She had many names, but usually was called Nona. I asked her once what Nona meant and she told me, “The oldest and the wisest of the tribe.” I was young and I had no reason to doubt her, but I later found out that she was just demonstrating her always present sense of humor. It was Italian for grandmother. She was indeed a grandmother. I think she was everyone’s grandmother – from what I could tell. She was my great-grandmother. Let me tell you how we met.
My parents married quite young …perhaps because I was on the way. I never asked. My mother was only 17 years old, if I’ve done the math correctly, when she was pregnant with me. My father had just gotten out of the U.S. Air Force and was cutting wood for a living near Yosemite National Park. My mother had been raised by Nona, her grandmother. My mother’s mother also was only 18 years old when my mother was born. I guess the fact that I didn’t become a father until I was 20 years old is an indication of the progress of family planning…not!
My mother spent much of her childhood living in the “new” Indian Village at the base of El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. There were a few cabins with common bathrooms/showers in the middle area between them. My mother told me once that she didn’t have a hot shower until she was 18 years old. If she is like me, we tend to exxagerate our childhood a bit, but she probably had very few hot showers, since hot water wasn’t available in those common showers.
Nona belonged to an Indian tribe generally referred to as Miwoks (Miwuks) and anthropologists classified them as Southern Sierra Miwoks. Yosemite Valley had been their spring, summer, fall home for centuries. With the California Goldrush, my ancestors retreated for safety to Yosemite Valley. The Paiutes, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, also came annually to the Valley and traded with the Miwoks. Nona knew all of the “old ways.” Her parents were both leaders of the tribe, sometimes called the Ahwahneechees. You can read more about her biography here http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/the_ahwahneechees/chapter_3.html . None of that really mattered to me because I didn’t know her in that way. I knew her simply through a grandmother’s love.
My parents’ marriage didn’t last long and so as a baby I ended up in Yosemite with my mother and our Nona, living in the same small cabin in the Indian Village. (The old Indian Village was at a very desireable location, so the National Park Service took it over. They even built a cabin with a deck over the old grinding rock. Now that is cultural appropriation!) My mother worked fulltime and Nona took care of me. My great-aunt told me Nona adored me as a baby and called me her “Gaid-dee.” At the same time another woman came into my life, Julia Parker.
Julia had a daughter, Lucy, who was my age and the two of us spent time in the baby buggy together with Julia pushing us through the Valley. Julia is an amazing woman and here is a link to a brief biography for her. https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/well-woven-four-generations-of-basketweavers/ . She only recently retired from the Park Service. The last time I saw Julia was at my mother’s mother’s graveyard service about 4 years ago, but spending time with her is like being in the presence of spirtual warmth, wisdom, and compassion. According to Julia, our Nona (for she was Nona to Julia too) was the one who was responsible for Julia being accepted by the local Yosemite people. Nona told some of those less inclined to accept Julia, “There is always room for one more inside the circle.” When Julia told me that story, my heart jumped and I recognized both the deep truth of that statement and an immediate connection to Nona’s own spirit.
However, my time in Yosemite as a full time resident was brief. One day Nona had to be rushed to the hospital, while my mother was at work, and there was no one available to care for me. I believe my mother might have even lost her job over her daycare issues. So as was the custom, the older aunts came back to Yosemite for a family discussion about my future. Unfortunately, my future would not include my mother as they convinced her to allow my father and another wonderful woman, my father’s mother, to care for me. It would be the last time I would see my mother for quite some time. (Yes, infants do experience separation anxiety issues with long term consequences.)
As it turned out, my father’s mother and Nona were very fond and respectful of one another and so my relationship with Nona would continue with return visits to Yosemite to spend the day with Nona. (By then my mother had moved away and started a new family.) However, I was never allowed to spend the night there because of the alcoholism that was part of some of the lives of the remaining members of the village. Or, so I was told and I pretty much believe.
