Monday, December 3, 2012

"Towards Your Daughter's Education": a note from Harry Downie

As I have mentioned here before, Madgel Miranda, my mother, was a dogged, determined self-taught genealogist.  In the pre-internet era, she typed up a form letter explaining her quest to prove my Native blood quantum so that I would be eligible to apply for scholarships targeting Native students.  I was 13 years old when Mom started this journey.  I remember her sitting at the little kitchen table of our old trailer in Kent, Washington, late at night, with her stack of ditto'd form letters (later Xeroxed), envelopes, stamps, and her battered checkbook.  She had lists of people to write to, and in her own methodical way, between cups of coffee or a bowl of noodles with butter and garlic, she'd make her way down those lists.  I still have a copy of her form letter.  It was very articulate, to the point, but clear:  I need you to help me accomplish this for my daughter's education.

She kept all the replies that returned with useful information.  Her life may have frequently been a mess, but her genealogical files were tidy.  One reply, however, remained hidden from me until recently.  In a plastic page protector, my mother stored some transcribed birth records from Carmel Mission about my great-grandmother, Severiana Ramirez Miranda.  On one side was that mission record, typed out on Carmel Mission stationary, and on the other, stored back-to-back, a second note about Severiana's twin brother's birth.

What I didn't know until a few weeks ago when I actually removed those pages from the plastic: a third page of stationary was tucked between them.  It was a type-written note, briefly explaining that researchers at the mission had found Severiana's entry in the old mission Book of Baptisms, but not that of Tranquilino Miranda, her husband.  Fairly usual genealogical correspondence, although once again I was amazed at the graciousness with which researchers responded to so many genealogical requests from amateurs like my mother, people who were training themselves and relied on the kindness of very busy, understaffed, underpaid strangers at great distances.

But what was written in the closing stopped me in my tracks.

"Enclosed you will find your donation, I feel it will be more of use towards your daughter's education.  Hoping this will be of use to you, Sincerely..."

Of course my mother had not sent much - maybe five dollars, something to help defray the cost of research, paper, stationary, typewriter ink ribbons.  It was something she'd learned early on, something she appreciated:  a way of acknowledging the expertise and work load of those she was asking for assistance.

Still, this researcher had returned it, had been moved enough by my mother's form letter to see not just another tedious request, but the woman behind the request, and even further, the young girl - me - whose education was at hand.

I was really touched by this reply.  I think, perhaps, my mother was impressed as well, because she kept this piece of stationary so carefully.

But then I read further down to the signature of the researcher.  Written in the shakiest of hands, by someone very elderly but very dignified:  "Harry Downie, Mission Curator."

I knew that name. In fact, any mission scholar worth her salt knows about Harry Downie.   Born in 1903 (a year after my own grandfather, Tom Miranda), Downie was the man who guided the decades-long restoration of Mission Carmel, from 1931 and continuing for over 50 years.  He's darn near worshipped in some California mission histories, and damned in others for the romanticized reconstruction of the mission where my ancestors were held and so many died.  Harry believed in the greatness of the mission era, and did much of the reconstruction with his own hands; later in life, he supervised and guided, but was still in charge.  He passed away in 1980.  Although this correspondence with my mother is not dated, I can make an educated guess that their exchange took place sometime between 1975 and 1979, when I went off to college. 

What a kick, seeing this note from the famous and infamous Harry Downie to my mother, all these years later.  How nice it was of him to return her donation, and tell her that he thought it would be better used "towards your daughter's education" than any mission restoration fund.  I'm bemused by this act, shaking my head.  I have often argued that money spent on restoring the missions - in some cases, literally rebuilding them from the ground up - would be better spent on support for the descendants of California Indians once exploited in those missions.  If all that passion, all that energy, good will, community spirit and investment could have gone into educations for survivors like my father, his parents and grandparents, where would the California Indian community be right now?

That utopian fantasy was not to be.  Californians preferred to capture a mythological past in amber, preserve it, revere it.  But maybe, at the end of his days, Harry Downie received my mother's note and - for just a moment - had a glimmer of what could have been.

A girl can dream, can't she?






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