It's A Very Dirty Job

I grew up in a large extended mixed-blood Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, German, family of storytellers, and I spent lots of time with my grandparents and great-grandparents. 

Recently, my dad, well into his 80s now, pulled out a photograph of his grandmother. She lived in a log cabin in Oklahoma and told stories from a rocking chair. Two flat pewter braids hung down to her waist; deep valleys formed between her cheekbones and chin. My dad grew up listening to her stories. 

"Do you still remember her stories?” I asked him. Dad shook his head,” Only one. We went to her house on Saturdays and when I was twelve, usually my mind was on the baseball games I missed playing in on account of those visits.” 

My dad perked up. “She told me about the time four men rode onto her land and pulled a gun on her. ‘It happened fast,’ Grandma said. ‘Shootin’ began, one guy shot the heads of two of my chickens. Never saw a better shot in my life. Them fellers weren’t interested in me. They wanted me to cook them a chicken dinner,’ Grandma explained. 

I chuckled and looked at the photograph again. She was short, brown and sturdy, with boot moccasins on her feet. And from what I've heard, she was an excellent shot too. 

“Grandma told me she cooked a real fine meal,” Dad said. “Then she let out a hardy roar and put her nose right up to mine and said, “Bobby, it was Frank and Jesse James.” 

Then my dad’s face grew serious and he said, "Grandma gave birth to eleven babies. The first died at four months, the second at age eight. It went on like that for years—grandma giving birth and grandpa making babyboards, digging holes and lowering those dead babies into the ground. It was a time of measles and smallpox epidemics.” 

My mind glimpsed my great-grandma. I felt a distant memory pulling me back, and I could hear her wailing like wind coming up—crying and swaying. I thought about how her cries probably drifted into the cabins of nearby white settlers, and I wondered if they knew the high, shrill sounds pressing against the night came from an American Indian mother mourning her dead baby. 

And I thought about my own son, diagnosed with a brain tumor at age seven, but growing well and strong again following radiation and chemo, and then dying at age fifteen when the cancer recurred. 

As we walked back, with the lights of the cabin glowing from the dark mist of trees, I felt the boundary of time fall away, as if my great-great-grandma and I had lived side by side.

“Well, six of Grandma’s children somehow managed to survive to adulthood.” I added. 

Dad nodded. “The family slept on deer hides, Grandma shelled corn, ground it into meal and picked dandelions for their greens.” 

I let my heart drift all the way back to great grandma and I felt her spirit and imagination become my own. 

“Do you suppose Grandma really cooked chickens for the James brothers?” I asked. 

Dad stared at me with wide brown eyes brimming with question marks. 

“It’s hard to say,” he answered. "Maybe what she knew was how to get a twelve-year-old boy to listen.”