Family histories are a funny thing. When you’re a little kid you don’t think much about who or what those family stories are all about. Often they’re long dead people who you think have little to do with how your life is affected or how these people can possibly reflect in your own experiences or even your future.
My family has a rich history. Both my mom and dad have stories that baffle others and they always look at us like we’re a bunch of weirdos. And, yes, we are weirdos. And we like it that way.
At least I do.
History has a way of weaving itself into the very fabric of your future, especially when it’s a strange or interesting or debatable retelling of family foibles. The stories my mom told me about her dad or her distant grandfather may or may not be true. But they are her truth and defined much of her personality. In my dad’s case, some of the stories about my grandfather, my aunt, and all the kids explain so much about all of our personalities. And I know that when I tell these stories that I will have family members who will deny every aspect of the details. In reality, the veracity of these tales means little. Because truth or not, perception belongs to the the teller, the listener, and the result of that is how we become who we are.
One of the great family legends on my mother’s side is her murderous uncle. He killed his father, of all people. He’s a great great uncle or some such thing, but he’s a hero in my eyes, and was in my mom’s eyes.
He murdered his father because his father beat his mother. Many times. Almost to death. The son just had had enough. He’d warned his father and his father thought he would never do it. But he did. And didn’t even serve one day in prison because the entire town (which made up his jury) knew what was happening. This was a long time ago, women didn’t really have the right to get upset about being beaten black and blue, or being beaten at all, even if death was imminent.
But even in a backwards society, one in which women were second class citizens, not too far in our distant past, the people on the jury (and they were all men) knew that what my grandfather was doing was inherently wrong. Nobody doubted that my uncle shot and killed his father. But they looked the other way and felt that my grandfather got what he deserved.
I don’t know if there had been any discussion of this within the community, and I doubt if they had involved the authorities. Some people would see this as a justification for vigilante justice. I see it as desperation. And my uncle got incredibly lucky.
This bit of family history was told quite frequently around the table or when a news story of domestic violence came up. Mom was adamantly for women’s rights. She was a feminist, (a word that apparently is considered in some circles as “bad), one who really hated the fact that she was an at home mom for much of her life. She didn’t want special treatment, but equal treatment. She cared about the environment, but didn’t like taxes. She felt the burden of being a highly intelligent woman in the business world. When she worked at the Beverage Company in Livermore (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) and asked for a raise, she was told that she didn’t need the job and that the raise would go to a man who did half her work and was less able. This was in the 1970’s. Not that long ago.
Her story didn’t just start with the day she decided it wasn’t even worth working. It started long before that, with her grandfather, her uncle, and her mother.
My grandmother was a pretty harsh woman. Mom was punished quite severely if she didn’t make sure the house was clean, if her brother wasn’t cared for, if her sister made a mess. A lot of the problems my mother and I had were related to the fact that her mother was kind of an awful person, specifically to my mom. She was beaten with a razor strap. This is a rather large piece of leather used for sharpening razor blades. It was convenient for my grandmother because she was one of the first women barbers in California.
She accomplished stuff, did my grandmother. Not only was she one of the first female barbers in California, she supported her three children as a single mother in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when it was not commonplace to do so. My grandfather died in WWII, and she fought for his daughters to get the orphan monies due to them for having a father die during an active war. The War Office claimed in 1945 that the girls didn’t need the money as they would one day marry and they sure as Hell didn’t need the funds for going to college or the like. Never mind the fact that they might want to eat or get some clothing or pay for rent while they were still children.
So my grandmother fought with the government and won a bit of money for the kids, and she cut hair. She cut anyone’s hair, one of the only barbers who didn’t care if you were Mexican, or Native-American, or African-American. Most of her money was made cutting African-American hair. And she never cared, never felt that she was lowering herself. She did what she had to do to survive, and it’s one of the greatest legacies she gave to us, her family.
For one thing, my mom was taught how to make chili by Native-Americans. And my mom’s chili was the best on the planet, and I’ve eaten a lot of chile. I still try to duplicate it and I can’t.
On the serious side of this, my mom raised me to not see color. With one exception which I will get to in a minute.
When I was around 8, mom had an African-American friend with a pool. For me, anyone with a pool rocked my world, so I didn’t even have a clue that Karen, the daughter was black. She was just a nice kid who lived in an apartment complex with a pool. We played with other stuff, but the pool was the key factor. She’d come and stay at my house and we’d feed the baby goats, which was probably her equivalent of my pool love, and I never thought about anything but that she was fun and smart and kind.
I remember that the pool never had any people in it. This was 1974, and as a kid I never thought much about it. Now, I suspect that the overly white, upper-middle class, suburb of San Francisco wasn’t quite ready for a black kid and a white kid being in the same pool. Didn’t matter that Karen’s dad made as much money working for the laboratory that supported most of the families in Livermore. He never complained that the apartment was the only place that would rent to them. He never complained that his daughter might not get the same consideration as I, as a white kid, might get.
I often wonder what happened to them. They had a couple of serious setbacks and disappeared from our lives. But I do thank them for accepting our friendship in a time when that wasn’t very easy.
My grandfather died in WWII, so I never met him. My mom didn’t much like him, as far as I could tell, but she was proud that he served in the “Great War”. They were able to see him in the hospital before he died, but he didn’t survive the injuries from the bombing of his hospital. As a dentist, he was in the Pacific helping with the injured. Medical personnel was always difficult to find, and they didn’t discriminate when in need.
The Japanese bombed the building, using the giant red cross as a target.
My mom played with a little girl named Komiko for years. One day she vanished. Gone. Placed into the internment camps that are just one more shameful event in our incredibly shameful history of racist actions in the country.
She told me she always missed Komiko, and was glad to find that her family came back from the camps and rebuilt their nursery business and became successful despite their imprionsment.
But she didn’t communicate with her. Or play with her. And she hated the Japanese because they killed her father, using the one good thing she felt he’d ever done with his life against him.
She and I went around and around about this. Racism against the Japanese was fully acceptable for years after WWII. Dr. Seuss famously created political cartoons defaming everything related to the Japanese. (To be fair he wasn’t kind to the Germans, either). People can say it was a sign of the times, but it troubles me. We see this now in regard to Islam. There’s always an excuse for people to hate someone that isn’t like them, and what we never seem to take into account is that the Japanese commoner, the ones living in say, Nagasaki, for the most part didn’t like the war any more than someone living in the Bay Area. They only believed in the propaganda on their side, the same as us. And when they lost their sons they grieved just like we did, and do.
My mom’s hatred of one specific nationality made me realize that racism is pretty ridiculous. If she could accept an entire segment of our society, a segment that when I was growing up was particularly oppressed and disliked, then what was wrong with accepting the Japanese? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
So even though I could have hated, I chose to embrace those she loved, and accepted. And I couldn’t have done that if she hadn’t have shown me what it was to be accepting. In her strange, odd, counterproductive way. I just chose to go one step further and realize that all people love, all people can be kind, and that all people can be absolute monsters. It just depends on what we choose to live.
My mom was a strong woman. She was probably what would be called a Tiger Mom now, which by the way is embarrassing and does nothing for the child’s self esteem. She had a lot of faults, but many strengths, too. When she died so suddenly I realized that I had wasted a lot of time being mad at her for her faults and not paying attention to what she gave me as a person. I not only shorted her, I shorted myself.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about my dad’s family and the impact those family legends have had on me. Be ready for a rip roarer, with people running away to the circus, my dad being pitchforked (almost?), bootlegging, drunk rolling, and reform school woes.