We were six. You were a Navajo, and a black girl, my soul sister-more sister to me then my own flesh. I loved you. I love you. You were dark brown and your hair hung in glossy black ringlets. We read books on archeology in the library, we giggled over mummies and sphinxes, talking about the ruins we’d wander, the deserts we’d ride across on camel back. I’d hold your hand. You’d hold mine and say, “Shall we?” I’d answer, “we shall.”
Home was hard. My mama screamed, punched, kicked. Your mama drank, smoked, fucked your nameless fathers. Thank god for grandmas. Mine was an immigrant, dancer, nurse, a jitterbugging good time girl grown gray. Yours was a white haired squah, mother to many, once a reservation maiden sent to Indian school and beaten for speaking in her people’s tongue. We both lost our families to violence.
My mama brimmed with poison, spilling her lies into my ear for spite. “You need to know Eleanor,” she said, “Tanya is not black, and she is not Navajo, and there are no people who will claim her. She has no people. Her mother is a bad woman and her life will be hard.” I looked at my mother, the red-haired L.A. calendar girl, ex-go-go dancer, and nodded, my heart sinking in my chest because I loved you.
That week we stood in the sun watching your little brothers play, one Mexican, one almost white. “I got something to tell you,” I said, and I poured mama’s poison into your ear in a hushed voice, a loving voice laced with concern. “I need you to be brave,” I ended, “because mama say’s your life will be hard.” I remember how your big eyes held mine, how you nodded at me and said, “OK.”
I cursed you that day, my mama’s words working you over through me. Christ, how her lies laid thorns in your path. No one knew what you could be but mama’s words took everything. You and I…we were everything…until that day. I remember saying goodbye. Mama didn’t want me playing in your apartment because she’d asked your uncle where he was from and when he kept saying, “here, I’m from here,” she’d got angry. But honestly, where else could a Navajo be from but here?
Years later, when we were 13, I heard you got pregnant. You partied drunken like your mama, while I rode fancy ponies in pretty show rings in a tweed jacket and hunt cap. I was told you left school to earn money while I went to college to pursue my dreams. I became an angry person when the dreams fell through, ready to fight the man and the system. Did you fall into the system? I grew up, grew old. Did you get to be old too? I remember everything about you, the way you danced, how the sun lit up your hair. I remember that I loved you…never seeing your pretty color as anything but beautiful.
If I could take my white mama’s curse back, I would replace it with courage, with kindness, with the vision of us riding camels in the desert together seeking lost civilizations and buried treasure. If I could change the past I’d hold my hand out to you and say, “Shall we?” and taking my hand you’d answer, “We shall.”