If you come from a family of storytellers as I do, accessing family history—or at least one person’s version of it—is pretty easy. And I use a lot of it in both my fiction and nonfiction. My grandmother and her sister, my great-aunt, were both big talkers who liked to relive their childhood in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, by telling us stories. My grandmother, an alcoholic who was usually drunk by early afternoon, tended toward the tragic, while my Aunt Norma, a committed teetotaler having grown up in a family of alcoholics, tended toward the heroic, making a lesson of every family member’s life. And so I’m sure there is as much fiction as truth in that history, and for a long time I didn’t care. I just wanted the stories.
As I grew older and became more interested in History—I would major in it at the University of New Mexico—I discovered that my Aunt Norma’s cellar was full of documents. She even had a handwritten family tree that her mother had passed along to her, that included reference to our clan of the Cherokee tribe: the Long Hair clan. She also had copies of letters to the BIA and other government offices from her grandfather, Colonel Johnson Harris, a Chief of the Cherokee Nation. After I moved from New Mexico to California, I began corresponding with my Great Aunt and feel truly blessed that she was such a generous and articulate writer. I have about 40 handwritten pages of letters filled with details about her childhood. (She also included a lot of news from my hometown of Roswell, something I was not especially interested in 30 years ago, but which I now find fascinating.)
In 2002 the California Humanities Council asked me to participate in the Centennial Celebration of John Steinbeck’s birth by lecturing on The Grapes of Wrath at various libraries throughout the Bay Area. In rereading the novel, I began thinking about the Joad like qualities of my father’s family, also from Oklahoma.
And so I began forming a fictional narrative that would bring these two strands of my family and also American history together. At this point, I am writing very short pieces that are some times more like prose poems than short stories. Here is one that is about fifty/fifty fiction and detail from my Aunt Norma’s letters. I haven’t devoted as much time to this as I would like to lately because I’m working on a novel that I am close to finishing. But I hope to return to it soon. In the meantime, I’ve been publishing some of the short pieces. Here’s one that appeared in the Winter issue of Poetry Quarterly.
You will remember. Me. Rena. A Six-Killer by marriage, a Harris by birth. All Bones my mother’s name. My grandfather, Colonel Johnson Harris, was a Cherokee Chief. Colonel not a rank but his name. He served the United States of America in no war upon any people. Some Cherokees fought for the Confederacy. We did not. Some Cherokees owned slaves. We weren’t among them.
My Mother’s Relations: Aunt Vann McMakin died too young. I missed her all my life. Cousin Philo a black sheep. I was not allowed to play with his children. Uncle Red Bird might have had another name but I don’t know what it was.
My mother died when I was 10. I lived in the Cherokee Orphan Asylum in Salina for two years until Papa could find another wife. Evaline became my sister and Aunt Mamie my mother. Her name was Mamie Adair before she was Mamie Harris. She is related to Will Rogers. He is famous. I would only call her Aunt. You have no blood relation there. The orphanage was not bad like those in storybooks.
If you get another mother don’t call her Mama.
Uncle Red Bird was the news butch on the Kansas-Missouri-Texas line. We called it the KATY. When I rode the train to Grandfather Harris’s river bottom farm, Uncle Red Bird gave me a newspaper to read and a glass locomotive filled with colored sprinkles.
The farm is near Strang where the Neosho runs wild, not dammed into the lake. Some of that land is mine. I have left my allotment in the hands of Grandfather Six-Killer. He will do what he can to see that you get it. Your grandfather is a good man, but there will come a time when he can’t help you.
Look then for Horace Counsel. He lives at the farm. You will have to take the KATY to Spavinaw, a town big enough for a water barrel train stop. Strang is not. Get off in Spavinaw. Go to Strang. You will have to walk. Get directions to Chief Harris’ river bottom farm. Someone will know.
Don’t expect cultivated fields. The land is wild not cleared, covered with pecan trees, wild blackberries and grapevines tangled through the brush. Don’t bother to pick the grapes. The fruit is small, mostly seeds. Look for a little house and a corral upon a hill near a grove of peach trees.
Don’t expect to find Uncle Red Bird on the KATY. He is dead.
Don’t expect miracles from Horace Counsel.
When I got older and went to the Cherokee Seminary School for Girls I wore my hair in a Psyche Knot. It was beautiful and I was pretty. When I was a freshman I studied Latin, Greek, English, and Math. When I was a sophomore I studied Caesar, French, German, English, Mental Science, Moral Philosophy, and Political Economy. And over the years Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Zoology, Music, Domestic Science and always German, French and English until I graduated. I married your father after one year of teaching and was a wife and mother after that.
I knew a lot.
Horace Counsel taught Virgil, Homer and Cicero. He was my favorite teacher. I loved him more than I should have. He breaks horses now.
About your brother. Don’t ask outside the family. No one knows.
Seventy miles is a long way to go alone. Take someone along if you can.
music from whistles carved out of slender birch twigs.
Cuticura soap and the steamy kitchen, tea brewing in an earthenware pot.
the taste of Postum in Eagle Brand Milk, a soft boiled egg mixed with a left over baked potato.
hyacinth jonquil peonies honeysuckle lilacs and bleeding hearts in a garden back of the barn.
Rena All Bones Harris Six-Killer.
You called me Mama.