Uncle Eddie and I take opposite ends of the kitchen table Mom found at a garage sale last weekend. He counts to three and we lift. It’s not an enormous table, but I’ll be danged if it doesn’t weigh a ton. Mom hurries to prop the back door open with a milk crate. The table’s wider than the door so we turn it sideways and guide one set of legs out first, rotating it so we don’t nick the door frame with the back set of legs. Once we’re in the backyard, we set the table down on the grass. I’m sweating already. It’s gonna be a hot one.
“Where do you want it, Sis?” Uncle Eddie asks.
“Under the trees, over there,” Mom replies. “By the time everyone arrives, this section of the yard will have plenty of shade.”
My uncle and I pick up the table again and make our way to the back corner of the lot. I like our new yard. The grass grows thick and green in the sunny sections, but turns scraggly in the shady parts, sending long shoots into the red dirt that look more like weeds than lawn. By far, the best feature of the new yard is it’s wide enough for me to practice pitching with my uncle. When I move up to high school, I’ll have to adjust my pitching distance.
On the junior field in Bartlesville, I threw forty-five feet from the mound to home plate, but regulation distance is sixty feet, six inches. It’s been the same on every official baseball diamond since 1893. Last week, I set a flat rock on one side of the yard to serve as a pitching mound and paced out both lengths for practice. I marked each with a line of small stones. Even though I still have another year of junior high, my coach in Bartlesville said I should start working on the pitching change now. Every day, I ask my uncle to back up just a little further when we practice.
Yesterday, we decided to see what would happen if he set up behind the regulation line. When Uncle Eddie crouched down to catch, his back practically brushed the old fence boards. I almost got my fastball to him, but forget about a change-up, and it wasn’t even close with a curve. Most of my pitches ended up in the dirt. I’ve got my work cut out for me.
“Next, I’d like six chairs,” Mom requests. “Four from the kitchen plus two more. Johnny, grab the one from your desk and the extra one in my bedroom.” Uncle Eddie and I head back into the house and begin shuttling chairs outside. Mom arranges the chairs in the grass around the table.
“How come only six people get to sit down?” I ask.
“Oh, the older folks will be more comfortable sitting at the table. The rest of us are still spry enough to picnic on a blanket.” She spreads two large quilts next to the table under the trees. “Besides, I don’t think we own enough chairs for everyone to sit and we don’t know any of our new neighbors well enough to go borrowing.”
“Are Edna and Mr. Anderson coming?” I ask. I grew up calling Edna by her first name, but I still address her husband, Douglas, as Mr. Anderson. He must have asked me to call him Douglas a dozen times over the last two years, but Mom says it wouldn’t be polite. Seems to me it’s impolite not to do as he asks.
“Last I heard, they’re coming, too,” Mom replies. “I think we’re eleven people total.”
I run through the guest list in my mind. Me and mom and Uncle Eddie are three, Edna and her husband make five, Mrs. Henderson and the Professor make seven, and Aunt Bessie and Uncle Frank make nine.
“I only come up with nine. Who else did you invite?” I ask.
“Well, your uncle saw fit to invite Cousin Wahya and your grandfather when he saw them at the wedding,” she says.
“Really? And you didn’t tell me?” I turn to my uncle.
“Thought it might be a nice surprise,” he says, bumping into my shoulder.
Cousin Wahya. Here today. I wonder if he’ll have any news about my father.
“Sorry you don’t have any friends your own age to invite,” Mom says looking up at me while she straightens the corners of the quilts.
“Oh, I don’t mind. I’m used to running with an older crowd,” I cackle and hunch over like an old man walking with a cane. My uncle laughs and slaps me lightly upside the head. I’m taller than he is now. I wink at him. “Maybe we can practice this morning before everyone gets here. I’ve been thinking ‘bout how close a few of those fastballs were yesterday and there’s something I wanna try.”
“Absolutely not!” Mom exclaims. “I will not have you throwing a baseball as hard as you possibly can near my party setup.”
Uncle Eddie shrugs, and Mom sets a shopping bag from Linn Brothers on the table. I peek inside. It’s a mess of large shiny red cardboard stars. Each star has a long piece of fishing line threaded through a hole in one of its points.
“We hung red, white, and blue stars in the window displays at the store for the Fourth of July. I took them down yesterday. If we hang only the red ones from the tree branches, it should look festive and not like we’re selling defense bonds. What do you think?”
“Great idea, Mom.” I jump up on one of the chairs and grab the closest limb on the tree. I swing my legs over and pull myself around to straddle the branch. “Hand ‘em up,” I say. Uncle Eddie has a devil of a time untangling each star and its corresponding piece of fishing line. As he frees them, he passes the stars to me, and I tie them to as many branches as I can reach. The stars end up hanging at different levels over the seating area. Twirling in the breeze, the red stars shine on and off as the sun breaks through the trees.
“Sis, you’re a magician,” Uncle Eddie says.
“I don’t know about that. But I had a feeling these might look nice. Now you get down from there carefully, Johnny, honey. You’ve got a basketball tryout next week.”
My hands slip on the tree limb, and I land with a thud on the chair.
“I have a what?” I ask, my voice cracking.
“I checked in with Coach Kimball at your new school and there are no fall baseball leagues here. The boys your age play football or basketball. I figured with your height advantage you should play basketball.”
“But Mom, I’ve only played basketball in Phys Ed. I hardly know the rules.” I hop off the chair and wipe the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand.
“It’s not really a tryout, sweetheart, more of a get-to-know-you session with the coach and a few of the players. There’s no reason to be nervous,” she says.
Mom orchestrating my sporting activities is nothing new, but this feels different. All her planning has been getting under my skin lately. Should I say something or just keep my mouth shut?
Keep your mouth shut, the voice in my head responds. Agreed.
“As it turns out, Mr. Kimball not only coaches basketball but also baseball in the spring,” she continues. “I thought it would be a good idea for him to get to know you and see what a fine team player you are. Football season starts in August, but basketball practice doesn’t start until the end of October. That gives you plenty of time to learn more about the rules and maybe play some pickup games with new friends at school.”
New friends. My stomach turns inside out. I’ve never had to “make” friends before. All my friends in Bartlesville have been friends for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what we did to make friendship happen. We grew up together, went to church together, and played ball together. Maybe Mom’s right. If I take up basketball, I might meet some boys outside of class sooner. Still, I can’t believe she went to the coach without me.
“Now, you two get inside and finish baking those crazy mixed-up cookies,” Mom says, waving us away.
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Uncle Eddie gives my mom a mock salute and we walk back to the kitchen while she fusses with the picnic setup outside.
“You okay with your mom signing you up for basketball?” Uncle Eddie asks as he opens the back door for me. “You know she means well.”
“I know, but it would have been nice to go with her and meet the coach,” I say. “It’s kind of embarrassing that she introduced herself without including me. He’s gonna think I’m some sort of mamma’s boy. She’s always mapping out my life without asking me what I want.” I turn to sit down in one of the kitchen chairs and realize they are all outside. I lean against the wall next to the icebox instead.
“Growing pains,” my uncle says.
“You’re growing up, Johnny, and as much as your mom loves you and wants to see you become a fine young man, I think she liked it better when you were a little boy and she could control everything around you. She’s going to have a rough time letting go and letting you make your own decisions.”
“I bet telling me about Aunt Rachel was super hard for her.”
“Probably the hardest thing she’s ever done.”
“I told Cousin Wahya everything at the wedding reception,” I say, looking down at the old wooden floor in the kitchen. I can trace the traffic patterns where people walk in from the hallway, over to the sink, to the stove, and out the back door. The same path. Over and over again. Worn into the floorboards like a map.
“What do you mean you told Wahya everything?” Uncle Eddie asks.
“I told him about Aunt Rachel and how she’s really my mother. I told him how she died the day after I was born and how Mom decided to raise me as her own and kept it a secret.” I pause. “And I asked him to help me find my father.”
“Does she know?” he says, nodding toward my mom in the backyard.
I shake my head. “She walked in on us in Mrs. Henderson’s garage, but she never asked what we were talking about.”
“Did Wahya say he would help you?”
“Well, Mom interrupted our conversation, but I got the feeling he’d try. Now that I know he’s coming today, I can’t stop thinking maybe he’ll have some news.”
Uncle Eddie smiles. “It’s barely been a week.”
“I know but—” I trail off.
“Finding your father is really important to you, isn’t it?”
“Then I’ll make sure you get some time alone with Wahya today. He’s always had a soft spot for folks looking for lost relatives.”
“Oh, people used to come into the Pack and Run all the time trying to connect with family. Whenever you’re looking for someone, Johnny, start by asking around at the nearest general store.” He chuckles.
“Why were people looking for lost relatives?”
“Lots of families got separated during the removal.”
Mom never lets Uncle Eddie or Aunt Bessie talk about the Cherokee removal or the early days in Indian Territory. She says the stories will just upset me and there’s nothing to be done about any of it anyway so why get all worked up?
Last year, when we were visiting my grandpa and Cousin Wahya in Claremore, Wahya launched into one of his old stories and my mom put her hands up and stopped him cold. Told him she didn’t want him filling my head with tragedies and hardship. Wahya said it was important to tell the stories so future generations could understand the spirit and resilience of the Cherokee people. Mom stood up and said it was time to leave.
I glance out the back window. She’s still arranging chairs around the table in the grass. “How did the families get separated?” I ask.
