Everything is beautiful in Old Town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The weather is perfect for me: hot and dry. The food is delicious, always zippy and flavorful. Meat, beans, and rice are complimented by mouth-watering sopapillas fresh from frying, hot enough to scald my hands and give the honey I drizzle on them the consistency of water. Art abounds, in forms both traditional and contemporary. Pottery in all sizes, from many pueblos, seems so perfect as to be inhuman. Jewelry sellers line the square, each displaying a multitude of finely-crafted ornaments that glow against the coarse blankets on which they lay. Every merchant has at least one design that uses my namesake, mother of pearl.
That is what my Indian name means, and in Kiresan (the language of the Laguna pueblo) it is Wah-puh-n?ee. It was given to me by my paternal great-grandmother, the former matriarch of our family. She’s my tie to Albuquerque, the root of the family who lives or lived there. Over time, her children and their children dispersed, pursuing education, employment, love, and adventure. Now it’s only my great-aunt and her husband who remain, and even they have moved off the reservation. Although we live far away now, we all come back occasionally, glad to once again see the place which innately feels like home.
This summer, my mother and I were once again brought to New Mexico by my father. His health was tenuous most of my life, and before he died in April of 2004, he told us that he wanted his ashes spread on Mt. Taylor, a low peak a few hours outside of Albuquerque. Though it took us more than four years to prepare for the event, we finally accomplished it in July. On the way to the mountain, we got lost several times, our little compact unsuited to the rugged roads of the most direct route. Eventually, though, we were winding our way upwards, nearing the place considered sacred by the tribe. After hunting a little while for the perfect spot, rejecting several that weren’t just right, we found the site. Shaded by thin conifers and overlooking a shallow gorge, my mother and I let my father go at last. A mellow breeze scattered his ashes farther than our hands could reach, and earth still damp from an unusual rain two nights before soaked him in. While we both mourned this final loss, at the same time, we knew how right it was that he had been returned to nature.
This was the first time I’ve been to New Mexico since he died. Our return brought so much back for me. I remembered all the times we’d visited when I was younger, certain events highlighted by the things we did: Dad haggling with the jewelry sellers, his minute examination of pots at a trading post, the affection he had for chilies. I was scared that my love for the place would be tainted by his death, diminished without him there as my guide. That fear was part of what kept my mother and me away for so long. Once there, though, I was relieved to realize that Albuquerque still brings me closer to my father. I thought I’d feel his absence too acutely to enjoy myself, but instead his memory only enhanced our days. And most importantly, I have no begun to gain a sense both of finality and continuity.
That he is truly gone in a physical sense is at last hitting me, but this has given me a renewed perception of his “spirit,” as many would term it. Though I’ve always been a skeptic in matters both religious and supernatural, I cannot and do not want to deny that my father will always be with me. Perhaps I’ll never speak with his ghost or encounter him in heaven, but I will always have his memory to help steer me through the rest of my life.