If you really want to believe in something, you will.
Grandmother, I have words for you. Sometimes they gallop like Indians on horseback and wave tomahawks; sometimes they lie in wait behind dark rocks, bows drawn.
Grandmother, I have words for you. They are ungrateful.
Grandmother, you’re too sure of yourself. You’re too right about everything, confident, bored.
You’re just too much, Grandmother.
You’re false, Grandmother.
Grandmother, I’m gasping for air.
It’s your fault, Grandmother.
everything must be paid for.
“I’m ashamed,” you said last night, when I dreamed of you again.
Of course you’re ashamed.
I’m ashamed of you as well.
Grandmother, dearest, how I loved you.
How we used to play Grandmother and Grandchild. With you and the two hundred other grandsons and granddaughters who called you She Who Cannot Be Questioned, or She Who Must Be Obeyed.
As a joke.
As a joke
you nailed a sign in your office that said SWOMBO (She WhO Must Be Obeyed), which someone had crafted especially for you. You also wore a t-shirt with these letters on it.
In general, you loved little jokes.
We, your students, worshiped you. We showered you with gifts for Mother’s Day.
Wait now, are you a mother or a grandmother?
Technically, a grandmother is also a mother, but there’s a greater distance between grandmother and grandchild. Less play, more wisdom. Fewer diapers, more stories.
Less responsibility, more benefits.
You, too, are a hermit. You, too, are an immigrant. You, too, still keep on trying to sense your life as your own, even though you’ve lived in Kentucky for almost a quarter of a century.
But you’ve walked through enough cycles of the kaleidoscope of your lives. Even before you arrived here and gathered grandchildren around your rocking chair, before you started your theatrics, you were a wolf, a cougar, a bear.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just saying that you’re a predator.
I’m a predator too, Grandmother.
Can I push aside your actions and look at the fact that you’re a frail old woman, taking handfuls of pills, rubbing your knees to ease the pains of arthritis, standing up slowly from your chair, seeking someone to lean on. When you were in Bulgaria, walking the streets of Sozopol, you needed to stop and rest twice to cross the town from one end to the other.
I want to tell your story from one end to the other. Grandmother, Grandmother. You make me want to throw up. Grandmother, Grandmother. I can't turn my back on you – you'll turn on me.
You were born in the state of Utah into the family of one Colonel Johnson and a woman you never talk about. Even as a child you were beautiful and bold. And even now one can see life and intelligence in your cheekbones, your jaw, the sparkle in your eyes. A straight back, no matter how long you’ve been sitting. No matter how slowly you stand up, when you walk, you look straight ahead.
You were born between two worlds – the White and the Native American.
Your grandmother was a purebred Indian from the Hopi tribe. To belong to the tribe, you have to prove that you’re at least a quarter Hopi by blood. You qualify, your kids don’t.
“Are you White or Indian?” I asked you once in private.
“I’m White,” you answered without thinking.
Of course you’re White. I would stare at your features to look for race. And not only that, because skin doesn’t make the Indian. All your comforts and privileges: the spacious house, the gardeners, the maid, the regular manicure and pedicure appointments, the jewelry, the boutique dresses, going to the hairdresser twice a week to style your snow-white hair.
You’ve been accustomed to moderate luxury since early childhood. Except when your grandma took you to the reservation in the summer.
In Bulgaria, we send the children to the village; for you, the village was Hopiland.
You acted like a ruler. We were supposedly in a circle because we were all equal, but we tripped over ourselves racing to serve you. You wanted water – we jumped to bring it to you. You wanted to travel – someone would show up to drive you and carry your bag. Volunteers abounded. It was an honor to serve Granny. And at any given moment you were training at least a dozen apprentices, whose purpose was precisely that.
“The big three of apprenticeship,” I later explained to my prospective apprentices, “are carrying bags, washing dishes, and driving the car back and forth.”
“But I don't have a car,” Mouse worried.
“Don’t worry!” I said with a generous waved of my hand. “They’ll find other jobs for you.”
But fine, when I realized the truth, why didn’t I just leave? Why did I wait for you to get rid of me? Why was I upset when I was excommunicated?
Because I had also built something on that foundation. And pulling the rug from under my feet would knock down everything.
And everyone standing on top of me.
When she was kicked out of the community, Erin cut her hair. Isn’t that what you taught us the Hopi did? You gather everything in a fist at the nape of your neck, like you’re going to tie a ponytail, and you get rid of whatever’s hanging below your fist. A hairstyle of sadness. A sign. This is how people in mourning recognized each other. And when the hair grew back to shoulder length, you were considered ready to move on with your life. No specific calendar period, because every person is different.
