This morning it was cold and blowing and so dark. It made me think of the first time I ever walked into Mom’s hogan. Sometimes in the evening before we were married, I would go in for a minute or two to visit. The first time ever, it was dark and starting to snow hard.
Little bits of cold hard snow were blowing across the hillside and the smoke from the chimney pipe was swirling down around the hogan. Mom lived in a traditional Navajo hogan made of logs, daubed between with mud, then plaster over with mud on the roof. It always seemed to have settled into the earth and you stepped down slightly when you went inside.
That first visit I had no idea what to expect. The only hogans I had been in before were ‘anglicized’ ones — hogans that had been built with 2 by 4’s and plaster board with celotex and tar-paper on the outside and roof. They felt kind of like going in a regular house except they were round. This one was different entirely.
The door was closed because it was a cold blowing night. Usually Navajo homes have the door open all the time. It says ‘we are here, we’re all up, we are ready for company.” If the door is closed it means no one is home or they don’t’ want any visitors. Of course it is terrifically impolite, not to mention bad luck, to just drive up hop out of the car and go in. Courtesy requires that you wait a few minutes after you arrive. This allows the people inside to wash their face or straighten up or whatever. It also confuses any evil spirits which may have been tagging along after you. They think you are just resting and go on their way. Otherwise they might follow you inside and bring evil things to the family. Don’t get all het up. I’m just telling you what I was taught. Believe it or not. Accept it or not.
At any rate, when we opened the door it was like stepping into complete security. I completely understand why so many old Navajos still prefer to live in a tradition Hogan. It is so very comforting and secure. The walls circle around you and the lamp light and fire light are reflected on all the faces and homey objects. It is wonderful.
Mom’s hogan had a stove in the center right in front of the door. There was no electricity so the light was provided by the fire glowing in the stove and by a kerosene lamp-the old fashioned kind like my grandma used to have. The firelight gave the interior a warm golden rosy glow. The combination of the warmth and the glow was inviting and enfolding.
The roof of the hogan was comprised of interlocked logs with mud plaster covering them in between and on the outside. That first night I didn’t understand the purpose of the sheets and curtains tacked tightly over the ceiling. Now I know it was to catch any sand or pieces of litter that might sift down from the roof. But the light reflecting off the light colored sheets and curtains contributed to the enveloping atmosphere. It also served to make the interior brighter by reflecting what light there was. The walls were logs with chinking. The kids used to keep little toys and Important Papers in between them in places out of amasani’s sight. Mom always had a couple or three grandsons staying with her, as well as Louie and his one brother.
I don’t remember how many kids were there on that first evening because I was focused on Mom. She sat on the bed beside an ammunition box kitchen cabinet type work surface just to the left of the door. The bottom part had plenty of space for a couple skillets and a pot. There was a bag of flour and some potatoes in a bag. The top of that section provided a counter surface to work on and sitting on the back section was a hand built set of shelves-maybe two or three. They held plates, bowls, cups and a can of silverware-all mismatched. There were various cans and containers for lard, salt, coffee, baking powder and some wrapped meat. Oh yes, on the corner by the door was a bucket full of water. Usually mom kept a piece of flour sack over the top to keep odd bits of stuff from falling in, but I don’t remember if it was there that night.
Because it was a round hogan, there was a pie shaped space between the end of the bed and the cabinet. I only remember it being stacked with ‘something.’ My memory of the hogan kind of stops there because Mom was there. I never called her ‘mom’ when I was talking to her. Neither did any of her children or grandchildren. We called her sh ima’ or shi ma’sani (my mother and my ‘old mother’or grandmother)
I’ve never known anyone with so much self possession or such complex character. The thing that I noticed first about her was the network of intricate lines on her face. They were beautiful. Anglo women spend millions trying to forestall those same lines and eradicate them when they show up. Shi ma’ just let them develop. It gave her face beauty and depth. I don’t ever remember her wearing her hair in any way except a tse’yeel, a Navajo bun, but I don’t remember it that night, only that her salt and pepper, steel-grey hair was pulled back with a couple tendrils pulled loose on either side of her face. When Louie introduced me, she held out a gnarled, work-worn hand for the brief gentle clasp of a Navajo handshake. She wore a plain blouse and a traditional tiered Navajo skirt. For special events she had a velvet blouse and “dress” skirt to go with it.
Although the Navajo are famous for their silver and turquoise jewelry, usually shi ma’ didn’t’ wear much jewelry-sometimes a ring or a bracelet-but that was all. Navajo tradition says that you should wear your silver and turquoise while you are working because that will bring you more. Actually, most Navajo only take out the heavy duty fancy stuff on special occasions or if they’re going to town. Other times it is resticted to a ring that doesn’t get in the way and a bracelet that can be pushed up out of the way. Neither is too intricate so they can be washed off easily. I think I remember this day that Mom had pulled out a necklace and a bracelet in honor of my visit. Of course, I didn’t know that then.
The kids that were there were very quiet and sat back out of the way. I was really impressed because Anglo kids would have been romping around and making themselves known to the visitor. Navajo children are taught good manners from birth. I’ve never known a mouthy Navajo child—at least not when ama’sani was around!
I only stayed a few minutes. My Navajo at that time was almost non-existant. Shi ma’ spoke no English except for hello, goodbye and numbers. Our conversation was necessarily limited. The kids spoke English, but they were too bashful to talk. That left poor Louie to carry the conversation with his mother and me! Poor man. Later I would spend hours sitting with her and speaking softly and ocassionally. I miss her almost as much as I miss Louie.
After being enfolded with the surrounding security and warmth of the Hogan, I had to go back to the hard straight lines and flat floors of my room at the mission.