Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I offer cardboard boxes and coffins, teenagers at the door, and old men who still smart from old wounds

Joel and Mr. Witty went with me --just to get out on the open prairie --out of town. We found a little Chinese restaurant up in Mobridge after I went in to the funeral home. We had pork-fried rice and Kung Pao chicken...

A life time ago, Joel proposed marriage to me over pork-fried rice in a little Chinese restaurant at the end of Kent Street in Brooklyn --well, actually, I told him he had to propose, so he did. And he held my hand, and we both cried and cried. After nine years, the unthinkable was being proposed. Over pork-fried rice.

So we sat there yesterday --jasmine tea wafting a sweet scent around the table which complimented but did not compete with the pork-fried rice --and we held hands over the table saying our little thanksgiving grace blessed be God, now and forever.... setting aside a couple of teaspoon-size portions for you know who waiting in the car....

It seemed to be a wife/husband duo that operated the restaurant. We marveled --why did they pick South Dakota? The woman waited tables, the man worked unseen in the kitchen, until we asked a question and she went back in to the kitchen and pulled him away from his work to answer... his accent was quite thick, so he sometimes spelled a word that he was having trouble saying. I marveled at that. And then while we ate our Kung Pao, she sat at a table near the kitchen and read Chinese newspapers. Some of the ads from the paper fell off the table and drifted and fell on the floor by our feet. I wondered... where is the paper from --a city on this side of the water that divides her from her past, or does she get it mailed to her from her origins --a tangible piece of home --news of her relatives?

And I remembered our purpose that brought us east to the place on the other side of The River --remembered the loved one.... and with some despair recalled that the family was forced to gather in the coffins sales room --twenty coffins around the walls, more in lines in the center --and at the far end of the room, in the aisle, the grandma-auntie-sister-cousin-mother was laid out gracefully in her brown cardboard coffin --and we gathered in the aisle.... I anointed her, said the prayers --the teenaged grandchildren gathered at the other end of the room, too much in grief to join the adults, too old to play outside. And the empty funeral home chapel lay just through the doors at the other end of the room....

Why must we gather in the show room? The waiting coffins open-jawed gaping at us....

Later I heard the story --he was sent to a Catholic boarding school because he didn't speak English when the authorities came to force him in to school and he couldn't say Episcopal in a way they could understand... and he went to Catholic school and was beaten when he spoke in Lakota until this auntie, at rest in the card board coffin in the fancy coffin show room, came for a visit --and then he got sent to the Episcopal boarding school....

There were many stories... and in talking about the funeral service, her children all remembered that she loved to sing the old Lakota hymns. She had a favorite --I don't remember which it is, they said. But, she would sing it all the time.... So I began to sing the most popular of the hymns that I have learned.... Jerusalem, wakan kin he, mah piya.... That's it! That's it! they said. That's it!

And the old men looked at me... startled, I guess, that I was singing in Lakota.... the teenage grandchildren looked at the floor embarrassed.... Learn-the-language is the mantra... there are only 213 native speakers left....  --there was a time when even the animals spoke Lakota....

And over the dish of pork-fried rice, I remembered we were in a restaurant virtually bereft of English, and that I had just sung in Lakota to the People in a coffin-filled room on the edge of the River that had been the life-line --until it had been dammed and the land flooded and removal began... to areas more remote... to areas without water... to areas where their children couldn't attend school so they were removed from the home --and the State said it was the Federal Government's responsibility to educate the Indians....

And the bright blue sky of this morning... I seek another language that will pull together the shoulders and hips and voices of the plains, but have none, the hills stripped of their native dress of grass and bison, the people bereft....

At prayer this morning (Ecclesiasticus 43:1-22)

The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky,
as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.
The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises
what a marvelous instrument it is, the work of the Most High.
At noon it parches the land,
and who can withstand its burning heat?
A man tending a furnace works in burning heat,
but three times as hot is the sun scorching the mountains;
it breathes out fiery vapors,
and its bright rays blind the eyes.
Great is the Lord who made it;
at his orders it hurries on its course.

It is the moon that marks the changing seasons,
governing the times, their everlasting sign.
From the moon comes the sign for festal days,
a light that wanes when it completes its course.
The new moon, as its name suggests, renews itself;
how marvelous it is in this change,
a beacon to the hosts on high,
shining in the vault of the heavens!

The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven,
a glittering array in the heights of the Lord.
On the orders of the Holy One they stand in their appointed places;
they never relax in their watches.
Look at the rainbow, and praise him who made it;
it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.
It encircles the sky with its glorious arc;
the hands of the Most High have stretched it out.

By his command he sends the driving snow
and speeds the lightnings of his judgment.
Therefore the storehouses are opened,
and the clouds fly out like birds.
In his majesty he gives the clouds their strength,
and the hailstones are broken in pieces.
The voice of his thunder rebukes the earth;
when he appears, the mountains shake.
At his will the south wind blows;
so do the storm from the north and the whirlwind.
He scatters the snow like birds flying down,
and its descent is like locusts alighting.
The eye is dazzled by the beauty of its whiteness,
and the mind is amazed as it falls.
He pours frost over the earth like salt,
and icicles form like pointed thorns.
The cold north wind blows,
and ice freezes on the water;
it settles on every pool of water,
and the water puts it on like a breastplate.
He consumes the mountains and burns up the wilderness,
and withers the tender grass like fire.
A mist quickly heals all things;
the falling dew gives refreshment from the heat.

There we are --the language of the sun and moon and stars --the rainbow and the snow --birds and locusts, frost, icicles, thorns, frozen water like armor... and the mist.

The mist.

Out of the mist, I pray..... seeking reconciliation with that which will not be consoled...

So, without the words to discern a meaning --I offer cardboard boxes and coffins, teenagers at the door, old men who still smart and ache from old wounds, pork-fried rice in a red bowl, and the wind that makes the cedar tree bow.... and I strive to find that non-anxious place within that hopes for more on a horizon chalked with waste....

--and I wish I could phone my grandmother and ask her for one of her stories.... She was born just north of here... just north, and prairie-marked soul-wise... learning her alphabet by drawing in the dust 115 years ago --I never saw her wear a piece of lace....

Laceless...  --was that a language too?
I imagine so....

I end where I began --passionate love, holding hands and giving thanks to God --filled with longing.



JCF said...

Amen. Prayers for the Nation---and the First Nations---on this Election Day.

Ann said...

One person or family may own several or more of these restaurants and the bring family from China or elsewhere to run them. The people are usually stuck since they are reliant on the owners -- unless they can get enough together to start another business. But with language difficulties - few are abel to do that.

it's margaret said...

I can't imagine opening a restaurant of any stripe in a town of 3,000 souls --much less a Chinese restaurant!!!!

Satchel said...

In honor of your grandmother: you tell a heck of a story yourself.