A Space for Women of the World
They met in Navajo Language 121 around 1982. Grace was studying medicine and Sylvia was studying Grace. They were both really shy. Sylvia had been born on the reservation and Grace in Albuquerque where they both attended the University of New Mexico. Grace was half-Navajo and didn’t know any of the language, except a few curse words and how to say, “come and eat.” Everyone else in the class, except a guy from New York, was fluent in the language and they were there to learn how to read and write it and to meet other Navajos.
Sylvia noticed right away that every time Grace had to give an oral report she would break out with a new pimple and Sylvia could understand why. Other then the deep tenderness in her voice, it was excruciating to listen to her try to speak Navajo. But, Sylvia thought she was brave, brave to come into a class where she knew everyone would know more than her. Well, except the guy from New York.
So it was a relief when Grace introduced herself in Navajo and Sylvia found out that they weren’t clan relatives. Otherwise becoming lovers would be a double taboo. Not that it mattered. Grace was already out of bounds – she was like a pop-up foul ball that goes up and up, and Sylvia, the catcher, would jump into the bleachers to get her. Sylvia had already fallen in love with the wandering pimple Grace tried to cover with make-up. She loved the way she pronounced dog, łééchąą ‘í, with too much emphasis on the chąą ‘í part, so that it sounded in her oral presentation like she was taking her “shit for a walk.” She loved her name and the way she said it when she introduced herself, Grace wolye. Sylvia loved all of her, but it took her an entire semester, before she got around to telling her. And a semester in college was like dog (or shit) years. No, they’re like space man-years, like 1000 years for every minute.
She invited Grace over to her dorm to study for the final. She listened to her entire presentation about her dog with a straight face. Even the part where Grace said “her shit was six years old.” Then Sylvia asked her, “How do you say kiss in Navajo?”
Grace, who could be pretty serious, started looking through her notebook. She stopped when it dawned on her that she had no idea.
Sylvia, who made the best fry bread on the UNM campus, placed a big piece on top of Grace’s notebook along side a bowl of mutton stew and then showed her.
That kiss was epic – it had a long tail like a kite, or a jet stream in an otherwise empty blue sky. It was like a star that is falling, that they say is dying, but no, Grace said it was just starting to live.
That falling star of a kiss lasted through two more years of undergraduate school for Grace and failed classes for Sylvia. It was over more fry bread that glistened like moist lips that Grace told Sylvia she’d been accepted into med school. They hugged and cried.
Grace said, “One day, I’ll deliver our children.”
Grace was that brave. She would be a doctor and pull babies out head first, feet first. She’d take a knife, cut the mother open, and pull that baby out if she had to. Sylvia knew all along that Grace would become a doctor and that they would never have babies together. That she would soon be going back home to Keams Canyon to help her grandmother with the sheep and never make it back. And there was no way Grace could never make it out there.
Grace was not made for the reservation, she was made for this world and to take her back would break everyone’s heart, even Sylvia’s. There was no place back there for them. Her grandmother would disown her if she found out she made love to woman. She’d be cast out like dirty dishwater. And Grace, who had a love for justice, would not be able to keep her big beautiful mouth shut.
Sylvia never talked about it to Grace, but she missed home, she missed the sky that smelled like wood smoke and the jingle of bells on the sheep as they came back to the corral in the evening. It was all the bravery that Sylvia could muster to have stayed this long out here in the city where the only place she felt she fit was in Grace’s arms. How was it possible that the most sacred thing she ever felt was outside that circle of the Dinetah?
The only other time she was brave was when they would go to the Holiday Bowl on Tuesday nights and sing karaoke. Grace would sit towards the back with a longneck beer and applaud while Sylvia sang. Some guy up front would always ask her to sing one more and she would, Grace’s favorite.
Grace always said she was born in the wrong era and her favorite song was by the great folk singer, Joan Baez – Diamonds and Rust. So she sang Grace’s favorite song to her about being haunted by the memory of someone.
It was not all that surprising to Dr. Grace Forrester when she heard the name Sylvia Yazzie called over the tinny speaker at the Indian Hospital in Albuquerque. It had been fourteen years since Sylvia got on the Greyhound bus to visit her grandmother and never came back, but Grace always thought she would see her again. Today was that day, “Pre-natal Clinic.”
Years ago, when Sylvia left and never came back, Grace actually drove her beat up ‘71 Chevy Nova all the way to Keams Canyon to find her. She was positive something had to have happened to her, but nobody there knew a Sylvia Yazzie. Grace didn’t believe them, and drove all over the area until finally her radiator blew and just like Sylvia, she took a bus back home.
Now all these years later Grace looked at the name again. The name she had doodled on spiral notebooks, a name she could never forget was typed and pasted on the pale green medical chart – Sylvia Yazzie. She picked it up and opened it – place of residence, Keams Canyon. It was her. She could feel it. She could also feel that old thing in her stomach and for a minute she thought she might throw up. She felt like she was back in college, not Dr. Forrester, just Grace, who was left without even a good-bye. She had been so young, yet her heart had died a little, dried up, and blown away like a big yellow cottonwood leaf.
