I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My mother's parents

My grandparents on my mother's side were very interesting people. I figure now that I've gotten to the present day, I can now write about anything I want, so I'll write about my ancestry. I'm interested in how much of their traits continue on in me. This unlikely pairing of Ernestina Chacon, well-connected Spanish beauty, and Leo Rice, Welsh businessman, is a story that was repeated endlessly in the lives of many during the early twentieth century.

I spent a good bit of the day yesterday on the phone talking to my aunt, my mother's older sister who is almost 88 years old and gave me a lot of information about her parents. When Aunt Quetita laughs, she sounds like a girl. She is sharp as a tack, too. This is about her parents, my grandparents on my mother's side.

They met in a railroad station in Trinidad, Colorado. Ernestina's parents were part of the establishment in that town, and she was a good Catholic girl who had fallen in love with a soldier who was not Catholic. Over the period of two years, they met each other only three times before they were married. Since he was not Catholic, it was a bit of a scandal and the long-time priest at the church would not marry them. However, the parents were able to find another Catholic priest to bless the union, and the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Leo Rice was launched.

Ernestina bore six children to Leo, starting with my uncle Anthony and then Quetita. Leo became a hotel manager and moved from place to place, trying to find a climate that would be healthy for his fragile firstborn son. My mother, Rita, the third child, was born in Springfield, Illinois. Eventually they moved to Southern California, where Ernestina had three more children: Edmund, Joseph, and finally Ernest. Six children in all, before Ernestina spoke with a doctor who told her how she could avoid having any more children. (She didn't know how come she kept getting pregnant, Quetita says.)

By this time, they had settled in Bakersfield, California. Leo was the manager of the Bakersfield Inn and eventually rented the attached drive-in restaurant. He managed the hotel and the very successful "Leo's Drive-In." It didn't hurt his profits that his wife was the cook for the entire restaurant, his two lovely (and buxom) daughters the carhops, and his sons all worked for next to nothing. Before long, they had moved to a large, two-story home.

My childhood memories of their beautiful house on V Street in Bakersfield (where we spent long periods when Daddy was gone TDY, temporary duty) included the most amazing grape arbor over the carport, which seemed to be always laden down with huge bunches of green seedless grapes. I would eat them until I was sick. The back yard continued a long way back, the first part a yard with fruit trees, Felix the duck who swam around in a large metal tub, and beyond that an overgrown rose garden, with fragrant roses assaulting my young nose. Funny how often smells bring back memories. I remember one time when I was actually living there long enough to attend school in Bakersfield.

As a child you live in your own world and don't really think about the adult world, or at least I didn't. I know that when my father was stationed outside of Fairfield, California, we spent a great deal of time in Bakersfield as well. That house is filled in my memories with many good times.

Leo developed diabetes and was very ill for many of the last years of his life, and he only lived to be 62. In my mind, though, he was extremely frail and old. My mother was very close to her father and suffered terribly when he died. I remember that she even had to go away for awhile, and as an adult I learned that she suffered a nervous breakdown during that time. There were three of us by then: me, my sister Norma Jean and little P.J. (Patricia June was always known by her initials as a baby.)

When Leo died, his wife of all those years learned that he was a gambler and had mortgaged that beautiful house to the hilt, without her knowledge. She was turned out of her home, and Grandma (I only called her that) never forgave Leo for what he had done. Years later when I was taking care of her in Santa Monica, after my bicycle trip across the country, I remember taking her to the cemetery where her son Joseph was buried. Leo was also buried there, and I asked her if she wanted to visit his grave too.

She stood beside me rapping the ground with her cane, looking straight ahead, before she answered me with an emphatic "No!" Even though it had been decades, she still would not forgive him. Grandma lived on for several more years, but she finally died at the age of 79, living many years longer than the doctors believed she would.

I learned from my grandmother that carrying grudges around can be very debilitating and harmful to the one carrying them. She had her children's and her grandchildren's lives to live, but I don't think she ever developed one for herself. It was very hard for me to leave Grandma after five months of caring for her, but I did, because I saw I would be swallowed up into her life and she would try to live hers through me.

This is the way it used to be for women, and I am also struck again by how much has changed in our culture during the past century. Ernestina was Mrs. Leo Rice, mother of six. I wonder who she would have been if the seed of her life had fallen into more fertile ground?


Whitney Lee said...

It's sobering to look at someone else's life and see that they lacked the choices we take for granted. What if she didn't want to be the mother of 6 or a cook at a drive in?

You are right about the harm that can be done by carrying a grudge. She certainly wasn't hurting your grandfather by being unforgiving. I love the vividness of your memories. You are right about the amazing power of the sense of smell. I am at times assaulted by memories I didn't even know I had!

The Retired One said...

Interestingly enough, I just got back from a road trip with my only brother to visit two of our uncles to get some info on DVD from them about our family...one is 88 and one was 90 and both were very sharp and told us fascinating things. We wished we had gotten more of our Uncles and Aunts recorded as well as my Dad and Mom, who have both passed by now....

Jo said...

I love reading family histories like this. It makes the people come alive. I have always been fascinated by biographies, and everyone has a story to tell. It's wonderful to read about them. I don't blame your grandmother for being angry. Imagine all that she did, only to be turned out of her home. Egads!

I can see a resemblance between Ernestina and you. Very much so.

Norma Jean said...

What a lovely story...it touched so many memories for me, too. I remember the scary attic on V Street and getting sick eating plums off the tree in the back yard. And...when we had to rename Felix the duck, Mrs. Felix when she started laying eggs. Also jumping into huge piles of leaves in the front yard. Interesting how as children you have no clue there may be unhappiness anywhere around you.

And Jan...you do look like her a little.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Interesting read. I can identify with the smells of childhood bringing back memories.
She couldn't figure out what caused babies..unreal..and kinda sad.
I don't know, woman back then were content to live for their children and their grands..it was their purpose..many did love it and their place in life. It was what their Mother did and their Grandmothers before them..so sometimes it was just expected. Women were not worth educating because they were just going to get married and stay home and raise kids anyway. That attitude bothered me, it was different if it was a choice..but if it was an expectation.. then I have a problem with it.

This was a great look back at your history, I enjoyed it:)

CrazyCris said...

That living your life through your spouse and then your children reminds me so much of my Spanish grandmother! At 85 she's the last, and hasn't really figured out how to live her life since my grandfather died a couple of years ago. She needs to be doing stuff for people, she can't just think of herself, and the only interest she has managed to develop is reading. At least my aunt and cousin keep her well stocked in books!

It's a different generation, completely devoted to spouse and children with little left for oneself. Seems so alien now...