Carrying echoes of Amy Tan and Rebecca Wells, Ghost Country takes the reader into the lives of three Cherokee women and the lives of their modern day daughters. Told in a series of vignettes that alternate from the era of the Civil Rights Movement, Woodstock, and the Vietnam War, to the present day. Each story carries the reader through a world where a birthday wish can make people disappear; where a child, after being told that she is nothing, can find her way back to the forgotten Cherokee traditions; and where a woman can give her daughter a treasured bit of advice thanks to a dead rock star.
My aunts have asked me to accompany them to my grandmother’s house. They want my help to sort through her things now that she has gone on to Tsusgina’i, the ghost country. It is the final duty of a daughter and I was to represent my mother, who was too busy with her artsy friends to deal with the obligation.
My mother commonly had this reaction to death. If we were in nearby Corydon, she would cross the street rather than walk past the front of the funeral parlor. I didn’t pretend to understand this, since it was my aunt Autumn that lost a husband, but then again, my mother had mourned a dead rock star for most of her life. Needless to say, she had some strange ideas about death.
When my Aunt Ama called with the news of my grandmother’s death, my mother came down with a full schedule and volunteered me to act in her place. When Ama told me, I wasn’t surprised by my mother’s reaction, but I was shocked that my grandmother died. I always thought that the devil himself would have to hit my grandmother over the head himself to get her in the ground.
“How did she die?” I asked.
“What do you mean ‘how did she die’?” Aunt Ama barked. “She was seventy-six years old. She just woke up dead, that’s all.”
I did not ask how a person could wake up if she was dead. I understood what she meant, that my grandmother was old, had lived her life, and now she was dead. It was as simple as that, but in our family, it was never that simple.
My grandmother started and honored the traditions in our family. Some of these were handed down from her Cherokee parents, others I was pretty sure she made up as she went along. For example: The name thing, what was that about? All of the names in our family were special, be it the seasons in which we were born (my mother and her sisters claimed that right), the Cherokee name for the month that we were born in such as my cousin Anayilisv, something in nature such as I, or to honor the dead as in my cousin Joe’s case.
My grandmother told us the story of her own name Selu, which meant corn in the Cherokee language. It was something about a woman that could make corn come out of her body and her sons that buried her body wrong when she died; I never really paid close enough attention because I could not ever get the facts straight.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” she would say to my cousins and me. “Always listen to your mothers.”
I do not know about my cousins, but I never took that lesson from her story. What I remembered was the corn coming from the woman’s body, but even that trivial fact somehow got mixed up in my six-year-old mind. I would go into her kitchen in the early summer and see fresh cornhusks in the garbage can. My imagination took flight and I would be pulling at my mother’s hand and announcing that my grandmother had pooped in the garbage can again.
Everyone would laugh when I said this, thinking it was my childish attempt at a joke. I never could understand why they were laughing, no one bothered to explain. It seemed that I never understood anything, that even now I was still seeing the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child. Now, after learning of my grandmother’s death, I was trying to remember the story about the corn woman and just what it was that the sons did wrong when they buried her so that we would not make the same mistake.
* * *
My grandmother’s house was just outside of Lanesville, Indiana. It was a small white bungalow surrounded by three acres that had not been tended in more than thirty years and kept the house lost in a sea of green grass. When I arrived, the first person that I saw was my Aunt Ama. “I was starting to think that you had forgotten us.” She complained. “What took you so long?”
Aunt Autumn stood up, I had not seen her sitting on the porch swing, and nodded as she shook her finger at me. “We were starting to worry.”
I did not say anything. What could I say? Do I tell them the truth? Do I tell them that I sat in my apartment and tried to think of a plausible excuse not to come? My mother would have told them just that, but I was not my mother.
Aunt Ama unlocked the door and motioned us inside, waving her hand as if trying to fan the outside air into the old house. Once inside, I understood. The house held the scent of the food cooked over the years such as greasy venison and sweet grape dumplings, of Christmases long gone when the rooms were decorated with pine boughs and sweet pears, talc from my grandmother’s twice-daily showers, and of ammonia where she mopped the kitchen floor twice each and every day. A lifetime of scents trapped in rooms too small to hold them.
