Sweetgrass – Leslie Meyer
There were pictures everywhere. Taped to the wall, in piles on the bookshelves that lined the walls. Pictures of Victorian devils. Of clowns. Mermaids. Bears. Pictures of people at prayer or in terror, it was hard to tell. There were dusty bleached animal skulls hanging on the walls. She recognized two deer (one with a bullet hole through the forehead), one raccoon and one tiny skull mounted on a red silk board she thought might be a mouse. There were strings of beads hanging over the doorknobs. They draped over picture frames and around the lampshades. Dusty Wood beads. Shell beads, beads made from rolled up magazine paper, shellacked and strung on floss. There were jars filled with glittering glass beads. More photos. Of cats. Photos of ancestors. Owl, crow and robin feathers were crammed into the corners of old picture frames. Books. Books made of paper, cloth and leather. Books in pristine condition, books worn to shreds. Books dislikes and books adored. Radio. Baskets. Paintings. Dust. CDs. A heap of costume jewelry spilling out of an old cookie tin. Cheap stuff but with a few nice pieces worth a nickel or two. Postcards. Lacework. Toys. Still more photographs in shoeboxes, on tables and sticking out of books. Knitting. Dust. Paperwork. And that was just the front room.
Reilly did not know where to begin. The apartment had been locked up for three years and she had avoided taking inventory of her mother’s place since her death in 2007. She missed her too much. Reilly had inherited the three story 100-year-old building and had taken up residence in one of the larger units. She rented out the others with the exception of the one that had been her mothers. Her mother in later years had become a hoarder. Not one of the hoarders that kept rotten food, empty cat food cans or 6-foot-tall stacks of newspapers, but a hoarder of memories. Memories hoarded up into boxes, jars, cans and tins. Each paper, each bead, each book held a specific memory and during her mother’s last few years, Reilly had been told about each one. She could hardly move for memories.
She made her way through the room and went into the hall. Flipping on the light she was again assaulted by books, this time, her mother’s collection of religious books. She was not religious; she was hardly what you would call spiritual. She was curious. She wanted to know what the tenets of other people’s faith were and why they seemed to work for them. She had bibles of all sizes, shapes and denominations. There was a Tanakh, a Book of Mormon, a Quran, books of Buddhist teachings, a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, books on Voo Doo, Hoo Doo, and dozens of yellowing pamphlets, scrolls, and comic books on faiths Riley had never heard of.
At age seven, Riley attended a Methodist church summer school with her best friend Elma. Elma lived upstairs and the two were inseparable. They played in the halls, roller skating inside when it rained, and rode their bikes outside when the weather allowed. They explored the neighborhood, up and down the alleys, rummaging through the tall grass in the vacant lots for bottles to take back to the corner store for nickels. Riley’s mother thought it would be good for her to get an idea about Christianity and know what church was. For three weeks in July Riley and Elma were dropped off every morning at the Merrywood Methodist Congregational Church, three blocks from the apartment. They learned about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Immaculate Conception, crucifixion and resurrection, angels and the Holy Ghost, Heaven and Hell and the land of Israel.
One day the children made pictures of Jesus based on several of the tales the teacher had read earlier that morning. Riley spent all afternoon coloring her Jesus picture. Her Jesus was inside the temple. She carefully drew the stone walls, coloring them blue. She drew two big windows looking out onto the street and put red curtains on them. She drew black bookshelves and drew books of every color in the 64-pack of crayons she was sharing with Elma. She drew a handsome curly haired black-eyed Jesus in a white robe with a bright red halo. She drew him with his hand up in the air pointing to the ceiling, which she has drawn in with the yellow green crayon. The teacher, a very nice young woman who was probably fresh out of high school and doing this as a summer job before going to college in the fall, took one look at the picture and shrieked. In addition to Jesus, Riley had drawn four little chairs and on each chair she drew a little brown bunny. Each bunny wore a little blue bow around its neck. She thought the teacher said Jesus and the rabbits.
Faith for Riley really never went past Jesus and the rabbits. Later that summer she got into trouble with one of the teachers when she said that Israel wasn’t a real place, that the Bible wasn’t real and that the stories were just like the fairytales that happened once upon a time. The teacher explained that yes, the Bible was true and that everything in it was true as well. And surely she knew Israel was real, didn’t she? Didn’t she ever hear about it on TV when her Mommy and Daddy watched the news? Riley thought for a minute and said, “Mom showed me Israel on our globe and said it was also called Palestine but it looked too small to be real. Besides, how can you have two countries in one place?” That was her last day at church school and Elma had to go alone. Elma moved later that year and Riley was left without a best friend.
After that, for several years her mother took her to churches, mosques, meeting rooms, synagogues, and meditation retreats. She did this, she said, in order to expose Riley to the truth that there is no one truth, that faith is not one size fits all and that no way is the only way.
