Wednesday, December 30, 2009

4th Grade California Mission Projects: A Thought Experiment for Parents, Educators, and Students

Sisters at the California Indian Conference, 2007: Rose Miranda, Louise Miranda Ramirez, Deborah Miranda. Wearing the very cool jackets designed for us by Louise.


In California schools, students come up against the "Mission Unit" in fourth grade, although the same children have been breathing in the lies most of their lives. Part of California’s history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the system, and impossible to avoid.

Because this assignment is typically started over Winter Vacation, I’m posting this note for parents and children who are starting their research now. Please be aware that I have other blog posts about the missions as well; please take a look at them too. Three main posts are , and .

The Mission Unit is a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology against which fourth graders have little if any resistance, and intense pressure is put upon students (and their parents) to create a "Mission Project" that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as American enslavement of those same Indians during American rule. For a 4th grade mother's take on the pressures and competitive aspects of the project, see Jennifer White's column "Fourth Grade Mission" at , where White writes, "Part of what’s making me so grumpy is that I don’t see any point to this project, any more than I saw the point of the shrunken-apple-head witch project, or the Halloween diorama project. Even if the missions are still relevant enough to justify this effort by all of the California fourth-graders and their families (and frankly, I’m not sure that they are), I just don’t see how building a model helps the kids understand the missions any better. I've thought about asking Riley's teacher, but I can't bring myself to question her on this sacred topic. It would be vaguely heretical. None of the other moms I talk to are sure what the point of the project is, either, but we’re all resigned to the idea that the mission model is like death and taxes -- annoying, but unavoidable."  Others are beginning to question the tradition of the "Mission Project," too; see David Templeton's essay about the extraordinarily expenses students typically run up vs. actual educational value.

In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in mindless competition, imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny than actually educational or a jumping off point for critical thinking or accurate history.

Can you imagine teaching about slavery in the U.S. South while simultaneously requiring each child to lovingly construct a plantation model, complete with happy darkies in the fields, white masters, overseers with whips, and human auctions? Or ask fourth graders to study the Holocaust by carefully designing detailed concentration camps, complete with gas chambers, heroic Nazi guards, crematoriums?

Try this: below is a standard “Mission Project” taken directly from an anonymous 4th grade teacher’s file.

Mission Project
Dear Students and Parents,

Here is a packet that will assist you in completing the California
Missions Project this year. Each student will research one of 21 California
Missions and write a report (see the sample report to learn the format). In
addition to the report, each student will construct one of the three
projects (see the sample project ideas below). The materials used to create
the projects are suggested materials. You may have your own ideas on how to
put together the project that will be selected.

Students are not required to present their reports on any type of
display board. Type written or hand written (double spaced or a line
skipped) on he appropriate paper will be fine.

Fabricated Mission Kits that can be purchased at the local craft store
MAY NOT BE USED. I would like the students to learn the value of problem
solving and being creative when constructing their projects. Cardboard,
wood, sand, clay, dirt, paint, Fabric, pasta noodles, paper tubes, natural
and artificial plants, twigs etc. are all great materials to use. I have
even seen projects built out of Lego blocks, chocolate, and sugar cubes.
Please parents, try to refrain from doing your child's project for them. This
is a valuable time for your child to grow as a learner. It makes it difficult
to grade projects with fairness when they appear to be done by adult hands.
We will be talking at greats lengths in class about how best to go about this
projects but it may be wise to save wrapping paper tubes, boxes and other
scrap material left over from the holiday season.

There our several web sites on the net for you to use in your
research. Simply go to your favorite search engine (Yahoo,
Google , etc.) and search for California Missions. There is a wealth of
information. Books and encyclopedia are big help too. If you should have
questions, please contact me. Okay kids, this will keep you busy!!! Have
fun and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.


Mrs. X

Name _________________________________________

Mission Research Notes

1. What is the name of the mission?

2. When was the mission built?

3. Who founded the mission?

4. In what town or city is the mission located at today?

5. What number in the chain along the El Camino Real
is this mission?

6. Which tribe or tribes of Native Americans lived around the mission?

7. What did the mission grow or manufacture (make)?

8. What special features are seen at the mission?

9. How is the mission used today?

10. Are there any special facts or unusual stories about this mission?

Now, what if we tweak this assignment’s rhetoric just a little bit? Do you see what happens to the idea of California Mission Projects as 4th grade education?

Plantation Project
Dear Students and Parents,

Here is a packet that will assist you in completing the Mississippi
Plantation Project this year. Each student will research one of 21 Mississippi
Plantations and write a report (see the sample report to learn the format). In
addition to the report, each student will construct one of the three
projects (see the sample project ideas below). The materials used to create
the projects are suggested materials. You may have your own ideas on how to
put together the project that will be selected.

Students are not required to present their reports on any type of
display board. Type written or hand written (double spaced or a line
skipped) on he appropriate paper will be fine.

Fabricated Plantation Project Kits that can be purchased at the local craft store
MAY NOT BE USED. I would like the students to learn the value of problem
solving and being creative when constructing their projects. Cardboard,
wood, sand, clay, dirt, paint, Fabric, pasta noodles, paper tubes, natural
and artificial plants, twigs etc. are all great materials to use. I have
even seen projects built out of Lego blocks, chocolate, and sugar cubes.
Please parents, try to refrain from doing your child's project for them. This
is a valuable time for your child to grow as a learner. It makes it difficult
to grade projects with fairness when they appear to be done by adult hands.
We will be talking at greats lengths in class about how best to go about this
projects but it may be wise to save wrapping paper tubes, boxes and other
scrap material left over from the holiday season.

There our several web sites on the net for you to use in your
research. Simply go to your favorite search engine (Yahoo,
Google , etc.) and search for Mississippi Plantations. There is a wealth of
information. Books and encyclopedia are big help too. If you should have
questions, please contact me. Okay kids, this will keep you busy!!! Have
fun and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.


Mrs. X

Name _________________________________________

Mississippi Plantation Research Notes

1. What is the name of the Plantation?

2. When was the Plantation built?

3. Who founded the Plantation?

4. In what town or city is the Plantation located at today?

5. What number in the chain along The Mississippi River
is this Plantation?

6. From which countries or tribes were African slaves taken to live at this Plantation?

7. What did this Plantation grow or manufacture (make)?

8. What special features are seen at the Plantation?

9. How is the Plantation used today?

10. Are there any special facts or unusual stories about this Plantation?

Okay, if you’re still having difficulty seeing the problem, close your eyes and imagine your child coming home to tell you about THIS project:

Concentration Camp Project
Dear Students and Parents,

Here is a packet that will assist you in completing the German
Concentration Camps Project this year. Each student will research one of 21 German
Concentration Camps and write a report (see the sample report to learn the format). In
addition to the report, each student will construct one of the three
projects (see the sample project ideas below). The materials used to create
the projects are suggested materials. You may have your own ideas on how to
put together the project that will be selected.

Students are not required to present their reports on any type of
display board. Type written or hand written (double spaced or a line
skipped) on he appropriate paper will be fine.

Fabricated Concentration Camp Kits that can be purchased at the local craft store
MAY NOT BE USED. I would like the students to learn the value of problem
solving and being creative when constructing their projects. Cardboard,
wood, sand, clay, dirt, paint, Fabric, pasta noodles, paper tubes, natural
and artificial plants, twigs etc. are all great materials to use. I have
even seen projects built out of Lego blocks, chocolate, and sugar cubes.
Please parents, try to refrain from doing your child's project for them. This
is a valuable time for your child to grow as a learner. It makes it difficult
to grade projects with fairness when they appear to be done by adult hands.
We will be talking at greats lengths in class about how best to go about this
projects but it may be wise to save wrapping paper tubes, boxes and other
scrap material left over from the holiday season.

There our several web sites on the net for you to use in your
research. Simply go to your favorite search engine (Yahoo,
Google , etc.) and search for German Concentration Camps. There is a wealth of
information. Books and encyclopedia are big help too. If you should have
questions, please contact me. Okay kids, this will keep you busy!!! Have
fun and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.


Mrs. X

Name _________________________________________

Concentration Camp Research Notes

1. What is the name of the Concentration Camp?

2. When was the Concentration Camp built?

3. Who founded the Concentration Camp?

4. In what town or city is the Concentration Camp located at today?

5. What number in the list of Camps is this Concentration Camp?

6. Which type of Jews lived around the Camp? (Sephardic, Ashkenazim, non-religious, traditional, Hasidic, scholars, villagers?)

7. What did the Concentration Camp grow or manufacture (make)?

8. What special features are seen at the Concentration Camp?

9. How is the Concentration Camp used today?

10. Are there any special facts or unusual stories about this Concentration Camp?

What major problems does this Thought Experiment bring to light?

The first thing you might notice is an almost complete lack of focus on the ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS whose lived and died in these Missions: California Indians. Over 500 different tribes existed in the lands now forming the State of California at first contact: about one million people. By the time the Missions closed, the Rancho (Mexican) era was over, and the Gold Rush (Americans) led to statehood, only 5-10,000 Indians remained alive. What happened to them? How did the Missions contribute to that devastation? What kind of “lives” did those Indians lead in the Missions that created a life-expectancy of about seven years old?

Secondly, you might notice a complete lack of reference to two crucial Mission actors: Priests, and Soldiers. On whose authority were these Missions ordered constructed? And hey – who constructed them, anyway? And why would Indians give up their freedom to become, essentially, slaves?

Who decided this was a good idea? How, exactly, was it carried out? In other words: let’s talk about VIOLENCE and RACISM.

I’ll stop now. If you don’t get the point by now, I’m wasting my time, and yours.

But if this Thought Experiment has done any good, and I hope it has, you will do the kind of parenting that really matters: direct you children toward the truth, and onto a path of critical thinking that will only make them stronger, more compassionate, better-educated citizens, ready to engage with the real world.

