Jour­neys Home: In­spir­ing Sto­ries, Plus Tips & Strate­gies to Find Your Fam­ily His­tory

In­spir­ing Sto­ries Plus Tips Strate­gies to Find Your Fam­ily His­tory

Luxe Beat Magazine - - Contents - Tif­fany Thorn­ton Book Ex­cerpt

The JOUR­NEYS HOME: In­spir­ing Sto­ries, Plus Tips & Strate­gies to Find Your Fam­ily His­tory fea­tur­ing An­drew Mccarthy, Joyce May­nard, Pico Iyer, Diane John­son & The Na­tional Geo­graphic Travel Team book ex­cerpt is pub­lished with per­mis­sion. This ex­cerpt is writ­ten by Luxe Beat Mag­a­zine con­trib­u­tor, Tif­fany Thorn­ton.

Se­crets and Spir­its Caught be­tween two strong women with a mys­te­ri­ous past by Tif­fany Thorn­ton

My grand­mother was the love of my life. She was my con­fi­dant and my sta­bil­ity in a rather tu­mul­tuous child­hood. My mother and I were at odds, not see­ing eye to eye on much. My grand­par­ents were my safe haven. I spent years on and off as a young girl and teenager liv­ing with my grand­par­ents in Toronto.

My fa­ther left when I was a baby and got en­gaged to another woman while mar­ried to my mom. The de­cep­tion cre­ated a deep heartache for my mother, yet she did her best as a sin­gle mom to pro­vide for me, mak­ing sure we al­ways some­how cel­e­brated na­ture. Pic­nics in the park, hikes in the nearby ravine. She re­ally tried to stretch the lit­tle money we had.

My mom even­tu­ally met some­one else, a cul­tured bo­hemian of sorts who loved to drink a lit­tle too much. When my sis­ter came along, the heavy drink­ing es­ca­lated. I came home from school to po­lice in the house and punched holes in the walls sev­eral times dur­ing those years. I begged Mom to leave so we could be happy, not fully cog­nizant of how afraid she must have felt to em­bark on yet another jour­ney as a sin­gle mom with two young chil­dren. I could only feel my fear.

I al­ways had a small bag packed so I could run away when the next blowout en­sued. And I did, over and over again to Gram’s house, which was quite the walk for a girl of ten or so.

Grow­ing up, I knew only threads of my grand­mother’s story: She was a Na­tive Amer­i­can, raised in a one-room shack on an In­dian re­serve where she went to the well for wa­ter. Her mother was a heavy drinker, with a tem­per she de­scribed as “be­ing able to send steam up the chim­ney.” All Gram ever knew about her fa­ther was that he was white and thought to be *Hr­man hiv af­fair Zith hhr mothhr was brief. My great-grand­mother then mar­ried a Na­tive Amer­i­can and had four more chil­dren. She was a woman I knew only from a few faded blackang Zhith Sho­to­jrashv rhᦑhft­inj hhr tan dark skin and large round fea­tures, with a look of de­ter­mi­na­tion etched into her face.

Be­yond that, my grand­mother was aloof when it came to dis­cussing her past. She would delve into it ᦑHht­in­joy at timhv Vhar­inj ERIHI ex­cerpts of her life as a Mo­hawk In­dian on the Six Na­tions Re­serve near Brant­ford, Canada. Early on, I was cu­ri­ous about the part of my lin­eage that I was never re­ally ex­posed to. I wanted to know more about our fam­ily’s mys­te­ri­ous, and mys­ti­cal, past.

On some level I was al­ways aware of lit­tle things that Gram had around the house that were In­dian. Paint­ings of girls and loons in the wa­ter by an Ojibwa artist lined the walls. The shelves dis­played a coy­ote sculp­ture, a clay teepee, and dream catch­ers. Braided sweet­grass, con­sid­ered the VAFRHG hair oi 0othhr (arth ᦐOOHG each room; it was braided into three strands rep­re­sent­ing hon­esty, love, and kind­ness. Some­times Gram would burn the tip and the sweet smell would waft through the house. In­di­ans be­lieve sweet­grass cleanses all neg­a­tiv­ity and at­tracts the good spirit.

Gram’s sis­ter man­aged the Na­tive Cana­dian Cen­tre in Toronto, and Gram worked in the gift shop part-time. On the odd oc­ca­sion when Gram was terse with us, she al­ways mut­tered a verse loudly in Mo­hawk, mean­ing we were be­ing naughty. At times when the strong ve­neer would ebb away, I would catch a glimpse of her in her bed­room rock­ing one of the younger grand­chil­dren on her knee and singing an old Mo­hawk tune. It was the same song she sang to me.

I grew up my whole life want­ing to visit the re­serve. Close fam­ily still lived there on their own land. My mother and her sib­lings spent sev­eral sum­mers there as kids, wad­ing in the Grand River. Ev­ery­one there ex­cept my mother, it seemed, all had dark hair FOMSOHTHOY Giffhrhnt Irom my fair-haired mother. Ev­ery­one, that is, ex­cept for a boy who was blond and de­scribed only as a “fam­ily friend.”

