The summer I turned eight, an incident occurred that has since become a cornerstone of my character. It was as close as I have come to having what my Native American ancestors call the vision quest—essentially a test that reveals character.
That summer, my father conferred with my grandmother about my having more responsibility. My grandmother reluctantly agreed. School was out, and Father reasoned that I could manage a responsibility that would require three hours a day.
He told me that my new job would involve caring for livestock. Since I had already been feeding the horses and the chickens, I thought maybe he wanted me to now begin to exercise the horses, which meant that I would have to learn how to ride solo!
But he had something completely different in mind. One morning, he carefully separated a ragtag flock of twenty sheep and goats from my grandmother’s flock. I was to care for these lame, sick, and blind ones—the senile, the pregnant, the newborns and their nursing mothers—in short, the outcast animals.
I had mixed emotions about my little flock. My pity and compassion for them was offset by youthful excitement at the prospect of tending them out in the wilds where I could play as they grazed. Grandmother knew of my desire to play while tending sheep, because that was what I had done whenever I had gone herding with her. So she was not enthusiastic about my new role as shepherdess.
As for me, my one desire that summer was to catch a chipmunk, because they were rarely captured. The tribal elders taught that if you caught a chipmunk, being careful not to harm it, the chipmunk had to impart some of its speed to you as a gift. I was determined to be the first girl in my family to catch a chipmunk and was therefore on a constant chipmunk watch.
On the first few outings with my flock, I searched for chipmunks without any success. As the days passed, I began taking my flock out for longer periods of time, driving them farther from the homestead. Late one afternoon, I took my flock in a southward direction, toward a big mesa, for two reasons: first, for chipmunks, and second, for a change of scenery. Several trails led to the top, and I took the oldest and easiest, which did not require any climbing.
Once at the top, my flock began to graze on the abundant sweet grass. I was quite pleased with my choice and with the animals’ behavior. The mesa meadow could content them for the rest of the afternoon, so I began looking for chipmunks. No sooner did I blink than I saw one sitting on a tree stump chewing something. I crept up on the chipmunk, and with all the swiftness in me, I grabbed for it. I was too slow; it disappeared in a hole in the stump. With a stick, I poked and banged at the opening. All was silent and still. I waited … and waited. No chipmunk.
At last it dawned on me that I was doing a pretty idiotic thing waiting for one of nature’s most elusive creatures to come out of hiding. It just wasn’t going to happen. But by then I was already too late to stop what happened next.
I heard a great commotion of bleating from the side of the mesa where I had last seen my flock. I sensed danger. My first thought was that a coyote must have crept among my flock. As I ran towards that ledge, steeling myself for the worst, all my father had taught me about coyotes coursed through my mind: coyotes frighten easily; often the human scent is enough to chase them away; and if they don’t frighten right away, making a lot of noise will do the trick. Yes, Father, but what if they don’t get frightened and run away? I couldn’t remember ever getting an answer to my last question. I ran faster, compelled by fear for my little flock.
I was not prepared for what I saw next. Several hundred feet below the ledge lay one of the sickly young sheep that had apparently jumped to its death. As I watched, several more sheep, panicking and despairing, began jumping and crashing onto the jagged rocks below. I stood transfixed in time and space, absolutely powerless to stop anything, while the rest of my flock scattered all over the mesa.
I didn’t dare look toward the carnage that lay below me. I was absolutely sickened. As I slowly moved away from the ledge, I saw the lone witness, sitting astride his horse about a mile away—my father! He knew that I had seen him, and I knew that he would not come to help me. A deep emptiness filled me as I watched him ride off in the opposite direction, toward his own responsibility of two hundred healthy sheep and goats.
I turned to gather my flock, but they were skittish and wouldn’t go near the side where the fallen ones lay. They began to scatter again. Unfortunately, the side of the mesa I was most familiar with was the side where the accidents had happened, and I was no more eager to go to that side than my flock was. So I started climbing down from where I stood.
