A LITTLE TRUTH
By Darrell Doxtdator
There were those who said that my Tótha was a witch. For those not familiar with the language of the Mohawk Nation, Tótha is the term of affection for “Grandma”. And a witch holds powerful medicine. Further, it is said that among a witch’s powers is the ability to shape-shift.
So, there were whispers that my Grandma was a shape-shifter. That may explain why my Tótha was never what she appeared to be.
Many people were afraid of Tótha. Afraid of what she could do. Afraid of what she’d done.
There were wild stories that seemed impossible. There were tales that told of the power of her protection medicine. Talk of unnatural deaths of those who cheated her. Stories of her skills as a mid-wife; how she saved the lives of mothers and newborns. Gossip on how she controlled the animals. And how, if she wanted, she could cloud the minds of those around her.
Even the police were leery of her. As a young mother, she saw a rabid dog wandering about. Knowing what a threat it was, she contacted the R.C.M.P. When the police finally arrived, they said there was nothing they could do. It was not under their jurisdiction. Rabid dogs are a provincial matter. Mounties are federal. They could only deal with the removal of dead animals.
“Wait here,” she told them. She got her rifle. And with a single shot, she dropped the rabid dog at 75 yards.
“Now … get that damn dead dog off my property”, Tótha growled in frustration.
One afternoon, when I was around seven, I asked Tótha about these rumours. We were playing Yahtzee and eating her homemade pie. She was casually throwing “boxcars”, while I was catching “snake eyes”.
“Tótha, are you really a witch?”
“Why do you ask … ?” Tótha casually replied.
“There’s talk ‘bout you controllin’ the animals. And people are afraid of you.”
“Oh, don’t believe half the stuff you hear. And I ain’t tellin’ which half …”
“You cheatin’ with the dice?”
“Naw … I ain’t doin’ nothin’ that you can’t do. Now … just concentrate.”
I put down my fork and concentrated. First, while I was throwing. Later, when Tótha was throwing. Soon enough, I was throwing “boxcars” and Tótha was catching “snake eyes”.
“I win!” I shouted. Tótha smiled.
“Yes, yes you did. Now, always remember … Never do that if you’re not holding kanikenriio (the Good Mind). Understand?”
I nodded in agreement, not really knowing what I just did. Nor did I really understand why I shouldn’t do what I just did if I was angry. As with all her advice, it took time to decipher all that she had said and all of its implications.
“Want more pie?” Tótha added. Yes, Tótha was special. No need for a novelty “kitchen witch” in her home. She controlled her domain. And she knew that one way of controlling hearts and minds was through the stomach!
Baking was another of her special talents. She knew how to handle the dough to make delicious pie crust. Tender enough to be sweet; strong enough to hold everything together. Making delicious meals was how she showed her love. It was the best way she knew how.
Tótha helped me throughout my life. Providing what she could. Giving timely advice. She’d say things like, “Now, don’t ya just think about gettin’ a girl ta bed. Think about wakin’ up with her for the next 50 years.”
That bit of advice helped me choose my wife, Jacqui. Unfortunately, our marriage didn’t last 50 years. Cancer took Jacqui’s life. Our little girl, Ksenya, was only six when her mother passed away.
Around mid-December, I dropped by to visit. I had hoped to find her cooking. Instead, she was drinking. Nothing good ever came when Tótha was drinking alone.
“Come in, Come in …” Tótha hollered from the kitchen. “Grab yourself a glass …”
I entered the kitchen where she was sitting. Walking across the room, I bent down and gently kissed Tótha’s forehead. Like she always did whenever anyone kissed her, she tensed up; bracing herself. You could see her visibly restraining herself. Anything further was an invitation for a confrontation. Tótha was a mean drunk — with a mean right hand. Years of chopping her own fire wood gave her the strength to be respected — and feared.
I poured myself a shot. “To family …” I toasted. We tapped our glasses and downed the shot.
“What brings ya ’round …” Tótha slurred.
I knew better than to say “Christmas”. Tótha barely endured Christmas. She especially hated to hear the phrase “Merry Christmas”. In her state, she’d swing a right hook, just to knock some sense into me. Instead, I spoke about my little girl.
“Kseniya. She made something for you; at school. She wants to give it to you once school’s done.”
During Jacqui’s illness, Kseniya had reached out to Tótha for comfort. And Tótha did her best. Having had three sons killed in car accidents, she knew the pain of losing family members. There are some life lessons that only experience can provide. An unspoken bond arises amongst those who have endured such tragic experiences.
“That girl needs a mother. When ya gonna find a woman?”
Tótha may have been a mean drunk, but there was always an element of truth in whatever she said — whenever she said it. No one tells the truth like drunks and little children.
“In time,” I replied. “… ’til then, Kseniya needs you.”
“Whaddaya think she made?” Tótha demanded.
“Probably something for Christmas; I think it was meant for her mom,” I replied, too quickly.
Tótha paused. The combination of the two elements struck her — Hard.
“Ya know … a little girl needs her mother,” Tótha softly observed. I nodded, silently.
“Some one she can trust. Some one she can talk to”. Her voice trailed off. Then — a long pause.
“I never had any one I could trust,” Tótha whispered. “I needed to tell somebody. But there was no-one I could talk to …”.
A tear formed in her eye. After all these years, she was finally ready to acknowledge what had happened to her.
“How could they? We were only children? What satisfaction could they possibly get?”
Tears formed in both eyes. A single tear traced its way across her cheek. Finding a tissue in my pocket, I passed it to Tótha. She wiped her eyes. Tótha took a deep breath.
“Ya know, we were made to do things, forced to do things; Things no child should ever know about. Things that even a wife shouldn’t be forced to do.”