Alternative 4th Grade Projects for your child:

1. Interview a real California Indian. See tribal websites for contact people.

2. Look up California Indian artists and writers on line. How have they interpreted and represented the story of Missionization?

3. Challenge the usage of past tense in Mission histories. Which Missions still have active tribal members living in the area? What languages do they speak? What kind of gatherings do they have? Are there recordings of their current songs?

Feel free to use the California Indian links on the right side of this blog to start your research, especially Edward Castillo's "A Brief History of California Indians."

Remember, this information is going into a child's brain, and heart. How will you choose to nourish your child's education?

California Native flag design © by Louise Miranda Ramirez. Do not use without permission.

Monday, December 21, 2009


In late December 1974, I was a moody seventh-grader in raggedy-edged bell bottoms who confided to my teacher that I missed my dad. I had not seen him since I was three years old. All I knew for sure was that he was Indian, dark, handsome, and had been sent to San Quentin for eight years.

“He’d be out now,” I said to my teacher, “I wish I knew him.”

Mr. Thompson called my mother to suggest an effort at reconnecting; that night my mother made some calls to California, tracked my father down, and told him that he had a daughter who was asking about him. My father’s response was to get on a plane and fly into Sea-Tac airport the next morning. His return happened with an ease and speed that made this extraordinary event seem natural - predestined, even.

When I went back to school after Christmas vacation, I told my teachers that I’d gotten the best present ever: a father. I don’t think my mother had any intention of reuniting with my father when she called him, but the pull between them was stronger than all the hurt they’d gone through the first time. It was a history so scarring it was never spoken, never mentioned, by anyone – not my two older half-siblings, who’d lived through it, or my grandparents, who had watched helplessly as my mother’s second marriage spun from crisis to crisis. Why didn’t she leave him? My parents’ love for one another, I was to learn, was a spiritual obsession, a physical compulsion, a wicked sweet spell impossible to resist.

Those first months were the kind of reunion and honeymoon I’d always dreamt of. The three of us, living together for the first time in ten years, were full of forgiveness, tenderness, affection. In my eyes, everything my father did was brilliant. His carpentry skills were a testament to that genius: out of scraps of lumber, my father made bunk beds, bookshelves, a storage unit for my grandparents, a henhouse. He also grounded the washing machine in the shed so we didn’t get zapped in wet weather, wrapped heat-tape around the exposed pipes beneath the trailer during winter, and re-wired a beautiful old porcelain lamp for the living room - less visible projects that made our shabby old trailer much more of a home.

I spent hours out in the barn with my father, watching him measure, mark, and measure again: measure twice, cut once. He taught me how to be precise with a tape measure, sharpen a carpenter’s pencil, knock together a sawhorse, handle a chisel, use a level and a T square, snap a chalk line, make bookshelves. Compared to his thundering hammer, my blows were puny, but I got the job done– once I’d learned how to pound a nail straight in rather than bending it.

My father was pleased when I progressed rapidly. “That’s my girl!” he’d sing out in his melodious voice. It was a fine day for each of us when I used his heavy construction-grade circular saw to cut a piece of plywood by myself. Each expression of pleasure from him was a caress to my spirit, and another connection to the deep bond that I felt forming between us.
As we neared spring (it starts as early as February in the Pacific Northwest), my father lovingly took on what had been my mother’s vegetable garden before she started making a long commute into Seattle. My father relished that dirt, that earth.

“Look how dark this is,” he’d say, holding up a handful of freshly turned soil. “See that? That’s good soil, nice and rich. We’re gonna grow some good tomatoes here!”

And he rubbed the earth between his two big hands, brought it to his face and inhaled, the way I might bury my face in an armful of wild roses. Working mostly barefoot and shirtless, clad in an old brown pair of work pants cut off raggedly at the knees, he carefully measured out rows for all his favorites: along with tomatoes, he planned cucumbers, garlic, chives, lettuce, carrots, peas. An entire half of the garden plot, the side receiving the most sun, was reserved for corn. Somehow, my father knew every intimate step of creating a garden: tilling the land one shovel-full at a time, sifting out large stones, raking, determining which seeds should go where, how many to plant, and how often to water.

Watching my father tend his garden I had the odd sensation that he had entered into the earth itself, his presence there was so right - or more accurately, it seemed to me as if he had simply emerged out of it. With his dark-skinned tattooed arms, skinny calves, rippling back and shoulder muscles, smooth brown face still mostly unlined at forty-five, it was sometimes hard for me to tell where my father ended and the earth began.

Now I think what I sensed was my father’s unspeakable joy at belonging again to a place, to land, to creation. He’d lost that in San Quentin, or maybe even before then; he certainly hadn’t found it afterwards in the apartment complexes of Los Angeles. I know that he has never again been as happy as he was that spring when everything he touched flourished and he was at the center of all his creative powers.

My father liked to cook. He was very domestic, even though he’d been raised in the middle of a macho culture on the streets of Santa Monica and Los Angeles. He often took over the small kitchen of our trailer to make us breakfast – chorizo, eggs, potatoes, tortillas – or dinners of sopa, or chili verde, or pot roast, all of which he created with meticulous attention from start to finish.

Shopping became a treasure hunt. Our only grocery store was a Safeway, part of a big chain that had the basics but not much else. My father had to make do, and he was good at it. He doctored cans of Old El Paso Enchilada Sauce with chopped onions, canned green chilies, dried cumin. He simmered a pot of tomatoes all day to prepare sopa with rice. He hunted through the Safeway produce section for green and red bell peppers that met his standards, picking them up with his fingertips, turning them slowly from side to side, smelling, squeezing lightly, hefting their shiny bodies in his giant square palm. He prized the few unripe avocados, bumpy green eggs that he could set in a window sill till they were soft and ready for the knife. He peeled back corn husks to examine the kernels for firmness and color, looking for ears to roast in the oven. Rice wasn’t hard to find – he wasn’t used to anything special – and pinto beans were purchased in the largest bag we could afford.

On rare occasions, we drove up to Seattle to the Pike Street Market, where my father could buy fresh chorizo and homemade corn tortillas – just often enough to enlighten me about the culinary possibilities of the outside world.

Sitting down to eat a meal cooked and served by my father was a glorious moment. In our cramped kitchen, we had a small table topped with imitation-wood Formica, accompanied by four aluminum and plastic chairs. Curtains with red polka-dots, sewn by my mother with much sweat and determination, hung triumphantly at the windows - all the more impressive because in high school, she’d taken flamenco dancing instead of Home Economics.

My father took one of our mis-matched plates from the cupboard next to the propane stove and held it in one dark brown, thick-fingered hand while scooping up steaming mounds of rice, beans, delicately shoveling up an enchilada or two, then put the full plate into my hands so that I could put it at the appropriate place at the table.

When my father cooked, it seemed like there was always more than enough to go around; we never ran out of beans, everyone ate their fill of tortillas. Perhaps that’s because my father enjoyed cooking most when he’d just gotten paid and had money for lots of groceries. Or perhaps I remember our meals as feasts because, for a very short time, we were a two-income family - my father picked up steady carpentry jobs right from the start, and supplemented my mother’s low wages with cash.

And perhaps what I felt – sated, cherished, replete – might have reflected the shy, tentative unfolding and filling of three wary hearts.

Of course, as in any romance, we were all trying to impress each other. My father fixed and constructed and made us feel that we were the center of his universe. He told stories – about his mother scavenging for acorns and cactus apples to feed her four boys, his father sneaking out to secret Indian dances at a certain rancheria in the hills, his grandfather’s bootlegging. Or how he learned to swim – one of his uncles just threw him into the Santa Ynez River! “It musta worked,” my dad bragged, “’cause later, I could swim from one end of a pier to another at Santa Monica, without taking a breath. My mother would get all worried, but I swear, I could breathe underwater!” My favorite story was the one about my father's own birth: how his dad was up at a lumber camp, so Grandma Keta went up to the Tuolomne Rancheria, where she had relatives. A wicked November blizzard left her up there "with just an old Indian woman to midwife, no doctor, but they sent for one," and my father was born in a little cabin by the river.

"When the doctor finally showed up," my father would repeat with some relish, "wasn't nothing left for him to do. He turned around, walked back out into the storm, and dropped dead. That’s why I didn’t have a birth certificate." It was a legendary creation story suitable for my father, I thought.

And he told stories about my mother when they were first married (“Ay, she had a mouth on her in those days – she would cuss me out when I came home late!”), my birth (he was so excited that he shoved a pan of hot, sputtering fried chicken straight into the freezer), the little rituals he and I had before it all went to hell - for example, pushing me on the swing at the park, and singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” together at the top of our lungs (I fell out and chipped a baby tooth).

I did everything I could to make him fall in love with me, too: I’d come right home from school, throw on my overalls, and help him with the latest carpentry project, or assist him in the kitchen if he was making dinner when my mother’s bus ran late.

I listened avidly to his stories, asked questions that allowed him to expand even further, handed him the right tool at the right time and thought he’d invented carpentry.

I learned how to say “I love you” in Spanish, found a bizarre collection of words from my early childhood still embedded in my brain (chonis, make mimi, caca, mocoso, cochino, vamanos, andele, mi’ija, chingaso, pinche, chingon, vieja, da me un besito …).

I learned to mix tortilla dough in my mother’s big brown pottery bowl, rolled out the soft velvety uneven circles, laying them one by one in the cast iron frying pan to steam and brown and transform from flour and water into a heavenly sacrament for my father’s supper.

It occurs to me only now that my father – born always and already a survivor, child of one of twenty thousand out of one million who took the brunt of colonization with their sturdy bodies and gentle spirits, my father, born 1927, Indian in a state where shooting, buying and selling Indians was perfectly legal only thirty years earlier, my father, three years out of a brutal eight year stretch in San Quentin, twice divorced, with the four daughters from his first marriage lost to him and his only son in the custody of an ex-girlfriend – my father was as starved for love as I.

My father was an early riser; without an alarm clock, he hit the linoleum floor running at 5 a.m. with the energy to shave, make coffee and mop the kitchen, get laundry started, scrub out the kitchen sink, clean the bathroom. (He said he learned that discipline in the Navy, but later I learned it was actually the Sea Bees, and that he had been dishonorably discharged.)

My father just couldn’t see wasting the early hours of the day sleeping, though at first his activity drove my mother crazy. She learned to sleep through his clatter; one of many generous accommodations we were willing to give one another in those first months. My father savored these quiet, hopeful hours and did his best work then, much the same way that I rise early now to write or gather my thoughts for the day.

I still think of that space just before and after dawn as a time when everything seems possible, when I remember to be grateful for being alive. This is an ancient ritual for all tribal peoples. Before the Spaniards came, our ancestors rose early and went straight to prayer and to bathe. The hour itself seems to encourage renewal and re-dedication. This is one custom that we survivors can reclaim, keep alive by the thin braided threads of chance, stubbornness, dignity.

When I’m writing very early, when I pause to sip my tea, I see my father in my mind’s eye. He’s sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, legs spread wide for support, leaning back. He is surveying the freshly mopped floor, the sparkling counters and sink, with silent satisfaction. Beside him on the table is a cup of black coffee that he’ll let himself drink while the floor dries.
Sometimes I’d be so amazed by my father’s talents (it seemed to me that there was nothing he did not know how to make, repair or imagine) that I’d ask, “Daddy, where did you learn to do all this stuff?”

My father’s reply was always an abrupt, “ha!” and uncomfortable grin. “In college,” he’d say, and I assumed he meant some distant institution of learning, much like my mother’s two year stint at Highline Community College.

Later, because he knew that his incarceration wasn’t a secret to me, he admitted that he’d spent his eight long years at San Quentin learning various construction trade skills.

“Why do you call that ‘college’?” I asked, not understanding yet the depth of his shame, or the terrible cruelty of his crime. His embarrassed shrugs and frustrating silences were my only hints.

Late that spring, as I stood ironing one of his work shirts into crisp perfection, my father told me the truth, or at least, his truth.

“I just want you to know, I don’t want you to find out from anyone else,” he told me almost formally, as if he were inviting me into his trust, “I was in prison for rape.”

He must have seen something on my face that pushed him to elaborate: “I thought she was 18. She said she was 18. After, her brother and his friends made up this story that I forced her. But I didn’t. She just didn’t want her brother to know she was, well, one of those girls.”

I focused my attention on getting the points of the shirt collar perfectly flat, not knowing what to say in response to this confession. Back and forth went the prow of the hot iron, until suddenly I realized that the cotton beneath it had darkened and was almost too hot to touch. I said, “Okay, Daddy.”

By mid-May 1975 it was clear that my father planned to stay on with us in Washington State; things were going so well that even my mother’s parents, who initially opposed the reunion, began to reluctantly accept the situation.

My father, however, had one piece of unfinished business in California: his only son, Al Miranda Jr., still living with his mother Lupe in a small L.A. apartment. Never having married, my father felt he and Lupe had nothing legal to dissolve, and I guess he thought that applied to custody of Little Al as well.

In one of the most audacious moves I’d ever witnessed, my father simply flew to California on Mother’s Day, picked Al up out of his bed, got on another plane and flew home to my mother and me. No custody battle, no drawn-out negotiations, no lawyers.

“He’s my son,” my father said when he set out, “Ain’t nobody gonna keep me from having my son.”

It was my first real experience with another side of my father, the side everyone else but me knew about: the patriarchal, dictatorial, indisputable king of the family. He Who Must Be Obeyed. El Jefe. The way my father told it, Lupe made no effort to resist the theft of her son, or to see him, or to check up on him. She simply gave Little Al up without a fight. My father had an uncanny, threatening aura of authority that silenced any dissent or questions; as far as I know, no one ever challenged his assumption of sole custody, but it was nothing less than kidnapping. Of course, as his girlfriend for four years, Lupe probably knew what my father was capable of doing if denied something he felt belonged to him.

Many, many years later, I learned that Lupe had, in fact, called my father's daughters, crying on the phone, begging them to tell her where Al had taken her little boy. My sisters, at that time, didn't know.

His only son was definitely a valuable piece of property that my father had waited a long time (and five girls) to possess.

Two things happened when my brother walked off that plane from L.A. with our father. First, Little Al and I bonded instantly, as if he were my own child. He was a dark brown, black-haired, black-eyed bear cub of a boy wearing faded jeans with patches ironed onto each knee, a blue T-shirt, and scuffed white sneakers. He had just been taken from his home and mother; anxiety and loss shadowed his round face like bruises. He badly needed a haircut, and his fingernails were ragged.

I took his hand. His head didn’t even reach my waist. He couldn’t pronounce my name. Home was suddenly a place to which he couldn’t go back. But my hand was there, and he held onto me, and for a little awhile we both believed I could protect him.

The second thing that happened was like a natural disaster – a firestorm, a tectonic earthquake, a flash flood - that I could not have anticipated: I was summarily demoted from Son Substitute to Dutiful Daughter.

Even now, when I try to make sense of the abrupt change in my father, I don’t understand exactly what happened, or why. It was as if, assured that he had his son to raise, my father no longer needed me, no longer cared about any aspect of my life except for the ways I could serve him, or care for his son. Projects we had worked on together with pleasure and mutual enjoyment suddenly became replaced by never-ending chores – for me. My father’s patience for teaching disappeared; he wanted me to know how to do things and do them right.

Conversations were landmines, places I could take a wrong step and set off an argument or tirade without warning.

And it did feel as if I could lose a foot or leg in my father’s unpredictable explosions.

Rage, like so many other changes initiated by my father, was new to me.

For the previous ten years, my mother had parented me with a particular style: soft-spoken, undemanding, gentle if withdrawn. Because she was normally low-key, if my mother raised her voice and rolled out my full name in deliberate, round syllables, I leapt to attention. Chronically depressed, still mourning the death of a baby girl in her first marriage, my mother consoled herself with alcohol, and sometimes drugs.

When she drank heavily, my mother forgot to pick me up somewhere, or didn’t come home at night. She passed out on the sofa, or in the middle of a bath. She smoked in bed. She forgot to feed me for days. I learned to dread June 30th, the anniversary of her baby’s death; Mama drank, cried, drank and cried some more, lost in a maelstrom of grief and regret.

I wasn’t a difficult child (my idea of being bad was to eat out of the sugar bowl with a spoon) but I was accustomed to very little adult supervision or direction. There wasn’t much I could think of that wasn’t “allowed”; my mother just didn’t make rules. Half the time she wasn’t paying attention, and the other half she was trying to make up for her neglect. A firm voice or mild warning, then, could send me reeling; my mother sometimes said exasperatedly to visitors, “If you look at her cross-eyed, she bursts into tears!”

As I entered my teens, my mother and I clashed over her boyfriends, my moods, her drinking, but our version of fighting was passive and unspoken, accented with the occasional slammed door or stomped foot. I think I was too afraid of losing her to risk anything more. And, despite seeing alcohol and a buffet of drugs used daily all around me by parents and their friends, I had no desire to even try them.

If I had, I suddenly realize now, my mother probably wouldn’t have objected.

In short, you couldn’t have found a girl more unprepared to face regular beatings, unpredictable verbal attacks, and strict discipline.

Under my father’s new regime I cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, fed the animals (we had a small collection of cats, dogs, goats, ducks, chickens and sometimes pigs), and, naturally, took care of all Little Al’s needs as well – coming right home from school to baby-sit, staying home from school to baby-sit if we couldn’t afford daycare.

Other kinds of caretaking I took on out of love and necessity. I learned quickly that my father did not tolerate bed-wetting, for example, but also refused to put my brother in a diaper at night. Our mornings were no longer peaceful, productive times, but became potentially explosive in ways I had never imagined.

Sometime in that first week with Little Al, what began as a spanking for wet chonis progressed to a beating with my father’s belt, and my universe fell apart.

Years later, when I’d become both a mother and a teacher, I always said that Little Al was my first child and my first pupil. I loved that boy with all my heart, more than I’ve ever let myself love anyone again. I think you only know that kind of intense affinity once. Even with my own children, I’ve held back one splinter of heart for myself, for my own good – and I tell you, I’d lay myself down for those children, give up my life for theirs if need be - but I loved my little brother completely, unflinchingly, unwisely, crazily, wholly.

There was no separation between us, between my skin and his. We were two lost halves that had found each other at last. We were one person. When my father discovered that he could beat Al in order to punish me, he discovered the perfect way to control me.

That first time, I didn’t understand what was happening right away. My brother’s wet pants, my father’s sudden, “Goddamnit, son!” and the strange quick hum of my father’s black leather belt being jerked through his belt loops with one hard pull.

I remember Little Al trying to cover his butt with his small hands, fingers wide, screaming, “No Daddy, no Daddy, I sorry!” and the curses, the venom erupting from my father, my dear, clever, strong father as he held his son fast with one hand, and whipped him with the other.

It happened so quickly that sheer surprise, then terror, paralyzed me where I stood at the sink, washing dishes. The next thing I knew, I was wrapping soapy hands around my father’s arm, but he shook me off like rain; I barely weighed 90 pounds.

“Stay the hell out of this,” he snarled.

I stared at him, and all I could think of were the feral cats that lived in the woods, the ones who forsook the barn for living wild, who fought off the most good-intentioned gesture with slashing claws and fangs.

My father’s body rose huge and full of storm, filling my vision. Hovering just out of his reach, almost dancing in my anguish, I pleaded for him to stop. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my brother twisting in our father’s grip, trying to avoid the blows even when he must have known there was no escape.

When I think back on that moment, I have no memory of sound, of voices, only the sight of that belt blurring towards Little Al’s backside.

I lost the ability to form words, in my head or my mouth. I forgot there were such things as words. I was nearly as crazed as my father, stomping my feet, beating the air with my fists, hands outstretched, hands to ears, inarticulate noises coming out of my throat from deep in my gut – rooted to the spot, writhing.

Afterwards, I was forbidden to go into my brother’s room to hold or comfort him. He huddled on his bed, trying to muffle his sobs with pillow or hands while my father hollered, “Boys don’t cry!”
I sat on the other side of the thin wood walls of the trailer, listening, learning to hate.

One morning, up before our parents, I found Little Al frantically stuffing his wet pajamas behind the toilet, his face a mask of fear.

We looked at each other silently.

I knelt down and pulled the soaking wet pants out from behind the toilet. My brother stood stock still, terrified; his damp bare legs quivered.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell him,” I said softly. “How about this - if you wake up wet, you come and get me; I’ll take care of it.”

Little Al stood staring at the wet clothes in my hand. He was holding his breath. I put one arm around him, gave him a quick hug. “Okay, sweetie?”

He was unbending against me, but he whispered, “Okay.”

Together, we stripped the bed, remade it with fresh sheets, and ditched his PJs in the washing machine. I threw in a scoop of detergent and started a load before the smell of urine permeated the shed built onto the back of the trailer. Later, I made sure to put the clean sheets back in the linen closet, and tuck the dry PJs into his top drawer before bedtime.

It was the first of many covert collaborations between us; we were like young green plants that could never take the route we desired, straight up toward the sun, but grew bent and gnarled, contorted with the effort to evade an obstacle that kept moving.

It was the drinking, in part. My father’s drinking increased in both potency and frequency after Little Al arrived.

And my father was a mean drunk. A swearing, yelling, stomping, slamming, violent drunk whose belligerence and impatience led to car accidents, bar fights, and the inevitable 2 a.m. phone call from the cops. He’d kick the dogs that ran out to greet him, throw things at the cats, all the while swearing profusely and creatively (one phrase that stuck with me is Goddamnsonofafuckingbitch!) in a voice that bellowed out of his stocky bear’s body like God’s own epic wrath. The word “anger” can’t describe the sound of his voice cracking like a whip in the air around us.

Relief and terror took turns inside me when my parents left home to continue drinking at taverns.

Thank God they’re gone/What if they never come back? I’d worry, and make dinner for Little Al, watch TV with him, put him to bed, do the dishes . . . and wait.

I knew their favorite places, the names and phone numbers; called each bar when the hour grew later and later, and no one came home. Clutching the beige receiver in my hand, I dialed the list in rotation: The Mecca, The Ad Lib, The Sugar Shack.

“Is Al Miranda there? Midge Miranda? Mom, when are you guys coming home?”

I both dreaded and longed to hear my father’s truck come up back our windy gravel road late at night.

Sometimes if Little Al and I already in bed when the truck roared and rattled to a stop beside the trailer, we’d pretend to be asleep, huddled beneath blankets and sleeping bags in the hope that our father would just wind down on his own, roll into bed, and sleep it off. And sometimes he would do that, and we tiptoed around him to rustle ourselves breakfast. When he woke up, our father might leap right back into his foul mood, still half-drunk, drinking more, looking for a fight.

Those times, we tried to be very small, hide, but we would have had to be invisible to avoid his reach.

Other nights, my father would come in like thunderstorm, slamming his truck door, shouting to the stars and distant neighbors, “I’m drunk goddamnit, I’m DRUNK!” as if challenging the universe itself to stop him. Throwing open the door to the trailer, turning on all the lights, he’d yell “Wake up! wake up!” and demand that I fix him something to eat – fry up some potatoes, warm up beans and tortillas, eggs and toast.

If I continued to fake sleep, or protested the hour, he’d blast, “I’m your father, goddamnit, get up and fix me some food!” and then of course Little Al would start crying, which would make my father angrier still, and I’d be out of my bed in an instant, attempting to divert his attention from Al, trying to appease the beast.

“Here, Daddy, I’ll make you breakfast.” And I would, standing in my nightgown at the stove, 2 a.m. with all the lights blazing, trying to comfort Al with one hand and cook my father something with the other.

By this time, my mother was either passed out in bed or the car; sometimes, towards the end when she was trying to sober up, she was the one in the kitchen, while I lay in my narrow bed down the trailer hallway, listening with teeth clenched, waiting. All the time my own stomach working overtime, twisting, churning, afraid of the first slap, the first smack, the jingle of his belt coming off and being folded in two, the sharp crack. You couldn’t reason with my father when he was drunk.

Alcohol worked on him like an evil spirit, and nobody knew the medicine for it.

And so my father separated us, my little brother and me, one shredded piece of skin at a time. When I was nineteen, I married a much older white man. He had been my high school history teacher. He was my ticket out.

We moved 3,000 miles away where I threw myself into raising my husband’s two small children, and I abandoned my little brother.

I saved myself. Not gracefully, not wisely, but I got away.

I still love him, that chubby-faced dark brown boy who wrapped himself around me like a blanket and sobbed into my neck. But I left him behind a long time ago, like a piece of my soul that got snagged by a briar bush.

I yanked myself away, and we both tore.

My father’s older daughters, my half-sisters – Rose Marie, Louise, Lenora, Patsy – got in touch with me when I was thirty-five years old and we were working toward federal recognition of the Esselen Nation.
Our father’s blood brought us together. As we compiled genealogies, scoured the National Archives for documents and interviewed elders for evidence of tribal continuity, I found myself especially compatible with Louise, loving her fiery take-no-prisoners spirit.

When her only daughter died after a long, fierce fight with leukemia without finding a bone marrow match, Louise threw herself into organizing bone marrow screening on Indian reservations in California, Oregon, Washington State and Idaho. With her husband, Ernie, Louise drove thousands of miles in her big RV to take blood samples and search out potential donors whose unique Native ancestry might be the only match for some other Indian child. Tough, brave, tireless, Louise single-handedly expanded the database for potential Native bone marrow donors by thousands.

Louise, however, would have nothing to do with Al, as she called our father – wouldn’t speak to him, see him, acknowledge him as her father. After divorcing her first husband, she’d even changed her surname to Ramirez, in honor of our ancestor Severiana Ramirez, rather than go back to her maiden name.

“I hated the name Miranda,” she told me, “If he didn’t want any part of us, then I didn’t want any part of him.”

My sister told me stories about life with my father in that first marriage, before I was born. How he beat their mother, beat his girls. How he cheated on his wife, blew his salary in bars, and finally left his family without a penny, so poor that they didn’t even have coats in winter, went to school hungry, and only received one Christmas present each from a Catholic charity for Indian children.
The worst blow came years later, as her daughter Tiara was dying.

“She asked to meet her Grandpa, her Indian Grandpa. I swallowed my pride. I called him. I begged him. He wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t come to see his dying granddaughter.” That, for Louise, severed any chance of a relationship with our father. “It’s one thing to hurt me,” she growled, “but my daughter …”

At a tribal gathering in San Juan Bautista one summer, I spotted Louise off to one side of the fire practicing a deer song learned from a wax cylinder recording by two of our female ancestors. I walked toward her, passing Rose Marie as she headed up to the bathrooms.

“Hey,” Rose greeted me, grinning, “I was watching you. You walk just like Dad, like a big ol’ bear.”

Surprised, then embarrassed, I mumbled, “Gee, really?”

We were all having these flashes of recognition that weekend, bittersweet DNA circulating through the gathering like gossip. Earlier in the day, I’d seen Lenora’s twin granddaughters laughing in their Auntie Pat’s lap; all three of them had Little Al’s dimples, his deep chuckle.

I found a seat next to Louise, sat down and looked into the fire.

All around us in the dark, the embers of the Esselen tribe were bedding down for the night after a long day of pow wow and seminars on abalone jewelry, smudging, prayers and songs – all the things we needed to relearn from the few who still held the knowledge. The air smelled of burning wood, eucalyptus trees, dust and sweat.

I imagined the earth still reverberated with the sound of our feet in the dance circle earlier.

Another tribal member passed by, greeted us, said it was too bad our father wasn’t there with us. After the man had gone, Louise went off like a firecracker.

“’Too bad Al’s not here’! Huh! Like he’s some wise old elder. He lies about everything. Did you know that San Quentin wasn’t Al’s first prison? He served time before, shorter stays. And do you know what he was convicted of, when he went to San Quentin?”

In what I hoped was a casual voice (but which felt small and weak), I said, “Yeah – rape.”

Louise scowled. “That’s what he tells people. But my mother was there, she went to court for the hearing, she heard the testimony, the girl’s testimony, the doctors. Al was in a bar, Deby, and got stinking drunk, the way he always did. And there was a waitress there that he wanted, and he told her so, and she said no. You know what that bastard did? He waited out in the parking lot until it was dark, and she left work to go home. He attacked her in that parking lot and he beat her, Deby, he broke her jaw, he cut her face, he broke her ribs. Then he raped her. And just left her.”

Louise’s voice trembled; not just with fury, but anguish. Anguish for what that nameless woman must have felt …

“Left her there, bleeding, in the dark, didn’t care what happened to her or nothing,” she went on, letting her grief ignite into anger again, “That’s what Al went to prison for, and he deserved all eight years, and more. He ruined that girl’s life. He’d probably done it before and never got caught. And he goes around telling everyone ‘oh I thought she was eighteen’ ‘oh she lied to me’ ‘oh she was afraid of her older brother’ – he’s just a lying son of a bitch.”

In that moment, Louise’s hatred for our father was a carved mask obscuring her face with shadow and flame. I wonder what my face looked like when denial fled and left me standing without the last shred of pretence.

Images burst through my mind – my father, bellowing at my little brother as Al Jr. cowers on his bed, stop crying!

