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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures

CHAPTER IV, Installment 2, IN THE GIRLS ROOM

***

 

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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CHAPTER II, Installment 5, IN AND OUT

***


Years later, sitting in our shared office, I told Ilene about that paper. She said, "You saw that back then? I didn't even see it until much later."
This is one of the things that happens when you have a foot in both worlds, or when you live in a crack between two worlds. You see things with different eyes. I was always aware, from the day I ran away from the BIA school in Teec Nos Pos, when my mother got the rules changed for me, that my experience of boarding school was both the same and different from what it was for my friends.


All of us still recognize the same boarding school smells and the taste of government commodity foods. Even though I went home for lunch at Teec Nos Pos, commodity foods were once again part of my diet when I attended Rehoboth, both as a day and a boarding student. We can reminisce about the games we played, about our nicknames for teachers and each other. We can tell stories of things we did together and things that happened to us.


I often become a listener rather than a teller of these stories, afraid of appropriating the pain or indignity that belongs to a friend. I cannot yet explain to myself or anyone else how it is that I quantify and qualify and assign value to their suffering and mine. Perhaps the pain cannot be quantified. There is pain in being a representative of the group that colonized, and there is pain in having been colonized. The sources of the pain are different.


I did face the loss of family and home, as my friends did, but it was for a relatively short period of time with breaks in between. My parents could and did exercise agency; my friends' parents most often did not have the same choices. A couple of years ago my friend Lila, who is one of the most phenomenal teachers I know, told me about attending the big BIA school at Shiprock.


"The administration decided the dorms and classrooms were too crowded," she said. "So they sent some of us students to the school in Teec Nos Pos. Just sent us without letting our parents know. My older brother was still an elementary student. They called him into the office and told him that when our dad came to get us, he had to be the one to explain where I was.


"My dad was a very protective father. First when he got to the school to take me home for the weekend he was worried when he couldn't find me. He went to the office, and they called my brother in. He explained to my dad in Navajo. My father was furious."


I know that this did not and would not have happened to White parents whose children attended boarding school.


My friends' culture was ripped away from them; while my culture was being reinforced for me, it was forced on them. All was familiar to me, foreign to them. Winter is the time when sacred Diné stories are told and games are played. Strict rules prohibit teaching these cultural foundations at other times of the year. This meant that my friends gradually lost their traditional teachings. Ironically, one of my father's interpreters sat with my siblings and me in the evenings after eating supper with us and told us some of the very stories that were being taken from the rightful heirs.


Little is so core to our humanness, our uniqueness, as our mother tongue. That precious essence, Diné bizaad, was systematically suppressed in an effort to remove it entirely, to make everyone English Only. Diné students were punished for using their own language in boarding school; yet I heard it sometimes on the playground. For them there was the multifaceted and deep grief of language loss and the partial loss of identity that went with it.


For me there was a different sort of grief around language. Because my friends weren't allowed to speak Diné, I never learned to use it fluently. The most natural way to learn a second language is in a social setting with one's peers. I'm aware of this loss in so many ways—being able to catch only parts of conversations; dreaming in Danish (in which I am fluent) and joyously thinking in the dream that I am speaking Diné bizaad with a friend, only to awaken and discover the reality; feeling envious of younger Whites who grew up in the Nation and are fluent in Diné bizaad because language policies had changed by their time. Nevertheless, I am aware that my loss is different from the losses my friends endured.


The traumas inflicted by the boarding school system are generational for Native people. Great-great grandparents of children now in school were taken from their homes to be "Americanized," and their losses are compounded from generation to generation. In the early days, many children died at boarding school of grief or from physical punishment or illness.


Nevertheless, not everyone talks about negative experiences in boarding school. When I asked Lila if she was frightened when she was moved from the Shiprock school to the Teec Nos Pos one, she said, "Oh, no. I was with all my friends. They were like family. And I knew that road. I knew I had relatives there because my dad was from there." To this day, Lila is one of the most positive people I know, always finding the bright side of things but not in a superficial way, so I believed that what she said was genuine.