Painful memories flooded back from the horrible abuses endured at residential school. Especially from what occurred around Christmas time. She’d be told, “If you want Christmas to come, you’ve got to be a good girl.” Later that night, she’d found out what they meant by being a “good girl.” She had been forced into submission. She was forced to submit to another’s desires. No matter how wrong.
For her, the phrase “Merry Christmas” had become synonymous with the dirty phrase “Want some candy, little girl?” For Tótha, the two phrases had become one and the same.
We sat there in respectful silence. Nothing further was spoken. Nothing more needed to be said. The community’s pain was acknowledged. The unspoken family secret had just been confirmed.
The traumatic effects endured by one generation seep down to the next. Despite being a bad gene, it becomes spliced into the family tree. It takes major efforts to overcome this intergenerational trauma.
Tótha hung her head. She was ashamed of her drinking. But she didn’t know how else to handle the pain.
“Look, I’ll be here next week. I’ll be bringing Kseniya. She loves you. She made something special for you. Be good — for her.”
I got up and said my goodbyes. No more was said. Tótha knew how much I loved her. And I knew how much Tótha loved her family. But that love was tempered by her drunken binges. Some of the family had tried to moderate her drinking. Nothing had worked in the past. And her violent attitude would only get worse the more she drank.
The following week, I returned with Kseniya. It was the Christmas break. For now, school was done.
The two of us drove to Tótha’s. Kseniya clutched her gift to her chest for the entire length of the drive. It was so good to see her smile again. She was clearly her mother’s daughter, with her round face and long dark hair. Even more, Kseniya had her mother’s generous spirit. Jacqui had always taken the time to take the extra measures to ensure everyone felt welcome and comfortable. A caring nature was the best quality that they shared. A bit overwhelming at times; it arose from loving and caring hearts.
I bit my lip. Who would we encounter on our arrival? A sober Tótha? Or a nasty shape-shifting drunk?
I thought about trying to forewarn Kseniya, just in case. But what should I say? How much of Kseniya’s innocence should be shattered, perhaps needlessly, in preparation?
Silently, my anger grew with those who ran the residential school. How could they? The damage they caused! From one generation of small children to the next.
I felt my grasp of kanikenriio (the Good Mind) slip away. Now was not the time to try to explain.
“Kseniya,” I began, “remember to be gentle with Tótha. She may not be quite herself today.”
“I will, Daddy!” Kseniya replied, not realizing the full truth of the request.
Snow was falling; huge, fluffy, feathery flakes. They quickly blanketed the landscape, concealing everything. It was like a classic holiday moment — in all the senses. Everything was pleasing to the eye, with all the unpleasantness buried out of sight. Out of sight — and out of mind. For a brief moment, all the ugliness of the world had been set aside. The better angels of our nature prevailed.
The scent of turkey dinner filled the house. In the corner of the room was a little holiday tree, recently cut and all decorated. Tótha had prepared herself to try.
Kseniya bounded across the room and hopped into Tótha’s lap. I bit my lip. While Tótha was willing to try, she still had her triggers. And Kseniya had just pushed one of Tótha’s buttons.
“Merry Christmas!” Kseniya blurted. “I made you something at school. I hope you like it.”
I held my breath. Without knowing it, Kseniya had just pushed another one of Tótha’s buttons.
Kseniya gave Tótha her gift. She had gift-wrapped it herself — as only a seven-year-old could. It was taped up as securely as a hockey stick, with a corner of her gift poking through.
Tótha asked, “Did you wrap this yourself?”
Kseniya nodded excitedly — barely able to contain herself.
“You did an excellent job!”
Carefully, Tótha opened this treasure. Starting at the exposed corner, she gently tore an opening large enough to slide out the gift.
It was a cardboard collage. Made from old Christmas cards and poster paper, it was a wintry scene of a forest setting. Amid the trees, in a small clearing, a gathering of animals were gazing at a huge star. On the bottom of the collage, Kseniya had written the phrase, ‘ Twas in the moon of Wintertime …” — the opening line from the Huron Carol.
“Tótha, it’s a special message. Just for us!”
“It’s beautiful. Did you do this all by yourself?”
“Yup! Our teacher told us to choose our favourite Christmas song and make a picture. Everyone chose another song. This one is my favourite.”
Kseniya threw her arms around Tótha’s neck. Not getting the hug she was anticipating, Kseniya let herself slip. Tótha protectively clutched Kseniya.
“Clever little girl,” I thought. “Kseniya managed to get a hug from Tótha.”
Tótha tightly embraced her little whirlwind. Kseniya snuggled against Tótha’s neck.
This became too much for Tótha. She had reached the end of her endurance. I readied myself to intervene should Tótha snap.
“I need to finish making dinner. Wanna help me in the kitchen?” Tótha whispered into Kseniya’s ear.
Kseniya sat up and smiled.
“After dinner, maybe we could play some Yahtzee?” Tótha suggested.
In reply, Kseniya nodded eagerly.
They made their way to the kitchen. Holding Tótha’s hand, Kseniya hop-scotched her way. Tótha ambled along. She was off to finish preparing dinner. It was how she showed her love. It was the best way she knew how.
Darrell Doxtdator is a citizen of the Tuscarora Nation of the Six Nations Confederacy. He grew up on the Haudenosaunee territory of the Grand River.
Darrell earned his Hon. B.A. (Political Science) from McMaster University (1986) and his LL.B. from Osgoode Hall (1989). On his Call to the Bar (1991), he refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. Instead, he re-affirmed his commitment to Mother Earth. After considerable debate, the LSUC agreed to make that Oath optional.
Darrell continues to strive to be a social activist. In his efforts to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”, Darrell finds that writing, speaking out and singing karaoke are effective instruments in achieving these objectives.