Monday, December 21, 2009

Testimony


In late December 1974, I was a moody seventh-grader in raggedy-edged bell bottoms who confided to my teacher that I missed my dad. I had not seen him since I was three years old. All I knew for sure was that he was Indian, dark, handsome, and had been sent to San Quentin for eight years.

“He’d be out now,” I said to my teacher, “I wish I knew him.”

Mr. Thompson called my mother to suggest an effort at reconnecting; that night my mother made some calls to California, tracked my father down, and told him that he had a daughter who was asking about him. My father’s response was to get on a plane and fly into Sea-Tac airport the next morning. His return happened with an ease and speed that made this extraordinary event seem natural - predestined, even.

When I went back to school after Christmas vacation, I told my teachers that I’d gotten the best present ever: a father. I don’t think my mother had any intention of reuniting with my father when she called him, but the pull between them was stronger than all the hurt they’d gone through the first time. It was a history so scarring it was never spoken, never mentioned, by anyone – not my two older half-siblings, who’d lived through it, or my grandparents, who had watched helplessly as my mother’s second marriage spun from crisis to crisis. Why didn’t she leave him? My parents’ love for one another, I was to learn, was a spiritual obsession, a physical compulsion, a wicked sweet spell impossible to resist.

Those first months were the kind of reunion and honeymoon I’d always dreamt of. The three of us, living together for the first time in ten years, were full of forgiveness, tenderness, affection. In my eyes, everything my father did was brilliant. His carpentry skills were a testament to that genius: out of scraps of lumber, my father made bunk beds, bookshelves, a storage unit for my grandparents, a henhouse. He also grounded the washing machine in the shed so we didn’t get zapped in wet weather, wrapped heat-tape around the exposed pipes beneath the trailer during winter, and re-wired a beautiful old porcelain lamp for the living room - less visible projects that made our shabby old trailer much more of a home.

I spent hours out in the barn with my father, watching him measure, mark, and measure again: measure twice, cut once. He taught me how to be precise with a tape measure, sharpen a carpenter’s pencil, knock together a sawhorse, handle a chisel, use a level and a T square, snap a chalk line, make bookshelves. Compared to his thundering hammer, my blows were puny, but I got the job done– once I’d learned how to pound a nail straight in rather than bending it.

My father was pleased when I progressed rapidly. “That’s my girl!” he’d sing out in his melodious voice. It was a fine day for each of us when I used his heavy construction-grade circular saw to cut a piece of plywood by myself. Each expression of pleasure from him was a caress to my spirit, and another connection to the deep bond that I felt forming between us.
As we neared spring (it starts as early as February in the Pacific Northwest), my father lovingly took on what had been my mother’s vegetable garden before she started making a long commute into Seattle. My father relished that dirt, that earth.

“Look how dark this is,” he’d say, holding up a handful of freshly turned soil. “See that? That’s good soil, nice and rich. We’re gonna grow some good tomatoes here!”

And he rubbed the earth between his two big hands, brought it to his face and inhaled, the way I might bury my face in an armful of wild roses. Working mostly barefoot and shirtless, clad in an old brown pair of work pants cut off raggedly at the knees, he carefully measured out rows for all his favorites: along with tomatoes, he planned cucumbers, garlic, chives, lettuce, carrots, peas. An entire half of the garden plot, the side receiving the most sun, was reserved for corn. Somehow, my father knew every intimate step of creating a garden: tilling the land one shovel-full at a time, sifting out large stones, raking, determining which seeds should go where, how many to plant, and how often to water.

Watching my father tend his garden I had the odd sensation that he had entered into the earth itself, his presence there was so right - or more accurately, it seemed to me as if he had simply emerged out of it. With his dark-skinned tattooed arms, skinny calves, rippling back and shoulder muscles, smooth brown face still mostly unlined at forty-five, it was sometimes hard for me to tell where my father ended and the earth began.




Now I think what I sensed was my father’s unspeakable joy at belonging again to a place, to land, to creation. He’d lost that in San Quentin, or maybe even before then; he certainly hadn’t found it afterwards in the apartment complexes of Los Angeles. I know that he has never again been as happy as he was that spring when everything he touched flourished and he was at the center of all his creative powers.

My father liked to cook. He was very domestic, even though he’d been raised in the middle of a macho culture on the streets of Santa Monica and Los Angeles. He often took over the small kitchen of our trailer to make us breakfast – chorizo, eggs, potatoes, tortillas – or dinners of sopa, or chili verde, or pot roast, all of which he created with meticulous attention from start to finish.

