My father was larger than life.
I was a shrimp of a kid and he, a stately 6’2″. Everything about him was gargantuan: his body, his booming voice, his gigantic spirit… He made his presence known before he was seen. He inspired deep seated anxiety without saying a word. In his presence I averted my eyes automatically and my ears pounded at the thumping of my little heart. Fear and respect meant the same thing with him – he wielded them as one.
He knew everyone and was known by all in our little town. I never met anyone he was afraid of. I have memories of him frequently holding court in our living room. Disputing relatives or friends sought him out for mediation. He heard every side fairly and declared swift judgements, his was the final word.
I had an insatiable need to stare at him. I would hide behind a piece of furniture or person and study him, wide-eyed with awe: his flaring nostrils, the wrinkles on his regal forehead, his perfectly lined ivory teeth, his grand hands that moved with calculated grace and regency. He had a fabulous sense of humor and a cannonade of a laugh. I would lean in when he laughed, and find myself smiling. He spoke his mind with confidence, wisdom, and fantastic wit. He was never afraid to offend.
Now that I’m an adult we have fostered a great friendship. We are separated by thousands of miles and decades now. About ten years ago, he and mum came to visit me in the States. Before their arrival he repeatedly told me that he had a plan.
“I want to visit the Red Indian.” Not till the day I die will I ever get used to crazy things he says.
“Dad,” I said. “You can’t say Red Indian. Say Native American or just Indian.”
“Okay,” He would say.
When they arrived after hours of air travel, we hugged and laughed and hugged again. We had an animated chat on the way to the car as he regaled us with accounts of their travels. “They were the skinniest bloody Pakistani man and woman I have ever seen,” he said, describing fellow travelers. “She talked non-stop like a machine and I had to keep getting her luggage. She didn’t eat any of the food in the airplane. Three meals! Can you imagine? She brought their food. And when the air-hostesses brought out our food, I had to get theirs from that dirty green bag in the overhead. There were 8 identical lunch boxes. No sooner would I sit down then she would say, “A thousand apologies, not this one, Bwana, other one!”” He mocked her namaste and bobbing head.
“Here I am folded in my tight seat like a pretzel,” he continued, “and I have to unfold myself, get back into the dirty green bag and find the right lunchbox. Can you imagine? And do you know she had the spiciest curry which she ate talking the whole time. She took a bite and her nose started running. Then she put her spoon in the dish, loaded it with curry and handed it to me to eat. Can you imagine? All I could think was, ‘that’s going to hurt going in and coming out.’ I didn’t touch it.”
“Then the next meal I had to do the same thing, I hand her a lunch box and she says, “A thousand apologies, not this one Bwana, other one please.” But when she opened it, it was the bloody same curry.” He threw his hands up in exasperation and we laughed our heads off. We stuffed his luggage in the trunk.
“Next time you must bring a big boot for my bags, Hannah.” He chided as he folded himself into the passenger seat.
“I love Oregon. Now Hannah, you remember I need to go and see the Red Indian.”
I leaned forward from the back seat and grabbed his shoulder. “Dad!” I said sternly, “I told you they are not called Red Indians.”
“Oh,” he said. “A thousand apologies…” namaste and all.
Every morning I awoke and made them breakfast, so grateful for the dream of having them in my home. The days were flying and I was already dreading their departure. Each day we would have some version of, “Is today the day we see the Red Indian?”
“Dad!” I would glare at him, “First of all, you can’t say that. Second of all you don’t know any. It’s not like you just walk up someplace and find Red Indians waiting for you, sheesh!”
“Oh, sorry,” he would say with exaggerated humility. Everyday for 2 weeks
During their stay, he and mum discovered garage-sales and loved them. He was amazed that individuals just set out tables and their stuff and people came to buy it. He bought loads of stuff at each one and was always very pleased with himself. He would hold up a new-found treasure and say, “Can you believe?” His favorite find was a coon-skin hat that he proceeded to wear everywhere he went. Both he and mum became extremely astute at spotting garage-sale signs. “There, there, garage!” They would say excitedly at the siting of a roadside sign. I started to worry about all the stuff they were collecting and how they were going to get it home.
Regarding the matter of the “Red Indian”, my husband and father-in-law decided that what we needed was a day trip to the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon to visit Kah-Nee-Tah, an Indian run resort. Dad had a long sleepless night. He was like a kid the night before Christmas.
We left early and had a great trip east towards Mt. Hood. We stopped at Timberline Lodge to show him the magnificent building and area. He didn’t pay much attention. After a few photos and a bathroom break, he was back in the car. “I don’t want to keep them waiting.” We all laughed at him that “they” were waiting for him. He marveled at and kept a running commentary on the change in terrain and climate as we descended on the east side. Dad got quieter when we pointed out the reservation sign and as we drove the last few miles. He stared at the beautiful cliffs and the desert scrub-brush. “Just like in the films,” he said quietly pulling a little plastic comb from his shirt pocket. He combed his hair and readjusted his coon-skin hat. Stroking its tail and studying every bush and rock, he muttered, “Just like in the films.”
When we finally arrived at the resort, he waved enthusiastically at the lady at the pay booth. He noted that she wasn’t very friendly. ‘No matter,’ he thought, ever hopeful. We were tired, cramped, and ready to stretch.
“This is nothing like I remember as a kid,” my husband remarked, worsted, when we got out of the car.
“No,” my father-in-law agreed. “It’s all concrete and metal now.” Even the row of tee-pees were of metal.
We were woebegone. We’d expected to find Indians everywhere, living their life, but only a handful of regular looking, bored young-adult workers milled around on their cell-phones. We had a quiet disappointing lunch, moped around the dry, dusty property and piled back into the car an hour later, chapfallen.
“Why would they bloody make us come to a place like this?” Dad said, as he shut the car door with more force than was necessary. No one bothered to answer him.
We couldn’t believe we’d driven several hours just for this and would be returning home disappointed. No one said much, each one nursing their own grudge at this plight. All of a sudden, from the back seat, mum erupted, “There, there, garage!”
The car had learned to swerve into garage sales and it did not fail us this time. We turned a tight right onto a gravel road where the red paper plate with shoddy hand-writing directed. Their spirits rose significantly.
“More junk,” I thought to myself, disgusted. “Just great!”
We bumped along and presently came up to a small run-down house beyond a rusty barbed-wire fence on which sat a large blue-jay which scolded us then took wing. We pulled in slowly and gazed at a single plastic folding table with a few items on it. Dad was out before the car came to a stop. I scrambled out after him to remind him not to the say the darned words.
There were little children everywhere, kicking a ball made of stuffed plastic bags. They came racing to the table at our arrival, yelling, “Customers, customers!”
A very large woman stood promptly behind the table and straightened her ample skirts and long silver hair at the arrival of customers. She reached forward nervously and rearranged items on the table without looking at them. She had large eyes that sparkled and a huge smile that lit up her wrinkled face.
“Hi,” She said and cleared her throat.
I finally caught up to dad and tapped him on the shoulder, he took off the coon-skin hat and held it in deference, bowing his regal head slowly. He was entranced.
“My name is Thuku,” he began, standing so close to the table that he bumped it slightly. The lady rearranged it absently.
He dropped his voice an octave and said, “I have come to see The Red Indian.” He leaned in further, raised his head, and reached out his hand to shake hers.
“Oooooh God,” I groaned. “I don’t want to die like this!”
The rest of our group was just getting to the table. The kids gathered around and circled us curiously, staring from one person to the other then chattering excitedly to each other.
The lady gasped and clutched her bosom, taken aback. Then, absent-mindedly rearranging the table again, she hollered, “Hawk!! Go get your father.” She whisked a fly off her sculpted face with a nervous hand.
How many times had I told him?? This was terrible and about to get worse. I tried to nudge him and make eye-contact but he wouldn’t look at me.
One of the kids darted off like an arrow, flying through the thin door, which slammed and rattled the whole house. It swung freely one way, then made a dull wham as it opened again. “I told you not to slam the…” She yelled but I didn’t hear any more.
The doorway was suddenly darkened by Goliath. He wore a sleeveless undershirt and held a beer can in his hand. He stooped at the doorway to avoid hitting his head and scratched his belly as he took a giant step over the threshold. I became very light-headed and everything started to happen in slow-motion.
The lady pointed awkwardly at dad, not sure what to say. Before I knew it, dad stood before him, clutching the coon-skin hat to his chest in deference. “My name is Thuku. I came aaaaaaall the way from A-fri-ca to meet my brother – The Red Indian.” He dropped his head in a dramatic reverent bow and reached out his hand. He had said “Africa” as though it had a hundred syllables and was accompanied by a thousand thundering drums from the motherland.
The man paused and stroked on his long silver braid then got a strange look on his face. He put the beer in his left hand and reached out his massive paw to shake dad’s hand, which was stroking his coon-hat tail. They shook hands for a long time, eyes locked, then grabbed each other in an embrace.
“My name is Fire-Maker Wings. I welcome you, my brother.”
I was dumbfounded AND stupefied. Can you believe?
Dad was ushered into the house and the rest of us were invited in. Our eyes took a minute to adjust to the dark room after the bright sun. Fire-Maker turned off a football game he was watching on a wall-sized television and sat next to dad. The rest of us looked around at each other rather dazed and shrugged our shoulders. He turned to introduce his wife Ayita who stood at the doorway, wringing her hands. “It means first to dance,” he added beaming.
He spoke to her in a language I didn’t understand and she hurried out of the room followed by the troop of children. In no time, they returned with glasses, sodas, and a couple of beers; and proceeded to serve us.
The children sat among us and Ayita sat by mum. I looked around as though watching a movie. ‘This is crazy,’ was all I could think. My eyes came to rest on dad. Presently, he and Fire-Maker were leaning forward in their seats talking to each other in hushed tones. They looked intently into each others’ eyes, listening, then speaking, all the while nodding their heads, then listening again. I caught snippets of their conversation and was transported many miles and decades, to being a child, secretly watching dad from behind a piece of furniture, entranced by his large presence, his big spirit. It was a sacred interchange. Their large hands gestured as in a solemn dance. They discussed politics, history, and culture. They talked about reservations and colonialism. They talked about the past and the future.
Time was flying and soon it was time for us to leave. Fire-Maker sent Hawk to the next room. Hawk returned with a wooden chest from which our host unpacked items wrapped in tissue paper. Indian dolls, miniature totems, pieces of decorated leather, and beads. He showed them to dad then to the rest of us. Then he walked us to a shed outside the house where he opened another chest. He slowly unpacked his porcupine roach head-dress, placed it on dad’s head, and showed him how to dance in it. He unfolded a gorgeous red shawl with an eagle emblem and draped it on mum’s shoulder. It was simply magical!
Dad beamed from ear to ear all the way home.