I’m sick of always being the Indian!
Two of my bothers, Johnny and David, and I used to play Cowboys & Indians on the small farm in Michigan where we grew up. It never seemed to fail that they were the cowboys and I was the Indian. I had a make shift bow and some sticks for arrows. They had toy guns and sometimes even the kind that had this rolled up red paper with actual gunpowder on it that would pop when fired. My arrows didn’t really fly and I usually felt a bit overwhelmed by the cowboys and their cap guns.
One early August day we were playing on the hill that separates our small farm house from the main road. You could stand on that hill and look down and watch the occasional car go by or turn back towards the house and see the comings and goings of our home. Not that there were any real ‘comings’ or ‘goings’. My parents were old school farmers that pretty much lived off the land. We raised chickens and cows and pigs and my Dad would butcher them right there on the farm for our food. I used to hate to see one of our little cows walking around chewing one day, and then the next day see it hanging off this tall bar my Dad had fashioned to cure the meat. It would be hanging there, no hair or insides, just raw meat waiting to be cut up and eaten. We also had about ten acres in vegetables that we planted each year. I seemed to like the vegetables way more than the meat.
On that particular day, I was getting a bit fed up with hearing those guns pop and missing my intended goal of one of my arrows at least bouncing off one of my brothers. I yelled at them that I was tired of being the Indian and I was going to go in the house and get a gun for myself. But, I announced, I was still going to be an Indian, just that I would now have a gun instead of my arrows. At 11 years old I was already taller than both my older brothers but they didn’t seem to feel too threatened by me. Johnny was 13 and David 12 at the time. Our mom and dad seemed to have a knack for having a new baby each year. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t believe in birth control, or if they just wanted to have a bunch of kids. I was one of something like fourteen kids. The reason I can’t really pin it down is because I have ‘half’ brothers and sisters, and in my family, we didn’t use the term ‘half’. We were all just brothers and sisters. I fell into line at number thirteen. (I don’t think there are any books out there written to help the thirteenth child understand their place in the sibling lineup.)
Leaving my brothers laughing at me and turning to shoot each other, I ran to the house to find a suitable weapon of my own. We had a front door on our little farm house, but I can’t really recall ever seeing anyone use it. As I raced through the back door turning into the living room to head up the stairs, I came upon a scene that is burned into my memory forever.
My mother used to sit in her chair and crochet for hours. She made all sorts of things, always keeping busy. She wasn’t a woman that would sit idly and just relax. She had this credo of sorts that said we should always be working. If we weren’t working, then we had better be outside and out of her sight or she would be happy to find something for us to do. She was a formidable woman to say the least. As hard as she worked, she also always – and I mean always – wore a dress. Isn’t that funny to imagine a farm woman wearing a dress? I mean this was 1970 for crying out loud, not 1870.
When I came into the living room I saw my mother sitting on the floor just in front of her chair, her crochet yarn and needle still in her lap. My father was kneeling beside her holding her head as it flopped over to one side, vomit coming out of her mouth. My older sister, Janet was there too as well as the oldest (at home) brother, Steven. Janet was at the black wall phone in the dining room trying to dial a number on the rotary dial with shaking fingers, fear written all over her 14 year old face. I can’t remember today where my only younger sibling was. (I was the baby of the family for four years until Brian showed up unexpectedly.) I quickly surveyed the scene and Steven took one look at me and ordered me outside.
I ran back up the hill and told the cowboys, who quickly turned back into my bothers, that our mom was in trouble. We sat together on the hill, watching the road very carefully and listening intently for the sirens of the ambulance that was coming to make our mom better. It seemed like hours passed by, none of us saying a word in fear of speaking out loud the unthinkable. We just sat there arms wrapped around our knees watching, waiting. When the ambulance finally came we raced back to the house.
We managed to get inside just as the two medics were putting our mother up onto a gurney. I watched and felt helpless. When they placed her on the rolling bed, I saw that her dress was up, showing her underwear. My mom didn’t have pretty underwear, just reliable practical ones, the kind a hard working farm woman would wear. I knew she would be mortified if anyone saw her with her dress up and her underwear showing. I wanted to go pull her dress down, but the medic closest to me showed me without saying one word that he was worried and in a hurry, a big hurry. They raced outside and pushed her into the back of the ambulance, both climbing in beside her. Dad jumped in with them and shouted to Steve to follow in the family car. I’m pretty sure Steven was all of 15 at the time and I have no idea if he had a license or not, but he did as Dad told him and jumped behind the wheel in the car.
We stood there, in the driveway, and watched them speed away. I’m not sure how much time went by before we all walked back in the house and tried to act like it was just another typical Sunday afternoon. When you have as many siblings as I do, you understand from a very early age that there is a pecking order to things. Janet clearly knew that she had the responsibility as the oldest to take care of the rest of us the best her 14 years knew how. She made us dinner, though I can’t remember eating. We were all so worried for our mother.
We had a tradition on Sunday night to sit as a family and watch “The Wonderful World of Disney”, so when seven o’clock came, she got us together in the living room (I think we all tried to sit in Mom’s chair together) to watch TV. Disney really is the Wonderful World, because for me, on that day, Disney took my fears away for one hour as I watched whatever show happened to be airing that night. I remember feeling like everything was going to be okay.
Five minutes later that all changed. Our father came into the house at 8:05 pm with Steven holding his arm. He didn’t look at all like our dad. He was shorter somehow, and older. He came into the living room and looked at each of us and then said “your Mother is dead”. I then watched my 6’2” strong, capable, amazing Dad, crumble. Literally crumble to the floor. I had no idea what to do, what to say, what to feel.
I don’t think I even cried at that moment. How do you cry when you are in complete and utter shock? Tears don’t form when you are a robot or a statue. That’s how you feel when you can’t feel anything at all. Eventually I just walked up the stairs and climbed into bed, where I dreamt of my mother being on an exotic vacation somewhere.
I think that was the last day I ever played Cowboys and Indians.