Shopping became a treasure hunt. Our only grocery store was a Safeway, part of a big chain that had the basics but not much else. My father had to make do, and he was good at it. He doctored cans of Old El Paso Enchilada Sauce with chopped onions, canned green chilies, dried cumin. He simmered a pot of tomatoes all day to prepare sopa with rice. He hunted through the Safeway produce section for green and red bell peppers that met his standards, picking them up with his fingertips, turning them slowly from side to side, smelling, squeezing lightly, hefting their shiny bodies in his giant square palm. He prized the few unripe avocados, bumpy green eggs that he could set in a window sill till they were soft and ready for the knife. He peeled back corn husks to examine the kernels for firmness and color, looking for ears to roast in the oven. Rice wasn’t hard to find – he wasn’t used to anything special – and pinto beans were purchased in the largest bag we could afford.

On rare occasions, we drove up to Seattle to the Pike Street Market, where my father could buy fresh chorizo and homemade corn tortillas – just often enough to enlighten me about the culinary possibilities of the outside world.

Sitting down to eat a meal cooked and served by my father was a glorious moment. In our cramped kitchen, we had a small table topped with imitation-wood Formica, accompanied by four aluminum and plastic chairs. Curtains with red polka-dots, sewn by my mother with much sweat and determination, hung triumphantly at the windows - all the more impressive because in high school, she’d taken flamenco dancing instead of Home Economics.

My father took one of our mis-matched plates from the cupboard next to the propane stove and held it in one dark brown, thick-fingered hand while scooping up steaming mounds of rice, beans, delicately shoveling up an enchilada or two, then put the full plate into my hands so that I could put it at the appropriate place at the table.

When my father cooked, it seemed like there was always more than enough to go around; we never ran out of beans, everyone ate their fill of tortillas. Perhaps that’s because my father enjoyed cooking most when he’d just gotten paid and had money for lots of groceries. Or perhaps I remember our meals as feasts because, for a very short time, we were a two-income family - my father picked up steady carpentry jobs right from the start, and supplemented my mother’s low wages with cash.

And perhaps what I felt – sated, cherished, replete – might have reflected the shy, tentative unfolding and filling of three wary hearts.

Of course, as in any romance, we were all trying to impress each other. My father fixed and constructed and made us feel that we were the center of his universe. He told stories – about his mother scavenging for acorns and cactus apples to feed her four boys, his father sneaking out to secret Indian dances at a certain rancheria in the hills, his grandfather’s bootlegging. Or how he learned to swim – one of his uncles just threw him into the Santa Ynez River! “It musta worked,” my dad bragged, “’cause later, I could swim from one end of a pier to another at Santa Monica, without taking a breath. My mother would get all worried, but I swear, I could breathe underwater!” My favorite story was the one about my father's own birth: how his dad was up at a lumber camp, so Grandma Keta went up to the Tuolomne Rancheria, where she had relatives. A wicked November blizzard left her up there "with just an old Indian woman to midwife, no doctor, but they sent for one," and my father was born in a little cabin by the river.

"When the doctor finally showed up," my father would repeat with some relish, "wasn't nothing left for him to do. He turned around, walked back out into the storm, and dropped dead. That’s why I didn’t have a birth certificate." It was a legendary creation story suitable for my father, I thought.

And he told stories about my mother when they were first married (“Ay, she had a mouth on her in those days – she would cuss me out when I came home late!”), my birth (he was so excited that he shoved a pan of hot, sputtering fried chicken straight into the freezer), the little rituals he and I had before it all went to hell - for example, pushing me on the swing at the park, and singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” together at the top of our lungs (I fell out and chipped a baby tooth).

I did everything I could to make him fall in love with me, too: I’d come right home from school, throw on my overalls, and help him with the latest carpentry project, or assist him in the kitchen if he was making dinner when my mother’s bus ran late.

I listened avidly to his stories, asked questions that allowed him to expand even further, handed him the right tool at the right time and thought he’d invented carpentry.

I learned how to say “I love you” in Spanish, found a bizarre collection of words from my early childhood still embedded in my brain (chonis, make mimi, caca, mocoso, cochino, vamanos, andele, mi’ija, chingaso, pinche, chingon, vieja, da me un besito …).

I learned to mix tortilla dough in my mother’s big brown pottery bowl, rolled out the soft velvety uneven circles, laying them one by one in the cast iron frying pan to steam and brown and transform from flour and water into a heavenly sacrament for my father’s supper.

It occurs to me only now that my father – born always and already a survivor, child of one of twenty thousand out of one million who took the brunt of colonization with their sturdy bodies and gentle spirits, my father, born 1927, Indian in a state where shooting, buying and selling Indians was perfectly legal only thirty years earlier, my father, three years out of a brutal eight year stretch in San Quentin, twice divorced, with the four daughters from his first marriage lost to him and his only son in the custody of an ex-girlfriend – my father was as starved for love as I.

My father was an early riser; without an alarm clock, he hit the linoleum floor running at 5 a.m. with the energy to shave, make coffee and mop the kitchen, get laundry started, scrub out the kitchen sink, clean the bathroom. (He said he learned that discipline in the Navy, but later I learned it was actually the Sea Bees, and that he had been dishonorably discharged.)

