Monthly Archives: December 2019

TEARS IN THE GRASS

Secrets are like pods of the milkweed. They always burst open… Red Sky in the Morning

The old rocking chair faced east looking down the Qu’ Appelle valley in Saskatchewan, Canada. God knows where its journey began, but when the Cree Indian woman found it abandoned in the plains grass, she knew it was special and dragged it back to her tipi. Her young daughter, Red Sky in the Morning, was the only one that heard the chair’s past in the creaking wood.

When the Indian Act of 1876 forced this First Nations family onto reserved land, the chair traveled with them and continued to collect memories. It soothed the pain of the uprooted people and saw the hardships of life on the reserve. It sat in wait for ten-year-old Red Sky to return after she was forced to attend the Canadian government’s religious-run school. The school was a harsh environment. The children were treated as curs in need of retraining and received little kindness and suffered hard work and long hours controlled by bells and regimented routine.

Eighty years later, Red Sky in the Morning, now known as Elinor, sits in the old rocker, still facing east to the rising sun. She still lives on the reserve trading life in a tipi for a rickety wooden house that to Elinor is paradise. She is ninety-years-old and harboring a seventy-five-year-old deeply buried secret that began the day she was raped by a  school employee. A secret she did not share with her beloved husband, Joseph, and after his murder, with her daughter, Louise, or her granddaughter Alice.

The secret – a daughter was the product of the rape. A child she named Bright Eyes. A child stolen from her arms moments after birth by the nuns and replaced with a grainy black and white picture. Time is now short. She wonders why she waited so long to take action on something that has pained her every day of her long life. The secret must be shared so she can die in peace. She must find her first born child and she will need the help of Louise and Alice.

Life has not been easy for Elinor but she is a survivor with a feisty spirit and an insane determination to live her life on her own terms. Her teenage daughter, Louise, mysteriously disappeared from the reserve, leaving a heart-broken Elinor to wonder for years if she was responsible for driving her away?  Now years later, living in separate worlds but reconciled, the mother and daughter have a guarded relationship.

Louise’s reason for leaving never discussed between them. Louise, strong-willed like her mother, has done well with her life but she has found that she will never be fully accepted in the white man’s world. In the white man’s world, this highly educated and ambitious lawyer finds herself facing much more than a glass ceiling. Like her mother, Louise harbors a deeply held secret. And like her mother, she found a loving husband; a white man with a heart of gold who does not know her darkest secret. Their union producing a great love in Elinor’s life, her granddaughter, Alice.

Alice has a secret she shares with the reader. It’s 1968 and she is a gay Chee half-breed. A toxic mix in a mixed-up wartime world. She is not sure her family will accept her if they knew and she knew the world at-large would not accept a gay school teacher. She would lose her job.

Elinor, slight in stature, slender as a dry stalk of grass, and in frail health holds center stage in the novel. There is no doubt who is in charge during the search for Bright Eyes; the need for the search never in question but clues are few and Elinor takes matters in her own hands. Did the trio ever find Bright Eyes? I am not going to tell.

I will tell you I will never hear the wind, pluck a flower, listen to rain, or watch a tree sway in the wind the same again.  Tears in Grass is exquisite in its simple prose and symbolism. It is a simple story with deep resonance to themes that plague us all; family relationships, societal strains, personal secrets that fester and affect our lives.  It is a story balanced with the beauty of the natural world and the belief that what comes next after death should not be feared.

The book may not appeal to all. It is slow paced. Not in a hurry or filled with heady suspense. I savored the quiet moments of reflection with Elinor as I sat in my own rocking chair, facing my own scenic world, and listened to my babbling stream. Yes, Elinor there is no place like home.

The novel is filled with magic and as much unreal as real. A talking stuffed buffalo?  Even the description of evil suffered by Elinor is handled in a manner much like childbirth itself. Painful beyond belief but instantly forgotten when you look into the eyes of a newborn.  As the last chapter in Elinor’s life closes, you will be satisfied.

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FIND THE GOOD: unexpected life lessons from a small-town obituary writer

Back in 2016, while researching book titles that might be of interest for a local book club, I stumbled across – Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons From a Small-Town Obituary Writer. Intrigued, I bought a copy of the tiny book and placed it on my TBR shelf. The reading club, limited to 8 titles a year, didn’t select the book. Time marched on and I forgot about it.

My wonderful husband frequently drives me from our cabin in the quiet North Georgia mountains to the Atlanta area to visit my sister in her nursing home; a stressful four hour round-trip on the high-speed interstate highways. It turned out to be the perfect book to read while hurdling down the highway facing the potential of my own imminent demise.

As suggested by the subtitle, obituaries and/or “life stories” play an important part of each of the 18 brief essays.  It was easy reading that was tinged with humor, compassion and uplifting stories about newly departed neighbors and friends in the author’s hometown of tiny Haines, Alaska. Finding the Good is just that – interviewing those that knew the departed and finding the good in their life story yet not ignoring their less glamorous moments. The point of each story was crafting an obituary that showed their humanness and reflected the fact that their lives mattered to others.

Embedded in one story is the following quote that seems to sum up the book’s message.

People don’t gather after a death to mourn, but rather to reaffirm why life matters and to remember to exult in the only one we’ll ever have. We hold funerals, memorials, celebrations – whatever you want to call them – to seek and to find the heart of the matter of this trip we all Life.

This tiny treasure is a perfect gift for a friend or family member that enjoys celebrating life and community. It was a reminder to me that even the tiniest flower or the solitary nature of a hermit can impact someone else’s life for the better.

Heather Lende has written some 500 obituaries obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska where she has lived for over thirty years. She has also authored many essays and stories, mostly about life and sometimes death in Haines, Alaska that have been distributed widely from The Anchorage Daily News and Christian Science Monitor to NPR and Country Living. She is a former contributing editor at Woman’s Day magazine.  She has also authored three books: Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer (2015),Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs (2010), If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: The News From Small-town Alaska (2005). (NY Times bestseller)

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