“Well, the groups didn’t travel the same routes to Oklahoma. They didn’t leave at the same time or from the same starting point. And lots of people died along the way.”
I nod. One story that made it past my mother’s defenses is about my great-grandmother’s younger siblings. One died while their group waited for the ice to melt on some river so a ferry could take them across. The other died a few days after the crossing.
“And of course, some people figured out how to stay back east,” Eddie says.
“Wait, what? I thought all the Cherokee had to move. How come some got to stay?”
“Well, that’s a complicated piece of history,” Eddie rubs his chin. “You know your grandpa and I didn’t really get along when I was little, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I know you and Aunt Bessie left the Pack and Run and went to live in Claremore when she started teaching school.”
“That’s right. We left when I was ten. That’s when I lived in my first boarding house. Of course, it wasn’t anything like Henderson House.” He winks at me. “Anyway, Cousin Wahya was worried I might not get enough ‘man time’ living in town with my sister. So, any Saturday he could get away from the store, he’d sneak into the boarding house at the crack of dawn and steal me away to go fishing. During those early mornings on the Verdigris River or sitting on the banks of Blue Creek, Wahya taught me everything he knew about the history of the Cherokee people. I guess I’m a little behind schedule teaching you.”
Uncle Eddie smiles at me and I smile back. You’d never think we were related. He looks like an Irish policeman from the movies. Short and stocky, with ruddy cheeks, and a hint of red in his wavy brown hair. Not me. I’m the spitting image of the tomahawk-toting Indians I see at the picture show—minus the buckskin and war paint and with paler skin. The only time I can be sure my uncle and I are family is when we smile. We have the same grin—flat across the top, curved on the bottom, and lots of teeth in the middle.
“So, the question on the table is how did some Cherokee people get to stay.” Eddie clears his throat as if he’s about to deliver an important speech. “During the time of the removal, back in the 1830s,” he begins, “each state had different laws about Indians. If a white man was married to a Cherokee woman in North Carolina, everyone in their household was considered a citizen of that state and they got to stay. But the same can’t be said of Georgia, Tennessee, or Alabama. If a white man was married to a Cherokee woman in one of those states or was even part-Cherokee, they rounded up the entire family. They marched the families to camps where they had to wait until it was their turn to make the move west. But they weren’t really camps. They were more like holding pens for animals—surrounded by tall stockade fences. There wasn’t enough shelter, food, or clean water. Lots of people got sick, and some even died while waiting to make the trip.”
That’s so unfair! I think to myself, but I don’t say a word. I want Uncle Eddie to keep talking.
“There were also one or two special land grants that enabled folks, like the Qualla band, to stay,” he says. “And of course, lots of people hid. They hid in the woods and hid in the mountains until the soldiers stopped hunting for them. Wahya told me some incredible stories about what people did to avoid capture.”
“Like what?” I ask. My throat feels dry, and I swallow hard. Am I thirsty or just thinking about all those families penned up without enough clean water? I guess Mom was right. The stories are upsetting, but I want to know. I’m ready to know. I nod at my uncle, encouraging him to continue.
Eddie stares up at the kitchen ceiling as if he’s choosing from a list of stories written in the plaster. His eyes return to mine. “Here’s one I’ll never forget. A white man in Georgia buried his Cherokee wife alive in the woods behind their home to hide her from the soldiers. He dug a hole for her, covered her with straw so she could breathe, and shoveled dirt and leaves on top to conceal her. He snuck out at night to unbury her just long enough to feed her. This went on for weeks until the soldiers left. Once the coast was clear, the man dug up his wife, and they fled to North Carolina and hid in the Great Smokies.”
“Whoa,” I whisper. The image of a woman from the 1830s wearing long petticoats and a white bonnet over her dark hair grows clear in my mind. I’ve seen pictures of Cherokees dressed like that, in colonial style. The woman is lying perfectly still in a shallow grave, breathing through straw. Her white bonnet is dirty now.
“Over time, lots of Cherokees from Oklahoma went back to North Carolina and vice versa,” Eddie says. “The Pack and Run was often the last stop on their way out of town or the first stop on their way in. Your grandpa and Cousin Wahya knew everybody’s whereabouts.”
“Guess I asked the right person to help me find my father,” I say.
“You sure did. If anyone can help you, it’s Wahya.” Uncle Eddie pats my shoulders with both hands. “Now, what do you say we get these cookies in the oven before your mom finds us sleeping on the job?”
I nod in agreement and turn to open the icebox. Cool air rushes out and goosebumps erupt on up and down my arms. Was the woman cold when she was buried alive? Did her husband wrap her in a blanket? I pull out the bowl of chilled cookie dough and set it on the counter. She must have had a blanket. I add an old striped wool blanket to the image of the buried woman in my mind and I know, just like my uncle, this is one story I will never forget.