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Winter 1999, Volume 16.2

Essay

 

John Lloyd Purdyphoto of John Lloyd Purdy.

Portraits: Autoethnography and Selfstory


John Purdy lives in the Northwest and teaches Contemporary American/Native American literatures. His works include
Word Ways: The Novels of D’Arcy McNickle and the collection, The Legacy of D’Arcy McNickle: Writer, Historian, Activist. He has published numerous articles and is the editor of Studies in American Indian Literatures, [the journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures].

 

Frame

From the ninth floor of Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, I watched the leaves fall. It was an intriguing perspective, to watch the large Maples shed one by one their dead leaves, vibrant from even that distance, and to follow each individual, inverted trajectory of slide and rise and swirl as they dropped away to the streets darkened with rain. I wrote and later published a bad poem about it. But the poem, taking shape in my head as I watched them fall, made me restless, so I took the elevator down to the street to watch the leaves touch ground, but that viewpoint was common, familiar; the poem lost its momentum, so I set it aside and, since I still had over an hour to fill before my next class, wandered over there, to the library just west of PLC.

In the library, there is an Oregon Room, and for some reason on this day my steps turned up the stairs to it, where I stopped to thumb through the old oak card catalog that rested just outside the doorway. What do we do, if we’re not looking for something in particular? We look up our family name. To my surprise, it was there.

A few minutes later, standing in the last, tremendously tall row of packed, dusty shelves, an equally tall window arched at my back and dim light seeping through it and the gray cloud cover of the day, I pulled down a slim volume entitled Sixteen Years in Oregon, and opened up the first pages. It is difficult to describe my layered feelings as the revelation crept up my spine: I was looking at a photograph of the grandfather I never met, holding my father, six weeks old at the time. The image lacks color. Neither of them looks comfortable. Both appear perched on the verge of some momentous decision as they turn their gazes to one another; they look as if they might run or cry out, respectively. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only photograph of them together, or Dad before he was married. When my father was fifteen, this man holding him rigidly in black and white arms died; his heart gave out. When I was fifteen, the family tradition continued. For the male members of this family, it seems, our hearts are easily diverted.

Doors long shut stir intense chill when flung open. I did not know this book existed, so that moment of spontaneous, imaginative connection—the erasure of seventy-three years, 1912 to 1985, snap—was tremendously powerful. A seemingly un-retrievable past opened to me, stared outward and forward at me, from a book, a printed text, words and photos frozen in a moment, a context, a personality, a motivation. I held a personal history, a story of self, hidden in plain view on the shelf of a public library.

Survival is an act of the imagination.

A preface. "It is my intentions, in this book…" Figures, I thought. I had been teaching English Composition as well as literature at the University so my reading was easily diverted. The distance descended again; I read on, and it compounded from on high: "I enter into this transcript with the conviction that…my record for the sixteen years in Oregon is, on the whole, pleasing to God. I realize that He has a record which is kept of every man and woman, which is accurate and true. God forbid that I should be deceived!"

Forbid. Forbidden. Foreboding.

I learned in the war that the difference between a fairy tale and a war story is in the telling: a fairy tale begins "Once upon a time…," a war story with "This ain’t no shit."

I turned the page; there is another black-and-white photograph, placed vertically and opposite the first lines of his story. "WILL E. PURDY AND FAMILY/ While in the Army work, 18 years ago, Sacramento, Cal." I could be looking in a tiny mirror, one that diminishes the size of my face, takes a few years away, and blanches the color from my background: the hairline, the mustache, the hair itself brushed back, the eyes. Me.

I knew him vaguely as William, but here he is Will, incarnate in its abbreviation. I didn’t have one photograph or one story I could trot out to take me beyond this flat image of Will E. Purdy. All my uncles and all but one of my aunts on this side of the family were dead: Faith and Charity were long gone and (this is absolutely true) only Hope was alive, in a retirement home. Only cousins, as ignorant as me. I checked the book out and returned to my office.

In the light from the window on the ninth floor, I scrutinized the rest of the portrait. "AND FAMILY": a wife whose face was unfamiliar, and three alien, female children, only white faces visible from the dark recesses of bonnets, long dresses, tight collars. One has a newspaper or posters draped over her left arm, the others hold tambourines. Will is in uniform as well: high collar, military hat at attention on his right arm, even a badge. He doesn’t take long to tell why.

His father dies when he is young, in New York state; Will works from a young age, finally as a librarian, marries, moves, kids are born and die, moves, and then comes West. (I’d heard this story before, but now, however, the name was all too familiar.) He makes it to Sacramento (the sacrament). Here, his life changes: he finds god. "I was converted, through the instrumentality of the Salvation Army." Instrumentality. Will must have known a good thing when he saw it. He accepts this call to work for "God and souls." The Salvation Army, however, doesn’t take people with large, ready-made families. So, and this ain’t no shit, "I then organized what was known as God’s Religious Army." The tents of god’s army move northward through running firefights with other religious organizations and the law: Ashland, "Mr. Purdy: I warn you against standing on the street corners of Ashland to hold religious meetings. (Signed) ‘Marshall.’" In another, "If you do, I shall surely arrest you." Medford. Jacksonville. Gold Hill. Guns and good Christians with back doors to avoid tar and feathers. Grants Pass.

The wife. I looked out the window, to the Maples and northward to Scio—where I was raised on our family’s farm—and beyond, to Stayton where my grandmother lived out the last years of her long life in a house my father and uncle built on Washington Street. She had an ancient, short-haired dog with an overbite, and an old Victrola, the cabinet type with intricate wooden grillwork that I would stick my fingers through, teasing the smooth fabric backdrop, and behind it the stacks of 78s and heavy handle for cranking its intricate gearworks to life. She was tall, big boned, always in a faded print dress and apron. One of my sisters has her rocking chair. I have a few snapshot memories and, from my father, her husband’s shotgun, a model 1892 Winchester. Little things tell the story. Her name was Ollie; she passed on in 1964, the same year as my father and a niece.

It was not her in the picture.

The Road: Shelburn—West Scio
          for Rita

This house had its porch
cantilevered on land love,
where a grandmother
thick-ankled, bell-shaped
by burden rested, an
aproned bulk, long-winged
hen fretting over
her fragile young, whose
tellings tinted their thoughts
with caution, trepidation,
who bore them to plant
like domestic vegetables
along silent Western roads.

A church-goer, she felt
keenly the allure of
meetings, weaved straight
unerring through Baptist lots
filled with finned cars
as certainly as she once
strode through shocks
of murmuring men
into the dusty absolutes
of canvas, chaff,
chapter and fear.

She persists, an eddy
of our ’50s, arbiter
of that road she brought
to frame in pillar
and post of that porch,
a way sprouting
beings from Western hills
as curious as those
she chided on
Death Valley Days,
Gunsmoke
:
wild-eyed men
pulling pan banging burros,
fondling the proof
of pill bottles
and singular scales
of gold, and once,
a large nugget fob
greased bright
by tolling fingers.

We bought into their
thistledown dreams.

Things came haltingly
down that graveled way,
were seen at a distance,
arrived ceremoniously
amid rituals of children
and flurries of dogs.
Neighbors. Wars. Panhandlers.
The Raleigh’s Man a shiny
suit, a stained satchel filled
with lyrical patents, salves,
polished prophecies, bright
post-war forebodings.

They came and came
to call her son by name,
this Populist, this easy
touch and plower through
the dull ease of Eisenhower,
sharp angst of McCarthy.

On some summer sabbaths
umsittenden
amid family and neighbors,
he sipped whiskey,
spoke common truths,
popped leisurely away
from the porch
at political dogma
as hard and riddled as
the pocked yew cornerpost
heavy and squat like any
startled Candidate drawn
into the magnet driveway
beginning and ending in that
arcane road—his odd
calibered Colt .41
never quite enough
to plug the sieve of this
one mother’s migrant dreams,
whose echoes carry clearly
across our leveled fields.

She came into the scene in Grants Pass, where "I had my greatest misfortune of this life…by losing my beloved wife" but "one of my greatest fortunes…by choosing another who was willing to take up and carry on the work of the former." Greatest misfortune, one of the greatest fortunes, chosen yet willing. Heaven forbid otherwise, the equation of this accounting.

She was born Ollie Jessie Young, of a family already decades in the state. I know this, not from Will’s record, but from curiosity. Once the door opened, I walked through it; with directions Will supplied, sometimes in silence, I found out more. She was born in 1878 in Josephine County; she married in 1896, in same, at eighteen. Eighty-six alive. He was sixteen years older. She outlived him by forty: thirty years, then, of slide, dip and swirl, always in motion.

Her mother was Sarah Elliot, and then Young, and she was thirty when Ollie was born. Sarah passed on in 1929, but not before starting to tell her own personal narrative. It remains incomplete, but it, too, is a story of movement, men and escape: her grandfather, from North Carolina, to escape the evil of slavery, to Indiana where—she says—he built cabins and paid his freed slaves; her father from Indiana—to escape debt—to California in search of gold, returning with $4,000 and a Western urge; her husband, from ill health and Iowa, and she with him, to Oregon. But Ollie, Northward, with Will, to escape what?

Hindsight generates its own reason: dissatisfaction—these folks’ primum mobile—its own reward.

My only photograph of my paternal grandparents—just the two of them, neither smiling—comes sixty pages later in Will’s record. He is yet another man: mustache gone, hair to the side and furrowed brow expanding. I remembered seeing him like this before, in one framed photo on an aunt’s bureau. But grandma? Never. Here, she has a beauty none of the other images I’d seen ever conveyed, even in the darkened print, black dress to the neck, hair up and billowed. As a young woman, then, she had a presence my imagination cannot fathom. This was not the woman I knew. There is, however, one connection: her hair. I never saw her with her hair otherwise, always up and rolled, but when I knew her, it was gray, rolled tightly, from habit. Here, it is style, statement.   

They must have been an interesting match, game, set. However, the words that surround this image at the center of the book are bereft of her. Her only verbal presence is in "we." Her story is plural, supposition. She is taller, it appears, than Will, and her visage determined: willing and able. My father was born of this image—he looked more like her than him—of this time of "MR. AND MRS. WILL E. PURDY/ Of Newberg, Oregon." I have a black and white of Lloyd: tall, young, sneakers, shirtsleeves rolled up above the elbows as he rows a wooden boat on a lake. I am on his lap, maybe three months old. Next to this photo is one of my son at three, coming forward in his rocker in front of a Christmas tree. Of us all, only he is smiling.

 

Focus

A hundred yards north of PLC is a building in which I taught English 240: Introduction to American Indian Literatures. It was an introduction, indeed. From that first time through it I have three vivid and distinct memories.

One is of the first day of class. After the introductory maneuverings were completed and class dismissed, one woman came forward to tell her story, to share her background in Indian literatures: she carried a book by Lynn Andrews. She was a convert to the New Age movement through the instrumentality of this author. I kept my mouth shut, and then, later in the quarter, I encouraged her to do her term project on Andrews’ canon. An element of that project was a class presentation to share her readings and conclusions. When her turn came, she spent thirty minutes castigating New Age appropriation of indigenous world views, ceremonies and identities, using excerpts from Andrews’ texts to demonstrate the danger of so doing. The stories and poems we read together rewrote her universe: a conversion of matter. The best critics are chosen and willing.

The second memory is of Michael. Bright, articulate, a senior in pre-law, he approached me after the fourth week to tell me his story. It is a story I have watched develop many times since, names changing like seasons. Nez Perce by birth, he grew up far from his grandparents after his father shut the door on past and family. Like many second generations, his dad wanted to save him the pain of conforming. Moving away meant beginning anew; success came from blanching the color out of their lives.

