Tanya

desert

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.”

When Henry Beeped

diving block

Henry BEEPED, the digital sound echoed through the pool deck so perfectly that the swimmer before him dove, a perfect arch of girl slicing through the water, streamlined, rising without breath into a free and furious stroke. The official raised his hand, the whistle blew as understanding dawned and the girl was removed, ejected, disqualified from her race. Henry had BEEPED, not the starter so the race was done.

“Not Cool!” a mother yelled, striding toward him, the sobbing rejectee running on wet feet to her coach. Henry felt the weight, the reality, the price of having counted down the time to start too quickly, of anticipating the buzzer, making its sound so perfect-yet imperfect because it fell in the wrong second, the before second, the quiet second when all the deck was still.

“I didn’t mean…”

“Not Cool” the mother repeated while his team mates glared.

“I didn’t mean. I was just…” but he couldn’t explain the counting or the sounds that happen in his head, the perfect rhythm of the world living in synch inside his mind to surface in involuntary noises; digital-analogue-mimicry rising from his cords without permission. So he stood, the girl cried, the team glared and the meet went on.

“Swimmers take your marks!” the starter called, “Ready-set-BEEP!” It was the free, the hundred meter free, not the fly or the back or the breast. Definitely not the breast. Henry dove, a perfect arch of boy rising, springing, slicing into streamline perfection to break not with arms extended cutting the water with the tearing strike of free but the prayerful, elbows bent motion of breast. Rise, plunge, rise plunge as swimmers past in blurs of speed. Rise, plunge, rise plunge, hands prayerful, extending, parting, colliding again into prayer.

Coaches yelled, the official raised his hand, parents shook their heads embarrassed by the boy whose actions no one could account for, understand, fathom. At one minute, fourth-two seconds, the whole pool waited as the last swimmer returned, focused fully on doing the wrong stroke, the punishing stroke, the prayerful stroke that cannot make amends for a girl’s tears or the accidental BEEP!

The Shame in Bare Shoulders: Part 16 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)

Jenny, Eleanor and Zara (front row center)


On my seventh birthday my friend Zara gave me a sun dress with red, white, and green pinstripes. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever owned. I loved it the moment I saw it and wore it as often as I could. In my candy cane stripes and with my hair twisted into cinnamon-rolls like Princess Leia, I felt beautiful.

A heat wave hit Salt Lake City, driving the temperatures up well over 110. The heat made breathing painful. Each breath came like the drag of sandpaper over skin while the sunlight was so bright it blinded. I walked to school in my sundress under the shade of the box elder trees. I felt happy. The world was bright and warm and nature buzzed and shifted like a symphony around me. I walked into school, set my lunch bag in the bin and walked to my desk.

“Eleanor.” When I looked up my teacher was frowning at me. “Come here.” Rising from my desk I walked to her. What had I done wrong and why was she looking at me like that. “Girls are not allowed to show more skin then a tee-shirt reveals. You know the garments rule don’t you?” This last question assumes I’m Mormon, while questioning how I could have forgotten the LDS rules of modesty. I feel confused.

“I’m not a Mormon.”

“The garment rule still applies to you.” Her response is terse, her eyes sharp. “Mrs. Smith, please take Eleanor to the lost and found and find her something appropriate to cover herself with.” Mrs. Smith, our classroom aid takes my arm as if I’ll run away and forces me before her to the office. Inside the secretary rises, her eyes concerned. By the look on her tired old face I can see that my shoulders have upset her.

“Eleanor forgot to wear a sweater over her sun dress. We’re going to take something from the lost and found.” I don’t rise my eyes. I’m too ashamed. My little striped sundress with its pretty spaghetti straps is a humiliation. I feel too naked and too ashamed to look at the ancient secretary as she leads us into a side room labeled lost and found.

I watch Mrs. Smith sort past tee-shirts and hooded zip up jackets until she finds a knee length cable knit wool sweater. “Put this on and do not ever wear that dress to school again without a sweater to cover your shoulders. It is immodest and ungodly to show so much skin.”

“But it’s hot out.” I look at my feet, my voice imploring her to take pity on me. “Couldn’t I wear a tee-shirt over it?”

“No. You’ll wear this sweater. It will help you remember the garment rule.”

Sliding into the sweater I find it itchy and hot. Mrs. Smith buttons it down the front so that my shameful little sundress disappears beneath it. Not even the hem can be seen at the bottom. I watch Mrs. Smith roll up the sleeves before sending me back to class. When the bell for recess rings I unbutton the sweater and walk to hang it on the peg.

