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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures




Diné people might not have liked my mother, but quite a few came to trust her as a nurse, and when she was called on in that capacity, she was always ready to serve. When she was offered Navajo Country as a temporary substitute for Nigeria, my mother agreed and took her first airplane ride to the Rehoboth Mission Hospital, five miles east of Gallup. It was 1946, and she met my father at the mission. He arrived after her by a few months to work as the cook for the boarding school and hospital, having learned institutional cooking in the army during the war. They married in 1947 and drove to Michigan so he could attend Bible School and become a Bible-preaching missionary instead of a cooking one. I think they had always hoped to return to Dinétah. By the time the mission board sent them in 1952, they had three children, of whom I was the eldest, nearly four years old.

Over the years, I saw things my mother did for which Diné people could have loved her. And maybe they did sometimes. One Sunday, after the morning church service, someone came to the interpreter who worked with my father and told him a baby had been born the night before and was very sick. Could my mother come to the family hogan to see him? We drove over, and my mother stooped to enter the traditional earthen home. She was in there only a few minutes when she came back out, walking swiftly and carrying a small bundle wrapped in a blanket.

My father turned the car around, and we headed for Shiprock, where there was an Indian Health Service hospital. From the back seat I watched my mother hold the tiny, naked, wrinkled baby upside down by his ankles. His skin, which should have been a rich brown, was blue-gray. Periodically my mother thumped his back, and she kept wiping him down with a wet cloth.

"Why are you holding him that way?" I asked.

"He's barely breathing because there's mucus in his air passages. If I had a bulb syringe, I could suck some of it out. Holding him upside down helps drain the fluid, so he can breathe easier. He has a high fever. That's why I'm using this wet cloth. I'm trying to bring the fever down"
The car bumped over the dusty, rock-strewn road. My father didn't watch out for rocks the way he usually did. We jerked over them, going faster than we ever had.

At the hospital, my mother rushed in with the baby. Hardly any time passed before she came back without him. "They said his temperature went all the way up to the end of the thermometer. Probably past it," she said. She sounded so serious, so worried. "They don't know if he's going to make it."

The boy did live and got named Clifford. The doctors said my mother had saved his life. Clifford grew brown and chubby, and whenever we saw him, his family called him my mother's baby. Surely that was a kind of love.

Still, it's not difficult for me to see why my mother was not liked in the same way my dad was. Her own mother was a brusque, direct woman, quick to judge, and she included my mother in her pronouncements. There never seemed to be room for doubt about what Grandma thought of people and their foibles. Once in my mother's kitchen, I was a silent witness to one of her cruel comments. By that time my mother had given birth to nine children (her mother had had only three), and my mom said something about the joys and maybe even the religious obligation to bring children into the world. Grandma said, without pause, "Yes, but a woman is not a cow, for instance." I almost laughed, but I saw my mother's face and bit my lips.

Despite, or more likely because of, having absorbed many more belittlements and perhaps worse, my mother became a judgmental person herself. If she didn't come right out and say what she was thinking, and she usually did, at least at home, her attitudes were communicated by her withholding visage.


There was a bit more to the rattlesnake story. Before my mother went for the shovel, she noticed that there was a Navajo Police vehicle parked up the hill at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. She went back to the house and called the school, which, since it was a boarding school, was staffed on Sundays. She asked to speak to the officer. She wanted him to kill the snake for her. When she told us the story at dinner, she said, "He hemmed and hawed, said maybe, and I knew he wasn't going to do it. What a chicken."

My father said, "But you know Navajo people aren't supposed to have anything to do with snakes."

"Yes, but he's a policeman," she said. "Why be a policeman if you're afraid of a snake? If you can't help people who need help? Those Navajo Police are useless."

My mother raised us the way she was raised––not to question authority; it didn't even occur to me to have an opinion about what my mother had just said. Though I had no opinion then, clearly my mother's blatant othering, made an impression, as I stored this and similar incidents. They would lie at the root of my radically opposing views later on.


Old Lady Appel was thin and bent and moved swiftly down the dusty road in front of the mission whenever she came by. No one seemed to know where her name came from, though her face did have as many wrinkles as the skin of an apple ready for the compost. Her long skirts swished around her high-top work boots, and her cane barely touched the ground. "What does she carry that cane for?" my mother complained. "Obviously she doesn't need it, walking at that clip. She's practically running."

When Old Lady Appel turned off the road and onto the mission compound, my mother groaned. "Why does she always have to come here when we're eating? And when you're home for once?" That was addressed to my father, who was rarely home at lunchtime.

Sometimes it was a mystery why Old Lady Appel came at all, and contrary to my mother's complaint, it wasn't always at lunch. I thought she was the oldest person I knew, and I can still see her sitting on the kitchen floor, even though she'd been offered a chair, while my mother, who probably spent more time in the kitchen than in any other room, worked at the sink. Neither spoke each other's language, though I could sometimes hear the old woman rattling on at my mother in Diné bizaad. It was almost as if she thought my mother would grasp what she was saying if she just kept on talking long enough.

When I look back, I think Old Lady Appel's visits might even have been a form of hospitality. Possibly she thought my mother must be lonely––a Bilagáana woman in Dinétah without her extended family nearby. Or maybe the old lady was just out walking and wanted the cup of water she knew my mother would offer.

I try to understand my mother's antipathy, which descended to its nadir when it came to Old Lady Appel, but was often present when other Diné people showed up unannounced. Although she was a guest in their land, my mother's attitude reflected the US government's post-colonial assimilation policies of the 50s. I often heard her refer to "those people," resentment in her voice, for many reasons, one of them because "they" had not adopted the White habit of arranging a visit ahead of time. It was an empty, ridiculous wish, as only the trading post, the school, and the mission had telephones, which made pre-arranged visits an impossibility. Never mind that scheduled visits weren't part of the Diné hospitality culture.

Aside from her insensitivity to the host culture at best and her racism at worst, I know my mother lived under constant stress. While we lived at Teec Nos Pos, her passel of children doubled to six; in the summer we had electricity only two hours a day in the evenings; her hands were always red and cracked from laundering clothes on a washboard and in a wringer washer––including piles of cloth diapers––and from hanging them outdoors to dry in all weathers; she accompanied church services (sometimes three on a Sunday) on the piano, pump organ, or accordion. But chief among her grievances, was the fact that my father was absent far more than she thought necessary.

He was gone to passionately spread the gospel. And to help people––probably one explanation for the first half of Janice Becenti's pronouncement: " You know, the Navajo people really like your dad."

One day my mother's nemesis did come by when we were eating lunch, on a day when my father happened to be home. We saw her scuttling along the road, turning in at the mission. My mother had things to say from the moment she saw the woman. When Old Lady Appel knocked at the back door––the only door we used––my father went to answer. A few minutes later, he came back. "I need to get John's help," he said. "She keeps mentioning łíí', her horse. She's making the motions of throwing up and holding her nose, but I can't put together what she's talking about."

The interpreter's house was a few hundred yards from ours, and my father went to get Mr. Tsosie, who was doubtless also eating lunch. Together they talked with Old Lady Appel. Then Dad came back and said he had to go out to her place. "Her horse died a few days ago, and the smell is so bad, it's making her sick. She hasn't eaten for three days."

He knew my mother would object, and she did. "Can't you at least finish your lunch first? That horse isn't going anywhere." But he put on his fedora, which I suppose looked odd with his short-sleeved, white nylon shirt and khaki pants with the front pleats. He left in the mission pickup with Mr. Tsosie and Old Lady Appel.

Over dinner that night he told us the story. "She was right, you know. The smell was so terrible, John and I had a hard time not vomiting. We threw a couple old tires on top of the horse, and some gas, and started the pile on fire. The burning rubber smelled terrible, too, but it got rid of the decaying horse smell. If we had just burned the horse, the stink would've hung around."

"Wasn't there anyone else around there who could help her?"

"She asked us," Dad said.

"Well, I hope she was thankful."

"She didn't say anything about that." He grinned.


"Of course not."



© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Friday, 3/1/24

If you are just joining this serialization of Fissure, you can find your way to the beginning by going to the Table of Contents

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