My First Mentor
From his pouch he took his colors,
Took his paints of different colors,
On the smooth bark of a birch-tree
Painted many shapes and figures,
Wonderful and mystic figures,
And each figure had a meaning,
Each some word or thought suggested.
—The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I write because a woman, some years ago, took me into her bed and introduced me to my life’s greatest romance. It is a romance with words well-chosen, with their sounds, with rhythms and alliteration, and with the mesmerizing power of the human voice.
The woman was my mother’s mother, Elizabeth Day Price, and the bed was the one in which she spent long periods throughout my childhood on the third floor of the San Francisco Victorian she and my grandfather inhabited when I was little. Although I didn’t know it when I was one or two—when she was a bright smile and a pair of warm arms in a silk bed jacket, and smelled of the dusting powder in the round, metal music box on her low, mirrored dressing table—she was also what the doctors called severely depressed. She would die at 85, when I was in my early thirties and had not seen her for at least fifteen years, as an inmate in a state-run insane asylum.
In 1948 and ‘49 she was just my red-haired, Texas-born, Scots-Irish Grandma, who made a burrow for me in smooth, slippery sheets under a thick down quilt, and taught me verses from The Song of Hiawatha. “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,” she would begin, “By the shining Big-Sea-Water/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis,” and I would be as transfixed as if she had said, “Once upon a time.”
From her, I learned the story of the young Ojibway brave, son of the beautiful Wenonah and of the false and faithless West-Wind, the wind called Mudjekeewis. How Hiawatha was raised by his grandmother Nokomis to know each bird and animal in the pine forests; how her friend Iagoo, the great boaster, made him his first bow; the adventure of his first hunt, how the red-skinned roebuck “Leaped as if to meet the arrow/Ah! the singing, fatal arrow . . .”; how his grandmother made him a deer-skin cape and a venison feast to celebrate his exploits.
And as he grew, how he met the challenge of besting his father, Mudjekeewis; how he was swallowed by the great sturgeon, Mishe-Nahma; how he married Minnehaha to unite the Dakota and the Ojibway; how he brought maize to his people after cleansing himself and praying:
Not for greater skill in hunting,
Not for greater craft in fishing,
Not for triumph in the battle,
Nor renown among the warriors,
But for profit of the people,
For advantage of the nations.
But beneath the imprinted origin myth, not understood until years later, I learned the joy of words, how they could spill from the tongue in cascades of rhythm—Longfellow wove his retelling of the Ojibway tribal myth on the meter of a Finnish epic—and the soothing power of repetition, how these juxtaposed syllables could transport me to a different place, a different time, and make pictures in my brain, pictures far grander than those black and white shadows from the flickering box in the living room with which I was sharing infancy.
Almost before I could walk, I learned Longfellow’s cadences, could recite the verses of Hiawatha’s childhood, and two or three other parts of the epic, though time and circumstance and too many years of TV jingles have driven them all from my memory.
From Grandma, I also learned that she was witty, but John Greenleaf was Whittier; what a long fellow Henry Wadsworth was; and that she harbored a secret, poetic self who wrote under the name Rose Vera Early. I learned that words were playthings, to be arranged and rearranged like the worn wooden blocks scattered all over her parlor floor—today a playhouse, tomorrow a castle, now exalted, now the source of a pun most foul.
Youth is lovely, age is lonely,
Youth is fiery, age is frosty;
You bring back the days departed,
You bring back my youth of passion...
In that third floor bedroom, worlds away from her domestic despair, this woman who soared through university in the early teens of the twentieth century, only to raise five children and have no daily use for that college education, passed on something Promethean. She had stolen the flame of education in her day—women did not accomplish what she had accomplished in that realm—and she passed it to her grandson, as Nokomis passed the power of naming to Hiawatha. For it is the power of naming that makes us like gods; it is the power of story that makes us whole.
As the archetypal psychologist James Hillman wrote in Healing Fiction, “I have found that the person with a sense of history built in from childhood is in better shape than one who as not had stories...[a]nd here I mean oral story, those depending mainly on speech—and reading too has an oral aspect . . .”
In the midst of her retreat from the everyday, this woman later judged clinically insane gave a young boy the gift of story, the rich tradition of books and poems and plays that would be the thread he clasped through a dark adolescence as his family shattered and he was swallowed by the great sturgeon, Mishe-Nahma. Her gift would, literally, keep him sane. He would return—in foster homes, in juvenile hall, in the better times that have followed—to those stories his grandmother planted, in those days nearer his beginning. And he would become a storyteller himself.
Once, in days no more remembered,
Ages nearer the beginning,
When the heavens were closer to us,
And the Gods were more familiar...
And chief among those gods, who brought the power of speech, of writing, of meaning out of chaos, was my mother’s mother, Elizabeth Day Price.