Learning lessons of loss

As I traveled west across North Dakota a few weekends ago, I could feel spring in the air -- that unmistakable feeling that made me want to shout. I wanted my voice to echo across the rolling plains. I wanted to look out my window and see furry p...

As I traveled west across North Dakota a few weekends ago, I could feel spring in the air -- that unmistakable feeling that made me want to shout. I wanted my voice to echo across the rolling plains. I wanted to look out my window and see furry purple crocuses. I didn't see any, though. And to be honest, it was a bit chilly.

My grandmother used to say that if an elder who is ill makes it through winter to spring, they'll live to see another year. Spring is a marker of beginnings and endings of life, she said. This spring was a marker of endings, as evident as the tombs in the cemeteries. And it was my family's time for looking back at the life of my aunt/mother, Pearl Howard. Her ending came almost a year ago to the day. Her memorial and the end of our mourning was March 24.

The memories of her were bittersweet.

Bitter because we remember clearly what we've lost, but sweet because we still can hear her laughter -- she had a wonderful sense of humor. That's something people remembered and spoke about during her memorial.

I didn't speak up, even though I did tell my sisters some of the funny things I remembered about my relationship with her. But my loss isn't healed yet.


My sister went with me to the memorial. We cooked for the traditional table of foods that day. We made two of my aunt's favorite foods -- buffalo tongue and squash. I had one large Lakota squash given to me by the Crawford family, and it, along with five acorn squash from Hugo's grocery, cooked up nicely for the feast.

There were many elders at the feast but also a large group of young people. My sister and I talked about these young people on our way home. We realized that we've had my grandmother, mother, aunt and other elders to explain the Sahnish ways and culture to us.

Time and time again, as we prepared for a ceremony in years past, the elders were the ones who made the final decisions on protocol. My aunt used to tell me that she wished her mother -- my grandmother -- had told her more that she could pass along to the children.

My aunt used to talk about, and cry about, the fact that they missed some of the details of ceremonies and our ways because of the disruptions during their time. There are ceremonies that we no longer can practice because the way wasn't passed along. Perhaps the elder who did the ceremony wasn't able to teach it before he died, or no one asked for it. They thought these elders always would be there to pray with the sacred bundles and perform the ceremonies.

I am two generations from my grandmother, and I realize there are things I'm unsure of, too. And now, with my aunt no longer with me, I feel unsure at times.

As we returned to Grand Forks, N.D., my sister and I talked about how the family seems to be moving in different directions. The glue that had held us together was my aunt and mother.

We remember the times during ceremonies that they taught us sacred things, the culture and our ways. They often lamented at how much we've lost of these ceremonies. These days, I told my sister, I fear how much deeper we'll be affected.

The memorial for my aunt reminded me that they both left us -- my mother first, and then a year later, my aunt. I thought it was just like them to leave together and smiled to myself -- they were a pair. When they were able to get around comfortably, they went everywhere together; you hardly saw one without the other.


Only a few weeks after my aunt passed away, I had a dream about her. I told my sister. She was smiling at me and simply said, "Keep the family together." I didn't think much about the dream because I thought our family celebrations and gatherings that we all attend would continue without break.

Yet we haven't been able to find our way back as easily as we did before they left us.

The summer before my aunt passed away, I was returning from Nez Perce country. It was dusk, and as I came over a rise in the highway, in the middle of the road was a blood red moon, so big and imposing that I could hardly believe it. It was a medicine moon and would foretell changes and the passing over, which came some months later.

It wasn't until the memorial that I remembered the specter on the horizon; and I realized even though my mother and aunt are gone, they are also with us. The blood red medicine moon is a spirit -- maybe their spirit now -- that made itself known to foretell.

So, perhaps, it's understanding, listening and knowing how to respond to the signs that will become the questions for us to contemplate and interpret in our years ahead.

Wet AX Kooss'teeRIt, my mothers.

Dorreen Yellow Bird is a columnist for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.

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