What's some of your favorite memories from childhood?
The women in my family are my most favorite memories. I was blessed with wonderful grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Because my mother had just turned eighteen years old before I was born, my older sister and I were fortunate enough to not only know all except for one of our natural grandparents but also know all of our great-grandparents. The one grandparent I never knew was my maternal grandfather, who passed away nine years before I was born. I love all my family members, but I learned so much from the women in my family.
All of my grandmothers were endowed with a strength that I have driven myself to emulate. My great grandmothers were Thuller Othell (Collins) McGhee, Velma Twilight (Fraiser) Kinney, Stella Mae (Butler) Bartley, and Nancy May (Essary) White. Thuller was the mother of seven children, Roy Lee (Lee Roy), Letha, Alfred, Billy Ray, Doris Marie, Dean Wayne, and Mary. Lee Roy was my grandfather. From Thuller, one of my Irish grandmothers, I learned how to stand firm on principles and beliefs. Of the four great grandmothers, I feel I favor Thuller the most in my appearance.
What I remember the most about Velma Twilight, affectionately known as Granny Kinney, is the stories that she shared with me. Though I did not live close to Granny Kinney, we did write back and forth to one another over the years, and I treasure the pile of letters that I keep in my family tree album. I often pull the letters out and reread how my great-great grandfather was a cowboy that rode in cattle drives in Texas and New Mexico. I read how he lived during the civil war and was once mistaken as a renegade. Her letters spin stories of a family struggling to survive through the early 1900's and over the last hundred years. Velma also shared stories of how she raised her five Native American children, Novalee Ethel (my grandmother), Peggy Joyce, James Kenneth, Billy Lyndon, and Patricia Ann. From Velma, I learned how to document the history of my family, and how important stories of the past are to helping people understand their culture and where they come from.
I also learned a lot about my ancestry from Nancy May. As a child, I would sit at her feet and listen to stories as her tiny body rocked in her rocking chair. She spoke of working in a speak easy in the 1920's, working in the cotton fields, and being the mother of her nine children: William Thelon, Minnie Lee, Benjamin Franklin, Emery Alvin, Katherine May, Lorene Ann, Mary Francis (my grandmother), Harvey Chester, and Flossie Marie. Grandma White also told me stories of how it was like growing up as a Native American in a white man's world. Some stories were somber and made me think about who I am and where I belong in this world. From Grandma White, I learned that the world can be a tough place to live, and how I need to walk strong in the world. I also learned from her that we are not only mind and body but also soul. I learned that family is bonded together in a manner that is difficult for many to understand. I, like her, can sense when a family member needs me, and how to give them a strong shoulder to cry on.
Strength is the definition of my Grandma Bartley, Stella Mae. She was the toughest Irish woman I have ever known. I think she had to be tough raising three rough and rowdy boys, Clyde, John Cleveland (J.C. my grandfather), and Clyde. I remember Grandma Bartley more than I remember my other great-grandmothers. Perhaps, this is due to the consistent contact I had with her. She and I attended church together, and I spent time alone with her after. We trampled together in the fields picking black eyed peas and shucking them on her back porch. She still had one of the early washing machines with the hand cranked rollers to squeeze the water from the clothes. Grandma Bartley always had a garden that required tending, and I loved eating the fresh fruits and vegetables that grew there. This woman would take off under the house to fix her own plumbing while well into her nineties. From her I learned pure determination and that the power of the world was mine if I wanted it. Grandma Bartley's strength was unmeasurable, as she had to grow the tough exterior after losing two of her children, J.C. and Clyde, at a young age.
My grandmother, Novalee, also had a tough exterior that she had developed throughout the years. She was the mother of nine children, Lynda Ann, Brenda Carol, David LeeRoy (Daddy), Susan Lavonda, Anthony Darryll, Aaron Glenn, Jana Renae, Mark Edward, and Melonie Lynette. Granny was the hard working Native American grandmother that spent her life working in truck stops as both a cook and a waitress. I remember watching Granny take care of her customers, who were often regulars, as she made sure that they were happy. Granny always had a smile on her face, and I cannot remember ever seeing her unhappy. She was dedicated and devoted to my grandfather and loved both him and her children intensely. And, this is what I learned from her. I learned that love is everlasting, and people can die of a broken heart, as she passed away less than a month after we lost her love.
Love emanates from the very atmosphere surrounding my Grandma Kierepka. Of each grandmother, she is the one grandmother I still have with me. My memories of Grandma are infinite, but I remember the songs the most. My grandmother would dance through the house and sing, though off-key, feeling the air of her home with happiness and joy. She taught me how to dance, and we would jitterbug throughout her house. Grandma's laugh is infectious. She is the poet and artist, and from her I learned how to infuse my words and art with power. I can honestly say that Grandma Kierepaka is one of my best friends, and having her living so far away, now, is very difficult on both my boys and me. Grandma taught me that money does not make happiness, and happiness comes from love and family.
I love each of my grandmothers very much. Although Grandma Kierepka is the only grandmother that I still have with me, I carry all of my grandmothers in my very heart and soul. They are my strength and power, my creativity and discipline, and my heart and soul. From each grandmother, I learned how to be a woman and what a woman was meant to be, which is why I feel that my best childhood memories stem from my relationship with each of them.