“It's been a year since my great aunt Emma died.”
Note: Joe told me it was OK for me to write about this.
It’s been a little over a year since my great aunt Emma died and her son Frank died 6 months prior to that. Joe contacted us a few months ago to arrange the washing away ceremony for our grief. On Memorial Day we were at the cemetery to share a meal with our ancestors and honor our veterans. We prepared and shared bowls of food for my mother, my grandparents, two aunts and an uncle, Frank and Emma and Emma’s mother.
During that ceremony we had to move indoors as a storm came up and during the meal there was a hailstorm. This was a violent storm with golf ball sized hail and it did a lot of damage to the cars there, including ours.
This weekend we traveled over a hundred miles for the washing away ceremony and we talked with Joe before the ceremony started. This was a beautiful ceremony and the outpouring of love and gifts from the community was more than I could have expected or imagined. Veterans danced for me and my family and washed my hands and face with a washcloth. I was told only a veteran can do this because they have seen death closer than the rest of us.
After the ceremony and a short break, it was time for the feast. As everyone was finishing up, the social dance started. Anyone could invite anyone else to dance by giving them a gift of a blanket or money and the next dance the recipient would give a gift in return to lead that dance.
The ceremony earlier was to allow me and Ivy to let go of Frank and Emma and also allowed them to let go of us. It also brought back my father’s suicide when I was four years old and my drinking as I was in my teens and twenties. His death sent me down a path of self destruction and doomed my entire family to a life of poverty and substance abuse. Actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin once said, “to forgive means giving up all hope of a better past.” I went outside to the fire and I thought of my father and his final decision. I said these words to him as I sprinkled asemaa into the fire…
“Please forgive me. I forgive you.”
I heard the drum inside the dance hall and I could hear people laughing as they danced and talked and visited inside. Through the open door I could see the dancers as they danced in pairs around the drum and everyone was smiling. It was almost midnight and there were kids sleeping in chairs and babies sleeping in their parent’s arms. Grandparents and elders sat close by. The drumbeat was mixing with the chorus of frogs and the sounds of the night outside. My asemaa was burning brightly in small flares as it hit the flames and I could see the smoke rising high in the light of the full moon.
I went back inside and danced the last two songs.
We should have spent the night, but we had obligations the next day. As I drove back home over a hundred miles, the fog was starting to roll across the highway and there were deer all over the road. Bugs were hitting the windshield and the windshield washers only made it worse. Ivy desperately tried to stay awake but admitted every time she blinked she would immediately start dreaming.
As we were driving through a small town about halfway home at 2 AM a police car turned around and followed us and finally turned his lights on and stopped us. He approached our hail dented car cautiously and I could see his hand by his gun as I rolled down the window and he saw my face painted with bright red for the ceremony earlier. I was still wearing the ribbon shirt that was made for me for the ceremony.
“Where are you going?”
“Where are you coming from?”
He took my license and went back to his car. He came back a few minutes later and gave me a warning for having a headlight out and let us go. Ten minutes later in the next small town we were stopped again and had pretty much the same experience. We made it home by 3 AM without any further problems.
I think the reason they both let me go so easily is that through the red paint, they saw something else. They saw peace and they saw happiness. I was in the car with the woman I love and I had just let go of Emma and Frank. I had forgiven my father and accepted his forgiveness.
And I still had one good headlight.
I saw the power of love and laughter and I saw the power of community and tradition. I don’t pretend to know all there is about our traditions and I am fully aware there is much I need to learn. As a family, we haven’t been to as many of our ceremonies as we should and we ended up missing the Ojibwe language table on the Fond du Lac reservation this past year due to scheduling Jacob’s piano and guitar lessons, Ivy’s graduate school and my on call schedule.
I slipped some money into Joe’s hand as I shook it at the ceremony and I told him it wasn’t for the ceremony, but for everything he does for the community. I purposely gave him a hundred dollar bill because I knew if I gave him smaller bills he would give it away. He came and sat with me a bit later. “See that guy sitting over there? He has a long way to go and he doesn’t have any money and he has some things he needs to do. Can I give him this money?”
With the amount of formal education I have I’m surprised at how often I’m the student and not the teacher.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.