I can still feel the plastic mesh cutting into my toes as I strained to see over the fence. I would wait patiently to see that green car round the corner and head to our condo complex. The yellow lawn furniture steadied beneath my 6 year old frame and I was as excited as a child can be waiting for her Grandma.
We lived in a modest condo in Turlock and my Grandma – aka Grammy - lived in a little house in the country in Patterson. On the weekends and for weeks at a time during the summer, my Grammy would pick me up and I would take up residence in the Apricot Capitol of the World. My Grammy’s house was on Barch Avenue in the middle of an apricot orchard. I can remember only one or two houses on the whole street and a canal traversing the property to the west and south. The house was red with white trim and it had a chain link fence around the yard. My mother would always make a fuss about the ugly fence and now as an adult I can see why. My Grammy didn’t care what people thought and in her mind the fence was functional for keeping the dogs and stray cats in the yard.
The house was old. It had brown shag carpet and old mission style doors with glass handles. The kitchen had some exposed brick and the side room where I often slept inexplicably required a step down. The backyard had several fruit trees and a built in barbeque. My Grammy had a penchant for attracting stray animals and there was always a litter of kittens or puppies to play with. Looking back, the backyard was a mess with animals and a non functioning outdoor entertainment area. Yet as a child, it was a wonderland of freedom and imagination. I would make mud pies and bake them on the barbeque, I would name all of the kittens and wrestle with the dogs until I was as dirty as they were.
This house on Barch represented much more than just a place to stay. It was the place I could be a child. It was the place where my childhood would blossom, full of made up games and walks in the orchard with imaginary friends. After irrigating with my Grandpa, I would walk the canal bank looking for shells. I can still feel the mud between my toes and the amazement at finding a clam shell buried deep in the soft silt of the canal bed.
On hot summer nights, I remember my Grammy watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune on the old plaid couch. She’d whisper the answers in between puffs on her Marlboro Reds and sips of Pepsi. She was a night owl, no doubt awake with the thoughts of her life gone by. I would barely keep my eyes open, exhausted from hours in the sun that day, drifting off to sleep with the sliding glass door open so the sound of crickets could lull me to dreamland like only a country night can.
Sometimes on weekends Grammy would have her friends over or my mom would come and stay with us. They would talk and play cards deep into the night, drinking coffee and chain smoking. I remember laying in my Grammy’s bed, the door cracked so I could hear the sounds of their adult conversation, never contemplating what was being said just taking comfort in their presence.
I didn’t come from much. My Grammy however, was raised in privilege that neither my mother nor I would know as children. Grammy didn’t create that life for herself, marrying a poor Air Force man from Arkansas. My Great Grandmother – Vava – married money and enjoyed a life of travel and leisure. This lifestyle however, would escape her children. I am not sure what happened in their house all those years ago, but Grammy and her brother, Buddy, would not seek the same type of environment as adults that they had as children. Buddy was plagued with alcoholism and what was, I suspect, a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Korean War. He would never marry or settle down. My Grammy would live the beginnings of her adult life in fear of her husband and disconnected from her two children.
Mary Borba, my Vava, was the picture of stability. She had a solid Portugese husband whose family came to the United States with money and managed to expand it once here in the dairy business. She lived in reverence of the Catholic faith and understood the importance of family. Mary had a wicked sense of humor and was never one to mince words. If you were being stupid, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell you. Yet, in her presence, you knew you were loved. She told stories of trips the World Fair and life in San Francisco as a child. Her eyes would gleam with a secret sense of adventure. She did, however, seem to lack a deep understanding of her daughter. Grammy was fearful and shy, often painfully so. Mary would go to her grave never fully aware of what made her daughter this way.
After the unexpected death of my Grandfather, my Grammy would change exponentially. She married a man 13 years her junior and enjoyed a time of travel and experienced the type of deep romantic love that alluded her first marriage. She still carried the baggage of that first relationship and it would surface at times, but her love for my Papa Harold changed her deeply. I suspect this 180 degree turn would throw my uncle and mother for a loop. A life of alcohol and adultery and violence that ended in the tragedy of my biological grandfather’s death, would somehow blossom a stay at home mother with a desire to cook and clean.
This is the Grammy I knew. She loved my Papa and longed to connect with me, maybe in ways she had failed to with my mother. I suppose that is what grandparenting is for, to fill the gaps of parental inadequacy that appeared with the first generation. I remember Grammy and my mother fighting quite a bit when I was younger, I never was fully aware what the arguments were about but I suspect it had something to do with the changes my Grammy had made and the years of pain my mother had experienced.
My mother would go to the ends of her earth to provide for me as a child. I would never lack for anything but it wasn’t without much hard work. My father died when I was 2 years old. My mother was left with a business to run, a home to pay for and a child to raise at the ripe old age of 30. This would be the second time in her life the head of household would leave without so much as a warning. I can’t imagine how this abandonment spoke to her soul.
This is where Grammy and Papa would step in. They would seek to collectively be the parent that I tragically lost. They would bridge the gap between a mother that was deeply wounded and a father taken too early.
Nothing was perfect. Nothing was as it should be. But that house on Barch was a symbol of the community that would raise me. They would teach me what they could from their own lessons, at times leaving little cuts on my soul. Mostly though, they did nothing but good by me. I could complain of cigarette smoke and unconventional parenting by three broken people but without them I would have had even less. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am. Even my tiny broken parts have purpose.
As I seek to parent my children wisely, I hope that they will share this perspective of looking back to the people who raised you and being graceful to them. I want them to know that even though their parents aren’t perfect and will no doubt create some neurosis for them to deal with, they truly are just a collection of their own experiences. I can be no one but who I am and I will always be respectful of the place from which I came. That is why a part of me is still just a little girl with mud between my toes looking over the fence with hope in my heart for a better day.Read More