Family visits, once so excruciating, are now the highlight of the summer. Just hang on to your hat and watch out for "whadyacall."
Summer is almost here, which means it’s time for Ojibwe travelers to pass through. They will be on their way to powwows and other destinations for our most beloved activity: visiting. By visiting, I mean much more than the physical act of going to someone’s house. The Ojibwe visit requires serious chatting, teasing and much, much laughter. We can “visit” without leaving town, so long as there’s talking, teasing and laughing.
A carload of cousins blew through here recently. They arrived late and, like all visiting relatives, hungry. They woke up hungry, too, and after devouring all the bacon, they teased and embarrassed us long into the afternoon. Ojibwe visiting has an audible pattern. Long pauses after serious and sobering stories are followed by grossly inappropriate remarks, and then waves of laughter that ripple through the house and can be heard outside even with the windows closed. Ojibwe family and friends can shoot you right off whatever high horse you may occupy.
If you fall hard, it’s usually because you needed it.
This recent visit brought back memories from my childhood and made me marvel how Indian people, no matter how far removed we may be from the rez, always carry a little bit of it with us. For instance, walking into my Auntie Lucille’s Chicago apartment as a child, I could very likely find her butchering a beaver on the kitchen table.
Now, these memories fill me with fondness and pride. As a young woman, however, I felt secretly embarrassed by the doings of my rezzy relatives. I was attending college and had ideas of my own about what was appropriate. My notions didn’t allow much for human frailty and mess. Today in the safety of my suburban home, I find myself longing for those messy visits with my funny old aunties and uncles. I served as chauffeur during many of those rural and city adventures, always taking a bit of the rez with us.
I recall a visit that my mother and I made to my Uncle Don and Auntie Gerty’s Chicago apartment when I was in my early 20s. I was especially arrogant during this time in my life, certain that college and pursuit of a middle-class life were the only acceptable options for Indians.
We found my uncle Don a bit indisposed due to a giant 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 horse track. We fashioned his hat, the one he always wore when making wild rice in the sloughs off 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 sproing off his head.
I was appalled.
My uncle’s laughter exploded in wave after wave as we piled into the car. Since his head kind of hurt, he needed to stop periodically for a cocktail. We waited outside in the car at various corner pubs. Mortified, I noted that his gait became increasingly studied 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 cousin. Her voice was tipsy and full of suggested adventure. She asked, “Hey, whatchoose doing? Let’s go!”
“No, no,” Uncle Don said. “my sister’s here.”
“Whatsa matter, don’t she drink?” she demanded.
“No,” he responded with a bit of shock in his voice.
“So, what is she, high class?!” she asked, drawing the “s” out into a long hiss of “who-the-hell-does-she-think-she-is?” commentary.
After the door closed, there was silence. When the shock subsided, the sofa bed began to shake as my mom and I laughed uncontrollably into our pillows. The spell was broken and I was flat on my backside, knocked clean off my high horse.
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.