They always seemed to appear out of nowhere, those two old women, my mother’s sisters. I would lift my head from a task to glance out a window and there they’d be, out in the yard, waiting. I’d never hear their vehicle pull up the drive or car doors slam shut as they got out. Most times they would just lounge against the car hood, hips pressed against the fender of the old Chevy, waiting for me to notice their present location. Seldom did they knock at the door. They just waited for me to notice they were there. Crazy old ladies.
Then again, sometimes they didn’t come to visit me at all.
Sometimes all I would see was the car, empty, and I learned to scan the field behind my place where I’d eventually see them emerge from the wee woods in the far back, then walk towards the house at a slow pace; every once in a while they would stop and point and I’d see their heads nod up and down or be thrown back in laughter. Then, I would know they hadn’t come to visit me, but to visit their childhood. I lived on the property where their childhood home once existed, where the barns and sheds of the family farm once existed. So, they weren’t pointing and laughing at nothing, but at memories, at ghosts, at the place dreams were realized or left unlived. It was all good, whatever it was they were doing. Crazy old ladies.
It was from one such visit from the aunts that I was taught about the Golden Place. In fact, it was the formal beginning of my informal education.
As usual, I hadn’t heard them drive into the yard and when I finally saw them through the window, leaning against the car, I was not all that happy they were there. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and I was still in my nightgown. My rumpled, coffee stained, faded flannel nightgown. A little depressed I was, at that time, thirty odd years ago. Well, maybe a lot depressed. Anyway, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them specifically; it was that I didn’t want to see anyone particularly. And I didn’t want anybody to see me. I was a mess; I knew it and didn’t like it, yet at the same time there was a perverse joy that being stewed in my own misery brought. I sort of resented the intrusion upon my self-imposed pitiful-ness.
But, I had to be polite, because that’s how I was drug up, so I poked my head out the back door and said, “Hey.”
Their amiable conversation stopped; they were always communicating in low tones, a kind of under-chatter most couldn’t hear clearly which was probably a good thing because it was very likely you were the subject of their discussion. They had opinions on everything, including your current condition, and shared them with you whether you wanted to hear about them or not. They gave me their dead aim stare.
“Don’t you have any real clothes?” Aunt Margret, the more blunt of the two, asked.
Well, of course I had clothes! I had a boatload of ‘em…but that wasn’t why I was still in my nightgown in the middle of the afternoon. I wasn’t dressed because I…because…well, because….sigh.
“You know, you can use my washer and dryer anytime you want,” Aunt Spud offered, eying the front of my coffee splattered attire.
I managed to look them in the eye. Sort of. Almost look them in the eye. Yeah, let’s go with that last one. “I have clean clothes,” I mumbled in a very weak defense of myself.
“Good,” Aunt M. said, “Go put them on. We want you to drive us somewhere.”
As miserable and hateful as I was in my then condition, refusing their demand would involve way too much effort. I knew it was easier to just get dressed and go and get it over with so I could get back to feeling useless as fast as possible. So, I trudged to my bedroom and dragged on some jeans and a tee, grabbing a long sleeved woolen shirt to go over it. North woods uniform, then and now.
A few minutes later I was behind the wheel. I didn’t even bother to ask what was our destination. This wasn’t the first time I’d been volunteered as chauffer and usually we’d end up in some forgotten place in the middle of a wood somewhere. Old farmsteads, abandoned cemeteries, old lumbering camps, even whole deserted towns left to rot and be reclaimed by the forest.
I just drove and after about half an hour they requested that I pull off to the side of the road we were on, a graveled one, deep into a hilly area of the north woods. I killed the engine; we got out, the sound of slamming car doors echoing in the quiet of the forest. Then there was silence. No birds. No insects. No murmuring of tree leaves in a breeze. The air was mostly still. Even the tinnitis that had always, is always, with me decided to ‘turn off’ as it is wont to do once in a rare while. And the two old women had ceased their endless chatter as well.
I’d never ever before been to a place that was so perfectly silent, a place where a sense of hearing was only required to measure that which did not exist.
But, the visual. Ah, the visual. From the edge of the gravel road there was a hillside sloping upwards, covered with a large grouping of poplar trees whose leaves had turned due to the crisp, cool, autumn weather. My eyes were drawn to them immediately. I was drawn there, physically, as well. It was like I couldn’t help myself, I had to be close to those trees. I stepped off the edge of the road and went into the Golden Place.
Gold was everywhere; I was surrounded by the golden yellow of autumn poplar. I stepped further into the copse of trees…I was walking on gold. It was odd that there was no other litter on the forest floor other than the fallen leaves…it was as though a caretaker had kept the ground tidy during the summer because there was no underbrush to stumble over, no errant fallen tree limbs or other messiness of a natural occurrence. I stood upon the golden ground and reached out to touch the black trunk of the closest poplar tree. The bark of a poplar tree is not black. But, because of the brightness of the golden yellow leaves, the bark gave the impression of being black.