Not long ago, I attended the funeral of an upperclassman at Rehoboth. I went mainly because I knew one of my classmates would be there. She and I stood outside the church catching up after the service, and as we stood there, I overheard a classmate of the woman who had died talking about Rehoboth. "Yeah," she said loudly, "they say we were abused there. I say they abused us pretty good because we're still all part of that church." The women she was talking to laughed with her. I thought she might be carrying a pretty heavy load of denial.


Charlie, on the other hand, has the self-awareness of someone who has done his work and can speak about his experience of boarding school in a balanced way. He talks about the bullying and abuse that was endemic to the system. He talks about the hypocrisy he saw in the missionaries. But he also says that he is grateful for the excellent academic education he received. "I can speak articulately and think critically, and I got that there—at Rehoboth," he says.


A few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Alice Whitegoat. She attended Rehoboth about ten years before I did. Alice wrote that her niece had been at the Indian Health Hospital in Shiprock. "My niece saw this woman we know. The woman was so thin and wasted. Her hair had gone completely white, and she was barely able to walk without assistance."


This friend had attended Rehoboth, too, and, until recently, had been a strong presence in Navajo education. "She told my niece that she was suffering, but she couldn't remember what her illness was called. She turned to her husband to ask him. 'Depression,' he told her. She started to cry. She said she can't stop crying."


Alice asked me, "Is that a Rehoboth disease?"


I wanted to cry.


***


I don't forget Ed's painting. I imagine small Diné children lined up, marching in and down that ramp that looks like a livestock chute. I imagine teenagers marching down the steps, back into the light, forever changed. And I imagine myself standing in that dark, rusty space between the two doors.


 
"In and Out" was first published in Isthmus, Special on Politics, 2016

This is the final installment of Chapter II of Fissure, "In and Out." 

The first installment of Chapter III, "Some Things Were True," will post on Friday, 2/9/24

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CHAPTER II, Installment 4: IN AND OUT

From R to L: Rehoboth High School, Church, HS Dorm behind 2 houses, 1962 

***


After my first year at Rehoboth, our family moved to Gallup, and I became a day student. But in high school I was so miserable that at the end of my sophomore year I talked my parents into asking the principal if I could double up on classes and do summer school at Gallup High. I had it all figured out how I could graduate a year early. His response, "There's something lacking in her socially. She needs to be in more after-school activities." Now I see that he was blaming me for the bullying I endured. One of the bullies happened to be his son.


It wasn't as if the school offered such a wide array of activities. With six, soon to be seven younger children at home, transportation between Gallup and Rehoboth was a deciding factor. The principal and my parents decided that I could become a boarding student. By that time there was no White missionary kids' dorm, and there was a separate one for high school students, all of whom were Diné with a few Zuni and Hopi students sprinkled in.


I became the first student to racially integrate a dormitory at Rehoboth. Despite the continued bullying by those Bilagáana boys, it would be the happiest year of my time at the mission school. It was also the year that I became deeply, consciously aware of White privilege and racism there. Not long after the school year began, Bilagáana missionaries in the field got wind of the fact that I was staying in the dorm. They were miffed because as members of the General Conference, they had had no input into this decision. That was when I finally learned the ostensible rationale for the existence of the racially separate dorms. It was so White children wouldn't be taking the places meant for Native children who needed to be saved. I wondered yet again why the Diné missionary kids hadn't stayed in the Missionary Kids' Dorm. I still didn't have the word racism in my vocabulary, but I recognized it for sure.


In 1963, the Red Power Movement was rumbling awake. In six more years, Vine Deloria, Jr. a Standing Rock Sioux, would publish Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. But already in 1964, he had become executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, growing its membership from nineteen to 156 tribes. This nascent movement for Native rights had already influenced some of the more vocal Diné missionaries.