Never had I felt so alone. As I made my way down from the mesa without the help of a trail, I was wrapped in the emotion of the recent disaster. The difficulty of the route I had chosen aroused my full consciousness. Was I making yet another mistake? A few weeks before, I had been chastened when my grandmother and aunt caught me teasing a rattlesnake with a whip while my frightened little brother watched. Now I was climbing down a rock face I had never climbed; somehow even teasing a rattlesnake seemed harmless by comparison.
I had descended quite a distance when I realized I was in deep trouble. The route I had chosen had a sheer drop, and if I missed my footing, I, too, would die on the jagged rocks below.
In a single hour, I had neglected to keep vigil over my flock, allowed seven sheep to die, and let the remaining thirteen run away. And now, there I stood on my precarious ledge of life and death, too stiff to attempt either to climb back up to the top of the mesa or to continue climbing down. I did, however, vow never to look for another chipmunk.
Fortunately, hope was still my companion and dictated to me that if I was able to climb down this far, there had to be a way around my dilemma—there just had to be! But when I looked at that threatening precipice, I could not bring myself to move.
And so there I remained, immobile and sniffling, until a calming thought came to my mind from a Sunday School lesson. It was the story of Joseph of Egypt (see Gen. 37–50), who was highly favored and beloved of his father, envied and scorned by his older brothers, and whose father presented him with a coat of many colors. I remembered how his brothers had then plotted to kill him but had instead cast the young Joseph into a pit overnight while they told their aging father, showing him the torn and bloodied coat of many colors, that Joseph had been devoured by wild beasts. It had broken my heart to hear how distraught the father had become and how the vengeful brothers had still agreed to sell Joseph as a slave to merchants in a caravan headed for Egypt.
In class, I had wept over the meanness of Joseph’s brothers, and my concerned teacher had taken me aside and told me that Joseph lived and grew into a very handsome, spiritual man, highly favored of the Lord. At age thirty, Joseph became a lord over Egypt. He interpreted a dream of seven fat and lean cows, and then he stored food and grains for seven years to prepare for a great famine that came upon the land. This great famine caused his brothers who had sold him into Egypt to come to Egypt to buy from his storehouse. They didn’t even recognize Joseph until he revealed himself to them, and then he forgave them for their transgressions against him. I remembered how it made me smile to know that Joseph was finally reunited with his father and his little brother Benjamin.
Bloodlines are important, no matter how ancient; they are the ties that can never be broken. I must have believed that even as a child, for I was convinced that the same power that enabled Joseph to endure would come to the aid of a little Indian girl stuck high on a mesa ledge.
So I prayed to the same God who guided Joseph through all his tribulations: “Father, Father, I don’t know where to go! Where should I place my hands and my feet?” During the rest of my climb down, I recall that I had never felt more agile or more instinctive. When my feet finally came to rest in an arroyo, I witnessed another unusual occurrence. The remaining flock had somehow found a pathway down. They had gathered together in the arroyo and were grazing on sweet grass as though nothing had happened.
That day, I didn’t understand why I had such a strong attachment to Joseph, but nine years later my patriarchal blessing would declare that I had been born through the loins of the oldest son of Joseph: Manasseh, so named, Joseph says, because “God … hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” (Gen. 41:51.)
With a heavy heart and lead feet, I drove my flock back to their pen. Closing the gate, I finally looked back at the sheer face of that mesa, and I knew from that day forth there wasn’t anything my Heavenly Father wouldn’t grant me if I asked with a pure heart.
Later that evening as I faced my father and grandmother, fully expecting to have my responsibility taken away from me, my father said, “Those of your brothers and sisters who fly and those who run as swift as the wind will be grateful to you for providing them all that food on the rock below the mesa.”
Neither my father or grandmother ever mentioned this incident again. How I love my father for the compassion he exemplified and for the trust he showed by allowing me to continue tending my little flock. Without this experience I would have not seen my carelessness at such a young age. What a tremendous lesson my grandmother and father helped me learn.
I put away most of my childhood that day and have consequently seen the world and people in a different light. How often since that time I have gotten stuck on life’s ledges and cried, “Father, Father, I don’t know where to go! Where should I place my hands and my feet?” But I have always received an answer, a deliverance. Always.