Kayla Branstetter :: Changing Directions ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement: On your website, you stated “Let the bitter past be studied–not re-lived.” “Changing Directions” mirrors that southern attitude because Tony allowed me to interview her about her bitter past for others to study in hopes they will learn from her story. There are great times, bad and ugly times, but Tony can live next to the water moccasins and teach others how to survive.

Changing Directions


Tears clung to her cheeks, and alcohol tainted his breath and soul as she watched her uncle leave her room. What did I do to deserve this? Why would he do this to me? Tony thought to herself as she struggled to go to sleep in her shimásáí’s house. She stared past the window at the night sky and tried to forget what happened, but she couldn’t and remembered his balminess and sweat on her. 

Her grandmother liked to cook and told the best stories. There was one about how the Diné considered the number four as good luck. The number four represents the four directions: Ha’a’aah (East), Náhookos (North), Shádi’ááh (South), and Weh-E’e’aah (West). Tony wasn’t sure which direction she would travel in the future, but she knew she would be without children. She wondered if her grandmother knew about her uncle’s nightly visits to her bedroom. Tony wanted to say something, but she couldn’t utter the words from her young lips. She felt him all around her, pushing her down into the bed. 


She flushed the toilet in her mother’s house. It was a small bathroom with a shower. The floor was cracking and creaking. Tony sat on the edge of the bathtub, crying as she studied the two pink lines staring at her—pregnant. Tony stood up and walked out. She went to tell her mom that at the age of fifteen, she was pregnant. 

Tony felt trapped and cheated because she did not want children. Her dad joined the Marines and her family frequently moved to follow her dad’s military career. The military wasn’t an easy life. She watched the landscape change from one scenery to the next as they moved from base to base. This constant moving denied her the opportunity to learn the language and culture of her ancestors. Her only exposure being during the summers when she visited her grandmother on the reservation. For her mother, who was raised on the reservation, there was no other nation but the Diné. Her mother enjoyed the other places they traveled. She admired them, but Diné was her home. Whereas, her father who was also raised on the reservation, chased dreams far away from the reservation. When he couldn’t achieve that greatness he sought, he reverted to alcohol to numb the reality. Being Diné was part of her mother’s soul—like her dark eyes, long black hair, and tan skin. She disapproved of the reservation like the way she condemned certain members of her family, but she was raised to never turn away from family. 

  Finally, her father left the Marines and accepted a position as a cop before becoming sheriff for an Arizona county. They lived in a two-parent household with four bedrooms and her father was an alcoholic who took advantage of his position. He drew his weapon onto her mom, and her mom left; substituting the middle-class home for poverty and a two-bedroom trailer house. 

Tony stood there and waited for her mother to speak. 

“What’re you going to do?” her mother said, and Tony sat down on the couch still processing this new reality. 

“I don’t want kids,” Tony confessed. Her father exited her life and her mother filled the empty space by going to bars drinking. Tony stayed home taking on the role as parent to her younger siblings. How could her mother force her to assume this role so young? Her parents taught her how fatal chasing loneliness could be. 

On one thought, she had years of experience of caring for children. On the other thought, it was because of this practice she desired the opportunity to simply be young and kid free. She quit thinking about being pregnant and decided to put the baby up for adoption, “I’ll adopt your baby,” her uncle suggested. Her uncle wanted a daughter and offered to adopt Tony’s baby. Could I handle seeing my daughter being raised by a family member? Tony thought. 

She often questioned herself how much of her childhood was a figment of her imagination. So much of her life was unwanted, including this pregnancy, but when she began feeling the baby move inside of her and was told she was having a daughter, she smiled and felt love. For Tony there was no other option. She was going to keep her baby. She dropped out of high school as a freshman, and surrendered to the fact of motherhood. 

Years later, Tony found herself giving birth a second time, to another a daughter. Tony diverted her attention from one daughter, to another. Her life leveled out to motherhood and being a family until her and her boyfriend began drifting apart on all sides of their relationship. Like the four seasons, this relationship entered a new phase that led her down a different direction and away from Flagstaff. 

She packed her car, put her daughters into their car seats and seatbelts, and didn’t stop until she reached Phoenix. Tony inhaled a deep gasp and there was a wind that came up and pushed warm air past her. She looked up at the sky, pale blue and full of clouds and hope. Tony felt safer in Phoenix. She felt better with the opportunities Phoenix offered for her and her daughters. 

Every Friday Tony found herself among a different kind of crowd at a bar. This was her first experience and the most painful; the decision to get lost in drinking introduced a new sense of shame, anger, and helplessness. She could not talk to her mother about her past, because the person who violated her was her mother’s brother. Would she believe her, or believe her brother, because she wouldn’t turn her back on her brother? Would her mother listen to her if she confessed that her mother was the reason she didn’t have a childhood? As she grew older she learned to distance herself from her trauma and viewed it as something she must learn. She analyzed her drinking as a missed opportunity: it made her feel as if she didn’t miss out on young adult milestones such as attending college, going to fraternity parties, and getting drunk on her twenty-first birthday. She desired some control over her reality because she had been raising kids since she was seven-years-old—first with her siblings then with her own children. She learned that alcohol did not erase the shame. 

In 2012, she bit her lip and visited her mother. She felt empty inside, but she didn’t give her secret away. Tony ambled inside the house with her two daughters and her mother spread her arms wide to give her a hug. “Mom, I need to tell you something,” Tony said. 

Her mother took a quick shallow breath and her face exposed her fear. Tony heard the sound of her mother’s air going in an out of her lungs. Tony had been a diligent daughter for years and loyal to her family—she raised her siblings until her mother met her stepdad, and her stepdad offered her two young siblings a life she only dreamt about, but she could no longer remain silent about her uncle’s transgressions. For years, she’d wished she could tell her, but she could never speak the words. She only whispered the crime to the wind. “Mom,” she began and when she uttered the expression the words rushed out like an angry flood destroying the memories from her past.  If she’d had any way of knowing that things were going to go as well as they did, she would had said something earlier. 

“Me too,” her mother murmured, “my brother assaulted me on the reservation, too.” In that moment, Tony and her mother shocked each other by how swiftly they finally understood each other. This was the first conversation of an open and exploratory dialogue that would ultimately, bring her very close to her mother. Among their discussion, Tony discovered her shimásáí was assaulted when the government forced her to attend the Indian boarding school as a young girl. The sun rose and shed light on dark secrets from the past. Tony believed that when she confessed that her family could finally talk and find healing. Her grandmother, however, was in denial that her son could commit such heinous crimes and cause pain. Her younger sister was assaulted as well, but she silenced herself with alcohol. 

Tony’s life presented a turning point, with an introduction to a stranger. That evening, as they talked, she could sense his interest in her. Later that night, he leaned in to kiss her and she walked back into her apartment feeling hope. She tried to convince herself that he was different than the previous men in her life. 

Unlike most men in her life, he moved into her life prepared to help her. Everything about this scene was different. She was trying hard to locate the mishap, his imperfections, and his vices that would end the relationship, but he remained consistent. It was her most sincere belief that she would marry this man, and she could have her perfect family. The tall, dark, and handsome man unstitched her with his giant brown eyes, and she readjusted her life. He excited her. She felt his hands on her waist, and she let him feel her and kissed him.   

The destruction of their relationship could hardly have been more thorough, and as the seasons passed, Tony’s body transformed with the maturing and growing baby. But this fact troubled her greatly, and she felt abandoned. She wanted to marry him, but he disappeared with the southern wind. She was shocked by how swiftly she went from knowing this person the best in the world to not knowing him at all, and this new knowledge happened overnight. 

First, she settled into the reality she had extra bills. They moved into an apartment together, and he agreed to pay the monthly rent. Their relationship wasn’t a short relationship. She loved him and they planned not one, but two pregnancies. 

Tony and her boyfriend planned her third pregnancy, and this was a first for her. They shared a mutual love and affection for each other and decided to expand their family. Not long after trying, she took a pregnancy test, and unlike her first pregnancy test, she felt excitement. This feeling proved to be short-lived, and her boyfriend could be counted on to help her through the soul crushing time. 

Two months into her pregnancy, Tony tried to ignore the deep red stains on her underwear, she was losing this perfectly planned baby. Her boyfriend had been inside of the house and before she knew it, he wrapped his long arms around her as she released her grief into his shoulder. Quite abruptly, she found that she wasn’t crying anymore. she stopped crying and her desolation was forced out of her, but Tony’s soul entered the dark night calling out for help.

They wanted to have a baby. She was thirty-three years old, and they had been together for a few years building their life around the common expectation, that they would expand their family. How could they turn back now? Everything was in place, and they actively participated in getting pregnant. And their efforts paid off because Tony was pregnant a fourth time, and her twenty-week ultrasound revealed to them they were expecting a son. 

She was proud of what they were building—an apartment, the friends, the jobs, and the family. Tony wasn’t the breadwinner, but she accepted other roles, the housekeeper, the planner, the decorator, the cook, and the soon-to-be mother to three young children. She must had missed the signs somewhere among the chaos of family life, because when she was eight-months pregnant he simply left her, their son, and her daughters. He left and the reality of his absence caused her to sob. 

Tony didn’t have too much time to dwell on him. She pulled herself together enough to continue with work: she had mouths to feed and new bills to pay. Tony went to work, but quite abruptly, she fell down a few stairs and broke her ankle. Tony felt alone, but not really alone. She was surrounded by her two older daughters, but they couldn’t work to pay for rent, keep the electricity on, or buy food to fill their stomachs. Her life hung in limbo as she tried to put the pieces of her life back together. 

She began her maternity leave early to recover from her broken ankle, and she reflected on the great time her and her ex-boyfriend had together during those early years when he was still her romantic lover who supported her. She was still stuck in that dream. It was the compatibility like she’d never imagined or experience before with other men. They made goals, promises, and a home together. Their relationship looked like a romantic movie. At this time, she allowed herself to believe in men—to believe in him. 

All the complications and traumas of her past and the abandonment of her boyfriend were multiplied by her injury and she entered a gloomy slum of grief and despair. She missed him the most at night and viewed her bed like a torture chamber. She would lie there in bed glowering at the emptiness of his side of the bed. She thought she had fallen to pieces before, but right now her life demolished her soul and sense of direction. 

Her body responded and provided that direction, because her son wanted to enter her world. Tony was frightened, but once he arrived she thought he was perfect, and knew they would be okay. 

Tony was the kind of person who struggled to ask for help because she refused to feel like a burden to others. She desired to be a good mom to her children, but when she climbed the stairs to her apartment with her injured ankle carrying her newborn son’s car seat, she wanted to cry and feed her worry. She didn’t feel fine and she entered the early symptoms of postpartum depression. 

They would be better off without me, Tony thought to herself. I need to disappear, she continued to think. Depression and loneliness tracked her down like a pack of ravenous wolves hunting an incapacitated prey. Dark thoughts continued to deluge her mind destroying any hope she had. She returned to work at a hotel after giving birth three weeks prior, and she hoped the change in scenery would help ease her mental hell. Tony couldn’t afford to take off work for maternity leave. She couldn’t afford to seek treatment for her mental health. She kept hoping she could shake off depression and loneliness, but they held a firm grip on her shoulders whispering how worthless she was into her ears. Her motherly instincts arrived and prepared for the battle of her life. These instincts that she had used since the age of seven, connected with her and gave her strength she didn’t know she had. She listened to those instincts and her depression and loneliness fell to silence. 

The Diné believed in the four directions, and Tony’s mind remembered her grandmother’s stories. She couldn’t control the direction of the wind, or the changing of the seasons, but she could put in a real effort to break the curse of childhood rape. Tony refused to visit her family on the reservation, and often at the criticism of her family identifying her as too “American.”  She spent a long time talking to her daughters. The open dialogue centered on sex because she desired for her daughters not to experience the same traumas as her. Tony was raised to remain silent about sex, and she was determined to break that silence with her daughters. 

And now at the age of forty, she picked up her seven-year-old son from school and drove to the daycare to pick up her nearly two-year-old granddaughter. Tony didn’t feel protected or as loved when she was a child, and this made her a fighter. Tony made a lot of mistakes as a parent, but she fought to allow her children to act like children. Tony thought about the woman she became, about the life that she was now living as a mother and grandmother. She evolved and grew into a strong and independent woman who has remained single for nearly a decade. Tony held her young granddaughter and couldn’t help but laugh at her granddaughter’s strong and independent personality. She broke the cycle and moved her family’s direction toward love.