Janet Chee and her husband live in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Their Navajo people had lived there many years, passing the land down through the female lineage. On this trip we were looking forward to meeting her father’s elderly mother, Yazhi, an old and respected member of the People. Janet said we should simply call her “Grandmother.” Each of us had carefully packed a nice gift box to bring to the ancient hogan deep in the shadows of the canyon walls. Coffee and tobacco are always favorites for gifts. I had spent days agonizing over what special items I should select to show my respect. Remembering my times on the Navajo Reservation as a child, I finally decided on a huge carton of Cracker Jacks from Costco. I remembered as a child how thrilled the Dine People were with that treat… long ago, back when I was eight.
We waited outside her hogan quite awhile, until at last an extremely tiny old woman shuffled slowly, but proudly erect, out the door. Making her way through the dusty yard, flapping her apron at the chickens, she stopped in front of our group of five and, without a smile, nodded impatiently.
“Well?” She asked in a voice so quavery and light, I thought of a dried leaf when you walk on it. I almost expected her to blow away. “Well!” She said again imperiously. “What do you have for me?”
Her very demeanor caused me to shrink down in size, and suddenly I was eight again, facing the stern teacher who’d made me stay after school one day in Santa Fe for stabbing Gilbert Begay with my pencil. My fine gift of Cracker Jacks now seemed paltry and embarrassing.
Fortunately, someone else stepped out first, presenting their box. Grandmother Yazhi stooped down, carefully lifting out a can of expensive Hawaiian coffee, some fancy chocolates, and a beautiful red silk scarf. I was overwhelmed with shame, totally mortified. There was nowhere to run. I could only stand there and wait.
She accepted each gift without comment, carefully eyeing the contents sternly. Then turning, she fastened her piercing black eyes on me. “Well?”
I shrank back, a craven coward, shamed to come forward with my silly eight-year-old’s gifts. Ready for the worst, I slowly set my box at her feet and opened it, revealing dozens of boxes of lowly, childish Cracker Jacks. I hung my head and waited for the inevitable, humiliating tongue lashing.
A loud shrill squeal pierced the dry air. Grandmother bent down and lifted the box up in her scrawny arms and yelled, “Cracker Jacks! Cracker Jacks!” Chuckling loudly she turned and staggered her way back to the hogan, awkwardly clutching the big box in her arms. The gifts from my friends lay in the dirt, ignored and shamed.
And from behind the old door, we heard the shrill, quavering cry over and over, “Cracker Jacks! Cracker Jacks! Cracker Jacks!”