Is it her face or mine?

17:05, Apr 07 2014





There is a story in my family that for decades after my Grandmother, Amelia, moved from Pulaski, Wisconsin to California in the early 40s, she would throw away any Christmas cards that had pictures of snow. 


I think about that tonight while I am sitting in a room that looks out to a pool, and palm trees and the desert sun going down behind the mountains.

Twenty-four hours ago I was fly-fishing, with no success, in a river while big, white flakes were falling all around me.

Tonight there is a bamboo wood ceiling fan going at slow speed above me.

It is hot.

I have a book, nearly finished, at my side, about a mother of two, who is my age, battling breast cancer.

In a moment I will get up and walk, bare feet on warm stone, outside and at dusk, down a footpath that will take me to a bar.

I will get a glass of water out of a big five gallon jug with halved lemons, and I will go and sit in a pool chair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and look at the stars that are so bright and clear in the desert.

Then I will put on the brown flip flops that have been buried at the bottom of my pack for four months of a Montana winter and walk to the Palm Springs farmer's market and eat tamales and barbecued corn on the cob off a paper plate for dinner.

Then I will probably walk home, eating frozen yogurt with strawberries and brownie bites from a cup, and put on a black Nike bathing suit that I pull from a day pack that still has a ski trail pass attached to it, and go for a swim.

And I will think, as I lay on my back and pull my legs in and push out like a frog, arms pulling me through the water: Here I am. Going for a swim. At night. Outside.  

Grandma would appreciate this.

At some point in the past 10 years, California has become less of a home base, and more of a place of energy renewal (though part of this energy renewal is that it is full of family and childhood friends that know what makes you, you).

For whatever reason, I've been drawn to towns in the kind of cold farmlands that Grandma was only too glad to see diminish in the rear view mirror when she and Grandpa Chet said goodbye to their rural Polish community that had just weathered the Great Depression, and goodbye to the porches with their 14 siblings hanging off them (and that's not a collective 14. That's 14 siblings each) and headed 2000 miles West to have, and then raise, three beautiful California girls, in a new development on a mesa above the Pacific.

You know all these stories of your family when you are young. 

My mother, the middle sister of those three beautiful California girls, had plenty of tales of growing up in Santa Barbara and beach volleyball, and surfing at Hendry's, homecoming football games and proms; and how Grandma would go to work as a waitress at The Harbour then come home and sew costumes all night for her daughters to wear in the annual Fiesta parade every August.

Grandma died when I was 16.

I don't know her thoughts and feelings on leaving one life behind, for an entirely new one, in a new land.

Like most grand-daughters, I can imagine, but I also do a lot of filling in the blanks.

I can't help but project myself into each arrival scene in my imagination.

When I have come back from a winter in Southland, nothing, and I mean nothing compares to getting out of a car and not having to wince as the wind propels the door handle out of your grasp.

Getting out of a car in California is absurdly effortless.

Grandma must have shut the passenger door behind her and felt the sun on her eyelids after an absence of warmth, and thought so long Pulaski.

When I came back to California from the South Island a few years ago, some friends came to my parents' house for a weekend during the summer to go wine tasting.

On a table, by the kitchen, was a photo in a frame that I have passed by in hallways hundreds of times, but haven't really stopped to observe too closely.

It is a black and white photograph of Grandma's mother, Anna, on their porch back in Pulaski.

The first seven of her 14 children are lined up alongside her, according to height. She was pregnant with Grandma, child number eight, at the time the photo was taken.

My friend Ginger, who had never been to my parents' house, peered into the picture, and then in gleeful awe, asked my mom, ''how did you do that?''

''How did I do what?'' My mom said.

''Photoshop Gwyneth into the photo.'' Ginger lifted the frame up for all of us to look, a finger near my great-grandmother's face. ''That's awesome.''

I have studied this picture every year that I have come home since then.

It is not a flattering portrait.

Anna - who had emigrated from Poland to the American Midwest for a new and presumably better life- stands on the porch with a furrowed brow, without makeup, her entire adulthood as a giver of seven, soon to be eight lives, all around her, looking to her for guidance.

She has seven more babies to give birth to after this photograph was taken. She was six years younger than I am now.

And Ginger is right.

Anna's face, in that black and white, could be my own during long and gruelling hiking trips, when we stop at a vista somewhere to catch our breath.

It is my furrowed brow.

It is my face when I am crazy with tiredness, but kind of proud of and slightly bewildered at how far I've come, and then someone tells me to turn and look at a camera.

I grew up taking California, and all the freedom I have in my life, to do whatever I want as a woman, completely for granted: have 14 kids, or not have any kids; to move to Los Angeles, or go back to Montana and ride horses and take pictures of wildflowers for the summer and maybe go somewhere else that strikes my fancy in the autumn.

Maybe someday I will plan a bike ride across the country to Pulaski for the annual polka festival.

I have never lived in poverty. I am a girl who grew up with lots of Christmas cards with snowy landscapes, which were only snowy landscapes. 

So Amelia and Anna are on my mind as I come back to California, which was in 1942, and still is, I think, kind of a state of mind.

I am feeling a little bit like I always do after a long stint in a cold place.

Like I am just arriving and everything is new again, and I am shaking off the cold and rubbing this new warmth into my hands.

And anything can happen here in this place of deserts, mountains and sea that Anna set out for a century ago;  a land of milk and honey that Amelia would reach, and prosper in, a generation later.

I also wonder what Amelia and Anna think of my life.

Because it seems to me - as I lay in a pool chair, with all the time in the world to look at desert stars and eat tamales - that I live in the fruits of their labours.

A lot of labours.  I know I am not the only grand-daughter, or great grand-daughter who is suddenly struck by how good they have it because of fights that have gone on long before we arrived on the scene.

And I know that I am not the only grand-daughter, or great grand-daughter who stops every so often to give thanks for what these women set their caps towards and then saw through.

And in turn hope that our lives, at least the best pieces of it, are worthy.

That we are what the Amelias and the Annas in the photographs on our hallway walls envisioned when they set sail.


Images top: Great grandmother Anna. Pulaski, Wisconsin.

Images right: Blogger Gwyneth Hyndman.

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