Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Grandma Mae, and Gallon Jars

I stepped out into the pre dawn for my morning jog, and noticed the stars shining in the inky sky like Elvis on stage. As I began my journey, Grover, the yellow lab at Cow Canyon Trading Post, began to bark. Grover and I have maintained a long term, clandestine relationship. As I run by the Cow Canyon he barks and ambles out to the road. He has to amble because he has had far too many leftovers. I have also had a few too many leftovers, so we are two of a kind. When he reaches the road, I scratch him behind the ears and he stumbles back to the porch, apparently fully satisfied. Grover and I have to keep our relationship under wraps because his owner and I don't always see eye to eye.

My runs typically take me past the Jones farm to the old Episcopal mission and back. The route is not long, so I typically arrive back home about sun up. On this particular morning, Mother Nature was calling as I rounded the curve to the Twin Rocks. I ducked into the cafe to let her know I was listening, and noticed a one gallon jar perched on the counter by the cash register. I hurried back out of the cafe and up to the house to help get the kids out of bed and off to school.

When I walked into the trading post after taking Kira to school, Natalie said, "Grandma Mae died this weekend." That explained the one gallon jar. Jars such as this appear from time to time at various locations around town. They are generally of the institutional mayonnaise variety (glass with a screw on lid), and arrive after one of the older Navajo people has died. In the not too distant past, when a Navajo individual died he was wrapped in a blanket with some of his prized possessions and placed in a cleft in the cliffs or behind a large rock that would shelter the body. Contemporary standards will not allow the deceased to be placed in the arms of Mother Earth in the same fashion. The expense of a modern day burial is more than many families can bear, so the extended family and the community is encouraged to contribute - thus, the gallon jars with one long slit in the lid for financial contributions. Although subconsciously I knew the meaning of that jar, I just wasn't focusing on it at the time and didn't want to know who had died.

When I went back to the cafe later that morning to look at the jar, there was Mae looking out from the picture that had been pasted on its side. She looked just as she had a few months earlier when I stopped by to say hello. She was sitting in a booth at the cafe, which is next to the trading post, engaged in eating her hamburger and french fries; as pleasant as usual. Barry and I first met Mae during the summer of 1976 or 1977. We were just out of high school and running a small trading post around the corner from the current Twin Rocks. Duke decided that it was a good idea to have a Navajo rug weaver sit on the porch and weave. The thought was that the weaver would attract more people to the trading post. Mae fit the bill, so she brought her loom and began weaving. She received $5.00 dollars an hour, $1.00 per photograph and whatever her rug brought when it was finished. We generally had a right of first refusal when the rug was done, so if Barry, Mae and I couldn't make a deal, or if a visitor offered a better price, Mae was free to sell the rug elsewhere. Barry and I never purchased one of her rugs; the tourists always got to her first.

Mae didn't speak English, and our Navajo has never progressed past the trading post variety. So, our conversations were not long or detailed. She was always gentle, friendly and happy and we always enjoyed her. For us, Mae's death is just one more example of the passing of an era, and the changes that are quickly coming to the Navajo Reservation. Over the years we have seen Sam Benally, Espee Jones, John Joe Begay, Wooey Boy's Son, Bessy Blue Eyes and many more of the old ones pass on. John Joe Begay, who died last year at the age of 107, was thought to be the oldest living human. Since John was born at home in an age when documentation was not important, his age could not be substantiated and we never knew for sure.

Bluff, which is just two miles north of the northern boarder of the Navajo Reservation is in essence a cultural cross roads. In Bluff, the traditional Navajo culture meshes with the contemporary Navajo and anglo cultures. A large percentage of the older people still maintain the traditional lifestyle. These old ones continue to herd sheep, visit medicine men when they are ill, maintain hogans, speak only Navajo and wear the style of dress brought to the Reservation by the early traders. These people represent a time when the Navajos wore their wealth on their person. The women and men were bathed in beautiful turquoise and silver, and shone like those early morning stars. Much of the jewelry is gone, but the beauty of the people is still readily apparent. Mae will be missed, as will her traditional culture when it is gone.

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