Dancing with the ancestors: Brenda Bufalino’s “fictional memoir” pays homage to strong women

Brenda Bufalino (center), internationally known tap dancer and choreographer, will read from her “fictional memoir,” Song of the Split Elm, on Sunday, March 10 at Inquiring Minds bookstore in New Paltz. (Photo by Debi Field)

There are many rich strands intermingling in the tapestry of Brenda Bufalino’s bloodlines: Italian, Scottish, English and Native American. That last strand, though, has always posed a mystery; absent legal documents and other records, the histories of her maternal great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother have slipped into the mists of legend and conjecture. For many years, with diligence and devotion, Bufalino tried to discover and piece together the stories of their lives, but to little avail. So she did something extraordinary: She created plausible, poignant, vividly beautiful lives for them.

On Sunday, March 10, Bufalino – known locally, nationally and internationally as a dancer and choreographer – will read from her “fictional memoir” of her Penobscot Indian ancestors, Song of the Split Elm, at Inquiring Minds bookstore in New Paltz. The central figure of the story, which takes place in New England in the latter decades of the 19th century, is Madeline Prophet, Bufalino’s great-grandmother, a free spirit whose singing was “as haunting as a wooden flute played by an Indian in a mountain cave.”

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“I was so happy to give Madeline a life,” says Bufalino. “I was so inspired by this character – her fierceness, her whole relationship to the moon and the dirt and the trees – all of that really reflects me.”

The native river coursing through Madeline’s bloodstream fills her with deep and abiding reverence for the Earth and lends her voice its preternatural beauty. But her stern Calvinist father, Jeremiah Prophet, constrains her at every turn, believing her melodies to be the work of the Devil, and rebukes her for giving voice to anything other than church hymns and the Songs of Solomon. Although Madeline’s mother, Hannah, is her ally, and her two young brothers cherish her, the wedge that Jeremiah drives between his daughter’s heart and his own can only lead to tragedy.

Lena Strickland, Bufalino’s grandmother

But generations of strong women preserve and pass on what men cannot quell, and the spirit of Madeline Prophet lives on in her daughter, Lenore – Bufalino’s grammy – and in Bufalino herself. This theme of women nurturing, sustaining and passing along the spark of life and creativity from one generation of matriarchs to the next finds eloquent expression in the thoughts that Bufalino gives to Hannah, who “welcomes her daughter’s melodies as if they are her own sounds choked and swallowed day after day as she pounds the dough or bakes her cakes. She wonders, for how many mothers is it so and has it been, that their dried-up dreams find fresh untrammeled loam in their daughters’ fight for freedom. Loam where mothers plant their seeds to flower in the daughters of Mother Earth.” And again, later, when Hannah leaves her censuring, God-fearing husband, she understands that her daughter, now married and far away, “had represented the free part of herself, still connected to the spirits of wind, water and Earth.”

Those passages offer an answer to one of the questions Bufalino posed to herself at the outset of writing the book: “Why did my grandmother raise two generations of female artists, when being a female artist was looked upon like being a prostitute?” Perhaps because, as Madeline was for Hannah, Lenore’s daughter and granddaughter were for her: the free part of herself.

Song of the Split Elm was written over many years, as Bufalino got to know her characters, listening and talking to them. She wrote a lot of the book in longhand, conducting research in the Rice Public Library in Kittery, Maine, going back and forth between Penobscot powwows and Baptist services, as the local Calvinist congregation was long gone. The relationship to her freshly imagined ancestors became deep and binding – so much so that, the night the book was finished, she says, “I was half asleep when a light came through my window, three times. I said, ‘You’re welcome.’”

In addition to being a captivating transgenerational saga, Song of the Split Elm also grapples with issues that we continue to contend with, such as women’s rights, artistic freedom and the reverent, symbiotic way that indigenous peoples relate to the Earth, as opposed to the destructive, proprietary way of the dominant culture. The characters are fully alive on the page, their stories engaging, and the writing at times intensely lyrical: “The scarlet tanagers sang melodies at dusk that inspired the wooden reed players to delicious trills and arpeggios, lilting, then soaring, until only the chill of night sent the musicians back to the hearth of their wigwams.”

A sequel is already in the works: a continuation of the life story of Grammy Lenore, a piano prodigy who had to stifle her musical dreams and go to work for the A. P. Little shoe manufacturers in Lynn, Massachusetts, for whom she eventually became head bookkeeper. Ah, but how proud would she be to know that her granddaughter Brenda has been able to live the dream of being a full-time artist, touring the world and bringing joy to the lives of so many people? And how doubly proud to know that Brenda has created a White Buffalo Dance, performed in taps to a tom-tom beat, with 6/8 patterns in counterpoint? “I created this piece as an homage to my heritage and the sacred White Buffalo of the Native Americans,” says the choreographer, whose name in Italian, oddly and aptly enough, means “Little Buffalo.”

Brenda Bufalino reading/book-signing, Sunday, March 10, 4-5:30 p.m., Inquiring Minds, 6 Church Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-8300, www.inquiringbooks.com.

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