My father, yanking the black leather belt from his waist, doubling the length, whipping my small brother mercilessly.

My father, tearing my room apart to find my journal, reading it, grabbing me by the arms and demanding, “What’s this? Why did you write this about me?”

A passage from a neophyte’s autobiographical document dictated in 1890 at Santa Cruz
by Lorenzo Asisara, born at Santa Cruz Mission in 1819 swam through my panicked mind:

"The Indians at the missions were very severely treated by the padres, often punished by fifty lashes on the bare back. They were governed somewhat in the military style, having sergeants, corporals and overseers, who were Indians, and they reported to the padres any disobedience or infraction of the rules, and then came the lash without mercy, the women the same as the
men. . . We were always trembling with fear of the lash."

I know it is his blood that gives our bid for Federal Recognition real teeth, authority that the government can’t deny. It is our father who remembers family names, stories, clues we are desperate to record, whose body is the source of the most precious part of our identity, and the most damning legacies of our history.

I know that to survive my father, I had to become brutal, self-centered, savvy about blame and vulnerability and surprise attacks. I had to know cruelty or punishment intimately, all the different ways they could be used as weapons. I had to cultivate deviousness in order to be prepared, have an exit strategy, an escape route, a come-back, a diversion. I had to be ready to give up the most cherished thing in the world in order to be free; I had to be ready to sacrifice the innocent.

I had to want to survive more than I wanted to be good.
And knowing all of this, I hate my father.

And sitting there, listening to relatives murmur in the firelight, children asking for stories and marshmallows, under stars a deep, old silver, I inexplicably remember one of my dad’s stories: as a seven or eight year old boy, he helped his grandfather bottle homemade beer in the attic. I think this must have been in Santa Barbara, where his mother’s family maintained a small compound until it was “lost when we couldn’t pay the taxes.” My dad told me, laughing, how he had stacked those bottles neatly in his small wagon, hauling it around the neighborhood making his deliveries. His grandfather paid him in beer, joked when the little boy got drunk, then sleepy, passed out. Later, my father said more bitterly, he was sent away from the family every night to sleep in his grandfather’s house down the block, made to wash the old man’s feet, help him to bed, to the outhouse. “God, that was awful,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I’m old now, you know, and I understand that he needed help. But back then, I was just mad that it had to be me. It was dark, it was cold, and that outhouse – nasty, man. I wanted to be home with my mother!”

And I know that my father was born into a hard world, raised by survivors of trauma and grief never resolved, human beings shaped by losses beyond my ability to imagine, but too tough and stubborn to give up without a fight. I know my father never learned to transform that hardness, only to endure it by taking that pain into himself, spitting venom back into all whose lives he touched.

And I love my father.

As we sit there in sudden silence by the fire, our faces hot, Louise’s clapperstick mute in her lap, I can’t speak. It’s as if my eyes are open but each eye sees two different worlds that cannot possibly co-exist without driving me insane. Yet, both worlds do exist: My father, a poisonous, selfish, brutal man whose violence wounds everyone he touches. My father, a neglected, lonely, child, a gifted man whose passion for words, color, wood-working, music, gardening, shine through in each of his children and grandchildren. All my life I’ve been asking myself, how can these two things both be true?

Now, years later, I realize: How can they not both be true, given our history? This is how our ancestors survived the Missions, the Ranchos, enslavement by the Americans. This strange double-edged blade that is our identity was the only way we could hang on. Is it any wonder if, in order to survive, we became destroyers, like them? No. The real wonder is that any tenderness, any capacity for love or creativity or beauty, also survived.
The artists, storytellers, musicians, and spiritual leaders in our tribe have survived because the con artists, rapists, thieves and wife-beaters have survived. The artists, storytellers, musicians, and spiritual leaders in our tribe have survived inside the con artists, rapists, thieves and wife-beaters – and vice versa. We are tied to one another, bound like molecules of hydrogen to oxygen, part of one another’s past, present, future. Part of one another’s nightmares and dreams. We are impossible mixtures of hate and innocence, creation and destruction, fear and love.

My father’s pain seethes inside me. His passion for stories, his delight in rivers, his abilities with wood, sing inside me. Each of my sisters and our brother bear similar gifts and wounds: talents for laughter, for the old language, a quest for the sacred, the splash of brushwork on pottery, a relish for hard labor, infinite loyalty and bottomless grudge. Our memories are long and selective; our hearts battered but capacious.

My father left us many times. He disappeared into drink, into the arms of women other than his wives, into prisons, into his own darkness. He was consumed by his pride, his shame, his denial, his rapacious need; there was so little left for us, his children.

But as his once-powerful body aged and fell prey to arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, when he could no longer drink or use force to get his way, my father mellowed, became more approachable. When I had my own children (having moved back into the area after six years on the East Coast), I tried hard to include him in our lives as a father, grandfather, elder. My children came to know him in a manner much more like the first few months of his arrival in Washington State: wise old Grandpa Al, the carpentry genius, the handsome Indian storyteller. He was the crazy old man who remarried again at age 70, bringing Martha, a sweet white, Catholic lady, into our lives. He went to church; he took confession; he seemed to make peace with at least some of his past. When one of my children flirted with breaking the law, embracing wildness and alcohol, my father told that child stories about his own bad boy days, not sparing the details, regretful of opportunities blown.

It was a rare moment of candor from Al Miranda Sr.; it didn’t last long.

My father became older still, frail. He was a weakened man in great pain. His hands and knees swelled with arthritis; he lost the feeling in his feet, stumbled or fell frequently. His eyesight was nearly gone. Worst of all, he was dependent on his wife for far too much; how he dreaded losing his autonomy, losing control. I wonder if he ever thought of his grandfather, those dark Santa Barbara nights when only a small, reluctant grandson kept him safe, got him to the outhouse. “He was a mean old son of a bitch,” my father remembered, “I didn’t like staying with him, but my mother just said, do it.”

Now my father was the mean old son of a bitch. He snapped and growled at Martha; he swore and cursed and threw things at her. Finally, nearly blind and barely able to walk, he managed to beat her up. In fragile health herself, she locked herself in the bedroom and called her sons. Within days, the sons relocated my father to my brother’s apartment. From there, my father was taken to a Hospice.

Six months later, he died there. Alone, often delirious from uncontrollable diabetic poisoning, riven with pain, crying, begging for an end.

When I learned the truth about my father’s crime, I felt as if the last vestige of goodness gleaned from him was torn away from me. I was left in a state of fatherlessness that no amount of wishing or imagination could redeem. As a woman who had been raped, how could I accept and love a father who raped other women? As an Indian woman whose female ancestors were decimated by rape as a weapon, how could I claim an Indian father whose sexual violence targeted women?

The news that my father had beaten his elderly wife and been removed from their home broke any frayed connections I had left to this man. I had hoped – imagined – that he had changed, grown up. I was willing to accept him as a father even if it meant waiting until he was an old man. But I was not willing to approve of, or be complicit in, his abuse of a woman. The good in my father was so hidden, I could not see it any longer. I didn't have the words for it then, but now I know: I could only honor the good in my father by allowing myself - and that part of me that comes from him - to survive. And that survival meant walking away.

I did not speak to my father the last six months of his life.

I did not go sit by his side.

I did not know the details of his daily care, or his needs.

Of all his children, only the youngest, his only son, visited him at the Hospice; two of my sisters spoke to him on the phone occasionally. Working full-time, living from paycheck to paycheck as we are wont to do, our brother did the best he could. Some might say, he did more than our father deserved. After abandoning and abusing everyone who loved him, my father was, in turn, abandoned to the ravages of age, disease, his own stubborn temper.

Not a graceful exit; not a moment of spiritual regeneration or phoenix-like rebirth. Our father died as he lived: full of fury, pain, and need. Eight years before, when my mother died and the massive expenses of mortuary services hit, I had enrolled my father in a funeral plan, People’s Memorial. He’d wanted to be cremated, and now it was all pre-arranged. I paid the bill; I had always known I would be the only one of his children both willing and able to do that.

The plan was for our brother to bring the ashes to California. “I want my ashes scattered down at the Tuolomne River,” my father had told Al Jr., in the Hospice. “You and the girls can keep a little of me if you want, but that’s where most of my ashes should go. The Tuolomne River, where I was born.”

My sisters and I were ready. I flew to California. Louise created and printed out memorial cards, listed all of our father’s children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren. We’d contacted the Miwok tribe on the Rancheria where our grandmother had gone eighty years before to give birth, to ask for permission. People in the tribe arranged to take time off work. My father had said, “I want Louise to do a ceremony for me. If she wants to.”

It is a credit to my sister’s generosity that she said yes. But we never held that ceremony. My brother decided he could not take the time off work for the trip. It was old family stuff – we all knew that. We bit our tongues. We mailed out the memorials instead.

Louise and I, along with her granddaughter Alex, drove to Monterey on the day we’d planned to spend at Tuolomne. Her work as a tribal representative with a local marine research station gave Louise certain perks, like the right to access their private beaches on Monterey Bay. The three of us walked to a small, isolated cove, right to the edge of the water, gifts of abalone and beads in our hands. Louise burned sage and mugwort, and we smudged ourselves and each other. We spoke the prayer in Esselen that she’d composed for the memorial card. One by one, each in our own time, we flung the gifts out into the water. Gulls cried, pelicans swooped past, a curious seal peeked out at us. It was a sunny, breezy July day; employees at the station strolled along the cliff, kayaks and small sailboats darted around on the blue waters.

Suddenly, swimming in from the mouth of the bay, came a large pod of dolphins, leaping, sparkling, skimming the waves. They drove on past our beach, circled around the Bay, came back to streak past us one more time. Their smooth, agile bodies danced in front of us, charged with joy.

I turned and looked at Louise. “It’s the Chumash contingent, come to send him off,” I said, “It’s the Robles clan, come to pay their respects.”

We smiled at each other, and were grateful.

© Deborah A. Miranda, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Baptism: Olympic College Poetry Workshop

Bremerton was gray from the ground up
the day a former nun ripped out my guts
and stomped on them in front of 24 strangers.

At the time I didn’t know she’d been a nun;
but I did know she was Published
and I had been raised to respect

my elders. For two hours, she pontificated
over the other 24 poems while I sat
sweating, heart twitching,

waiting for my turn. Waiting.
Was my poem lost? forgotten? Finally,
in the last 2 minutes, the Poet asked,

“Who wrote this? Who wrote this
last piece?” I raised my hand,
every white face turned to look.

“I don’t have much to say, really.
Not well-crafted. Too angry.
And you’ve created a genocidal God!”

She laughed. “Give it up and start over.
Thank you, everyone, it’s been
a lovely afternoon.”

Done! My niece’s death, her
mixed-blood complications
with bone-marrow donors,

the history of Father Serra’s
missions, dismissed, wrong.
Not a poem, she said.

All the way home, I seethed
with horror and shame,
chewed hard words

till my jaw, inflamed,
cracked on the splinters.
I swore

on Tiara’s name:
I’ll be a better writer
someday, tell this story

without so many flaws,
do right by you.
decades later, I know:

it wasn’t me. Sometimes
one woman’s saint
is another’s nightmare;

sometimes, a genocidal
God is just
a genocidal God

and no amount of schooling
makes pretty poetry
out of that.

- Deborah A. Miranda

Note: Seems like most writers have a Writing Workshop Horror Story. Mine was really a downer; I consider it my "baptism" into the world of Professional Poetry. I was so innocent that I honestly thought a published poet would know what he/she was talking about! As, indeed, many do; but not all, and this experience, which could have ended my budding career, instead served as a crucible for my anger, and my ability to articulate it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Remembering Ruwanda

At Lake Kivu
men flung you
into the water

you sank
with the weight
of your own children

one tied
to each limb
you sank

like a gleaming black starfish
with five hearts

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Comfort Food

When my mother finally kicked my step-father out (after he’d paid another woman to impersonate my mother in order to use our 3 acres as collateral to get out of jail), she changed her last name back to Miranda, signed us up for welfare and dedicated herself to becoming the best welfare-food cook in Western Washington.

In the three years between my step-father’s exit and my biological father’s return, I went from ten years old to thirteen, and much of what I remember from that time is the importance (and frequent lack of) food, and my mother’s cooking. It was as if she’d decided that, since we were already barely making it on food stamps and whatever living expenses the state gave us, she might as well go whole-hog, so to speak, and embrace a life of resourcefulness and economy. My mother made getting by her new career – and she took to the challenge with all the dark energy of an undiagnosed manic-depressive whose main self-medications of choice were alcohol and Pall Malls.

First of all, there was her garden – tiny in the beginning, but treasured and prayed over and celebrated for every straggly scallion, each bumpy carrot, the cucumbers that grew green and secret beneath their wide scratchy leaves. Located just behind the back end of our single-wide trailer, the small patch of earth was my mother’s produce store and cheap therapist. Western Washington is a mild climate – lots of rain, but mild temperatures April through June, and then scorching from through July and August, with a pleasant September before the monsoons hit again – and my mother made the most out of the long but slow growing season by starting seeds indoors under a borrowed plant light on the back porch. Funny thing was, Mom wasn’t known for her green thumb – she killed most houseplants outright by under or over watering – but that garden was different. For one thing, it was an excuse for Mom to get out of the trailer and away from me and my teenage brother, who was at the age of most difficulty – that is, fifteen and stuck there – and into the dirt, where no one really wanted to follow her.

Looking back, I see the garden as Mom’s Zen-thing; her chance for quiet, thoughtful work, a few good Pall Malls smoked down to the very end, and at the end of the day, a plastic bucket full of fixings for a good potato salad. God forbid she ever eat a green salad! But potatoes were cheap, mayo could be stretched, and a dozen eggs could be bought with food stamps (though not, my mother complained, essentials like toilet paper, shampoo, or laundry detergent). Add her scallions, radishes, garlic and a small dented can (half off) of black olive bits, and we had heaven on a spoon. I would eat Mom’s creamy, cold potato salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and frequently did, savoring a stolen spoonful all to myself like it was a scoop of the fanciest ice cream.

Mom’s little garden grew and expanded each spring, but we also had Mr. Franklin’s orchard. The Franklins were about ninety-nine years old and lived in a tiny white house at the bottom of our dirt road, just off 216th, the “main” road in those days. Our property was located about midway up the hill, and between the two places was Mr. Franklin’s Orchard, an ancient grove of apple trees growing up a steep climb, seemingly since the beginning of time.

Mr. Franklin used to tease me that his first name was Ben, yes, that Ben Franklin, and it was a long time before I figured out that was his favorite joke. I liked him; he was tall and thin and just about the whitest white man I’d ever met, with blowsy white hair and bright blue eyes and a nose the size of a small car, and he told us right away that he’d long since given up trying to pick his orchard clean, so have at it – and that went for the two fat hazelnut bushes near the top, too.

Well! Free apples were nothing to be sneezed at, and Mom organized us right into an apple-picking brigade, using paper bags from the Safeway and plastic buckets from the giant economy sized brand of ice cream to hold our green and red loot. Mr. Franklin had inherited the orchard from his father, and his father had evidently known what he was doing, because of the twenty-five or thirty gnarled old trees on that slope, only a few were the same kind. “Variety is the spice of life!” my mother would say, and pretty soon she and I had our favorite trees staked out: the best eating-out-of-hand tree, the best oatmeal-apple tree, and most importantly, the best apple-pie trees.

Because apple pie was the real reason we picked apples, the only reason for braving the tall unmown grass with all its leggy, surprising insect inhabitants, the buzzing yellow-jackets and bees who came to feast on fallen fruit, and the occasional invasion of starlings. Apple pie, if the apples were free, was quite possibly one of the cheapest eats around, and it was dessert! Life didn’t get much better than that. We’d generally pick in the morning right after Mom had her coffee and I had a bowl of food-stamp-purchased Captain Crunch (which by all rational thought should be as off-limits to food stamps as paper towels or handsoap) or a warm, rolled up tortilla with margarine; then we’d lumber back home with the apples, pile them up around the small table in our trailer kitchen, and set to work.

With Mom in charge, we weren’t just making one pie. Oh no. My step-father had left us with an 8-foot freezer in the barn, and it was my mother’s goal to have it filled by the time winter, with the higher electric rates, hit us.

"Midgie" Miranda, circa 1969: pausing for a photo op.

So we washed, and we sliced, and we peeled, for hours on end. In a loosely-supervised assembly line, I would peel – I still have scars on my knuckles from where the potato peeler slipped – my brother Kacey would slice, and at a certain point the big yellow mixing bowl would be full enough for Mom to measure in sugar, cinnamon, a little flour, mix quickly, and then pour into a freshly rolled-out pie shell, quickly topped with a second velvety sheet of pie dough, with four quick pokes from a fork for the “breathing holes” in the top. Mom made the pie crust dough, and only she had the “touch” – perfect, melting, substantial pie crust that cooked up exactly right no matter how many months it had been in the freezer. Her secret ingredient, she told me, was vinegar. It made the dough elastic, but kept it from getting tough, she said.

Not that Mom was hard on pie dough. Since learning to make flour tortillas from my father years ago, my mom’s arms and hands were practiced with a rolling pin, and she could whip out a pie crust on no time flat – another gift I did not inherit. From somewhere, probably a thrift store, Mom had unearthed a Seal-a-Meal machine, one of those little contraptions that allowed you to create a plastic bag out of a tube of plastic, sealing both ends with heat to ensure absolute security. When we couldn’t afford the plastic tubing, we put aside the Seal-a-Meal and just used whatever plastic bags and foil we had available.

What satisfaction, when one whole end of that big freezer was filled with Mom’s pies! I cannot tell you the deep sense of security and all-right-ness that I felt, knowing we’d be eating those pies right up until next spring, when the apple trees down in Mr. Franklin’s orchard began to blossom again and we could bear a few months without pie because we knew what was coming. Of course, we ate plenty of those pies throughout the pie-making process, too, because my mother was smart enough to know that paying her employees with this particular product paid off in any number of ways – the incense of cinnamon and apples and pie crust alone could intoxicate us through several pounds of apples needing peeling, and the taste of a hot slice of apple pie in between sacks of more apples needing peeling was just the motivation we needed.

I especially liked being part of the process of pie-making, too. Having my mother busy, happy, productive, was a rarity in my childhood, and my mother’s homemaking skills were actually not all that reliable. I didn’t know then that her depression was behind the unevenness of her days, the drinking, the silences, the pack after pack of cigarettes while she read novel after fat novel from the library. So when we worked together to pull off this apple-pie coup, I was fulfilled in just about every way possible. My mother, happy. Apple pie, perfect. And a full freezer – beautiful.

And she didn’t stop with just apple pie. Blackberries were free, too, and we had not just our own three acres of wooded land, but access to all the adjacent lands as well. Nobody thought the least about prying open the two middle strings of barbed wire and climbing deftly in between to get into the neighbor’s blackberry patch, and it was understood that the berries themselves were first-come, first-serve. With our plastic buckets and bags, my mother and I roamed the woods starting in early August, returning to old patches we knew would bear richly, and searching out new patches that hadn’t yet yielded to our persistent fingers.

Berrying came with its own set of trials – those same yellow-jackets, big thorns, spiders – but we were used to that, after Mr. Franklin’s abandoned orchard. What scared me were the horses in fields we had to cross to get to certain patches, or whose pasturage enclosed a good patch of blackberries. Once our neighbors, the Nowitskis, had a medium sized horse named Bucky who was just ornery enough to make me keep my distance. My mom and some friends had already gone into a patch deep in Bucky’s turf, and I trailed a bit behind, gleaning the last few berries before reluctantly climbing through the barbed wire and side-stepping Bucky. Bucky wasn’t in a good mood that day, and when I tentatively reached out my hand to pet him on his outstretched nose, he whipped around quickly and kicked me with both hooves! Luckily I was young, had good reflexes, and was already turning to flee when he turned to kick, so he only caught me a glancing smack in the butt – enough to teach me not to mess with him anymore. I went the long way around to meet my mother.

Blackberries didn’t need to be peeled, obviously, but they did have to be washed and sorted, and that task fell to me, as my brother Kacey had no compunctions about eating pie he’d done nothing to deserve. I’d fill the kitchen sink up with cold water, dump in a bucket of blackberries, and stand there at the sink swishing them gently with my hands. All the bits of grass, bugs, and sundry chaff would float to the surface, and I scooped up the berries handful by handful, chucking the too-green or too-ripe, the insect-nibbled or bird-pecked, and dribbling the good ones into that same big yellow mixing bowl (I saw one just like it in an antique store a few weeks ago and my heart leapt up, and my mouth started watering).

When the bowl was full enough, Mom added sugar and spices, and put the mixture to chill in the fridge for a few hours. For some reason, marinating blackberries in sugar was a necessary step, and I never argued about the application of sugar. Meanwhile, Mom would roll out the pie dough and we’d line the re-used disposable aluminum pie pans up in a row and prep them. Once again, we’d make as many pies as possible, one for now, one for later, and ten for the freezer. There wasn’t a berry bush in our neck of the woods that we didn’t visit.

In fact, there was one blueberry patch we never should have touched - but we did, simply ignoring the signs posted at the gate. "University of Washington Agricultural School Experimental Project. Do Not Disturb." Luckily, no one sprouted gills or developed strange yearnings for radioactive slime, so we must not have eaten enough to do any damage. The UW closed down the project soon afterwards, pulled up all the blueberry bushes, and let the blackberry vines take over. Just as well, given the lack of cooperation from the locals.

Then there were red huckleberries, which grew wild in the woods. Usually huckleberries were a treat, only enough for a few pies, mostly good for eating out-of-hand while wandering or hiking, which I did daily. Accompanied by my dogs – always Duffy, the Bull Mastiff, and then whichever two companions he had at the time (other dogs came and went, Duffy was forever) – I’d roam wherever I wanted to. No one ever gave me a limit, I just created my own. I doubt I ever went more than 3 miles away in any direction, but since it was all forest and all simply paths through the trees, it wasn’t like I was walking on any busy roads or anything. My dogs were the best company anyhow. I learned how to be a kid from my dogs – sniff this, dig that, run here, trot there, lie in the sun, play in the creek. If I had to pee, I moved off the trail and squatted. If I was hungry, I’d find the berries, in season, or head home, if hungry enough. There was never any hurry, never a pressing need to accomplish anything. Just – explore, look, smell, watch.

Was it freedom, or neglect, the fact that my mother didn’t know where I was for hours on end, sometimes day after day? It was freedom, of a kind my own children, raised in a much healthier, safer, supervised environment, never knew. And it was neglect – I was a ten or eleven year old girl completely unsupervised, with no one expecting me home or coming to look for me, adrift in the world. My childhood is comprised of such paradoxes.

With the essential desserts safely stored away, Mom would focus on dinners. She made exquisite flour tortillas that my brother and I would snatch off the hot frying pan bottom and slather with margarine or, when it was his birthday, real butter. Mmmmmm. Nothing, nothing in the world better than that. Unless it was a pot of simmering pinto beans, cut with a good onion and salt and pepper, the deep rich perfume filling our little trailer, steaming up the slat windows. And then there were Mom’s tacos, store-bought corn tortillas warmed on a skillet, filled with cheap hamburger fried with diced potatoes to stretch, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives and sour cream – or her corn enchiladas, baked with Old El Paso sauce and topped with sliced black olives. Ay. And her meatloaf – half hamburger, half ground pork, a couple slices of bread diced up to stretch …

We did a lot of stretching. Now my partner tells me that the correct way to eat meat is to use it as a condiment. I’m just beginning to realize that that’s what my mother was doing all along. We’d get the flavor of hamburger or pork, but oftentimes half the heft of our “meat” was bread or potatoes or tortillas or beans. And that was fine with us. When I grew up and made tacos for my own children, there was no need to skimp on the hamburger, and I did buy leaner, better-quality ground meat – but I also added in the diced potato, because that’s the way I thought tacos were made.

Of course, we were on welfare, and there were plenty of nights when dinner consisted of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with boiled hot dogs on the side. I particularly remember my mother’s brilliant rendition of Spam: sliced across the top in diamonds, studded with cloves, coated with a rich paste of brown sugar, mustard and ketchup. Coming out of the oven, it smelled like Christmas. Though I loved it, I could only finish one slice before the tremendous amount of fat would cause my stomach to protest. The next day, I could move on to a Spam sandwich, if there were any leftover. I knew even then that Spam is one of the most disgusting, and heavenly, of all human inventions. To this day, I remember that salty, porky odor, and I can see my mother reaching into the open oven door to pull out that small, bubbling cube of … whatever it was.

Whatever it was, it was dinner. My mother’s magic, her masterpiece, the way she constructed our survival in those hard, hard years. And we knew that later on in the evening, the trailer's walls bathed yellow with lamplight and flickering black-and-white TV shadows, there would be pie for dessert.

Home, circa 1969. Duffy is on guard duty.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WAR: Tom Remembers Pearl Harbor

I inherited a bagful of cassette tapes featuring my paternal grandfather, Tom Miranda (1903-1977), a twentieth century descendant of the Carmel Mission Indians born just 67 years after the Missions were secularized (although it took another 10-15 years for the Missions to completely close down), and 33 years after it finally became illegal to buy and sell California Indians as slaves. Tom traveled all over the West Coast from the age of 14, curious and observant. He was born in the Monterey/Carmel area close to the Carmel Mission, but these tapes tell of journeys as far north as Seattle and back down into Mexico, even into the Midwest. He also traveled extensively through the infinite varieties of California terrain in search of work, good times, relatives, and often, I think, something he could not name.

His life story is definitely not just about being California, but being California Indian after a great holocaust: out of an estimated 1 million indigenous inhabitants, only 10,000 survived the Missionization era.

I never met my grandfather Tom, except as a baby. He came to my baptism in 1961 – showing up, typically of him, at my parent’s apartment early in the morning while my mom and dad were still in bed. My father tells the story in a tone of astonishment; apparently Tom had not come to any of his other grandchildren’s baptisms, but he was there with bells on for mine, and my parents scrambled to “get decent” and answer his loud knocking. But by the time I was 3, my father was in prison and my parents had divorced; by the age of 5, I had moved out of state and never saw Tom again, though a thread of contact remained, through a complex chain of relatives and, eventually, my father.

Tom died when I was 14 or 15, so some of these tapes are at least 30 years old, others older. I feel as though these tapes are his legacy to many – not just myself, but California Indians as a community – and also that his voice and his stories are gifts that bring him back to me. Listening, I’m amazed that he survived; I’m awed by how hard he works, how multi-talented he is, how naïve he is, how he masks his tenderness and affection for loved ones, the history he lives through, his perceptions about the U.S. Government and, as he calls them, “Americans” (warning: Tom also used racial designations common to his time and place – “Dago,” “Jap,” and so on. I did not edit these out.)

His stories about his parents and their parents before them remind me with painful but enlightening clarity how it is that California Indians lost so much culture, language, land, identity – and yet still have an identity and community, albeit often fragmented and/or reinvented.

This particular story came to mind yesterday, as I read about the 60th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing. My grandfather wasn't there - he was deep in his California world, working, trying to figure out those strange "Americans" and their crazy doings. This is what he told us about where he was on December 7, 1941. He was 38 years old, living away from his family (he and my grandmother had long since separated).


I rented from a German; George, he came from the old country when he was a little boy, he said. You know, he married one of those Cholon Indians; her name was Maggy.

One morning George came up to the house; it was when they had that big blowout at the Hawaiian Islands with the Japs. George came by one morning when an Indian boy, Bill, from Seattle was staying with me – he was working the same place as I was, working for Charlie Reagan –

Already everybody get up, we’re at war! The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!

I said, Bill, did you hear that?

Bill said, Yeah, somebody’s drunk.

Bill didn’t drink – that’s the first Indian that didn’t drink!

So we didn’t pay any attention.

George came by another time and he says, Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japs.

I’d never heard of Pearl Harbor, didn’t know where it was. By that time it was almost 7 a.m., we were still in bed.

George yelled, Get up, you guys, we need help today. They’s putting men across the bridge there with rifles and guns..

What the hell’s wrong, George? I ask.

Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japs!

I said, Who the hell cares?

Jesus Christ, Tom, get up, we have a war!

Where the hell is this war? I asked.

Bill said, What’s the matter, George, you going crazy?

Oh no, the Japs have just bombed Pearl Harbor, George said.

I wonder what’s wrong with George, Bill says.

Ai, he’s nuts. He’s drunk.

But George never took a drink in his life that I know.

You shoulda seen the clothes in his getup; a pair of old overalls that looked like the dog had got them, and he had an old shotgun. We was right on the bridge, our place was right on the end of the bridge there, a damn long bridge too, about a mile long. Jesus Christ, there I looked out at the bridge and God damn, there was about eight or ten men there with rifles and guns and everything.

I said Jesus Christ, has everyone gone mad, Bill? I guess they have! Have you heard any bombs of war, George?

And he said no, we never heard nothing, but they closed the bridge right up, you couldn’t use it anymore.

I thought, All these bastards have gone crazy.

Around 9:30 or 10:00 I said to George, Where the hell is the war, I don’t see anybody shooting! even though all those guys on the bridge had pistols in their hands, rifles and shot guns and everything. George said, We’re stoppin’ the Japs.

Well Goddamn, I said, there’s no Japs around here, I never saw one yet!

He says, Well there’s gonna be some comin’, we gotta kill them, hold them back you know.

Well, I went out that day and you know, they wouldn’t let me cross that bridge until about two p.m. in the afternoon. I wanted to go see my boss, Charley Reagan, see what he’s doing. I went over there finally – Bill wouldn’t go.

I asked Charley, What the hell’s going on? and he said, Ah, people has gone crazy. Somebody shot a ship over there in the Islands.

I said, What Islands? I had never heard of those Islands.

So I went back home, I asked my landlord George, What the hell is this with the Islands, what the hell have we got to do with this – let ‘em shoot each other!

It was the Hawaiian Islands. They caught the U.S. asleep all right. Why wasn’t this country prepared for something like this? I never knew anything about it till George woke me up. We didn’t go to work for three or four days; they wouldn’t let us cross the bridge. It seems to me if the Americans had those battleships in the Hawaiian Islands, wouldn’t they expect anything? What the hell, was we asleep or not!

Yeah, the big war, I guess it was. They sunk one of the biggest battleships the U.S. had. Boy, the Americans picked up those Japs right out of bed and took and put ‘em in camps. There were a lot of Japs around Salinas Valley; I bet the population was about 2000. They took every Goddamn one of them. They kept them prisoner for two or three years.

Well, until that time those Japs hadn’t even done anything yet. They put them up there in Northern California in prison there for three or four years until everything got quiet, and then they turned them out. There is something to me that doesn’t fit. Who the hell was our president then? Seems it was a set up. It was a put-up job.

The government can do some funny things. See, what they did after all that, they took ships down to the South Pacific, to the Mariannas; I know, ‘cause one of my boys was down there, Tom, and Alfred too, he was in Japan right after that.

[Photo: Al Miranda, his mother Marquesa (Keta) Miranda, Tommy Miranda Jr., around 1940. My father told me this was taken at a restaurant his mother managed. You can see the "We reserve the right to refuse service..." sign behind them, and a portrait of FDR on the wall.]

I asked Alfred; he said, We never done a Goddamn thing, Dad; we sat in them caves in those Islands a month at a time, never heard a shot. What the hell were they doing?

And Tom was down on the Marianna Islands by the Philippines, he said, all we did was run all around on that ship; finally we got hit, and Tom damn near died, but he got over it. He was never in no hospital, just the one on the ship. Guess he got over it in three or four months.

And that’s all the war I ever saw, Alfred said, I never heard anything, Dad. They had I don’t know how many sailors there, locked up in the Islands in tunnels. Never heard a shot, just passing ammunition to someone else, we don’t know who it was – might’ve been the Japs!

Box after box, that’s all they did on them Islands, pass those boxes on.

Every once in awhile they’d bring us a bottle of whiskey. That’s where I learned to drink, Dad.

Those boys never knew what whiskey was. They was there about 18 months in those caves, right off the coast.

And then the war was over. The whole thing was a matter of money. This country and the Japs -- how could it get so big?

Yeah. I think there was a lot of dirty work there, dirty work.

[Parts of this story first appeared in News From Native California, Vol. 20, No. 1/Fall 2006]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 1972, Kent Washington

for my mother, Madgel Miranda, 4/16/1935-11/21/2001

I was still in grade school. My mother worked there, at Soos Creek Elementary, as a part-time Playground/Lunchroom Lady. We were on welfare.

Frank, my mom’s boyfriend, lived with us; he was a self-professed “Okie from Muscogee” complete with black beard, curly black hair, and a cowboy hat he wore everywhere, tipped politely at the ladies. He delighted in calling a paper bag a “poke” and kept the radio tuned to real old-school country music by Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Even-tempered, sweet, illiterate, Frank was the kind of guy who subsisted on day jobs, brute labor, anything that required strength and could be explained orally.

Once my mom sent him to the store to buy something, canned sweet potatoes, maybe. He came back with canned carrots. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Frank’s illiteracy at work, but he was so embarrassed and angry at himself that I remembered it. “I’m so sorry, hon,” he said to Mom, over and over. He called everyone hon, but the way he said it, you could tell he really meant it. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and I hated him with all my heart and soul. He’d stolen my mom’s attention, and I was inordinately furious with him most of the time.

I think it was not long after that, Mom started sitting with Frank at the kitchen table at nights, going over the alphabet, spelling out basic words. It was she who named his problem: dyslexia, not just stupid. “He can’t tell a b from a d,” she told me, “that’s a brain problem, not lack of trying.” Still, she kept at it. But as long as I knew him, the only think Frank could write or read was his name. He signed his name in cursive, with a flourish. Someone, somewhere, had made sure he could do that.

So it was Thanksgiving, and we were broke. We were always broke, but this was a bad time, when we counted out dimes and pennies at the grocery store, checked out the price of hamburger at several stores before making our small purchase. But as often happened, someone came through with a small turkey. Perhaps my mother saved up her food stamps, or Frank got a good job for a couple of days. At any rate, we had it defrosting on the counter, a pink, plucked, all-ours turkey. It was early Thanksgiving morning, and my mom hadn’t yet put it in the oven, when we heard someone coming up our long dirt road.

The dogs, Duffy and Elijah, a Bull Mastiff and Weinerheimer respectively (both dumped by former owners), rushed out to greet and defend. My mother followed, curious, wiping her hands on the cloth dishtowel that seemed to be a permanent part of her wardrobe in those days. Her hair was covered with a scarf, her pin curls still setting. She didn’t have any makeup on; she wore a baggy button-up blouse and the 70’s ubiquitous stretch-slacks that were every housewife’s uniform before sweatshirts and sweatpants took over.

Frank hung back – a woman on welfare could lose her benefits if she had a man living with her. We pretended to everyone that he lived with a friend over in Auburn. It made perfect sense to me that a lie to get food stamps was not really a lie.

We weren’t expecting anyone. My older brother Kacey was still at home, a pot-smoking, tender-hearted teenage rebel, always trying to grow out hair that was too curly to be anything but a shaggy mess. Even he stuck his head out of his room down the hall. Kacey probably had his own reasons for being wary of unexpected cars pulling up. He had a little secret garden going in his bedroom closet; our mother hadn’t yet made him choose between his plants and his housing.

As Mom reached the doorway, I heard her intake of breath. “Oh my God. It’s the Thanksgiving Basket people from school.”

Frank, thinking fast, said, “Quick! Cover up the turkey!”

He didn’t have to explain to me why; he was worried that if we already had a turkey, we wouldn’t be eligible for another. And yet another turkey meant another week’s worth of meals.

I raced into the kitchen and tore off a stream of paper towels, draped them over the turkey, and winced at how ridiculous it looked. It didn’t look like anything but a turkey covered up in paper towels – but I didn’t know what else to do, chuck it under the sink?

In the end, it didn’t matter.

The nice people from my school (“maybe one of the teachers put our name on the list,” Mom guessed) handed us a cardboard box right there in the driveway. They still had a lot of deliveries to go, the young man said; no, they couldn’t stop for coffee. The box was thrillingly heavy, full of the necessities: a turkey, wrapped in plastic; a bag of potatoes; a can of cranberry sauce. I don’t remember there being a pumpkin pie or can of pie mix, but at that point, it didn’t matter. We were rich.

We gathered in our small trailer kitchen, the box on our little table, and gloated. “This one will go into the freezer,” Mom decided, “we’ll cook ours this week, that one next week.” She rested a hand on each turkey as she spoke, her scarred skin contrasting with the white towels and white plastic.

“And we have enough potatoes for breakfast tomorrow!” Frank crowed in his rich, Southern tenor. He grinned, as delighted as if he’d laid that turkey himself.

“You bet!” Mom smiled. She sat down like she was exhausted, or dazed, and reached for her pack of Pall Malls. She so rarely smiled, but she and Frank were radiant. I think we all were, reveling in our unexpected bonus.

I was disappointed with Mom’s pronouncement – I’d wanted to cook BOTH turkeys at once, an impossible feat given our small trailer propane oven – but reluctantly conceded the sense of planning for later. At the same time, I just wanted to stand there and stare at both turkeys on the counter, two whole turkeys, never cook them, just have them, forever.

Kacey, leaning over to peer inside the box, asked in his suddenly deep man-voice, “Are there any sweet potatoes?” That was his main criteria for Thanksgiving dinner, canned sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top. His Levis hung low on his skinny hips, and his white T-shirt was wrinkled from sleep.

Frank reached into one corner and pulled out a big can with an orange, glossy picture of sweet potatoes wrapped around it. “You mean these?”

“YES!” Kacey let his cool slide long enough to give a little jump, then grabbed at his loose waistband. We all laughed, at his rare enthusiasm, at our own giddiness.

That’s what I remember. I don’t remember the meal itself. I don’t remember if we had pie, or Cool Whip for the topping. I don’t remember cleaning up, or storing leftovers, or starting the inevitable turkey soup. I just remember that moment of sheer joy when, having started with a spare cupboard for Thanksgiving, we suddenly became the owners of not one but two Tom Turkeys.

What was it we felt that day? Lucky? Remembered?

There was something about those two turkeys, one small, one nice and big, perched in our kitchen like trophies, like membership badges. I think what it was – was that we belonged. We belonged to the American Holiday now, because we had all the right equipment, the trappings, the correct symbols of being American.

We belonged in that Norman Rockwell painting.

We belonged in those Safeway commercials with the gorgeous golden bird in the middle of the table and the family oohing and awing all around.

We weren’t hiding out in our little trailer in the middle of nowhere, scraping by Thanksgiving with our food-stamp turkey and a little bowl of mashed potatoes. We had LOTS. We had TOO MUCH.

We were finally inside Thanksgiving, instead of just peeking over the sill from the outside. We were Americans.

It felt so good.

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