When I was sixteen, I went to visit my Grandma (Setsuné) Rose in Patuanak. My family and I lived an hour away, on the reserve by Beauval called La Plonge First Nation, but La Plonge was a smaller reserve from the main branch at English River First Nation, which is by Patuanak.
Anyways, I was in Patuanak, visiting cousins and friends, and when I went there, Dad would tell me to go visit my Grandma. Sometimes I didn’t want to, as she spoke English very haltingly and I never really knew how much she understood me when I babbled on to fill in the silences. I felt incredibly awkward, like I didn’t belong. My language was lost on my tongue, and I didn’t know how to communicate with my own Grandma with ease. But I knew that it was important to Dad that I would go, and so every time I was in town, like clockwork, I would end my visit with a stop at Grandma’s home.
She would welcome me in, give me a tight hug. There would be tea in the coffee pot, Red Rose. Sugar on the counter. Milk in the fridge. A thick, fresh bannock would be covered in a tea towel, butter beside it and jam in the cupboards.
If I came in the spring, there would be the first duck soup of the season simmering on the oven, filled with barley and soft duck meat. If I came in the fall, fresh moose meat stew would be cooking, thick with chunky potatoes and carrots.
This time, when I came into the house, I knew Grandma was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The family all knew, and we were all doing what we could to make her life comfortable, not taking offense if she didn’t remember us, not taking it personally when she forgot who we were. So I walked in, and she hugged me, and spoke to me in Dene.
“Grandma, I’m sorry. I don’t speak Dene,” I say, shrugging my shoulders.
She shakes her head; straightens her floral handkerchief around her grey hair, and tries again. This time, she speaks to me in Cree.
“Grandma, I’m sorry. I don’t speak Cree.” I’m smiling gently at her, thinking that she is confused and lonely, and I should be patient. I sit down with her, as she breaks me off a slice of bannock.
She looks out the kitchen window for a real long time, thinking. I put some thick raspberry jam on my bannock and start eating, listening to the radio on low.
“You,” she says slowly, as if tasting the words in English, “You stupid.”
I gasp and look at her real quick, and she’s nodding and smiling at me, her eyes wrinkled and mischievous.
“Grandma!” I laugh loudly, head tossed back. She chuckles to herself, shaking her head, and gets me a cup of tea.
“So. Tell me. How is you? Your dad, where is she?” Grandma sets the sugar beside my cup, and sits down. She looks out the window again, watching the reserve go by but still listening, and I start to talk, this time smiling to myself.
It feels like home.
Years later, I still tell this story. It’s one of my favorites with her. The meaning has changed for me as I grow. At first, it was a sign of how Grandma was forgetting, how she couldn’t remember who I was.
Later, as I learned more about her as she was leaving us, it was a sign of her frank demeanor. She was blunt and straightforward. She really did mean I was stupid, but she loved me. Teasing was affection.
Later, after she was gone and I learned about language and identity and survival, I felt the shame. Here was an 80-year-old woman who spoke Cree, Dene and English and who never went to school. And I barely spoke “good” English. And when she called me stupid and teased me, it wasn’t anything to do with my marks or my education, but rather, my loss of understanding. My loss of language.
Grandma Rose, her stories continue with many of us. We all do imitations of her accent, her frank ways with speaking, and her low tolerance for bullshit. The cousins who grew up with her tell of stories of being chased outside with a wooden spoon. The cousins who grew up only visiting on holidays speak of Christmas presents and Easter Church, listening to the hymns in Dene with her. Me, I speak of listening to her voice tell me what to do over our countless visits in my teen years.
“You, you stupid.”
“You, you go outside. Play. Run.”
“You, you eat.”
“Yes, love you.”
…love you too, Setsuné.
– tenille campbell