"Charlie's Homecoming"

Submitted into Contest #57 in response to: Write a story about someone breaking a long family tradition.... view prompt



The headline read "Navajo Nation Judge Orders Widow to Return Body to Arizona." Jean Olson Whitehorse read the newspaper and her heart palpitated erratically because the article was about to exploit her life as it exists at this time. Charlie Whitehorse, Jean's husband passed yesterday and things have happened so quickly that Jean had little time to reckon with her feelings of grief. Charlie had been sick for a while and they had both thoroughly discussed and planned his funeral which would be in the tradition of her family; military honors, service and cremation.

Jean received the call just a couple hours after Charlie passed. It was Nola Begay, Charlie's niece notifying her that the Navajo judge ordered Charlie's body to be returned to the reservation for a traditional Navajo burial. Nola had petitioned the Navajo court for Charlie's body to be returned to the reservation for a traditional Navajo burial when she heard that Jean was having his remains cremated.At first Jean thought she had a choice and that Nola was giving her an option.

Jean politely said to Nola "Thank you, but you see Charlie wanted to be cremated and the service has been planned for here in California where all his friends and my family can attend. You know he had a lot of friends from the VFW. The VFW is going to honor him with a 21 gun salute. " Jean added "You see this is a tradition in my family to have things this way...and of course I hope you and your family will attend."

Jean thought about the hand full of times Charlie had been back to the reservation to visit his family over the past 47 yrs of their life together. Yes, he'd been with her longer than he'd been with his family. "Nola would understand this wouldn't she?" "I'm predominately Charlie's family." Jean rationalized. Nola was unusually quiet and responded to Jean by telling her that she would receive the court order by overnight mail.

Late the next morning Jean received the overnight envelope containing the court order. Jean took the scissors and carefully cut the end of the envelope so as to not cut into the document inside. She pulled out the document and found herself a bit surprised and intimidated by the formal legal layout of the pages before her. A Navajo Nation judge cited traditional laws in a ruling that mandates Charlie Whitehorse's body be returned to the reservation spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The order also specified under the ruling, Charlie's body could not be cremated as it runs contrary to the Navajo way of life.

A ball of emotion formed in the pit of Jean's stomach. She wanted to cry but she couldn't. She wanted to beat her fists but she couldn't do that either. It did not seem fair. Why were her traditions less important than the Whitehorse family's traditions? Why weren't Charlie's wishes being respected? How could a judge on a reservation in Arizona have control over her in California? Jean just did not understand. She needed to call her lawyer.

After some research Jean's lawyer explained to her that rulings in Navajo Nation district courts have civil jurisdiction over American Indians and non-Natives. The ruling also ordered Jean to pay to have Charlie's non-cremated body shipped to a mortuary in Arizona, within 72 hours. Her lawyer told her she could be fined up to $1,000 a day if she did not comply. The lawyer told her that she could appeal to Federal court but this was not prudent in this case due to the time it would take to be heard before a judge and the need to have Charlie's body properly intermed. Jean could see this.

A heavy feeling cloaked Jean as she left her lawyer's office. She felt as if she was mentally anesthetized. When Jean arrived home she decided to telephone Nola and make an appeal to her to allow the services for Charlie to continue in California. "Surely, she will understand how difficult this is for me." "I am the widow." Jean said to herself. Nola answered the telephone right away as if she had been waiting for it to ring.

"Nola...please consider what Charlie wanted." "It's his last wish and he always told me how much he loved California." "We had a spot in the mountains where we both are going to have our ashes scattered." "You understand traditions." Jean realized how unusually quiet that Nola was on the other end of the call. There were no interjections or validations. Nola then said "Jean we don't talk about the deceased." "What?" Jean was puzzled. Most of the people Jean knew found comfort and closure talking about their deceased loved ones. "Why not?" Jean stammered. Nola responded "It's just not our way." Jean could tell that Nola was not going to volunteer more information than what she just said.

Nola spoke calmly void of emotion and proceeded to give Jean the details of the location, day and time of the funeral for Charlie. The cost of the funeral had been paid by a special tribal fund. Nola told Jean that herself and another family member would meet her at the airport. Jean said that wouldn't be necessary but Nola insisted. Disheartened Jean hung up from the call and knew the task before her was set. She had to make the flight arrangements for Charlie's body to be flown to Arizona and purchase herself a ticket.

Later that evening Jean entered her living room and stood in front of the bookcase. At least thirty years ago she had purchased a book about the customs of the Navajo to learn something of Charlie's culture. She ran her eyes along the books until she came across one entitled "Customs, Culture and Traditions of the Navajo".