Your tragedy, your hair, your fist, your shoulders. Your heart.
Erin came to the apprenticeship graduation ceremony cropped. We all knew what that gesture meant.
You ejected Erin with a letter you sent by mail, and she received it like a bolt from the blue. Hadn’t you planned the next year just weeks before that, marked the calendar with the days she would serve you and which drills?
You wrote her a letter, you sent me an email.
I didn’t answer.
Up until now.
Erin was your favorite apprentice, but she fell in love with Bo from the Choctaw tribe, a toothless Indian who came to Kentucky in search of disciples. And Bo somehow fell in love with Erin – the Hummingbird, as he called her, because she didn’t walk, but darted from place to place. And they held a secret wedding ceremony in the forest, then got married legally, again in secret.
Without your permission or approval.
Well, how could you have approved of Bo, when he saw through your charade, and it was clear to him just how Indian you were, how Hopi your teachings were.
Bo was a threat and had to:
1) be removed
2) be discredited
• with insinuations
• with slander.
And Erin, who was anchored to him… she sealed her own fate.
“Stay with your husband!” you ordered. “I release you from your obligations to me.”
And for you to release someone from their obligations was a rare and terrible thing.
But all of us who witnessed this story saw what Erin’s excommunication cost you. You loved her. She was obedient, enthusiastic, diligent.
“I did everything that woman told me to. If she’d suggested I shit sideways, I would’ve shit sideways.”
You looked crestfallen and sad, Granny, after you threw Erin out.
But it passed.
It was probably the same with me.
I know what it’s like to lose a beloved apprentice. I know the apocalyptic sadness that overwhelms you. The feeling of weightlessness, finality, and inconsolability. Impotence and loneliness. I’m familiar with the questions raised by such a separation. The confusion. The furtive glance around. At any moment, being a teacher can mean being a centipede with Achilles’ heels.
“Don’t make friends with your students,” you advised me, but I didn’t listen.
How many losses have you gone through, Granny, without any of us knowing?
The rift between teacher and student usually starts with the student. This is because the student changes more, walks a path. If the path leads in the same direction as that of the teacher, then the relationship continues normally. If the road leads somewhere else, then separation is inevitable.
But the teacher is walking, too. The teacher also changes, and often the students prefer them to remain the same. To be available in a predictable, consistent, and convenient way. And sometimes the teacher feels the need to stop talking, no matter how many people have gathered to listen.
How much more beautiful it would be if we could take a bow and say:
“I’ve learned what I could. I’m leaving.”
“I gave you what I could. Be on your way.”
But this rarely happens.
Learning to separate in time is an art.
“Life to life,” you used to say when you saw an animal killed on the road.
These words were a kind of incantation that called upon the animal to be reincarnated and return to us.
I still say “life to life” when I see some unfortunate half-runover squirrel, or deer, or possum, or whatever didn’t manage to cross in time.
Life to life. As if we have the ability, as if we possess the power and the might to undo death.
What lies runover on the road between us, Grandma, what?
You say we met in December 2006.
Thomas had invited me to a sweat lodge ceremony in the grove in your backyard.
You tell the story like this:
“I saw you crossing the lawn behind the house. I stood on the back porch and said hello and waved. You waved back. You were walking with your backpack on your back, and in the darkness a light was shining next to your head, on the left. The light was guiding you. And I said to myself: Ahh, something very special is coming to me.”
My heart swelled happily in my chest at this attention and wanted more.
“I think it was your mother,” you added, explaining the light.
Of course it was my mother. Who else?
Katerina Stoykova is a Bulgarian poet and author of several poetry collections, including "American Delicacies" and "Second Skin", published by ICU. Her upcoming poetry collection, "Between Birdcage and Birdhouse", will be published in English by the University Press of Kentucky in 2024. Katerina's books have won several national awards, including Dabat Na Pencho, Ivan Nikolov, and Vanya Konstantinova.
In addition to her work as a poet, Katerina is the owner and editor-in-chief of Accents Publishing, an American publishing house where she has published almost one hundred books, primarily poetry. She regularly teaches poetry workshops of varying lengths and levels through her publishing company and at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Katerina is also an editor, translator, and publisher of "The Season of Delicate Hunger: An Anthology of Contemporary Bulgarian Poetry", as well as "The Invisible Hand of Peace" by Khairy Hamdan and "The Chaos of Desire" by Marin Bodakov.
Katerina was born in Burgas and graduated in electronics and electrical engineering from Burgas Free University in 1995. She moved to the USA the same year and worked as an engineer at IBM and Lexmark. In 2009, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from Spalding University.