Grandmother’s Basket

by Linda Rodriguez
It’s National Poetry Month, and I have a new book of poems out. Dark Sister is a book of the heart for me, in which I tell stories from my family and other spaces that really matter to me. Some of the poems, of course, are lyric poems, but with me, the narrative drive is overpowering, so most of them are stories, little and big.  Many of the stories I tell in this book are concerned with my beloved Cherokee grandmother, who was one of the strongest influences on my life. 

If you’d like to check out the book in more detail–or even order it–you can learn more about it here.

So, to celebrate both National Poetry and the publication of my tenth and newest book, Dark Sister, here is a story in a poem about my grandmother and her baskets.


I loved Grandmother’s baskets when I
was small.
They had intricate patterns and figures
woven into them in brown, black,
yellow, red, and orange.
She had different sizes and shapes,
used them for storage rather than
My favorite was in reds and yellows
with a black border.
It looked to me as if woven of fire and

I would climb into cupboards, find one,
and ask why she didn’t keep it out on
a tabletop
where everyone who came in could admire
“These aren’t the best ones,” she
as she fingered baskets that looked
beautiful to me.
“We used to make them from rivercane,
which makes a better basket and dyes
the best,
but they rounded us up in concentration
and drove us on a death march to a new
that didn’t have our old plants like
so now we use buckbrush and
Grandmother shrugged. “You make do.”

I asked her to teach me how to make a
like the one I loved with feathers of
along its steep sides. She shook her
“It’s a lot of hard work.
First, we need black walnut, blood
pokeweed, elderberry. Yellow root’s
the best yellow,
but blood root will have to do.
They’ve dug all the yellow root
for rich people’s medicines, call it
Got to have our dyestuffs first.
Got to forage for most of them.
It takes lots of trips, out and back,
to get enough to make good colors.”

I knew I could do that and said so.
She laughed. “You’ve got to know
what to pick
or dig or gather. It’s like with my
Can’t just go taking any old weed.”
I pointed out that I was learning from
about the Cherokee medicine plants. She
just shook her head.
“It’s not the same. I grow most of
Haven’t taken you out for the wild
ones yet
because you’re too little still. Same
for dye plants.”

I nagged at her for days, begging her
to teach me
so I could have a basket of my own.
I had in mind that amazing
fire-flickering basket.
I wanted to make one just like that.
My visit was over without her ever
giving in.
I was used to Grandmother’s strength
of will.
I knew I would have to try harder next

There was no next-time visit.
My mother had always hated her
Now, she won the battle to keep us
Our relationship poured out in letters
until my mother destroyed them,
refused further correspondence.
Years later, Grandmother wrote me—
a letter that slipped past my mother’s
that she was making a basket
one last time for me.
I knew she was very ill,
soon to die.

I don’t know who got the beautiful
when Grandmother died, especially the
that I loved when I was small.
Her sister and niece who cared for her
in her last illness, I suppose.
That’s fair. My parents had divorced
by then,
and my mother allowed no contact
with that family. But
a lumpy, brown-paper-bag-wrapped
with Grandmother’s shaky, spidery
arrived for me after her death.
My mother opened it first and laughed.
I stood waiting eagerly to snatch up
the last thing my grandmother would
ever give me.
“Look at that,” Mother said with
more laughter.
“That ugly old thing’s supposed to
be a basket,
I think. She sure lost her knack for
at the end, didn’t she?”

When I was small and visiting, I knew
Grandmother already had arthritis
in her hands. That’s probably why
she wouldn’t teach me to make
because she didn’t have the dexterity
any longer
to make the kind she once had.
I still have that simple handled basket
of vines (probably honeysuckle).
The whole thing is dyed black.
There are no intricate patterns of
or anything else. It’s just solid

I can see her plodding out to gather
butternuts for the black dye
and to pull the honeysuckle vines,
stripping off the leaves.
I can see her gnarled hands
painstakingly weaving under and over,
no fancy twills or double-woven sides.
Hard enough to shape
a shallow but sturdy gathering basket
for her long-unseen granddaughter.
All these years later
I have my own herb garden
where many of her medicine plants grow.
When I gather them to dry for teas and
I use that black vine basket.
I think it will last forever.

Published in Dark Sister (Mammoth Publications, 2018)

Linda Rodriguez’s Dark Sister: Poems
has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native
American Poets Visit the Middle East
, an anthology she co-edited,
were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt,
her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief,
Skeet Bannion, will appear in August, 2018, and Revising the
Character-Driven Novel
will be published in November, 2018. Her
three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every
Broken Trust
, and Every Last Secret—and
her books of poetry—Skin Hunger
and Heart’s Migration—have
received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin’s
Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International
Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices
& Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and
Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good
Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has
been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP
Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter
of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers
Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International
Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and
Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at

2 replies
  1. Linda Rodriguez
    Linda Rodriguez says:

    Oh, thank you, Debra! I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It's an important poem for me. I didn't realize how much until the first time I read it in public and ended up in tears (something I never do–I'm pretty much a pro at public readings).

Comments are closed.