I looked up…the sky was brilliant yellow, shapes of gold backlit by the sun. There was very little breeze so the falling leaves wafted down at an unhurried pace, little curved discs of pure yellow dropping onto my shoulders, my hair, a few of them brushing against my upturned face on their way down to the forest floor. A warmth began to curl around me starting from the back of my neck. It wasn’t a warmth from the sun poking through the sky leaves, it was a different kind of warmth, one from within.
The air was gold. I swear the air itself was gold. I was walking through golden air. I was breathing in golden air. I became a little dizzy so I leaned back against a tree trunk for support as I lived inside the gold of this place.
My arms stretched out and I held the gold in them. Armloads of gold. And then, my arms felt as though they had begun to stretch out beyond themselves. My sense of touch went beyond my physical limitations and I became…gold. My skin seemed to stretch out and attach to the forest surrounding me, first to the golden poplar, then to the trees beyond, the hardwoods, birch and ash, to the evergreens in the sand, the cedar in the bogs, to everyplace the forest went, I went, beyond even where I could see. I became part of the woods. I belonged there. Pressed into the bark of a poplar with my arms stretched out and my eyes closed, I traveled out to the edges of the forest on a meandering current of golden air. I was scared that the current wouldn’t bring me back. But, it did. Then I was scared that I could not go back out to the edges. But, I could. The more times I made the trip, the easier it got and eventually I realized that I could travel anywhere as long as I maintained a connection with everything. Connect to that birch tree, acknowledge his life. Connect to the fern, acknowledge her delicacy. Connect to the animals that patrol the world and to the birds that soar above. They know what is going on all over, everywhere. Just connect. Just…maintain, and I can go anywhere I’d like.
When it felt right, I opened my eyes and my arms dropped to my sides. I was still in a Golden Place and nothing had changed, except…something had changed.
I turned my head to get my bearings and looking down the slope of the poplar grove I saw my two aunties resting against the fender of the Chevy, studying me in an unusual silence. Slowly I started towards them, feeling somewhat embarrassed.
“What are we here in the woods for this time?” I asked, hoping the little show I had just given up there on the hillside hadn’t been too noticeable.
They continued to study me, their odd silence beginning to touch a nerve, until finally, Aunt M. cleared her throat. “We are Nooke, you know.”
Noo-kay? What the hell was that and what do you mean ‘we’? I frowned at the both of them. “I don’t know what you mean,” I said out loud.
I shook my head. Crazy old ladies.
“Your grandmother was a member of the Bear Clan of her tribe,” said Aunt M.
“Oh. That.” I really didn’t want to hear about it. Just before she died, my mother had told me that her mother, my grandmother, was born in a small Indian village along the shore of Lake Huron. She had spoke as if she were ashamed. Or scared. Or a mixture of both. For whatever reason, my heritage had been kept from me until I was in my later teens and by that time the knowledge held no interest for me. That was about to change however; my aunties were determined to see to it.
“Your mother was Nooke. We are Nooke,” Aunt Spud said gently. Indicating herself and her sister. “All four of your grandmother’s children are Bear Clan. Her four daughters are Nooke. All your cousins are Nooke. Your sisters, the four of you, are Nooke.”
“I’m not really into all that,” I said, “Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because Bear Clan people are of the forest. We are at home there, at peace there, it’s where we gather our knowledge in order to help.” Aunt M. stopped speaking to train her dead aim stare on me. “You felt it when you were up there on that hill. You felt the connection. The Golden Place is sort of special that way. We don’t know why. And, it’s not the same from year to year. Some years we drive right by and don’t even notice. But, this year, it called us.”
Crazy old ladies.
Or, maybe not. But, I wasn’t about to admit my interest had been piqued. “So, why are we here?” I repeated.
Aunt M. sighed long and loud. “Well, I guess we’re here to show you where the wild hazelnut bushes grow.”
And that was the beginning of my informal education and, as I look back on it, the day I became an Injun. I learned a lot of stuff from those crazy old ladies that isn’t found in books, about trees and leaves and plants and what to use them for and when to gather, what is poison, what is not, because Nooke are the healers as well as the guardians. It would be great to write that I was an avid learner right from day one, but, alas, I cannot. I disappointed the aunts on a regular basis, disappointed myself as well, but eventually I reached a point when I became useful. And, that makes me happy.
Anyway. I hope everyone has found his or her Golden Place. It doesn’t have to be in the middle of a poplar grove. It can be anyplace where you receive the gift of connection, where an inner part of you reaches out to….whatever, wherever. A place of beauty or a place of ugliness, it doesn’t really matter where you are when it happens. As long as a connection of spirit grows between you and all the other spirits, you can go anywhere and you’ll be all right.
Crazy ladies not withstanding.