I looked around the living room, expecting things to be different, but nothing changed from my last visit. Along the walls was the same old furniture, nubby and black, looking just as ragged as it must have been long ago when my grandfather brought it home from a yard sale. My mother used to shake her head at this every time that we entered the house and would declare loudly: “Your grandmother never owned anything new in her life until my father left, don’t let that happen to you.”
Being only a child, I dared to ask her once what was so wrong with that furniture. She snorted, “Every time I sit down, I think of some stranger farting on that same cushion.”
That thought stuck with me over the years. Each time that we visited my grandmother, I would look at that couch and picture an overweight man in his boxer shorts passing gas while drinking a beer. It got to where I could almost smell it.
Back when she first corrupted me with this idea, we lived with my grandmother, later we visited her every Sunday. The aunts would be there with my cousins and we would all have lunch together as a family.
My mother and her sisters would stay in the kitchen with my grandmother. My cousins and I would pretend to go off and play, but then we would sneak back to listen at the door. We heard stories of things that took place before we were born, people we never met, and things never meant for our ears. I think we all learned about sex by listening to our mothers’ giggling conversations through that kitchen door.
“Your mom is so cool,” my cousin Ana whispered after overhearing my mother talk about her escapades at a place called Woodstock. “I wish my mom was more like her.”
Ana’s mother was my Aunt Ama and I used to think that Ama was the most beautiful, even more so than my own mother was, because Aunt Ama kept her black hair in two long braids and always dressed in rich shades of turquoise. She was by far the most Cherokee of all of us and proud of it even though my mother often teased her and called her Pocahontas behind her back.
“Your aunt wouldn’t know a good time if it hit her in the ass with a tomahawk,” my mother would whisper, often loud enough for Ama to hear. “What Pocahontas needs is a big chief in her teepee.”
If Ama was the most beautiful, Aunt Autumn was the most tragic. No matter what she wore, she gave everyone the impression that she was in a perpetual state of mourning. Her life was like the script to an old movie, something sad and in black and white. She married her childhood sweetheart and when he died in Vietnam, she never got over it. She had to raise my cousin Joe all alone. It was the saddest thing that had ever happened in our family.
“She’s going to die of a broken heart,” my grandmother used to say about Aunt Autumn. “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Then there was my mother. She was not the most beautiful, in her face were too sharply blended the angular traits of her Cherokee mother and the fluid features of her German American father. She was full of contradictions, my mother was, and seemed to change her convictions as often as she changed her clothes. She could be the most annoying person in the world, preaching about animal cruelty, but when you asked her about her new leather purse she would smile and say that it was from the Big Mac that she ate for lunch. She took up all of the space in a room with the enormity of her personality; you couldn’t be near her without feeling pushed out of the way.
I followed my aunts to the back of the house and into the kitchen. I was stunned to see them opening cabinets and taking down cans of soup and boxes of crackers. “What are you doing?”
“First we will have lunch,” Aunt Ama explained. “Then we will take care of things.”
Now the idea of cooking and eating in a dead woman’s kitchen did not appeal to me at all, regardless of the fact that the dead woman was my grandmother that I had seen almost every day of my life. “Why don’t we just go out to eat then?”
“And waste all of this food?” Aunt Autumn chimed in while pouring the soup into a pan. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
If there was any one principle that all of us inherited from our ancestors, it was the idea of never taking more of anything that we could use, waste was the unforgivable sin. Long conversations would take place regarding what to do with a scrap of fabric or the remnant of carpet left over when Aunt Autumn had her bedroom carpet replaced. I still remember the guilty pleasure I experienced the first night in my own apartment when I threw an empty jar of mayonnaise away. The family motto, if there was one, had to be “Waste not, want not”. My mother even adhered to this strange idea, although she did warp it from time to time to suit her mood.
Because of this ideal, our feast that day was a potluck of items from the cabinets that would soon go stale and products from the refrigerator that were nearing the expiration date. Eating in our family was not a formal affair, or even a gracious one. By the meal’s end, Aunt Ama was eating chocolate chip ice cream straight from the carton with one of my grandmother’s serving spoons.
“Rose, make us all some coffee.” She ordered with a wave of her spoon, “We will have some while we work.”
I did as I was told. Even though I was there in my mother’s place and she was the middle child, I was still the youngest in the kitchen that day and I was brought up to serve my elders. I took the mugs from the cabinet, avoiding the chipped white cup in the corner. No one had to remind me which one was my grandmother’s cup; I looked at that mug and knew that it only belonged in her crooked fingers.
