Vincent Farnsworth 6:31 p.m., Dec. 4
In attempting to define the normal childhood, whatever that might be, I think that perhaps we begin by examining our own and then try to use it in some meaningful way. I therefore insist that mine was a normal childhood, with nothing conspicuous or particularly outstanding, because it is necessary to do so. True, I won two art awards in grade school and I have no idea how that happened since I am not particularly good at drawing or painting. Music came easy for me from a very early age, but that can be said for a lot of people. I played baseball, got into the appropriate number of fistfights, and rode my bicycle around with the other kids. Seems normal enough to me.
Is that all there was to it?
Really, our youths were certainly defined by more than our simple existences and more than our childhood pals, bicycles, brawls, kickball, and so on. In fact, some of my earliest memories come from the inside of a large musky tent on a deep summer's evening near some lake or perhaps a river. I was one of several kids - my brother and my cousins, nestled inside of our sleeping bags while the adults were all outside enjoying a highball or perhaps a beer and some conversation around a small fire. I seldom understood many words from those conversations, and found that it wasn't important what they were saying anyway, simply that those voices from outside of the tent were as good and as safe as any security blanket that could've been provided.
My grandmother - my father's mother - was always there and I always thought that she was perhaps the truest definition of a matriarch that could be found anywhere. In fact, when I was old enough to read, my mother forced a copy of Steinbeck's Grapes Of Wrath on me, I looked at her quizzically, this obviously wasn't Laura Ingalls Wilder stuff. "This is the history of your father's side of the family," she said. "Your grandmother easily could've been Ma Joad." I started to read it, and as I continued I began to increasingly hate John Steinbeck with every page.
Friday, July 30, 2010, was my parents fiftieth anniversary. My parents have never been divorced, imagine that. They married, then argued a lot for about twenty years, then became tired of that and have gotten along ever since. I have a feeling that a lot of couples that live with each other for fifty years do this sort of thing. Maybe they say to each other, "What the hell, we've gone for twenty-five, might as well make it fifty." Maybe this is what happens.
A few years after I came down here to live, after a short time in the hospital where my father almost died, my parents eventually went on to live in Eastern Tennessee. They wanted to get out of Los Angeles. Who could blame them? It was the best thing that ever happened to me. But with this move, the contact has dwindled. The cost from here to there is too much. And in this economy, we simply couldn't afford the airline ticket back there.
I managed to scrape up enough to call my parents on their anniversary. After a good old-fashion political brawl with my mother, things settled down and I found out that someone they knew who belonged to the local Moose Lodge somewhere back there had arranged a big party for them the following weekend. My brother will attend since he lives close by, and perhaps my cousin from Atlanta, and then a bunch of people in the community. That would have never happened in Los Angeles.
Then I talked to my dad. After the usual pleasantries, I told him that I wanted to write about my grandmother, his mother. My memories of a strong matriarch, the centerpiece of his side of the family, was left with a lot of holes in it, and I needed them filled. My dad confessed that there was plenty that he didn't know himself.
"Matriarch? Well, I don't know about that," he said. "Your Grandmother was quite a partygirl when I was growing up."
I took a big slug of tequila, that was the last thing I thought I would hear from my father.
My memory of Wewoka, Oklahoma, is that it was so small that one could spit from one side of town to the other, at least that's how I remember it when I was perhaps ten years old. The very name of the town translates to barking water in Seminole, although there is no water there, save for a creek that runs north of the city, the source of which comes from Oknoname Reservoir. Wewoka is easily forgettable, as are many small towns in old Indian Country. My father was born in Wewoka. My guess is that he never heard any water barking there either.
"Your mother was also born in Wewoka?" I asked. It felt strange to be interviewing my own father.
"She was. Hell, everyone was. Your aunt and uncle, your grandmother's brothers and sisters, of course your grandmother was the baby of her family," he said.
I don't remember if there were ten or twelve in that family. I didn't care to ask, because I began to realize that it would take a long time to wade through this, and since I wanted to get a better idea of how long, I just pressed on.
"So, you were little when you left Wewoka and went to California?"