There were bits of information that survived: his grandfather was a Dreamer who, at the end of his life, drove his pickup into the heartland of the Wallowa Mountains, locked it, placed the keys on the front right tire, and walked into the mountains, never to be seen again. The door seemed not only shut, but locked forever. Unlike the third-generation characters in the stories we read—Archilde in The Surrounded, Leon Burnt Horn in Roxy Gordon’s "Pilgrims," the unnamed protagonist in Winter in the Blood—the path back seemed irretrievably lost.

Michael’s presentation of his project took sixty-two minutes. The class was to last only fifty; near the end of it, students enrolled in the course that met in the room after ours tried to get into the room, only to be kept outside that shut door, held closed by Michael’s classmates until he had finished his say. Sixty-two minutes of complete absorption, his the only voice, the only sound.

His project? A pasticcio of self. Like the larva of the caddis fly in the McKenzie or Willamette Rivers (less than a mile from his voice) that piece together their outward skins from pebbles, sand, fir needles, and sticks—the detritus of their environment—Michael presented a spoken text patched together from treaties, novels, newspapers, poems, congressional acts, television commercials, his own journal, popular songs, and this was his song of self composed with bits of the printed past woven into a new linguistic construction. In one utterance, he had moved issues of identity from a description of prescriptive criteria, to an illustration of its true nature: a fluid, ever-evolving imaginative process, referential to but not solely determined by the past.

My third vivid memory of that class is of its last meeting. For the occasion, I had invited my former professor—Montana Richards Walking Bull—and her husband Gilbert. They drove down from Monmouth—sixty-five miles north of Eugene, twenty-five south of Newberg—to have lunch, and then to talk to the class.

I have often wondered what she thought when we first met, years prior to this visit. That was in a "methods course" she taught, entitled "Teaching the Novel." She was born of a minister father and Cherokee mother; she had taught for years in public schools herself, moving here and there around the country, ending up in Oregon a college professor—one who trains teachers—a writer, a scholar. Now, before her, there sat yet another batch, a new generation of white faces looking back, and one looking sorely out of place. I was a "non-traditional" student.

I was back from Vietnam and trying to decide between a career in Corrections or Philosophy, and at one point in my search for an image of me in the future I stood knee deep in Mom’s bathroom floor replacing the foundation, rotted with water seeping over a long time through cracked caulking: tub on the back lawn, my mother’s father’s saw slicing out the offending wood in preparation for a new floor. Mother cried in the livingroom; I chuckled under my breath. A few years before, my buddy Dan listened to Nixon on Armed Forces Radio as he swore troops would never enter Cambodia, Dan and his armored personnel carrier seventy-five kilometers inside that inviolable political boundary. She stopped me cold; I had been talking out loud about crooks and words. Silenced, I returned to my wood and she to the television, on which Nixon spoke his words of resignation. The saw sighed through the planks. Invasions come in many uniforms.

Montana drew us through Snow Country and Faulkner, Hunger and Hemingway, and somewhere between Filipino narrative styles and French plot structures, I converted. So, presidents later, she and Gilbert came to talk to students once more. We ate in the University Club. We had sandwiches, soup, soft drinks. Over lunch, she surveyed me closely, now that I look back. I had invited students: two fans from the course and two graduate students. It was a small gathering. Gilbert told a funny story. We ate well, and she watched. I think she was wondering who or what I had become. I wondered, too. I didn’t tell her about finding Will’s book, my own movement through a new past, my own confusion. Her history fascinated me more, now that I had recognized the shared leitmotifs, reverberations, of our personal narratives.

I introduced them to a very packed classroom. I was left sandwiched up against a window, far away from the door, but close to the podium. There are huge firs outside the window, and the oldest buildings on campus, the stone memories of early immigrant days in the Willamette Valley. Montana spoke first. She asked what the students thought about Indian literatures. They responded. She told them her own story: Oklahoma, going to school, becoming a professor, moving around the country, coming to Oregon. And then she stepped to the podium to read some of her own poetry, but then from a spiral binder, a manuscript in progress about Native American women poets. By that time, I was watching the students. They were respectfully attentive.

