Gramma…

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c. Starfire McQuinn, 2017

This week, I am drawing a portrait of my Gramma, so I thought I’d add to it a little bit about her.

Gramma Janie Belle “Beautiful Beardancer”. She was not what she seemed. On the outside, all prim, proper and white as the clouds in the sky. Inside, she was as red as the iron rich soil beneath the Red River. In the community, she was a pillar of all that was considered to be virtuous. She was well-respected in her church. A leader in her many women’s groups. All that was perfect.

At home, it was another story. At home, behind the doors and walls, she was a cruel master. She was prone to strong drink. She physically abused her offspring and her spouse who were afraid to stand up to her. That was years before I came along.

I took over her care when I was all of 7 years old. I was the one responsible for all her needs. By that time, she was old, really old. She rarely if ever spoke English. Her abusive nature was tempered by age and senility. In her mind, we were still at war with the Germans. Her fingers tapped out a constant stream of morse code on the arm of her chair. Orders from one military branch to the other, broken only by shouts in old German. She’d been a translator back in the day, working at a local air base. She’d received the message that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and sent her daughter, my Gran, with it to the General’s office. Now, though, she was a crippled and demented old woman.

I woke her up every morning. I bathed and dressed her, sat her in her rocker and then made breakfast for the family. Mom and Dad still not home from their night of carousing, Granpa still abed. Gramma was up like a storm at the crack of dawn. Uttering prayers to the sun and the four directions. Slapping me silly when I stumbled with the words.

She may have been demented, but she was still sharp. Just let an ankle show beneath your skirts and wrath would ensue. Given her condition, it was easy to step out of her reach. She demanded traditions, not just the ones of the ‘white’ society in which we lived, but of our own people, the Shawnee. A woman was to be strong, and a warrior. It was her duty to protect her family. She would say everyday that it wasn’t what you were in public, it was what was in your heart. Her demanding perfection in tradition and honor in life shaped my early years in ways that my parent’s alcoholism and drug abuse could not.

It was what it was that made it what it is.

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