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Deetah

Deetah

Once a month we piled into our black, boxy Dodge towing a trailer full of provisions from my father’s store for the friars and their flock at San Xavier del Bac a mission nine miles south of Tucson. The flock a mélange of Pima, Papago, Yaqui, Apache, Navajo and Mexican farmers and their families came running and surrounded us. They spoke Spanish and Tohono O’odham, the language of Native Americans of the Sonoran Desert. Our father was fluent in both. Soon the crowd made way for a tall figure straight out of the middle Ages. In might be Brother Lawrence or Brother Sebastian in brown habit and cowl, sandaled bare feet with a knotted cord at the waist, rosary swinging like a bell clapper at his side.

On one such trip the friar brought a young Papago woman. “This is Deetah,” he said, “She would like to be a domestic. I think your family would be a perfect fit. Mrs. Myerson can train her. She must go to church on Sunday and come to visit her mother when you come back to trade.” So with a small satchel, Deetah came to live with us.

Though her sunny gentle nature made it easy to be kind to her, Deetah had entered a period of domestic servitude. She was not consulted about her preferences nor was she monetarily remunerated. She was an unsalaried extension of our family. I will not try to whitewash our complicity in this inequity. It continues today in different iterations with vulnerable communities in our society. In the under-the-table negotiations with the undocumented whom we rationalize are grateful to be underpaid. In the current political climate they are vulnerable to being deported. That Deetah would not have had to fear. She was born here with a birthright to citizenship that trumped all of ours, but I return to “then”.

Deetah eschewed the modern conveniences we had: would not plug anything in and preferred to sweep our house from front to back with a broom. Our clothes were laundered on a washboard then draped on bushes and shrubs to dry. She braided our hair, taught my sister and me to chant, dance in our bare feet and smoke grapevine. But it was her flatbread tortillas we clamored for. We called them Indian matzos but they were oh so much better than the unleavened crackers we had at holiday Seders. Those couldn’t be redeemed even when slathered with peanut butter.

When our mother would allow us to commandeer her kitchen, Deetah would begin her magic. With her large square hands she pounded corn flour mixed with salt, sugar and water into butterfly wing thinness. She led us in a chant, “Mantequilla y tortilla son bastante para mia!” while we watched her form three tortillas the size of jumbo pizzas. These she heated in a large iron skillet then deftly removed them with tongue moistened fingers, placing them on a clean flour sack she had spread on the kitchen work table. A generous slice of butter was plopped in the center of each tortilla which she then quickly folded until they became small packets. Then back into the skillet to be reheated for the longest minute of our young lives. Again with moistened fingers she placed them in our outstretched palms. She took the third and we juggled the hot packets from one hand to another until Deetah said “listo,” ready. They were still hot but would not now burn our tongues. We bit into them and butter streamed down the sides of our mouths and I see my sister, with her eyes closed savoring the exquisite moment, just before I close my own.

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