Grandma Mae and one gallon jars

It was several years ago, when my knees were still capable of runs longer than across the room to the refrigerator. 
As I stepped out into the predawn for my morning jog, I noticed the stars shining in the inky sky, reminding me of Elvis on stage.
As I began the journey, Grover, the yellow lab living at Cow Canyon Trading Post, began to bark. Grover and I had maintained a long-term, clandestine relationship.
As I ran by Cow Canyon, he would bark and amble out to the road. He had to amble because he had eaten far too many leftovers. I also had frequently consumed too many leftovers myself, so we were two of a kind.
When he reached the road, I scratched him behind the ears, and he stumbled back to the porch, apparently fully satisfied.
Grover, who is long gone, and I had to keep our relationship under wraps because his owner and I didn’t always see eye to eye. He and I were, however, buddies.
My runs typically took me past the Jones hay farm to the old Episcopal Mission and back. The route was not long, so I typically arrived back home about sun up.
On that particular morning, Mother Nature had called as I rounded the curve to Twin Rocks, so I ducked into the cafe to let Mom know I was listening, and noticed a one-gallon jar perched on the counter by the cash register.
I hurried back out of the cafe and up to the house above the trading post to help get the kids out of bed and off to school.
When I walked into the trading post after taking Kira to school, one of our staff said, “Grandma Mae died last weekend.”
That explained the one-gallon jar. Jars such as that appeared from time-to-time at various locations around town. They are generally of the institutional mayonnaise variety (glass with a screw-on lid), and arrived after one of the older Navajo people died.
At the time, when a Navajo passed, he or she was wrapped in a blanket with some of his or her prized possessions and placed in a cleft in the cliffs or behind a large rock to shelter the body.
Contemporary standards did not allow the deceased to be cradled in the arms of Mother Earth in the same fashion.
The expense of a formal burial was more than many families could bear, so the extended family and the community was encouraged to contribute — thus, the gallon jars with one long slit in the lid for financial contributions.

Although subconsciously I knew the meaning of that jar, I didn’t want to know who had died.

When I went back to the cafe later that morning to look at the jar, there was Mae looking out from the picture that had been pasted on its side.

She seemed just as she had a few months earlier when I stopped by to say hello. At the time she was sitting in a booth at the cafe eagerly eating her hamburger and French fries, pleasant as always.

I first met Mae during the summer of 1977. I was just out of high school and was helping Barry run a small post around the corner from the current Twin Rocks.

Duke had decided it was a good idea to have a Navajo rug weaver sit on the porch and weave. The thought was the weaver would attract more people and therefore more revenue. 

Mae fit the bill, so she brought her loom and began weaving. She received $5 dollars an hour, $1 per photograph and whatever her rug brought when it was finished.

We generally had a right-of-first-refusal when the rug was done, so if we couldn’t make a deal, or if a visitor offered a better price, Mae was free to sell the rug elsewhere.

Barry and I never purchased one of Mae’s rugs; the tourists always got there first

Mae didn’t speak English, and my Navajo hadn’t progressed past the basic variety. So our conversations were not long or detailed. She was always gentle, friendly and happy, and I always enjoyed her.

For me, Mae’s death was just one more example of the passing of an era, and the changes quickly consuming the Navajo Reservation.

Over the years we had seen Sam Benally, Espee Jones, John Joe Begay, Wooey Boy’s Son, Bessy Blue Eyes and many more of the old ones pass on.

John Joe Begay, who had died a year earlier at the age of 107, was, at the time, thought to be the oldest living human.

Since John was born at home in an age when documentation was unimportant, his age could not be substantiated, so we never knew for sure.

Bluff, which is just two miles from the northern border of the Navajo Reservation, is a cultural cross roads.

In Bluff, traditional Navajo culture meshes with contemporary Navajo and Anglo cultures.

Back then a large percentage of the older people still maintained traditional lifestyles. The old ones herded sheep, visited medicine men when they were ill, maintained hogans, spoke only Navajo and wore the Victorian style of dress brought to the Reservation by early traders.

These people represented a time when the Navajos wore their wealth on their person. The women and men were bathed in beautiful turquoise and silver, and shone like those early morning stars.

By the time Mae died, much of the jewelry was gone, but the beauty of the people was still readily apparent.

Mae is greatly missed, as is her traditional culture.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday