Kate Dolinger: The Ceremony of Acknowledgment (memoir/essay)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am from Bristol, Virginia, a city that borders Tennessee and is “A good place to live” (so says a sign on the border). I lived on a 10-acre farm for most of my life, and now I go to college in Bluefield, Virginia (another split southern city).
The Ceremony of Acknowledgment
The three Cherokee sisters live harmoniously, live in the soil they share with a smile, their feet buried deep in the dirt of life. The eldest sister, Corn grows tall and lean, she is so strong; she is known as The Old Woman. The middle sister, Bean, is wispy, widespread, she needs the guidance of Corn; they keep each other straight. Whenever a Cherokee mother wanted her child to be endowed with a joyful heart, she would take a bean and place to their lips.
I grew up the youngest, always looking up to my sister, always growing up around her, finding myself in the places she didn’t want. Eventually, we began to hold on to each other trying to figure out what roots we share here. But we always felt like we were missing a part of ourselves.
The youngest sister of the Cherokee sacrifices herself for the betterment of the others as she keeps the animals away with her thorns, fanning out her body to shade their feet from sunburn. She is Squash.
When my mother had just died, my sister at seventeen and I at twelve began to clean everything, trying to Clorox death away, chemicals eating away at the finest particles of life, Natives praying that Mother Earth will accept the life they are living today.
While I was gone to piano lessons, upstairs in a dusty closet we called “Haunted,” buried deep in the dark, placed in a corner behind a cedar chest, my sister found some notes of our mother’s held by a green box with golden trim that fits in both of your hands put together. The notes were dated in the spring of her senior year of high school. When I got back, she called to me.
“Kate, I need you up here!” She was still upstairs calling down the narrow case, her hands full of the green and golden box’s secrets.
Planting the corn first, the Cherokee priest and field owner would sing to the Corn for four consecutive nights in an enclosure made of stone, heads bowed. Seven days later, they would come back to see it raise itself to the sun, unfolding its leaves slowly in the springtime.
Notes passed between classes, messy words on slips of paper:
“I don’t know what to do; I can’t have it!”
“Why not? Someone can adopt it.”
When the corn was hip high, beans were planted. Curling around the corn as it grew, the sisters became inseparable. The priest and field owner go from corner to corner wailing and weeping to the Spirits. They are asking the seeds to stay. The field owner wears a path from his home to the field, showing the Corn and Beans that this is where they lived, asking the seeds not to wander into wild fields.
“Well, I don’t have practice next Tuesday, and it will take about two hours to get to the nearest place.”
The wailing helps the seeds find their way back if they begin to wander. Their weeping encourages the rain.
“Why can’t he take you?”
As soon the beans become established, squash is planted. The squash protects the other two from animals and their roots from the burning rays of the sun.
“Because he doesn’t know and I don’t want him to know, Terri.”
The Cherokees used the whole space of land as best they could; they knew how to work the land without taking from it. Mother Earth was never abused by the husbandry of humankind by their hands. They pray to the Spirits for the life of the seeds to be kept safe.
We were in the car coming home from church the year after the notes were found, my sister found the voice to ask about the truth of the notes.
My father’s answer had come out of his mouth before he had fully turned his head toward her, “Never ask anything like that again.” She never brought them up again. I think he wanted to let the dead woman sleep for a while longer in peace. But how could she be sleeping when she was lingering in the doorways of the house, watching over us?
When someone of honor within the Cherokee tribe died, a coffin of cedar was used.
“What if this gets out? What will happen?”
“Rebecca, will you come here for a second?” My sister was home alone with a dead woman who was calling to her in broad daylight, rays of sunshine beaming in through the window like a smile.
“It’s OK; nobody knew about mine, and I won’t tell anyone about yours.”
She likes appearing in dreams, just to talk. Everyone in the land of Dream acknowledging that she is dead, even herself. If you tell her where she is sleeping, she replies, “I know.”
“I never meant to take it this far.”
Sometimes, there’s a black spot in corners of the Dream room. Rebecca and I know this to be the child. She never speaks, never moves from her corner.
When settlers began to plant their own seeds, they took the sisters Bean and Corn, leaving in memory, tradition, and rot Squash. They watched as the roots of the corn and beans became burned in the relentless sun. They never knew that the chantings of the natives were for acceptance of the seeds to soil. They never understood what separating sisters would do to the ones left behind.
The Cedar didn’t sleep during the Seven Creation Days like so many of his brothers and sisters.
When the maybe baby was taken, I do not think anyone sang to her, asking the gods to accept her seed into their paradise of soil. The Cedar tree was not used as her bier; there was no honor, no ceremony in her death.
We never saw her full spirit, maybe only felt it when our bed frames would shake for hours in the night.
Cherokees would throw Cedar bark onto the eternal fire to rid themselves of bitter and malicious spirits.
Later when ovarian cancer took her, I wonder if she ever thought about the child that could have been, the maybe sister her other daughters could have had. The seeds of her, never sang to, attacking in the night; they never accepted the fact that she had taken from them so many years before. I wonder if she ever thought that the stolen baby and her cancer were connected, scheming against her. Maybe she had too much scar tissue, and she was already predisposed to cancer. Maybe she never had an abortion.
After my mother had died, Rebecca and I found ourselves without real guidance, growing in wild fields, the songs of our mother lost to us. Her spirit was living, but the divide between this world and the next created a hush to the music of the divine and dead.
The Cherokee tribe never wasted the land, they were close observers, and always asked before they took a part of our Mother Earth and thanked her over and over again, dancing into the moonlight to show they knew how hard she worked for them to live.
Now, we do not ask, we only take, never remembering to thank. Our Mother does not know us anymore, she has forgotten our faces, just as we have forgotten to listen to her song.
The sisters Corn, Bean, and Squash are all interwoven, working together to help each other. Sister Corn gave Bean a place to climb, Sister Bean weaving her roots with Corns to keep them rooted; Corns roots were often too shallow, becoming uprooted easily. Sister Squash fearlessly protected the other two from attacks in the night by savage creatures.
Maybe now I can honor both mother and daughter through this acknowledgement; returning their roots to our soil.