It was Christmastime, but the red earth was dry, and I rode with my father in the dark green, 1953, Chevrolet mission pickup, the long floor-gearshift between my knees. We took a two-track, dirt road all the way, perhaps thirty miles, from Teec Nos Pos to Aneth, which lies in the small Utah corner of the Navajo Nation. My father drove there every week to give what they called "religious instruction" to the elementary students in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA, now BIE) school. It would be the first and last time that I visited the little stone and pine viga school that was almost identical to the one I had attended in Teec Nos Pos.
This time my father would tell the Christmas story, and on the bench seat beside me in the truck sat a cardboard box filled with small brown paper sacks. They were filled with striped hard candies shaped like waves and rectangles, with red and green, yellow and white and purple gumdrops. There were peanuts in their shells, a candy cane, and an orange. Year after year these bags would appear at Christmastime, and there was always an orange.
When he was done telling the story, my father let me pass the bags out to the children. I was no older than most of them. Why should it be me and not some of them who got to give out candy? What was my father thinking when he gave me this task of apparent largesse? What did the children think as I handed each one a bag? I know from some of my friends, now that we're adults, that they probably thought nothing––that I was someone of no consequence in their lives. Their lives were about longing for home, being punished if they dared to speak the only language they knew––their school lives of harsh deprivation both physical and emotional. Maybe they thought about the contents of the bags, hoping they might contain something different from the ones the Mormons and Catholics and the government school itself had passed out a few days earlier. Maybe they were thinking about going home soon, the only time in nine months they would see their families. Maybe they thought about squirreling away all four bags of treats to bring back home and share.
And what was I thinking? Probably not much. It seemed natural that my father would tell me to do this. Perhaps I'd been part of an assembly line that filled the bags. Maybe I felt generous or imagined how generous the other kids might think I was, though the bags didn't come from me. Maybe I was self-conscious. Maybe there were no thoughts; I was just doing one of the tasks that fell to me as a missionary kid, part of something I had been taught and believed with all my heart was a sacred calling.
Whatever thoughts the Aneth school children had, whatever thoughts I had, two images from this event have stayed with me. The first is a deep, narrow ravine our truck crossed and, whether or not he actually said it, some words from my father about how the truck might have difficulty getting down and up the other side. Or perhaps that was my fear, since this was a route my father took every week. The second is just a moving picture of me, a little white girl, being part of the putative missionary largesse.
I would love to read any comments you'd like to share.