Sunday, April 27, 2003

The Color of Forgivness

Lagunitas School in the 1950s: I was in 3rd Grade, after the Pledge of Allegiance, we were singing Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies. Only it’s more like speciousness these days... Coin of the realm. But even from the relative purity of childhood, I recall a taint: my grandmother muttering something about the damned Anglo-Saxons again. Too close to God Save the Queen. I explained to her, it’s just the melody, not the same song—even the Irish stole songs from themselves and updated the words: but she’s off and running.

Soon Cromwell will arise and you know where that leads to. Don’t say anything to upset the antichrist in the kitchen...

I always loved the part about the purple mountain’s majesties. We had a WPA mural at our school with exotic orange groves and grapes framed against purple mountains.

Sometimes when the light was just right, the ridges framing the San Geronimo Valley really turned blue when the woodsmoke collected in the hollows, mid-winter.

There was something about the queen in the song and purple was the color of royalty. “Murex shells were used to make purple,” my grandmother said, pointing to a tiny black spot at the tip of the shell.

“It took hundreds of snails to dye Roman togas, that’s why only royalty was allowed to wear it,” she said. And it remained so until the invention of the aniline coal dyes of the Industrial Revolution. Beginning of the end of an era.

Father John Connery wore royal purple when he was serving the mourning masses: the color of forgiveness. Sometimes it was white, or red, or green.

"Uaine," my grandmother said in Irish.

Chemical green, as in illness, or the almighty dollar. Not glas, the color of fields and plants.

The big-bosomed old women of our parish always wore black... Life for the immigrant woman was hard: babies, and work and more babies and more work. They even wore black in the garden as if they were in deep mourning there too.

They greeted each other, each in their own language: Portuguese, Italian-Swiss, Irish, Spanish... the church, our common denominator against the powerful ruling class, the WASPS. And so the life of the poverty-stricken immigrant living close to the land has shaped my view of what it means to be American...

I was not the blue-eyed blonde, nor did I live in a tract house, or even in a town. I wasn’t raised in a nuclear family, with a mother-cum-housemaker and a father as bread-winner. Things we stereotype as American, like apple pie and mom.

My mom was a Beatnik, therefore crazy. My father was absent in the neck of a bottle. So my grandmother took over the business of raising me.

I was never a daughter of the American Revolution—we were related to Myles the Slasher, of County Longford, not Miles Standish of Plymouth Rock.

So it was suggested we were second-class citizens—like the pecking order in the barnyard—the chickens, the horses, the cats, they all had a pecking order.

We were the ones who quietly snuck up the feed bowl when the others had already taken the edge off their hunger, and maybe they wouldn’t notice us if we crept in slowly, folding ourselves into the crowd. Safety in numbers.

We were the invisible made visible by our ethnicity, which we clung to, a safety line of identity. We took refuge in the church from the state.

Did we inherit this division? Did we take it on? Ethnic inferiority complex. Or did it come from the outside? Or was it something put upon us from America itself? Indivisible under God, with liberty and justice for—whom? For the WASPS whom? who didn’t want to share their America?

The ones heckling my grandmother, calling her all kinds of names on the trolley because she was pregnant with my mother? Irish Catholic bitch always in heat.

My 3rd grade students are humming the song as they paint purple mountains on the silk banners for Saturday’s Art Auction/Spaghetti Feed for the Alexander Valley grange.

This is as close to America as I can get, community events at the granges. Like the Nicasio Druid’s Hall, Palm Sunday Brunch where all the west county ranchers gather and trade stories. This is the heart of my America.

I hum along as best as I can with my students who are all blessed with tin ears, it seems. We are covered in purple dye. A discordant crescendo of America, America, God shed his grace on thee...

The auctioneer’s lips are a blur and we give standingovationstotheoverbidders, swilling some of the best wine in the country. I rub shoulders with the old Italian families, the Mexicans and yuppies. Nike, Reebok are represented here at the CEO level. I have taught all their children poetry.

I try not to think of slave labor. That’s what built those companies, this valley, this wine on my lips. Sacrament. This is my blood...

These west county microcosms at the edge of the continent are where I have witnessed what it means to be an American as the next wave of immigrants, the grape pickers from Guanahuato who used to sleep under the Russian River bridge, now celebrate a son, a daughter or a nephew or niece graduating from college.

A daughter I once taught poetry to in 3rd grade, Ayacel, is a continuum of my tribal roots—but she is from another country of origin. Mexican-America.

In this valley we are forgiven under the benediction of commerce and grapes because it is what we choose to do with our citizenship, we have come here to make a better community for our children.

It is a dream we all hold in common.

© 2003 Maureen Hurley, published in My America. Brandon Mise,  Blue Barnhouse Press, Asheville, North Carolina. More on Blue Barnhouse blog.

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