Red Skin and Suntans

While growing up on the farm, John didn’t notice he tanned easily and rarely sunburned.  Many years later he’d discover why.

Shortly after they were married, Anne commented on John’s tan.  She liked tanned skin.  So much so, Anne would add a few drops of iodine to her suntan lotion to jump-start the sun’s effect on her coloring.

“How come you tan so easily, Honey?” Anne asked one day.

John liked to wisecrack, so he replied, “It’s my Indian blood.”

Anne let it pass.  Jim forgot all about it.

A few years later, they were camping with John’s parents.  He and his Dad were chopping wood for the evening campfire.  It was hot.  Both men had their shirts off.

“My, doesn’t John have a nice tan?” his mother commented as she and Anne watched the men working in the blazing hot sun.

“Yeah,” Anne replied.  “John’s aboriginal blood sure comes through, doesn’t it?”

“His what?” John’s mother said, the surprise as clear in her voice as on her face.

“His Indian ancestry,” Anne answered, confused.  “John told me he’s part Indian.”

“He most certainly is not!” his mother replied sharply.

The next thing John heard was his mother shouting:

“John!  Get over here!”

Curious, he put down the axe he was using and walked over.  His mother hadn’t spoken to him like that since he was a rambunctious teenager.  He walked over to where Anne and his mother were sheltered under the awning on his parents’ motor home.

“What’s this you told Anne about your family?” his mother demanded.

“What do you mean?” John said.

“That you’re part Indian!” his annoyed mother said sharply.  “Where in the world did you ever get that idea?”

For a moment, John was confused.  Then he remembered. “Oh that,” John said, laughing.

“It’s not funny!’ his mother shot back, a stern look in her eye.  She was not amused.  His normally gentle mother had experienced several bad encounters with aboriginal people living in town and had stereotyped them all.  She didn’t know those she’d seen were outcasts . . . they’d been expelled from their home communities for unacceptable behavior.  They weren’t typical.

John explained he’d made the wisecrack as a joke and forgot about it, not thinking Anne would believe it.  They were newlyweds at the time and still learning about each other.

That was 35 years ago.

In recent years, John, now retired, spent his summers at their place on a large mountain lake.  Anne had passed away two years earlier.  On his return home this year, his sister invited him for lunch.  They’d not seen each other in months.  It was time to catch up.

John was sitting at Maryann’s kitchen table while his sister made lunch.  Maryann told him about her latest work on the family’s ancestry.  She was an accomplished genealogist.  Maryann had spent more than 30 years researching the family trees on both sides of their family.

“Boy, you sure do have a tan,” Maryann said.  “You must have spent a lot of time in your boat on the lake to get that dark.”

John chuckled.  Maryann had never heard the story about his wisecracking with Anne and their late mother’s reaction to it.   So, he told her.

“That sure backfired,” John told Maryann as he finished. “They didn’t let me forget that one for a long time.”

Maryann turned, smiling through the ominous look on her face.  She had a slice of bread in one hand and a butter-filled kitchen knife in the other.

“Well, guess what big brother?” she said. “The joke was really on them . . . and you, I guess.”

“What do you mean?” John asked.

“You are . . . we are . . . all of us are part Indian,” she replied with a hearty laugh.  “Except Mom!”

She explained:

“A few months ago, I was checking on Dad’s family back east,” she added.  “Something didn’t feel right with what I had about our great great grandfather, Moses.  I found out his first wife died after three children.  We’re not descended from her, like I thought.  We’re descended from him and his second wife.  I researched her background.  She was a full-blood Micmac Indian, or Mi’kmaq as they wish to be called now.

“Had he known, Dad could have qualified as an Indian under the Indian Act!”

“Well I’ll be damned!” John said, surprised and delighted the ‘joke was on him’.

Then he had a flashback. He remembered an aboriginal boy he’d met while on the farm.  The two youngsters were about eight years old at the time.  They knew each other just a few days while the boy’s father did some farm work for John’s dad.  He’d felt an unexplained closeness he never forgot.  Until now, he’d thought maybe he was just lonely at the time. This made sense.

As they ate lunch, Maryann and John shared views about this unlikely turn of events. And when they recalled what their mother would have thought, they laughed until tears came to their eyes.


Copyright 2012 James Osborne.  All Rights Reserved

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