Mom had al­ways won­dered about this boy. Whis­pers of fam­ily se­crets ZOXOG ᦐOthr throxjh thh air oyhr the years, with tongue-and-cheek in­fer­ences of some sort of de­cep­tion that were quickly brushed aside. My mother al­ways grap­pled with the no­tion that some­thing was awry and sought out the truth, her sus­pi­cion at times cre­at­ing a fury in her spirit that never sub­sided.

All the mys­tery sur­round­ing the re­serve I had never seen fu­eled my cu­rios­ity about it, and about my her­itage. How must it have felt for Gram grow­ing up there as an El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor look-alike, with her deep blue eyes and soft dark curls that framed her per­fectly pro­por­tioned fea­tures? Gram was the white girl with the Mo­hawk blood—a bas­tard, born in the 1930s. It was a sore sub­ject and Ghᦐnith Soint oi Fon­th­n­tion Zhhn dis­cussed. Her face would con­tort into an an­gry gri­mace. “Why do we have to talk about this when there is noth­ing to say?” she would lament. I was fear­ful to keep per­sist­ing as , NNHZ hhr thmshr FOXOG ᦑarh XS when pushed.

Still, some­times late into the evening when she was re­lax­ing with a cold beer, Gram would soften and tell me lit­tle tales about life on the re­serve. I rel­ished the mem­o­ries. She even­tu­ally went to live with her grand­par­ents on a Iarm off thh rhvhry­a­tion ang thhn ᦐnaooy to thh EIJ Fity oi Toronto THH rest of her fam­ily stayed be­hind.

When I was in my late 20s and af­ter much per­sist­ing to see the land where my EHOOYHG *ram JRHZ XS ZH ᦐnaooy went to visit. My great aunt and great un­cle owned thou­sands of acres of land on the re­serve that had been in his fam­ily for cen­turies.

When we ar­rived, a pow­wow was go­ing on. Na­tive dancers were dressed in vi­brant cos­tumes and adorned with in­tri­cate bead­ing and head­dresses cov­ered with cas­cad­ing feath­ers. The tribal drums echoed in the dis­tance, and I felt a res­o­nance with the land; I wanted to know my peo­ple. I was in­tro­duced to all these new faces so Giffhrhnt Irom my ozn *rhat axntv and un­cles and cousins, wear­ing TXRTXOIVH MHZHORY ᦐOOHG Zith EHAXTIIXO stones, em­braced me lov­ingly as Gram in­tro­duced me as “her best friend.” Sto­ries were ex­changed and corn bread was bro­ken. For a brief mo­ment these peo­ple were truly a part of me.

Gram showed me what re­mained of the shack where she grew up. Only the foun­da­tion was still stand­ing. Up into thh ᦐHOG ZH ZAONHG trhn­ninj

through grass that reached above my NNHHV Xn­tio ZH ᦐnaooy Famh to an un­marked stone. It was my great­grand­mother’s grave site. We stood side by side as the sun beat down. I ZAV ᦐnaooy Vtang­inj on thh Oang ZHHRH Gram was born and raised, shar­ing her his­tory. I re­mem­ber not want­ing the day to end as we drove away with the sun set­ting be­hind us.

Be­fore I knew it, things re­sumed the way they al­ways had. The sub­ject of Gram’s past was not some­thing you Zan­thg to Vtir XS ,t ZAV ᦐnh to Zhar In­dian jew­elry, ask about a word in Mo­hawk, or wear moc­casins. But be­yond that it could get un­com­fort­able. My grand­mother feigned dis­in­ter­est when my mother started learn­ing Na­tive drum­ming on her own. She did the same when my mother be­gan dig­ging around for old pho­tos of her fam­ily, want­ing to learn more about her fam­ily as part of a study she was do­ing with a Na­tive group in town. My mother had al­ways hag an affin­ity Zith that VIGH oi her­self: the Mo­hawk blood that she would boast about to her friends.

Yet my mom did not have the sup­port or en­cour­age­ment to fos­ter that part of her­self. A pal­pa­ble ten­sion al­ways lin­gered be­tween her and Gram, my mothhr yharn­inj to ᦐng hhr SOAFH in the past and con­nect to it.

I felt split be­tween the two piv­otal peo­ple in my life, my Gram whom I adored and my mother the truth seeker who al­ways drew me in with her pas­sion. They were yin and yang, and I was smack dab in the mid­dle, left ques­tion­ing my loy­alty.

