[Continued from a previous post]
It all started with a baby.
In the spring of 1956, Donald and Sally Groves had hearts that were fuller than they could ever imagine. They had both had difficult childhoods and gotten tangled up in their own pain and anger along the way as a runner might trip over his own shoelaces. But finally now, holding a baby in their arms, for the first time in their lives, they had found themselves. They knew they were doing something good and pure. They had brought a baby into the world and they were going to give him all the love that they had never received.
Sally had witnessed violence in her household. Her father regularly hit her mother. Her mother hated the pain, but in a strange way, loved it, too. It made her feel alive in some primal way, so in some ways, she provoked it. In fact, she was filled with primal feelings. She put her daughter’s feet on the stove, ostensibly for coming home five minutes late from school, but actually, for beginning to grow up. It was a confusing sin for the daughter. Sally’s father had gone out with other women. He longed for adulation and fame, as his grandson later would, but the progression of a Mexican entertainer in the thirties was by tradition stunted. For his violence at home, he was rightly charged with assault and battery. When Sally’s older brother grew old enough, he beat up the father for his violence. As a reward, the brother was sent away from home to CCC camp. It was a confusing and enraging childhood. Heroes were punished, beauty was damned, pain was pleasure, pleasure was never quite pleasure, and truth was buried in the backyard along with the dead cat.
But now, with this child, it was all over. The new baby wasn’t going to go through any of that.
I wasn’t going to go through any of that. And I didn’t.
My parents took a 2-week trip, the baby in tow, to the Midwest to visit Don’s relatives. Don’s grandfather Charles had died six years earlier, and his widow Dora had moved in with her son Earl in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma.
It was an eye-opening trip. I don’t remember it, of course, but we visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove through Oklahoma and were refused service at a diner because of my mother’s skin color. And when we reached Earl’s house, my parents were stunned to learn another ugly fact: The old lady didn’t want to see them.
Dora lived in a back house on Earl’s property, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.
“Why did she have to marry a Mexican woman?” she told Earl. “I refuse to give my approval to a dirty Mexican and her dirty son.”
My parents were terribly disappointed and hurt. They had traveled halfway across the country, after all, just to be refused at Dora’s doorstep.
After that, they looked for solace with Don’s great-aunt Caroline Allen, who lived in Colorado. When he was in the service in 1948 – ’51, spending several bloody months fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, Aunt Caroline was the only one who wrote him letters. Don always thought fondly on Aunt Caroline, and when the baby came along, they gave her last name to their child as a middle name. But astonishingly, Aunt Caroline disliked my mother because of her race, too. Caroline offered a chilly reception, and they went away terribly sad.
In the years that followed, my family looked back on that incident many times, and it eventually became a defining moment for them. They settled into the comfortable suburbs and Sally hardened herself to those who had rejected her. Thereafter, my mother referred to all Midwestern locations as “the South.” To her mind, they weren’t worth visiting because they were all racists. (There was much more to this story, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.)
Many years passed. In that time, the civil-rights movement transformed the country. Racism began to be considered as an abomination, no longer the status quo that it once had been. The child grew up not knowing what crucible he had been born into. A whole new generation began intermarrying–brown with white, yellow with brown, red with white, and all shades in between, even black. The n word became forbidden. Laws changed. Blacks moved into white neighborhoods. In the 1950s, my Mexican Uncle Ray had been banned from purchasing a house in Paramount, but his son lived long enough to be glad that he had been turned down. Hispanics were elected to Congress, state office, and even became movie stars–Freddy Prinze, J. Lo, George Lopez, and many others. And finally, as a crowning glory, a black was elected President of the United States.
It is now 2013 and the baby has grown into adulthood. A couple months ago, he was visiting Kansas on a genealogical quest and had stopped in at the local library to peruse the old newspaper archives. It was at that moment, sitting at the reference desk, that he discovered an odd fact. He stared for a long time at the article from the Hutchinson News-Herald that the librarian had given him. It didn’t fit in with anything that he knew about the situation.
Dora, as you’ll recall, was Don’s grandmother, who had refused to see her own great-grandson because he had Mexican blood. But there’s something strange about this obituary: It was published on September 25, 1955, reporting that Dora had died the previous Friday, September 23. That was eight months before their trip to “the South,” and in fact seven days before he was even born.
When I returned to Los Angeles, I questioned my mother about it. But she was adamant.
“Your Dad’s grandmother wouldn’t see us,” Mom said. “It was Grandma Dora. She was living in the back house at Earl’s place.”
I showed her the obituary again. She looked at it for a long time, puzzling over it. Finally, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes.
“Then who was living in that back house?” she said.