I remember reading something in a blog recently that sparked reflections that went underground while I reviewed and graded a seemingly never-ending stream of student papers. Sadly, I can’t remember which blog inspired me now that I have a moment to think before the next stream of papers arrives.
The simple statement in the blog post, “the word ‘mother’ is a verb,” came to mind this morning. “Yes, I can relate to that,” I thought. Perhaps that is one of the crucial dimensions of what it means to be a mother, “to mother,” but I think there’s something more that goes beyond a simple state of giving birth to new life, a deeper sense of connectedness to the responsibility one feels for the well-being of others. Not only one’s own children. “To mother” may also lead to the realization that the well-being of one’s own children is inextricably connected to the well-being of all other children and to the well-being of the world as a whole.
Years ago, I saw a greeting card that crystalized what it felt like to me to be a mother, auntie, or grandmother.
For so many women, though, motherhood may not be a choice. It may also be an overwhelming responsibility for women without the support of others, perhaps especially so for those in cultures that are unable or unwilling to assure healthy environments for mothers and children – access to clean water, clean air to breathe, respectful treatment of women and children, safe and adequate shelter, good nutrition, help with child care, and education that supports the development of practical skills, compassion for others, creativity, and critical thinking.
My mother was faced with a most difficult choice. She had to decide whether to remain in an abusive relationship or give up the right to raise her two young children.
Following is the fifth part of the story of her life that describes her brief escape from abuse and the decision she felt forced to make because of circumstances beyond her control.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
In Search of Safety
Norma’s early married years were very difficult. She was far from family and home. During her time in Chicago, she had the support and friendship of colleagues she met during nursing school, and help from her sister/cousin, Hazel, who lived in Chicago. Hazel had taken Norma in during part of Norma’s high school years. Relatives from her reservation and other community members often traveled there to visit her as well.
New Jersey was a different story on many levels. There were no relatives, few Ojibwe community members who visited, and no Native American connections. Norma was alone. Wes’ relatives were geographically close, but were culturally worlds apart from Norma’s Ojibwe family.
I never heard her speak of them, although I can remember my own childhood impressions. Wes’ family was of English descent, and his father and grandfather had in fact descended from their position in England. As Wes told the story, although I’m not sure it’s accurate, his grandfather was the youngest son of an aristocratic family who, under the tradition of primogeniture, needed to make his own way in the world without land or money from his family. He came to America, and his son, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Sr., learned to be a master plumber. Wes was the second born in a family of nine children. His own mother died after the birth of her seventh child when he was still a little boy. His father remarried and had two more children. Wes often spoke about how his stepmother kept the food pantry locked, securing the key on her apron ties.
I remember my grandfather’s house. I found it amazing years later when I learned he was a plumber who worked in New York’s skyscrapers – there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet would only flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Wes’ younger brother lived in the house, while Wes’ father lived on the second floor of a shed that we referred to as the “bird house.” Goats lived on the first floor, and hundreds of birds – finches, canaries, and parakeets, flew free in my grandfather’s living space. I can still remember the smell of the house and the shed! I can also remember the reserve and the dour demeanor of my father’s family, and the absence of laughter in their homes. I can only imagine how a young woman far from her home felt in their presence. I wonder how an Ojibwe woman who had been socialized to believe that white society was superior to her own made sense of the lifestyle and homes of Wes’ family – conditions that were similar to those of the Appalachian families I encountered in Kentucky (many named Coombs) decades later.
Wes suffered from serious depression and a quick, violent temper – in part from an abusive childhood compounded by untreated emotional trauma from his years in the marines and his war experiences in the South Pacific. In his pain and insecurity, he hurt the person he loved most with angry outbursts and degrading comments. Before they had children, Norma had her work as a nurse to give her life meaning and balance. This changed when her daughter and son were born. As a young mother who needed to work, she feared for her children’s well-being and grew weary of being degraded. She sought the advice of lawyers and priests, only to be told to be a good wife, to turn the other cheek. She stood the loneliness, fear, and abuse as long as she could.
Allendale House, 1949
I remember coming into the Allendale house one day as a very little child. My mother was at work and one of the neighbors must have been watching my brother, Bobby, and me. I decided to run home and discovered that the back door that led into the kitchen, the door that we always used, was locked. No one answered my knocking although I knew that my father was home. I decided to try the front door and it was unlocked. When I entered the house, I smelled something really odd. The door to the kitchen was locked from the inside, and a towel was rolled up to block the opening at the bottom. I was worried, although I do not remember what I did. I believe that I ran next door to ask my neighbors for help. I later learned that my father had turned on the gas in the oven after blowing out the pilot light in an attempt to commit suicide.
Perhaps this was the event that forced Norma to leave. After Bobby’s first birthday, she packed up one day while Wes was at work and boarded a train headed for the southwest with her two little children. I can remember the long train ride. It was a new, exciting experience. It seemed that we traveled for days, sleeping in our seats. Our first stop was somewhere in Texas. We lived on the first floor of a converted two-story house. Norma worked and tried to find child care.
Soon, we were traveling again. We lived in a trailer in a small town in New Mexico. Agnes came to help as a babysitter while Norma worked. I remember this as a very small town with a quiet, sand-covered road. The yard surrounding our trailer had a trellis with lovely morning glories. It was not long before we were on the move again, this time headed for Lac du Flambeau, Norma’s childhood home. As we traveled, I learned from my grandmother, Agnes, that Wes had tracked us down in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He tracked us down in Lac du Flambeau as well. By this time, at the age of 4 ½, I knew that my mother wanted to be free of fear and abuse. Wes threatened to take my brother and me if she did not return to New Jersey with him, and he promised to make sure that she never saw us again.
I remember the scene in the parking lot in front of my grandmother’s house and beauty shop. Wes’ cold anger and determination to have his own way. Norma’s tears and pleas as she tried to protect herself and her children. I wanted to save Norma from the hurt, and ran up to Wes and kicked him in the leg and told him how mean he was, how much I hated him for how he treated my mother. Who knows. Perhaps this small gesture helped provide some protection for Norma, some recognition for Wes that his behavior was unacceptable even in the eyes of a child, and the courage for Norma to sacrifice her own safety in order to watch over her son and daughter.
The trip back to Allendale is long forgotten for me. The depth of sadness I felt was more than I could bear, so I stopped eating. I became so weak that is was hard for me to walk. But for a kind neighbor who gave me a reason to live, I may well have died before the age of 5. I know Norma’s heart was heavy as she watched me fade away while she struggled with her own deep sadness.
Yet, we all survived. In time, we found a way to live in relative peace for awhile. Norma had her work as a nurse in a doctor’s office and then in a nursing home. Bobby and I had school and our friends. Wes had his job and family.
I just couldn’t resist sharing a bit of humor in the face of the present tragic times. Normally, I abhor ad hominem attacks. Sometimes, though, there doesn’t seem to be any other way to confront overwhelming destructive power…
“The Liar Tweets Tonight” by Roy Zimmerman and the ReZisters
Greeting the morning Gazing at the falling snow as it thickens the blanket of white already covering the earth The only sounds a whisper of distant traffic the shrill cries of returning seagulls and the sharp yelps of a little dog out for a morning trot pulling its owner along Grateful for the chance to witness fleeting moments of ordinary life and beauty
The past week has been a rollercoaster ride. But today, I can breathe deeply. Perhaps what ails me these days has simply been asthma triggered by allergies to toxic air and an extraordinary amount of snow mold exposed by unseasonably warmer weather, and my raking, for the past month.
The toxic exhaust from the factories to the east has ceased for a time. Maybe it’s because the wind isn’t blowing from the east at the moment. Maybe it’s because it’s Sunday. Or maybe it’s because the factories are temporarily shuttered. The downside of factory closures, though, is the fact that cleaner air comes with a cost in a country that imposes increasingly fewer environmental and health safeguards on industries. Many people have suddenly lost jobs they need to support families, and the supply of stuff we take for granted, like toilet paper, is interrupted. The present context does offer us a powerful opportunity to figure out how to adjust what we produce and how we produce it, mindful of the effects on health and the environment.
There are other outcomes to the changes we’ve been facing that can have positive outcomes as well. Technology, with the help of a colleague, enabled me to meet with my class. We didn’t all have to drive separately to a central meeting site. We were able to connect from our homes in a meaningful way and still have a very productive dialogue despite our collective inability to use technology well yet.