“Cream and sugar?” I asked the aunts, blinking back the tears. It never crossed my mind before then that I would never see my grandmother’s leathered hands again holding that cup. How long before I even forgot what they looked like?
I poured the coffee as the aunts washed the dishes in the sink. After drying the dishes, they divided and then packed them away in three boxes bearing each of their names. They stuffed the garbage from our feast into a trash bag and set it by the door. They walked then back into the living room with me following behind, struggling with the three mugs. They ignored the sofa and instead sat cross-legged on the worn carpet.
Aunt Ama took one of the cups from me, “We might as well get started. Go and fetch Momma’s trunk from her room.”
It was as if she asked me to go right into my grandmother’s tomb. That is the only way that I could describe the way that I felt. After all, she died in that very room. “Oh, I don’t think I should. I mean it’s not my place.”
“Of course it’s your place,” Aunt Autumn whispered and patted my hand. “That’s why we’re here.”
“I just wouldn’t feel right going through her things.” I explained, hoping that Autumn would rescue me.
“Nonsense, would you rather a stranger do it?” Aunt Ama asked. “Some person that Momma never met pawing through her things like some dime store sale?”
How could I argue with such reasoning? I couldn’t, so again I did as I was told. I wished then that my mother wasn’t so crazy when it came to these things. Even though all of this was giving me the creeps too and I was wishing I had some artsy friends to disappear with.
The halls of my grandmother’s house are very narrow and dark, cooler than the rest of the house. My cousin Joe and I used to sit at the end of the hall during the summer and talk of boys, school, and the insanity of our mothers. That seemed a thousand years ago as I turned and walked into the bedroom. My grandmother’s chest sat at the foot of her bed. The mattress had been stripped, but her slippers were still beside the bed. It was odd to see those empty house shoes there, waiting for feet that would never come.
I took the chest, which was less heavy than I expected, back out to the living room and sat it down on the floor between my aunts. They both just looked at the wooden box, each solemn and quiet
“Are you two okay with this?” I asked. “We don’t have to do this today.”
“Sit.” Aunt Ama ordered without looking up.
I took my place beside them, expecting that one or the other of them would open the chest right away, but they did not. Both of them sat there, the chest before them, drinking their coffee. I was confused, sitting there listening to the two of them sipping and slurping their coffee. “Is this some sort of ceremony?”
“No.” Aunt Ama replied, not taking her eyes from the box. “I just want to drink my coffee before it gets cold.”
Taking sips of my own coffee, I wait, glancing at each of them from time to time. Aunt Autumn met my eyes and smiled in her own tragic way, “It is good to see you again Rose. It seems that I never get to see any of our girls anymore.”
That was how they had always referred to my cousins and me, as if we belonged to each and every one of them. I also suspected that this was her way of asking about her own daughter, Joe, I couldn’t remember if they were bickering or not. It happened so often, I never could keep up. I knew Autumn saw Ana a couple times a week so she wouldn’t be referring to her, which only left me and Joe.
“We are all very busy.” I answered diplomatically. “We all wish that we could find the time to see each of you more often.”
Aunt Ama snorted and I lowered my eyes. I was in dangerous territory. I spoke to each of their daughters on the telephone a couple of times a day. At that moment, I probably knew more about their daughters than they did and I did not want to give away any secrets. It is a treacherous place to be, between a mother and a daughter.
Perhaps sensing that I was not going to say anything else, Aunt Ama sighed and motioned toward the trunk. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
She opened the chest, throwing back the lid to reveal the woody scented leftovers of a life. There were photographs of people I had never met, bundles of letters with the ink so faded that I could barely make out any of the words, a few bottle caps, and other such meaningless antiquities. This was the true Tsusgina’i, I thought, a lifetime of memories contained in mundane objects and no one there to explain the meaning.
I could not imagine touching these items. No matter how trivial they appeared to me, those things were the very essence of who my grandmother had been. These were all of the secrets she never told. I kept my hands folded in my lap, but I wondered the history of each item. Whom were the letters from? Why save bottle caps?
Aunt Ama reached in and took a faded photograph from the top of the pile. She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head as she strained to see the picture. “Grandmother and Grandfather maybe?”
