When Native American flute popularity exploded in the 1980s and ’90s, the public latched onto the “love flute” myth as a history-based tale, that Native Americans had used the flute strictly as a courting tool. Other myths associated with the flute — that it was a gift from the Great Spirit to set trapped souls free, that it was a gift from Woodpecker to help a lost boy find his way home — were ignored, forgotten, and the instrument was promoted distinctly as a man’s instrument.
It isn’t. It’s much more.
The flute’s documented, celebrated history is detailed in the new book Native American Flute: A Comprehensive Guide ~ History & Craft, the result of nearly three decades of researching, playing, and crafting the native flute. Native American Flute updates and combines into one volume my previous two books on the Native American flute, The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft, to present a comprehensive history of and crafting guide to the native flute. Native American Flute explores the documented history and mythology of the Native American flute, debunking the popular belief that the flute is only a man’s instrument.
As a freelance journalist, author, and musician, I learned to play and craft the native flute in the early 1990s, discovering its history to be extremely rich and diverse. With gender equality a way of life in native cultures before Europeans arrived in the Americas, the popular belief the flute was strictly a man’s instrument just didn’t ring true.
As accounts by early Europeans who came to North America attested, the flute played a diverse, intricate role in native life, from entertainment to fertility rituals to travel, even to courting. It had never been an instrument limited to men. instead played by all for varied purposes, but the courting aspect caught the romantic fancy of European readers.
Thanks to people like explorer Carcilaso de la Vega in 1592, Europeans focused on the flute’s courting aspect. According to de la Vega, “…[T]hey did not know how to harmonize measured verse, and were mostly concerned with the passions of love … One might say that he talked with his flute. Late one night, a Spaniard came upon an Indian girl he knew in Cuzco and asked her to return to his lodging, but she said: ‘Let me go my ways, sir. The flute you hear from that hill calls me with such tender passion that I must go toward it. Leave me, for heaven’s sake, for I cannot but go where love draws me, and I shall be his wife and he my husband.’”
As flute popularity has grown, women musicians have had to overcome discrimination and prejudice regarding their playing. Even award-winning flautists like Mary Youngblood have encountered male flautists who refuse to play on the same stage, shamans who refuse to bless a flute before an event, and venues that cancel performances by women when male performers complain.
Native American Flute sets the record straight, updating and combining the information from Fuqua’s first two books on the flute—The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft—into one volume to present a comprehensive, documented exploration of the native flute’s history and a fully illustrated, step-by-step crafting guide for making both the ancient and modern versions of the Native American flute, an instrument truly for all people.
Native American flutes have always been known primarily as “love flutes” or “courting flutes” and were generally played for no other reason than courting rituals by a young man serenading his intended bride, although some men played them for their wives as a sign of love.
The above statement—paraphrased from an “authentic” Native American flute history and instrument website—is baloney, indicative of the uninformed, misogynistic belief of many, if not a majority, of modern Native American flute fans, crafters, and musicians. Rather than research and discover the flute’s rich background, they’ve adapted the love flute myth as history—that the flute was developed as a courting tool for men only—while ignoring the instrument’s true background and multitude of uses by native people. When confronted with reality, they respond with claptrap like the following halfwitted comment in an online native flute forum: “Granted, everyone had their own traditions and norms about flutes, and I’m sure someone will jump in here and say ‘oh sure, women have always played flute in my tribe.’ But as a generality women were kind of kept off the business end of a flute.”
Sadly, most Americans of both native and immigrant heritage have been brainwashed to believe certain stereotypes and false “history” of early native life, especially that of native women, stereotypes created by early European invaders and perpetuated in magazines, books, and, later, movies. When the native flute’s popularity surged in the mid-twentieth century, accepted stereotypes did what they do best—smothered the instrument’s true history with nonsense.
Before Europeans landed in the New World, native cultures were matriarchal and celebrated men and women as equals. The mother’s ancestral line, not the father’s, determined a child’s lineage. In community affairs, women became shamans, had the right to vote, could impeach a chief if a majority became dissatisfied with leadership, served in advisory positions, assisted in managing village affairs, spoke in council meetings, had the power to veto war, and even fought in battles themselves. And the flute? Yes, it was as much a woman’s instrument as a man’s.
So why are we saddled with this love flute myth malarkey as history? Gullibility and laziness. While failing to explore fact-based sources, we’ve accepted and internalized the erroneous accounts of American Indian life by European invaders. To undermine native culture, Europeans deftly exaggerated accounts of Native American life and lied about women and their status. They portrayed native women as obedient, subservient to “red devils” who attacked and scalped good Christian explorers whose only goal was to bring patriarchal European civility, social harmony, and redemption to an evil and barbaric world. In reality, Europeans could not cope with the independence, power, and equality of native women compared to the role of European women. So they set about transforming native culture into a crude version of European culture.
Pre-invasion cultures developed a deep connection to their past through stories and music, but that ended in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Europeans forcibly took native children from their families and sent them to “Indian schools” where teachers required native children to speak only English, wear western-style clothing, and study western-based history rather than preserving native history and heritage through traditional sources and methods. As Europeans forced Native Americans to assimilate into the European, Judeo-Christian lifestyle, the cultural status and equality native women had once enjoyed vanished, and their share in power and authority disintegrated.
Erosion of women’s status extended even to the native flute. The flute had traditionally been a social instrument, used for the sheer joy of making music. Songs and music were like breath itself, an integral part of existence. Native people embraced music to honor the Creator. Shamans utilized music in medical cures. They integrated music into ceremonies to call rain and locate hunting game. Children incorporated music in their games, while adult tribal members included music in vision quests, harvest rituals, war, and death rituals. Although customs and practices differed between cultures, the flute was common to most. Plains Indian tribes could be identified from a distance by the songs they played as they traveled. Members of some tribes played flutes to announce their peaceful approach to a new village. In what’s now the southwestern U.S., the Hopi people not only valued flautists of both genders, they nurtured a flute clan responsible for developing the talents of flautists. Each autumn, a girl and boy, side-by-side, both playing flutes, would lead a procession and ceremony to honor the gods to ensure good rains and crops. Even today, despite dominance of the love flute myth, Native American flutes are used in ceremonies other than courting rituals, including weddings, worship ceremonies, and political ceremonies.
Many early Europeans noted in their writings that native people used the flute as a social instrument to make a joyful noise. In June, 1528, while exploring the west coast of Florida, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca wrote that “a chief approached, borne on the back of another Indian, and covered with a painted deerskin. A great many people attended him, some walking in advance, playing on flutes of reed.” Had only men been playing, it’s likely the writer would have said so. In 1539, a member of the Hernando de Soto Spanish expedition to Florida wrote that “some Indians arrived to visit their lord, and every day they came out to the road, playing upon flutes, a token among them that they come in peace.” In yet another account, the same writer, describing events in what is now Alabama, wrote “the Cacique came out to receive (de Soto) … and he was surrounded by many attendants playing upon flutes and singing.” Note the writer chose the word “attendants,” not “men.”
In Pueblo country around 1540, Pedro de Castaneda wrote about his travels that “the people came out of the village with signs of joy to welcome Hernando de Alvardo and their captain, and brought with them into the town with drums and pipes something like flutes, of which they have a great many.”Around the same period, Antonio de Mendoza wrote, “The Indians have their dances and songs, with some flutes which have holes on which to put the fingers. They make much noise. They sing in unison with those who play, and those who sing clap their hands in our fashion … five or six play together, and some of the flutes are better than others.” Pedro Fages, writing about an encounter in California in 1769, described a dance for which “only two pairs from each sex are chosen to perform the dance, and two musicians,” presumably of each gender, “who play their flutes.”
Then came the turning point in flute accounts when artist George Catlin in 1832, capturing the European desire to romanticize and diminish native life, described the flute as strictly a courting instrument. Writing about the Plains flute while in Upper Missouri, Catlin said, “In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute, and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes, in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream—some favorite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion until her soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains with the gift of her hand and her heart.”
Europeans latched onto the courting aspect while ignoring that marriage and courtship rites varied from culture to culture, that the courtship period itself could last more than six years, that the girl had the power of choice, that the genealogical line was through the mother’s family, that women were held as equal individuals within the culture, unlike women of Western society, that the flute certainly was not a courting requirement. The flute became an effective tool in the Europeans’ determination to assimilate native peoples and erase native women’s status. The first Europeans to migrate to North America, especially those steeped in Puritan, Catholic, and Quaker Christian traditions, did not tolerate women in prominent positions of government or societal decision-making. Portraying indigenous society as barbaric and the people as savages, Europeans systematically eliminated indigenous women’s power within tribes and clans. Portraying the flute as a man’s-only instrument helped achieve that goal.
