Wanderings
March 11, 2009
By Roger Emile Stouff

   So last weekend, we decided to pressure-wash the house.
   It’s something I do regularly. In fact, I think that, since it’s 2009, I may have been a little overdue for this decade.
   Now, washing a two-story house that sits about two-and-a-half feet off the ground is no small job. Reaching the second floor is kinda tricky, and all I have is a little electric pressure washer, about 1,250 psi, and it has no real reach. First floor, does great. Beyond that, I have to whip out the extension ladder. I’m just a po’ newsman, after all.
   I used to rent washers with extension wands up to like 20 feet. It had a harness on it so you could hold it up. Felt like I was a Ghostbuster. Pretty cool. Pain in the back, but there you go.
   Look, I don’t mean to whine. It’s not about that at all. It’s just – well, you gotta find humor in everything or you end up in a padded room, right?
   The house is vinyl-sided, and it’s probably 20 years old. Most of the sheen has worn off, and now they tell you not to use diluted bleach to wash a house because – you guessed it – it takes the sheen off and the algae comes back quicker. Well, heck on it. I still use diluted bleach because the siding now has the sheen of a sheet of tissue paper anyway.
   Finding the humor, right?
   I put on old clothes, because even diluted bleach will ruin a shirt. In fact, when it was all done, the navy blue tee I was wearing looked like it had been splattered with pink paint. Why would navy blue bleach to pink? It’s odd. Blue is, after all, a primary color. As with the quantity of licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.
   The hardest part was getting to the peaks, and I still missed a few small patches at the very top, but the house came out looking pretty dang good.
   I tend to let my mind wander when I’m doing something tedious. All sorts of destinations. For instance, the washing also reminded me that I need to finish the trim painting: Part is forest green, which I painted about eight years ago, and part is still blue, which I painted about ten years ago and decided I didn’t like it. The two years in between the blue and the green are the time it took me to make up my mind on the green. The eight years after the green is the point from which I lay down my paintbrush – uncleaned, and therefore ruined – the last time and went fishing. I looked for the green can of paint, and found it, but when I shook it something rattled inside. I didn’t bother opening it to find out.
   When I was a kid, the old house had that brick-façade tar paper on it. In fact, it’s still there, under the siding. I catch a glimpse of it sometimes. That old brick-veneer makes me nostalgic. This was, after all, my boyhood second home. I’d cross the pasture between our house and this one, where my grandparents’ lived, and the two houses now in between weren’t there yet. Our horses grazed there.
   One time, old family lore has it, my mom was walking the same path under some bad weather. She was walking under a big pecan tree that was growing in the middle of the pasture when lightning hit it.
   My grandmother was standing on the porch and saw the tree hit by a jagged bolt of white-hot lightning. The tree split in half and fell from north to south.
   She screamed at my mom, “Run! Run! Run for your life!” But my mom just ambled on until she got to the porch.
   “Lee,” my grandmother asked, shaken. “Why didn’t you run?”
   “Mais,” my mom said. “It was already done, and you know, lightning don’t strike twice in the same place.”
   That’s my dear mom: Nerves of steel.
   Last weekend I finished the deplorable task of cutting the grass, which didn’t take long. Now, in the spring, I have a distinct rule about lawn mowing. There are a couple dozen clumps of blue spider wort around the yard. The foliage comes up first, lush and green. There’s also the clover-looking wild oxalis, with its tiny purple bugle-shaped flowers. I do not cut these. I leave the clumps through their bloom cycle, and I don’t give a jolly rip if they’re well hidden in the back yard beside the house, or in the front yard for every gawking passerby to see. Spider lilies also come up, and I avoid them, too.
   I’d rather not cut the pasture, either, but of course, I don’t anyway. My generous neighbor has a big tractor with a cutting deck and takes care of that for me. I think sometimes about asking him to let it grow a season.
   The reason is that in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s my grandmother was diagnosed with throat cancer. She was a heavy smoker and had a history already. Breast cancer decades early had stricken her. This time she was given six months to live.
   I was over at her house. My grandfather was gone by then.
   “Well,” she said to me. “If I’m going to die anyway, I guess I’ll just have to see if there’s anything to be done about it.”
   We went into the back yard, in the pasture there under the old oak tree. She found a plant and asked me to help her dig it up, roots and all.
   “This is bahjootah,” she said. “Your great grandma, Delphine, said it would heal any wound.” Her brow furrowed a bit, perhaps with worry, perhaps though with a bittersweet of the old woman, the last medicine woman of our tribe, who she loved so much. “But she never said anything about taking it internally.”
   She made a tea out of certain parts of the plant. She drank it for months. The cancer vanished. The doctors couldn’t explain it. There had been no chemo or other treatment. They asked her to explain it.
   She refused. Delphine had made her promise she’d take the old Chitimacha secrets to her grave. Sometime in the ‘40s, parents brought a non-Indian child to her that had been snakebit. My grandmother treated him as quickly as she could, stabilized him essentially, and told them to get him to a hospital. Now long later, a bunch of doctors came to visit, wanting to know her method. She refused, and they threatened a lawsuit against her if she ever treated anyone again. She never did.
   And she held her promise. She took Delphine’s secrets to the grave. I have page after page of her notes: What plants are good for this, will cure that, to prevent some-other. But they have no frames of reference. She just wrote for example, “Bahjootah: Will heal any wound.” No description, no English translation of the plant type. Her secrets, like Delphine’s, were under lock and key.
   You’ll ask me. I’ll answer. I’ve never seen bahjootah again. Anywhere. I’ve looked. I’ve been looking for twenty years.
   “Tell us what it looked like,” people say. “We’ll find it. You could cure cancer?”
   Could I? Could I sell my soul for guilt? I don’t know that I could describe it well-enough anyway.
   Maybe it’s extinct. Driven off the planet by herbicides and clean-farming practices. Maybe, even, it only emerged from dormancy to help my grandmother because she believed. In old medicine women and old cures.
   So now and then when people say to me, “How much Indian are you, really?” I just smile. Not so much as my father was. Not nearly so much as my grandmother, and certainly not even close to my great-grandmother. But don’t let this unexpected and unbidden respectability, these semi-casual clothes and limited success in civilization fool you. I picked bahjootah with the apprentice of the last medicine woman of our tribe; I know how to put up a buffalo-skin teepee; I can tell you what a little mottled-brown bird is singing, and I can sometimes hear the spirit of Neka sama, the ancient devil, crashing through the woods on Grand Avoille Cove.
   Those are the places my mind wanders when pressure-washing the old house. Those are the memories and the doorways I have keys to.
   How much? Enough.