My goals for the class were simple. I began as we usually begin class, although this time it was via zoom.
“What did you notice today?”
I wanted to provide a safe space for them to talk about how their lives and ability to complete their studies have been affected by COVID – 19. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for them to help me adjust the course workload and assignments so they could realistically learn what they need to know despite the new challenges they are facing – fear, uncertainty, isolation, grief, lost jobs, new responsibilities at work to cover for other staff who were laid off, arranging childcare for children who were no longer in school, etc. Despite tears in the eyes of many, we had thoughtful, productive discussions. Class ended by the students suggesting that they connect online to help each other, not only with classes, but also with other things as well.
“One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.
“Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
“…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul… Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”
This week, I also noticed other hopeful signs. I have always believed that education should be accessible to all. I just learned about two new resources:
1. Open Access to all C-SPAN Classroom Resources “With many classes moving to online formats, we have removed the log-in and password requirements for all of our lesson plans and bell ringers on the C-SPAN Classroom website. You and your students are now able to access any resource on the site, including those that were previously behind the login wall. With this new option, you can share direct links to those resources via email, social media or within your content management systems.” Link: https://www.c-span.org/classroom/
2. “Revisioning Our World: Seeing What Works, Broadening Our View, Seeking Innovative Alternatives” is now free “ Given the current state of affairs related to COVID-19, to ensure the safety of all, we have decided to change the modality of delivery of our annual conference. We are fortunate that our Keynote and Plenary speakers as well as many of our session presenters have agreed to record their presentations and make them public. “Rates for the conference have changed and the only fee will be for those who want CEUs, which will cost $50. You can register through link listed under our Registration tab.” Link: https://blogs.millersville.edu/learninginstitute/
Sending my best wishes to all…
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (2001, 2016). Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times. Available from depth psychology.net
This morning, I commented on a blogging friend’s post. It seemed important to share an edited version of what I wrote on my own blog. I have come down with something that feels like a cold or the flu, so I am staying home although I walk my dog periodically in my mostly deserted neighborhood.
I have no idea when or where I caught this illness. Fortunately, my symptoms are mild at the moment and I have the luxury of a part-time job teaching college students that is now completely online.
Each morning I awake grateful that I can still breathe deeply and do what I can remotely to reach out to others with kindness. My heart is heavy, though, for all of my students and for others who have lost homes, jobs and are seriously ill. I worry about my daughter, the last person I was with this weekend, and about my grandchildren.
I will do all I can to keep from spreading whatever illness I have to others.
Please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me right away. I have student papers to grade and online content to prepare.
I hope you are all well and as safe as one can be in these times.
Memories of my mother fill my heart this morning
with a confusing cacophony of feelings –
gratitude for the time I had to be with her,
sorrow for the loss, both hers and mine,
and hope that she finally found peace
The day of her birth is rapidly approaching
On March 1, she would have celebrated her 99th birthday
but she was 89 when she died in the early morning on 10/10/2010
a blessed release from a progressive debilitating illness –
I was her legal guardian for the last 14 years of her life
and witnessed a number of things that will stay with me –
the need to protect her from the cruelty of Ojibwe people
who took advantage of her when she could no longer resist
despite the Midewiwin Code – honor elders, wisdom, and life
balanced by the kindness of others who cared for her
along with non-Native strangers who learned to love her
When she could no longer remember who she was,
I wrote down my memories as best I could
interspersed with photos I found in her belongings
to help her recall the old days and remember
how much light she brought into the lives of others
I decided to share the account I wrote about her life in 2006 on this blog now in short chapters
perhaps because the health center she helped create as a legacy
for the Ojibwe tribal community where she was born and raised
is being threatened for momentary financial and political gain
by those who know little of history and don’t seem to understand
the importance of protecting community health and tribal sovereignty for the sake of future generations
or perhaps I’m sharing it just because she has been in my heart
as I find myself missing the place I still think of as home these days
surrounded by old friends who know what historical trauma means
and still dedicate their work and lives
to helping others and speaking truth to power
…but probably it’s a bit of both
Note: The formatting of the original document has been lost in the process of converting it to post on WordPress, and old photos copied many times from various documents are somewhat blurry. Unfortunately, the originals were damaged in a flood years ago. If you click on the photos, though, they enlarge and are a little easier to see.
