Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 1972, Kent Washington

for my mother, Madgel Miranda, 4/16/1935-11/21/2001

I was still in grade school. My mother worked there, at Soos Creek Elementary, as a part-time Playground/Lunchroom Lady. We were on welfare.

Frank, my mom’s boyfriend, lived with us; he was a self-professed “Okie from Muscogee” complete with black beard, curly black hair, and a cowboy hat he wore everywhere, tipped politely at the ladies. He delighted in calling a paper bag a “poke” and kept the radio tuned to real old-school country music by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Even-tempered, sweet, illiterate, Frank was the kind of guy who subsisted on day jobs, brute labor, anything that required strength and could be explained orally.

Once my mom sent him to the store to buy something, canned sweet potatoes, maybe. He came back with canned carrots. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Frank’s illiteracy at work, but he was so embarrassed and angry at himself that I remembered it. “I’m so sorry, hon,” he said to Mom, over and over. He called everyone hon, but the way he said it, you could tell he really meant it. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and I hated him with all my heart and soul. He’d stolen my mom’s attention, and I was inordinately furious with him most of the time.

I think it was not long after that, Mom started sitting with Frank at the kitchen table at nights, going over the alphabet, spelling out basic words. It was she who named his problem: dyslexia, not just stupid. “He can’t tell a b from a d,” she told me, “that’s a brain problem, not lack of trying.” Still, she kept at it. But as long as I knew him, the only think Frank could write or read was his name. He signed his name in cursive, with a flourish. Someone, somewhere, had made sure he could do that.

So it was Thanksgiving, and we were broke. We were always broke, but this was a bad time, when we counted out dimes and pennies at the grocery store, checked out the price of hamburger at several stores before making our small purchase. But as often happened, someone came through with a small turkey. Perhaps my mother saved up her food stamps, or Frank got a good job for a couple of days. At any rate, we had it defrosting on the counter, a pink, plucked, all-ours turkey. It was early Thanksgiving morning, and my mom hadn’t yet put it in the oven, when we heard someone coming up our long dirt road.

The dogs, Duffy and Elijah, a Bull Mastiff and Weinerheimer respectively (both dumped by former owners), rushed out to greet and defend. My mother followed, curious, wiping her hands on the cloth dishtowel that seemed to be a permanent part of her wardrobe in those days. Her hair was covered with a scarf, her pin curls still setting. She didn’t have any makeup on; she wore a baggy button-up blouse and the 70’s ubiquitous stretch-slacks that were every housewife’s uniform before sweatshirts and sweatpants took over.

Frank hung back – a woman on welfare could lose her benefits if she had a man living with her. We pretended to everyone that he lived with a friend over in Auburn. It made perfect sense to me that a lie to get food stamps was not really a lie.

We weren’t expecting anyone. My older brother Kacey was still at home, a pot-smoking, tender-hearted teenage rebel, always trying to grow out hair that was too curly to be anything but a shaggy mess. Even he stuck his head out of his room down the hall. Kacey probably had his own reasons for being wary of unexpected cars pulling up. He had a little secret garden going in his bedroom closet; our mother hadn’t yet made him choose between his plants and his housing.

As Mom reached the doorway, I heard her intake of breath. “Oh my God. It’s the Thanksgiving Basket people from school.”

Frank, thinking fast, said, “Quick! Cover up the turkey!”

He didn’t have to explain to me why; he was worried that if we already had a turkey, we wouldn’t be eligible for another. And yet another turkey meant another week’s worth of meals.

I raced into the kitchen and tore off a stream of paper towels, draped them over the turkey, and winced at how ridiculous it looked. It didn’t look like anything but a turkey covered up in paper towels – but I didn’t know what else to do, chuck it under the sink?

In the end, it didn’t matter.

The nice people from my school (“maybe one of the teachers put our name on the list,” Mom guessed) handed us a cardboard box right there in the driveway. They still had a lot of deliveries to go, the young man said; no, they couldn’t stop for coffee. The box was thrillingly heavy, full of the necessities: a turkey, wrapped in plastic; a bag of potatoes; a can of cranberry sauce. I don’t remember there being a pumpkin pie or can of pie mix, but at that point, it didn’t matter. We were rich.

We gathered in our small trailer kitchen, the box on our little table, and gloated. “This one will go into the freezer,” Mom decided, “we’ll cook ours this week, that one next week.” She rested a hand on each turkey as she spoke, her scarred skin contrasting with the white towels and white plastic.

“And we have enough potatoes for breakfast tomorrow!” Frank crowed in his rich, Southern tenor. He grinned, as delighted as if he’d laid that turkey himself.

“You bet!” Mom smiled. She sat down like she was exhausted, or dazed, and reached for her pack of Pall Malls. She so rarely smiled, but she and Frank were radiant. I think we all were, reveling in our unexpected bonus.

I was disappointed with Mom’s pronouncement – I’d wanted to cook BOTH turkeys at once, an impossible feat given our small trailer propane oven – but reluctantly conceded the sense of planning for later. At the same time, I just wanted to stand there and stare at both turkeys on the counter, two whole turkeys, never cook them, just have them, forever.

Kacey, leaning over to peer inside the box, asked in his suddenly deep man-voice, “Are there any sweet potatoes?” That was his main criteria for Thanksgiving dinner, canned sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. His Levis hung low on his skinny hips, and his white T-shirt was wrinkled from sleep.

Frank reached into one corner and pulled out a big can with an orange, glossy picture of sweet potatoes wrapped around it. “You mean these?”

“YES!” Kacey let his cool slide long enough to give a little jump, then grabbed at his loose waistband. We all laughed, at his rare enthusiasm, at our own giddiness.

That’s what I remember. I don’t remember the meal itself. I don’t remember if we had pie, or Cool Whip for the topping. I don’t remember cleaning up, or storing leftovers, or starting the inevitable turkey soup. I just remember that moment of sheer joy when, having started with a spare cupboard for Thanksgiving, we suddenly became the owners of not one but two Tom Turkeys.

What was it we felt that day? Lucky? Remembered?

There was something about those two turkeys, one small, one nice and big, perched in our kitchen like trophies, like membership badges. I think what it was – was that we belonged. We belonged to the American Holiday now, because we had all the right equipment, the trappings, the correct symbols of being American.

We belonged in that Norman Rockwell painting.

We belonged in those Safeway commercials with the gorgeous golden bird in the middle of the table and the family oohing and awing all around.

We weren’t hiding out in our little trailer in the middle of nowhere, scraping by Thanksgiving with our food-stamp turkey and a little bowl of mashed potatoes. We had LOTS. We had TOO MUCH.

We were finally inside Thanksgiving, instead of just peeking over the sill from the outside. We were Americans.

It felt so good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jacinta's Medicine

photo of Jacinta Gonzales courtesy of Monterey Free Public Libraries

Jacinta’s Medicine

Jacinta Gonzalez worked at the restaurant frequented by Robert Louis Stevenson in Monterey, and was called on to nurse him during one of his severe illnesses in 1879. She also recorded gambling songs and a coyote myth for Alfred Kroeber in 1902. She passed away in the Influenza Epidemic of 1917.

It was the same old story:
witless white man gets lost, plants
himself face-first in the Carmel hills, dreamy head
translating scent of oak into black words.
But mean spirits hunt the soft breath
of lonely men like that, take what’s left.

They pierce the body like knives, leave
a man swollen with poisonous stories.
Now he lies abed, fevered, breath
rattling his throat like a dried up plant.
They call for me: Jacinta, you know words.
Come lay your hands on his forehead.

But what I know are medicines from heads
much older than mine; crushed leaves
gathered from windswept hills, not words
so much as roots, not roots so much as story.
I made a plaster for his chest, planted
a mugwort bundle under his pillow. Breathe,

I hummed into his glittering eyes, breathe.
Heard the dark buzzing inside his head,
knew the spirits wanted to supplant
his soul. Between his fingers I left
the sticky cobwebs of a story.
The only cure for ghost words

are salty cleansing waves of words.
Sail oceans, I said, dream islands, give breath
to your own cure. Make up a story,
scare the poison out of your head;
I’ll catch it in my hand when it leaves,
strangle it, burn it, plant

the ashes under a redwood.
I planned
to sit up all night. He muttered words
in his sleep: pirate, treasure, shore leave.
When the sun rose, his breath
turned easy, his pale creased forehead
cooled. Just one more hard-luck story.

