Saturday, May 25, 2019

Prophetstown, Indiana

      for Danny

we walk a fragment
of old prairie
at the end of May

            walk on ashes
walk on ashes

skeletons of wigwams
reconstructed for tourists
bleach under a sky

heavy with thunder
wide as a long memory
hot as arson

            walk on ashes
walk on ashes

my son picks a little tune
he calls "Tippecanoe Blues"
out of his Ibanez guitar—

"Tecumseh and the Prophets
wrote this one," he says—
a red-winged blackbird

perches on a long stem
of dead grass, listens
like he’s heard that song          

            [walk on ashes
walk on ashes]



Tuesday, May 21, 2019



Honeysuckle and wild roses in May -- the exact scent of longing, the sweet yearning of dawn, the twilight taste of something you can’t name, but almost remember or ache to know. A place or a person who once held you when you cried, or opened her hand to reveal your desire gleaming on her palm like a perfectly matched note of song. Unassuming flowers, delicately formed white and yellow petals, release a scent designed to lure bees and other pollinators from afar; in the human brain, these same ribbons set off complex riffs of unchained melodies, send extra electric pulses to the heart, open those sealed doors like the world’s smoothest safecracker. Your soul can’t resist turning toward the forest where these vines twine and rise above an old deer path. You don’t ask why. You can’t. Your body looks like it’s sitting in a rocker on a faded gray porch above a green river; but the part of you that has never known enough love flies toward that dream you caught once, long ago. Or maybe it's a dream you never caught, but still -- impossibly -- have enough innocence left to chase. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Wild Roses

Wild roses crest
like a hallelujah,

honeysuckle waterfall spills

into spiderweb rainbow strands;

buttercups splay and swoon,

shameless worshippers
of the sun

let's gather gray feathers

scattered in wild

strawberries, bind them
with a blade

of grass, tuck the prayer

between rocks

next to black bear tracks

on the creek’s soft bank,

trace deer tracks

at water’s edge,

croon over the outline of raccoon’s

long hind foot

in mud the color of flood;

let's wander a meadow

of crisp

white owl’s clover

brush against broad nettle leaves
dusted with pollen,

walk over yellow and orange petals

spiraling down

from tulip poplars
flowering the path   

as if for a wedding;

you and I, tramping

in tall boots

as we marry
and marry

and marry again

this beloved



Saturday, May 11, 2019

Alma perdido

Certain ancestors carry stories that fascinate me. Estafana Real, whom I wrote about in "They Were Tough, Those Old Women: The Power of Gossip in Isabel Meadows' Narratives," continues to draw me back to her again and again. Recently, I discovered another Estefana story: in April of 1868, at the age of “57” (actually, 59), Estefana Real married a man named Ricardo Preciado, who is listed on the marriage record as 30 years old.

Previously, Estefana had married a man named Mendoza, and had many children with him (and some by other men). Next she is married to Juan Acedo, with whom she had the “joto”Victor Acedo. At some point, she married Joaquin Gutierrez, a ChileƱo, perhaps in hopes that marriage to a “European” would help her hold onto El Potrero.  Now I find she married Preciado late in life; although divorce was practically unheard of, and certainly not available to the poor, serial bigamy was common in California in the early days – not just between Indians, but Euro-Americans as well, many of whom found the lack of organized record-keeping convenient. Despite the Roman Catholic Church’s extensive written marriage records, still another RC priest presided over Estefana’s third (and last?) bigamist event – Father Michael Rocca. Ironically, this kind of easy marriage/remarriage, common in pre-contact tribes of the area, was one of the key factors the missionaries cited as evidence that Indians needed civilization lessons; it "proved" that colonization and missionization were not just necessary for Indians, but an ethical imperative for Euro-Americans! 

Thinking Preciado might be a way to trace the latter years of Estefana’s life (he’s already an interesting marker of her resilience, perseverance, and ingenuity), I searched for him in the archives. He seems to have registered to vote in Monterey, but the dates are wide there – 1867-1898. He has a mark next to his name that translates to “[naturalized] by treaty with Mexico,” so perhaps Estefana was not a citizenship marriage. I mention the possibility because it's difficult to imagine what benefit a legal marriage would give either party in a time and place where common-law relationships were quite widespread, and which Estefana, at least, had already experienced.

Like most Indian women of this time period, I’m certain Estefana married for reasons of survival rather than romance; romance was for the very young, and a brief, if that, privilege. Once a woman had a child, she was at the mercy of any man who would help her support that child; as an older woman, at nearly 60 years old, Estefana was past child-bearing age, and had shed her many children (some of them were raised by other women, relatives or families who took a child in as a servant – such was Victor Acedo’s case). But while she was finished raising a family, now she had to look after her own, elderly, self. What did she have to offer a 30-year-old man from Mexico? Perhaps citizenship in exchange for a cash payment, or bartered items? Perhaps she’d hung onto some money left over from her time at El Potrero? Shared housing? 

Isabel Meadows notes that Estefana had “mucho maridos,” but she never mentioned Preciado. This seems to imply that Preciado was not a significant relationship for Estefana; although it’s true that Isabel was only 28 at the time of Estefana’s marriage to Preciado, Isabel had much knowledge about Estefana’s other, earlier partnerships. Why didn’t Isabel remember this one?

Interestingly, Preciado’s marriage to Estefana seems to be the only record he left behind. Even his death is hard to locate. This could be him – it’s in the general geographical area - if he had lived to be 85:

But that’s a slim chance, not really enough data to make a firm statement. And I can’t find anymore. 

Ricardo Preciado is another one of those sad mysteries: a human being whose life came and went, without leaving more than a name on an odd marriage record, voting registration of an indeterminate year, and a “maybe” death record. He was born in Mexico, around 1838, but there are no baptismal records that I can find; he came from nowhere, and went nowhere. All I know is that he married my 4x great-aunt, who was twice his age. Was he kind? Was he cruel? Did he leave behind loved ones in Mexico? What state was he from? Did he speak English, Spanish, an Indigenous language? Who loved him? Whom did he love? What happened to him? 

We can't know any of this. He’s part of the crumbling past now, his flesh fed on by darkness and roots, time and the many-legged creatures of the earth’s remaking. A small blessing on your soul, Ricardo. I don’t know you well enough to remember you, or memorialize you, but I see you. I see you.