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Do you remember when we lived on the reservation?

Do you remember when we lived on the reservation?

Suzzanna Matthews

Do you remember when we lived on the reservation.jpg

(For my sister, who never says she’s Native American.)

The summer our younger sister was born, the youngest grandchild, the baby of all the cousins, I remember how you danced alone in your room to the Strokes, the Hives, all of your CDs strewn around. How some had cracked under your feet in anger—refusing to practice the blanket dance for the christening ceremony like our Ookomisan wanted.

She’d said, “Think of your mother, think of the bad luck.”

“Yes, grandmother,” you’d answered.

The birth of a child meant nothing new to you or I then; there had been so many before, and it was all the same. Each new life wove into the life of the family. We celebrated with the same, music and clambakes and aunts, uncles, and cousins we saw at every weekend.

It wasn’t any different that year, except that it was our turn for our house to grow more crowded, for our mother to grow more distracted like our aunts. For me at thirteen, and you at age sixteen, things went on as usual. All through that June and July, tourists invaded again, cars arrived slow over the bridges the Sagamore—the Bourne, over the canal onto our island-peninsula. People from Boston and New York. The acrid smell of their sweat and sunscreen entering and then lingering in our shop, where our mother put us to work selling postcards, painted seashells, and T-shirts emblazoned with “Life’s a beach,” neon bright.

We stood, two skinny sallow-skinned girls, in our faded hand-me-down dresses, yours the gray floral, mine the bleach-marked daisy print. Behind the counter where we counted back change, handed out maps, and fed tourists directions to Hyannis and Yarmouth Port, and the dunes of Sandy Neck—all the vacation beaches we never went to. Heard them take our words for places like Mashpee and Minnetuxuet—never said them right. Took the keys from our home Mattacheese, said it like Matta-cheese, smoothed over like a balm for forgetting the history.

And into this she was born—our baby sister. It happened quick. Our mother humming and wiping the counters in the kitchen with her browned hands, then lying in a hospital bed, pale and sweating. I waited in the hospital corridor, hearing those sounds of the fight to be born. I ran my palms over my skin where the sun turned it red, over the new hairs on my arms soft and dark—and it felt like pain. You were not there.

You’d gone down to the center to dance with the rest, twisting in circles, coming home with the sunset.

Here was new life—but our mother had gone. And the cars of tourists streamed out and back across the bridges and left us to close shop.

We were left alone in that house, alone in our cold kitchen, no matter how many hot pots of Narragansett chowder were brought to our door. No matter how many times hands reached out to us. Remember what the settlers had called the stew of quahog and lobster? God’s meanest blessing.

In coming summers we seemed too hungry—to barbecues and picnics on fourths of July, we received no invitations. We kept hidden away, moved far from town onto the res, into Ookomisan’s house.

My memory of that time is clear, baby sister asleep in a bassinet by the kitchen’s screen door. Ookomisan at the stove making fry bread. “Come here,” she would say, and she would feed us the bits of odd dough that broke off in the churn of the oil. I can recall the feeling, how bits of it were relief on my tongue, all warmth and sweet—how it calmed our chattering teeth after we ran out from the cold river water that flowed through the land we called home, that flowed out to sea, past the beaches and boardwalks full of tourists. Do you remember how we wondered about them? Imagined what their lives must have been like? Do you remember my anger when I begged money from grandmother to go to the boardwalk with those summer kids and she said no—couldn’t scrape together the extra money back then.

I wanted to play mini golf and eat ice cream and candy like the others. I must have said something like, “It’s not fair.” All I wanted was to fit in, pretend for a while. And you with your teenage angst rolled your eyes, and I slammed the bedroom door, shutting you out in the hall, and I heard you say that it didn’t matter, that for us, all their taffy and ice cream would taste more bitter than sweet. And I called back with thirteen-year-old sarcasm, “Oh, you’re so deep.” And you replied under your breath something that I couldn’t hear, or was it something that I could not yet understand.


Suzzanna Matthews left the states last year to study Creative Writing at Trinity College in Ireland. While she considers California home, she grew up in New England and has lived, studied, and traveled abroad: from Latin America to Spain, the Caribbean to the Pacific, Newfoundland to Japan. She currently lives in Dublin, where she is working on a collection of short stories.

Illustration by Elena Hayward.


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