You know as a child, you are not aware of the branches on the family tree much. I didn’t know that my new stepmother was not my birth mother. I didn’t know how Nona fit on the tree. I just knew her as someone who wrote me monthly letters, often with $5 inside, and asked me lots of questions about school and baseball. Sometimes when I came back to visit, she would be outside with other women making tortillas beneath a tall tree. I would run around and play in the village, jumping from rock to rock. I would come up to the base of El Capitan and bend my neck as far back as it would go and just stare at this huge rock. It felt like home. In one area was acorn prepared to eat and I thought it was so bitter and terrible tasting. Nona would laugh and say, “What? You liked it as a baby!” “No way, Nona. I couldn’t have.”
I was very connected to Nona in a way that I cannot explain. There was this intense energy of love between us. Everyone felt the same way about her though. I have noticed that some people just are tapped into that eternal source of all love. Nona was one of those people. Her life was hard, but from it came a love that was powerful. She also was a very accurate fortune teller.
People would come from all around to have their fortune told by her. I have since wondered about being around that type of spiritual energy as a baby and what I might have been exposed to. Nona, however, would never tell the future of family members. Today, I also wonder if her psychic talent was connected to that source of deep love?
I always looked forward to my trips back to Yosemite to see Nona. She was a big fan of the San Francisco Giants baseball team and she’d often have their game on a transistor radio. She was fun, she was loving, and I guess that sometimes as a child you just know someone loves you very much. I felt this from her and my father’s mother. I felt special. In turn, I was very connected to both of them. Nona almost seemed mythical to me…until my last trip to see her.
They didn’t tell me, but Nona had become very sick. They also didn’t tell me that on this trip to Yosemite, my mother would be there. In fact, it seemed liked everyone was there. We walked into the cabin and I looked for Nona, but she was not there. Instead a group of women looked at me and my great aunt said, “Aren’t you going to give your mother a hug.” I didn’t know which one was my mother until she stepped out of the line to hug me. Still, I was looking for our Nona. I was told that she was sick and she was in the hospital in the Valley. They didn’t tell me how sick she was though.
When we all went to the hospital, I ran to Nona’s bedside and I found this once sturdy, strong woman to be small and weak. I put my head on her and I cried, maybe the hardest I have ever cried in my life. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew death was near. Of course, all of this is happening and my memories of it are all from my perspective. I am certain this was a heartbreaking moment for everyone to watch, particularly for my mother, who had just seen her child for the first time in about 11 years and her own Nona, the one who raised her and adored her, was dying. As we left the hospital, life was different somehow. I felt older and as if I had walked through some doorway into another world.
Nona died not too long after that and I was allowed to make my own decision regarding attending her funeral services. At the time, I didn’t know that I had attained a bit of a celebrity status on that side of my family…only because I hadn’t been around much, I was – family speaking-wise- an unknown and that made me interesting. They were all waiting for me to attend. I chose not. I am not quite sure why. I remember I didn’t want to cry like that ever again. I was confused about my mothers. I just wanted to forget it all. I was in a new world now, one without Nona. However, Nona didn’t leave me.
Many, many years later. I was wondering what information might be on the internet about Nona and I was startled to find her name listed in Ebay. I opened up the site and there for sale was an unfinished oil painting of her. A woman’s mother had started it when her husband was a park ranger in Yosemite and now the daughter had put it up for sale. I was shocked, offended, and immediately closed the link. But, I was spiritually hounded knowing that Nona’s image was for sale to strangers. I tried to ignore it, but whenever I had quiet time it bothered me, a lot. When I say, “it” I think I mean Nona. I finally gave in after a couple of days and said outloud to know one physically present, “Ok, I’ll buy it!”
I won the Ebay bid because I probably made a bid 1,000% higher than needed be, but I wasn’t going to take any chances of not buying that painting. I gave the painting to my mother’s mother – Nona’s child.
In 1968 or so, there was the creation of the California Indian Act which created the California Indian Roll. My birth mother made sure I was on that roll. I ended up with a number and some money. We actually bought our wedding rings with it. Am I an Indian? I don’t know and I don’t care because myself, my children, their children, and their future children are something much better. We all are Nona’s grandchildren. After all, she is the oldest and the wisest of the tribe.
And for all of our loves, “There is always room for one more inside the circle.”
To Nona’s grandchilden,