In last few decades, native women have begun to regain their rightful places in tribal life. Even female deities and original matriarchal native mythologies have enjoyed a resurgence among many native peoples. A quarter of federally recognized tribes are now chaired by women. In 2014, 147 native women were elected to serve as tribal leaders—26 percent of 566 federally recognized tribes. Female tribal leadership in 2015 decreased slightly to 24.5 percent.
Nevertheless, the resurgence of power doesn’t thrill everyone in the Native American community. Since Wilma Mankiller became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1985, some male candidates in various tribal races have continued to ridicule female opponents as inept, unable, and too female to make the important decisions required of a chief—as if men have proved themselves more qualified than women in anything. Women are changing the face of tribal governments as they become administrators, teachers, and community organizers, regaining positions of authority like those held by their ancestors. And they’re playing the flute, demonstrating once again that it is not a man’s instrument, that it’s an instrument of the people—all people.
The Native American flute has grown so popular today that it has taken on mystical qualities with some claiming it will help lead the world into salvation. For those who prefer to leave mysticism to the mystics and simply enjoy an instrument solely for its music, the native flute is a welcomed addition, finding itself in the capable hands of both male and female artists. Rather than wrongly claim the flute has served only a courting function for native men, we should accept the fact the instrument is no more masculine or feminine than life or death. It is now, as it always has been, an instrument that adds beauty and dimension to music without regard to the musician’s gender.
For a comprehensive list of references from which the above information was taken, please refer to the bibliographies of The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft and Native American Flute Craft, both available from Amazon.com, iTunes, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, and other online and local bookstores.
I’ve heard it all my life—relatives claiming Native American ancestry. Officially, we’re white, “but we got Indian blood in us from way back,” so they say. In 2015, a Pew Research Center study revealed that at least half of all U.S. adults who identify as multiracial are whites claiming Native American ancestry—that’s 8.5 million people! In a 2016 Fusion.net article, Native Peoples magazine editor Taté Walker pointed out the obvious. For that many whites to have Native American ancestry, American Indians would have to be “getting it on with everybody.”
Some claims of native ancestry are legitimate. Most others, not so much—and there’s a name for the people making them: Pretendians.
Claiming native ancestry isn’t new, but white claims of being a quarter or less Native American have skyrocketed in recent years. Asked for proof, those claiming ancestry resort to family lore and physical attributes like high cheekbones. Moreover, these wannabe Indians readily feign extensive knowledge of whatever tribe they claim. They buy, display, and wear stereotypical garb and trinkets as though every Indian in America purchased their clothes and jewelry at interstate tourist traps, but these Pretendians don’t engage in the native culture. Instead, they profess their nativeness, especially onsocial media, by coining outlandish “Indian” names like Howling Wolf Tree, Badger Womyn, and Eagle Feather Heart. (Get your own ridiculous “Indian” handle with the online name generator at http://www.lingerandlook.com/Names/FictionNames2.htm.) If their claims are questioned, Pretendians shore up their authenticity with inaccurate knowledge of Indian culture and history based on popular myth and stereotypes, demonstrating little or no fact-based understanding of past or present native issues. They will even attack true native descendants as imposters to make themselves appear genuine.
A few years ago, a distant relative who’s researched our mutual genealogy put authority to our family’s claims to native heritage, discovering two Muscogee women in my paternal grandfather’s ancestry. “I’m still working on documenting it, but, after all,” he told me, “we have a great-great-great grandfather who traded with Indians up and down the river.” How trading anything other than a certain bodily fluid gets native genetics into a person’s DNA is beyond my understanding, but the claim, he insisted, had been validated. We could check with clear conscience those white and Native American ethnicity boxes on job and other applications.
White folks claim native ancestry for a variety of reasons, including a romanticized view of native culture and people. Take the Native American flute as an example. It’s mystical, haunting, spiritual! It touches our ancient soul. According to one of several creation myths, it was given to native men for use in courting women, a fairytale now accepted by most as fact. Besides misogynistic, the myth-as-history is preposterous. In reality, the flute’s place in native culture was and remains broad, from entertainment to courting to fertility rites to greeting visitors—like any other instrument ever made. The story, however, fits well into the Pretendian narrative that embraces myths promoted by European invaders, myths designed to undermine native women’s cultural status. Europeans ensured general acceptance of chosen myths-as-history through systematic destruction and replacement of native culture and values with European nonsense now accepted by many Pretendians as fact.