"A baby. Except we didn't go straight to California," he said
"Funny, I got the impression..."
"No, we lived in Arizona briefly after Oklahoma," he continued. "Then, California. Then, back to Oklahoma, then Arizona again, and then California again, and then back to Arizona..."
At this point, there simply wasn't enough tequila. I had always been under the impression that, like Ma Joad, my grandmother and perhaps my grandfather, along the family had all come straight out of the dust bowl and had landed in paradise in California. While that is, at least in part, true to a point, there were plenty of shenanigans along the way. I knew that at some point early on, my paternal grandparents had separated and eventually divorced. My father wound up in Casa Grande, Arizona, which was another tiny little place so long ago. Unlike Wewoka, Casa Grande is a big place now. They might even have their own Walmart.
My father hated it. "There was dirt, and heat," he once told me. "A lot of dirt and a lot of heat. It was hell." Interstate ten had a long wait toward completion, so there was nothing out there back then. Eloy was an intersection, Coolidge was another one. My grandfather apparently beat out crumpled fenders at a garage there. He lost an eye, wore a patch. My grandmother wound up in Santa Margarita, California, or so I thought.
Of course, at this point, I'll have to readjust a lot of my thinking.
My paternal grandmother was married many times, and she once told me how many and then swore me to secrecy. I have been married twice, and this second time is enough, I'm lucky to have had the second chance. My blood grandfather is long dead, I met him one time, I remember that my father cooked him a breakfast of fried eggs and bacon. I was three years old. I have never learned how my grandparents met, nor why they separated. I had never asked.
"So, you were living with your mother and father in Arizona when they separated?"
"I think I was nine," he said. "Of course, they both did plenty of fooling around. It was just a reason for them to get away from each other, finally. My mother left, she figured that my father could take care of us."
I didn't answer.
"Some matriarch," he continued. "Imagine being a kid and your mother just leaves."
"Well, luckily, I didn't have to," I said. It was my way of giving him a way out of the direction we were going.
"So, after that your mother landed in Santa Margarita?"
"No, that came later," he told me, "she lived in two or three different places when she met Al. Atascadero was one place, then maybe Paso Robles."
My father rattled of the names of a dozen cities up and down central California.
"Why did they move so much?"
"They went wherever the land was cheaper," he said. "It didn't much matter where."
My first step-grandfather was Al Lumpkin. He was an incredibly handsome man both in his youth and then as he aged, strong and able, no wonder my grandmother fell for him. I think I was six when he put me in his lap and let me pretend to steer his big old car over some of the most treacherous terrain imaginable, in the hills overlooking some old lettuce fields up North. He laughed and laughed about that. He was a rancher and a farmer at one time. He told me about raising lettuce.
Don't expect me to remember anything about raising lettuce if I don't even know anything about my own grandmother.
At that point, I gave up, I realized that the grandmother I knew was the one she wanted me to know, and the one that my parents wanted me to know. I was a kid. I guess they thought that I deserved a normal childhood. Whatever was said beyond those tents in the camp-outs of my youth were not meant for my ears back then. And my father and me will speak of this further, and at great length.
There isn't a story about my grandmother that could ever be written that would do her life justice. It's a novel, if anything. Beyond Al Lumpkin there were several other husbands, all of which touched my life in some way, for better or worse. But was she truly a matriarch? That part isn't going to be so easy to portray now. It would, perhaps, take a long novel in order to try. But what a novel! An American family, splintered by hardship, poor, looking for anything better. A family trying to stay together through all of it.
It makes me wonder if Steinbeck invented a character in Ma Joad that he never really got to know.
Whatever I learn about my grandmother from this point forward, it isn't much going to affect how I felt about her growing up, nor will it likely distort those memories. She was sharp, but obviously restless. Perhaps it was that restlessness that I never thought enough about to fully understand her. The first drive-in movie I remember my parents taking my brother and me to was "Paint Your Wagon". And there was this song in that movie, it always stuck in my head, maybe it's that. Maybe my grandmother, matriarch or not, was simply born under a wanderin' star.