She passed the photograph to me, but I had no way of confirming her assumption for I never knew my great-grandparents. I looked down at the photograph, printed on thick paper that was starting to curl at the edges, to see a young unsmiling couple standing side by side. It was no different from other pictures I had seen of other people during the depression era except that both the man and the woman had long black hair down to their shoulders.
Aunt Autumn took the photograph from me. She gave it a brief glance and shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t remember what Grandmother looked like.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.” Ama scolded with an arrogant toss of her head.
“I don’t see why,” Aunt Autumn said in her own defense. “You don’t know who is in the picture either. After all, I only saw Grandmother once and I was too little to remember it.”
“You should have more respect for your ancestors.”
To end their bickering, I forgot my reservations, reached into the chest, and gathered up the bottle caps. “What were these for?”
“For bottles of course.” Aunt Ama snapped, dismissing them with only a glance.
“They are much more than that.” Aunt Autumn explained, taking the bent pieces of metal from me. “These are from the bottles of the first soda pops that your grandmother ever drank. She thought that they were so delicious, that she drank six of them one right after the other and got a horrible stomachache. She kept the bottle caps to remind her never to be so greedy again.”
“Who in the world told you such a stupid story?” Aunt Ama asked as she thumbed through another stack of photographs.
Aunt Autumn smiled, not tragically this time, but with an expression that can only be described as gloating. “Momma told me.”
“I never heard of such a thing.”
“Then you must not have been listening close enough.”
Again, I tried to find a way to end their quarrel, even though I hated to do it since it was one of those rare moments when Aunt Autumn had the upper hand. “Does anyone need any more coffee?”
Neither answered, they sat there glaring at each other. Fuming over age-old grudges that began when they were only children until Ama shrugged. “It doesn’t matter any way.”
She went back to sorting through the items in the chest, handing some to Autumn, and a scarce few to me. I looked down at the tarnished silver and turquoise jewelry she handed to me, some were intricately carved and others looking as raw as the earth itself. What was the story of these pieces? Why did she choose each one and why were they hidden away?
Ama handed me a sharp black and white photograph. My grandmother’s young face smiled back at me, paler than natural, but still beautiful. I studied the photo for a moment, “Why is she so pale looking?”
“This must have been taken just after her and Daddy got married.” Aunt Autumn said as she leaned over to look at the picture, “She wanted to look whiter. She didn’t think his mother would approve of her if she knew that she was Cherokee, so she powered her face.”
“What did she use?” I asked. “Chalk?”
“Rice powder.” Ama stated and took the picture away from me. “She learned soon after that there is no point in trying to hide who you are. It always catches up to you.”
Aunt Autumn sighed and rolled her eyes, “Does everything have to be a moral lesson?”
“Because that is the way that life is.” Ama said and then took a bundle of letters from the trunk. She turned to me and smiled. “Now here is something that should interest you.”
I took the packet from her, studying the smudged postmarks and the thin pale script. There must have been more than a dozen of them, all yellow and crumbling, held together by a tattered white ribbon with a dried and withered spray of white flowers. The smell of moldy decay clung to them. I could feel the aunt’s eyes upon me and I felt that I should say something, but what?
“Thank you.” I whispered, looking down at the letters again, straining to read the addresses from all over the world.
The aunts were staring at me; I could feel their eyes bearing down. I felt that I should say something more, but what? I met Ama’s eyes again, seeing the shock and disappointment filled me with guilt even though I had done nothing wrong.
“You have no idea what I am giving you, do you?” Aunt Ama asked and then shook her head. I could see the disappointment in her face.
I stole a glance at Aunt Autumn and saw much of the same expression. What had I done wrong? Was it my fault that I did not know the importance of a stack of old letters? I had a ticket stub from when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was ten. When I die, would my aunts cast such disapproving eyes on my granddaughter if she did not jump for joy over a faded ticket stub?
I wondered then if their anger was not just for me, but for their own daughters as well. There was an entire history that we knew nothing about, things we had never asked. To be honest, a history we cared nothing about.
“You know nothing about who you are or from where you came.” Aunt Ama sighed. “These are the letters that your mother wrote to Momma after she left home and went traipsing around the globe. You should have asked her about them a long time ago.”
I wondered then if my cousins and I were not the true ghost country, souls lost to them and our ancestors. Were we dwelling in a void where the past not only did not matter, it simply just didn’t exist? Were we doomed to be lost forever? Did the souls of Tsusgina’i even know that they were condemned?