The controversy about integrating the dorm was placed on the agenda at General Conference, and I knew I might be sent back to stay at home. However, in the end, those vocal Navajo missionaries won the day, along with some of the White missionaries, including my father. They argued that integrating the dorms was a symbolic gesture of equality, one that could bring more converts into the fold. It was a wise argument, couched as it was in the rhetoric of saving more souls. I was allowed to stay.


Near the end of the year, something happened to validate the Bilagáana missionaries' worst fears. Kee Bitsoi and I were both working on the laundry detail by then and, although he was a class behind me, we were in band and choir together. He asked me to go to church with him one Sunday evening. That might not sound like anything that could possibly threaten anyone, but at the mission it amounted to a very public date. It was like a declaration, and many couples who went to church together on Sunday evenings ended up marrying each other.

 
I heard audible gasps when we walked down the aisle to our pew, but that was nothing compared to what happened afterwards. The high school dorm had a boys' side and a girls' side with a common living room between. We had two house-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Haverdink. Mister had a nickname—Yogi—because his long torso, and the way he waddled made him look like the cartoon character Yogi Bear. Mrs. Haverdink was so uninvolved on a day-to-day basis that she didn't merit a nickname.


Yogi walked up to Kee and me after the service with fury that had been building during the whole service. Scarlet faced, he pushed us apart and said, "You go this way," to me, "and you come with me," to Kee. As he walked away with Kee, I heard him shout, "I thought you were a nice boy until now."


I was shaking when I got back to the dorm, not in righteous anger, which would have been fitting, but in fear. Yogi had already sent Kee to his room. "Do you want to marry a White boy or don't you?" he shouted at me, so everyone in the living room could hear. To my everlasting shame, I said nothing. I didn't need to because Yogi kept ranting for another five minutes, but I wished I had shouted, "No!" He sent me to my room and told me I was grounded for a week, which basically meant I couldn't go to study hall in the high school library at night. It turned out that Kee had been grounded for the next month, and I was again plunged into shame over the unfairness of it.


Nothing ever came of the incident, except that a week later the principal called me into his office. The only words I remember exactly were, "I guess there's been a storm in the teapot over there." Then he said something to the effect that I should ride it out and maybe not do anything like that again. I nodded miserably and kept my true thoughts and feelings to myself.


I was no longer a boarding student the next year, mostly because I could drive by then and had a job at a supermarket in Gallup. But my stay in the dorm had made me acutely aware that something was drastically wrong at Rehoboth. In Church History class we were assigned a paper about some topic like Martin Luther's ninety-nine theses or the impact of the Gutenberg Bible on Christianity. I got permission to write instead about Rehoboth.


My paper's unwieldy title was "How the Gospel Is Not Presented at Rehoboth Mission." It was replete with examples of oppression, intimidation, privilege, racism and sexism, although I didn't use any of those words. I was developing a social conscience and trying to have an effect on my world in my own way. I think the minister thought he was indulging me in meaningless teenage rebellion by letting me write the paper. Neither he nor anyone else ever talked with me about it. It was as if my attempt to call attention to the wrongs I'd witnessed slipped into an airless void.


**
*

To be continued on Monday, 2/5/24

If you're just joining the serialization of Fissure, you can find your way to the beginning by using the Table of Contents

 

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CHAPTER II, Installment 2, IN AND OUT

Mealtime in the Mission House

***


I became a boarding school student for the first time when I was eight. After the Teec Nos Pos BIA school, I once again took my schooling by correspondence. Halfway through fourth grade, my mother gave birth to her sixth child. My father bought our first automatic washing machine and decided I would go to Rehoboth Mission School, one hundred thirty miles away. The washing machine meant my mother no longer had to use a washboard or feed clothing and diapers through the rollers of the old wringer washer. Boarding school for me meant more time for her other chores.


