Unkind Words — a Fable for Fools

The Gossips “And, though they never stopped trying, the only words they could make always sounded like the rustling of leaves.”

The thing I am about to tell you might have happened once upon a time. It could have been last week. It makes no difference, the truth is truth no matter when it happens.

In the place where my mother used to live, there were three tongues, each in a different mouth, and of all the tongues that resided in this particular place, these three were the most slithering and maleficent. Not one, but three serpents in the Garden of Eden.

The first tongue belonged to a woman named Helen. Helen was a person who lived on a high moral ground in a great house she richly deserved.  She lived alone. Her husband had been a fisherman who fell (some thought dove) from his boat one stormy afternoon and was never seen again. There were three daughters, but each had left to marry, one after the other and all of them lived very far away.

The second tongue belonged to a woman who never married, never gave birth, never so much as cared for a cat because she simply did not have time. Her job, she believed, was to mind the lives of others, and she did so with a ferocity few could circumvent. Her name was Agnes.

The last tongue belonged to a man named Thomas. He also lived alone, unable ever to settle on a wife. Though there were many fine women in the area, none had ever quite suited him. His standards were much too high. Eventually, no one tried anymore to leap the hurdles he had set.

Communities generally have a way of getting along.  They mind their own business, or they help when they are able.  They offer comfort as needed, a joke, a helping hand, or even silent company when silence is the only thing that will do.  In the place where my mother lived all of these things were true.  It was also true that there was often anger and resentment that when allowed to fester would erupt in a cataclysm of bitter words and flying fists.  Sometimes people broke the law.  When that happened there was a price they would have to pay.

What is the price to pay for unrelenting meanness?

In this case, that price began to be tallied up with a wish made by a child.  A young boy who delivered eggs to the owners of those sharp tongues.  One day, after enduring yet another round of, you clumsy dolt, mind those eggs, and, took you long enough you lazy baboon, and, don’t look at me like that, you rude brat, the boy returned home and wrote: I wish THEY would disappear on a piece of paper. His mother found the paper and asked him what he meant.  When he told her she did not scold him. Later, she told her husband what the boy had wished. The next day he told a co-worker about it. The co-worker nodded.

“Yes,” said the co-worker, a man who lived across the street from Helen and had gone to school with Agnes and Thomas. “That is a good wish.”

The co-worker told his wife about the boy’s wish. Three afternoons each week, the man’s wife scrubbed Helen’s kitchen and bathrooms, dusted furniture, and washed windows all while listening to Helen rant. You can’t clean spit, my kitchen is too filthy to use, and if I didn’t follow you around the house, you’d probably rob me blind.  I only keep you on because that’s the kind of person I am. Too nice for my own good.

The co-worker’s wife made a wish, too.

When Agnes railed at the woman who cut her hair, I should sue you for incompetence you imbecile, the hairdresser made a wish.

Thomas screamed at a teacher and her fifth-grade class for raking and pulling up weeds in the lot next to his house.  You and your brats are getting dirt in my yard.  I should have you fired, you’re too stupid to be in charge of kids.  Later that day the teacher and her students each went home and made a wish.

For weeks, people wished and wished. Almost always the same wish. I wish THEY would disappear. Except for one. Feeling ashamed of making such a dire wish and being caught out, the little boy who delivered eggs had amended his wish. I wish THEY couldn’t speak he wrote instead. He kept wishing it every day.

Somewhere all those wishes were being tallied. And when there were at last enough of them, something happened.

One morning the sun rose high in the sky over the river that ran through that place. People went about their business not noticing at first, how much lighter the air felt, how warm and inviting the sun was. People smiled and said hello to one another and it wasn’t until a few hours later that they realized the lightness came from the fact that no one had heard the three awful tongues. The bravest in the place went to check.  First to Helen’s house. Then to Agnes’s. Finally Thomas’s. No one was there. In fact, it looked as though no one had lived for a very long time at any of those three homes.

But, where three people had vanished from their homes, it also happened that at a lonely spot along the river there suddenly appeared three magnificent trees in a cluster, heads bowed, whispering together as if trying to make sense of how they came to be there.

Let this be fair warning to you: Do not use words to inflict pain. There is no reward waiting — in this world or others — for sharp tongues and wicked minds.

This is not a lesson easily learned.

On the other hand, the trees would be lovely for a long time to come. The town set out picnic tables by the river so that people could sit and watch the water and time drift leisurely past. And where the only sound they heard (besides their own voices) came from the gentle rustle of leaves above them.

The End

n.b. The photo is a picture of the trees along the St. Lawerence River in Akwesasne where my mother lives. This is the view from her window. I’ve had this photo and the idea that these trees were gossiping mulling around in my brain for awhile. A long time ago my mother told me a story from when she was a little girl living at Akwesasne, about an old woman who was thought to be able to transmute herself at will into a pig. That’s where the idea of transmutation came from. And these days there seem to be so many people speaking such unkind words, I thought a cautionary tale was in order.

“Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

My Mohawk grandmother.  This is the cover of the book my mother wrote about her adolescence growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

My Mohawk grandmother, Mary Sawatis Jacobs. This is the cover of the book that my mother wrote about growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

“History is a relentless master.  It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.   — John F. Kennedy

When I was a kid, we’d pile into the station wagon and head to the reservation to visit my mother’s Mohawk side of the family.  My father liked to go there because the men drank beer, fished, and told stories.  My mother liked it, because it was where she felt truly at home.  We kids liked to go because we had lots of cousins, the adults got busy talking, and we were left to look after ourselves. In the summer we swam in the river, and traversed the shoreline, weaving through sweetgrass that smelled like fresh rain.  The cousins taught us how to swear in Mohawk.

There was one church on the entire reservation and it was Catholic.  Father Jacobs was the priest.  He was Mohawk, but also a Catholic priest.  I never questioned this.  The church had a bell tower and a bell rope that hung in the entry.  You could pull that rope down and ride half-way to the ceiling when it was time to ring the bell.

Other than hearing the odd word or phrase spoken in the Mohawk language, or the fact that my male cousins all played Lacrosse, there was not a lot to make the reservation seem much different than the town I was from.  Except that on the reservation, nothing was paved.  There was only dirt and stubby patches of grass. When it rained, people set down planks of wood between their driveway and the door in an effort to keep mud out of the house.  Meals were simple, but hearty.  The items served most often were corn soup and beef hash. Both of which were lovely and delicious and always homemade.  (I guess they also ate a lot of fish, because it was there for the taking, being that the St. Lawrence river wrapped around one side of the reservation, while the St. Regis river cut a swath through the other end.  But I don’t like fish so the recollection of it tends be hazy for me.)

What was missing at that time was festival, ritual, and feathers.  I don’t remember any Native ceremonies or regalia.  There were no sweat lodges.  No pow wows. No moccasin-ed dancing for rain or peace or any other thing.  If we attended church there, it was the same Catholic mass as the one we experienced at home.

The point is, that my comprehension then of what it was like to be Mohawk, to be a Native American living on a reservation, was lacking cultural context.  It was years before I understood why.  I knew that when my mother was growing up, many of her cousins were taken from their homes and placed in an Industrial boarding school in Canada. They were forbidden to speak their native language or participate in native ceremony.  They were there, boys and girls (in separate schools), to be “educated”, which actually meant, to learn to be “white.”

That those schools were often brutal, the quality of education poor, and the food even worse, is well documented.  But Indian schools did more than decimate native cultures, they robbed those children of any value they previously may have thought they had.

Without a culture or a sense of worth, what is left?

My mother’s reservation has come back to their culture slowly, like a long forgotten memory drifting into consciousness once again.  It is not called St. Regis anymore.  We use the Mohawk word instead, Akwesasne.  I love the sound of that.

I began this post on Monday, which was Columbus Day.  In part because of the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge, which had as a topic:  Living History.  But mostly because of the day, which my mother cannot let go by without muttering at least once — Columbus, that murdering bastard!

And then I read a piece in the Washington Post which made me wonder again, why do we keep a holiday in honor of a man we now know dealt a brutal hand against the natives of the lands he explored (which wasn’t even America)?  In one of the reader comments, a man asked if there actually were any Indian reservations around these days?  I was about to reply that why, yes, in fact there were many reservations still around, but then I spied another comment a few lines down that wisely pointed out – Do not feed the trolls.  And I realized, of course, it does no good.  You can lead a person to information, but you cannot make him think.

Still.  Can we agree to not honor mean men?  I’d like to believe that history can teach us how to live better.  Kinder.

Maybe one day, we could even get it right.

n.b. The title of this post is a quote taken from a paper read at a convention in 1892 by Richard Henry Pratt, the U.S. Army officer whose brainchild it was to assimilate Indians into a white society.

Have you seen my mother?

If you see her, let me know.  There's no money in it for you.  Just knowing you brought me peace of mind is reward enough, right?

I love my mother, but to tell you the truth, I have difficulty keeping track of her.  It’s embarrassing.  Sometimes someone will ask, where’s your mom these days?  To which I often have to answer – I have no idea.  In my defense, she’s a bit of a gad-about.  The Secret Service would be hard-pressed to know where she is all of the time.

For the last several years she has divided her time between a house in Sun Lakes, Arizona, a house in Schenectady, New York, and staying with friends in Akwesasne, the Mohawk reserve that straddles the border of northern New York and Canada, which is where she was born.

For awhile I had four different phone numbers for her on my speed dial, and there have been times when I couldn’t reach her at any of them.  This past spring she sold the Arizona house.  Then my brother took over the Schenectady house, and a couple of weeks ago she settled into a lovely apartment at Akwesasne, on the banks of the St. Lawrence river.  I haven’t heard from or seen her since.

Her schedule is complicated.  On Thursday evenings she goes to someone’s house to play radio Bingo.  Her paramour plays on a horseshoe team and there is always a game going on somewhere.   She is his cheerleader.  Sometimes they have away games.  There are meals out a lot, and until her internet is connected she has to go to the library to check her email.  She has 30 minutes on the library computer and she has a lot of friends.  If there’s a casino nearby she might be there.

