O Kin Yan Cante was my mother’s name. It means “Gentle Heart” in the language of my people, even though most of the people in our little Nevada town knew her as Virginia. Her Indian name suited her best. She is as quiet as a spring morning before sunrise, persistent in fulfilling her self-set tasks, and always thinking of what she might do to help others. How grateful she is for the gift of life!
My father, a white man, had passed away many years before; and my mother, with no formal education, had to struggle very hard for our survival. It was our poverty, not our parents’ marriage, that set us apart. There were many families like us, and the other people in our town were friendly, relaxed, and not given to making class distinctions.
A dozen years ago, missionaries had brought a message that touched O Kin Yan Cante’s gentle heart, giving her such vision and insight that even outwardly she changed. The atmosphere of peace and love that she brings with her is distinctive and precious.
It showed up even in her work. On Mondays, she cleaned for Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. DeCroy. On Tuesdays she ironed for Mrs. Draper and Mrs. Blackburn. But on Wednesdays, she went to Mrs. Price’s. Mrs. Price had had a stroke several years before and was a semi-invalid—and very poor. Every week Mrs. Price would say, “I’ll pay you next week.” My mother invariably responded, “You paid me too much last week and I owe you more work. Don’t trouble me about money now.” I knew that my mother never received any money for her work there, but she explained gently that Mrs. Price needed the help, and she needed to safeguard her pride at the same time. O Kin Yan Cante did both.
Wednesdays were special for another reason: Relief Society meetings. O Kin Yan Cante loved her close association with the sisters and would marvel, “Can you imagine, me, who never went to school, sitting with people who can tell you about such a faraway place as heaven? I feel important when I go to those meetings and after.” She would hum throughout the week the music she heard at Relief Society.
On Thursdays, O Kin Yan Cante cleaned the backroom of our town’s only store. Shifting all of the sacks and boxes was backbreaking, but it paid the best of her jobs—enough to buy our food.
Fridays she sewed and mended for people. Saturdays she baked for parties. Sundays were her days of rest, and she listened attentively every afternoon between Sunday School and sacrament meetings when I read to her. I wish now that I had been more sensitive to her hunger for knowledge.
Maybe the great temptation entered my life the day a girl at school casually asked me who the Lamanite was that I’d been walking with. It had been my mother; and suddenly I realized that I could pass for white. I didn’t lie, but said something evasive, “Oh, that is O Kin Yan Cante,” and changed the subject.
That knowledge was still resting somewhere in the back of my mind when I packed my boxes to go to nurses’ training in Salt Lake City. College was a dream beyond my mother’s power to realize for herself, and to see it coming true for me was equally exciting to us both. I worked hard and liked school; when the chance for a summer job in the obstetrical department came up, I took it and O Kin Yan Cante agreed—even though I know how much she had looked forward to seeing me again. It would mean enough money to pay my expenses for the whole year.
That fall, another family from our town was bringing their daughter up to school. They insisted that O Kin Yan Cante come with them. There would be plenty of room for her in the home of the Salt Lake relative they were staying with. Her reluctance to come was overcome by her desire to see me.
But my desire to see her was almost overcome by my reluctance to have others see us together. Lacking in self-confidence, I had never mentioned that I was part Indian, even though one of the most popular girls at school—and a good friend of mine—was a Lamanite from Arizona.
O Kin Yan Cante called, her voice calm but tired, when they got to town. (She had never been eighty miles from home in her whole life and to Reno only twice, to family funerals.) I took a cab to the house—a large white house with a green roof, trimmed hedges, and carefully kept grounds—and a doorman! I had never seen such wealth. I embraced my mother, waiting for me just inside the door, the first tears I had ever seen her shed glistening in her eyes.
But I also saw the people in the house staring at us, shocked. They must have never seen a Lamanite before, and I, her own daughter, looked at her with their eyes and felt myself withdraw from her.
Our Nevada friends held a hurried conference and O Kin Yan Cante was seated at the dining-room table with us instead of in the kitchen where they had planned to put her; but I felt completely isolated during the meal, burning with shame and humiliation—not on their behalf but on my mother’s. That night she was given a pillow, a blanket, and a cot in the kitchen.
Our Nevada friends decided to return the next morning instead of sightseeing for a couple of days as they had planned. O Kin Yan Cante had always wanted to see the temple but didn’t get the chance. I could not speak; but she smoothed my brow with her golden brown hand and said, “Be all you can be, my daughter; be like these fine people who are so gracious to me.” She really meant it! A knife would not have cut so deeply. After she left, I cried and cried.
I spent my next summer at home and learned, from a friend, that O Kin Yan Cante was working on a beautiful bedspread, a very complicated piece of work that she had started after returning from Salt Lake. My friend assumed that it was a gift for me, but I had never seen it and O Kin Yan Cante had never mentioned it.
One night I couldn’t sleep and arose to find her laboring in the dim light over a magnificent crocheted bedspread—red and pink roses set in white squares and surrounded with small green leaves.
“Oh, mother!” I exclaimed. “Is it for me?”
I knew I shouldn’t pry anymore.
As I was getting ready to go back to school, O Kin Yan Cante lovingly and gently tucked the spread into a box. “Will you please give this to the people in Salt Lake who let me stay at their home?” she asked. “It is my gift of pewhal [thanks].”
I burst into tears. “They were cruel to you. They were snobs. They deserve nothing,” I sobbed.
Quietly, my gentle mother said, “I am a member of the Church. It teaches us a better way. We are to forgive; and how often do we really have a chance to return good for unkindness? I have done that which my Savior and those in the kingdom would have me do. Do not harbor ill-will; pray for them and help them.”
I turned away, the tears running, silently now, down my face. My mother had not only forgiven them but forgiven me for being ashamed of her. But how could I forgive myself?
But that too was the gift of my mother’s gentle heart. She had given me both a Lamanite and a white name. And my Lamanite name, “Twanica,” means “willing to try.”