“Put it back on and button it up.” Mrs. Smith walks towards me, her fingers grabbing at the sweater, forcing me back into it.

“But it’s hot out.”

“Which will help you remember the garment rule!” I’m forced to watch Mrs. Smith button the heavy sweater up to its last button, the rough wool scratching my chin. Then I’m forced out of the air conditioned school and outside, but I can’t run and play with the other kids. I can’t even walk out into the heat. I stand at the shaded entrance, too sick with heat to step out of the shade.

“No loitering at the entrance. Come out please.” Looking up I see Mrs. Smith standing five feet before me. I walk to where she stands at the top of the playground stairs and try to keep my eye sight from blurring. I’m so sick with heat that it’s all I can do to stay on my feet during recess.

“Why are you wearing that heavy sweater?” A girl asks. She touches the sleeve, her fingers recoiling from the rough wool.

“The garment rule. My dress shows my shoulders so I have to cover up.” No one else talks to me that day. I’m shunned for breaking the rules, for being immodest while the reality that I’m not a member of the church sinks into more than one mind. When the final bell rings, marking the end of school, I try for a second time to take off the sweater but am told I can wear it home and return it the next day.

When I’m safe at home I am sweat drenched and covered with red scratches and hives. My mother stares at me in confusion the moment I step through the door.
“I showed my shoulders.” I tell her. “I broke the garment rule.”

“I didn’t know.” She keeps saying, too shocked to grasp what’s happened. “It was so hot,” she adds, still lost in the sight of my red roughened shoulders, “I didn’t know.”

The brightly colored pinstriped dress hung in my closet reeking of shame and licentious transgression until I finally outgrew it and gave it away. The dress is gone but I feel the shunning and the shame like I felt the hair shirt I was forced to wear on a 110 degree day; it burns, and it hurts to this day. So I cut the necks out of my tee-shirts. I wear bare shouldered gowns. I refuse to bend to self-righteous people who say that a girl who shows a shoulder is a bad girl and I won’t give an inch to buttoned-up self-righteous people who shame and injure others in the name of religious propriety. We are as god made us. We are glorious. We are women.

The Nazis Next Door: Part 13 of Rain on Cloudless Day

fruit
Granma lives on 5th south in an old home that was once converted into a duplex. It has two kitchens and two living rooms, two bathrooms and two bedrooms. Daddy had to knock down a wall just so Granma didn’t have to go outside to enter the other half of her house. Granma’s house is magical. Like Alice’s Wonderland, it is all topsy-turvy and back to front. It has two different front doors with different shaped door knobs. All the sun floods into the south side of the house, the side with the yellow kitchen where we bake bread and make pudding.

From every window on the sunny side of the house I can watch the Nazis. From the living room I see the ancient grandmother push her push-mower in the front yard. Through their kitchen window I can see her daughter who is Granma’s age. In the backyard I hear the young daughter playing with her son, a boy my age.

Granma is in the garden pulling up weeds and gathering vegetables. When the basket is filled with food we walk over to the Nazi’s house. I feel a chill go up my spine every time the old grandmother looks at me. I’m so filled with the stories of war that I’m always a little afraid she might want to shove me in an oven. The click, click, click of her old black push-mower comes to a stop when she sees us. Her toothless smile and the black scarf she wears tied tightly under her chin, draw the wrinkles and folds of her face into a new symmetry. She wears an old black dress that reaches to her ankles. On her feet she wears black leather boots. Her fingers grip the push-mower and are gnarled and twisted from almost a century of hard work.

She only speaks German. Granma says she’s too old to learn English and doesn’t need to. I hear the creak of the front door as the old grandmother’s daughter comes to greet us. She takes the basket from Granma and welcomes us into her garden. She picks apricots and peaches, apples and tomatoes, placing them into a second basket that she gives to us. Looking around, I see the boy wants to play. We think up a game while Granma and her friend talk. The click, click, click, of the old push mower picks up again and the hours slip by in the easy flow of a long hot summer day.
ww1

When the sun casts long shadows I am thirsty with running and pretending. Going into the house I walk behind my friend who fills two glasses of water. We wander into the small front sitting room to rest. On a table beside the old Grandmother’s chair sit two pictures, one of a very young man in a World War I German uniform and the other of an equally young man in a Nazi uniform. Both pictures are black and white but as crisp as the day they were taken. These pictures remind me of the black and white picture we have of Granma. In it she is twenty-two and wearing her ATS military uniform.

“Who are they?”

“This is my grandfather,” he points to the Nazi’s picture, “and this is my great grandfather.” He gestures to the World War I soldier.

“Where are they now?” I look for other pictures of the two men but don’t find them.

“They were killed. Great Grandfather died when my grandmother was a baby and Grandfather died when my mother was a baby.”

I nod my head, thoughtful. Looking up at my friend I realize that he has his grandfather’s large dark eyes.
ww2

It’s late when we walk home. I’m thinking of all the men my Granma nursed throughout the war, of all the suffering and death. Looking up I ask,

“How come our enemies are now our friends, Granma?”

“Those ladies were never our enemies. They were farmers like we were.”

“But their men fought in the wars. I saw the pictures.”

“Yes they fought.” She’s silent for a moment. “It was a terrible time but it’s in the past now. Let the past be the past, let the dead bury the dead.” Smiling she adds, “and let’s you and I make a pie.”

I smile, my thoughts turning from loss to the light crusty joy of hot peach pie. I realize in that second that Granma isn’t angry or sad anymore because Granma is too alive, too busy living, too alight with life to waste time being angry. Angry isn’t fun so it isn’t worth her time.

We make a pie and we talk about everything we loved about the day. My heart glows happy even as my eyes grow heavy because I see life, I see living, and I understand what it takes to truly thrive. When Granma tells us to have, “no regrets,” she is really telling us not to let our past ruin our present. Let the dead bury the dead, share food and friendship with old enemies, and turn all life’s peaches into magnificent pies.

The Dancer, the Dead and the Madonna: Part 12 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

Bombed_Out_Church_in_Carpiquet,_near_Caen,_July_12,_1944
Granma’s Madonna scares me. She says it will be ours one day, my sisters and mine; but I don’t want it. I want to want it but I can’t. In my heart I know it has to be my sisters because it can’t ever be mine. There is no explaining the Madonna. No way to understand it but through its history which reaches back further in time than any of us know.

The war brought the Madonna into our lives. Granma nursed hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers in the war. Granma bandaged men as they healed and held their hands as they passed giving what comfort she could. One of her soldiers was a French man. She’d nursed him for months. In gratitude for his life and all the care she had given him he gave her the Madonna, one of two he had found in the rubble of a bombed church.

Granma kept the Madonna with her throughout the war. When the air raid sirens howled she would take the Madonna into the bomb shelters. The Madonna’s hair and robe are shined to a polish with all the hours Granma spent running her hands over the folds of her plaster robe, waiting for the siren that would announce the all clear.

But when I look at the Madonna I don’t see Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven-the Mother Mary. I have been raised to love Our Lady but I don’t see her when I look on Granma’s Madonna. Instead I see the bombs, the wounded, the dying and the dead.

mother mary

Her robe is the yellow of aged plaster with traces of the sacred blue paint she once wore, caught in the folded grooves of her robe. Her gown too is worn of color; its white paint only visible in a few deeply etched places. Once, the rose at her feet was a soft shade of red. I know this because a touch of color sits between the petals. Granma’s Madonna is lined with cracks, broken and repaired, her head repositioned onto its neck, her torso and base re-sculpted with glue and plaster chips. Yet it wasn’t the bombs that smashed her.

My family fought in both the world wars and only lost one man in battle. Yet we lost two women during those wars and both died at home. The first was my Granma’s sister Eva. On hearing of her fiancé’s death at Verdun, France she fell ill and died of a broken heart. The second was my Granma’s sister-in-law, a beautiful American actress who died suddenly of pneumonia during the second war. Her name was Jackie.

Jackie was a movie actress and vaudeville dancer who supported the troops by keeping them entertained. She was healthy and young and beautiful, too filled with life to die. Our family mourned her in the same sitting room where all our dead were mourned. Granma took leave from the Portland Royal Naval Hospital to sit vigil beside her coffin. Flowers filled the sitting room surrounding Jackie’s coffin and the Madonna was placed on a table at Jackie’s head. On the final night before the funeral the room was darkened and the mourners went to bed. (This part is strange to me because the custom of our family is to sit with the lost one until the funeral.) The house was still, everyone was asleep when suddenly… “Smash…”

Granma reached the downstairs sitting room, her brother, Jackie’s grieving husband beside her while all the rest of the family made their way down behind them. Opening the door they saw the Madonna in pieces on the floor, a huge hole in the wall where she had struck it. No one was in the room. No one had flung the statue at the wall. Jackie lay as she had, stilled by death, quiet and cold in her satin lined coffin. So who had smashed the Madonna? No one knows.

