Crying for Change


Woman in Stone

I cried when I watched Cesar Chavez the other day.  I’m not sure why, as I was just a child when his farmworkers’ efforts were going on.  But there were parts, some of them old news footage, that had me leaking happily or sadly.  At times I wasn’t sure.

It wasn’t about racial pride.  With two Irish grandmothers, a Scottish and an English grandfather, you can’t get much more Celtic than our family.  Our people valued education and hard work.  My great grandmother was Susan B. Anthony’s first cousin and like her, was a progressive woman.  First to drive a car in our county, she was the first woman to be granted a driver’s license there as well.  She married a young house painter, then when he died, and old gentleman.  “Better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave,” she said.  An interesting sentiment.

She had identical twins in 1910, my grandfather Gil and his brother Will.  Pertussis took her favorite in 1920 and after that my grandfather was a daily, painful reminder of the loss of his brother.   Back then people knew life wasn’t fair.

Gil ran away from home at 15, lied about his age, joined the army.  He nearly died in Florida of dysentery. His mother went and got him, brought him home, nursed him back to health.  He left again when he was well and worked on the Panama Canal.   He loved his Panama hat.  He wrote poetry.

He married the only daughter of Irish immigrants, a New Jersey police officer and his wife.  They had five children.  My grandmother lost her own mother when she was sixteen.  She went on to nursing school and after turning down his many proposals, finally agreed to marry Gil.

My other grandfather was born in Colorado in 1888, second of four sons and a daughter.  His father I know little about.  He married the daughter of a railroad man, a strong woman who eventually took her daughter and youngest son and moved away.  She left my grandfather and his two brothers with their father.  He was my father’s father.

My father’s mother was born in Ireland to a large family.  Her father, she told me, worked on the railroad.  Unable to get along with her mother and sister, she went to live with her own grandmother in the “West of Ireland”.  She said she’d been happy there, and when she was old enough she went to work as a domestic and cook for a family in England.  When the Spanish flu came, she told me she became very sick and seemed surprised her employers cared for her until she was well again.  Apparently, she wasn’t used to such charity.

At twenty one she came to Ellis Island so she could find a job and send money back home to her family.   She met my grandfather, a protestant, at some point and he became smitten with her.  Although he pursued her, she refused his advances.  Eventually, just to get rid of him, she said, she let him take her to a play, Abie’s Irish Rose.  After this he pestered her to marry him, which she couldn’t, of course, being Catholic.  Finally he told her that if she didn’t marry him, she would burn her uncle’s house to the ground.

To protect her family, she did marry him.  Then her family shunned her for marrying a protestant.  She had her first child in New York, her second in Massachusetts and my father in Maryland.  He left her there to travel for work, alone with three tiny children, with no friends, no family and no money.  It was the Depression.  The photos show three healthy children and a painfully thin woman.  Her long hair, which she always wore in a pair of plaits pinned up around her head like a halo, shorn and sold for food money.

They ended up in a tenement in New York City.  She was the super, scrubbing floors and stairs, my grandfather doing repairs, playing pool.  He was remarkably able, his eye-hand coordination near miraculous.  He played an exhibition pool match with W. C. Fields, family tradition goes, but quit in disgust at Fields’ shenanigans.  Pool was for making money, not for fun.

He would pitch pennies for paychecks.  When his coworkers would get their pennies touching the wall, my grandfather would stand his up against it.  In his youth my grandfather worked carnivals and would devastate the midways when he went with his children.  Throwing baseballs at targets, bouncing coins in cups, throwing rings on milk bottles, he would keep on until the barkers were angry and broke.  And although he passed his talent down to his children and grandchildren, no one could ever beat grandpa.

There are some amazing stories about his experiences, but for now it’s enough to note it as a quirk and a sort of talent.  He was miserable though, and his children called him “Pop”.  Once I called my own father “Pop”, and he stopped me, giving me an angry look.  He said, “Don’t ever call me that.  We don’t call him that because we love him.”  I don’t know the rest, I didn’t ask.

That is where I came from, I suppose, although you aren’t entirely your genetic material.  Still, the traits of these people affected me, my siblings and cousins.  I can see they still affect our children and grandchildren.  It’s a long reach.

I think about my grandmother growing up in Ireland, no shoes most of the year, never hearing an airplane overhead, only listening to music that was played live.  She lived to be ninety three.  She watched the social change.  Vatican II was a riptide of Catholic revolution.

My grandmother died when I was pregnant for my daughter.

Now my grandson lives in a world of electronic technology.  He never sees clear skies.  Music is always recorded.  His games are played on a television.

When I started school, we used the new technology: ink cartridge pens.  My grandmothers marveled at the felt tip.  Now some of the schools have stopped teaching cursive writing completely.

When I think about it, my life has been a sea of change.  It’s bridged the old world to the new.  I don’t think there’s ever been a generation that has seen so much go by so fast.

Maybe that’s why I cried.


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