There was one entire chapter on burial and funeral traditions. Jean thought that some of what she was reading had probably changed over time as the reservation became more modernized. Nola had said there were people who still recognized the traditional ways and some that had Christian beliefs and still others like the Native American Church that was a combination of both.

Jean sat down in the living room and read. She learned that according to traditional Navajo beliefs, birth, life, and death are all part of an ongoing cycle. It is the natural course of things. Crying and outward demonstrations of grief are not usually seen when someone dies. This is not to be interpreted as a lack of caring; according to Navajo burial customs, the spirit's journey to the next world can be interrupted if too much emotion is shown. It is believed that the spirit can attach itself to a place, an object or a person if this important part of the process is interrupted.

She learned that the Navajo people do not speak of the deceased because they believe misfortune or an evil spirit will visit the family. Contact with the body is limited to only a few individuals that are selected. Two men prepare the body for burial by washing the deceased's body and dressing them in special clothing. Two other men dig the grave while the body is being prepared for burial. The funeral is held as soon as possible; more than likely it will be held the next day. These four men are the only ones present at the burial.

Jean took the information in and thought that there was a chance that there was not going to be a viewing before the funeral. The last time she saw Charlie was when he passed. In her heart and mind she would of said her final farewell at the funeral as a matter of tradition as would his friends and her family who thought of him as their family too. Jean felt the first pains of grief and she wanted to cry but couldn't yet.

The next morning Jean got up and took an Uber to the airport. It was a direct flight to the airport in Phoenix, Arizona then approximately three hours drive to Flagstaff near the reservation. Jean had made hotel reservations in Flagstaff for two nights. The funeral was tomorrow. Jean felt like she had just sat down when all of a sudden there was a bing sound and the lights lit up to buckle up for descent of the plane. Jean realized she had slept through the flight. :Just as well." Jean thought. "I really didn't want to think anymore about this." Jean knew that was impossible as she had to meet Nola and get through the funeral. She had not seen Nola in thirty years at least and Nola was just a teenager then. She herself was probably unrecognizable now at age 65.

Jean made her way to the baggage carousel, their planned meeting location and where she intended to pick up her bag as well. Jean wasn't sure how they would recognize each other. Just as she was dragging her bag off the carousel Jean heard a voice calling "Aunt Jean." "Aunt Jean." For some reason she had not expected to be called Aunt Jean. It startled her. She saw a medium built pretty lady in her forties with very dark brown hair standing with a thin man who looked to be in his sixties. The man wore a straw cowboy hat, a long sleeved bright blue shirt with a turquoise bolo tie and a belt with a silver concho and cowboy boots. The lady wore blue jeans and a neon pink t-shirt that accentuated her dark skin.

They approached each other. Nola said "Aunt Jean, we are so glad you are here!" Nola continued "This is Uncle Thomas, Uncle Charlie's younger brother...you remember him?" Jean vaguely remembered Thomas but he wasn't around much whenever Jean had gone with Charlie to the visits back to the reservation. Thomas did not extend his hand but acknowledged Jean by jutting his chin upward. Jean responded by saying "Glad to meet you Thomas."

When Nola told Jean the ride to Flagstaff was going to be at least three hours Jean thought "What the hell are we going to talk about?" "Can't talk about Charlie and he was my whole life." Nola lead the conversation chatting about her school days, her children, her job, and a milieu of other topics, just not anything about Charlie or any other deceased family members. Thomas drove without saying a word.

They finally arrived in Flagstaff. Nola said that Jean should have booked reservations in Tuba City on the reservation where she lives because of the short distance to pick Jean up and lower hotel prices. Jean said she felt comfortable in Flagstaff. Nola said okay and that she didn't mind the drive. The church where the funeral was located was in Tuba City. Jean thought "Well, the funeral is in a church...maybe it will be something that I know as traditional."

Jean was glad to get into her hotel room. She was tired of being in moving vehicles all day and needed just to sit and veg out. She wasn't hungry but knew she needed to eat. Jean called room service and ordered soup and a sandwich Jean ate the soup and half of the sandwich.

Jean put on her nightgown, turned off the lights and crawled under the blankets. Jean layed in bed and listened to the yipping of a coyote in the distant desert. She remembered reading last night in the Navajo customs book that to hear a coyote barking meant death was imminent. "Maybe it's my death." Jean thought as she fell asleep. Jean dreamt that she was in a place that was nothing but desert and blue sky and that she could not find Charlie. She awoke feeling disoriented and that lost empty feeling prevailed.

Before Nola arrived Jean checked herself in the mirror. She wore her navy blue suit with skirt and jacket with a pale pink blouse underneath the jacket. A dainty string of pearls that Charlie had given her for an anniversary some years ago graced her neckline. She cherished the necklace. There was a tapping at Jean's hotel door. Jean opened to find Nola standing there smiling. "Aunt Jean." "You look nice." Nola said. Nola was wearing the traditional Navajo tiered skirt in a blue print fabric with a blue velveteen long sleeved blouse cinched with a silver concho belt. She had a turquoise squash blossom necklace around her neck with rings to match on her hands. Nola's hair was tied back and put up in the traditional Navajo women's bun (tsiiyéé) that was a laborious task to complete. "Thank you." "You look nice too." Jean stated.

As they got into Nola's car Jean began to feel nervous. She did not know what to expect. This was so different from anything she had ever done before. Nola was chatting about a life celebration reception at her house after the funeral. That's why the funeral was before lunch. It was a potluck. Jean knew she should be grateful for this but she just wanted to get this over with and go home.

Jean and Nola enter the church. Chairs were arranged in a large circle in the church. Just as they were arriving some men were carrying drums in and another man had some rattles. A pulpit was set up on one side of the circle and the drum on the opposite side. Jean did not see a casket so she interpreted this as meaning that Charlie had been or was being buried at this time. She was disappointed that she could not see him and make her final farewell to him. A priest came onto the altar and knelt before the cross and turned and approached her.

Nola said "Jean, this is Father Dees." "He'll be conducting the service today. Father Dees shook her hand and explained that the service was a celebration of life. The focus would be on a good life lived with blessings from God or the Great Spirit. Uplifting music will be performed by the Navajo drum and rattle group as well as the congregation. People began coming in and Jean suspected the few that arrived were primarily close family members. The men began to drum and the rattles began their rhythmic pitch. The singers were chanting. Jean could not tell whether or not the song was uplifting. It sounded serious to her. The music was being sung in Navajo. Nola said they were singing praises to the Great Spirit.

When the drums started people went and stood behind the chairs in the circle. Then the drums stopped suddenly. Jean saw a squad of men standing side by side marching up to the circle and turn into the circle where a space had been made. It was the honor guard from the local VFW. An all Navajo honor guard carrying in the colors or flags of the United States, Arizona and the Navajo Nation. They marched across the circle to the other side while the drum and singers played the Warrior's song. They posted the flags in a wooden stand and saluted them and made an about face to turn around and marched back out of the circle.

Everybody sat down then. Jean's heart swelled. This honor guard touched her and she thought "This is for you Charlie." "Charlie would have liked the honor guard and the drumming very much." she thought. Jean remembered how Charlie always became emotional when the honor guard entered during the grand entry during the pow wows they attended in California. Going to the pow wows was a tradition that she and Charlie held together. It was his chance to celebrate his heritage. Jean began to somehow feel lighter.

The Navajo medicine man (Hatałii) stood up and said a prayer in Navajo. He lit a bundle of white sage and fanned it out with an eagle's feather so that the sage was smoldering and smoking He offered the the sage to the four cardinal directions and above and below. Starting with Jean the Hatalii fanned the sage smoke onto her. Nola sitting beside Jean motioned for her to use her hands to draw the smoke towards her heart and over her head. Jean did so feeling a bit awkward. The Hatalii smudged everybody in the circle including Father Dees. After the smudging ceremony Father Dees read scripture on God's blessings to his people and his will for his people to live in happiness. He also read scripture on protection from evil and misfortune.

Nola seemed pleased with the service. Jean thought it was simple but nice enough although she wished there had been a traditional eulogy. Jean was glad it was over but now she had to face the reception at Nola's house. Most of the people at the church had made their way over to Nola's house plus there were many more people there. Nola indicated that the people were primarily from their family's clans. Nobody spoke about Charlie or said they were sorry for her loss. However, people engaged her in conversation and introduced themselves stating they were cousins or aunts or uncles.

Nola beckoned for Jean to come over to her. Nola had a small planter in her hands. A small miniature rose bush was growing in the planter. It had a pink bud growing on it. "Aunt Jean, I want you to have this rose for you to plant in your yard to remember how a new life grows in the midst of darkness." Nola said slowly and expressively. "Everything has its season...even us." Nola added. Jean felt her eyes water but she would not shed a tear out of respect as it would not be the Navajo custom to demonstrate emotion or outward signs of grief as it could interrupt Charlie's spirit on its way to the underworld and she wouldn't want to do that.

August 31, 2020 02:02

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