By Wendy Hodges
Memory is a fickle friend. The things we forget and the things we remember—who knows what wind sifts our life’s images so that some are engraved in our hearts and others are gone forever? Some memories sustain us while others haunt us. First memories tell us a lot about who we are and who we will become. Like all good friends, my first memory has been revisited many times. I only have to close my eyes and it plays itself before me.
I know that I was four years old, that I wore red sneakers and that golden leaves scattered in the wind. My family and I were on a trip—my favorite thing to do. My father drove the car because that is what fathers did. My mother navigated (because my father could not) and made sure everyone was buckled in. My sister listened as I talked because she was so good at that. And my brother told me stories and made me laugh because that was his special gift. My parents and my two adult siblings were the four corners of my world. I fit perfectly safely in the middle of this solid square.
We drove to a national park not far from our home. The park’s name, Horseshoe Bend, deceived me—I expected horseback riding or at least a petting zoo. What we found instead were rolling hills and dense woods. Our solid square of a family walked for what seemed like miles with occasional stops at observation points along the way. My sister read from the signs posted at each stop, and then it slowly dawned on me that this was a “learning” trip. There had been a battle here. This I knew because at the top of one hill sat a beautiful blue cannon. I climbed the steep hill because I had to touch that sky blue wonder. I know my brother lifted me up to sit on that cannon because I have seen the photograph of his strong arms and my smiling face.
My sister’s words as she recited the facts at each stop were mostly foreign to me, but I began to catch phrases and names … “red sticks,” “Stonewall Jackson,” “bloodshed,” “To-ho-peka.” Like pieces of a puzzle with no picture to guide you, the words meant nothing, really. I grew tired and my brother carried me during most of that hike. I know this because I can still see my small red sneakers and his large white ones swinging in time as he took one long stride after another.
The sight of a gift shop revived my spirits but not for long. There were few gifts, but lots of really old stuff—like a museum. I remember the old clay pots, the huge cannon ball and the soldier’s uniform with the shiny sword. And then I saw it. It was a diorama, but of course, I did not know what to call it. It looked like my Barbies scattered on a dirt playground, only smaller. And these were men, not girls. And this was no playground. These were soldiers and Indians. They were fighting.
Some figures were angry and seemed to be almost happy about their anger. Others were bleeding and looked terrified. My sister pushed the red button on the wall next to this mini-battlefield and the narrator’s voice calmly described how the Indians were tricked, cornered and slaughtered. Red lights flashed and blinked as the movements of the armies were re-enacted. I remember the words “traitors,” “death of a nation,” and the “Trail of Tears.” And then the voice stopped, the lights went out, and my family turned to leave. Everyone but me.
My father said, “Let’s go, kids.” I did not move. I do not think I even looked in his direction. I had never been a defiant child. I learned from four adults how to act like a grown-up, and I was good at it. I never talked back, never begged for anything, and I certainly never disobeyed. But on that day, I listened to my own child-voice, and my red sneakers stayed absolutely still. I know that my mother was surprised, because I remember the look on her face when she turned back to see what was keeping me. I do not know whether it was my defiance that surprised her or the tears streaming down my face. I had not even realized that I was crying until I felt her dabbing at my face with a Kleenex. “What’s wrong?” my sister asked. My voice had vanished. All I could do was stand and stare at the tiny deaths happening right there at my eye-level and slowly absorb the facts … we stole their land … Indians died here … their wives and children waited—trapped in the “horseshoe” of the river for daddies and brothers who never came back…
My brother said, “Let’s go. She’s probably just tired.” I know that my mother reached out to take my hand because I remember her long fingers closing around my wrist, but I still could not move. “WHAT is going on?!” my father questioned, more shocked than angry. People turned and looked as my crying became louder, but I did not care. This was all so terrible, and nobody seemed to understand that sadness was expected in this place—sorrow was required here. I could not possibly turn my eyes from this, the most amazingly horrible thing I had ever seen.
I know that my brother picked me up because I can still feel his hands under my arms as he lifted me from the floor. We all moved quickly through the museum, through the gift shop, past the staring families and tourists, out into the parking lot. The tears kept pouring—I was powerless to stop it. I was placed in the back seat, and my mother leaned in to me. And then our eyes locked. I remember that she really saw me. I know this because I can still hear her words: “I know.” She turned and walked back to the shop. No one said a word.
My mother returned carrying a brown bag and sat next to me. Everything shrank down to just me and my mother and her gift for me. She handed me the bag and said, “This is yours.” From inside it, I pulled a large, sky-blue book—the exact shade of the cannon on the hill. It had soft covers and was heavy. On the cover was the picture of a man, an Indian. He had feathers in his hair, paint on his face, but mostly he had dark, alive eyes that stared at me like they had seen me before. I recognized him, too. This was not a frightened man, but a dignified one, full of strength. He looked as if he would never die.
My mother said, “You’ve stopped crying.” And it was true. My heart still felt broken, but fearless, too. I had found something … someone who had belonged to me but had been missing. “Thank you,” I told her, back to my grown-up self. She squeezed my hand, and the others took their usual spots for the trip home. I spent that hour turning the pages, looking at the pictures inside and wishing I could make sense of the words because I knew they had something to tell me. Again and again, I looked at the Indian on the cover—my Indian. Before we reached home, I fell asleep clutching my book and dreamed about rivers and Indian brothers, about war and blood and the wind that blew the golden leaves.
I still have the sky-blue book with my Indian on the cover. The pages are worn thin, and I can still see my mother’s long fingers tracing the words as she read them aloud to me at night. The binding is cracked because I opened it thousands of times—because I HAD to understand. The edges are yellowing because so very many years have passed. But my Indian has not changed. He still looks at me like I am his family, as if my teepee is right down the river from his—like we have walked in those woods together often and understand exactly when to speak and when to be silent. It is my prized possession, my first memory, who I was and who I have become. My Indian—my heritage.