Grace took a deep breath. She was a professional. She could handle this. She reviewed her chart.
Sylvia had had four pregnancies and had lost two babies. She imagined that those were the two that they were supposed to have had.
Sylvia sat in the cold exam room. The liver-colored linoleum tile, the off-white walls, the glass containers with metal lids, labeled “cotton balls” and “swabs” as if you couldn’t see them under the fluorescent lights. Her heart beat an irregular rhythm, which was nothing new – she’d been born with a heart murmur.
She remembered when Grace was accepted into med school, she, Sylvia, had taken the Central bus to the uniform shop on San Mateo and purchased a stethoscope. It looked like a two-headed metallic snake and came with a black leather case that zipped. When she gave it to her, Grace placed it around her neck like a squash blossom, no turquoise, just silver.
Grace put the tips in her ears and placed the cold diaphragm that looked like a tiny drum to Sylvia’s heart and listened.
“Is it telling you how much I love you?”
They had gone out and celebrated and Sylvia pretended the whole time, as she had her whole life, like she was going to stick around. Maybe she really thought she would, that she could.
Now, here she was again, just like that ghost she used to sing about.
The doctor in Keams Canyon had told Sylvia after her last miscarriage that she needed to see the specialist in Albuquerque. She knew the minute he told her that it was Grace. She had driven all night to get to her appointment on time and now she knew that she couldn’t stay. She quickly re-dressed, stuffing the paper gown in the trashcan and smoothing the paper on the exam table.
Before leaving out the door opposite the main hallway, where she could hear phones ringing and nurses talking, she picked up the stethoscope that was on the doctor’s desk. It was cold and shiny and she put it in her purse.
I try so hard to not miss my mother. My family says I can’t be calling her name, but her name is my name. I am Sylvia Rose and my mother is Sylvia. Sylvia it sounds like silk when you say it slow.
Because my grandmothers, aunties and uncles don’t want to call her back here to this world, they call me Rose or Junior. And I try not to think about her or to say her name. But, sometimes early in the morning when that last star that held vigil over our house winks at me, I look back and instead of saying a prayer of gratitude for all I have, for all the beauty around me, I say out loud all the names I know for her, “Shima, Mother, Sylvia, Akeedee’naghai’igii, – Mom – I miss you.”
Mom who was the best weaver in the family, she could turn the worst wool into a masterpiece. She could expertly weave a new belt between the fan for the radiator and the power steering. She could weave dough so that it was like the bread they eat in France. She could weave a story that made us laugh and cry all at once.
I know there are a thousand different ways to disappear, maybe a million, maybe as many ways as there are people on this earth. Some disappear in tiny increments, little by little. My mom was like a sand dune that was always moving, always dissolving. My family said she was never the same after she returned from college, that she had left a part of herself out there on the other side of the our sacred mountains. They wanted to do a ceremony for her, to make her whole again, but she refused. They didn’t know it yet, but if my mom had left a part of herself out there on the other side of Blue Bead Mountain, then I was going to go look for it.
The last time I saw my mom, other than in my dreams, I woke to the sound of the truck coughing and the smell of rain on the horizon. She was going to get milk and The Navajo Times. She was going to meet the rain.
Normally I got up early too, but for some reason that morning I didn’t. I slept until the sun was just coming above the mountains. I looked out the window of our little house and saw our lopsided Ford spewing smoke from the tail pipe and greeting the low morning sky. I watched my mom go over the first hill, turn to the right, and she was gone.
I play that morning in my mind over and over like a broken record. They say, “You’re like a broken record.” I say, I’m like a sand dune and I’m moving on. I’m going to college. Of course, my family wants me to go the other way – Phoenix or Mesa, Flag’ or Tucson – but this sand dune is headed east to Albuquerque.
I tell my great-grandmother when I come back, I’ll write stories for you in Navajo. I tell my grandmother, “I’m going to find her.”
She takes hold of my elbow and pulls me to her room. At the end of her bed is a trunk that was sealed like a tomb years ago. It’s blue with faded gold trim, numerous dents, and stickers of: The Rolling Stones iconic tongue, Jimi Hendrix, and a marijuana leaf half peeled off. My grandmother opens it and inside the cedar-lined trunk are a pair of moccasins, some old bell-bottom jeans, a leather coat, a high school year book, a doctor’s metal stethoscope, and a worn out copy of a textbook, Navajo Made Easier. She picks up the book and hands it to me with what looks like tears in her eyes. Inside the book there are scribbles everywhere as if my mom had spent more time doodling than studying. In the section about the proper way to introduce yourself in Navajo, my mom has filled in the blanks with the appropriate clans.
At the bottom of that same page is someone else’s handwriting and the question, “How do you say love in Navajo?”
Written beside that is the answer – “Grace.”