My plants gave him back his breath.
Together, we dreamt words to clear his head,
ordered poison to leave. The rest is history.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Angel in a Pink Plymouth

The surgeon told us to be at the hospital by 11:00 a.m., and we are. But my father is nervous. His blood pressure is too high for someone about to have three hours of IV fluids. Nurses come into his hospital room several times in an hour to wrap the black band around my father’s tattooed upper arm and shake their heads. Finally a doctor okays some high blood pressure medicine, but by then it’s been 13 hours since Al last ate. His stomach is upset.

“Can’t I have just a couple sips of soda-pop?” he wheedles Cheryl, his current nurse. Standing aside, I witness the time-warp of genetics: Al is my five-year-old son, begging me for candy; my 20-year-old brother, borrowing gas money to get to work on the day after payday.

“One sip,” Cheryl finally agrees, “7-Up or ginger ale. Just swish it around in your mouth a little, make it last.”

I empty the pockets of my jeans onto the beside table, looking for change for the machine down the hall. I’m impatient, too. In my backpack is an un-read letter from a woman I recently met at a writing workshop. Living over one thousand miles apart now, we have a rich and voluminous friendship-by-mail. I am anxious to read her response to my last letter, but don’t want to bring it out until I’m alone. For my father, a private letter is like Pandora’s Box – he can’t wait to open it, the temptation to know is more than he can bear.

Meanwhile, my pockets yield up mints, hairbands, pennies …

“What the heck is that?” Al asks, pointing to something brown, teardrop-shaped, not much bigger than a silver dollar, that has emerged out of my pocket.

I surprise myself. I hand him the soft leather pouch that my friend recently sent me. A few years ago I would have been angry at my father for asking, and at myself for inadvertently revealing something dear to me.

Al picks up the pouch, pulls on the drawstrings with the delicacy that always seems so unexpected from those huge, calloused hands. He shakes out a round medallion. Even with his glasses, he squints down through bifocals, rotates the disk in his palm.

“It’s an angel,” I explain. I’m not sure how much sight he has left. He’s good at faking it.

He pauses, lets his eyes focus. I know the exact second he finds the angel imbedded in epoxy, the gold, purple, blue and silver glitter, foil hearts and stars swirling around her, because my father says in almost startled recognition, “That’s for protection!”

After a second, he asks, “Is this a magnet on the back?”

I say yes. “I guess it goes on a refrigerator.” I don’t say, it’s been living in my pocket as a talisman instead.

“No,” Al states positively, “It’s to go in your car. For protection.”

Suddenly he is remembering.

“We had a station wagon once, a pink Plymouth with black trim, big fins on the tail like that, eh?” Thick hands craft a curve in the air by his hospital bed. “Tepa, your grandfather, bought it for us … you were just a baby then, not more’n nine months. We were living down on Barrington, your mother and I. One morning I drove that car to work when I was still hungover from the night before.” His voice lowers as he speaks, mindful of the man in the next bed, as if the thin curtain between us was capable of blocking any sound.

“And I musta fallen asleep at the wheel. On the freeway! Next thing I know, man, I was off the road and that station wagon was flipping over, rolling over and over through the bushes, this tall grass. And then it landed on one side, on the driver’s side, and kept sliding. And I went down, down about nine or twelve feet, into a ravine, and hit a concrete overpass coming down like that –“ again, his hands diagram angles and motion. Carpenter’s hands.

“I landed on a cyclone fence, man and I couldn’t get the door open! I turned the engine off but I could smell the gas, you know? And I couldn’t get out. Then I thought, this thing has electric windows. I pushed the button for the back window and it went down! So I crawled out that way, crawled up the embankment to the road. A lotta people stopped, they seen me go off the road and come running. I was in shock, didn’t know nothin’ …”

Al’s round, flat face is distant. He is on the shoulder of the freeway again, his knees pierced by gravel, his guts heaving.

“. . . and these people were yelling get the babies out, get the babies out, and I was like, ‘Okay Al, go back, get the babies out’ and starting to slide back down.

"Then I remembered. I had two big dolls in the back, I won them for you at the bar – and I tol’ them people, no, no, it’s two dolls, dolls, not babies …”

Now the IV team comes in to do the needle, and Al tells me to forget the pop. He hates the IV, always complains about being “poked too goddamned many times” without success. I know he is afraid. This same man still bears the gang tattoos of his youth, walked the girders of skyscrapers in L.A. for a living, did eight years in San Quentin and emerged alive.

