Piece of Poetry: “To Her Grandmother”

My Mamma's Mother: Mary Wilson Sarabia, T'akDeinTaan (black-legged Kittywake) Clan from Hoonah, Alaska (circa 1920's)

In 1988, while living in Santa Fe, I attended the Institute of American Indian Arts and took a Creative Writing class from professor/poet Arthur Zhe.  After submitting a few short poems, he asked if I could write a longer one – of course, I replied.  When I got home, I set the stage.  It was a stormy night with thunder and lightning blasting about the wind.  The kids and man were asleep.  Between 10pm and 3am was my usual time all to myself, and I was enjoying the storm.  I lit candles and curled up on the couch wrapped in woolens and a spiral-bound notebook.  The curtains were open and I could hear the bushes slap against the window glistening with wet, shocks of light in this exciting night.  I’m not sure why the image  of my Grandmother Mary came to mind, but I began to write without much thought – like the pen led the way into a page of timelessness.

This poem was written as if my grandmother were to come back to a life-long dream of a home and lifestyle I have wanted since my first child was born (now almost 34 years ago);; the dream was to build a hand-built, custom-designed home, with a flourishing flower and vegetable garden, including fruit trees, living a subsistence life-style embellished with the making of traditional and contemporary art.  (Cannot say I’ve lived that life – just yet!).    My grandmother passed away 12 years prior to the writing of this poem.  I wondered what  she would see if this dream were an actual reality.   Also, while writing this poem, I imagined another clan relative narrating this perspective, telling my Grandmother about me as her elderly footsteps walked silently about my home and life:

“Say you were to come back knocking at her Painted Door, a clan design you know as T’akDeinTaan

She would welcome you in to her large, dark one-room lodge  lit by a couple of kerosene wall lamps from L.L. Bean

where at first you did not notice the smoke from the fire in the center of the room trailing up to the smoke hole above

where White Raven tried to fly out but became blackened forever

And you did not notice the carved alder wood mask smiling with one gold tooth  flickering by candlelight propped next to the cedar bark basket

on that driftwood shelf to your right and in its shadow below, the carved bentwood boxes that held our clan’s button dance blankets,

each made of wool bought from House of Fabrics with 2,115 mother-of-pearl buttons from Winona’s and 649 turquoise beads

bargained from the stateside Indians who sat in the sun she hardly ever got

and what about the sealskin boots parked near your feet and the sealskin coat embellished with brass beads, feathers and leather fringe

and the sealskin and wolf-fur hat and matching mittens hanging right up next to you on brass hooks screwed in to the cedar-planked wall –

Mind you, did yid you smell cedar when you walked in, for how could you miss it with every plank and beam she’s made of

And did you not see the soapstone puffin bird carved by your great-grandson when he was nine,

and the small bentwood box that used to be yours stuffed with glass beads for the beading loom projects of your great-granddaughter?

How about the Chilkat dance blanket hanging on the loom over there in the corner, away from the mud, ashes and crumbs;

the only weaving in the where you can weave the perfect circle, therefore perfect for our style of design,

and she learned it from Jennie, last of the traditional weavers two months before she died, and they say it takes a year to weave a robe,

but how would you know; you didn’t know how to weave, or did you?

Through clan inheritance only a select few knew then when you were alive, and it was almost a dying art they say,

except the ones outside of tribal boundaries who quickly learned what they could, weaving together bits of the dangling knowledge

and she was one to help weave pieces of the heritage back so she could earn prestige, recognition and thirty thousand dollars a robe,

so she can buy pretty clothes, new shoes, new dishes, towels, computer, stereo, sewing machine, lawn mower, food processor, pasta machine;

so she could buy a piece of land where her ancestors once fished, to build her cedar home, and buy a brand new Toyota truck

to haul all of her new possessions and firewood in, and bury a septic tank for a flushing commode and install a generator for the color T.V.

and CD player sitting on the oak cabinet beside the stack of American Indian art books and magazines surrounded by masks, looms, boxes,

skins, beads and stones; surrounded by what she strives to make as art, what the art can sell for, what the money she makes from selling

the art can buy, what the buying of anything she desires she has discovered has eventually sold pieces of her soul, where the selling of her soul

has left but a faint light in her life.

Say you were to come back

Knocking at her painted door

You would not even notice the dim world behind her

Full of smokey objects casting shadows

Drifting upwards through a blackened hole;

you would look into her eyes only

and know that the faint light had held on

For you

And the next time you were ready

You would take her with you

When you went.”