Future home of the livin.., p.1
Light of my days
The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.
—Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
About the Author
Also by Louise Erdrich
About the Publisher
When I tell you that my white name is Cedar Hawk Songmaker and that I am the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals, and that when I went looking for my Ojibwe parents and found that I was born Mary Potts I hid the knowledge, maybe you’ll understand. Or not. I’ll write this anyway, because ever since last week things have changed. Apparently—I mean, nobody knows—our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped. I am sure somebody will come up with a name for what is happening, but I cannot imagine how everything around us and everything within us can be fixed. What is happening involves the invisible, the quanta of which we are created. Whatever is actually occurring, there is constant breaking news about how it will be handled—speculation, really, concerning what comes next—which is why I am writing an account.
Historic times! There have always been letters and diaries written in times of tumult and discovered later, and my thought is that I could be writing one of those. And even though I realize that all lexical knowledge may be useless, you’ll have this record.
Did I mention that I’m four months pregnant?
Nearly a decade ago and almost two months into my first pregnancy, I had an abortion. I am telling you because it is important that you know everything. My decision came about the instant I took the dipstick test—no. I would close this door. In doing so, I opened a different door. If I hadn’t had an abortion then, I would not be having you, now. This time the dipstick test filled me with yes.
So I am twenty-six, pregnant, and I haven’t got health insurance. This would completely upset my parents, who actually have more than they need. It is also, without question, a perilous time in the history of creation. Unless the swirling questions are answered soon, you will be born into this unknown state. But whatever happens, you will be welcomed with eager arms into a family that spans several cultures. There are first of all my adoptive parents, whose lyrical name is of British origin. Glen and Sera Songmaker. They are truly beautiful people, there is no doubt, no question, and although I’ve given them a great deal to worry about, they’ve dealt gracefully with me for the most part. They are forgiving people, Buddhists, green in their very souls. Although Sera is annoyingly phobic about food additives, and many years ago Glen had an affair with a Retro Vinyl record shop clerk that nearly tore the family apart, they are happily married vegans. They are the dearest people imaginable, except . . . Except I’ve never understood how I was adopted—I mean, the legality there is definitely to be questioned. There is this law called the Indian Child Welfare Act, which makes it almost impossible to adopt a Native child into a non-Native family. This law should have, even had to, apply to me. Whenever I mention it, Glen and Sera hum and look away. Even if I scream, they don’t look back. Still. They are good parents, they will be wonderful grandparents, and you’ll have aunties and uncles and a whole other set of bio-based grandparents, the Potts.
As I mentioned, yes, I denied and disregarded the knowledge of my biological family for a short time, but perhaps you’ll understand if I explain how my ethnicity was celebrated in the sheltered enclave of my adoptive Songmaker family. Native girl! Indian Princess! An Ojibwe, Chippewa, Anishinaabe, but whatever. I was rare, maybe part wild, I was the star of my Waldorf grade school. Sera kept my hair in braids, though I famously chopped one off. But even one-braided, even as a theoretical Native, really, I always felt special, like royalty, mentioned in the setting of reverence that attended the study of Native history or customs. My observations on birds, bugs, worms, clouds, cats and dogs, were quoted. I supposedly had a hotline to nature. This continued through high school, but waned, definitely waned, once I went to college and hung out with other indigenes. I became ordinary, then. Even worse, I had no clan, no culture, no language, no relatives. Confusingly, I had no struggle. In our talking circles, I heard stories. Addictions. Suicides. I’d had no crises in my life, besides the Retro Vinyl clerk, so I invented one. I chopped off both braids, then stopped going to classes. I’d been a snowflake. Without my specialness, I melted.
One year ago, perhaps thinking that my lack of ambition regarding a degree stemmed from confusion about my origins, perhaps thinking who-knows-what, Sera decided to give me a letter that she had received from my biological mom. Honorable Sera, she had not opened it. I did. I read the letter twice and put it back in its envelope. Then I put the envelope in a manila folder. I am a very organized person. I decided to file the letter. Under what? I needed a label. I thought about that for a while. Biological Family? Potts? How about Immense Disappointment? How about FUCK YOU? It was upsetting to be contacted, after all. And there was worse. It was a shock to realize that on the reservation I was even more ordinary than I’d felt myself to be in college. My family had no special powers or connections with healing spirits or sacred animals. We weren’t even poor. We were bourgeois. We owned a Superpumper. I was Mary Potts, daughter and granddaughter of Mary Potts, big sister to another Mary Potts, in short, just another of many Mary Potts reaching back to the colonization of this region, many of whom now worked at the Superpumper franchise first stop before the casino.
