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Lucy   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano


Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

Back in Japan, Kuro-e came across a book by a Japanese author Tota, who had lived with a Navajo family in Chilchinbito, Arizona. The Tracy was a sheep-herding family headed by Grandpa Milton and Grandma Lucy. Kuro-e decided to find this family. That would not be easy. Chilchinbito (or Chilchinbeto, meaning Sumac Spring) is a sparsely populated desert in the northeast corner of the Navajo Nation. Many of the homes are scattered along a maze of dirt roads and have no street address.

Summer, 1989.  Kuro-e drove the rental car around the backroads near Kayenta, Arizona, looking for landmarks she might recognize from Tota’s book. She spotted a distinctive rock formation that appeared in a photo of Grandpa Milton herding a flock of sheep. Turning towards that direction, she passed by a house where a woman was watering some plants outside. She stopped and asked the woman about the Tracy family. The woman gave her a complicated set of direction. For the next hour, Kuro-e crisscrossed dirt roads in that area, getting lost and starting over, all the while hoping not to get stuck in the fine red sand. Finally, her search ended in front of several modest houses surrounded by barren desert. Outside, a teenage boy stopped playing and stood watching her. "Is this the Tracy family?" Kuro-e stuck her head out and asked. Instead of answering, the boy ran into the closest house. A moment later, a woman came out, looking puzzled and suspicious.


Kuro-e introduced herself, “I learned about your family in Tota’s book, I just wanted to visit you.” As soon as the woman heard the name Tota, she relaxed. “Tota hasn’t visited us for many years. I am Bertha. Come in.”

Kuro-e walked into her home, a rectangular prefab sparsely furnished and decorated with family portraits. The teenage boy reappeared. “Earnest, my son,” Bertha introduced. Soon, they were joined by other members of the extended family. Everyone was excited to meet the unexpected guest from far away.

Kuro-e asked about Grandpa and Grandma. “Grandpa died,” Ernest said. “I’m sorry. Can I see Grandma?” Kuro-e asked. Ernest got all excited, “Yes, I’ll take you!” He disappeared into another room and came back with a set of keys, then proudly led Kuro-e to a new Ford F-150 parked outside. Kuro-e was hesitant, she asked, “How old are you?” “Twelve,” he answered. “Hop in!”

Grandma Lucy’s house was just a short drive away, a rectangular building just like Bertha’s. While Kuro-e waited outside, Ernest went inside to tell Grandma. After a long while, an impeccably dressed dignified-looking elder lady came out, attended by a woman, her eldest daughter. Lucy had on a flowing long brown skirt topped with a beautiful emerald-green blouse with turquoise-blue trims, adorned with a big round turquoise brooch and a fine turquoise necklace around her neck. A silver bracelet with a big round turquoise gemstone wrapped around her right wrist, another silver bracelet with three turquoise insets adorned her left. Kuro-e introduced herself with the only Navajo she knew, “Ya’at’eeh! I am very pleased to meet you!” The daughter leaned over and spoke to Lucy in Navajo; then said, “She is happy to meet you.” After exchanging pleasantry with lots of impromptu sign language, Kuro-e took out a box of smoked salmon she brought as a gift and presented it to Grandma. Lucy looked puzzled, shook the box several times next to her ear and asked in English, “Fish?”

Soon, the rest of the family arrived in several cars. They were so kind and welcoming; even though Kuro-e just met them hours earlier, they already felt like old friends. Kuro-e asked if she could take a picture of Grandma. Someone brought out a chair and set it on the dirt ground. While Lucy sat down smoothening her skirt to pose for the picture, her youngest grandson clung to her from behind, clutching a juice carton.

It was time to leave. As Kuro-e was walking to her car, Ernest followed and pleaded with her to come back the next day. Suddenly, Bertha rushed from her house chasing after Kuro-e and thrusted something in her hands. It was an old and beautiful turquoise bracelet. Kuro-e was too shock and overwhelmed to know how to respond. She did not want to accept such a precious gift; but refusing it would be very rude. She did not expect to be so warmly accepted by the family and was unprepared for her strong emotions. She almost cried.

The sun was dipping below the horizon when Kuro-e drove away from Chilchinbito. Her car came to a stop at an intersection that she did not recognize. Rats! She was lost again; the map was utterly useless here. She pondered about her options. Let’s take a chance. She swung the steering wheel towards one of the roads and stepped on the gas. She did not know it yet; her own path was about to change.


Chilchibito sunset  Photo Tim Wong

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