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THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO BECOMING AN OLD, NEW RESERVATION INDIAN WRITER

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By Junior Mazaska

All my life, I have wanted to be a writer. I used to keep a diary of my daily experiences on note pads my Mom bought for me in town. I did not realize until many years later that she found in me my own perfect babysitter, able to entertain myself with words and drawings for hours, while she went out on dates.

Sometimes, she would be gone a day or two or even three, leaving me alone in the darkened house, surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and peeking timidly out the window as I ate them, waiting for her return.

Her constant sadness alway made me sad, too. I could sense the anguish she felt, her nagging aloneness, as she tried to accept the prolonging absence of my father. I would often have dreams of a dark, rainy jungle and a man without a face.

We did not have a TV back then, not even a radio, but I could hear our nearest next door neighbor’s TV, often blaring sports or Friday night fights, with everyone yelling, drunkenly, for their chosen contestant. Sometimes, it seemed like the TV fight actually jumped right into their living room, and before you knew it, it spilled into the back yard and a circle of yelling intoxicated people would surround the fighters, cheering on or denouncing one or the other, until they all fell into a heap, laughing or cursing.

It was actually a little scary to watch and listen to them from behind the drawn shades in my house, which I kept permanently drawn, waiting for my Mom to return from one of her dates.

But it was also very exciting.

Once, two combatants crashed against the side of our house so hard I thought the wall would break. They fell silent in a heap, and moments later a knock came at the front door. It was the father of the two men who had been fighting. He came to apologize for his sons’ behavior and to ask if there were any damages to the wall that needed fixing.

I wasn’t fool enough to open the door, being alone in the darkened house, eating sandwiches under my bed, and writing in my notebooks. I peeked out from behind the blinds, and he pretended not to see me, but he knew I was there. He turned and looked out across the prairie, and began to speak in a conversational tone.

“Tell your mother to come see me if there’s any damages and I will fix them. I am an experienced carpenter. You don’t have to worry, young man, I can fix anything. I apologize for my sons.”

He did come back several days later when my Mom was home, and he got his tools and shored up the wall, which had started to look like a crumpled beer can from the inside. A couple of days later, Mom got into his pickup, and together they went on a date. I didn’t see her again for three days, and there was much yelling next door when they returned. By then, I was working on my last can of peanut butter, licking it off my finger tips.

Then, suddenly, the door would open and there she would be, sunshine laden with packages of food and clothing, like Santa Claus, and she would be smiling her brightest smile. My mother, I thought, was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Sometimes the men would spend the night, but most times they didn’t, and I’d have her all to myself.

When I turned 12, she proclaimed that henceforth I should consider myself an adult and in charge of the house while she was gone. Something I had already been doing for years, for as long as I could remember.

When men came calling in those days, and many did, I knew that Mom was sometimes embarrassed by my presence. I would hide as quiet as a mouse in the closet until the man was gone.

And I can still hear it all in my mind, like it was yesterday, the sounds and moans of passion they would make. I learned how to put such things in a different compartment in my mind, and lock them away. She was Mom, after all. She could do no wrong in my mind.

Then, the man would go, and I would hear her soft sobs, as she tried to bury her face in her pillow. She would always say she missed my father, who they said was still listed as missing in action in Vietnam. One more year and they would declare him dead, a man I never knew. Not even a photograph. But I knew she loved him deeply, and so I did, too.

She would hold out her arms, and her warmth would envelope me, and we’d be right as rain again. When I was 12, she was my best friend. She would make coffee (wakalapi) and insist I read to her my limited observations of the community from my subjective viewpoint, behind the window blinds.

I enjoyed watching my mother laugh, as I relayed to her the antics and curious goings-on in our neighborhood, mixed with my own editorial presumptions. I never told her that I was regularly sneaking out at night in her absence to run with some of the local boys in town, but her laughter would brighten the room like bells in a church steeple, and I would bathe in their soul-soothing glow for as long as I could. I didn’t know then that it was not to last.

You see, my mother taught me to read and write at an early age. I started by reading comic books and graduated from those to National Geographic magazines, which my Mom smuggled home from her job at the hospital for me to read.

“The patients never read these,” she would say. “All they want to do is get well and get out of there.”

Trouble came knocking at our door the following year, when I turned 13, from an angry truant officer, demanding to know why I was not in school. My mother insisted she was home-schooling me, but he said there were rules and regulations that had to be followed. By now, I was almost a head taller than my Mom, who was slender and almost frail-like by then. The next Monday, I climbed aboard my first bus ride to the eighth grade, all the way to Mission town. I didn’t know then how sick she really was or that we only had less than a year ahead of us before the cancer would steal her away.

By now, I had graduated from writing by hand to typing on a portable Smith-Corona typewriter, which my Mom bought for me at a garage sale for $10. When I found it, I typed one sentence: “I want to be a writer.”

“And, so you shall be, my son,” she said, opening her purse. “Remember to work hard.”

I said I always wanted to be a writer, and now after all these years I am finally writing for publication. It may not be much, but to me it’s the biggest thing in the world. I feel like I can reach out and touch the soul of anyone who reads my words.

Thank you, Mom, for believing in me, and teaching me how to read and write. Late at night, sometimes I can clearly hear your laughter echoing across the years, and it warms my aging heart. Someday soon, we’ll all be together again.

—A tribal member writing under the pen name, Junior Mazaska, the author writes from Upper Cut Meat and Parmelee on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation.

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