Thunder Dog’s Last Ghost Dance

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Thunder Dog—mad man of the Blue Mesa—had not been seen in seven days. When on the morning after the eighth night he stumbled into town, the people of Pueblo Blue took notice. Dragging a buffalo hide behind him he sent red dust rising, the trailing pelt masking his foot prints with the tracks of its wide sweeping folds. As he walked towards the village well, Thunder Dog sucked his empty gums, his blind eyes fixed on the cloudless sky. His feet alone felt for the worn path to water. Thunder Dog had been born in the rainy season in the year of the bad snow but he could no longer put a date to the event and thus had lost his age. With his tangled silver braids hanging down his bony sides, his age, some thought, could lay anywhere between 70 and 100 years.

Thunder Dog was half man, half ghost: the only undeniable evidence of his continued existence was his strong voice and distinctive scent. When he spoke the people of the mesa listened, and when the wind caught his tall thin form it lofted the scent of long ago camp fires, crushed sage, and faraway grasslands. He wore a red Hopi shirt, a gift from the village, and an ancient pair of buckskin breaches with the symbols of his tribe stitched into the legs. His feet were bare and callused to the thickness of a hoof. Besides his tattered appearance and fragrant scent, Thunder Dog had a gift: he was a story teller. The moment he had quenched his thirst at the village well he lifted his hands for peace, his voice calling out to anyone who would listen.

“I am a Human Being come from across the world and I have seen many strange and terrible things,” he began, stepping backward onto his old buffalo hide like an itinerant preacher stepping onto his soapbox. “I am Thunder Dog, called Many Horses in the Sioux Nation, and I have fought the devils in many lands.” He paused here in respect to his declaration. Little feet came to listen. Thunder Dog folded his long legs beneath himself and sat upon the hide. “I was born in the year of the great snow. I saw Conquering Bear fall, I fought Custer at Little Big Horn, I learned the Ghost Dance from Kicking Bear and Short Bull, and saw the killing at Wounded Knee. I knew the land when the Buffalo were many.”

By now Thunder Dog could hear the movement of children sneaking close to touch the buffalo hide. Such a huge brown beast had not been seen near the high plateaus in many decades. Thunder Dog felt the shadow of a form pass between himself and the sun and raised his hands again to speak.

“In the times before evil we ate the buffalo, we made our clothes from the buffalo and we covered our teepees with their thick hides. What is a teepee you will ask? It is not a pueblo made of mud and planted like a tree upon the earth. No, it is a moveable home of hide and pine that smells of sweet grass, earth, and the scent of roasting buffalo meat. That was how we lived then. The teepee and the grass lands were our home.” Thunder Dog looked again in the direction of the sky and was quiet. He felt a tug on his braid, heard a giggle, but said nothing.

Behind shuttered windows women passed shuttles through looms, ground maize to meal, and poured water from jar to pot as they listened. Whether they listened out of interest or respect did not matter. What mattered was that the stories were told, that his people were remembered. Another child pulled his braid.

“You have lived here for all my life Sioux Uncle. Why don’t you cut your hair like a Hopi man?” The child asked, coming to sit beside him. Thunder Dog raised his hands for peace and answered only when the giggling stopped.

“How would Wakan Tanka know me as a Human Being cast as I am among Corn Mother’s people? How would he hear my words? How would he hear my prayers? If I forget myself I will forget my people. If I let their stories die, they die with me.”

“Sioux Nation is still strong in the north, Uncle. You should go home maybe?” A boy shouldered his hoe and walked towards the maize field.

“My village is dead,” Thunder Dog called after him, “and I will die among strangers. Believe me, I am the last Sioux of the Piney Wood and I will tell you my stories.”

Thunder Dog’s stories grew and changed like the seasons. Sometimes his friends were ambushed by monsters, sometimes they fought in the open like braves. Sometimes they fought Custer, and sometimes they fell at Wounded Knee. Either way the children listened, grew quiet, and saw what the blind man had seen.

“How did an old Sioux warrior come to live on the pueblo?” Father Francis of the Church of the Immaculate Heart asked, his eyes fixed on the old man. The young priest had come to buy blankets to sell in the mission shop but was more interested in the old man’s talk.