Preface – ii
Dedication Poem – iii
Norma’s Parents – 1
Norma as a Little Girl – 4
Public School Days – 10
Off to Nursing School and the “Big City” – 16
A New Life Far from Home – 21
A Growing Family – 24
In Search of Safety – 26
Family Reunited – 29
A New Career – Keystone Nursing Home – 33
Another Venture – Log Cabin Tavern – 41
Indian Health Service – Southwest Connections – 44
Life in “Chicken Scratch” – 48
Coming Home: Leadership, Retirement, and Loss – 49
This compilation of photographs and stories has been scanned and assembled with love for my family. Included are photos found in albums, boxes, and donated by relatives, with commentary sometimes written on the backs of pictures. I know of no other way to pass on the stories I have heard about my mother. Unfortunately, the stories are sketchy and incomplete. As my mother enters the later stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, there is no way I can look to her to fill in the blanks, and many of the elders who could help have already passed on – not uncommon given the shorter life expectancy for Native Americans.
In many ways, my mother’s life has been unexceptional – she has not gained great fame. Yet, in other ways her journey and accomplishments have been extraordinary. There is a saying that applies, although I have long forgotten the source. “It is not what a person achieves that counts, but how far she has had to travel.”
I leave this partial account of my mother’s journey for those who have not heard the stories. May you know that there is hope in the most discouraging circumstances, nobility in the humblest among us, and the possibility to touch lives and leave lasting contributions that make the world a kinder place.
A SONG FOR MY PEOPLE*
whose eyes I wear in my soul
in joyous praise for gnarled hands
precious children laughter in the soup of pain
Everyone of us beautifull
the strong, the fearful, the weary, the angry
the traditional, the assimilated, the ones on both sides
of the bloody borders
playing Bingo, dancing in Pow Wows
How beautifull we are How complete
just as we are
Grief & confusion wail through our hills
Above it I sing a song for my people
How we are beautifull
*Chrystos (1991), Dream On
My mother’s life has been “a song for her people.” As a daughter and niece, as a wife and mother, a nurse and administrator she has walked in two worlds. She has balanced the messages that she was both exceptional and inferior because she was Ojibwe, in a very real sense placing her in the liminal space between cultures. Between worlds, her best friend was a dog, Suzie, whose death she grieved deeply. Dear mother, may you find love, true friendship, and community…
Agnes Sero, Norma’s mother, and Agnes’ two sisters, Margaret and Sarah, spent at least part of their adolescence in a lumber camp where their father, Edward Sero, worked. Agnes’ mother was Angeline Shandreau. Sarah died at an early age. She was a special aunt to Norma, and in Norma’s eyes, she was the loveliest of the sisters. Norma told me many times that the sisters became prostitutes at an early age. Given where they were raised and how lovely they were, perhaps this is true, and if true, perhaps the only way they could exercise some control over their exploitation.
When Agnes gave birth to her first child, Norma, she was 17 years old. These photos suggest she was a playful young woman despite her childhood.
Norma’s father, Raymond Ackley, lived in the Sokaogon or Mole Lake Ojibwe community. He is a direct linear descendant of Chief Ki-chi-waw-be-sha-shi (Great Martin), Chief Mee-gee-see (Great Eagle), and William Ackley, one of the first white settlers in the area. William Ackley played an important role negotiating with the U.S. government on behalf of the Sokaogon Ojibwe community.
Norma as a little girl
Ray and Agnes did not stay together after Norma’s birth. At two weeks old, Norma was given to Agnes’ older sister, Anna Graveen, although Ray wanted to raise his young daughter. Anna kept Norma away from her father, creating a distance that would prevent the development of connections for future generations. There are no pictures of Anna in Norma’s papers, only letters that Anna wrote to Norma when Norma was attending nursing school in Chicago, but that is a later story.
For her first five years, Norma was raised by Anna while Anna held a seasonal job for a resort for wealthy tourists. Yet, as the commentaries on the backs of the photographs suggest, Agnes remained a part of her daughter’s life, protecting her daughter, or perhaps from Norma’s perspective, preventing her from being adopted out of her community and culture.
In the early 1900s, it was common practice for local tourist resorts to promote the novelty of Indians as a marketing strategy. Norma has saved two of the postcards from this era that show her as a little girl.
There are a few pictures of Norma as a little girl with friends and family.
There are two stories Norma shared about her early years. When she was very young, she was rounded up by BIA officials with “100 other children.” They were taken to the federal boarding school in Lac du Flambeau and housed in a large room and then, they all had their tonsils removed in an assembly-line procedure. Norma remembered becoming very ill after the operation: her throat was so sore and she was so sick that she knew she would die. One of her aunts (name unknown) came to visit her, saw how sick she was, and brought “Indian medicine” (alum) to heal her. As soon as Norma took the medicine, she got well.
When Norma was about seven or eight, Anna became very ill and Norma was scooped up by the BIA. Instead of sending her to the BIA boarding school in Lac du Flambeau, she was put on a train, alone, to travel to the Catholic Indian boarding school in Bayfield, Wisconsin. It was a frightening 100- plus-mile trip for a young child. She told me only two stories about that time. She was a good student and in the eyes of the nuns, “not like the other Indians.” And she remembered scrubbing the halls and stairs on her hands and knees with a toothbrush. Only once did I hear her comment that she did not forgive the Catholic church for how she was treated.
Perhaps this photo was taken before she left, or when she was on a vacation from school.
There are few other photos from Norma’s earliest years. These were taken when she was 9 and 10.
A result of Norma’s boarding school experience was her acceptance of the Catholic religion, an important foundation for her earlier years.
Chrystos (1991). Dream on. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Press Gang Publishers. p. 70.
Although classes officially began this past weekend, we had to cancel our first face-to-face meetings because of weather. Thursday, the day before my first class was scheduled to meet, dawned with a bright sun highlighting the deep piles of snow from the last storms, with nary a cloud in the sky. Weather radar showed the storms far to the south, giving us all false hope we would be spared from the two-day storm that was predicted. Friday morning radar showed the storm beginning its rapid approach. We decided to err on the side of safety for the sake of students and faculty who travel for classes, some from long distances.
The storm that was predicted came just as the first class, research, was scheduled to begin. By Saturday afternoon, it brought fierce winds and a foot of fast falling snow, sometimes creating whiteout conditions. We were grateful we made the decision to cancel classes although it meant more work. It’s already challenging to plan classes that cover so much information when we only meet eight times face-to-face every other week. Alternate weeks are online.
Although so many colleges and universities are pushing online courses, it has been our experience that just doesn’t work for some courses. Interaction and dialogical exchanges enable students to discuss differing views about complex issues in a safe and thoughtful manner. It’s a powerful way to expose students to differing possibilities. Although this approach has proven to be effective, WordPress spell checker doesn’t even recognize the word “dialogic” and few studies have been done to test its effectiveness.
I also always learn something new when I teach. The following poem and discussion was inspired by past students from diverse backgrounds who were enrolled in the Saturday class I co-teach with a friend. That first class in mezzo and macro social work practice was also cancelled.
An important foundation for everything I teach focuses on initial assignments designed to help students learn more about the world and themselves. They are asked to critically examine taken-for granted socialization and how it has influenced what they see and believe about the world.
As my last post makes clear, I have thought a great deal about the historical trauma Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Over the years, though, I have also learned something about the effects of displacement for those who have immigrated elsewhere for a variety of reasons. Many were forced to brave that momentous transformative prospect by larger social forces over which they had no control.
We use the metaphor of trees to help students explore roots, changing social and natural environmental factors throughout history, and possibilities to draw on roots and history for reweaving community connections. (Links to old posts that describe aspects of the class are posted at the end for anyone who is interested in learning more.)
It has always been challenging to help students understand why knowing their roots is important when their ancestors may have come from so many different countries and cultures. A couple years ago, I remembered my fascination with the banyan trees I saw in Hawaii. They were not like anything I had ever seen before and they inspired me to think about immigration, adaptation, and assimilation in new ways.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
Links to Older Posts that Describe Aspects of the Mezzo/Macro Practice Class: