A life of duty and dedication

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

January 24, 2013

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O ne day my parents returned from work and were greeted by the smell of country fried chicken.

This was in the mid 60s. They got up each morning, put their work clothes on and drove to Window Rock from our home in Church Rock.

As she left for work, mom always smelled of perfume and had her hair made up neat. When we were a little younger, she'd kiss us each on the forehead or cheek, leaving a red lipstick imprint.

There were five of us kids, often more when relatives' children stayed with us. Our parents had hired help to watch us during the day and cook our lunch.

Our babysitter Pauline, who always dressed in a flowing dress and wore a scarf in the Navajo style, did a fine job. When the house was clean and the cooking done, she sat by the radio and listened to KGAK. After a few years, we were deemed old enough to take care of ourselves after school.

But mom and dad always returned from work tired after a long day at the office. In those days there were no overpasses in Gallup and if a train lumbered through all traffic had to stop and wait, sometimes for an hour or more. If the delay was in the morning, it caused havoc with her bosses in Window Rock.

Usually when mom got home, she changed her clothes then cooked dinner for the family. Sometimes I saw her lay on her bed with her arm across her forehead, obviously beaten down by her job.

She worked hard for the Navajo Tribe and started as a clerk then eventually rose to department director before her retirement in 1997. Many times she took us with her when she went to the office on a Saturday to catch up with her work. We played outside while she sat in the pink, metal building next to the Council Chamber.

But it bothered me to see her come home tired after work, then have to rouse herself to cook for the kids. So in about fifth or sixth grade, I checked out one of her cookbooks and read a few recipes. One for fried chicken looked easy. Just flavor the flour, bread the pieces with milk, use a half-inch of oil, get the pan hot and throw the chicken in.

When I dropped the breaded pieces into the skillet, they made a fine sizzle. Soon the fragrance of cooking drifted about the house just as if mom were doing the cooking.

I made several pieces and climbed up by the sink and reached up to the cupboard for a can of green beans.

My excitement grew as the afternoon wore on. Usually my parents came home about 6 or 6:30.

Finally my golden brown chicken was arranged on a large plate for presentation. The bowl of veggies, hot and steaming, took its place next to the platter. Then my parents walked in the door.

"Mmm, what's that smell?" my mother asked, obviously surprised and pleased.

I stood there grinning crazily and said, "I made it. It's country fried chicken."

They sat down to eat and I put two plates in front of them. But, as the trials and travails of life go, they bit into their chicken then my mother exclaimed, "It's still raw!"

I had been fooled by the golden color of the chicken and had not cooked the pieces long enough to cook the insides. But mom was still pleased and simply put the chicken back into the pan to cook a little longer.

"Thank you," she said.

My mother, Elizabeth Beyal, passed away in 2010. She was born Jan. 22, 1934. As many mothers and other family members have done through the ages, she left behind a grateful family.

I did not become a chef, but I continued to cook. Maybe it was because I saw her do it so often as I was growing up. Eventually, I cooked outside on grills for family gatherings with up to 20 people. Whether steak or shish-ka-bobs, my goal was the same: to please her.

Today it is entirely appropriate that her birthday falls on a week when Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated and the U.S. president was inaugurated and sworn in before tens of thousands of people at the Washington Mall.

In the early 60s, when all TVs were black and white, we watched the U.S. inaugural parade and waited to see the Navajo Nation Band. Just when we saw their uniforms enter the picture, the program cut to a commercial.

But her memory also brings to mind her dedication not only to her family, but to the Navajo Nation government. She showed us how to use intelligence and plain common sense to get things done. Above all, she showed us the value of service.

As the U.S. president begins his new term, hopefully these tenets will overcome the politics of Washington and Window Rock.

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