My father just couldn’t see wasting the early hours of the day sleeping, though at first his activity drove my mother crazy. She learned to sleep through his clatter; one of many generous accommodations we were willing to give one another in those first months. My father savored these quiet, hopeful hours and did his best work then, much the same way that I rise early now to write or gather my thoughts for the day.

I still think of that space just before and after dawn as a time when everything seems possible, when I remember to be grateful for being alive. This is an ancient ritual for all tribal peoples. Before the Spaniards came, our ancestors rose early and went straight to prayer and to bathe. The hour itself seems to encourage renewal and re-dedication. This is one custom that we survivors can reclaim, keep alive by the thin braided threads of chance, stubbornness, dignity.

When I’m writing very early, when I pause to sip my tea, I see my father in my mind’s eye. He’s sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, legs spread wide for support, leaning back. He is surveying the freshly mopped floor, the sparkling counters and sink, with silent satisfaction. Beside him on the table is a cup of black coffee that he’ll let himself drink while the floor dries.
Sometimes I’d be so amazed by my father’s talents (it seemed to me that there was nothing he did not know how to make, repair or imagine) that I’d ask, “Daddy, where did you learn to do all this stuff?”

My father’s reply was always an abrupt, “ha!” and uncomfortable grin. “In college,” he’d say, and I assumed he meant some distant institution of learning, much like my mother’s two year stint at Highline Community College.

Later, because he knew that his incarceration wasn’t a secret to me, he admitted that he’d spent his eight long years at San Quentin learning various construction trade skills.

“Why do you call that ‘college’?” I asked, not understanding yet the depth of his shame, or the terrible cruelty of his crime. His embarrassed shrugs and frustrating silences were my only hints.

Late that spring, as I stood ironing one of his work shirts into crisp perfection, my father told me the truth, or at least, his truth.

“I just want you to know, I don’t want you to find out from anyone else,” he told me almost formally, as if he were inviting me into his trust, “I was in prison for rape.”

He must have seen something on my face that pushed him to elaborate: “I thought she was 18. She said she was 18. After, her brother and his friends made up this story that I forced her. But I didn’t. She just didn’t want her brother to know she was, well, one of those girls.”

I focused my attention on getting the points of the shirt collar perfectly flat, not knowing what to say in response to this confession. Back and forth went the prow of the hot iron, until suddenly I realized that the cotton beneath it had darkened and was almost too hot to touch. I said, “Okay, Daddy.”

By mid-May 1975 it was clear that my father planned to stay on with us in Washington State; things were going so well that even my mother’s parents, who initially opposed the reunion, began to reluctantly accept the situation.

My father, however, had one piece of unfinished business in California: his only son, Al Miranda Jr., still living with his mother Lupe in a small L.A. apartment. Never having married, my father felt he and Lupe had nothing legal to dissolve, and I guess he thought that applied to custody of Little Al as well.

In one of the most audacious moves I’d ever witnessed, my father simply flew to California on Mother’s Day, picked Al up out of his bed, got on another plane and flew home to my mother and me. No custody battle, no drawn-out negotiations, no lawyers.

“He’s my son,” my father said when he set out, “Ain’t nobody gonna keep me from having my son.”

It was my first real experience with another side of my father, the side everyone else but me knew about: the patriarchal, dictatorial, indisputable king of the family. He Who Must Be Obeyed. El Jefe. The way my father told it, Lupe made no effort to resist the theft of her son, or to see him, or to check up on him. She simply gave Little Al up without a fight. My father had an uncanny, threatening aura of authority that silenced any dissent or questions; as far as I know, no one ever challenged his assumption of sole custody, but it was nothing less than kidnapping. Of course, as his girlfriend for four years, Lupe probably knew what my father was capable of doing if denied something he felt belonged to him.

Many, many years later, I learned that Lupe had, in fact, called my father's daughters, crying on the phone, begging them to tell her where Al had taken her little boy. My sisters, at that time, didn't know.

His only son was definitely a valuable piece of property that my father had waited a long time (and five girls) to possess.

Two things happened when my brother walked off that plane from L.A. with our father. First, Little Al and I bonded instantly, as if he were my own child. He was a dark brown, black-haired, black-eyed bear cub of a boy wearing faded jeans with patches ironed onto each knee, a blue T-shirt, and scuffed white sneakers. He had just been taken from his home and mother; anxiety and loss shadowed his round face like bruises. He badly needed a haircut, and his fingernails were ragged.

I took his hand. His head didn’t even reach my waist. He couldn’t pronounce my name. Home was suddenly a place to which he couldn’t go back. But my hand was there, and he held onto me, and for a little awhile we both believed I could protect him.

The second thing that happened was like a natural disaster – a firestorm, a tectonic earthquake, a flash flood - that I could not have anticipated: I was summarily demoted from Son Substitute to Dutiful Daughter.