This time, though, there is no problem; the technician is smooth and practiced, and Al grunts “Good,” as if it’s the least they could do. Soon his dark, compact body is strapped onto a cot and waiting for a ride to surgery. He has long since handed back my angel. I stand with my hands in my pockets, flannel shirt untucked, a question on my mind.

“Your mom almost killed me,” Al says suddenly from the doorway.

He looks at me sideways from under his carefully combed silver mane. He doesn’t use Tres Flores anymore – maybe he’s been too far from home too long – but I still smell it in his presence.

He measures me with his half-blind eyes, says, “Your mother used to be different –“ smiles, shamefacedly, “she used to yell at me. Oh, she read me the riot act. ‘What are you going to tell Tepa, how will you get to work, what about the baby’s appointments …’”

I laugh at the absurd image of my quiet mother letting her temper fly. I don’t remember ever seeing that happen in my thirty years, but then, there are a lot of things from that time I don’t remember.

I forget to ask my question.

My father’s gurney is rolling down the hall. His thick glasses lie on the bedside table. He can barely see without them. Glaucoma. There is no choice but this last-ditch operation.

The leather bag is a hard lump in my pocket. I touch it gently with my fingertips. Can’t believe I let him hold it, open it; can’t believe I’m even in this hospital as his next-of-kin. I used to hate this man; fear him so much that I couldn’t eat, couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. His demons contaminated all of his children, but especially my brother, his last child, ten years younger than me.

I raised Little Al until he was six. We had each other on those crazy nights, Al’s hand like a paw in mine as we listened together to the sound of that old red pickup truck barreling down the dirt road away from us again. Though I was not allowed to interfere when our father pulled off his belt to discipline, I snuck into Little Al’s room afterwards as he cried what we both knew had to be perfectly silent tears. In the long summers while I was home all day, we walked the woods and pastures together.

I was Little Al’s big sister, surrogate mother, friend; he was my first child.

When my parents separated for the last time, my father took his son with him. Fathers had that right in Al’s universe.

What it really meant was that at age six, my brother was on his own.

He could use a guardian angel of his own.

But it’s just a bottlecap filled with glitter, a paper angel, and clear epoxy; it fits snugly inside a smooth 2” pouch with tiny crimson beading around the top lip.

I think about the friend who gave this angel to me: a good poet, a strong woman who has worked hard to live her mixed-blood heritage with dignity and love. In my heart, I call her sister. A woman who looks like me, my brother, my son. Like my father. I’m thirty years old; she is the only other California Indian I have met.

I think of everything: the Maidu song her mother sang in a scale she couldn’t learn – her mother’s early death – the way things get lost. My last letter to her, confessing, “I don’t have an enrollment number, I don’t have stories. All I have is my father’s face, my grandmother’s hair, these Chumash hands …”

I find an unoccupied sofa in the waiting area by the picture window. The white envelope rips open across the postmark. Pages of fine, precise handwriting slide out.

You do have stories … those stories your dad tells are connected with older stories, stories that might not have been passed down to you, but which existed and maybe even still exist in a world that isn’t this one … It is a fragment in one way, but like the shard of a pot that can be restored ..
Sitting cross-legged, I feel the hard edges of an angel pressing into my thigh. I pull out themedallion, set it down on top of the envelope beside me. Look at her, all sparkles and glitter, hearts and stars, hands held out – in warning? Greeting? Pronouncement?

Angels. They show up in the strangest places.

I wonder what it was about this pop-art medallion that brought back that memory to my father. Was he thinking of a St. Christopher stuck to his dashboard, a Virgen de Guadalupe swinging on a chain from the rearview mirror, as he saw that concrete pillar coming towards him? When he was trapped against the cyclone fence unable to get the door open, did he hear a celestial voice say, Try the rear window release?

What did my father see that day?

There is an angel in this story somewhere. In the pocket of my jeans at a hospital in 1994. In a pink Plymouth station wagon on a Los Angeles freeway in 1962?

Outside, the pines and rhododendrons of Western Washington glow green under midsummer sun. I know the names of all these Northwest plants, yet I am a long way from home. My father’s surgery will last about two hours.

I unpack my journal, find a pen. If I hurry, there’s time to write this down.

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