No, I do not want Granma’s Madonna. Just to think of it gives me chills. When Granma places it in my sister’s small hands I am filled with an ancient, haunted kind of fear.
fire survival

Hefelton Farm: Part 11 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

GarDen
Mommy and Daddy are going. My sister cries a little, her tears turning to a forlorn silence. They are not going in a bad or permanent way but rather on a three day marriage retreat to “work” on how to be married. I don’t understand this. Their marriage is as permanent to me as the Wasatch Mountains. Mountains don’t need work so why should a marriage? I keep asking questions but no one offers answers. Granma says the time will fly by and before we know it they’ll be back.

This is the first fracture I have seen in my family, the first fault line to run a jagged line through the comfortable security of my childhood. I see it like a dark edge cutting us until my stomach hurts and I’m gnawed by worry. They’re not all right. We’re not all right. Our marriage needs work means our world is not all right.

“I miss mommy.” I stand beside my sister on Granma’s front porch, looking at the road that took our parents away.

“I miss Daddy.” My sister whispers, her small hand slipping into mine.

We hear the trot of tiny feet as four poodles run passed us. Granma walks behind them.

“Do you miss your Daddy?” my sister looks up at our tall strong grandmother who is so wise and brave that I can’t imagine her ever needing or missing anyone.

“I miss him,” she says, her lips forming as sad, wistful smile.

“He was called Frank William,” I offer up his name as conformation that I listen, that Granma’s stories matter. “He was a farmer, a carpenter, an undertaker, and a black smith.”

“…and a sheep herder,” my sister looks up at me, scowling because I forgot.

“A shepherd.” Granma corrects her gently, “Yes we kept hundreds of sheep on Hefelton Farm. There were sheep and pigs, cows and geese, ducks and chickens. I had my pony Topsy and we had our giant Sire horses.”

“And the bull!”

“The big mean bull!” My sister adds.

“The biggest meanest bull that ever grazed on Dorset grass.” Granma settles down on the porch bench her eyes fixed on the garden, her words conjuring up a huge red bull in our imaginations.

“I had a penny farthing bicycle,” she begins, “the kind with one huge front wheel and one tiny back wheel. It was impossibly heavy, old and hard to ride. I was peddling home in a hurry on the day it happened. I’d done something terrible and was trying to make it home before anyone knew I’d even gone. Hefelton farm was so big that it was easy to lose track of people. I rode my bicycle up the lane and left it in the shrubbery to the right of the drive.”penny farthing

“Because of the geese.”

“Yes, the geese hated my bicycle. They would honk and bite at it and me, making so much noise that the men would come out of the hay fields and barns just for a laugh. Those geese gave me terrible bruises. My plan was to sneak up through the front pasture to the house and pretend I’d been in the garden all morning. I ducked through the wooden fence and ran as fast as I could for the house. The geese were in the lane grazing but they hadn’t seen me. It was then that I heard a great bellow of noise. Turning, I saw my father’s massive bull emerge from the shade, his nostrils flaring. He was coming towards me at a steady gallop, his horns lowered. I know he hadn’t been in that pasture when I snuck out. The ground shook as he ran at me, coming faster and faster. He was almost on me when I jumped through the fence, landing in a heap on the other side. The geese saw everything. They came running and honking into the lower garden, their long necks outstretched, their wings flapping. I ran for a nearby oak tree and swung up into the lower branches. All I had to do then was catch my breath and wait for the geese to go away. But then it happened. Theresa? My mother called. Looking through the branches I saw her standing by the farm house with the constable I had thought I’d outrun.”

“What had you done?”

“I had pinned a lit string of firecrackers to the constable’s coat tail. You should have seen that man jump.”

“What did they do to you?”

“I was caned and sentenced to a week of weeding the vegetable garden.”

“That evening when the men came in from the fields I was still on my knees in that garden, my arms and bottom whipped red with welts. My father laughed when he saw me there. Theresa Phillis, he said, you spend more time in that vegetable garden than you do out of it. When are you going to behave yourself? ”

“Never! I said, glaring up at him.”

“Well if you are going to be wicked I suppose it’s a good thing you’re also fast. That’s when I knew he knew about the constable and the bull. Everyone knew. I was the talk of the village and somehow that made it all worth it. I loved my father and he loved me. I loved my mother too but she made loving her hard.”

“Did your parents’ marriage ever need work?” I ask, still missing my parents.

“In those days there was no such thing as working on a marriage. You were married and that was the end of it. Marriages didn’t break, they endured.”

I think about what it would be like to live when Granma did. I like the farm, her pony and all the adventures but I don’t like the caning or the never ending hard work.

“Is it terrible to be a grownup Granma?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer for a bit. I watch her think, her face reflects her father’s death, the war, her exile from the village for having a war time child that wasn’t her husbands. Then there was the divorce that took my mother from her father and the immigration that made England only just a memory. All the starving and death, work and sacrifice for a life of instability and uncertainty.

“Is it awful?” my sister asks, her eyes big and sad.

“No,” Granma shakes her head, “it’s the biggest adventure you will ever have. No regrets. Not ever.”

“No regrets,” we repeat the words like a promise to her to be as tough as leather as strong as iron, as enduring as Granma? But how can we know this is a promise we can keep? After all, what is there yet to regret?
garDen veg patch

The Sacred Act of Loving Art: Part 10 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

44

For as long as I can remember, Mommy has taken us to every art exhibition and museum in Salt Lake City. We tour galleries and studio openings, my mother describing brush strokes, paint layering, visual dynamics and the importance of shadow play. We have been informed that we are in the process of learning to appreciate art the way she does. And when we grow tired, hungry, or want to go home we are made polite and educated on the merits of pointillism, the modern movement and the many fold reasons as to why we should always hate Picasso.

Once while touring an exhibition on contemporary cubist paintings we broke rank and rebelled. My sister cried and I whined and we both insisted on going home. Mommy took us quietly in hand saying, “I have brought you here and you WILL LIKE IT!” These words have since become a family joke repeated in a clipped German accent. On that day however, they were far from funny. With aching feet, we walked, listened and appreciated everything until the natural, mother dictated, conclusion of our tour.

As young parishioners in the church of art, we still pay our respect, say our obeisance, utter our prayers to the masters of water lilies and sun flowers, abstracts and impressionists, while haloed saints writhe in anguish and a multitude of glowing cherubic Messiahs rest in various possess upon their mothers laps. Art is our religion, our daily practice and our saving grace. We bow down and are made humble by all that God has inspired in humans until we too feel the spirit move inside, us bringing us to our own God given gift to create.

Mommy paints, my sister has music, I write and my father makes stained glass. We live in museums, poor endless hours into fat glossy paged art books and discuss what it is to live in art-for art. My world is the world of my family, I am guided by its opinions (Picasso is bad), its beliefs (Diego Rivera couldn’t paint his way out of a box) and its rhetoric (Monet’s work is light and color perfected). Secretly I love Diego Rivera and am concerned about Claude Monet’s eyesight but to say this to Mommy would cause her opinion of me to sink which is a thing I dread. So I keep Diego to myself.

I would like to watch Mommy work. Her paintings begin as sketches on canvas, washed in with dark pigments which are then layered over until she reaches a level of such depth that her figures are alive. But she needs silence to connect with the canvas and painting for her is not a family act. Family to Mommy is order, hard work and tolerance.

Daddy is different. He is gone all day, his work is exhausting but he has energy for us. When he’s home he makes up long stories and reads out classical books, giving all the characters their own voice. But of all the wonderful things he does, I love his stained glass windows best.

I creep down into our dirt cellar where old window drawings hang pegged to heavy wood beams. Dust from the dirt walls and hard packed dirt floor coat the old wood table where his newest drawing lays. Numbers that represent color are drawn onto flower petals and grass stalks. I watch him cut green glass and place it on the jig saw puzzle drawing. The color and shape of the glass fills in the part of the picture that will be a leaf. Night after night more pieces are added until every piece of glass is cut and placed to make the window. Then the glass is soldiered together and taken out of the dirt cellar into the light.

This is why I love glass. I love the way the light shines through it. I love the way it changes the world from ordinary to magical; it makes mere sunlight turn green, blue, purple, and red. I love the way glass is molded and shaped, its rich color or prism cut edges accentuating every sunrise and passing ray of light. Glass is an art form that actively adds magic and beauty to a constantly shifting landscape.

Mommy says art reminds us why we live, it adorns our already beautiful world with more color, adding magic to the mundane. Art stirs our heart and floods us with a passion for more life, more color and more living. I hope I always see life as a blank page or numbered drawing ready to be filled with shards of color. What Mommy teaches me in our long museum marches is respect, dedication and the thousands of ways one can create. What Daddy teaches me in our shadowy dirt cellar is that art forms in every kind of unlikely place. All it needs is inspiration, intention and a little light.