When mom was di­ag­nosed with cancer in her early 50s, we all knew she was not go­ing any­where. She had too mxfh ᦐJht in hhr 6hh Zan­thg to map out her des­tiny and have a chance to work through her anger, much of which came from the fact that she IHOT VHH NHYHR ᦐt in Zith hhr Iamioy

But a sec­ond round of cancer proved to be more fu­ri­ous than even her tena­cious spirit. Though never tak­ing away her beauty, it be­gan to rav­age her body. Dur­ing this time my mom yearned for her mother to com­fort her. But Gram was not one to be overly de­mon­stra­tive. Mom’s ill­ness stirred a painful in­ter­nal process within Gram, not good for some­one who had been di­ag­nosed with heart prob­lems years be­fore.

Dur­ing this time, my mother be­friended a Na­tive cousin of hers. To­gether they burned white sage, a Na­tive tra­di­tion known as “smudg­ing,” meant to pu­rify the mind, body, and spirit and purge bad en­ergy. My mother em­braced her knowl­edge of medic­i­nal plants and the heal­ing ways of the Great Spirit, grasp­ing onto her tribal past.

As her body weak­ened and just a few months be­fore she died, her cousin ca­su­ally asked her how she felt about hav­ing a brother she had never re­ally got­ten to know. When Gram was a teenager, she had a son—her ᦐrv­te­ornܚzith a Fity Eoy VHH toog my mother. Gram was sent away to give birth, and soon af­ter gave the baby up to her aunt to raise on the re­serve. The child, who had non­na­tive fea­tures of fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, was never to know the truth about who his par­ents were, nor was my mother. This was the mys­te­ri­ous “fam­ily friend” of her child­hood—her half brother. He died of cancer when he was in his late 50s.

My mother loved my grand­fa­ther, who she had been told was her fa­ther. But my mom be­gan to won­der: Was her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther ac­tu­ally that city boy with whom Gram had been en­am­ored long ago? (He drowned in 1954 dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Hazel.) This, she be­lieved, was the se­cret and source of all the fam­ily de­cep­tion she had al­ways known.

My mother wanted me to con­front Gram with her rev­e­la­tion. She wanted me to con­front Gram with what she be­lieved were all the lies and de­cep­tions, al­most as if it were some sort of re­demp­tion.

I was again caught in the mid­dle, as I loved them both. My fam­ily wanted me to be an­gry, to right the wrongs be­fore it was to late, and to honor my mother’s dy­ing wish. Yet even among the anx­i­eties and ex­pec­ta­tions that had some­how fallen on my shoul­ders, I found I could not do it. I felt deep em­pa­thy for my mother and the brother she never knew. But I also loved my grand­mother, who made me warm when the world ap­peared cold.

Nei­ther I nor any­one else men­tioned our dis­cov­ery to Gram. My mother passed away, and a deep ache set­tled in my grand­mother. Her stoic eyes be­gan to lose the shine that they had once emit­ted. As I had feared, her heart was heavy with the bur­den. Five months later she VXFFHRHG a MAVVIYH hhart at­tack. In the hos­pi­tal Gram was calm and col­lected, even when faced with the cer­tainty that thiv ZAV thh ᦐnao hour. She chat­ted away with fam­ily and even chuck­led a bit.

Fi­nally, she asked to be alone and if I could bring her some sweet­grass. I raced back to her place, gath­ered up a braid, and wrapped a sil­ver and turquoise neck­lace around it. She was asleep when I brought it to her. A nurse later told me that *ram hag ZONHN XS Eri­hᦑy in thh ZHH hours of the morn­ing be­fore her heart ᦐnaooy JAYH oxt ang hag VHHN thh sweet­grass. She said to the nurse, “Do you know what this is? It’s sweet­grass. It helps you get to the other side.” She clutched it tightly. The white girl with the Mo­hawk spirit hag ᦐnaooy rhtxrnhg homh

I felt a sense of calm in my grief ang a Vtranjh ao­movt Xnigh­n­tiᦐaeoh em­pow­er­ment. I walked back from the hos­pi­tal, about a mile and a half, to Gram and Gramp’s house as tears stung my eyes. When I ar­rived, I knew Zhat , NHHGHG to ᦐng THHRH in *ramܟv room on her dresser was her fa­vorite pair of sil­ver, na­tive ear­rings. I put them on with­out any trep­i­da­tion; it was as though I was be­ing guided. I

stared at my rhᦑhf­tion in thh mir­ror Zith thh in­tri­cate feather ear­rings dan­gling. They felt like mine now.

Nova Sco­tia–based jour­nal­ist and IRHHOANFH Zrithr Tif­fany Thorn­ton loves watch­ing the writ­ten word evolve. She cov­ers mu­sic, travel, and the­ater for a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions. Her web­site:


As a child, I re­mem­ber the braided VZHHTJRAVV that ᦐOOHG Hafh room oi my grand­mother’s house in Toronto. Na­tive Amer­i­cans con­sider it the sa­cred hair of Mother Earth. They be­lieve it cleanses all neg­a­tiv­ity and at­tracts the good spirit.

Now, I al­ways keep some in my house too. And like Gram, I some­times burn the tip and let the sweet smoke en­velop me. It helps to con­nect me to the na­tive roots that I am still un­cov­er­ing.

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