17 March 2008

Why I am not Irish

Why I am not Irish
by Fritz Gerlich
03/17/2008, 11:47 PM #

My grandmother, at the age of 16, married an Irishman who was 39 years old. This was before World War I, in a miserable, rain-sodden little town on the Washington coast. The local industries were logging, whoring and booze. The Indians, of which my grandmother was one, did a little of each, but survived mostly by fishing, which they had always done. They lived in shed and shacks and tents and dugouts. The scrounged the detritus of white “civilization” for what they needed. They had no past, they had no future. Those were luxuries for whites. Indians survived, waiting for nothing.

Actually, my grandmother was a half-breed. She grew up with her Quinault mother and never knew her father. By the time she was twelve, though, she knew one thing: she didn’t want any kind of life she had ever seen. She wanted out. The Irishman promised to take her away. He was big and talkative and sometimes wore a suit. He said they would go to Ireland, where she would live in a city. She would know ladies and gentlemen, church-going and socials, streetcars and restaurants. She would live in a kindly society, where children had a future. The Irishman waxed eloquent about the glories of a land that far surpassed not only this miserable logging town, but the whole United States.

In truth, they weren’t going anywhere. The Irishman couldn’t stay sober long enough to find his way out of even such a pathetic town as this. To this day I am puzzled how someone I knew as a canny old woman could have made such a mistake, even at that tender age, but make it she did. And it was a horrible mistake. The Irishman raped her when he pleased and beat her senseless if she resisted. He made her work as a dishwasher in a camp kitchen and collected her wages directly from the foreman, after which he drank them up. He forced her to beg food from her family. He ridiculed her because she was Indian, and illiterate. He told her every Indian woman was a whore in the eyes of the whites.

My grandmother lived with the Irishman for two years. She didn’t know what else to do. Her family didn’t want her back. They had worries of their own, and in that world you were old enough at 16 to bear your own troubles. She was afraid to run away, not only because she feared he would catch her and inflict awful punishment, but because she knew nothing of the world beyond this one soggy town. She had never traveled more than 20 miles from her birthplace. She had never been to school. She couldn’t read. She didn’t know a thing about the state she lived in, much less the country. Above all, she feared being an Indian alone in a white man’s world. In this godforsaken town, at least she knew who would help her and whom to avoid. What if the world out there turned out to be full of Irishmen, with no Indians even to look on her with pity?

She thought about killing the Irishman. She would say he was going to kill her. It was believable—he often left her face bruised. And she knew that no one respected him. But an Indian did not lift his hand against a white man. He was sure to hang if he did. Lummi Bob killed a white man in a drunken brawl. He said the white man was trying to kill him. They hanged him anyway. My grandmother had not seen it, but she had heard about it. She could scarcely rely on the understanding of a white court (about which she had only the foggiest ideas). The whites had no reason to fear Indians, but they did.

The town policeman picked up the Irishman often, and let him sleep it off in the jail, which was merely a room with some bars in the back part of a wooden storefront. My grandmother had often gone there to get him and take him home, hung over and snarling. The policeman was young, not from the area. He looked kindly at her, as if he understood her predicament. But he never said anything. It wouldn’t be proper for a policeman, she thought. After all, he’s white, too.

One night—it was in April—the Irishman didn’t return to the hovel they called home. But that was not unusual. She preferred it that way. She could sleep alone and relax. There would be no stink of whiskey in the bed (which wasn’t really a bed, but only some boards nailed together and set across some crates). She would have to deal with him in the morning, but that way many hours away so she didn’t care. Now, she would have time without him, and that was like a gift. She washed herself with water warmed on the woodstove. She always felt so nice after wiping her body down with warm water. She had coffee. The Irishman would have belted her if he knew that. Coffee was expensive, and it was for him. She didn’t care. If she was careful, he wouldn’t know. She wrapped the tattered blankets around her and snuggled into warmth. She had no past and no future, but right now, she was warm, and warmth was happiness.

People were pounding at the door. What was it? She staggered out of bed. There was no light. She opened the door, and there were people there, but she couldn’t see their faces. She wasn’t afraid, just puzzled. Nobody ever came here. A man spoke. She knew his voice but couldn’t recall his name. He was saying something about a fire at the jail. Her husband—the Irishman—he had been in the jail. He might be dead. She had to come.

There was an explosion inside her. Something said, be afraid. Something else said, you are free. She dressed quickly and went with them. There were still flames, but the jail building had mostly burned by the time they got there. There was no sign of any life in the wreckage. She could see nothing. The policeman was there, cursing. She asked him, what happened? The policeman scarcely heard her. He was cursing and cursing. “The goddamn bastard,” he said. “The goddamn bastard started a fire in the cell. He thought he could get out if the place was burning. He thought we’d let him go.”

My grandmother left town the next day. She had no idea where she was going, but now it didn’t matter. This was a sign. She was being given another chance. Go. Go. Go. Whatever it is, will be better than this.

Eventually, my grandmother ended up in western Oregon. We know nothing about the intervening years, except that in part of that time she broke horses. She was an admired horsewoman into her seventies. I’ve never known anybody who had her feeling for animals. When I have a difficult dog, I always think of her. She would have known what to do.

She went to work for my grandfather, a lanky graduate of the University of Minnesota who had finagled his industrialist father into buying him a ranch. My grandfather was not necessarily the world’s greatest catch. He was something of a ne’er-do-well, always trying to make good for last year. He was easy-going, always popular with hired men (many of whom were Indians) because they could sweet-talk him. But he was a gentle man. He never struck anybody, that I know of. Nor did he drink. They were married sometime in the 1920’s, after my mother was born. They made a life together. It wasn’t always peaceful, and it certainly wasn’t always easy. One morning my grandfather woke up to find everything he owned frozen in the ground, worthless. My grandmother sold eggs and sorted potatoes. From that, she got Social Security in her old age. She was pathetically grateful for those monthly checks. She lived in a trailer with several dogs and cats. She told the most spell-binding stories. At least, I thought so.

He always called her Nita. Only many years later did we learn that she had told everybody—including him—that her name was “Juanita.” She said her mother was Spanish, from down in California. I don’t know whether my grandfather believed it or not. My mother did. She was older than I am now when she learned that her mother was Indian, and that she had once been married to an Irishman.

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