Wednesday, January 05, 2011

My Father's Childhood

Today is my father's birthday. He's been gone for almost seventeen years, but on this day every year, his memory is always my first waking thought. All these years later, a wave of sadness still sweeps over my body, but then I get out of bed and face the day as always. I've learned to adjust and to be happy most of the time, but death takes something both intangible and irretrievable. Some things are never quite the same again.

My dad would have been 63 today. I mentioned this fact to my son and laughed through my tears, "He's not even old enough to retire. How did he leave so soon?"

This evening I called my aunt to see how she's dealing with the anniversary of my father's death. I say "death," but I realize that requires some explanation. He was born on January 5 and died on January 8. These days are like a yearly ritual for me where life and death stand together. What is more, my aunt pointed out that this year, the days of the week are also aligned. Both then and now, January 5 falls on a Wednesday and January 8 falls on a Saturday.

Actually, I should also say that my aunt was my father's first cousin, but she helped to raise him, so she became a second mother. I grew up calling her "Auntie," but now I call her Yaya (Grandma). We reminisced and consoled one another, and then I turned my thoughts toward some happy memory from my father's childhood. I've always wondered what he was like as a child.

I asked if she remembered when my father was born. "Of course I do," she said, "I was there. Well, I didn't go to the hospital, but I remember the day he was born."

The extended family all lived together with my great grandparents Wilson Moses and Lizzie Homer Moses in a little house on Beacon Hill, near Hillyard, Washington. She said in those days, my relatives had their children at home. When the babies were born, the older children had to go upstairs and not interfere with the delivery. She said, "Grandpa (Wilson Moses) never let the kids look at the picture albums, except for when the babies were born. He would give us their picture books and tell us to stay upstairs."

My grandmother Minnie's delivery was different. Yaya said, "I never knew what complications she had, but Grandpa said they had better get her to a hospital."

At first Minnie refused. Wilson said, "It's up to you," but eventually he convinced her to seek outside medical help. Wilson helped her into the car while Lizzie and their daughter Messie drove her to Sacred Heart in Spokane. My father was born less than fifteen minutes after they arrived at the hospital.

"And he was a chubby little baby, even that first day he was born," she laughed.

I asked, "Did he live with the family on Beacon Hill, or did he live someplace else?"

"Oh, he lived with us," she said, "We all lived together in that house."

My uncle Pat was only a year older than my dad, so they basically grew up together. Yaya said, "Ed and Pat were like brothers. They were always together, like two little rug rats." I laughed to hear my father called by that name.

"If they grew up together," I asked, "How come Pat learned to speak Indian and my father didn't?"

She said that her Sile and Yaya used to talk to the kids in Salish, but my dad would always laugh and say, "What? You can't speak English?" If they pressed him on the issue, he would say, "Why do I want to twist my tongue like that?" Wilson just laughed and then spoke to my dad in English.

Yaya Messie said, "Well, he doesn't want to learn, so let him go."

Years later, my dad told a different story. He once told me that his parents never spoke to him in the Indian language because of their traumatic boarding school experience. Well, they really did have some negative experiences in the white man schools, but it’s not exactly true that they refused to teach him. She says that they addressed him in Indian all the time, but he insisted on speaking English. “But he must have understood the language on some level,” she said, “Grandma and Grandpa spoke to him all the time.”

She told many other stories regarding his various misadventures, most of them relating somehow to his "big mouth." She said he was a silly child, "just crazy." But by the end of our conversation, we laughed and felt lighter.

I recently read that grief is a blessing because it reveals what we cherish most. Our tears wash away the bondage of false expectations and help us to know that the essence of those we love is never far away.


This photograph shows my father as a baby with his grandfather Wilson John Moses. It was taken in 1948 or 1949 at their home on Beacon Hill, near Hillyard.

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