When she finished, Gilbert reached into his bag and pulled forth his drum. He walked over toward the window, looking out at those buildings and the old-growth firs that surround them, tapping the drumhead lightly, singing and humming under his breath. The tune in order, he hit a quick, loud song and took it to the rafters. The next was softer, then rose. Gilbert has a wonderful voice and a deep repertoire of songs from his Ogallala folks back home. Within ten minutes, both doors to the classroom were flung open, and lines of students from other classes went as far, and further, than I could see in either direction. The next class in the room was canceled, since we went long over our scheduled time once again. Gilbert sang on; Montana’s manuscript was never published.

They were happily married, Montana and Gilbert, lived for each other. They had very different personal stories, as different in their configurations of self as one could get, identifying as Cherokee scholar and Ogallala singer. The two halves, the plots, entwined. Montana passed on a few months later.

 

Shoot

Sixteen Years in Oregon is not about a life, or even two, but about property: a rhetoric of real estate. Unfortunately, it seems, god’s record will not always tally with humankind’s when it comes to this: Will’s partner in real estate bequeathed to him a large piece of downtown Portland, along the Willamette River. His partner’s family contested the will, and won. The estate was not, in any real sense, his. So, Sixteen Years in Oregon becomes a map, a trail of properties and transactions covering the state of Oregon, from Noti (west of Eugene) and a hotel, to Champoeg (across the River from Newberg and site of an early European settlement) and a house, to Scio and the farm on which I was raised. Swept by the economics of god’s work, the men in my family easily diverted. The women, however, the women… is not about a life, or even two, but about property: a rhetoric of real estate. Unfortunately, it seems, god’s record will not always tally with humankind’s when it comes to this: Will’s partner in real estate bequeathed to him a large piece of downtown Portland, along the Willamette River. His partner’s family contested the will, and won. The estate was not, in any real sense, his. So, Sixteen Years in Oregon becomes a map, a trail of properties and transactions covering the state of Oregon, from Noti (west of Eugene) and a hotel, to Champoeg (across the River from Newberg and site of an early European settlement) and a house, to Scio and the farm on which I was raised. Swept by the economics of god’s work, the men in my family easily diverted. The women, however, the women… is not about a life, or even two, but about property: a rhetoric of real estate. Unfortunately, it seems, god’s record will not always tally with humankind’s when it comes to this: Will’s partner in real estate bequeathed to him a large piece of downtown Portland, along the Willamette River. His partner’s family contested the will, and won. The estate was not, in any real sense, his. So, Sixteen Years in Oregon becomes a map, a trail of properties and transactions covering the state of Oregon, from Noti (west of Eugene) and a hotel, to Champoeg (across the River from Newberg and site of an early European settlement) and a house, to Scio and the farm on which I was raised. Swept by the economics of god’s work, the men in my family easily diverted. The women, however, the women…

 

Develop

My lawn hunkers and contours around submerged rocks and roots left by water and trees, some cleared to make way for this house, now nearing a century. It slopes to the creek where, on alternating years, generations of salmon and steelhead make their difficult way up from the River, half a mile below, driven by their own sense of season. Their road is at the whim of the weather and the clearcutting above. Only a few hundred acres of old growth remain, some of the trees seedlings when the Normans conquered their northern neighbors, or Acoma pueblo was founded. The forest canopy gone, a slow day’s rain takes the creek up, over the rocks so that the fish move up the rugged drop of the terrain; more than a day’s rain, and the silt comes down darkening their way in a torrent so violent that boulders click down its bed like dice.

My yard is full of trees still: Cedar, Maple, Hemlock. One of the younger Cedars reminds me of a child’s tooth, prizing an old stump aside as it rises from the rich decay. Along the creek bed, there are three who alternate—Cedar, old Maple, Cedar—and their branches are intricately intertwined as they reach toward the sun in the Southern sky. They hug and grapple to this common absolute, the cedars slowly gaining the edge in the Fall and Winter as the Maple, leaves gone, dreams, dormant.

That ain’t no shit.

 

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