Growing up, my mother had a friend named Mary Hillaire.
She was an outspoken member of the Lummi Indian tribe in Washington state. Her name was Anglicized from Hill Air, I was told. She was an activist, an educator, and instrumental in founding programs devoted to the study of Native American culture. She left her mark particularly on Evergreen State College in Olympia.
At one point, my mother helped her write some of her speeches. Mom had the secretarial skills, but Mary had the charismatic ability to make people listen. She was an extraordinary woman.
Her spirit visits me every Spring.
I remember her standing outdoors in our yard, breathing deeply of the still chill air. She would joke about it being mandatory, given her name. And then she would fall silent before instructing the pale child beside her, whom she couldn’t know would store her lessons for a lifetime.
She said that Spring was not a season so much as a feeling of life surging upward and forth from the frozen ground. She could feel it in her blood, like wine. Spring was a promise that was always kept.
She told me to follow its example and never break faith.
I thought of Shakespeare’s Juliet, decrying that Romeo would swear upon the moon, saying that the ever-changing, inconstant moon was a poor example upon which to base a vow. The seasons change as does the moon, but they are reliable in that changeability. Mary Hillaire took a longer view, and in doing so, revealed a deeper truth.
Mary gifted my mother with an exquisitely woven basket; an artifact of her people. It featured stylized deer circling the rim. Each stood forth on four sturdy legs. Except one. It only had three legs. She told me it was intentional. She said if all the deer had four legs, the basket would be perfect. Humans were incapable of perfection. To produce something perfect was to mimic the gods…a thing both disrespectful and dangerous.
One must always acknowledge one’s flawed humanity and remain humble.
I don’t know how Mom and Mary met, but I suspect they became friends because they shared a concern about the fragility of their respective cultures.
To this day much of my mother’s background is unknown, veiled in vague mutterings about political expediency and the KGB in Russia at the time. She mentioned how the Soviet Union was overwriting languages of the countries that became satellites, insisting only Russian be taught in schools. She dreaded the loss of so many cultures.
Mrs. Hillaire had similar concerns. So she worked tirelessly to make sure tribal culture had a voice and remained strong.
It was her life’s work and admirably accomplished.
But to me, as trees begin to burst with blossoms, Mary Hillaire is a voice on the wind, telling me to be human and flawed…and to breathe deep.
Because life, like the seasons, is a self-renewing promise.
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