Based on assumed nativeness, Pretendians have even developed a sense of political correctness regarding aspects of their claimed heritage. When I began crafting Native American flutes twenty-five years ago, the instrument was known simply as a Native American flute. In recent years, a movement among mostly Pretendians contends that Native American flutes can be crafted only by Native Americans. If you’re non-native and claim no native ancestry, the flute you make must be termed a Native American style flute. If we accept such skewed logic, then non-Europeans can craft only a recorder or transverse style flute, and non-Spaniards can make only Spanish style guitars.
By far, Cherokee is the most claimed of all Native American ancestry. The 2000 U.S. federal census reported that 729,522 Americans claimed Cherokee heritage. By 2010, the number had increased to 819,105, some 70 percent of them—white folks—declaring mixed race. I grew up in southern Alabama and northwest Florida, so this statistic is no surprise. Bring up native culture in conversation, and someone will claim native heritage. Nine out of ten times, that heritage will be Cherokee, usually “traced” to an Indian princess—never mind that no such status ever existed.
Throughout the country’s history since the European invasion, Americans have used mixed-race status for personal advantage. For example, a person with African American and white heritage who looked white would usually pass as white to avoid discrimination to rise in society as only whites could do. Even today, most people who have less than twenty-eight percent African-American ancestry, according to a 2014 23andMe genetics study, claim white-only heritage. Conversely, whites are increasingly quick to claim native ancestry in an effort to gain perceived minority advantages in employment or scholarships. Making the claim is easy. Since 2000, the Census Bureau has allowed people to check multiple boxes for race and ethnicity without proof or validation.
This kind of ethnic multi-checking has created an alternate reality for native heritage. Until recently, tribes determined membership on whether a person spoke the language and followed cultural practices which defined cultural affinity with the tribe. As white claims rose, blood quantum became the standard determinant. If one grandparent, for example, belonged to a tribe but the other three grandparents did not, a person was considered to have one-quarter blood quantum. Before 1963, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians allowed anyone with at least one-thirty-second blood quantum (one great-great-great native grandparent) to join the tribe, but the claim had to be documented. You couldn’t just check a box. After 1963, the standard increased to one-sixteenth.
Before the mid-1800s, the Cherokee were the south’s most populace tribe, numbering around 16,000. But they had something whites wanted—land for farming and gold mining. And let’s not forget racial prejudice. These were local Indians after all, substandard humans in the European mindset. To appease white desire, the U.S. government in 1838 and 1839 forcibly removed the southern Cherokee to the Indian Territory in what later became Oklahoma. After removal and as tensions rose between north and south in the run-up to the Civil War, whites realized an advantage in claiming Cherokee ancestry, insisting these claimed ancestors had escaped forced removal to hide, remain, and marry in the south. Official records, however, indicate that few, if any, Cherokee escaped removal, although 4,000 died on the Trail of Tears en route to the Indian Territory. Claiming Cherokee ancestry enabled southerners to step out of their role as oppressor by legitimizing themselves as native born rather than of European origin. The claim thereby relieved them of guilt for what they’d done to the actual Cherokee and established a delusional native right to defend their despotic system of slavery from an “aggressive” federal government.
This delusional mindset has had a long shelf life. It’s evident today in southern Pretendians’ defense of the rebel battle flag as heritage not hate and their unyielding support of political candidates who promote xenophobic and racist ideology. Claiming ownership of an imagined native past allows these whites to forgive themselves for their European ancestors’ aggression against native peoples and their own present-day assaults against different cultures, races, and ethnicities.
Claimed ancestry became a political issue in 1924 when Virginia politicians were forced to address matters of mixed-race rights. The state’s Racial Integrity Act at the time banned marriage between whites and members of any other race, defining people as white only if their “blood is entirely white, having no known, demonstrable, or ascertainable admixture of blood of another race.” That put a kink into claims of ancestral links to Pocahontas by prominent white Virginia families. Generationally, if the claims were true, it meant family members were at most one-sixteenth native. The Virginia legislature therefore amended the Racial Integrity Act with the “Pocahontas Exception,” allowing white families to claim native ancestry to Pocahontas but still be classified as white. Conversely, those with one-sixteenth African American ancestry could not claim white status and remained designated as black.