What was I to do? Until this biological confusion, until my pregnancy, until this great uncertainty that life itself has suddenly become, I’ve hidden the fact that I even opened the letter. I’ve told my Songmaker parents that they raised me, I love them, and that is final. I’ve told them that I want no complications; I want no issues of abandonment and reconciliation; I want no maudlin reunion, no snake tears. But the truth is different. The truth is I am pissed off. Who are the Potts to suddenly decide to be my parents, now, when I don’t need them? Worse, who are they to have destroyed the romantic imaginary Native parents I’ve invented from earliest childhood, the handsome ones with long, both-sided braids, who died in some vague and suitably spiritual Native way—perhaps fasting themselves to death or sundancing to heatstroke or plunging off a cliff for love or being carried off by thunderbirds? Who were the Potts to keep on living their unremarkable lives without me, and to work in a Superpumper?
I wouldn’t have had the slightest thing to do with them if it wasn’t for my baby. Sweets, you’re different! You’re new. Things can start over with you, and things need to start over. You deserve more. You deserve two sets of grandparents. Not to mention genetic info, which may affect who you are even beyond whatever is now occurring. There may be hereditary illnesses. Or unexpected talents—one can always hope, though that seems doubtful, given my birth mother’s letter. Still, I think you need to enter the web of connections that I never really had.
I embraced Catholicism in my crisis-creating year, at first as a form of rebellion, but also in an effort to get those connections. I wanted an extended family—a whole parish of friends. It was no passing phase and I have integrated both my ethnicity and my intellectual leanings into my faith first by analyzing the canonization of the Lily of the Mohawks, Kateri Tekakwitha,
It’s not enough time.
Your father might help, but I’m trying to keep our distance.
All the more reason to find you an extra grandfather, maybe an uncle or two, a cousin—functional, I hope.
* * *
I have been writing to you and ignoring the constant ringing of the telephone. I decide to pick it up this time because I have a feeling that your father was calling and now he has given up. I always know when he has given up.
“Look, what’s going on out there is making us very nervous, honey, why don’t you come back home?”
As always, her voice is cool and capable. Stress calms her.
“I’ve got to do something first.”
Now is the time to tell her about you—I really have to—but I’m paralyzed by those two words I’m pregnant and so I tell her the other thing. The family thing.
“Remember that letter, Mom? That one you gave me about a year ago, the one from my biological family or whatever? I’m going up there to meet them.”
“To the reservation,” I say.
“Now? Why now?”
Her consternation is not about jealousy or disapproval. After all, she gave me the letter and left the whole decision up to me. She even urged me to open the letter. She really is worried about the timing—this is Sera.
“Because I have to.”
“Please, not now.”
Her voice has that decisive I-will-deal-with-this tone I’ve heard just a few times: when I called her and asked her to pick me up from a party where a drunk boy had tried to rape me but instead had puked on me. When I told her I was getting baptized and confirmed as a Catholic.
I know she’s right, and yet nothing out there feels as important as what’s in here. Driving to my house, I saw that the streets were full of the usual number of normal, purposed, smiling, and gregarious Minnesotans, people talking at the bus stops. People carrying their shopping bags and backpacks, walking at an appropriate rate of speed, not looking either shaken or scared.
“I’ve just got to, I can’t explain it. I’ll come right back, Mom, don’t worry. I know things could destabilize.”
“I think they are right now. It’s coming. Here, talk to your dad.”
There is some frantic whispering, shuffling, as she tells him my plan.
“Listen, we’ll go with you. There’s something . . . baby, listen . . .”
Hearing Glen call me baby fills my eyes with tears. He’d do that when I had a rough day at school or had my heart broken or got Bs. I hated getting Bs. Alienating Glen was hard on me, but I had to try. To my relief, I utterly failed to make him go away or even really lose his temper. Once, he said he was exasperated with me. I had to be content with that.
“Oh Dad, I’m sorry. Don’t worry. I’m going to be fine. I just have to do this and it’s only for a day.”
“Cedar, things are taking a more ominous turn, though I don’t think people realize it yet. What we’re hearing on the news is, and there’s talk of, I know this sounds impossible . . .”
“It’s only for a day.”
“Listen to the news. There’s a lot about . . .”
“The president is talking about declaring a state of emergency and there’s a debate in Congress about confining certain . . .”
“Dad, you’re always—”
“This time it’s real, please come back.”
Sera gets back on the phone. She has composed herself. One of her deepest tenets—her belief in my autonomy—is at stake. She has warred with herself off the phone, and won.
“Well, we don’t know. This could be a new kind of virus. Maybe bacteria. From the permafrost. Use hand sanitizer, okay? Will you call us when you’re there and call us when you get back?”
