Meeting Mrs. Martinez
It was the summer of 1960, and a perfect weekend day with blue skies, not a cloud overhead. There usually were not plans made ahead of time when our family went somewhere.
The conversation leading up to the day trip went something like this: “Virginia, what are we doing today?” my dad would inquire, trying not to rock the boat before my mother had her coffee.
“I don’t know,” my mother would reply as she tried not to stick the baby with a diaper pin. “I’ll call Vera and Pat to see if they’re interested in taking a ride out to Southampton.”
Thus, preparations for the escapade began. While my mother ironed creases into our shorts and her pants as sharp as razors, my father packed cold drinks (he probably smuggled a few cans of Schaefer beer) and snacks neatly into a green metal cooler that latched tightly shut. My cousins arrived within an hour of the phone call, which lasted longer than the actual time it took to get ready for the trip.
Everyone piled into the blue four-door Chevy Bel Air sedan. Ten people, which included my parents and two sisters, aunt and uncle and my three cousins, two girls and a boy, squeezed into the car. My father drove, and my mother held my baby sister on her lap. The rest of us, including my aunt and uncle, sat on one another’s laps in the back, all except for Joseph. Because he was the only boy among all of us, he had dibs next to the window. Little Lord Fauntleroy! We were all close in age so we felt like one big extended family, and we spent a lot of time together.
The Long Island Expressway extension to the East End was still largely in the planning stages at this time, so the route my father took was most likely Sunrise Highway to Old Montauk Highway. There was no air conditioning in the car and everyone was miserable. Of course, only 15 minutes into the ride, at least three of us were screaming we had to pee, and the other kids were whining that they wanted something to eat. Ironically, the only one not making a peep was my little sister.
All this commotion drove my parents nuts, especially my mother, who was always a nervous wreck anyway, so my father pulled onto the shoulder of the road where a few of us could relieve ourselves outside the car. We were told to wait for the drinks and snacks until we got into “town.” We really had no idea where my father, who always seemed to be the designated driver in the family, was taking us. I imagined he had some kind of invisible compass in his head the way he miraculously found his way to places.
Finally, the highway had turned into a calmer, narrower road with less traffic and nice sceneries, and Southampton loomed up like a gem of hedges and shade trees and houses, and there was a combination of deep earthy and ocean smells. It was serene and dignified. We knew my father had taken us to someplace really special, bucolic and filled with history.
“Let’s stop here first,” he announced to the carload of people, pulling into a gravelly drive that made a crunching noise underneath the tires. My father, a native Manhattanite, was always an erudite man who loved teaching us about different cultures. We scrambled out of the car, with tingly feet and legs numb from the hour-long ride. All the kids were crying for something to eat or drink, and my father opened the trunk so my mother could serve up some sodas and watermelon. The melon was sweet and cold, and the juices dripped down our chins onto napkins that were tucked inside our shirts.
Behind us was a Native American Indian post with what appeared to be a Coat of Arms hanging from what resembled a tiny log cabin. We were all anxious to go inside. My mother held our hands as we walked up a single cinderblock step that led into a room not much bigger than a good-sized shed. Upon entering, we saw a woman sitting on a wooden chair near a fan. She had a kindly face, and from the chair she was carefully arranging something inside of a display case filled with rows and rows of beautiful items the likes of which I had never before seen. There were beaded bracelets, belts, wallets and moccasins, and knives with scrimshaw handles.
On the far wall hung a portrait of a man who looked like some kind of warrior or Indian chief with his braids, and a band with an eagle feather. There was a pleasant woody smell that was comforting. The woman looked up from what she was doing and saw my mother holding my baby sister. “She has a nice-shaped head,” was the first thing she said when she saw the baby. “Thank you,” my mother replied, and she gently ran one hand across my sister’s bald head as if in acknowledgement of the compliment that was paid.
Then she took my mother, aunt, who was my mother’s sister, and uncle to show them around the little gift shop. My father told us kids that we could look around but not to get lost, which was kind of impossible to do in such a small space. So with my father’s blessings, we went off on our own to explore, in this place that seemed so foreign to us.
The floors were a little creaky as I sauntered about. My eyes grew wide and my nose was pressed against the glass of the showcase. I was too small to look from the top but I could see everything through the glass case.
Noticing my interest, the kindly woman left my mother and walked toward me. “Do you see something you like?” she asked. I gazed up at her shyly. She was tall and was patiently looking down at me awaiting a response. Then I spotted the object that caught my attention. This was something I needed to have. I pointed to the Tom-Tom that was sitting on a shelf. She picked it up and showed me how to lightly beat on it with the stick so that it made a booming noise that sent my sister and cousins running over. I looked over at my mother while the lady held the Tom-Tom, and my father nodded his approval for me to get it. I was ecstatic.
My mother was still in the other corner looking at some Indian artwork where the lady had left her, and she was now discussing it with my aunt and uncle as though she were analyzing an abstract painting at the Museum of Modern Art. She left them there and came around to the showcase. She paused, and then asked the woman, “Are you an Indian?” My mother was not unworldly by any means. She had worked on Wall Street and was familiar with many cultures. But she was curious about this dignified lady.
She looked intently at my mother and answered, “Yes. I am from the Shinnecock tribe.” She explained that she had Apache blood too. She pointed to the portrait of the man of apparent importance, and said with pride that lit up her face, “That’s my husband. He was an Apache chief.” My mother looked impressed. “What is your name?” my mother asked. “Martinez. I am Mrs. Martinez.”
As she and my mother conversed, I stood on the wide-plank wooden floor, by this time claiming the Tom-Tom, and stared up at the lady. Her eyes were magnificently green, shining brightly from a tanned, almost leathery, face. She wore two braids and a simple cotton dress with buttons down the front. Around her neck hung an elaborate beaded necklace.
The only exposure to “Indians” I had had up to this point came from stories about Pocahontas, or what we were taught in history books at school. This lady with the green eyes and kindly face looked like no Indian I had ever seen in those books. She was more like a loving grandmother.
It was time to move on and all the kids were marveling over the souvenirs they had amassed, my sister a bracelet, my cousins a few purses and Joseph, a wallet. My father treated himself to one of the knives, and a few postcards.
For me, the greatest souvenir is the memory of that day. I came home with a Tom-Tom that reminded me of that special lady. In my childlike mind, I thought she may be hiding inside the Tom-Tom, so I cut the strings that zigzagged across its base and removed the top rubber skin only to find an empty drum.
The Tom-Tom didn’t last long, but I will forever remember that day. It was when I met my first real Shinnecock-Apache Indian, Mrs. Martinez.