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COLUMBUS DAY REVISITED
by Judith K. Witherow
In 1992 I wanted to write something about Columbus Day and the five
years of non-stop destruction of my Native American ancestry. However,
elderly disabled mother came to live with us, and I had to put the
aside to care for this precious old one.
The story would have been about how my large family is riddled with
without number. I especially wanted to write about what happens
when you are
impoverished and live off polluted land. We did not have the benefit of
electricity or running water in any of the houses we rented. Drinking
came from mountains that had been strip-mined for coal. The streams that
supplied our needs flowed down to the river and killed every living
The poisons were so toxic that they will continue to cripple and kill us
generations yet unborn.
My mother died on November 24, 1992. She had emphysema, high blood
osteoporosis, heart disease, arthritis, pancreatitis, etc. She was on
twenty-four hours of every day.
I need to write about her. Keeping her alive aids me in wanting to exist
for 74 years because I made the medical profession treat her with
well as their medicine. It always made me laugh when she told me not to
huffy" with the doctors. Her fear was that they might hurt her if I
angry. Just the opposite was true. To quote Audre Lorde, "Your
not protect you."
During one office visit her female, primary care doctor said,
poor, and yet you brought so many children into this world. Why?"
like she had been physically hit. Because I didn't want to embarrass her
further I spoke softly in her defense. I quietly replied "Whatever
you think that because someone was poor that they would not make love?
is not always money for birth control when you are poor, and it may also
counter to other culture's beliefs. If one parent had to quit school in
third grade, and the other in eighth grade to help raise their sisters
brothers, what do you think they learned about birth control"?
eighteen births in my father's family and eleven in my mother's) An
"unexpected" apology was given and accepted.
There has always been a gnawing need to write about how my family of
came to live in Maryland in the year of 1964. Columbus Day would be the
ironic time to turn our oral history into a written one.
As a World War II veteran, my father received a separation bonus. It
parents until 1960 to collect it, because of all of the bureaucracy
With the $1,500 allotment they bought a house on the main street of a
town in the Appalachian Mountains. Having both electricity and running
in the house was pure magic. The idea of flipping a switch or turning on
faucet was something one only dared to dream about.
During the four years we lived in the house various hateful incidents
occurred. Our dogs and cats were repeatedly shot or poisoned. One dog
ground up glass. It died a horrible death.
Another time a bulldozer came on our land and destroyed my mother's
lilac bush among other things. Putting the ashes outside from the
provoked this incident. (We knew nothing about what this so called
"civilized" town's expectations were.)
A small house fire occurred in the summer of 1964. A faulty pump that
water up into the house from the well caused it. The firemen destroyed
everything they could with their axes. What couldn't be cut, like
or living room furniture, was soaked with water.
I remember Dad taking
one of the firemen back into the house when the fire was out and saying,
"Why? Why?" No answer was ever given.
Dad was a carpenter and a lumberjack. It was decided that all of the
furniture would be removed so he could repair the two fire damaged
worked for days carrying all the trash to the landfill.
Late one night, before we finished, someone came in and poured gasoline
throughout the house. The house was burned to the ground. A neighbor
told my mother that she knew who had done it but couldn't tell because
had to live in the town. Right, she had to live there. Hell, we could
anywhere, couldn't we?
Mom, I kept meaning to tell you about that stupid Mother/Daughter
high school. Even now, if you were still alive, I wouldn't have the
tell you why I did what I did. My shame is still that great. When
I told you
that I had invited this red-haired white woman to the banquet you just
your head. You didn't say a word, but the look on your face spoke
this day it haunts me. I loved you so much that I couldn't bear the
of anyone making fun of you. To tell you this I would have had to
what I found so unacceptable. I couldn't. I can't. It should have been
obvious to me, as it was to you, that discrimination resides in every
You will take no comfort in hearing that I was wounded when my sons
not to use my cane when I came to their school. There were different
they asked me not to wear my hair braided, but I always refused. It's
same thing, is it? I can't be as good and as forgiving as you always
The pain is piled so high that we're in danger of burying ourselves
time ceases to exist. It's okay to be angry. It has to occur before
can take place.
Jesus, Mom, remember when one of your sisters brought you home a
from the factory she worked at? You made us four girls all the underwear
could use. Unfortunately, girls in junior and senior high school had
bought clothing, and again we were the target of choice. We didn't
did we? Even if we had, it wouldn't have made you able to buy store
stuff. See we also protected you, didn't we?
It also causes me to remember how many weeks you worked scrubbing floors
cleaning other people's houses so you could buy me a prom gown. Why
you believe me when I said I didn't want to attend? You assumed it was
because I wouldn't have a dress like the others? Wrong, I've always
dresses. A prom gown allowed others to justify their knowledge that we
belong. It didn't matter that I went to the prom with my cousin. Your
daughter preferred it that way.
I know that Dad is there with you. The two-year separation almost killed
with grief, didn't it? You loved us enough to deny yourself his company
you nursed us through our losing him.
You were so angry with me for making his funeral arrangements before he
You thought I had given up hope. I only did what he asked me to do. He
couldn't bear the thought of causing you so much pain. Like you, he
could deal with all of the hard things in life.
Dad, you were wrong. Did you know that I would have to go into a room
caskets, and pick out one for you? A cruel container for the one who
I was almost perfect. The man who always said, "I glory in your
whenever I did things that caused others to frown.
Dad, that last night at the hospital when I said the cancer was
lied. I couldn't tell you what the Oncologist told me. He wanted me to
dirty work. The doctor told you that you were improving. Out in the
he told me, "No matter what happens, you don't bring your father to
or the hospital. I'm through with him." I couldn't tell you what he
seventy-two year old man who had survived all that life had delivered
deserved so much more. At least you got your death with dignity at home
Dealing with that Oncologist reminded me of the time my dog was having a
fit. I didn't know at the time that it was worms. Just that the dog was
and foaming at the mouth. I whipped up raw eggs and milk to put in its
On the way outside I put my .22 pistol in my pocket. If I couldn't help
wasn't going to let it suffer. Thankfully, the mixture worked and coated
stomach. Bottom line, I have a real problem with those that can help but
won't even try.
Mom, I knew I couldn't replace Dad. I thought if I took good care of you
you would get better. Or at least help you want to live. All of the
were there, but I didn't want to see them. While I was busy with life
were already walking amongst the dead. The place in your wallet that
hold our pictures was replaced with numerous obituaries of family and
friends. I didn't see it until that night at the hospital.
During the last day at the emergency room, I took care of you like any
would a beloved child. For some time our roles had been reversing, and
the changing of your diaper, it was completed. I wanted no one to touch
who didn't understand your true worth.
With my sisters and brothers looking on, I declined each medical
"No, no chest compression." (With your osteoporosis it would
all the bones in your chest, and would not have helped your totally
heart). I said no to a request to do electric shock with paddles to the
heart. Even seeing the pleading eyes of my family, I had to say no.
They didn't know all of the battles you and I had fought and won these
years. They still live in a world where you don't question authority.
there were more miracles to be had, they assumed I would produce them. I
would have done anything to keep you alive. Anything but let them
add to your suffering for monetary gain. Causing senseless pain to you
more than I could have endured.
Mom, I saw to it that your Living Will was enforced. Your last requests
abided by and honored. Whatever did you and Dad see in me that made you
think I could do the hellish impossible?
When you died I was able to cry. Before that I could count on one hand
number of times in life I'd cried. While you were alive to help absorb
pain, I didn't need to cry. Now, I know that it will be a long time
eyes are dry. I sleep with your pillow, Mom, and bury my face in
it as if it
were your breasts. Don't laugh, but I also kept your "little old
talcum powder. I open it when days are particularly long and
comfort no one else can give. What happened? I don't understand this.
always recovered. You always came home. Each morning when I awake I'm
Then I remember you died, and my breath won't allow my lungs to expand.
There is just one more thing. I will never again let Columbus Day pass
without notice. You, and Dad, will be proud.