Sunday, January 30, 2011

Understanding your ties

Today is my Grandpa Wes' birthday. He was the grandfather I never knew--who died before I was born. Yet, I've always craved to know everything about him, his family, their history and the indirect impact of his life on my own. He and his identical twin, John (whose birthday was yesterday), began working at the early age of nine, after their mother died and father left them in Missouri. Their lives beyond that have been somewhat of a mystery to me that I have tried to resolve time and time again.

I spent last weekend in the Salinas area, where I spent the first five years of my life. After attending a conference for work in Pacific Grove, I thought I would take advantage of its proximity to my family who remained there. My aunt gave up her bed for the weekend so that I would have a place to stay. Together we spent much time over a glass of iced tea, engaged in discussions of life, family, love and anything else that came to mind.

I also had the privilege of spending time with my great-uncle John's son, Frank, and his family. Frank and Priscilla's son, Jason, played on my brother's basketball team when they were in High School. I remember going to those games, like it was yesterday. A young girl, then, I wanted nothing more than to be a cheerleader and chimed in with the squad to root for my big brother. "He's got great big feet and he's six-feet tall; He dribbles, shoots, dunks and that ain't all; He's got bas-ket-ball...He's got bas-ket-ball." I've never forgotten the rhyme.

I would climb up and down the bleachers, trying to occupy my four-year-old self when Frank and Priscilla impressed me deeply. They would comment on my "pretty red hair" and shower me with compliments. And I believed them. They helped me see the positive in myself at an early age.

Aunt Mae and I spent the evenings at Frank and Priscilla's where we talked over a meal and laughed at jokes that were cast from every end of the table (like most Bigham gatherings). We looked through photo albums, which naturally spurred our conversations in the direction I hoped for: the Bighams in the early days.

I knew many members of my family worked in produce. And I knew long hours at the cooler deprived them in a sense. But I never knew how deeply this less-than-prominant lifestyle penetrated my family history.

Their employment required them to follow the produce in season, earning a migrant reputation--and I'm sure many sneers from the "holier-than-thous." The women, were dubbed "fruit tramps" and "lettuce tramps" and the men were known as boozers and brawlers. Depending on their duties, they were dubbed "loaders," "set-offs" and "push-backs." But they took pride in earning a living and being good at the job they did.

I learned of my great-great-uncle's association with the Chicago mob, my great-aunt, outlawed for bank robbery and a great-uncle who sang with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

As I drove back home, making my way through the San Joaquin Valley, my eyes absorbed the productive land lining the highways and a few things began to make sense:

1. This land was settled by people form the South, like my ancestors, who did the only thing they knew to do when they arrived. They farmed. Lucky for them, this was some of the richest agricultural land and it remains such, today.

2. My deep love for and understanding of country music goes beyond a mere liking. It's imbedded in my blood. It's a part of where I come from. As I scanned the green fields, dropping down over the Pacheco Pass, I inserted a Merle Haggard cassette tape and sang along to, "Mama never had the luxuries she waned. But it wasn't cause my daddy didn't try." And I realized the depth of the truth those lyrics spoke to so many in their time.

3. After becoming more acquainted with Jason, this trip, and recognizing his striking similarities to my own brother, I realized the meaning behind my enduring respect for Frank and immediate bond with both men. Their tie to uncle John serves as a connection to Grandpa Wes for me. They are more than blood. They are the descendants of my grandfather's twin. And being with them has helped me understand my grandfather (and myself) a little more.

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