The Blossoming Years

Youth is a time for discovering an ever-expanding world with ever-increasing sensory awareness. Because of this fresh lust for life, one’s first Elder often makes a profound and lasting impression. And so it was for me. My mother’s mother, who we called Grandmother, magnified the magic of my first years by helping unfold the mysteries of the Wisconsin lake country woods and prairies in which I grew up. Some of my earliest memories are teachings about the squirrels and rabbits, hazelnuts and wild greens, that helped feed the fourteen children she bore in that little warm-smelling, weathered house tucked into the hillside. From her I learned how to use what the Great Mother provided and be thankful for it. She never lusted for more or wished for something different. This is the Gifting Way, and thanks to Grandmother, it has been my way ever since I was first able to reach out for something.

“You run around like a wild Indian,” Mother would scold, as I’m sure many 1950s-era mothers did with their unruly children. And yet in her voice was a hint of approval–not surprising considering she was raised by Grandmother.

School came too late for me; I could no longer be tamed. Lifelong patterns are set in the first few years of life, and I never quit being that little boy looking into a tadpole pond with a sense of wonder. They dragged me literally kicking and screaming into my first two years of school, where they tried in vain to have me use my right hand and stay in the lines.

I endured because of the appearance of an elder named Andy, a Menominee from the reservation north of us. One night, out of the blue, Dad brought him home for supper. “Where’s your headdress?” I blurted out. After a brief, uneasy silence, Dad answered for him: “Back on the reservation.” My next offering: “Do you have a bow and arrow?” It took yet another embarrassing question or two for me to get the message: Indians have changed.

After everyone returned to their food, Andy looked at me with a caring smile and spoke in the language beyond words: “Remember how Grandmother taught you to listen. Questions scare away answers. You see me: my

Grandmother with Grandfather Nichlo from Italy

appearance, my label “Indian,” and yet what you hear is the voice of my heart. You who runs around like a wild Indian, run with an open heart.”

School became tolerable after that, because I just went through the motions. They had me do spelling bees and running and swimming and wrestling for them, but — much to their consternation — I showed no “school spirit.” I knew what really mattered, as all through my youth I remembered Andy’s guidance.