Wops and Portagees, Japs and Chinks

These words are often found in the colorful language of my Grandma Edith.  I’ll never forget the look on my sister-in-law’s face when, at a family dinner, Gram blurted out to me, “You were thinking about adopting one of those chink babies, right?”

This is a photograph from the early 1970s of Grandma Edith and me.  An organic gardener long before anyone was talking about it,  she let me hold the hose to help her water the growing plants.

The rest of my formative years, according to Gram, were spent with my nose in a book and my head in the clouds.  It’s a fairly true assessment.  She always wished I would have been like my brother –  playing beside her while she worked in the garden instead of reading in the crook of the branches of an apple tree.

Gram and I have never been as close as I would have liked.  She is warm, funny, loving and generous.  She can also be blunt, tactless and downright cruel – traits that are hard to take for my overly delicate being.

Still….when I sit, with a head that has remained in the clouds, it is her voice that infiltrates my thoughts.  “This used to be a wop/portagee town….,” she’ll smile as she describes the changes in Rio Dell.

“One day I went up to the old place to kill a couple of rabbits for dinner,” she told Mark and me the last time we visited her.   “Some little kid – I don’t know who it was, must’ve been someone visiting – followed me, and when he saw me bop a rabbit on the head with a stick, he started crying.  We didn’t have rabbit that night.”

And it is images of a childhood spent on a hill above this town that come in flashes at the least expected times.  The bottle of moonshine-soaked hard candy to be drunk at the first sign of a cough.  Hundreds of white poppies – seeds brought from the old country – swaying in the gardens.   Piles of fried chicken.  Warm fresh milk squirting across a stable toward the giggling mouths of grandchildren.  Deep black skies of a place with no streetlights. Fermenting crocks of sauerkraut.  Mud-caked fingers.

Gram has had a most interesting life and is full of fascinating stories.  Stories only she can tell, and stories that are fleeing from her mind little by little.  At 90, she has begun to show signs of dementia.

She isn’t able to garden anymore, so Mark had the idea of approaching her about letting us plant some things there that we can’t grow in foggy Loleta.  Gram readily agreed – she even seemed excited about it.  Soon we will be spading and hoeing and planting and weeding.

My hope is that she’ll come outside to watch, laugh at us, point out all our mistakes and tell us stories.  My dream is to be able to write them down.  My fear is that I won’t be able to, or that it’s too late.

How will I get her to open up to me, especially when some of her life experiences have been harsh and painful?  How will I combine her fragmented bits into cohesive tales?  How will I be able to illustrate the life of this woman – with all of her beauty, all of her strength and some of her faults – with grace and truth?  And how, especially, will I do this without angering, or worse yet, embarrassing, the rest of my family?

At this point, I have no idea.  So my plan is to start with a grub hoe and some tomato plants.

Wish me luck.


25 responses to “Wops and Portagees, Japs and Chinks

  1. Your Grandma was organic when organic wasn’t cool. My Grandma lived just down the road in Stafford for a spell before they moved up to Greenwood Heights/Kneeland. When we moved her and my blind grandfather out to Willow Creek in 1966, she too, filled our heads with Canadian/Oakie/American Indian slang and bygone ways. Like feeding us pastys http://www.pasty.com/index.html and finding fir pitch gum to chew. Grandma Grace worked as a fileter in the Lazio and Eureka fisheries processing plants and was a welder for California Barrel Co. My favorite saying was: “Why, you little son of a sea cook!”

    We never ate rabbit, but had our fair share of surf fish. (smelt)

    Good story!

    • Mmmmm. Those pasties look good. My gram made something she called doo dads that was similar – homemade cottage cheese enclosed in dough – but if memory serves me right they were boiled. Something else I need to ask her.

      Thanks for sharing, you little son of a sea cook.

  2. Ummm…..my sweet lady…..bending over…..booty shakin’…..dirty hands…..hair flinging around…..=a fun summer…..Oooh laaa laaa

  3. Awesome post. If you ever want any help, lemme know on FB or LJ! I’d love to listen and dig in.

    • Thanks, St. Ranger – that’d be great! I’m also going to get you over here when the weather gets better for marshmallows and cocktails around the fire pit.

  4. Yes, the grub hoe is a perfect way to start. She will show you how to use it, I am sure. Great post, Kristabel. Good luck on this one!

  5. I know you can do it.
    The Redneck’s grandma is half Karuk. As a child, she had “the Indian beat out of her” by her socially conscious white Aunt and Uncle.
    She won’t talk about her Karuk mother or her Uncle Joe who was a full blooded Karuk. It’s too bad.
    But your Gram sounds like a hoot and I can’t wait to see what you make of all this.

  6. For someone that has dementia – take them out to the garden and see if they still know how to garden. If they don’t then sit them in a chair and let them watch you “try” to garden. At times they come back and at times they don’t. That is the problem with dementia. If she likes the way you garden and does not get upset by it let her watch you. It may bring back some memories but at her age and depending upon what age she got dementia it may not. You just do the best you can for your Grandma and hope she enjoys it. If it upsets her to see you gardening maybe she should be put back in the house depending upon how upset she gets. Memories for dementia people go back years and fade in more recent years. Hope this goes well for your and your Grandma! Been there with a dementia person and learned a lot over 15 years of the dementia.

  7. I used to tell everyone I was part Portagee – not sure where I heard it, but I knew it was my dad’s side of the family and I was proud! I’ll never forget the look and lecture I got when my mom heard me explain my background to someone sometime around the forth grade:)

  8. Kristabel, something you may consider doing is videotaping your grandmother while you talk to her about her life history. I did with my own Gram recently and it was totally cool. Not only did I learn a lot, I captured it for who-knows-who to see in the future. History happens so fast.

    Mresquan, gardening at Gram’s is a beautiful idea. Sounds like a win win win.

    • I videotaped my mom and dad on the year of their 50th anniversary just two years before my father passed away. 10 hours of recording their life history before they were born, their individual lives, their meeting and all of the big moments of their lives with special emphasis on their boys. Edited it down and added any and all photo graphs we could find. Ended up with four hours on DVD to be given to their grandchildren. Ended up with quite a comprehensive history of their lives. If you are a family member, it’s not that difficult to pull stories out of them. My sister-in-law audio recorded my grandmother in the 1970’s before she died. Incredible stuff.

      Go for it!

  9. Being of Italian decent, I grew up hearing WOP jokes then turning them around to be Portagee jokes and I don’t remember being offended but the use of Jap, chink, mick…etc still makes me twitch. Times have changed. I AM thinking your gramma should meet Monica’s gramma….at Easter breakfast, when talking about a neighbor, she said “of course, he’s retarded, probably from the drugs….”. Jaws dropped……tears and silent “ohmagawd”s followed. No point in correcting it. We’re still working on getting her to use “Asian” instead of ‘Orientals”.

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