Looking for a Story to Tell

The Navajo path to my Jewish past

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The Navajos are a deeply religious people. They do not set aside Saturdays or Sundays to tend to spiritual matters, but attend to them full time. Their relation to the gods is so fundamental that they have no word for “religion.” Signs of the divine are perceived in illness, in lightning strikes, in the waxing and waning of springs. Gods are not abstract ideas—they are presences. When Bessie, the mother of my Navajo friend Ella Bidonie, picks a plant to make a dye for her wool, she offers a prayer back to Mother Earth in thanks. Bessie believes that at the spots around her home where she makes these offerings, the gods hear her and come to know her. The Navajos have a personal conception of humans’ role in the cosmos. The religious historian Mircea Eliade has put it this way in The Sacred and the Profane:

Non-religious people feel uneasy hearing talk of sacred objects and moments, as I did when I first arrived in the Southwest. Such talk was thoroughly alien to the scientific, rational world where I was reared and educated, and where I thought I worked. But I was curious: How might it feel to believe the world “means something” or to be known by one’s gods?

This curiosity was one reason that I was standing in Ella’s house, that I had been drawn back to the reservation in 1985 to write a book after completing an article about a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes for Newsweek magazine. I had sensed the presence of the divine among these people, though it was still inchoate. And I sensed that this presence changed everything: our relations with each other and with ourselves.

Certain moments lodged in my memory. When I saw Bessie rise one morning, slip her hand into a cotton sack of corn meal, and step outside into the icy dawn to offer a blessing to the rising sun, upon which—as if on Phoebus Apollo’s chariot—she believed the gods rode each morning to survey creation, I observed a gravity and absorption in her face that consumed me for weeks. I noticed the same reverence about Ella when she spoke of her parents’ childhood teachings about weaving and planting. At those times, Ella’s voice would invariably lower and her eyes would change, as if she were no longer looking out, but rather looking inside herself. These moments produced a memorable, rich stillness.

It never occurred to me that I could find that reverence in my own tradition. I hardly knew what that tradition was. I didn’t think these experiences were something I could have or seek on my own.

After my book, The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, was published in 1993, Ella asked me if I would come back to write another book, this one about her father’s life. She wanted a record of the old ways, so her grandchildren, who would not grow up on the reservation, could learn about their great-grandparents. I agreed. The new book, Beyond the Four Corners of the World, evolved into a story of Ella’s own life, beginning with her childhood in the ancient world of planting, sheep herding, and religious observance, following her to government boarding school and then to a college education and the white world. The story of her difficult journey into modernity was intertwined with the narratives of her mother and father and grandparents, the echoes of her past, the North Stars of her life. I understood how loud were those echoes, how steadfast the guiding stars.

I wrote the book because she had asked me to—not an everyday occurrence for a white writer. But later, I came to understand that the writing had a much deeper significance for me. I realized that by making a compendium of her stories, I was creating a reliquary of sorts—a reliquary of stories handed down from mother to daughters—as a substitute for the collection I did not have. What were the stories of my own mother and grandmother? I hadn’t heard them. I lived in a family devoid of women’s stories. If I had a past or a tradition, I didn't know it.

Perhaps my predecessors’ decision not to pass down their memories was an understandable reaction to the poverty and persecution they had suffered as Jews in Eastern Europe. Perhaps they wanted so desperately to fit in, to be American, that they left behind the unhappy stories of their pasts without second thoughts. There were of course stories of the new world—children sent to elite colleges, advanced degrees won, businesses started, children born. America offered a new start that they were happy to embrace.

Ella’s forebears had also faced relocations, killings, and deprivations, yet they clung vigorously to their tradition. Her ancestors, however, did not leave one world for another, their world, their past, was stolen right from under them. They have every interest in preserving memories of that time, because they have not yet found their destinies in its replacement. Ella understood how much her forebears’ stories informed her own, and she knew the poverty she would feel without them.

But I venture to suggest that we have the same need. Who are we without the stories of those who came before? We need to hear their voices before we can hear our own. Only through others can we see ourselves. The Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin put it this way:

I was writing Ella’s stories because I could not write my own. I could not write my own because I did not know who came before me. Writing Ella’s stories led me, after a time, to search them out.

I was looking for a story to tell.

I had been asked, as had the other six grandchildren, to offer memories of my grandmother at her funeral.

But hard as I thought, as many images of my grandmother as I could conjure, I couldn’t find a story—neither one that she had told me, nor a story about her—something with a beginning, a middle, an end.

I could see her vividly: presiding over the table during holiday dinners, carrying out her raspberry chiffon pies in their silver pie plates and carefully setting them down on the table with a little gasp of effort. I thought of the miniature swans at each place that she filled with almonds she had roasted in butter and sprinkled with coarse salt. I thought of her white, wavy hair, which was fine and shiny and thick, and of her hands, which were delicate.

Though plenty of vivid images came to mind, none would cohere into a story. I remembered her driving me to horseback-riding lessons and scaring me to death with her speed and bad peripheral vision. I remembered once going with her to Schraft’s for a lime rickey. But no stories. There were duties fulfilled, people cared for. There was accomplishment: My grandmother graduated from Wellesley College—as did my mother, who was Phi Beta Kappa—and went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Harvard. There were the children brought up, sent off to fine colleges themselves.

