Corn Mother Wants to Travel
Corn Mother's basket with Marilou Awiakta's books.
Last fall, I was deeply engrossed in connecting with my Irish ancestors, in particular my great grandfather, James Aloysius Watson. I’d always felt like there was an asterisk by his name whenever I pondered the web of ancestral connections. He was an Irish American East-coaster. He met and married my great grandmother, Mama Anita, when he was stationed on the Mexican border during WWI. There were a lot of twist and turns that followed in their life together, but ultimately they divorced. Mama Anita went back to Mexico, and Grandpa Watson eventually joined a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, where he lived as Brother Bonaventure until he died in 1972.
For many years, I’ve had a copy of the family history that Grandpa Watson’s daughter Tita wrote. I’ve read it many times over. Every time reread it, there are two sentences that hold a different kind of gravity. Two sentences I have known I would reckon with when the time came. In Tita’s narration of Grandpa Watson’s story—right after he and Mama Anita divorce, and before he becomes a monk—Tita writes: “He helped build the Atomic Bomb plant in Oak Ridge, TN. He was truly a brilliant man.” Sandwiched right there in between divorce and monastery. No other details. No explanation.
So this past October 2022, as I was in the middle of leaning into all of this, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the news of this diagnosis, I felt my passion for this particular ancestral work fade somewhat, and I leaned into my Mexican ancestors, who felt like a familiar home to me. I felt a strong pull back to Corn Mother and the Desert Mothers. In fact, I was so drawn to Corn Mother, that I fished out my copy of Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom written by Cherokee writer Marilou Awiakta. It is a book I have never gotten too far in, and felt suddently compelled to read.
I pulled the book off the shelf, and I decided I to begin by opening the book to a random page. Let’s see what Corn Mother wants to share, I told myself. The book opened to page 66, I barely caught a glimpse of the words, and my whole body began trembling. Even before any of the words registered, I felt the crossroads of something potent, beautiful, and beyond my understanding. From Selu by Marilou Awiakta, p. 66:
“Baring the Atom’s Mother Heart”
“What is the atom, Mother? Will it hurt us?
“I was nine years old. It was December 1945. Four months earlier, in the heat of an August morning—Hiroshima. Destruction. Death. Power beyond belief, released from something invisible. Without knowing its name, I’d already felt the atom’s power in another form. Since 1943, my father had commuted eighteen miles…to the plant in Oak Ridge—the atomic frontier where the atom had been split, where it was still splitting… ‘What do you do, Daddy?’—I can’t tell you, Marilou. It’s part of something for the war. I don’t know what they’re making out there or how my job fits into it.”
With my fingers trembling, I began thumbing through the book. Yes, it was all there, woven together like the fibers of a basket that stores precious seeds. Awiakta shares the stories of Corn Mother from all across Turtle Island, and through millennia, through the horrors of colonization and right into the Atomic Age, when the atom was split on Corn Mother’s land, right where Awiakta was growing up as a little girl. Right there at Oak Ridge, where Grandpa Watson did whatever he did—one among 80,000 people in that city that was tucked into Appalachia and kept secret. And now, even in this world transformed by those consequences, Awiakta reminds us:
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.
It had been a few months since Corn Mother and I had taken our first trip together to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. Reading Awiakta’s words on that day in October, with malignant cells growing in my left breast, I knew. That day, I knew Corn Mother and I would continue to travel. A pilgrimage for the Corn Mothers—the old ones and the young ones to come. The pilgrimage had already begun. One day it would take us to Oak Ridge, with offerings and with songs. Corn Mother will tell where else we go.
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.*
*From Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta