Up in Okanogan country, far from most of the other settlers, far from the Midwest where her mother, Katherine Euphemia Tripp was raised, my grandmother spent her first six years. Her home lay on the western edge of the Columbia Plateau in Washington State, a remote highland northeast of the Cascade Mountains. It was lonely, vast country, isolated, singed with the last vestiges of a world that would never exist again. Her home consisted of a four-room cabin, two barns and several acres of land. The nearest town, Havilah, sat at the end of a long valley where she went to school in a one-room schoolhouse that had once been an Indian’s cabin. Her sisters rode their horses, a white filly named Bess and a bay named Bird, to school each day. There was a small general store, which also served as a post office, and a Lutheran church and its parsonage. A flourmill followed later.
It was a dangerous place sometimes. The valley was remote, so when problems arose, and they often did, there wasn’t much in the way of help. It took more than a day by horse and carriage to reach the nearest heavily populated area. But there were a few neighbors, and they looked after each other. One night, a neighbor came to ask my great grandfather to join a posse to search for a horse thief known to be in the area. So he grabbed a rifle and joined the search. My grandmother waited nervously at the door, occasionally casting a worried glance outside for news. Eventually her father returned with the news that the thief had been cornered in a neighbor’s barn. The posse’s solution was to set the barn on fire and watch it burn to the ground. They weren’t sure whether the thief had burned or managed to escape, and little effort was made to find out.
Marjorie’s father was called Jesse James. He was a Quaker from Florida who wanted to be a farmer. He had a big mane of curly white hair and a large, hawkish nose and wore round wire-rimmed glasses and even then, in 1915 or so, people said he looked like Mark Twain. He had an uproarious laugh, never touched alcohol or smoke and frowned on those who did.
Up there in the Okanagan country, he worked the fields in front of their house and took Marjorie along for the good company. They pulled the wheat into bales, shaped the rows, and worked it into the grain silo that stood to the side of the house. Jesse James tried to raise wheat, and the effort eventually drove him out. But they were self-sufficient, with milk cows for cream and butter, a garden, some chickens and hogs and, of course, the horses. Jesse James shot deer each year. The farm was too cold to grow apple trees, but they raised and canned peaches and tomatoes and rhubarb.
Winters were harsh, and long. And in those years, native Indian tribes were still spread across the forests and mountains of the area. Some were open to the white encroachment, but many weren’t. Hostilities between whites and Indians still occurred, and there was a great deal of fear among white settlers about what awaited them should they fall into the hands of the savage Indians. Why Jesse James chose to take his family to such a remote corner of America to become a farming family – he had never farmed before in his life – was a mystery in itself. But he did.
If there was ever an “olden days,” it was there, so distant from the rest of the changing world. Her memory is of an Indian named Edward St. Paul, who used to come and work the fields with Jesse James.In the spring and the fall, when it was time to harvest or seed, Edward came down from the Colville Indian Reservation. Nothing heralded these arrivals. He was just suddenly there. Marjorie would look up one day and see Edward standing there beside her father, working as if he had been working that way for as long as anyone could remember, and would continue for as long as they lived. Looking back now, over 90 years into her past, she recalled these moments and placed them perfectly before her like small, shimmering objects, and gazed upon them once more.
Edward was peculiar in many ways, at least to a small white girl living in the wild. In the mornings, he never touched another living thing until he had washed his hands and had a glass of water, which he did in a washroom near the kitchen, out of sight of the others. He waited patiently while Katherine made breakfast and while the other kids came downstairs. My grandmother always sat on Edward’s lap in the mornings before breakfast, and he asked her questions, about her school and her dreams and her distractions. She was resplendent and gifted, in her white sleeping frock, her curly red hair spilling out like bushels of raspberries. Edward would tell her stories, “grisly, gruesome stories,” about a world she could never know. One of them told of an Indian who, having committed some terrible act, was rolled down a river in a barrel that had been spiked with inward facing nails. He told her other stories, but she tells my father that she can’t remember them, that they’ve been lost forever to time.
“That’s all I can remember,” she says.
Nor did she remember whether Edward participated in food gathering or whether he taught them the Indian ways. Most whites didn’t adapt readily to Indian ways and Jesse James was probably no exception. What she did remember was that Edward was a tall, thin man, gentle and kind, who didn’t talk much, and so fit well with her father. She didn’t know why Edward chose to spend his winters with her family, rather than with his own people; nor did she know what became of her father’s farm after the family left. She didn’t remember much of anything now.
This was all my father had left to grasp.
Of the hundreds of memories still available to her, why did she cling hardest to Edward St. Paul? Was she trying to tell my father something? All the roads of her lifetime lead, again and again, back here. And then one day Edward would be gone, as seamlessly as he had come, no goodbyes or salutations or parting gifts or remembrances. But she remembered.
Nearly a century later, as she approaches the end of her own life, my grandmother wants to recall where Edward St. Paul in buried, and laments that she never went up to visit his grave.
“Up there on the Okanagan,” she says one day, looking over at my father, who is sitting on her couch, “You know where that is, Keith, in that cemetery by the tribal town.”
My father nods as if he’s trying to figure something out.
“Up by Nespelem?” he asks, and she nods and fades away again. He gets up and walks around the room. His cell phone rings. He raises his phone hand and nods.
“Keith,” she drawls in a Western twang from a century ago, looking vaguely in my father’s direction and smiling, “Would you please turn the thermostat down?” She lifts a thin arm up and points in the direction of the wall.
The afternoon light shines delicately off her glasses. She can’t see us. No matter. What she does see is enough.
The memory comes back, vanishes, returns again. Each time, it becomes more acute, brings her more pleasure, more mystery. Her brow creases in meticulous concentration, as if she is trying to recall its exactitude, some fundamental truth caught therein, a butterfly stuck inside a pane of glass.
– Washington State, 2009