Among the unwritten and as I understood them incontrovertible laws of life was the cardinal indication never to disregard the wishes of my grandmother.
When I was a teenager my grandmother told me: stay in school and don’t get married until you are thirty. It would be some years before I could appreciate how dearly she’d paid for this wisdom. Seeing my Latin homework, she took the occasion to say, as a matter of fact, she had always been interested in languages and that her generation of Native people had been unable to have an education. She was married at tender age to a man who had befriended her mother, and from that source derived a courtship with my grandmother to-be.
Rhoda Rhodes, whose mother had been a Six Nations Garlow, bore children across four decades — the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. During the Depression and the war the first six came into the world, and following the 1945 surrenders of Japan and Germany, three more would follow, my mother (b. November 1945) being the first. My grandmother was so long at it that she was pregnant concurrently with one of her daughters. I had always assumed that in those days this was just “how it was.” Indeed, but what I did not know were the common reasons. It was only after her death in 1991 that I learned my grandfather, William Johns, “did not like birth control.” In the days before “the pill” a woman had very little power in the matters of sex and sexual reproduction, which went a distance toward ensuring that a man would get his way. This detail said so much, falling as it did into the puzzle, along with other pieces that would emerge in the years after my grandmother was gone.
She had never forgotten from where she had come. “I hate John Wayne,” she once told me. She was proud to be Mohawk, and would not suffer the bellicose ignorance of others. She marshaled all that she had, which was considerable, in furtherance of the family’s dignity and self-respect. She understood that we would be derided as dirty and stupid, but she never gave the haters ground upon which to stand. My mother once came home to recount the slurs. “Look around,” said my grandmother. “Are we dirty? Is our house dirty?” The very fact of her being who she was powerfully repudiated the charge. In this way she lifted us out of depths into which we could have been cast only by ourselves, by surrender to self-doubt, self-hate, and self-disgrace.
One of the last conversations I had with her, in late 1990, took place as they often did at her kitchen table. I don’t know where my grandfather was, but we were alone — an unusual thing in a vast family that considered her kitchen its emotional and gravitational centre. The door was always open, and thirty-five grandchildren (and eventually as many great-grandchildren) could and did come by unexpectedly. That night may have been the only in my life I was alone with my grandmother, and in any case it is the only I can recall.
It was an extraordinary night for another reason. She brought the conversation around to the topic of “what I want to do with my life.” I want to write, I said. Then she told me something I had never known, that in her youth she had been interested in writing and had composed a number of stories. To appreciate the significance of this you need to know that I was a quiet, introverted, and highly imaginative child, which is to say an oddity. For many years I imagined I must have arrived into the world by some sort of magic, surely not by means of descent through the family tree. At eight years old I knew I wanted to be a writer. Clearly my wit and ironic outlook had come from my father. He however had been a high-school athlete of some promise, and it was to sports he had set himself early in life. Nor did my mother show any artistic inclination. Even among the extended family, most of whom were handy at a trade, there was no evidence I’d come by my constitution honestly. In my vocation, I was a singularity.
I suspect this feeling of being the odd one out, which was reinforced in other ways when I entered school, explains my tendency to side with the minority, the opposition, and the underdog. Bookish and uninterested in sport, I grew up in a dying steel town where the hockey rink was the centre of all things and where boys dreamed only of the League. (If you want a sense of how it felt to me growing up there, I can recommend nothing better than Peter Bogdanovich’s portrayal of Anarene in “The Last Picture Show.”) Occupied in the late 1700s by Pennsylvania Dutch, Fort Erie has to this day a Spear Road named for ancestors on my father’s side, which should have meant that I at least half-belonged but never quite did. I was a southpaw in the remnant of an era when people still knew enough Latin to know that sinister means “left” and when conformity was in all things an overriding imperative. A good deal of effort went into the failed attempt of a few teachers to reform me in this and other areas, and it is with some pride that I report their failure. I don’t wish to overstate any of this and leave an impression that my education was harsh. It was only typical of the time, but was nevertheless a good environment to form an oppositional personality.
At the end of her life, my grandmother had disclosed to me a detail which altered everything. In fact, I was not a singularity nor an oddball, at least not in the way I had always imagined. I had indeed come from somewhere, and my grandmother was the living proof. Shortly after she died I wrote a play called The Name Is A Vestige, which was about the many feelings and insights engendered by this revelation. I should also say that I had always felt a connection, and that if you were to look at any photograph of a Johns family gathering, you would see that I am sitting next to my grandmother. But now I had a more definite sense of this connection’s meaning.
Soon she would be gone, but from then on a part of me would feel an obligation to write, and to write well, “for” her. She doubtless had seen who I was and who I might become, with a little luck, and had given me precisely the advice which had perhaps been the obstacles to her own creative fulfillment.
It is rather harsh putting this thought into print. I don’t at all doubt that my grandmother loved her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I never once heard her complain of her lot. When she told me about her desire to be a writer, there was no bitterness or self-indulgence. Yet everything I learned once she was gone contributed to my growing sense that her life could only have been one of great frustration. She had married young and would discover, certain to her horror and disgust, that her husband was a drunk and a lay-about. In his thirties, my grandfather would find the Lord, going from one extreme to another. He was a harsh and obsessive proselytizer. You could not go to his house without getting the sermon, always over the decades the same sermon, focused ever on the vengeance of God and the torments of hell. His God was of the undiluted, high-proof variety, jealous and uncompromising. No one was spared his gospel. My grandmother would tell him to “stop it,” and he would, but not before citing as self-justification Ezekiel 3:18.
When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.
Now that I am older, I have come to see this as child abuse. I think my grandmother, who always stood up for us, would have agreed. Her actions suggested as much. I can’t recall his sermonizing without feeling rather ill at the thought of how vicious, ugly, and deforming it all was. She however met him blow for blow, and he was in the end no match. His brand of religion belied the fact that he was deep down self-loathing and self-defeating, no doubt a carry-over from his days of being bullied by priests in an Indian residential school. My understanding of this, gained as has so often been the case too late, prevents me from judging him too harshly and lends a certain compassion to my reflections. I’ll never know what the world looked like through his eyes.
To the end of his life, which arrived in 1996 after a period of dementia, William Johns was attached to the idea of returning to his thirty-three acre Six Nations farm. It was my grandmother who insisted they leave the desperation, poverty, and self-defeat of the reserve in those days. I often wonder how life would have been different for all of us had she not taken that stand and, as she often did, prevailed. I also wonder what she would have made of her life had she been granted the opportunities of my, let’s admit it, pampered generation. She lived at a time when a woman was expected to give up everything as a matter of duty. The idea that a woman had a right to an independent life and to her human fulfillment, to a Room Of Her Own, was only beginning to advance. The way was doubly, even quadruply difficult, for an Indian woman. For this reason I could never be casual about my education or my opportunities. I worked very hard and, as quaint as it may sound, I resolved to hold myself to a certain standard.
My grandparents had little money, and with over seventy descendants, they were not in the habit of acknowledging birthdays and such. I only ever received one card. My grandmother gave it to me after my graduation from university, and inside she has written “I am so proud of you.” She had lived to see me fulfill one of the two guarantors of my betterment, and if she had lived another five years, that is to say beyond my thirtieth birthday, I would have had the joy of introducing her to my partner and best friend. To have had that day I would give, I think, anything.