“Some kind of mix up at the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Mildred Corn Daughter told him, folding a blanket as she spoke. “Bad papers can get an Indian in a lot of trouble.” The priest only nodded.

The people of Pueblo Blue had accepted the old Sioux with his bad papers but his shifting stories of war, monsters and devils were far harder to accept. For one thing he could not be old enough to remember the first battle of the Sioux Wars. So they made up their own stories of how Thunder Dog had come to be among them. Some told tales of how he was prospecting for gold in the Superstition Mountains when he was caught off his rez. Others said he was a scout left for dead in the desert by a band of robbers. One man claimed he was a runaway rebel chief hiding from government agents. Whatever he was, he was stuck in Arizona. The pueblo was small and poor but they had enough food for an old mouth. Besides, the villagers were grateful to Thunder Dog, for his roving blind eyes and wild hair kept the Spanish and the government men away. As the tallest and loudest madman on the pueblo, Thunder Dog had a reputation in the other villages for a dark kind of magic that only the truly mad can know. Because he was feared, no sheep or burro were stolen by Navajo and there was peace among neighbors.

The priest continued to watch Thunder Dog with interest. He’d been warned to watch out for the crazed Sioux, but being Catholic he had a vested interest in devils. “Thunder Dog’s mind is a mess of spider webs. Follow one thread and you’ll find a thousand others, all wandering, lost, wandering like his stories,” Mildred Corn Daughter added, bringing a new pile of blankets to the table. The priest nodded, but asked no more.

In the red dirt of the village center Thunder Dog sat, his face turned to the sun, his mind at ease. He had told the story of his brother’s death in the Mormon Cow War. No one would forget that story and so his brother’s memory would live on. Thunder Dog ran his fingers rhythmically over the thinning fleece of the buffalo hide. Here and there a shadow passed across his skin, stopping the sun’s warmth for only a moment. When one shadow lingered long, Thunder Dog raised his hands, smelling a bowl of rabbit, beans, and corn meal.

“Eat, Uncle,” Maria Walks Far said. Her shadow, broad and womanly, cast a coolness Thunder Dog could not mistake.

“You are like Yellow Feather, my last wife: generous, thoughtful and round as a summer woman.” He reached out a hand towards her but caught only the breeze from the hem of her skirt.

“I thought your wife was called Annie Red Moon,” A boy asked, rolling a small stone through a pattern cut into the dirt. Thunder Dog shook his head and frowned. Setting his bowl in his lap he raised his hands for silence though only the boy remained in attendance.

“Annie Red Moon was my first wife. She was lean like a hard winter but bore many sons. Annie Red Moon was a gift wife from a northern tribe. She could cut down a hundred lodge pole pines, raise a village of teepees and bear two sons all between sunrise and sunset. And though she ate and ate she never grew fat like Yellow Feather. No, never has such a woman walked the earth before or since.” Thunder Dog shook his head, his matted braids swinging into his bowl. His old hands rose again, this time to cover his face. “I see them as they were. Though they are no more than dust now, they live on in here.” Thunder Dog struck his bony chest, the force of the blow making a hollow thumping sound. “But who will remember?”

“I will remember.” The boy struck his chest as Thunder Dog had. “I will remember their names.” Thunder Dog nodded his thanks, memorizing the soft pitch of the boy’s voice, the sweet scent of youth rising up around him.

When Thunder Dog raised his bowl again it was spiced with the peppery flavor of black ants. Thunder Dog smiled to himself. The boy would remember and the others as well. Yellow Feather and Annie Red Moon would live on in their memories, be woven into their stories, and would not die the second death of the forgotten.

The wind shifted as the day grew cool with coming night. Father Francis loaded the last of the blankets onto his mule, glancing occasionally at the Sioux. Thunder Dog lifted his eyes and stared blindly at him. The scent on the breeze troubled Thunder Dog. It wasn’t of corn or sweat or dust, but of a sweet smoke, more rich with oil than a desert flower. When the scent became a shadow, Thunder Dog reached for his knife.

“What are you?” he asked the shadow who came to sit on a low adobe wall beside him.

“Don’t you know me?” The shadow asked in Father Francis’s voice. “I come here to buy blankets.”

“What is that scent?” Thunder dog pointed at the shadow. It laughed.

“Incense I suppose. But never mind that. I heard you say you have fought many devils! Tell me, are your devils red and scaled or do they wear white skin and uniforms?”
Thunder Dog did not relax his grip on the knife. Though he’d lost his blade in the great surrender he felt the shadow of the weapon where it hung heavily at his side.

“I have no story for the likes of you. You are not a Human Being.”

“But I am as much a human being as you are.”

“Then you are half ghost. My stories are for the living.”

“How did you come to live among the Hopi?” The priest persisted. Thunder Dog rose to his feet, towering over the incense scented shadow. He drew his great knife and held it out before him. In his mind’s eye he saw late summer sun glint off the blade.

“I have spoken white man. Be warned.”

The priest laughed at Thunder Dog, his rolling laughter echoing off the pueblo into the distant canyons. “Your hand is as empty as your stories, old man,” the priest said. “You have fought no devils.”

Long after the priest had gone and the sun had set Thunder Dog remained in the village center. He listened as windows were covered, fires crackled, and people spoke in hushed tones, yet he did not seek shelter. In the seven days spent in the desert, Thunder Dog had eaten very little. He’d walked night and day praying for a vision that would help all Human Beings. The vision Wakan Tanka sent was of Grey Fox crying in a lightning storm. Grey Fox was wise. He was a messenger sent from Wakan Tanka and yet Thunder Dog felt his faith slip. Was he still a Human Being? Did Wakan Tanka hear his prayers? Had he dreamed up Grey Fox in his madness or had he really had a vision? A deep well of grief overtook him. He had fought so many battles, protected so many villages, and yet the white men still came, still took, only now they also laughed. Thunder Dog felt his age hanging on his bones, the cold chill of the night stealing into his chest, rattling his soul. I have lived so long and come so far but for what? Raising his blind eyes starward he prayed again for a way to help all Human Beings find peace.

Short Bull and Kicking Bear had brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Sioux in the belief that it would cover the white people with earth, raising the Human Beings high above the world. Lost brothers and sisters from all tribes would live again and the buffalo would return to the plains. Thunder Dog, once called Many Horses, had danced the Ghost Dance. He’d prayed to Wakan Tanka for the unity of all Human Beings but the white man still came and the tribes were divided.

Thunder Dog rose stiffly from his buffalo hide. He shook the dust from its well-worn folds and swung it over his shoulders. Lifting his hands palm up, he prayed to Wakan Tanka for answers. A slow shivering chill ran up his legs, numbing his connection with Maja Earth Mother. I need more time to understand, he prayed, stomping his feet to restore feeling. In his heart he heard the battle song of Crazy Horse rise until it was a whisper on his lips. Wakan Tanka, the great mystery is unfathomable, unknowable; who am I to question my vision? And yet doubt remained. Slowly and with great respect he let the song rise from his lips into a chant, the words moving his feet into a rhythmic dance.

As his voice grew, Pueblo Blue listened. Doors opened and the people watched the lone dancer singing in his native tongue. One man got his drum, another his flute. Thunder Dog, once called Many Horses, was dancing and his voice called to them all. They came with masks and with rattles, ankle bells, trumpets, and rasps. They danced and sang with Sioux Uncle late into the night.

When Thunder Dog’s legs could no longer hold him, when his hands could no longer grasp the buffalo hide he wore across his shoulders, the old Sioux leaned against the adobe wall of Pueblo Blue, and listened to Corn Mother’s people. They chanted Crazy Horse’s song even though they did not know the language. They did it for Thunder Dog, for his lost people, and because no Human Being should dance alone. As they danced the air grew thick with clouds. When the first rain drops fell Corn Mother’s children rejoiced with loud cries of gratitude, for the summer had been long and dry. The dancing grew wilder, more energetic, more filled with life. In the rumble of the coming storm, Thunder Dog heard a young brave call out in the voice of Grey Fox, screeching the, “HOWWW. . . HOWWW. . . HOWWW,” of the silver dog. Thunder Dog raised his hands to Wakan Tanka in gratitude as rain drops, like salty tears, washed down his face.

