.
Did you at last find a dog, like young Sandra in your book?
Yes, I finally found my pet! And it was funny how that finally happened. At the end of the day, it was a trip to town to get groceries that resulted in my finding a pet. The grocer had come across a stray dog, a little mutt that smiled. Have you ever seen a dog that smiles? It’s a scream, since you just don’t expect it. It is very endearing.
Endearing enough to win your mother’s approval?
Yes, Susie’s smile won her over. She was willing to let the dog come home with me. The dog really was as cute as could be, with her long curly tail. After a while, my mother was even willing to let Susie come indoors. That dog stayed on the ranch with me for years and years.
Obviously, several of your books are rooted in your family ranch. This is a very special place to you?
The Lazy B meant everything to me. My parents lived there for their entire lives. Neither ever spent a day in the hospital, they really never left the ranch. Well, they did come to D.C. when I was sworn into the Supreme Court in 1981, and it was very special to me that they were there. Everyone they’d ever known wrote or called them after that, so their last years were full of attention, which they really enjoyed. They both passed away in their mid-eighties and we kept the ranch for some years after that.
Did the Lazy B play an important role in your own children’s lives?
It certainly did. I met my husband at Stanford Law School and after we married, he was drafted during the Korean War and was sent to Germany. After living there for three-plus years, we ended up in Phoenix. When our sons were young, we spent all our vacations on the ranch, plus every Thanksgiving and most Christmases.
My brother was wonderful. He began running the ranch after he got out of college, and he welcomed our children there for part of every summer, and they were able to have fabulous experiences there, just as I had. The Navajo believe that all disciplining of children should be carried out by the mother’s brother, and that is exactly what happened—and it worked just fine. My kids grew up in the 1960s, when all boys wanted to wear their hair long. When my sons arrived on the ranch, the first thing my brother did was sit them down and cut their hair. They didn’t make a peep! They thought he was fabulous.
It must have been gratifying to you that they were able to share the lifestyle that you knew as a child.
It certainly was. Today they agree with me that living on a ranch like that helps you as a person. You have more responsibilities and you are relied upon to do lots of different things. If anything goes wrong on the ranch, you have to fix it. It was a special space and a special way of life and I miss it very much. When I’ve loved a place, it’s very hard for me to go back, because I don’t want to see it changed from the way I knew it.
Do you plan to write another children’s book?
I don’t have another children’s book in the works now, but I may possibly write another one. I am working on a book that has an interesting story. My husband and I had our house in Phoenix built out of sun-dried adobe, which was what our family ranch house was built of. Those walls gave both houses the most wonderful feeling. When we moved to D.C., we had to sell the Phoenix house and over time it changed hands several times. Then it was acquired by a man who wanted to tear it down and build a mansion.
That must have been upsetting.
Well, some friends said to me, ‘We can’t have that.’ So we formed a foundation and saved the house, and it was moved to a hill in Tempe, next to the Arizona Historical Society museum. It is being worked on and there will probably be an opening held for the house in the fall. It is very exciting. I’m working on a recipe book to publish in connection with that. We used that house in so many ways to bring together different groups of people. Over the years, I would cook Mexican food and we’d sit outdoors and eat and talk and try to solve all kinds of problems—which we sometimes were able to do.
And what are your thoughts on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court?
I am very happy that another woman is being appointed. I think that’s very important. I was terribly disappointed when I retired in 2006 not to be replaced by a woman. We have to remember that slightly more than 50 percent of us in this country have two X chromosomes and I think it doesn’t hurt to look at our national institutions and see women represented. I don’t think two females on the Supreme Court is enough, but it is certainly better than one.