Female chieftains, mothers and birthdays

When I woke up this morning to a bright shaft of sunlight streaming through the window, I could tell it was going to be one of those deliciously lazy, summer Sundays. It has been such a perfect weekend that I almost didn’t want to get out of bed. Getting out of bed means starting the day, then too quickly it is over, then the weekend is over and all its perfection has evaporated into a memory. Weekends are like life that way. When looking back, everything passes so quickly.

Yesterday was my mother’s 73rd birthday. I look at her and wonder how my beautiful raven haired mom (who is still beautiful, just a lot more grey) who taught me to tie my shoes, take in strays and get mouthy any time I saw an injustice perpetrated on human or animal could be 73. (I don’t know how I can be 42.) She doesn’t seem that old. (I don’t feel that old.) She has a youthful, energetic spirit, but it’s more than that. Seeing her as old would mean seeing her as mortal and I dread the inevitable. We have been so close all my life that I really cannot imagine a life without her. Just thinking about that prospect can make me cry.

I remember how I held my breath the year she turned 67 (the age my father died) and how I exhaled a little more each day until we reached the victory of her 68th year. And now she is 73 and,  aside from a pacemaker and a little vertigo from time to time,  she is strong and healthy. Frankly, she has more energy than I do. When I want nothing more than to flake out on the couch reading or writing stories and bad poetry that no one will ever read, she is out making her little patch of street beautiful by tending her garden as she has always done.

Yesterday, we gathered a few friends and cooler filled with picnic supplies and headed to Columbia Hills State Park, where Tsagaglalal (pictured above) makes her home. She is a combination of petroglyph and pictograph etched and painted into the basalt cliffs overlooking the Columbia. According to legend, in the days when women were still chiefs, she was a chieftain who lived up among the cliffs, so she could watch over her people. She so loved and cared for them that she wanted to do so forever. Coyote granted her wish by turning her into stone. For centuries, she has sat looking over the river and the site of the village of her people.

Many things have since changed. Women are no longer chiefs and the village that once populated what is now Columbia Hills State Park is no more. The construction of the Dalles Dam has destroyed a way of life that existed for centuries along the river and only a precious handful of the petroglyphs and pictographs created by those indiginous to this area are still left. A few examples were saved, but the rest (along with  Celilo Falls and the cemetery Tsagaglalal once overlooked) were submerged under the waters of the Columbia. If it wasn’t bad enough that centuries of culture were destroyed in one fell swoop, adding insult to injury, these saved rock art treasures were irrevently stored at the dam that destroyed their home. Years later they were moved to their new home in the park where tehy are now more respectfully displayed along the path leading to the Temani Pesh-Wa Trail .

Despite the ravages of humanity and time, the hills that were once a gathering place for area tribes still have a quiet beauty. I can see why it is a sacred space even today. Visiting the images and marks left by the first people (those who were here long before me or my mother or the wagon trains or Lewis or Clark) fills me with awe. How often do we get such an intimate view of  that which was held in reverence by people who have long since passed? What an amazing life it is that I can share an the experience of life and creativity centuries after it happened? Despite our carelessness, some things do endure. Despite our carelessness, we are all interconnected.

Being reminded of those things seems to me a perfect way to celebrate life, beauty, strong women…and 73rd birthdays. Those are all things to celebrate. We hiked out out among cliff walls viewing sacred rock art, we picnicked along the river, we swam, we visited the exhibits at Maryhill museum, and we celebrated that 73 years ago, in little village in the Prussian countryside, my mother was born. Of course, she wouldn’t put it that way, but whether she knew it or not, we were and it was perfect.

The fact is that my mother is someone to celebrate. Like her mother before her she is a beautiful mix of wisdom, sly humor, strength and compassion. I like to think that I come from a long line of such women and that their spirits run through and watch over me just like Tsagaglalal watches over her people and their lands from her perch among the rocks along the Columbia River.

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2 thoughts on “Female chieftains, mothers and birthdays

    1. I swear I responded to this already! I’m sorry you guys were not in town for it too. We’ll have to plan an alternative, but equally fun outing soon!

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