“I have seen the vision, Wakan Tanka. Grey Fox leads me into the storm. I will follow him. I will not die among strangers. Here, all my story will be told.” Thunder Dog pulled the buffalo hide closer around his shoulders, and with the last of his fading strength he rejoined the dance.

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The One I Loved Best: Part 6 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

baby nursery
I remember the day my sister was born. Everyone says I can’t but I do. The day Sis was born began in Holy Cross hospital. I feel Granma take my hand as I wave goodbye to my daddy who is dressed in green hospital clothes just like a doctor. Time slips by like empty space before the next memory returns in the form of a brown and yellow flower patterned blanket spread over a bed. At two and a half I am too small to see over the edge. Daddy lifts me and I see Mommy looking tired and alone, the baby I’d expected is strangely gone.

More time passes from memory in empty waiting until I am standing under a glass window crisscrossed with diamond patterned lines. I feel my white fur coat gathering around me as my father’s hands take hold of my waist and he lifts me and points. “Not that one, no…not that one either.” He is pointing at babies in glass boxes behind a glass wall. “That one.” He says and waives at the nurse who walks to my sister and holds her up. I can already see her red hair peeking out from under the cap they’ve placed on her head. In that moment I love her. It’s not the passing love one feels for a pet or a doll but a blinding, body breaking, all consuming love that I can’t imagine I’ll ever feel again. In that moment I know that she will be my world and I love her, I just love her.

The home coming takes a week. I see Mommy from time to time and I see the baby they call Alexandria. Sometimes she is in Mommy’s arms, sometimes she’s in the glass box behind the glass wall. I want to hold her, kiss her and hug her but I’m not allowed to touch her. Everyone’s afraid of germs so I go with Granma and wait.

When Sis finally comes home there is a party. My grandfather and his second family arrive with his three kids who are little like my sister and I. There is also my cousin Little Robin, who is half grown and strong. He sits on the sofa and holds my sister. I watch feeling jealous and angry but I’m only allowed to touch her hand. This anger is a new feeling. It’s the first time I’ve felt it. It eats at me telling me I’m not enough, that I can’t be trusted, that I’m dangerous. I throw fits, I sneak baby kisses and get in trouble more than ever before. I know I’m supposed to help but I can’t and I’m frustrated.

The babies old long name is quickly shortened to Sis and Sis quickly proves herself to be an angry baby. Mommy walks her in circles for hours, singing the same songs in the same order while circling in the same direction because if she does anything out of order Sis screams. Some nights she screams no matter what Mommy does. My bed lays besides the old crib in our nursery where no one sleeps. I see Mommy pace circles in her long white nightgown as Sis screams and will not be soothed. I see her lay Sis down in exhaustion and leave while my sister screams on alone. through her screams I feel her anger, her discomfort and her confusion in every part of my body.

Slipping from bed I slide my arm between the bars of the crib and hold her hand. The old green linoleum floor is cold but I hold her hand for as long as I can. Her fierce dark eyes turn towards me, searching for my face in the shadows. Slowly she grows quiet. I stroke her face with my other hand, listening for Mommy who will be angry that I’m touching her baby. If I could I would climb my old crib and hold my sister to my heart. I would pull the string that makes our wooden jester dance and I would show her the little lamb that is painted on the headboard. If I was given a chance I would show her how not to be afraid or angry. I would keep her warm with hugs and let this love I feel for her spread from my over full heart into hers. But I can’t so I hold her hand and tell her again and again, “I love you.”

Attributes of a Magical Grandmother: Part 5 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Granma is probably my most favorite person in the universe. She dresses up at Halloween, throws banquets at Christmas and takes me bowling on Saturday mornings. My Granma is different from other girl’s Grandmothers. She bakes and cooks and does things other Granma’s do but not for the same reasons. She doesn’t take care of people or baby people. Instead she makes them strong. She teaches them how to navigate the world by being fully and perfectly alive. She is alive. Every day she finds things to do that I find magical.

Magical Granma Attribute one would be her incredible tackle box. Imagine opening a box filled with every fishing lure you can imagine. Note the smell of salmon eggs and other assorted fish bate. Together we cast, reel and become patient while full size rainbow trout circle near by.

Magical Granma Attribute two would be her sewing box. From the contents of that sewing box I have learned to embroider, bead and do needle point. During the war Granma embroidered in air raid shelters while other people counted the seconds between explosions, controlling their fear by trying to predict where the next bomb would hit.

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Magical Granma Attribute three are these stories of life and death that haunt my young mind. She begins,

“During the war…” and the room falls silent. Her words are spoken matter of fact but their meaning makes pictures so rich with color and scent that they are a part of me.

“During the war the bombs fell…” thousands of them rained down on her life as they did so many British lives.

There was the time bomb that slipped silently into the wreckage of a bombed out nurses ward. Granma and her fellow nurses had returned to the area to gather what supplies could be salvaged. They worked quickly and efficiently in the wreckage at Portland Bill, until a voice yelled out. “Look up,” the voice called. “You silly girls. Get the hell out.” And there it was, swinging above them on the ropes of its parachute. When I imagine the bomb it always looks like a giant deadly watch, its long arms spinning towards death. Granma says it didn’t tell time that way. It just counted down on its own, never telling anyone when it would go off.

Magical Granma Attribute four is her garden. I love her garden. There I find a purple eggplant the size of a football. Granma says I shouldn’t pet it but its smooth purple skin is too beautiful not to touch. The air in the garden is filled with the scent of roses, huge beautiful carnivorous roses, their thorns gleaming sharp and deadly in the bright Utah sun. They are carnivorous because they scratch me when I get too close and they eat our fish, at least all the bits we don’t eat. I walk behind Granma with my little trowel and help her dig small graves below each bush. This is why her roses are the largest and most beautiful. It’s because of the fish.

Magical Granma Attribute five is time. Time moves slowly around her, it smells of ham and roses, fat lap dogs and long stories. I sit beside her on the steps of her front porch and listen to the birds in her cherry tree. Here there is time to remember, to watch, to notice the butterflies, count the tomatoes and just be together. There is no rush or hurry because there is no one else in this world who can stop time like Granma. A day lasts a week in her garden, so filled with food and story that I don’t grow tired and I never want to go home. Through brightly colored memories, we walk her father’s farm in England and drive her pony and trap down through the fields to bring lunch to the men. Closing my eyes I feel the English sunlight. I see the endless green down lands stretched before us, their curving flanks dotted with sheep. Somewhere over the next rise men plow with draft horses, harvest timber and gather watercress. Just over the next hill our people work the earth and they are hungry for their lunch.

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Death of the Shopping Cart Man: Part 3 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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The Shopping Cart Man is dead. The news spreads in whispered conversations held over garden fences and rose hedges. A butterfly lifts off a snap dragon to the left of the porch step and flutters silently into the air as I realize I will never see him in his ragged old blue sweater, patched brown jacket and battered slacks again. He was one of us. An avenue man, a collector of cans, bottles and abandoned shopping carts. A character, a neighbor, a man we called ours. The Shopping Cart Man is dead and the world feels suddenly different.

Mommy wheels the chrome and yellow stroller out of the house. It has vinyl seats with yellow and orange flowers. I watch her lift Sis into the stroller, my sister’s beautiful red hair casts light like a burning match.

“They’re opening up his house.” Mommy says, pushing the stroller before her. My mother loves it when anything happens in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood event means a walk. The only event that isn’t celebrated with a walk is the occasional escaped prisoner from the mental hospital. On those days she quarters us inside, listening to the radio for news of an arrest.

“Open the gate, Eleanor.” I walk before the stroller, my fingers flipping up the latch quickly before the pain of the heat can register. The sun is so hot on a Utah summer day that every piece of metal burns. We walk north to East 2nd and then cross M street to follow East 2nd west. The day is so hot and dry that I am already thirsty. We slip from tree to tree, grateful for the shade as the stroller rises and falls over the broken sidewalks that have been fractured by the ever reaching tree roots. Four blocks west and we are there.

People mill around quietly. Mother’s trailing children push strollers past the red brick house, their eyes locked on the opened door as two men in suits look but go no further. Unembarrassed, Mommy joins the crowd of onlookers.

“He died at Holy Cross Hospital.” I hear one woman say, her words interesting me because that is where I was born.

“They can’t even walk in,” another adds. We watch another man walk up. He disappears inside the house only to re-emerge shaking his head.

“There are newspapers stacked so high that if they fall a man could be smothered.” Now I’m fascinated.

“And he lived here all this time?” Mommy shakes her head as we gaze at the dilapidated three story brick mansion. We’ve passed it a hundred times on our walks. We’ve commented on the state of its roof, the trash in its gardens but somehow we never noticed the collection of shopping carts that sit waiting to be returned to the store.

“Why are there newspapers stacked so high?” three pairs of eyes turn on me. My mother’s mouth tightens, her eyes turning back on the house.

“Some people save things, they stack them up and keep them because throwing things out is…hard.” She adds the last word as if she understands.

“Why is it hard?” I ask, looking up at her. Mommy doesn’t answer right away. She is thinking.

“Imagine that you’ve had to go without. That you’ve been hungry or cold or poor. Then later when times are better, imagine that you can buy things and keep things and everything you have seems important and valuable. Everything, every cent, every dollar you have is valuable. When everything seems valuable then throwing things away becomes impossible. That’s how it must have been for the Shopping Cart Man. Every newspaper must have felt valuable.”

I nod my head because in a small way, I understand. Every toy I own is valuable, every bit of food we grow or buy is valuable. We don’t waste because mother survived the war and the memory of past poverty stalks us still.

“Was he in the war like you Mommy?” I ask Mommy who is young and beautiful not old and shabby like the Shopping Cart Man. The look she gives me tells me I’ve made a comparison that should not have been made. So I listen and in listening I learn that for five cents a cart a wealthy man who wore rags wandered our avenues collecting abandoned shopping carts, discarded bottles and aluminum cans. In the cold of winter, in the heat of summer, in the chill and blusher of spring and fall he collected, pulled and pushed the weight of metal shopping carts to the store before returning to this stately home that had been in his for a very long time.

In my mind I see the newspapers and other assorted objects that crowd every space inside his home. They leave a thin maze like isle that winds from room to room upstairs and down, filling every space in that grand old house. Through neighborly reports and subsequent walks I learn of a large bank account, of valuable furniture uncovered, of silk rugs and Limoges dinner wear that hadn’t seen the light of day in fifty years.

A young nephew inherits the estate. The house is repaired and the world forgets about the Shopping Cart Man. But each time it snows, each time I see a discarded shopping cart, each time I hear the rumble of small metal wheels on pavement I think of him and wonder at the type of depravation that creates that kind of poverty.

Through the window: Part 2 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

lace curtains
My life began on M street, that charming avenue of craftsman homes and brick apartment buildings where Box Elder trees give shade to the heat drenched streets and sidewalks. A multitude of children played then, as they do now, beneath their ever spreading bows. M street has never been a grand avenue, not like the more historical streets with their mansions with widow’s walks and coach houses. Those lay farther north and east along the gently sloping foot hills of the Wasatch Mountains.

I hate going to bed at 6:00 on a hot summer evening. I lay amongst twisted sheets and listen to children play. Close by a girl laughs in bright hot sunlight while a boy answers, his words lost in the constant hum of the cicadas. In my mind I see the sun lit flowers, hot sidewalks and heat blasted grass turned brown at the tips. To feel the crunch of that summer grass under my bare feet would be heaven.

Slipping out of bed I walk to the window that leads out into the back garden. There are many ways to escape 86. My favorite is through the windows. Even when the doors are open I prefer to travel by window. There’s a sense of excitement, of freedom, of going wild when you duck under the lace curtains and swing one leg at a time through a window. Looking out I see that the children in the apartments are playing hide and seek.

I know some of the children who live there. There is my friend Trina, and her brother Opa and there are the divorce kids who visit their father on the weekends and evening. Unfortunately there are more adults than children. Mommy hates the man she calls him the ‘itsy bitsy teensy weensy yellow polka dot bikini’ guy because he plays that same song every day on his record player.

The children who play hide and seek are the divorce children. The boy is hiding along our chain link fence. It’s not a good hiding spot. If he went back just five feet he could fit between the back wall and the apartment’s covered car park. I like to hide there. That’s where I found a dead ruby throated humming bird. It was the tiniest most beautiful thing I’ve ever found. I wanted to have it stuffed but Mommy made me bury it.

I slip through the window into the back yard wearing only my night dress. It’s made of beautiful green silk with lace flowers at the top. Mommy says it’s mostly plastic but I pretend it was made by silk worms. Of all the things I own, it’s the most beautiful. My cat Lilly sees me from where she’s been sleeping in the shade. She’s only a year old but she’s smart like a dog. She rubs against my leg the moment I drop down from the window. The yard is darkened by the shadow of the house and by our two cherry trees. Both trees are old. I imagine they were planted by the people who built our clap board queen Ann in 1910. The bark on the trees is shiny and smooth. Our Bing cherry is my favorite tree for three reasons. One it gives the sweetest fruit of all the trees in our yard, two it gave me an Abraham Lincoln commemorative coin which I found buried in its roots and three, its easy to climb. I walk around the Bing cherry, my bare toe outstretched, tracing the place where I found my coin. What if more coins lay buried under the trees?

I walk to the pie cherry and examine its base. I hate this tree. I want to cut it down but Mommy says I can’t. Its cherries are bitter tasting. She says they’re meant for pies. Apparently, their flavor only comes out when they’re cooked in sugar. I don’t understand fruit you can’t just eat. The only good thing about the pie cherry is the color of the fruit. I climb up onto the first branch and pick two sets of cherries. Each set I hang over my ears like long red bead earrings. I feel pretty in red. It’s like magic. Put anything red on me and I feel instantly pretty. Someday I’ll have a red evening gown and wear it to the opera. I’ve forgotten about the Divorce kids. They’ve gone quiet. I feel their eyes on me.

“What are you wearing?”

“An evening gown.” I answer with perfect nonchalant.

“You’re showing your shoulders.” Looking down I examine my shoulders and the thin lace strap that lays over each one. If I were wearing my red evening gown there wouldn’t be straps at all. “It’s immodest to show your shoulders,” they add as if I haven’t heard them.

I hear them but I ignore them because my mother is an L.A. hippy and my father is a knowledgeable Satan and I don’t have to live by church rules. Instead, I lay down in a thin patch of evening sun and close my eyes. I dream of red dresses and opera houses with crystal chandeliers and curtains as red as my dress. I feel the divorce kids watching me. Their worn old tee shirts and knee length shorts hiding their bodies from the evening light. If they bared themselves no one would be shocked, no one would reproach them because they live as outside the church’s grace as I do. The divorce will blacken them as much as my father’s excommunication has blackened me. So I lay in the sun, my shoulders bared while in the shadows of my room, Mommy finds an empty bed.

The Spaghetti Strap Dress

Green spagetti strap dress
Just like me, cotton has its own personality. I like the way it breathes against my skin. I like the way it smells, my perfume and natural scent mingle with the finely woven threads. I like the way cotton feels when it glides onto my body. It fits like a second skin the moment I slip into it. At first it’s strong and cool but contact makes it soft, warm and sensitive to every curve of my body.

The dress lies pressed and pleated across the worn back of a kitchen chair. None of my chairs match. Like me, they’re second hand, a little worn but amazingly beautiful; graced with an elegant patina that comes with experience. Pink, turquois, the third is red while the fourth is a green so worn it’s really just the memory of color pressed into oak.

I dress next to the ironing board. It’s old too, but not as old as the chairs. The board lies across the top of my kitchen table, only feet from the 50’s aqua colored fridge that never dies. Glancing at my reflection in the darkened window I see my silhouette; a nude strapless bra and panties glimpsed for a moment before the cotton dress drifts over them.

