For my birthday last April my mom gave me a little teapot and some tea. I use it all the time now. When she gave it to me, the box was wrapped with a ribbon and there was a rosary attached to it as well. This rosary was my father's. One of his "prized possessions," she told me. I was amazed, as I had never even seen it before.
The rosary was a gift from his grandmother Margaret Berger La Tray, who lived in Lewistown, Montana. She made the rosary for him. In our box of family photos there is a letter my dad sent her when he was ten or eleven, with a drawing of a farm. I remember being fascinated with this growing up; I still am. My dad never talked about his childhood, so these keepsakes are part of the life of a person I never knew anything about.
Mom tells me that my dad was a favorite of his Grandma Margaret's. The importance of their relationship to him is reflected in the password she tells me Dad frequently used on the internet: “Yendis.”
“That was the name your great grandmother called your dad,” Mom says. “Which is just his name spelled backwards. He used it all the time.”
I never met my Great Grandmother Margaret, but my mom did. My dad took her to Lewistown for a visit in the years before I was born. They were there during Halloween. My great grandmother was terrified of the trick or treaters, so she asked my folks to take her over to her sister’s house. As they were driving, Mom tells me that my dad leaned over and told her, “Now keep an eye on your wallet, we're about to enter the tribe.”
“It was something like that, I'm paraphrasing,” Mom says. “And it was the tribe! They were all Indians, his whole family, which was a surprise because I had never been around his relatives at all."
At the end of the visit, as my folks were leaving my great grandmother was standing on the porch, waving and crying. Mom tells me that Dad told her it was sad because he thought he might never see her again. And he didn’t. A couple months later she went into the hospital for a routine surgery. During the operation, the doctor accidentally nicked another of her organs, which became infected and killed her.
“She was just the sweetest, sweetest lady,” Mom says. “She was this little Indian woman, so sweet, and very close to her sister, chatting away in whatever language they spoke.”
My dad didn't speak that language, which was likely Ojibwe. Or if he did he never uttered it in my presence. Dad denied his Indian heritage entirely. That little quip about the wallet provides a brief glimpse into what he thought of his family, few of whom I ever met. Exploring this relationship is one of the main themes of my book, and I'd be lying if I said that at times it isn't a very difficult subject to investigate. Far more difficult than I thought it would be, especially given my pride for who we are as ancestors of that historic Métis community that founded Lewistown.
Of course I would be thinking of this story tonight, tomorrow being Halloween and all, fifty-odd years after the visit my Mom made to Lewistown with her new husband. It is also important because today is the 6th anniversary of my father's death. It feels much closer than that, largely because working on this book has had me thinking more about his life than I probably ever have before, and wishing he was here to ask questions, to spend time with. To laugh with, to be irritated by.
I ponder his rosary, which hangs on the wall in front of me now, and reflect on learning that my dad's Catholic upbringing was more important to him than I ever knew. The entire side of his family was deeply Catholic. I suppose I am Catholic too, given that is how I was baptized, though I've never for a moment considered myself such nor will I ever. I'm too much the tree hugging dirt worshipper for that. But it is more fascinating to me than it ever has been, if only to understand why so many people continue to cling to it.
This is a time of year that I always struggle with. Three days after my dad's passing we lost one of our pets to a tumor. A couple years later on that same date, November 2nd, Día de Muertos, I learned of the passing of one of my closest friends. So yes, it is a difficult time, compounded all the more by what has been a particularly difficult year for the entire world. A global pandemic will do that to people. As will fascism, willful ignorance, and the seeming utter lack of compassion from the hearts of our neighbors. Things are coming at us from all directions and it is difficult to keep our emotional heads on reasonably straight. When it comes down to it, life can seem little more than a bitter struggle, one of unrelenting labor and toil. Yet I don't think any of us want it to be like this, so we hang our hopes on a vaccine, an election, a few more warm days. I think we need to take a more conscious, hands-on approach than that.
Keeping to the Catholic theme of this particular reflection, I am going to mention the book St. Francis of Assisi: His Life, Teachings, and Practice by Jon M. Sweeney. In one passage, Sweeney is writing of Francis's teaching being "about acquiring new ways of looking at life that lead to changes in how one lives." He continues:
Is the purpose of life simply survival? It isn't, says Francis, and of course on this and every point Francis is repeating or reframing the Gospel. Life is not for survival; it is for joy. There is a way of living that is freer, fresher, and more satisfying than focusing on simply how to get through the day.
If that doesn't sum up my life most days lately it is that: living as an effort to just get through the day. It's probably familiar to most of us. It was certainly familiar to my dad, though he never would have admitted it. I think by the end of his life moments of joy came fewer and farther between.
So I've taken to compiling a list of the things that bring me joy, and try and make sure I make the time to attend to them. Walks outside. Occasional vigorous exercise. Sitting somewhere alone and simply thinking about stuff. Making effort to be kind to people for no reason than kindness. Looking at the stars and planets and the moon. Expressing love and gratitude to the people who deserve it. Reading just for the love of reading. Observing. Petting my dogs. Afternoon tea out of the pot Mom gifted me for my birthday, sipped from the coffee mug my dad brought home from the navy. And watching movies! Even though I can't go to a theater I can still put on headphones and watch something on my computer if that is what it takes. It is not my preferred way and it doesn't come with a gigantic bucket of heart-arresting movie theater popcorn but it is the way available to me.
Joy lives in what is, not what isn't.
I know this all borders on sounding white lighty and the whiffs of Catholicism might make some people cringe but I don't mean for it to. I've got to befriend this stuff because the work I'm embroiled in is thick with it and I can’t afford to waddle around full of hate all the time. The point I am trying to make is in the midst of all this hardship, every single one of us needs to figure out how to find joy in the world we are in, not waste away yearning for the world it is not. Because this one is here now and ready to squash all of us if we aren’t vigilant, and the next one is going to make us bloody getting to. So let's make the best of this one. And keep fighting for the next. Imagine how great then it will be when things finally get better!
Meanwhile, tell me about your world. Tell me about your joy. I can use the inspiration.