Do me a favor and keep an eye out for her:  She is short.  She has nice hair and often wears a ball cap.  (She has a well-shaped head and looks good in caps, which is not a physical trait that she passed on to me.  More’s the pity.) Also, she might be standing on one leg, stork-like, one foot pressed against her thigh.  (She’s taken yoga classes for years, and this pose is good for her balance.  She does it well.  And often.  It must work, because I have never seen her fall over.)

If there is music playing she is apt to be dancing.  (She does a mean jig.)  Or she might be somewhere drinking coffee and staring out a window, deep in thought. She drinks her coffee black, and likes to daydream about solving the problems she thinks her kids have.  (It should be noted that though her kids are middle-age now, in her mind they are still kids.  This may be true for a lot of mothers.)

She answers to various names.  Mom, Mumma, Ista (the Mohawk word for Mother), Tota (pronounced, Du-Da, which means Grandmother in Mohawk), or her given name, Dolores.  Or just whistle.  That works, too.  She is usually friendly and approachable, so don’t be afraid to go right up to her and tell her her daughter is looking for her.  (Unless she thinks you might be trying to sell her something.  Then she will tell you to go to hell.  She is no pushover, my mother.)

If you see her, let me know. There’s no money in it for you, but knowing you   brought me peace of mind is reward enough, right?

Thank you for your help, y’all.  Have a nice day.

P.S.  Here’s your story, Mom.  Now pick up a damn phone and call me.

P.P.S.  I love you.

This one’s for Puck

Right up front, I will tell you that this story is true.  I should also warn you that it’s a little bitter-sweet.

When my brother Peter came into our lives my parents already had three girls. They longed for a son.

A couple of interesting points about this story:  First, like all good men living in the area of the Adirondack Mountains, my father liked to hunt.  Hunting season in those parts was a religion, sacred and holy; the woods, nature’s cathedral.  The thing about my father was that he had never bagged a deer.  He’d been hunting with plenty of other guys who had, but he’d never actually shot one on his own.

The second thing, is that shortly after the third girl was born, my father started growing a beard.  It grew fast and bushy, and with a red hue that didn’t match the hair on his head at all.  (Somewhere there’s a photograph of my dad at that time, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch, wearing an army style camouflage cap.  He looked exactly like Fidel Castro.)  My mother didn’t much like that beard.  My father said he would shave when he got a son or a buck.  Either one.  Whichever came first.

The third point is that my mother is half Mohawk.  She was born and spent the first decade or so of her life on the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, which straddles the border of Canada and the US.  We would often make the winding drive to visit aunts and uncles and cousins there.  One day after a visit, on the return trip, the car held my parents, my sisters and myself, and a brand new brother, named Peter.  He was 18 months old at the time.

The particulars of how it came to be that we brought him home are not important.  What matters is that he was ours from that day on.  I wasn’t very old then, but I do remember the car ride home — I remember Peter’s little face peaking over my mother’s shoulder, watching us and smiling.  Oh, how I remember that smile.

Peter in an old photo taken when he was about 3. Even though the quality of the photo is poor, you can see how his face lit up with the sweet spirit of his smile.  He was some cute kid!

Peter in an old photo taken when he was about 3. Even though the quality of the photo is poor, you can see how his face lit up with the sweet spirit of his smile.

My father did not get his buck that season (nor any season, ever).  But he got his son, and true to his word, he shaved.  Peter grew and thrived, we girls grew and thrived, and my mother went on to eventually have three more babies – all of them boys.  And we were a rowdy raucous family of seven kids who were sometimes very close, and sometimes throwing things at one another.

Except for Peter.  At least, the way I remember him, and I’m telling the story so you’ll have to take my word for it.  If you happen to know or run into one of my siblings, they may tell the story differently.  That’s the way families work.

Peter was a quieter kid than the rest of us, he was by nature more even-tempered. And always, he was quick to smile.  He loved to hunt and fish, though he mostly used his hands for the latter – he was that patient and that quick.  As a teenager he took up wrestling and was pretty good and quick at that.  He was no push-over if really provoked.  Somewhere in those teen years, people started calling him Puck.

He tried his hand at many things.  He joined the Navy, hoping to travel, but that didn’t work out the way he planned.  He got married and moved back to the Adirondack town where we grew up.  He raised chickens for awhile, and for awhile he worked at the local paper mill.  Eventually he and his wife moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where her family lived.

Today is an anniversary of sorts.  Twenty-two years ago on a day like today, full of spring and glorious sunshine, I took my then two-year old son to the park, and later for the first ice cream cone of the season.  The phone rang as I was leaving the house, but I paid it no mind.  If it was important, whoever it was would call back.  Turned out it was my sister, and call back she did.

Peter was thirty-four years old on the last night he went to sleep.  A hemorrhagic tumor was the reason he didn’t wake up.  Twenty-two years is a long time.  Also, twenty-two years is no time at all.  It’s one of life’s many conundrums.

I believe in stories with happy endings, or at least in which there is the possibility of something honest and good.  In this story I once had a brother who possessed the kindest of hearts and a sweet smile.  We called him Puck.  He is with me still.  And that is enough good for now.

Puck holding my son.  Still the same smile.

Puck holding my son. Still the same smile.