Even now, when I try to make sense of the abrupt change in my father, I don’t understand exactly what happened, or why. It was as if, assured that he had his son to raise, my father no longer needed me, no longer cared about any aspect of my life except for the ways I could serve him, or care for his son. Projects we had worked on together with pleasure and mutual enjoyment suddenly became replaced by never-ending chores – for me. My father’s patience for teaching disappeared; he wanted me to know how to do things and do them right.

Conversations were landmines, places I could take a wrong step and set off an argument or tirade without warning.

And it did feel as if I could lose a foot or leg in my father’s unpredictable explosions.

Rage, like so many other changes initiated by my father, was new to me.

For the previous ten years, my mother had parented me with a particular style: soft-spoken, undemanding, gentle if withdrawn. Because she was normally low-key, if my mother raised her voice and rolled out my full name in deliberate, round syllables, I leapt to attention. Chronically depressed, still mourning the death of a baby girl in her first marriage, my mother consoled herself with alcohol, and sometimes drugs.

When she drank heavily, my mother forgot to pick me up somewhere, or didn’t come home at night. She passed out on the sofa, or in the middle of a bath. She smoked in bed. She forgot to feed me for days. I learned to dread June 30th, the anniversary of her baby’s death; Mama drank, cried, drank and cried some more, lost in a maelstrom of grief and regret.

I wasn’t a difficult child (my idea of being bad was to eat out of the sugar bowl with a spoon) but I was accustomed to very little adult supervision or direction. There wasn’t much I could think of that wasn’t “allowed”; my mother just didn’t make rules. Half the time she wasn’t paying attention, and the other half she was trying to make up for her neglect. A firm voice or mild warning, then, could send me reeling; my mother sometimes said exasperatedly to visitors, “If you look at her cross-eyed, she bursts into tears!”

As I entered my teens, my mother and I clashed over her boyfriends, my moods, her drinking, but our version of fighting was passive and unspoken, accented with the occasional slammed door or stomped foot. I think I was too afraid of losing her to risk anything more. And, despite seeing alcohol and a buffet of drugs used daily all around me by parents and their friends, I had no desire to even try them.

If I had, I suddenly realize now, my mother probably wouldn’t have objected.

In short, you couldn’t have found a girl more unprepared to face regular beatings, unpredictable verbal attacks, and strict discipline.

Under my father’s new regime I cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, fed the animals (we had a small collection of cats, dogs, goats, ducks, chickens and sometimes pigs), and, naturally, took care of all Little Al’s needs as well – coming right home from school to baby-sit, staying home from school to baby-sit if we couldn’t afford daycare.

Other kinds of caretaking I took on out of love and necessity. I learned quickly that my father did not tolerate bed-wetting, for example, but also refused to put my brother in a diaper at night. Our mornings were no longer peaceful, productive times, but became potentially explosive in ways I had never imagined.

Sometime in that first week with Little Al, what began as a spanking for wet chonis progressed to a beating with my father’s belt, and my universe fell apart.

Years later, when I’d become both a mother and a teacher, I always said that Little Al was my first child and my first pupil. I loved that boy with all my heart, more than I’ve ever let myself love anyone again. I think you only know that kind of intense affinity once. Even with my own children, I’ve held back one splinter of heart for myself, for my own good – and I tell you, I’d lay myself down for those children, give up my life for theirs if need be - but I loved my little brother completely, unflinchingly, unwisely, crazily, wholly.

There was no separation between us, between my skin and his. We were two lost halves that had found each other at last. We were one person. When my father discovered that he could beat Al in order to punish me, he discovered the perfect way to control me.

That first time, I didn’t understand what was happening right away. My brother’s wet pants, my father’s sudden, “Goddamnit, son!” and the strange quick hum of my father’s black leather belt being jerked through his belt loops with one hard pull.

I remember Little Al trying to cover his butt with his small hands, fingers wide, screaming, “No Daddy, no Daddy, I sorry!” and the curses, the venom erupting from my father, my dear, clever, strong father as he held his son fast with one hand, and whipped him with the other.

It happened so quickly that sheer surprise, then terror, paralyzed me where I stood at the sink, washing dishes. The next thing I knew, I was wrapping soapy hands around my father’s arm, but he shook me off like rain; I barely weighed 90 pounds.

“Stay the hell out of this,” he snarled.

I stared at him, and all I could think of were the feral cats that lived in the woods, the ones who forsook the barn for living wild, who fought off the most good-intentioned gesture with slashing claws and fangs.

My father’s body rose huge and full of storm, filling my vision. Hovering just out of his reach, almost dancing in my anguish, I pleaded for him to stop. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my brother twisting in our father’s grip, trying to avoid the blows even when he must have known there was no escape.

When I think back on that moment, I have no memory of sound, of voices, only the sight of that belt blurring towards Little Al’s backside.

I lost the ability to form words, in my head or my mouth. I forgot there were such things as words. I was nearly as crazed as my father, stomping my feet, beating the air with my fists, hands outstretched, hands to ears, inarticulate noises coming out of my throat from deep in my gut – rooted to the spot, writhing.

