Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

My mother, Bernice, was not particularly motherly, at least not in the romanticized versions depicted on Mother’s Day greeting cards.

She was not a self-less, maternal creature whose sole mission was to please, protect and nurture us.

Bernice survived poverty, racism, brutal men, Indian boarding school and everything else the world had to dish out to Native women in the 20th century.

Consequently, she was often bitter and quick-tempered; she could release an acid stinging tongue or a crack upside her children’s heads if we got too close at the wrong moments.

Although she often failed to be the doting mother I thought I deserved, she was ultimately the mother I needed.

My mother taught me how to survive in a world that can be inhospitable for Native women.

The greatest survival tool she gave me was laughter, loud, outrageous, inappropriate laughter especially in the face of shame, injustice and pain.

Indeed, Native women I know and love share that cleansing quality of laughter; it’s likely what keeps us from going mad. Laughing, especially at our own bad luck or shortcomings, helps us regain the strength to go on.

It took me several years, however, to fully appreciate my mother’s life-saving gift.

Thinking of her on this Mother’s Day, I recall our many road trips together. As a young woman, I was the driver on our trips to the reservation or “down Chicago” to visit our many relatives.

Mary Annette Pember's mom, Bernice. (Photo courtesy of Mary Annette Pember)

I recall a trip to visit my Uncle Don and Auntie Gertie in Chicago. It was the late 1970’s, early 80’s; I was a college student and very serious about being taken seriously in my rise above my beginnings.

Secretly, I was embarrassed by the doings of my less educated relatives. My notions of propriety didn’t allow much room for human frailty and mess. In short, I was impossibly full of myself.

Don and Gertie lived in one of those old time shot-gun style walk-up apartments that most Native folks occupied on the city’s Northside, near Clark Street. Before the high rents of gentrification drove them out, the then shabby neighborhood was home to generations of Native people who moved to the city on the federal relocation program. In those days, Clark street was lined with “Indian bars,” with names like “the B-52,” “the Pair-a-Dice,” and “the Indian Club,” complete with a neon sign depicting a headdress wearing Indian holding a war club.

We found my uncle Don a bit indisposed due to an awful whack on the head he’d received when some street toughs robbed him of his money. He insisted, however, that the enormous bandage on his head wasn’t going to keep him from making a family trip to the race track to bet on the horses. We fashioned his hat, the one he always wore when making wild rice in the sloughs of Lake Superior, with some baling twine into a covering for the bandage. After punching holes into either side of the hat, my mom fished the twine through the holes, knotted them and tied the whole mess under his chin with a bow so the hat wouldn’t leap from his head.

I was appalled.

My uncle’s laughter exploded in wave after wave as we piled into the car. The affable, witty old guy visited with everyone we met that day as though he’d known them his entire life. Despite all his shortcomings, his drinking and unreliability, his generosity of heart was infectious. Thinking of him now, I miss him terribly.

Mary Annette Pember's Uncle Don, Mother's Day (Mary Annette Pember) Photo 1984

Since his head kind of hurt, he needed to stop periodically for a cocktail. We waited outside in the car at various corner bars. Mortified, I noticed him teetering more and more as he struggled to remain upright. When Uncle Don imbibed, he often had trouble naming the people, places and things that came to his mind so he just called them “whadaya call.” As in, “Let’s stop up here at the whadaya call!”

By the end of the day, everything had become “whadaya call.” My mom and auntie had had a wonderful day, chatting brightly about this and that relative. Too self-absorbed, I was unable to appreciate the warmth of these quirky old folks, who always managed to love me no matter what notions I held. Much put upon, I was just glad the day was over. I settled gratefully next to my mom on the pull-out sofa bed in their tiny apartment.

Sometime after midnight, we were awakened by a terrific pounding at the door. Uncle Don stumbled out of bed to see who it was.

It was a woman, probably a distant cousin. Her smokey voice was slurred and full of adventure.

Laughing, she asked, “Hey, whatchoose doing? Let’s go!”

“No, no,” Uncle Don said. “my sister’s here.”

“Oh, bring her along!”

“No, no,” he responded with a bit of shock in his voice.

“Whatsa matter, don’t she drink?!” she demanded.

“No,” Don said in a low voice.

“Oh!” she said archly.

“What is she, high class?!” she asked, drawing out the “s” into a long hiss of “who-the-hell-does-she-think-she-is?” commentary.

After the door closed, we lay on the sofa bed in shocked silence.

Suddenly, I noticed that the rickety bed was shaking, shaking from my mother’s stifled laughter. At last the spell was broken and I joined her; we laughed uncontrollably into our pillows.

Forever afterwards, it became the standard question between us whenever we thought the other was getting too uppity. “So, whadaya, high class?” It would bring us both back to where we needed to be and we would laugh, oh, how we would laugh.

My mother died in 2011 at the age of 86. Looking back over our lives together it’s that naked, unabashed laughter we shared that I miss the most, those incapacitating belly laughs that left our legs wobbly and made us sit down. My mother could always appreciate the absurd even in life’s most challenging moments.

Her love was imperfect, often tinged with hurt, but her laughter taught me acceptance, humility and salvation.

Happy Mother’s Day. 

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