The dress slides, slipping towards my knees. My arms shimmy through the green and white spaghetti straps that add youth and elegance. I face my reflection, still and ghostlike in the dimly lit kitchen. I smile. My Laugh lines grow through the black and silver curls that frame my face. My body is strong. Long legs look out under the knee length hem; well defined shoulders give way to arms that have held and loved many people.

This is my night. Tonight I’m forty-nine, strong, happy, at home to myself, to my life and ready to celebrate the day of my birth. I pick up my bag and walk through the front door to the waiting cab that will take me anywhere I want to go.

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Shunning: Psychological Torture

Unmarried mothers were shunned and left to fend for themselves
Recently I read an article reporting that between 1925 and 1961, 796 children were placed in a mass grave in one of Ireland’s Catholic run, Mothers and Babies Homes. The article stated that the mothers received little care and some women even gave birth unattended. Why were they so mistreated? Because they were seen as “a threat to Ireland’s moral fiber.” These children were the victims of an outdated morality that would rather shun its unwed mothers than support and love them as valued members of their community. The Mother and Baby home closed its doors and sealed its mass grave (a sewage tank buried on the grounds) in 1961.

In 1991, a Catholic girl at my high school had an abortion so her parents would never know she’d had sex. The 90’s were a sophisticated modern decade. We had free choice, free will and the right to make all the mistakes we wanted. Casual sex was the norm and most everyone I knew was going at it like rabbits. And yet, this girl chose to have an abortion because if her parents knew she’d had sex and conceived she would have been shunned, outcast and disowned. Her abortion was not a choice made in free will, it was a decision born of fear, the fear of being outcast, shunned and forsaken by the people who should have loved and supported her no matter what.

Everyone passed the hat to help raise the abortion money. Everyone contributed to the death of this “embryo.” Everyone participated in this act so that a girl could keep her family. No one asked if she wanted the baby? No one asked if she even thought of it as a child growing inside her? I remember how sick the whole event made me. I stood back, watched and wondered what kind of parents raised a child in such fear that she’d rather commit murder then admit to having a sex life, disorganized as it was.
mother and child

Over the millennia, billions of woman have been cast off, incarcerated and killed for moral reasons while their children have been aborted, cast out, hidden away, called basters and abused because no man stepped forward to claim them. Shunning is an atrocity. It’s a manyfold evil that leads to heartbreak, legalized acts of murder and a shame that taints our history and threatens our future.

If all life is sacred and we are the children of an all loving God than why do situations like this ever even occur? I try to forget this memory, this time in my life. I would like to put it on the shelf with all the other outrages and deaths that ran like a red thread through my early existence yet this death refused to stay buried. It welled up inside of me, rattling its cage because of the unconscionable cruelty that created it. Conditional love was the killer and this girl and her unborn child were its victims. Be good or you’ll end up on the streets, be clean or we’ll disown you, remain pure or everything you know and love will be taken from you.

Injustice should never be forgotten and like the mass graves that hold 796 Irish children, this memory will not be buried because conditional love is an evil that has no place in this world. When we practice unconditional love, acts like these don’t exist! Unconditional love does not reject, instead it accepts. It does not shun but gathers its loved ones together because unconditional love creates a community so strong, so entwined in love and acceptance that when the unplanned, or unexpected occurs it reacts with compassion, acceptance and a coming together that reflects what community was meant to be. In a loving and open community there’s room for the unexpected surprises life hands us.

Stories like the mass Irish grave and the girl in my high school remind us why shunning is such a devastating and horrific act. When you practice shame and exile, you abandon both the mother and child to the mercy of the streets or institutional care. We must, as forward thinking people, support the women and children of our community so tragedies like this never happen again. We must gather around new life and love it for coming instead of condemning its existence. After all, if we are all part of a divine plan than surly every life is divinely created, divinely loved and must therefore be unconditionally loved and protected. My prayers go out to all the souls who suffered and died in shame and isolation. Each loss is a failure to teach the beauty of unconditional love and unconditional support in community.
pregnant belly

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