Afterwards, I was forbidden to go into my brother’s room to hold or comfort him. He huddled on his bed, trying to muffle his sobs with pillow or hands while my father hollered, “Boys don’t cry!”
I sat on the other side of the thin wood walls of the trailer, listening, learning to hate.

One morning, up before our parents, I found Little Al frantically stuffing his wet pajamas behind the toilet, his face a mask of fear.

We looked at each other silently.

I knelt down and pulled the soaking wet pants out from behind the toilet. My brother stood stock still, terrified; his damp bare legs quivered.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell him,” I said softly. “How about this - if you wake up wet, you come and get me; I’ll take care of it.”

Little Al stood staring at the wet clothes in my hand. He was holding his breath. I put one arm around him, gave him a quick hug. “Okay, sweetie?”

He was unbending against me, but he whispered, “Okay.”

Together, we stripped the bed, remade it with fresh sheets, and ditched his PJs in the washing machine. I threw in a scoop of detergent and started a load before the smell of urine permeated the shed built onto the back of the trailer. Later, I made sure to put the clean sheets back in the linen closet, and tuck the dry PJs into his top drawer before bedtime.

It was the first of many covert collaborations between us; we were like young green plants that could never take the route we desired, straight up toward the sun, but grew bent and gnarled, contorted with the effort to evade an obstacle that kept moving.

It was the drinking, in part. My father’s drinking increased in both potency and frequency after Little Al arrived.

And my father was a mean drunk. A swearing, yelling, stomping, slamming, violent drunk whose belligerence and impatience led to car accidents, bar fights, and the inevitable 2 a.m. phone call from the cops. He’d kick the dogs that ran out to greet him, throw things at the cats, all the while swearing profusely and creatively (one phrase that stuck with me is Goddamnsonofafuckingbitch!) in a voice that bellowed out of his stocky bear’s body like God’s own epic wrath. The word “anger” can’t describe the sound of his voice cracking like a whip in the air around us.

Relief and terror took turns inside me when my parents left home to continue drinking at taverns.

Thank God they’re gone/What if they never come back? I’d worry, and make dinner for Little Al, watch TV with him, put him to bed, do the dishes . . . and wait.

I knew their favorite places, the names and phone numbers; called each bar when the hour grew later and later, and no one came home. Clutching the beige receiver in my hand, I dialed the list in rotation: The Mecca, The Ad Lib, The Sugar Shack.

“Is Al Miranda there? Midge Miranda? Mom, when are you guys coming home?”

I both dreaded and longed to hear my father’s truck come up back our windy gravel road late at night.

Sometimes if Little Al and I already in bed when the truck roared and rattled to a stop beside the trailer, we’d pretend to be asleep, huddled beneath blankets and sleeping bags in the hope that our father would just wind down on his own, roll into bed, and sleep it off. And sometimes he would do that, and we tiptoed around him to rustle ourselves breakfast. When he woke up, our father might leap right back into his foul mood, still half-drunk, drinking more, looking for a fight.

Those times, we tried to be very small, hide, but we would have had to be invisible to avoid his reach.

Other nights, my father would come in like thunderstorm, slamming his truck door, shouting to the stars and distant neighbors, “I’m drunk goddamnit, I’m DRUNK!” as if challenging the universe itself to stop him. Throwing open the door to the trailer, turning on all the lights, he’d yell “Wake up! wake up!” and demand that I fix him something to eat – fry up some potatoes, warm up beans and tortillas, eggs and toast.

If I continued to fake sleep, or protested the hour, he’d blast, “I’m your father, goddamnit, get up and fix me some food!” and then of course Little Al would start crying, which would make my father angrier still, and I’d be out of my bed in an instant, attempting to divert his attention from Al, trying to appease the beast.

“Here, Daddy, I’ll make you breakfast.” And I would, standing in my nightgown at the stove, 2 a.m. with all the lights blazing, trying to comfort Al with one hand and cook my father something with the other.

By this time, my mother was either passed out in bed or the car; sometimes, towards the end when she was trying to sober up, she was the one in the kitchen, while I lay in my narrow bed down the trailer hallway, listening with teeth clenched, waiting. All the time my own stomach working overtime, twisting, churning, afraid of the first slap, the first smack, the jingle of his belt coming off and being folded in two, the sharp crack. You couldn’t reason with my father when he was drunk.

Alcohol worked on him like an evil spirit, and nobody knew the medicine for it.

And so my father separated us, my little brother and me, one shredded piece of skin at a time. When I was nineteen, I married a much older white man. He had been my high school history teacher. He was my ticket out.

We moved 3,000 miles away where I threw myself into raising my husband’s two small children, and I abandoned my little brother.

I saved myself. Not gracefully, not wisely, but I got away.

I still love him, that chubby-faced dark brown boy who wrapped himself around me like a blanket and sobbed into my neck. But I left him behind a long time ago, like a piece of my soul that got snagged by a briar bush.

I yanked myself away, and we both tore.


My father’s older daughters, my half-sisters – Rose Marie, Louise, Lenora, Patsy – got in touch with me when I was thirty-five years old and we were working toward federal recognition of the Esselen Nation.
Our father’s blood brought us together. As we compiled genealogies, scoured the National Archives for documents and interviewed elders for evidence of tribal continuity, I found myself especially compatible with Louise, loving her fiery take-no-prisoners spirit.

When her only daughter died after a long, fierce fight with leukemia without finding a bone marrow match, Louise threw herself into organizing bone marrow screening on Indian reservations in California, Oregon, Washington State and Idaho. With her husband, Ernie, Louise drove thousands of miles in her big RV to take blood samples and search out potential donors whose unique Native ancestry might be the only match for some other Indian child. Tough, brave, tireless, Louise single-handedly expanded the database for potential Native bone marrow donors by thousands.

Louise, however, would have nothing to do with Al, as she called our father – wouldn’t speak to him, see him, acknowledge him as her father. After divorcing her first husband, she’d even changed her surname to Ramirez, in honor of our ancestor Severiana Ramirez, rather than go back to her maiden name.

“I hated the name Miranda,” she told me, “If he didn’t want any part of us, then I didn’t want any part of him.”

My sister told me stories about life with my father in that first marriage, before I was born. How he beat their mother, beat his girls. How he cheated on his wife, blew his salary in bars, and finally left his family without a penny, so poor that they didn’t even have coats in winter, went to school hungry, and only received one Christmas present each from a Catholic charity for Indian children.
The worst blow came years later, as her daughter Tiara was dying.

“She asked to meet her Grandpa, her Indian Grandpa. I swallowed my pride. I called him. I begged him. He wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t come to see his dying granddaughter.” That, for Louise, severed any chance of a relationship with our father. “It’s one thing to hurt me,” she growled, “but my daughter …”

At a tribal gathering in San Juan Bautista one summer, I spotted Louise off to one side of the fire practicing a deer song learned from a wax cylinder recording by two of our female ancestors. I walked toward her, passing Rose Marie as she headed up to the bathrooms.

“Hey,” Rose greeted me, grinning, “I was watching you. You walk just like Dad, like a big ol’ bear.”

Surprised, then embarrassed, I mumbled, “Gee, really?”

We were all having these flashes of recognition that weekend, bittersweet DNA circulating through the gathering like gossip. Earlier in the day, I’d seen Lenora’s twin granddaughters laughing in their Auntie Pat’s lap; all three of them had Little Al’s dimples, his deep chuckle.

I found a seat next to Louise, sat down and looked into the fire.

All around us in the dark, the embers of the Esselen tribe were bedding down for the night after a long day of pow wow and seminars on abalone jewelry, smudging, prayers and songs – all the things we needed to relearn from the few who still held the knowledge. The air smelled of burning wood, eucalyptus trees, dust and sweat.

I imagined the earth still reverberated with the sound of our feet in the dance circle earlier.

Another tribal member passed by, greeted us, said it was too bad our father wasn’t there with us. After the man had gone, Louise went off like a firecracker.

“’Too bad Al’s not here’! Huh! Like he’s some wise old elder. He lies about everything. Did you know that San Quentin wasn’t Al’s first prison? He served time before, shorter stays. And do you know what he was convicted of, when he went to San Quentin?”

In what I hoped was a casual voice (but which felt small and weak), I said, “Yeah – rape.”

Louise scowled. “That’s what he tells people. But my mother was there, she went to court for the hearing, she heard the testimony, the girl’s testimony, the doctors. Al was in a bar, Deby, and got stinking drunk, the way he always did. And there was a waitress there that he wanted, and he told her so, and she said no. You know what that bastard did? He waited out in the parking lot until it was dark, and she left work to go home. He attacked her in that parking lot and he beat her, Deby, he broke her jaw, he cut her face, he broke her ribs. Then he raped her. And just left her.”

Louise’s voice trembled; not just with fury, but anguish. Anguish for what that nameless woman must have felt …

“Left her there, bleeding, in the dark, didn’t care what happened to her or nothing,” she went on, letting her grief ignite into anger again, “That’s what Al went to prison for, and he deserved all eight years, and more. He ruined that girl’s life. He’d probably done it before and never got caught. And he goes around telling everyone ‘oh I thought she was eighteen’ ‘oh she lied to me’ ‘oh she was afraid of her older brother’ – he’s just a lying son of a bitch.”

In that moment, Louise’s hatred for our father was a carved mask obscuring her face with shadow and flame. I wonder what my face looked like when denial fled and left me standing without the last shred of pretence.

Images burst through my mind – my father, bellowing at my little brother as Al Jr. cowers on his bed, stop crying!

My father, yanking the black leather belt from his waist, doubling the length, whipping my small brother mercilessly.

My father, tearing my room apart to find my journal, reading it, grabbing me by the arms and demanding, “What’s this? Why did you write this about me?”