According to Native American journalist Mary Annette Pember, claims to Cherokee ancestry went nationwide during the twentieth century, thanks to Tinsel Town. Hollywood movies made the Cherokee acceptable to people outside the south by civilizing the tribe. In 1971, a popular Keep America Beautiful ad campaign established Iron Eyes Cody, The Crying Indian, as the quintessential image of Native America, a tear rolling down his cheek as he mourned environmental destruction. Cody famously traced his heritage to the Trail of Tears and a Cherokee grandfather who purportedly worked with the Confederate outlaw band, Quantrill’s Raiders. Cody made no personal claim to glory, however, calling himself just another Injun who left the reservation to find success in Hollywood.After he’d portrayed Indians in more than 200 films, the public discovered that Iron Eyes Cody’s heritage did not trace to the Trail of Tears after all, that he’d never lived on a reservation, that he was actually Espera Oscar de Corti, a Louisiana-born actor with 100 percent Sicilian ancestry—not a drop of Indian blood.
The three federally recognized Cherokee tribes—Untied Keetoowa Band, Cherokee Nation, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees—have a combined population of 344,700 members, most living in close-knit communities in eastern Oklahoma and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Although becoming a Pretendian may seem harmless, it has consequences beyond a wink and snicker. In the workplace, whites can be hired based in part on claimed heritage, taking a position that should be filled by someone of true native heritage. Iron Eyes Cody is a good example. His success at playing an Indian prevented true Native Americans from landing roles that should’ve been theirs.
To address increasing claims of ancestry, the Cherokee Nation has created a task force to deal with false assertions by individuals seeking official recognition, leading one investigator to theorize that many Pretendians are simply seeking a sense of place and connection. The problem is, the only way some know how to achieve such connection is to buy it and own it. Heritage is not such a commodity.
Pretendians may be fully sincere in their romanticized nativeview of nature and spirituality. Their appeal vanishes, however, when they use their nativeness to justify or forgive disturbing personal traits. Sociologist Herbert Gans in 1979 coined the phrase symbolic ethnicity to describe the act of white Americans claiming native identity without changing behavior or suffering social consequences. The practice is pervasive, exemplified by Native American heritage clubs that have no members of documented ancestry and by Pretendians claiming heritage for reasons of employment or scholarship benefits. For them, ethnicity is voluntary, a piece of clothing that can be put on or taken off at will, unlike skin.
As America becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, whites unwilling to accept their changing status search for a collective identity of ancestral place and culture to link to the world they live in and to justify personal racism toward other groups. The recent presidential election provided a national stage upon which many whites who claim Native American ancestry could express racism and xenophobia without regard to decency, empathy, or societal restriction. Many Pretendians on social media professed steadfast support for Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) while vehemently condemning similar groups such as Black Lives Matter and opposing anti-discrimination legislation designed to protect women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. They adorned their social media pages with rebel flags and politically hateful slogans, many supporting Donald Trump despite his business investment in DAPL and his pledge to proceed with the original DAPL route, ignoring Native American rights by reversing President Obama’s order to determine an alternate route .
For all the claims of indigenous blood, ancestry no longer needs to be a mystery. We can easily determine by DNA analysis whether we have native ancestry—which is exactly what I did last year. Forget those two native women in my paternal grandfather’s ancestry, and don’t give the Indian trader a second thought. Thanks to DNA testing, I know the truth. I’m as white as a person gets.
When I informed the relative who’d “discovered” the perceived native ancestry, he replied, “Another genealogist in the family feels strongly there’s Indian blood. So we just have to continue to wonder.”
No, we don’t.
Pay no mind to high cheekbones.
Ignore hair color or texture.
And Granddaddy? He looks like Granddaddy.
Science is a marvelous thing. It doesn’t depend on faith, myth, or family lore. Science relies solely on fact—like climate change or gravity. Sure, you can board the bus of denial, but every time it’s driven off the cliff of reality, it will crash to the ground below.
Bryc, Katarzyna et al. “The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States.” The American Journal of Human Genetics , Volume 96 , Issue 1 , 37 – 53.
Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood
Insecurity and salvation.
These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?
A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.
The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.
My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.
In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.
Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.
During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.
Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.
My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.
“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”
Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.
Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.
Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.
On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.
He slowly turned his gaze.
“You know me?”
After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Who am I?”
He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.
“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”
Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”
Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.
I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.
He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”
Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.
“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”
“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”
A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”
“I’m sure they do.”
He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”
My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.
“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”
I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”
He sat back.
An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.
“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”
The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.
“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”
He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.
“I love you,” he whispered.
She hugged him.
He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.
“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.
“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”
His eyes glazed.
I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.
The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”
We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.
Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.
I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.
Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.
What does it hurt?
Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.
At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.