Friday, October 5, 2012

My First Bad Indian

San Marcos, California. 7:20 a.m. 

I'm about to go hold Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir in my hands for the very first time as a published book.  I'm thinking about my first Bad Indian.

My dad once repeated the old saying, “The only good Indian is a bad Indian.”  Then he made that disgusted sound that meant he’d reached his limit.  “Ahhhh, hell.  Even when we’re dead, we’re not good enough.”  We looked across his small kitchen table at each other.  Left unsaid were the words, “So why not just be bad and enjoy it while it lasts?” but that’s what I was thinking, and suspect it was what he was thinking, as a way to explain his long and frequently bad life. 

I can still see him sitting there, old at last, the old age he never thought he would reach or deserve, still living with his third wife before they split and he ended up in Hospice; his hair now gone completely silver and thinning at last, his face lined, dark, his eyes watering with glaucoma, his tattooed arms having lost their bulk but still tight with muscles, his huge hands, the hands I will never forget, wrapped around a cup of coffee, fingers gnarled with arthritis.  His fingernails with those fine straight grooves on them, like mine.  My dad.  The man I know so little about, really, and about whom I know far too much.  Like my mother, I could never deny that I loved him – a love that sprang from someplace honest and naïve and tender deep inside me, from a place uncomplicated by lies and violence, by histories of betrayal and cruelty.  This kind of love that exists from me, for my father, is the kind of love I wish I felt all the time, and not just in these moments when I rise above all the grief like a drowning woman quickly grabbing a breath at the surface before sinking down again into the struggle.

I see him sitting there; he was so surprised by his old age, wondering how he got to such a weakened state – diabetic, arthritic, bad eyes, bad teeth, trouble swallowing – wasn’t it just a few years ago he was still out carousing in his beloved red truck, tearing up the road between our little trailer and the Red Rooster near the Muckleshoot Rez, king of his world, survivor of the worst the world could throw at him?  Oh, the stories inside that man.  He could tell them all day, when he was in the mood.  I imagine him talking to my younger brother all those years they lived alone together, telling Al stories I’ll never hear, and it gives me such a pause:  the light years apart that were their boyhoods!  My father, born in 1927, raised in Indian/Mexican family, the peculiar poverty of Southern California in the Depression, World War II.  My brother, born in 1971, raised for three years in Southern California, then snatched up and moved to Washington State: predominately white world filled with TV, computers, cell phones, ATMS.  Was there ever, really, any way the two of them could relate to each other?  It was as if they were from alternate realities.

But the same love exists between them, even stronger than what I feel in my moments of clarity and forgiveness.  It is a love forged out of alcohol, out of late nights, abandonment, rage, tears, hurt, fishing trips along rocky banks of cold rivers, eggs and tortillas and beans and potatoes, hot black coffee, Mariner’s baseball games on TV or at the King Dome before they blew it up, and oh, the tenderness that comes after violence when the two of you are the only family you have.

We miss him.  I never thought I would say that.  I miss him.  I wish I could talk with him again, sit down over coffee and a piece of his favorite apple pie, listen to him talk about his mother, how she "wrote everything down, like you," his grandfather, washing the old man’s feet, running bootlegged booze in his little red wagon, learning to swim in the Santa Ynez River, eating cactus apples and acorn mush because his father had left and they were poor, and his mother who isn’t Indian enough for the BIA went out and gathered what her ancestors had eaten for thousands of years, and fed her boys.  Stories about the day the four young Miranda boys were walking along the road, and a truck struck Richard, killing him; “I carried him all the way home in my arms,” was the most my father would ever say, in a voice strangled with a grief never resolved.  I wish I could listen again, Dad.

For every story my father told me, there are a hundred more he never shared, that I was never there to hear.  The history between us was a terrible storm on a sea that I couldn’t bring myself to cross often enough.  But maybe he told me enough, just enough, to maintain the thread across generations that is our family story, the story in Bad Indians that stretches back and back through all the bits of oral history, newspapers, mission records, ethnographic notes, census materials, back to where even stories can’t go, into a time immemorial where the Ancestors dwell, and whose presence sustains us.  Maybe the stories that I did hear are enough to keep us connected despite all the distances, the alternate realities we each lived in, enough for us to say that despite everything, despite history, we are still here, the thread between us still unbroken.  

The thread back to those Ancestors still wiry and tough, shot through with love.

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