I was not even two months into my new job here at Indian Country Today when my sister and I were texting each other about our grandma’s birthday. I wondered what she, my cheii, my mom, dad, aunties and cousins were going to do.
It was my grandma’s first time in what people call a nursing home. We called it a rehabilitation center. A month before when my sister and mom were on their way back to New Mexico from Washington, D.C., my grandma broke her hip. Doctors replaced her hip and she needed to do physical therapy daily.
Anyone who knows my grandma (or Native grandmas in general) know they are stubborn as heck. Sassy, too. My grandma she had to do the work but her stubbornness got in the way. Besides lighting up when my cheii walked into her room to see her, she liked the center because she visited with others there.
That’s it. She could visit with anyone.
My grandma LOVED to talk with any living creature. She was one of the most social beings I knew. If she didn’t talk to them, she was talking about them. Ha. She’d comment on their beautiful jewelry, funny hair, or maybe even touch their jacket to feel how pretty it was.
She’d say, “ooh!” with her eyebrows raised. A velveteen shirt would find their way between her wrinkly thumb and index finger. I could only imagine what crafty sewing project she thought of in that moment. I can actually see her thumb moving back and forth slowly, and hear her say, “Hmm” while looking down through her glasses.
My sister and I disciplined ourselves to capture these moments. Something told us inside that we didn’t have much time with her several years before she passed. There were times when we would just watch at her while she watched “Wheel of Fortune.”
My favorite memories are when she or my sister would just grab each other’s hand and just hold it.
Another favorite is remembering how her chin moved up and down when she ate, how she picked up her silverware, and her looking at my cheii to reassure herself that he was taken care of.
“Cheii is taken care of, grandma.”
If I remember correctly last year my family took her eat at a Chinese or Mexican restaurant. Her favorite food. Even though I’m more than 2,000 miles away we all ate her favorite food last night, cried over wonderful memories, and wished she was still with us.
Because I believe people should be remembered, here is the part of the eulogy I wrote with my aunt and edited from my perspective. I wrote the real eulogy from my aunt’s point of view since she was the one who read it aloud.
Yá’átééh abíni. Good morning, everyone.
We are here to celebrate the life of Irene Jane Bennett.
Irene Jane Bennett was Kiyaa'áanii (The Towering House clan) born for the Kinłichii'nii (Red House People). Her cheii’s clan is 'Áshįįhi (Salt People Clan) and her nalí’s clan is Hashtł'ishnii (Mud People Clan).
Irene came into this world on October 2, 1937 in the rural area of Mexican Water and Mexican Hat, Arizona. She told her grandkids she was born outside under a tree. She was the daughter of Myrtle Denetso Warren and Daniel Warren. Her siblings are: Ernest, Annie, Dorothy, Esther, Michael, Susan, and Gabriel.
My grandma left us gracefully and peacefully with her family by her side on November 15, 2018 in Farmington, New Mexico. She walked on this Earth for 81 years.
During those 81 years, she went to school, for a very, very short time, at Teec Nos Pos Boarding School in Arizona. She told stories of her and her siblings attempting to run away. She ended up transferring and attending La Plata Community School, a small schoolhouse off La Plata highway in New Mexico.
One day in 1988 she and my cheii decided to get their high school diplomas together. They took a class at San Juan College, passed the exam, and received their diplomas in the mail. Even though the marriage license states they married in July of 1952, they were together much longer. 67 years to be exact.
She told us that she first laid eyes on my cheii at the movie theater in town. He was a teenager running around and soon she started running around with him. She learned Navajo for him as he and his parents spoke very little English. Learning the language paid off as she was the Navajo teacher everyone went to.
My grandparents did everything together. You could spot her in the passenger seat on their way to the casino and find them at the slot machines. Cheii would be at the quarter machines and grandma at the penny machines, which is ironic. Grandma told people that the secret to winning a jackpot is: “You can’t be cheap.” One could instantly guess where they were if all their house lights were out and we didn’t hear from them all day. You could see their car crawling up the hill in the wee hours of the morning. Those two trouble makers.
Grandma and cheii loved to travel together. If it wasn’t Ignacio, it was Towaoc. They drove or rode the train to visit my aunt Raye in California and my aunt Angie in Missouri. Grandma would not fly. But she would sit outside on her porch twiddling her thumbs, looking and listening for airplanes. Her sight didn’t stop her. One of her granddaughters, Taylor, asked her a few times if she would fly in a plane because she searched for them so much in the sky. Irene replied with sass, “If God wanted me to fly, he would’ve given me wings!” She had a sharp tongue. And if you know Irene, you know she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She encouraged her grandkids to be instigators – and it worked.
The dancing hall was another stop they often took in their younger years. These lovebirds mesmerized others the instant they stepped on the dance floor. They could move. Country, tango, waltz, you name it. They danced to it. They entered and won many dance competitions. She played Fatz Domino, Blueberry Hill and Elvis Presley and tried to teach us daughters how to dance. That didn’t work out. Another grandchild teased her about how dancing caused her broken her hip in September. She replied, “I just can’t stop.”
She was a woman of many talents. If she wasn’t reading or weaving, she was sheep herding as many as 60 sheep, beading, sewing clothes and blankets, sprinkling too much salt on her food, mixing her sweet Kool-Aid, befriending animals, using her green thumb, silversmithing and selling jewelry in the Four Corners, crocheting, making jam, cooking tortillas outside on her fireplace for her family, and watching western movies and The Price is Right with Bob Barker. She stopped watching the show when he left. She also caught Bubba on “Heat of the Night” on Sundays at 6 p.m.
Irene was a socialite. She was the little white-haired woman you saw from a distance talking to everyone and anyone, collecting intel like no other. If you left her with a stranger, she would come back to you with their name, where they lived, their parents’ names, what they did for a living, if they had kids, and their favorite food. If it wasn’t telling strangers where she lived (because she always did), it was trying to marry off her grandkids and befriend people at a Mexican or Chinese restaurant. You could never leave her by herself in town because she would find someone to talk to.
Her children and grandchildren know that she loved to talk and it was difficult getting her off the phone. Even when she accidentally called you and asked, “Who’s this?!” she kept you on the phone for another 10 to 20 minutes. The phone calls didn’t always come at the best time but it comforted us. For us adult daughters, including those who lived outside New Mexico, she would still call us and ask how we were, what we are doing, where we were at, and who we were with. She was always up in our business, asking too many questions. Either way, we enjoyed the visit.
Those random phone calls showed us she cared deeply about us – her kids, grandkids, sisters, brothers, friends, relatives.
I witness people today ghosting their friends, family members, or colleagues. Sometimes they just ignore the call. Other times they get upset because their mom called at an inconvenient time.
And here I am (with my sister, mom, dad, aunties, uncles, and cousins) wishing we’d receive an unexpected phone call from her.
One of my first reactions yesterday was to call her and say, “Yá'át'ééh abíní shimá sání! Happy birthday!” I so badly wanted to hear her say, “Thank you, baby.” And maybe she’d follow up with “Ohhh. I’m just an old woman.” I wanted to see her on the other side of SnapChat or FaceTime seeing her face again.
That video call was one of the best five to seven minutes I had with her and my sister. It was the last time I saw her at her healthiest with balloons nearby. I didn’t know at the time it would be my final moment seeing her as the grandma I grew up with. She was laying in a bed unresponsive from a stroke when I told her, “Yá'át'ééh abíní shimá sání” for the last time.
So I tell all of you young people: Yaadilah! If your grandma or cheii calls you, you better pick up and talk to them. If you miss your mom’s call, give her a ring back. If you have time to scroll for an hour on social media, you have time to see what they’re doing.