But where were the stories of loves, of dreams, of ambitions? How did these women understand their lives? How did they understand their places in history, in their social class, or even in their families? This was not an issue, for me, of mere curiosity.

One of my younger cousins is also a writer. Before the funeral, I asked her if she had a story about our grandmother. She confessed that she was also having trouble finding one. We talked for a while about our predicament. No stories. No plot.

“Have you ever thought about what plot is?” I asked her.

She looked at me with interest.

“A friend once told me: ‘Plot is desire.’”

My cousin's eyes grew wide. I quoted Hegel, who wrote that desire is the wish to be completely known to another. I said that I believed the only way for some of us to satisfy that deep wish to be known is to find a way to tell the story of our lives. I venture to say that writing the story of our lives—in whatever fashion that may be, from creating photo albums to sewing quilts to running a restaurant to writing music or stories—is a central human imperative.

I also struggle with plot because at a deep, almost preconscious level, I lack the sound of the stories of the women who preceded me. It is as if I have inherited their despair of not ever being known, not ever being really listened to and understood. Although I have had more adventures than I can record, I have yet to find a voice for them. As a writer of nonfiction, I write other people’s stories.

None of the other grandchildren came up with a story, only fragments, memories, thanks. Back at her house after the funeral, I looked carefully at my grandmother’s wedding portrait, which my mother had dug out of a box and displayed in the dining room. There was a whisper there of hopeful virtue, but no happiness. She held a bouquet of white lilies. I realized with a start that white lilies had also adorned her casket, and I asked my mother who had chosen the flowers. She said the funeral home had chosen them. On what information did they base their choice? I asked her. “I suppose they chose lilies because they had the impression she was an elegant person,” my mother said, and walked away. But how would they know that? I wondered. They had had no information about her life. They chose lilies, I am convinced, because all they knew was her name: Lillian. We had left the story to be written by strangers.

My cousin rejoined me, and as we studied the wedding photograph she told me of visiting my grandmother in the nursing home, where she had lain mute and partially paralyzed after a stroke for several months before she died.

“Her nightgown fell away once, and I saw her scar,” my cousin said. “And it was horrible.”

Sarah was referring to the mastectomy that my grandmother had had in her 20s, an event that neither she nor anyone else in our family ever talked about. Later that day, my grandmother’s sister confessed to my mother that there were billboards up all around Boston that year urging women to examine themselves, the result (or cause) of a breast cancer scare. Aunt Esther suspected her sister’s surgery may have been unwarranted. “A second opinion was never sought,” she said.

Now, all of a sudden, other bits of the story came my way. My grandmother never much liked my grandfather, but her parents told her he was a good catch. He was a Harvard Law School graduate and his own father had graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1895, quite an accomplishment for poor Jewish immigrants. My grandmother’s family was not as well-educated, but they were wealthier and more materialistic. Her father had begun as a peddler, moved on to collect rags and build a paper mill. At one point he had been a millionaire.

Then my mother told me that after a year of marriage, my grandmother, with her baby, my mother, in her arms, left my grandfather and went back home. But her parents told her she couldn’t stay. My mother said, “They told her she was damaged goods, and that she was lucky to have a husband at all. They told her she had no choice but to go back.”

And so she did, climbing the steps of the old subway cars, riding past the areas of town where before her marriage she had worked happily as a social worker. Something died in her then. She shut herself down. Because no one would listen, she would not be known, even to herself. Her desires were pushed away, thereby robbing her life of shape and movement. She busied herself with women’s work: cooking and sewing and entertaining. And she became increasingly distracted. My mother once bitterly referred to her as “autistic.” Her children suffered from her distraction. Denied the concentrated attention they needed, they grew up with terrible furies, angers that could never be soothed.

My mother and I spent two days after the funeral going through my grandmother’s house, looking into closets and drawers. We found the silver pie plates with leaves and grapes around the handles, the miniature swans, her wicker sewing basket. Then there were boxes of recipes in my grandmother’s hand and also some in her mother’s. Stuffed in every closet and cupboard were things both important and inconsequential: wrapping paper, old photos, Woman’s Day magazines, letters, receipts, travel brochures, recipes for her babies’ infant formulas.

As I went through the boxes, I wondered what could have driven her to save all this? Did my grandmother have the vague, preconscious wish that one day, someone would take the pieces of her life and make them into a story?

I thought of this as I stood on top of a chair, peering into the highest kitchen cabinets. Tucked into a corner behind half a dozen old double boilers was a delicate glass bowl. It was covered with dust and grime. I washed it. When it dried, it sparkled in the sun, and I saw it was in fact a luminous Venetian glass dessert bowl with lilac handles and a lilac font, and a knob on top in the shape of a rose. It was a sauce dish, with a hole cut for a spoon.

But where was the spoon? It must have broken or become lost. Instead of throwing the dish away—this flawed beautiful object—my grandmother hid it out of sight, the same way she had hidden herself. The dish is the one thing I brought home from her house. It stands next to me on my desk now, holding a piece of her story and, I’m beginning to think, a piece of my own as well.