I was excited. I thought I could be like those teens departing for Anadarko and Chilocco. The braids that hung to the middle of my back were cut off, leaving a severe bob to make it possible for me to take care of my own hair. My mother gave me a small tin box for my little treasures. It wasn't a footlocker like those big kids bound for Intermountain owned, but it was mine and it was new. Everything else went into the yellow and brown suitcase my mother had used since nursing school.


Sixty-seven years after I started at Rehoboth, whenever January 24 comes around, I remember it as the anniversary of my first day of boarding school. It's not that I try to remember; I can't help it.


My father drove me to Rehoboth in the mission pickup, thirty miles over dirt and cobbles, one hundred miles over the narrow asphalt strip that was New Mexico Highway 666. He was on his way to Prescott, Arizona to be a witness in the Federal trial of someone from Teec Nos Pos. He left the pickup to be serviced by the Rehoboth maintenance crew. Over the next few days, while he was in court, that pickup became my touchstone to home. I knew on that first day that boarding school was not going to be an adventure after all, Anadarko and Riverside to the contrary.

 
There was a separate dorm for missionary kids, which really meant Bilagáana missionary kids. Miss Vander Weide, the white-haired matron, showed me to my basement room with its Pepto Bismol pink walls and insulated steam pipes suspended from the low ceiling. "Everyone calls me Miss Van," she said. She showed me a drawer. "Just put your suitcase on your bed for now, and you can unpack later." Mine was the narrow bed. At right angles to it was a double one. "That's where Jessie and Bonnie sleep. You'll meet them after school."


Then she walked me down the hill from the big white house that had been turned into our dorm and across the mission campus to the school. She knocked on the third and fourth grade classroom door, and a stylishly dressed, young Diné woman opened it. She and the high school Home Ec teacher were the only Diné faculty. Everyone else was Dutch American or Dutch Canadian. Neither of these women would last long at Rehoboth. Miss Silversmith brought me to the front of the room, put her arm around my shoulders and introduced me. In all my years at Rehoboth, she was the only one to give me the welcome of touch.


At noon we lined up and marched to the Mission House where we sat ten to a table, all ages, with one adult who would ensure that we ate some of everything and cleaned our plates. After school, I went up the hill. Jessie and Bonnie were there in our room. Bonnie wore a brace on her leg, and when I saw it, I realized who she was—the missionaries' kid from Two Wells who had been bitten by a rattlesnake. She was in first grade, and I thought she seemed kind of slow. She didn't say anything at all.


Jessie was big, way bigger than me and a lot bigger than Bonnie. "I'm in sixth grade," she said. It sounded like a challenge. "What grade are you in?"


"Fourth," I squeaked.


"Ohh." The slant to her oh tied my stomach in knots. "Well, we had a lot more space in here before they brought your bed in." She kicked Bonnie's brace at the ankle, "Didn't we, Stupid?"


Bonnie nodded. She didn't seem to care about being kicked or called Stupid.


I knew I should say something, but I didn't dare. "I'll say something next time," I thought. I already knew there would be a next time. I unpacked my suitcase, and started out of the room.


"Hey! Where are you going?" Jessie asked.


I was afraid if I told her, she would follow me. I didn't say anything.


"Hey! I asked where you're going."


"Upstairs."


"Oh, are you going to tell on me? Are you a tattletale?"


I shook my head.


"What did you say?"


"I didn't … no."


"You better not be if you know what's good for you."


Just then Wilma, who was in high school and shared the room next to ours, stepped over to our doorway. I knew her because she was the daughter of the missionary in Shiprock. "Hey, Jessie," she said. "You better leave her alone."


I said hi to Wilma and hurried toward the stairs. I knew where my father had left the pickup, and I crossed the campus, walked up behind the houses to a garage that could berth up to three vehicles. Outside the garage stood the familiar dark green pickup with the white lettering on the door: "Teec Nos Pos Christian Reformed Mission." I touched the lettering. I tried the door, but it was locked. I wanted to get in and sit on the leathery brown seat and wait for my father to come back from Prescott and take me home. Instead I leaned in and rested my forehead against the door and felt the tears trickle down my cheeks.