“And fill up with gas first.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Of course you will.”
It isn’t until after I’ve hung up that I remember how Glen and Sera often congratulate themselves on their prescience regarding the tech and housing bubbles, then Iraq, the Mideast, Afghanistan, then Russia, the increasing chaos of our elections, and our first winter without snow, among other things, and how good their track record is on political idiocies and wars and natural disasters. They didn’t foresee this, of course—nobody did—but they’re excellent at reading the fallout of events. I should probably be more nervous than I am, but I evade all common sense by dialing statewide 411 information and getting the phone number of the Superpumper where my biological family work. Then I even let the automated cheery voice on the information dial automatically for me, which costs extra.
God, I think, they speak French.
“Bonjour,” I say.
“I’m . . . ah . . . looking for Mary Potts.”
“Well, I’m not her. Who’s this?”
“Okay, well, I got this letter from Mary Potts Senior about a year ago; she contacted me about the fact that she is my biological mom. Is this? I mean, you don’t sound like Mary Potts Senior, but are you maybe—”
“MAAAAAHM! Some INSANE BITCH is on the phone who says you’re her mom and you wrote her last year.”
Mumbling. A voice. Gimme that. A crackling thump as someone drops the receiver. A man’s voice saying, Who’s that, Sweetie? Woman’s voice. Nobody! First voice again. Getthefuckawayfromme. A raging scream that fades and ends abruptly in a crash—slamming door?
“Mary Potts Senior?” I ask the hollow breath on the other end.
“Speaking.” A whisper. A croak as she clears her throat. “Yeah, it’s me. The one that wrote you.”
And I suddenly want to cry, my chest hurts, I can’t breathe, I’m breaking. The only thing that could possibly overcome what I feel right that moment is a simultaneous mad anger that bubbles up in me and freezes my voice solid.
“By any chance, will you be in tomorrow?”
“I’m not doin nothing.”
“I am coming up there. I am going to visit you. I have to speak to you.”
Who’s that, Sweetie? Man’s voice. Nobody! she says again.
I ignore the awful prickling in my throat, the reaction to the second time that she has said nobody.
“Who’s calling you sweetie?” I ask.
“That’s my name,” says Mary Potts Senior. “They call me Sweetie up here.”
Her voice is so humble, so hushed, so astonished, so afraid. I feel a sweep of killing rage, but it just comes out in cold, weirdly complicated grammar.
“Well, that’s very fitting, I am sure, Sweetie; however, I think that I will just call you Mary Potts Senior, if that’s all right.”
“I’m not senior, though. I’m almost senior, not quite. Grandma’s still alive.”
“Okay, Mary Potts Almost Senior. Now, might I ask for directions to your house?”
“Sure you might,” says Mary Potts, or Sweetie, but then she doesn’t say anything.
“Well?” I say, icy voice.
Sweetie gets a little sly now, maybe she can’t help it, maybe she’s a mixture of humble and heart-struck and shrewd, I don’t know.
“You said you might ask. You asking?”
Now I feel a stab of what is probab
“Just tell me,” I say in a cool, neutral voice. “You can give me your address. I’ll use Siri or GPS.”
“We ain’t on no GPS, and Siri’s dead. You don’t know?”
“You’ll find out. You coming up from where? Up or down?”
“I’ll be coming up from Minneapolis.”
“Well, you know the highways up to Skinaway—then you cut . . . ah . . . it’s a left. You take a left at the river.”
She seems relieved to have thought backward, to have figured out directions from my point of view. She even seems awed with herself, a little, like maybe she has never given directions before.
“The big one.”
“That would be, I mean, the name. I need the name.”
“It’s the only big river, with a bridge. Then right after, there’s a road. Not paved. Take a left.”
“All right then, take a left on an unpaved road. No name to the road?”
“We’re getting somewhere. Then?”
“We’re at the end.”
“What’s your house number?”
She clears her throat. Somehow I get the sense that she is just about to cry out, that there’s some desperation on her end, danger of a hysterical outburst. And it occurs to me that reservations—I don’t know about them—maybe people just do not give directions on reservations. Maybe everybody just knows where everything is there. Maybe nobody leaves and everyone was there forever.
“Okay, all right, what does your house look like?”
Relief fills her voice.
“It’s yellow, newish, a two-story ranch with white trim and a front porch with a wheelchair accessibility ramp for Grandma. We’ll have her here for you tomorrow. Until then, Avis is borrowing her. But you just drive into the yard. There will be a black van with purple detailing, up on blocks, but that’s the only car . . . um . . . not operational at the moment. There is also a new pickup, that’s mine, and a little brown Maverick might be there, Eddy’s, and a sweat-lodge frame—”