A passage from a neophyte’s autobiographical document dictated in 1890 at Santa Cruz
by Lorenzo Asisara, born at Santa Cruz Mission in 1819 swam through my panicked mind:

"The Indians at the missions were very severely treated by the padres, often punished by fifty lashes on the bare back. They were governed somewhat in the military style, having sergeants, corporals and overseers, who were Indians, and they reported to the padres any disobedience or infraction of the rules, and then came the lash without mercy, the women the same as the
men. . . We were always trembling with fear of the lash."

I know it is his blood that gives our bid for Federal Recognition real teeth, authority that the government can’t deny. It is our father who remembers family names, stories, clues we are desperate to record, whose body is the source of the most precious part of our identity, and the most damning legacies of our history.

I know that to survive my father, I had to become brutal, self-centered, savvy about blame and vulnerability and surprise attacks. I had to know cruelty or punishment intimately, all the different ways they could be used as weapons. I had to cultivate deviousness in order to be prepared, have an exit strategy, an escape route, a come-back, a diversion. I had to be ready to give up the most cherished thing in the world in order to be free; I had to be ready to sacrifice the innocent.

I had to want to survive more than I wanted to be good.
And knowing all of this, I hate my father.

And sitting there, listening to relatives murmur in the firelight, children asking for stories and marshmallows, under stars a deep, old silver, I inexplicably remember one of my dad’s stories: as a seven or eight year old boy, he helped his grandfather bottle homemade beer in the attic. I think this must have been in Santa Barbara, where his mother’s family maintained a small compound until it was “lost when we couldn’t pay the taxes.” My dad told me, laughing, how he had stacked those bottles neatly in his small wagon, hauling it around the neighborhood making his deliveries. His grandfather paid him in beer, joked when the little boy got drunk, then sleepy, passed out. Later, my father said more bitterly, he was sent away from the family every night to sleep in his grandfather’s house down the block, made to wash the old man’s feet, help him to bed, to the outhouse. “God, that was awful,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I’m old now, you know, and I understand that he needed help. But back then, I was just mad that it had to be me. It was dark, it was cold, and that outhouse – nasty, man. I wanted to be home with my mother!”

And I know that my father was born into a hard world, raised by survivors of trauma and grief never resolved, human beings shaped by losses beyond my ability to imagine, but too tough and stubborn to give up without a fight. I know my father never learned to transform that hardness, only to endure it by taking that pain into himself, spitting venom back into all whose lives he touched.

And I love my father.

As we sit there in sudden silence by the fire, our faces hot, Louise’s clapperstick mute in her lap, I can’t speak. It’s as if my eyes are open but each eye sees two different worlds that cannot possibly co-exist without driving me insane. Yet, both worlds do exist: My father, a poisonous, selfish, brutal man whose violence wounds everyone he touches. My father, a neglected, lonely, child, a gifted man whose passion for words, color, wood-working, music, gardening, shine through in each of his children and grandchildren. All my life I’ve been asking myself, how can these two things both be true?

Now, years later, I realize: How can they not both be true, given our history? This is how our ancestors survived the Missions, the Ranchos, enslavement by the Americans. This strange double-edged blade that is our identity was the only way we could hang on. Is it any wonder if, in order to survive, we became destroyers, like them? No. The real wonder is that any tenderness, any capacity for love or creativity or beauty, also survived.
The artists, storytellers, musicians, and spiritual leaders in our tribe have survived because the con artists, rapists, thieves and wife-beaters have survived. The artists, storytellers, musicians, and spiritual leaders in our tribe have survived inside the con artists, rapists, thieves and wife-beaters – and vice versa. We are tied to one another, bound like molecules of hydrogen to oxygen, part of one another’s past, present, future. Part of one another’s nightmares and dreams. We are impossible mixtures of hate and innocence, creation and destruction, fear and love.

My father’s pain seethes inside me. His passion for stories, his delight in rivers, his abilities with wood, sing inside me. Each of my sisters and our brother bear similar gifts and wounds: talents for laughter, for the old language, a quest for the sacred, the splash of brushwork on pottery, a relish for hard labor, infinite loyalty and bottomless grudge. Our memories are long and selective; our hearts battered but capacious.

My father left us many times. He disappeared into drink, into the arms of women other than his wives, into prisons, into his own darkness. He was consumed by his pride, his shame, his denial, his rapacious need; there was so little left for us, his children.

But as his once-powerful body aged and fell prey to arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, when he could no longer drink or use force to get his way, my father mellowed, became more approachable. When I had my own children (having moved back into the area after six years on the East Coast), I tried hard to include him in our lives as a father, grandfather, elder. My children came to know him in a manner much more like the first few months of his arrival in Washington State: wise old Grandpa Al, the carpentry genius, the handsome Indian storyteller. He was the crazy old man who remarried again at age 70, bringing Martha, a sweet white, Catholic lady, into our lives. He went to church; he took confession; he seemed to make peace with at least some of his past. When one of my children flirted with breaking the law, embracing wildness and alcohol, my father told that child stories about his own bad boy days, not sparing the details, regretful of opportunities blown.


It was a rare moment of candor from Al Miranda Sr.; it didn’t last long.

My father became older still, frail. He was a weakened man in great pain. His hands and knees swelled with arthritis; he lost the feeling in his feet, stumbled or fell frequently. His eyesight was nearly gone. Worst of all, he was dependent on his wife for far too much; how he dreaded losing his autonomy, losing control. I wonder if he ever thought of his grandfather, those dark Santa Barbara nights when only a small, reluctant grandson kept him safe, got him to the outhouse. “He was a mean old son of a bitch,” my father remembered, “I didn’t like staying with him, but my mother just said, do it.”

Now my father was the mean old son of a bitch. He snapped and growled at Martha; he swore and cursed and threw things at her. Finally, nearly blind and barely able to walk, he managed to beat her up. In fragile health herself, she locked herself in the bedroom and called her sons. Within days, the sons relocated my father to my brother’s apartment. From there, my father was taken to a Hospice.

Six months later, he died there. Alone, often delirious from uncontrollable diabetic poisoning, riven with pain, crying, begging for an end.

When I learned the truth about my father’s crime, I felt as if the last vestige of goodness gleaned from him was torn away from me. I was left in a state of fatherlessness that no amount of wishing or imagination could redeem. As a woman who had been raped, how could I accept and love a father who raped other women? As an Indian woman whose female ancestors were decimated by rape as a weapon, how could I claim an Indian father whose sexual violence targeted women?

The news that my father had beaten his elderly wife and been removed from their home broke any frayed connections I had left to this man. I had hoped – imagined – that he had changed, grown up. I was willing to accept him as a father even if it meant waiting until he was an old man. But I was not willing to approve of, or be complicit in, his abuse of a woman. The good in my father was so hidden, I could not see it any longer. I didn't have the words for it then, but now I know: I could only honor the good in my father by allowing myself - and that part of me that comes from him - to survive. And that survival meant walking away.

I did not speak to my father the last six months of his life.

I did not go sit by his side.

I did not know the details of his daily care, or his needs.

Of all his children, only the youngest, his only son, visited him at the Hospice; two of my sisters spoke to him on the phone occasionally. Working full-time, living from paycheck to paycheck as we are wont to do, our brother did the best he could. Some might say, he did more than our father deserved. After abandoning and abusing everyone who loved him, my father was, in turn, abandoned to the ravages of age, disease, his own stubborn temper.

Not a graceful exit; not a moment of spiritual regeneration or phoenix-like rebirth. Our father died as he lived: full of fury, pain, and need. Eight years before, when my mother died and the massive expenses of mortuary services hit, I had enrolled my father in a funeral plan, People’s Memorial. He’d wanted to be cremated, and now it was all pre-arranged. I paid the bill; I had always known I would be the only one of his children both willing and able to do that.

The plan was for our brother to bring the ashes to California. “I want my ashes scattered down at the Tuolomne River,” my father had told Al Jr., in the Hospice. “You and the girls can keep a little of me if you want, but that’s where most of my ashes should go. The Tuolomne River, where I was born.”

My sisters and I were ready. I flew to California. Louise created and printed out memorial cards, listed all of our father’s children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren. We’d contacted the Miwok tribe on the Rancheria where our grandmother had gone eighty years before to give birth, to ask for permission. People in the tribe arranged to take time off work. My father had said, “I want Louise to do a ceremony for me. If she wants to.”

It is a credit to my sister’s generosity that she said yes. But we never held that ceremony. My brother decided he could not take the time off work for the trip. It was old family stuff – we all knew that. We bit our tongues. We mailed out the memorials instead.

Louise and I, along with her granddaughter Alex, drove to Monterey on the day we’d planned to spend at Tuolomne. Her work as a tribal representative with a local marine research station gave Louise certain perks, like the right to access their private beaches on Monterey Bay. The three of us walked to a small, isolated cove, right to the edge of the water, gifts of abalone and beads in our hands. Louise burned sage and mugwort, and we smudged ourselves and each other. We spoke the prayer in Esselen that she’d composed for the memorial card. One by one, each in our own time, we flung the gifts out into the water. Gulls cried, pelicans swooped past, a curious seal peeked out at us. It was a sunny, breezy July day; employees at the station strolled along the cliff, kayaks and small sailboats darted around on the blue waters.

Suddenly, swimming in from the mouth of the bay, came a large pod of dolphins, leaping, sparkling, skimming the waves. They drove on past our beach, circled around the Bay, came back to streak past us one more time. Their smooth, agile bodies danced in front of us, charged with joy.

I turned and looked at Louise. “It’s the Chumash contingent, come to send him off,” I said, “It’s the Robles clan, come to pay their respects.”

We smiled at each other, and were grateful.


© Deborah A. Miranda, 2009

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