Riley went into her old bedroom. She had moved her own things out years before her mother had died and it had been converted into a craft room. There were bins filled with yarn carefully packed in Ziploc bags, partially completed knitting projects, vases filled with knitting needles made from bamboo, aluminum, steel and even a few made from deer bone. Like the other rooms, along with the dust there were pictures everywhere, also patterns, instruction books on how to knit, sew, crochet, tat lace and design clothes. There were skeins of natural wool hand spun by her Auntie Annie Alice. She had a ranch on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and would send her mother yarn every year.
She walked over to the closet and pulled the string to turn on the light. It was surprisingly empty, except for a few hangers and three empty shoeboxes. Then a scent caught her attention. She turned and looked around the closet, then looked up. Just below the ceiling, a few old braids of sweet grass tied with scraps of red yarn were tacked up on the wall. They still carried a hint of what was to Riley an indescribable, unforgettable scent, an elusive sense of sweetness that meant summer, playing outside, of going to pow-wows in Wyoming and watching her Shoshone cousins James, Beckie and Albert from the Wind River Reservation dance. In its scent were carried the strength and promise of beginnings, of dreams waiting to become reality. It was a powerful smell; maybe the best smell in the world.
For a few summers in her early teens, Riley and her mother made the drive from Seattle to Lander, Wyoming to visit her father’s family. Beginning from the time she was thirteen, once they made it past Spokane, her mother let Riley drive their battered 1965 Black Vista Cruiser station wagon. It was a behemoth of a car with three rows of red vinyl seats, but it held everything they would need for six weeks away from home, including their cat Chester, a 20-pound orange and white Maine Coon, who perched himself on the rear-facing back seat, and sneered at any cars who followed too close behind them.
Pow-wow summers, she called them. Sleeping outside every night, either in a teepee if it rained or under the stars if it was clear. They would make up new constellations with new stories. One was called “Auntie Annie Alice’s Vacuum Cleaner, whose job was to suck all the pollution from the skies. Another was called “Chester the Great”, named for the cat, and of course, there were several of a dirty joke nature with secret names to use around parents, like “Hot Dog Dave”, “Betty Box”, and “Superballs”. If any of the latter were said by one of the cousins while in the presence of any adult, say, in the store, eating a meal, or in the car, the kids would snort, choke and double over trying to not laugh themselves sick.
Riley loved hanging out with her cousins. The rules, which Riley had to admit were generally lax at home, were nearly invisible here. They smoked cigarettes and drank beer, if they could get it, or Cokes if they couldn’t. At first, they were allowed to drive the ancient red tractor called “Uncle Fartie” around on her aunt’s land, but that ended after they tipped it over while driving through an abandoned prairie dog village, so they consoled themselves by riding the horses up to the lake and go fishing, or if the horses were needed on the ranch, go out with the shepherd to see to the thirty Targhee sheep that made up Auntie Annie Alice’s flock.
She never said it out loud, she never mentioned it to her girl cousins or her mother, or her Auntie but for Riley those days and nights were charged with the secret dream of falling in love with a fancy-dancer or a rodeo rider. He would be her age, slim, handsome and a champion. He would fall in love with her from across the paddock, dance area, or Indian taco booth. It would be true love that would last forever. Riley had been raised to see that sort of romance as manufactured and she knew the logical reasons this was a bad way to start a relationship but still her teenage heart dreamed.
There had never been a real romance during those summers. Her cousins had lots of friends but they were all older and leery of the big city girl from Seattle. She had kissed one or two of them at parties but there was no more magic there than there was back home when she kissed that boy after a party at The Village Lanes Bowling Alley. She never met her fancy-dancer true love. Even now, she still had small, unspoken desire to see if there was something waiting for her on the pow-wow grounds, in the tall grasses, on the ranch. She knew the cousins were still on the reservation. Beckie taught at the elementary school , and both James and Albert were running Auntie Annie Alice’s ranch. She missed them. After years of seeing them only once every few years, she felt their absence, almost as keenly as she felt the loss of her mother. Maybe it was time for a visit.
An old wooden ironing board was set up in the center of her old room. A towel covered the board and on the towel was pinned the sleeve from a sweater her mother had been making before she died. One of a hundred cardigan sweaters her other had made over the decades she had lived in that apartment. It was covered with dust, like everything in the apartment, but would probably be salvageable after a good shake and a wash. She would look through the bins to see if the rest of the sweater was around and finish it. She rummaged around and found it in a plastic bag under the ironing board. Riley unpinned the sleeve and put it in the bag. Then she went back to the closet. She unpinned the sweetgrass and pressed it to her nose and breathed in its dusty richness. The promise was there. It tugged at her heart, brought tears to her eyes and excited her imagination. She laughed, turned out the light and left the room. She locked the apartment and went across the hall. She would come back tomorrow but first she had a call to make.