I'd stood there a while, when a bell gonged on the other side of campus. A thin, bent man wearing blue coveralls and rimless glasses came out of the maintenance shop and said, "That's your supper bell. If you want supper, you better run."


I didn't know if I should run to the dorm or the Mission House. I picked the Mission House. Then I saw the others marching down from my dorm, and a second bell rang. I was pretty sure I'd made the wrong choice. Much longer lines of Navajo students marched from the big gray dorms on either side of the schoolhouse.


After supper Miss Van got out a carom board, and Jessie and a boy named Bobby, whom I recognized as a third grader from my classroom, taught me how to play. While we shot the wooden rings into pockets, two sisters from Naschitti who were in high school took turns practicing the piano. Three high school boys and Wilma did homework in the dining room. "Maybe it won't be so bad," I thought.


Then Miss Van told us it was time for us younger kids to get ready for bed. Bobby went to his room, and Jessie, Bonnie and I headed downstairs. I had brand new flannel pajamas, white with little orange and turquoise stars, ordered from the Sears catalog. I felt I was going to cry, so when I pulled the top on, I kept my head inside. I was afraid to let Jessie see.


"Hey. You. Don't start crying now."


I gulped and said, "I'm not." My voice quavered.


"You're on the verge. I can tell."


I pulled my pajama top on the rest of the way and sought refuge under the covers, pulling them close to my face so I could cry without being heard.


The next day I found my safe place. It was behind the big gray Girls' Dorm. The Navajo girls' dorm. Irma Ahasteen was in fourth grade too, and I knew her from Beclaibito, the place next to Teec Nos Pos. She drew me into a game of Red Rover. When the first bell for supper sounded I raced up the hill so I could march back down with the missionary kids. The Bilagáana missionary kids.


The first weekend I went home, I begged my parents to let me stay. "You wanted to go," they said. "Now you have to live with your decision." Only when someone else said, years later, "You were only eight years old," did I realize how inappropriate their reasoning had been.


"Can't I stay in the Girls' Dorm instead?" I asked.


"You can't stay there because the Navajo kids can't go home on weekends. You wouldn't like that, would you?"


"Why can't they?"


"If they go home, they might not go to church. We want them to go to church every Sunday."


Later I would realize that this constituted one rationale for a separate dormitory for missionary kids. Much later, it would occur to me to wonder why the Diné missionary kids didn't live in our dormitory. Surely no one feared that they wouldn't go to church if they went home on the weekends.


At home, my brother Rick and I made what we called Ps. We wouldn't say, "Plans" out loud because they were to be kept secret from our parents. The plans were strategies for keeping me from returning to Rehoboth after a weekend home. Our most elaborate P was to dig a large pit, cover it with branches, and hide me in it until it was past time to leave. That way I would miss my ride in the old green Studebaker with the missionary kids from Shiprock.


Every time I went back to school, I spent the first half hour in class sobbing. I tried desperately and failed to stop myself. Finally Miss Silversmith would say, "Why don't you go to the office and get a drink of water?" She never sounded impatient with me, only kind, even though I was the only one who went through this Monday after Monday.


It wasn't every Monday. All the other kids in our dorm went home every weekend, and even though I had a ride to Shiprock, my parents said that the thirty-miles over the dirt road would be too expensive and hard on the car every week. Two round trips would have amounted to a hundred twenty miles of rough road, but in my mind it was only thirty, and I couldn't understand why they wouldn't want me home every weekend. I was forced to spend alternate weekends with families that lived on the mission compound. Mostly one family, the Van Bovens, where the children repeated Jessie's bullying less overtly. The Van Boven kids teased me about having skipped a grade. They teased me about being homesick. They laughed when I accidentally slipped into what linguists have called Dummitawry English—English spoken with a Diné accent. They dished out the meanness of kids who don't want someone else's kid living with them.

 

© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.

 

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To Be Continued on Monday, 1/29/24

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