But the fact that the jar was there, and that it was there because at some point I chose it and paid for it, shed a curious light on an experience I had yesterday when a friend took me to the corn dance at Cochiti Pueblo here in New Mexico.
I’ve been to a lot of pueblo ceremonials over the years, and this one was as impressive as all of them: huge crowds of dancers, including small children, the women in black mantas, wooden tablitas shaped like mountain tops, or clouds, the men bare chested, painted, with shell bandoliers across their chests, and kilts with swaying fox or coyote tails down the back.
I am always impressed, although not moved, by these people’s resilience, the fact that for all our attempts to exterminate them, they not only survive, they keep their four-generation families apparently intact. Many no longer live in these mud villages yet they return for the annual festival, submit to a grueling purification, and dance all day, for rain, in the broiling midsummer sun, sometimes barefoot on the burning sand of the plaza.
What set me back and shed a different light on my admiration of the ceremony was the scene in the house where I was invited to have lunch. The pueblo people are enormously hospitable; inside, a long table was spread with many dishes, places set on either side, and a constantly revolving series of guests who came, sat, ate, and left, almost entirely in silence.
Of course I was a stranger, a white woman, not only without a name—no one was introduced—but without an identity or a clearly discerned reason for being there. Hence, I suppose, my discomfort as I ate the red chili stew, posole, jello and canned fruit salad with big slabs of homemade white bread, baked in the traditional way in round outdoor ovens called hormos.
But there was another reason for my quiet distress, which my nineteen-year-old granddaughter, sitting next to me, did not share. I couldn’t help noticing that the mother and daughter of the family, up cooking since dawn, never sat down at the table; if they ate, they ate on the fly, standing up in the kitchen, and submitted good-naturedly to the criticism of the patriarch—who said he had just “dropped in”—that their bread was too crusty. I watched the ancient grandmother (probably actually no older than I am), who never lifted her eyes from her plate, totter out afterwards unassisted, seeming nearly invisible, not only to her relatives who never spoke to her but to herself, although without a doubt most of that crowd would not have been sitting there if she had not submitted to pregnancy, childbirth, and the arduous raising of children in poverty.
To what degree, I wonder now, do I too secretly submit to the role that “Mother’s Meatloaf Starter” places on the grocery shelves, and that seems to define the pueblo women’s lives? There were several teenaged mothers with babies at the table; these young women almost certainly faced a life of single motherhood and lack of opportunity, and their babies would eventually increase the labor of the mothers and grandmothers. I, too, had had my three sons at a young age, without any idea of what raising them would mean to my work as a writer, although the fact that I could afford to hire help (when I could bring myself to do it) allowed me to continue, spasmodically, to pursue my passion.
At the table, I, too, sat in silence, occasionally attempting to make eye contact with the women and men seated around me, but there were no returning glances, no curiosity about who or what I might be—and of course my silence meant I had no curiosity about these strangers, as well. The cast-down eyes of the women dancing outside reinforced the essential privacy the pueblo people maintain, as though we have nothing to offer each other except, perhaps, the possibility of harm.
The mother and daughter here were united in their service as the men did not seem to be; perhaps this companionship comforted them and repaid them for their day of hard labor. No one was going to help them clear the table or wash up or get rid of the mounds of garbage; I erred by getting up and leaving the table before one of these women had relieved me of my plate. Apparently as a guest I was not even supposed to carry my plate to the kitchen.There were not many thank yous; the women’s service seemed as taken for granted as the steps of the dance that have survived unchanged for hundreds of years. Women serve; men do other things. The stability of the dances rests on the stability of these roles; it would be as unimaginable for a woman to refuse to prepare this meal as it would be for a woman to attempt to lead the dance.
Yet how we love stability; how we long for continuity; how much is written about the price we pay for the separation of generations, geographically and philosophically. And there is a price: my children and grandchildren do not know my stories—with the single exception of the granddaughter who sat so comfortably at the feast day table. They do not know because they are not interested, and because my life has been too radical in thought, too fragmented in relationships, to serve as anything other than a warning of the risk of independence. If my story resembled my mother’s and grandmother’s, who inherited and replicated a southern tradition of hospitality and charm, what little I found to say might be accepted with indifference but without discomfort.
We white people are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Year of the Woman, which promised to bring substantial change to our roles and possibilities, and which did result in an uptick in the number of women running for elective office, although that number soon fell again, placing us 97th among the nations in that ranking.
As we begin to plan forums to celebrate that date—celebrations unlikely to include, or to interest, native women—should we feature a jar of Mother’s Meatloaf Starter, to spur us to discuss the degree to which we are still serving, unpaid and often unthanked, salving the wounds, mending the relationships, raising too many children?
And even baking bread.
[Historical images of Cochiti Pueblo from Pinterest.]