Neil had fancied that the vague estrangement between his mother and her parents had come from Gramma Julie Saxinar’s habit of diminutively managing every one within range of her cackling and cheery voice. There had never been real hostility, but the family coolness had kept Neil from any great custom of intimacy with his grandparents.
But he did take one evening during his four-day official mission in Minneapolis to go out to Lake Minnetonka and call on the Saxinars.
At sixty-five, when he had retired from the telephone company (he was still living, at eighty-five), Edgar Saxinar had purchased something very tidy in the way of a one-story house. He had admirably described it in a letter:
“We have settled down in a stone bungalow right on the romantic waters of old Lake Minnetonka, with views. There is no city as large as Minneapolis that has as large not to say lovely a lake as Minnetonka within so small a comparable distance. Mrs. Saxinar and I often talk about the romantic Indians who used to canoe on these romantic waters.”
The bungalow was not actually of stone, but of cement blocks so pressed as to look somewhat like stones, and the Saxinars’ view did not actually include the justly celebrated expanse of Minnetonka, three blocks away from them, but only an eight-flat frame apartment house, a Seventh–Day Adventist chapel, and a grove of cotton-woods. But it was as snug a refuge for two happily querulous old parties as could have been contrived, and Neil felt content as he sat on a tufted yellow plush chair in the small living-room, whose yellow wallpaper was bedecked with a pattern of cat-tails and water lilies.
Though he had had a steak dinner at the Hotel Swanson–Grand, Gramma Julie insisted on taking him out to the kitchen and stuffing chocolate brownies into him. Hers was no glass-and-enamel magazine-advertisement kitchen. She cooked on an aged, not-too-well-polished coal-stove, and kept her treasures in a series of broken-nosed blue teapots and tin cracker-cans and her china came out of an antique shop and should have stayed there. Neil remembered that while his mother and Grampa Edgar had always insisted that they were neat (usually it was pins that they were as neat as), the gay little black beetle, Julie, was a genius of gipsy disorder.
But he noted that in this mess of crockery Gramma Julie could find anything she wanted, while his mother and Grampa, proud of arranging everything geometrically, of properly filing away addresses and letters and laundry bills and not-quite-wornout shoelaces, could never remember their own systems.
He returned with Julie to the living-room, to be grand-filial to that squat, bald, cheerful and complaining patriot, Grampa Edgar Saxinar.
He dutifully made the regulation queries about Edgar’s views on the state income tax, the last-season Minneapolis baseball team and future models of telephone instruments. (Edgar thought very little of any of them.) Then Neil demanded the one thing he really wanted to know:
“Gramma Julie, something Dad told me has got me interested in my ancestors. Tell me about your family, and Grampa’s.”
The little, odd, old lady, eighty-three now by the calendar and forty-three by the clock of her taut slim throat and the obsidian eyes that needed no spectacles, half gipsy and half Irish fay with a trace of Yankee stringency for preservative, knitting and rocking in the untidy old cane-seated chair that her husband detested, while he, with old-fashioned half-moon eyeglasses clerkly in his round red face, smoked a long stogie and constantly grunted in disbelief — Gramma Julie clucked like a nesting hen:
“Your Grampa Saxinar — that solid object there, smoking the stinkeroo — was born in Wisconsin and he worked for a sawmill, as bookkeeper, and he was a clerk and a telegrapher for the Chicago, Milwaukee before he got a job in the telephone office. And his folks, as far as he knows ’em, were like everybody else: cheese-makers and mouse-trap salesmen — nice stupid people.”
Edgar spouted like a pond-sized whale. “Now that’s all right now! Saxinars good people, and so was Neil’s father’s folks. I had good, solid antecedents, Republicans and Calvinist Presbyterians, almost without an exception, thank God!”
Julie snickered, “That’s what I said. Nice and stupid. But my own folks, they were French. The women all wore ribbons and the men all took ’em off!”
Neil cajoled her, “Now Granny, I learned in the Army that the French aren’t a bit wicked, as their funny papers make out. They’re the carefullest farmers in Europe, and the tightest shop-keepers.”
“Maybe one kind of French are. But my ancestors were the light-footed breed that skipped off from Europe because it was too tame, and settled in Quebec, and skipped off from there, too, because it was too pious, and they drank high wines and wouldn’t have any truck with anybody that was tamer than the wolves and lynxes and Assiniboins.”
She looked inward on a red-lit girlhood, and mused aloud: “I was born in Wisconsin, too, in Hiawatha, and my, it was a tough lumbertown, then, and I danced with the raftsmen — I could dance awful light and they wore red caps.”
Edgar snorted, “Isn’t that kind of mixed-up?”
