From the freeway, the empty wagon bows straddling the Oregon Trail museum look like the giant ribcage of a prehistoric whale left out in the sun.
Inside the museum, we join school children as they watch a documentary in which dramatic voiceovers of settlers talk about their run-ins with the “Red Man.” A few minutes into the movie, Benjamin wiggles out of his seat, and we make our way out of the theatre back to the foyer, where a nice lady, wearing ankle boots and a prairie dress, walks us to a table and shows us how to make candles.
“Dip the string in the wax, then the water, then the wax,” she says, smiling.
Wax, water, wax, water—over and over until you’ve got something big enough to burn.
Once the wax fully dries, Benjamin and I wander through the wooden rooms stopping to build a cabin with Lincoln Logs, before heading back outside into the June air. The morning feels uneventful and wholesome, a nice break from the weeks we’ve spent packing and unpacking our lives and staring at stupid cartoons to pass the time.
I feel his hand tug mine, and then in his tiny voice, I hear, “Mom, is that the Red Man?”
I’m stunned into silence, as I look up at the painting hanging outside the museum that has caught his attention.
“What?” I’m still trying to place where he’s heard that term, still trying to simultaneously think of the best way to get him to unlearn it.
“Mom, is that him?”
“Uh, yes, bud. But, let’s not use those words.”
“Okay, but why is he so sad?”
I look again at the painting, and though there is nothing specific to mark sadness on this man’s face, it is indeed full of sorrow.
“Well, bud, some people took his home.”
My boy looks at me horrified. Home is a tender word for us these days. Our home is still back in Seattle with his swing set in the backyard, not this rental house, which is decidedly not ours.
Even a preschooler gets the gravity of taking someone’s home.
“Did he live here?” he asks, pointing to the grass behind us, where a group of kids are now eating their lunches and chasing each other with what appears to be a piece of string.
I try to change the subject. I ask if he wants to go back to the log cabin we built, but he won’t budge, so I kneel down and try to explain the west’s version of the Trail of Tears to a boy whose barely bigger than a toddler.
For weeks after, he wants to talk about it. With everyone.
Justice and mercy are beautiful—albeit inconvenient—things to behold in your kids.
There is something wholly American about pursuit—a dogged longing for freedom, for adventure, for wealth, for purpose, for meaning—so intense, people continue to cross oceans and barren lands for it. So, I mean no disrespect to those who have gone before us or to those who make our pursuits possible—history is complicated—but when I look at my boy, I hope with all my soul his eyes will always see the people others don’t and that his dreams won’t come at the cost of others’.
Wax, water, wax, water. The cadence of candle-makers and mothers.
CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.