July 3, 2019
Shinelli was the first Navajo word I learned. I used it often to call my dad’s mom. My grandma, my Shinelli. When I think of Shinelli, I smile. She always made me smile.
Ahiddibah was her gift to me just minutes after I was born. Naming her only son’s daughter hundreds of miles away. Somehow she knew who I was the moment I breathed. In one name, she captured who I would become. I didn’t know what my name, Ahiddibah, meant until I was 22 years old. She knew, she name me, and nobody, not even my mother had a choice on what would appear on the birth certificate in the box marked name. She knew. Woman-Who-Goes-To-War. My name.
I sit on cheap wood turned to steps by relative, for the grand entrance to the green and white trailer my Shinelli lives in with my auntie. The stairs, all three steps, have been mended numerous times and only a fraction of the original wood remain nailed and glued to its newest ligament. From these steps, splinters often flake into soles of shoes, knees and fingers. I must be about six or seven, dirty face from eating the neon, lime-green snow cone my Aunt Mary bought doe me while selling jewelry somewhere roadside in Arizona. Red Arizona dirt is glued firmly under my nails. I examine the grit that has formed just after one day of play.
The smell of cedar calls my attention to the inside of the trailer. I know Shinelli is awake from her late afternoon nap. Slowly I open the door, step into the narrow hallway, turn to the right and creep into the kitchen. Standing by the stove, with her back to me, is a short, chubby woman, wearing a long, blue. Satin skirt with a matching velveteen blouse. Salt and pepper colored hair is pulled away from her soft face into a Navajo bun. No matter how quietly I attempt to sneak, she hears and turns to me.
As soon as Shinelli turns, I run to her. Her arms, as well as the folds of her blue skirt, embrace me. I stay there for what still seems like an eternity. A safe place to run to. Her arms, the skirt. The smell of cedar always reminds me of her. Everything smells so good. The house had been blessed with cedar. There was also some fry bread cooked recently. Releasing me from her embrace, she looks down at me and smiles a huge grin that extends into her black glasses and make the edges of them curl up in agreement with the smile.
Taking a piece of bread, we sit down at a small table that looks like fake wood, with two chairs. The muddy green and brown plastic design on my chair is torn and the yellowing cushion pushes itself outward to free itself. When sitting, the chair rocks on two of the legs because the other two are missing the clear plastic feet that keep it in balance. The yellow cushion feels soft under my leg while the rest of it sweats against the muddy green-brown design. I swing my feet back and forth, rocking the chair’s crooked feet making a tapping rhythm. Shinelli sits in her chair with a straight back and smiles at me. The bread is torn in half and we each eat our piece. I can taste a bit of the lime from the snow cone and a lot of grit of the sand outside. The winning flavor is the taste of the fry bread.
She then says something in Navajo. I don’t understand but it sounds so nice. She speaks and I savor the words, just like the fry bread I’d eaten. When she speaks, she coos. Never a loud voice. Soothing and gentle. Her voice I hear in my dreams and in the light breeze when it kisses my hair over my ears.
Getting up from her chair, she ushers me to the sink to wash my grimy hands and face. After they are clean, in one of her hands she cups my clean digits and in the other she holds a brush. We leave the trailer to sit outside on the wooden steps with the setting sun. Shinelli sits on the top step and motions for me to sit on the step beneath her. I sit down and rest my left cheek on her leg. The blue satin feels cool under my cheek. With my right hand, I gently hold the hem of her skirt, rubbing it between my fingers, listening to the rhythmic scratching noise.
As my head rests on her lap, gently as the words she speaks, she begins to brush my hair. Cooing something in Navajo with each stroke. Brush, brush, shiyazhi. Brush, brush, my dear one. The tangles in my matted hair relax with every stroke of the brush and every word cooed. Once my hair is blowing freely with the breeze, she parts my hair down the center and proceeds to weave tight braids on each side of my hair.
It’s getting late. The sun is sleepy and slowly sinks into the horizon’s sand. We are quiet now and just sit still watching the sun’s orb diminish in the sky. Somewhere close, someone is burning their garbage, while another neighbor is having a cook out. Both smells fade in and out. This is the perfect moment. Me sitting with my Shinelli. She doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Navajo, but we both understand what this sunset it. I hug her leg and keep holding as if I can keep this moment as long as I don’t let go.
The sun fades and the desert quickly begins to cool. Shinelli stands up, looks down at me, smiles, then looks up to see my father walking up to us. It’s time for me to go back to my Aunt Mary’s. We are leaving in the morning. Dad and Shinelli talk for a few minutes in Navajo, then she hugs me tight, kisses the top of my head and turns back into the trailer.
Aunt Mary lives a few homesites away, just a few minutes on foot. The smell of the cookout is gone but the smell of the burning trash is stronger than before. The stars are beginning to shine bright as the neon in Las Vegas. The only light to see home by the moon and stars. As we walk home, dad points out the different constellations. There are so many, I can’t keep track and quickly forget them all. We walk a little slower, enjoying our last night on the reservation.
The next morning, dad has the car packed with everything except the passengers. The smell of strong coffee, already sipped away by the adults, still lingers in the air. Our breakfast is sitting on the table waiting to be eaten. All my aunties are waiting to say goodbye and give hugs and kisses. After our breakfast is quickly eaten, we say goodbye to everyone. My Shinelli is still at her house and we drive over there last.
On the same step we watched the sun set, sits Shinelli. Today she’s wearing a long, pink skirt with a green shirt, broach fastened at her collar. Her hair is pulled back. The moment our car pulls in she begins to cry. We always stopped by her house last because it was the hardest place to leave. She cries and cries hard. Her words are sad and broken by the tears that run away from her clouded eyes behind her black rimmed glasses. As I hugged her goodbye, I am surrounded by her skirt as the wind lightly blew it around me. My tears stain her skirts as she holds me. I cry almost as much she does and must be pried from her arms, sobbing. It is time to leave. Dad puts us in the car, starts the engine and begins to pull away. With my nose pushed to the glass, through blurred watery vision, I see my Shinelli for the last time.
I was 12 years old when my Aunt Tillie called and said she had passed away from complications with her diabetes. I knew she had been sick, but I didn’t know exactly how bad. Aunt Tillie said she kept crying and calling for me to come see her, but I didn’t make it, I couldn’t. I was twelve. I didn’t know how I was going to get to Tuba City, Arizona from Las Vegas, Nevada. It didn’t matter anymore, I missed saying goodbye to my Shinelli. Her name was the first Navajo word I learned to say. I didn’t even know I was speaking Navajo, I thought Shinelli was her given name, and I guess in some ways it was. She knew who I was before I did. My Shinelli is the reason I am who I am today.