“Well, it WAS mixed up — more ‘n you’ll ever know, old man! Even then, when it was all tarpaper shanties and pine clearings, you Saxinars read your Sabbath Extracts for Little Christians. But my folks — My father, Alexandre Payzold, he died when I was ten, and so did my mama, it was a small-pox epidemic.”
Neil was wondering how Vestal, Old Bay Colony out of Dorset, would accept this torch-glaring wilderness origin, as Julie clucked on, in tune to her knitting-needles:
“Yes, Alexandre Payzold. I don’t guess I recollect him very good, except he was a fine, big man, with a huge, enormous black beard — it tickled! — and he sang lots. He was a mail-runner and he worked some in the Big Woods and he drove the first coach — oh, he spoke English good, I remember that, but he’d yell at the horses in French. When him and Mama died, I was only ten, and I was raised by Mama’s brother, Uncle Emil Aubert. He was a fur-trader. He never told me much about Papa’s folks, the Payzolds.
“But I know my Papa’s papa, Louis Payzold, was a farmer and a trapper and he dug some copper on Lake–Superior, and he married a girl named Sidonie Pic, and HER father was Xavier Pic — let’s see — Xavier would be your great-great-great-grandfather.
“Uncle Emil knew a little about Xavier, because Xavier was a wonderful fellow that got around all over the frontier. I don’t suppose there’s anything about him in history — he never got rich, and of course they never kept many records or had any newspapers in the wilderness. From what I recall of what Uncle Emil told me — oh dear, it’s maybe seventy years ago now since I heard his stories! — Xavier was the best kind of French voyageur. Maybe there was some bad things about him, too, but I guess Uncle Emil wouldn’t tattle about them to a little girl like I.”
“I don’t think I’d talk about Pic,” urged Grampa Edgar.
“I will so! I’m proud of him. Well, Xavier Pic, he must of been born around 1790. Uncle Emil said that some folks claimed he was born on Mackinac Island and some on Lake Pepin and some in New Orleans or even back in the Old Country, in France, and they all said Xavier wasn’t a tall man, but awful strong and brave, and he could sing fine and he drank too much, and languages, my! they claim he spoke all the languages there are — French and English and Spanish and Chippewa and Sioux and Cree — Xavier spoke them all, Uncle Emil told me, and my Uncle Emil was a truthful man, except about furs. Oh, Edgar would have hated Xavier Pic!”
“Always did. If you didn’t just make him up,” explained Grampa Edgar.
“Yes, like I said. So Xavier — they say he was a voyageur for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but afterwards he was a coureur de bois for himself, a free trader and a fur-buyer. He was slick at shooting the rapids. Prob’ly when he was young, he wore a sash, like the voyageurs did, and he sang —
“Why, Neil, I think I must of told you a little about Xavier when you were only as high as my kitchen stove. You would forget it now, but do you remember the little song I taught you of the voyageurs, Dans Mon Chemin?”
“Yes, by golly I do begin to remember it now, Gramma.”
From his anecdotal Minnesota history in high school, from lost tales of his mother and Gramma Julie, Neil could see the outlines now of his ancestor, Xavier Pic.
While Gramma Julie nodded in silence, he sketched that robust and jovial French adventurer.
Xavier was not plowing dun English fields, like the worthy forbears of Dr. Kenneth, who were doubtless as rustic as they alleged themselves to be royal. Xavier belonged not to evening and mist and gossiping cowbells but to alert morning on the glittering rapids of unknown rivers. Neil saw him coming out of Montreal on a spring morning, with the squadron of canoes bound away for the pine-darkened fort at the mouth of the Kaministikwia.
Xavier Pic. He would be a pink-cheeked and ribald roisterer with a short and curly golden beard, and he would be wearing a blanket-cloth capote of morning blue, thrown back, with his tobacco pouch and his agile knife swung from his scarlet sash. His moccasins and leggins were of elkskin, and in his knitted cap was the feather of a Nor’wester.
Challenging the rapids and the wolf-haunted night in the immense loneliness of the Northern forest, laughing back at the monstrous storms of Lake Superior, scoffing at cold and hunger and the malign Indians, Xavier would be singing with his mates, at the gay start of the journey:
Dans mon chemin j’ai rencontre
Trois cavaliers bien montes —
Lon, Lon, laridon daine.
Thus, not in words but in images, bright and strong, Neil recalled the springtime hero who was his source.
All that would have been when Xavier was young. When Gramma Julie roused from her catnap and went on, she surmised, from the shadows of great legends she had heard in girlhood, that Xavier became an independent trader. She knew that he lived on till 1850, always a mover, and she was certain that he had been the first white man to explore dark leagues of wasteland where now there are farms and villages that were founded on the rock of Xavier’s skill and bravery.
