Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Creation Story: Miche & Al

For my mother and father, who survived each other

In 1959, my mother met my father. Madgel Eleanor Yeoman encountered Alfred Edward Miranda. She was 25 years old, he was 33. She had been born and raised in Beverly Hills; he had been born on the Tuolomne Rancheria (a California Indian reservation) and raised on the mean streets of Santa Monica. Her father (“Yeoman”) was of English descent, her mother (“Gano” or “Genaux”) of French ancestry and possibly Jewish. Al was Chumash and Esselen, his mother from the Santa Barbara/Ynez Mission Indians, his father from Carmel Mission Indians. Midgie was fair-skinned, black-haired, and blue-eyed. Al was so dark his gang nickname was “Blackie,” his skin decorated with various homemade gang and Navy tattoos, along with the name of his first wife (soon to add “Miche,” his nickname for my mother).

In the aftermath of her first, disastrous marriage (including the birth of three children and the wrenching, accidental death of one of them), my mother still had a dancer’s body: 5’2”, 100 pounds, able to dance Tango and Flamenco in high heels and tight dresses. She’d trained at Hollywood Professional High School with Eduardo Cansino, movie star Rita Hayworth’s father.
The highlight of my father’s formal education came in the 8th grade of his Catholic school, when he took a bet from one of his friends that nuns were bald beneath their wimples, snatched the head-covering off of Sister Theresa Anthony, and was promptly expelled. Somehow, I don’t think this was his first strike.

A few years later, confronted by his girlfriend’s brother, Al learned he was going to be a father, and married quickly (“I didn’t know the Spanish word for pregnant,” Al told me, laughing at his younger, naïve self, “so I couldn’t figure out what her brother was yelling at me for!”). By the time my parents met, Al already had four daughters: Rose Marie, Louise, Lenora, and Patsy.
I would be his fifth – not his hoped-for son.

Miche and Al: colonizer and Indian; European and indigenous; nominal Christian and lapsed Catholic; once-good girl and twice-bad boy. Heaven on earth, and hell, too.

It was Miche’s dancing that captivated my father. He met her in an East- L.A. bar. Together – my father slim and muscular in his pressed light chinos and crisp shirt, my mother glowing in spaghetti-strap black nightclub best – they made a striking couple, full of passion and mutual joy. All the pieces fit, despite the fact that none of the pieces were even remotely from the same puzzle. They fulfilled each other’s romantic fantasies: he was strong, macho, suave; she was Hollywood lipstick and mascara, a classy, albeit wounded, dove.

Two worlds collided just like in a good old sci-fi movie produced at one of the studios my mother had hung around all her young life. Miche knew how to dress, how to draw on eyebrows with a perfect arch, the exact deep blood-red shade of lipstick to apply. She was beautiful, on fire with suicidal depression, desperate for love. The death of her baby, Jenny, haunted her every day. It had happened just a few years before when a pregnant Midgie and her then-husband Mike drank and fought, fought and drank, leaving two toddler girls to fend for themselves; now, Midgie used alcohol and heroin to dull the visceral pain, speed to get up the next morning and get my half-siblings off to school.

Al told me once, “She gave up heroin for me.” He said it in a half-wondering tone of voice, as if he still couldn’t quite believe it. I do.

Theirs was the kind of desire that happens only once in a lifetime, the kind of desire that eventually leaves you wishing you’d never tasted its soul-thieving mouth, the kind of desire you pray to forget. Desire that demands like demonic possession. Desire you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy; desire you hope to God your own children never know.

No wonder Midgie could give up heroin for my father: she always went for the most destructive drug she could find.

Romeo and Juliet had nothing on my parents. In the pre-civil rights era, even in lascivious Southern California, a darkly handsome Indian man and a white woman were not easily tolerated. Although anti-miscegenation laws had been declared unconstitutional in California in 1948 (the case involved a Mexican-American woman and an African American man – Mexican Americans were, at that time, generally classified as “white”), ten years later it was still unusual to see an inter-racial couple, even in Los Angeles. “I got into a fight once in Santa Monica,” my father remembers, “with this white guy who kept asking your mother why she was with a black man. I wanted to beat the shit out of him, but your mother wouldn’t let me.”

My mother’s parents, white farm kids from Nebraska who had moved to Los Angeles in the early 30’s and found their own private paradise, were horrified, enraged, and devastated (although for all the wrong reasons, that turned out to be a appropriate response). I’m pretty sure they had never even seen a black man in the flesh before arriving in L.A. as married adults; I don’t think they’d seen what they thought of as an “Indian” until they took a trip through the Southwest when my mother was a child. As far as they knew, people of color – especially men of color – were practically another species, people you hired, or saw doing manual labor; like their Japanese gardener (later sent to an Internment camp and never seen again). A colored man was not fit to marry their daughter, even if she was a divorceé with two young children, a tattered reputation, a shattered heart.

By 1961, my father’s family had been enduring and/or celebrating mixed-race unions for about two hundred years in one form or another – California Indian with Mexican Indian, Chumash with Esselen, Spaniard with Indian, and rich varieties thereof. By force, by choice, or by love, mixed-race unions were a tradition for those who survived the California Missions. Those who will not change do not survive; but who are we, then, when we have survived?

Out of this particular union comes my story: in the form of a small light-brown baby with dark eyes and wispy brown hair. And dimples. “The first thing I did was look to see if you had dimples,” my mother said in one of her many retellings of the birth. “Like your father.” My father insisted that all his kids have dimples; checking for them was a kind of paternity test on his part.

And into this body of mine came the full force of two separate streams of human history and story.

My father’s genealogy of genocide, smallpox, enslavement, loss of language, religion, culture, health, land; his inheritance of violence and struggle and fear, alcoholism, diabetes, poverty. The Indian languages his mother and grandmother spoke together; the Christmas parties in his grandfather’s house out at Big Sur; relatives lynched from the infamous oak in Monterey. His ‘street’ Spanish, his Indian accent, his taste for acorn mush, salmon straight from the Santa Ynez river, his memories of the old people who helped raise him.

And from my mother, the French Huguenots fleeing to the New World to escape religious persecution. English peasants looking for land. The Sephardic Jews looking for yet another new start. The Baptist minister, John Gano, who baptized George Washington as an adult. The Confederate General, Richard Montgomery Gano who, during the War Between the States, commanded Brig. Gen. Stand Watie's First Indian Brigade (consisting of Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole) at the second Battle of Cabin Creek.

I am nothing if not a mongrel, a mix of Western European and North American Indigenous. Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan wrote, I am the result of the love of thousands.

Oh, and the badness of thousands more.

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