It was unquestionable, she stridently maintained against her husband’s grunting, that this pioneering Frenchman had been one of the builders, the primitive warrior-kings, of the new provinces of the Americans and the British: Minnesota and Wisconsin, Ontario and Manitoba.
But, Neil improvised, Xavier’s service to the Anglican visky-guzzlers must have been involuntary. He must still have borne in his heart the Lilies of the Sun, not the beef-red banner of the British nor the candy-striped bunting of the Yanks. Might not this valorous Gaul, more than some lanky English lordling, have been the ancestor who established for him a valid claim to the blood royal?
This would not gratify Dr. Kenneth, who had none of Xavier’s fire in his brittle veins, but some day it would enchant a Biddy who was as venturesome as Xavier.
Why not? Who could tell? Perhaps this singular Xavier Pic was the exiled offspring of some half-royal Duc of Picardie!
But the ducal banner was instantly taken from Neil’s hand.
“You understand,” said Gramma Julie, “that Xavier may not have been pure French? I wouldn’t wonder if he was part Indian. We may be part Chippewa ourselves, you and me.”
“Chippewa?” said Neil, not very brightly.
“Why, you haven’t got any prejudice against our having some Indian blood?” said the old lady, with a foxy glance at her husband.
“No, no, certainly not!” declared Neil, with an extraordinary lack of conviction. “I haven’t any prejudices against any race. After all, I was in the War Against Prejudice!”
Grampa Edgar complained, “‘Tain’t a question of the boy having prejudices against being a nekkid, baby-scalping Indian. You just don’t have to advertise everything you know!”
Julie eyed her man. “Don’t talk like you got the simples! I ain’t afraid to advertise what MY folks were! They never peddled wooden clocks, like some! If anybody came up to me and asked, ‘Are you a tomahawking Indian?’ I’d say, Sure. And tomahawk ’em!”
While the old ones bickered, with the skill of sixty years’ practice, Neil was in a small state of shock. In a general way, he believed that Indians were very fine people — they were good at canoeing and the tanning of deerskins. But it was a tumble from the castle of a Duc de Picardie to a bark lodge, smoke-encrusted.
After some spirited notes on Edgar’s ancestors as Yankee skinflints, Julie was going on:
“Anyway, the only time that I ever heard of Xavier’s getting careless and marrying, the girl was a Chippewa squaw, so I guess we got Indian blood from her, even if Xavier wasn’t part Indian himself. And me, I’d rather have kin that et berries and fresh pickerel than Edgar’s folks, that never had anything but codfish — dried — and that’s how they all come to look so dry themselves.”
“Mine didn’t eat boiled dog, like you Chippewas,” said Edgar. “And far’s Neil’s concerned, my folks are HIS folks, codfish and all, just as much as your folks is, ain’t they?”
“That’s what you think! Anyway, if you like it or not, Neil, whether you’re a wild Injun or not, you’re descended from Xavier Pic, the smartest man on the frontier, and that’s pretty good, hey?”
“Oh, yes, Gramma, that’s fine!”
But his new-found Indian blood impressed him more than M. Pic’s “smartness.”
He was recalling that, as a small boy, from some forgotten hint or other of Gramma Julie, he had for a while considered himself to have a warlike Indian streak in him. He had boasted of it to Ackley Wargate, and that pale scion had been envious. Yes, a royal heritage, Chippewa bravery; a people unafraid of rocks and nightfall and creeping enemies.
But still —
That might be fine for most people, but not for the conformable husband of Vestal Beehouse. And he was unhappy to suspect that his rare Biddy, that bright being of crystal and rose and silver, was less certainly cousin to English princesses and to demoiselles in robes broidered with the golden lilies than to unbathed squaws in shirts of branded flour-sacking.
— Wonder how many Indian kids running around reservations and picking nits out of their hair can claim to be Biddy’s cousins?
— Oh, let ’em claim it! Might be good for her and me to have some honest-to-God primitive American in us! . . . Mr. and Mrs. Neil Injunblood announce the engagement of their daughter, Elizabeth Running Mink, to John Pierpont Morgan Wargate, and damn lucky that little prig would be to get her!
He remembered a Christmas grocery calendar and the portrait of an Indian maid with whom, in boyhood, he had been in love: a slim maid complete with riband, beaded doeskin jacket, canoe, waterfall, pine forest, and moonlight, and she seemed not too feeble a symbol beside the fair but weak-minded Elaine simpering over the Camelot traffic.
At last he spoke, and briskly.
“Okay, Gramma, I’m a Chippewa. Do Chippewas get a drink?”
Grampa Edgar cackled, “They do not. They ain’t safe, after firewater, and they get nothing but fried beaver-tails. But any grandson of Ed Saxinar gets a drink — gets two drinks!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57