Wicklow's Daughter, Beloved Mother: To the Girl on the Lawn at Cal

This year AVID students -- kids whose family backgrounds do not include a college experience -- invited me, their AP European History teacher, to go on the Northern California college tour, and I was honored. I had never visited Cal until a few years ago, with another AVID group. I did go to Stanford. For a week. I won a fellowship in 2004 and got to study the Great Depression and New Deal with David Kennedy, whose book on the subject won the Pulitzer Prize for History.  I tried not to look too adoringly at him while he taught us.  It was difficult, because not only was he brilliant, but he was a real human being – engaging, witty, and you could tell he loved the history of the time because he so admired the Americans who had lived it.

I instantly loved Stanford’s rival, Cal, when we visited, even though I had to fight the impulse, so common to my generation, to run off and occupy the administration building, Sproule Hall, and demand that we leave Vietnam.  It is so beautiful and I am convinced just walking around campus with the kids boosted my I.Q. a full 20 points, up to 100.

The other thing I thought, with a little sadness, was that my Mom--Patricia Margaret Keefe--should’ve been here.   She was desperately poor, a child of the Great Depression.  She was a human footnote in the immense body of Kennedy’s scholarship.  Her father, my Irish-American grandfather, deserted the family in the mid-1920s, so my grandmother worked long hours as a waitress in a Taft, California, coffee shop, where “extra sugar” meant a healthy dollop of bootleg Canadian whiskey in your coffee.  It meant my mother, as a little girl, spent a lot of time alone. Those years left their mark on her. We had a can cupboard longer than the cupboards in the back of my classroom, full of food we’d never eat, because the thought of being hungry must have terrified her. And so going to college, for the daughter of a waitress from an isolated outpost on the oil frontier, had been out of the question.

Earl Denton, the first superintendent of the California district where I was educated and where I now teach, Lucia Mar,  said that my mother, whose education ended with her graduation from Taft High School, was the most brilliant woman he had ever met.  I remember her devouring the works of the Jesuit theologian and anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who argued that evolution was no contradiction of faith; in fact, it was a divinely-inspired process.  She – as I would years later with Das Kapital –- wrote almost as much in the margins of Teilhard’s books as he had written in the text.

When I was very little, we played school.  She even rang a hand bell when “recess” was over. It had been my grandmother’s—Dora Gregory, her mother-in-law, had been a schoolmarm in a one-room school in the Ozark foothills.  My first day of formal education was in first grade in a two-room school, Branch Elementary, in the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley.  I remember realizing, with a little shock of pleasure, that I could read the names of my classmates as our teacher, Mrs. Brown, wrote them on the blackboard.

My mother and I hadn’t been “playing” school at all.  She just made it seem that way. Losing her, when I was 17, remains the central tragedy of my life. But I found my place in life as a scholar, too, so I'm no orphan.

Beyond that, she gave me the room to play — I’m sure she worried about everything from coyotes to poison oak while I splashed through the creek and came home, wet, filthy, and happily exhausted, but she gave me freedom, too. While the rest of her generation absorbed Dr. Spock's advice on child-rearing, it was as if my mother's inspiration was Rousseau's Emile.

Other than books, art, music (I think we wore out the recordings of Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall), working with fabric—she knitted, crocheted, sewed, did needlepoint, and weaved cloth--my mother truly was a born teacher. She was not didactic; she was much fonder of teaching by example. One day she was in the back yard, pruning the roses she loved to grow, when a Mexican field worker, a bracero, suddenly appeared. She shoved me behind her skirts.

The man signaled that he wanted to fill an empty wine gallon jug with water for himself and his friends, working the pepper field adjacent to our pasture. His face, with a tiny Cantinflas mustache, radiated good humor. My mother relaxed and filled the jug from her garden hose. The water was cold. I knew that because of what she said next.

“Now, help him carry it back.”

I did. And I stayed awhile. During a work break and on later visits with the workers' boss, a farmer and a man of immense warmth, and, by chance, another Irish-American, George Shannon, to the barracks where they slept — it smelled of earth and Aqua Velva and laundry soap — the braceros taught me a little Spanish and across their bunks they spread snapshots of wives and girlfriends  and children, and they laughed with delight when I practiced my new Spanish words. I sensed, even at six or seven years old, that for just a moment, I'd restored a son to fathers whose own were so far away.

Nearly twenty years later, thanks in large part to my mother and to George Shannon, my college studies' focus was the history of Mexico and Latin America, and once, at my school, the University of Missouri-Columbia, my Spanish teacher stopped for me just a moment after class.

“Mr. Gregory, you have a pronounced Mexican accent.”   That may be my favorite college moment.

So, many, many  years later, on that visit to Cal, while the AVID kids explored, I had the briefest and loveliest mental image of my mother, about 1938 or 1939 -– blouse, pleated skirt, saddle shoes, bobby socks, with her books and notebook spread out on one of those lush, verdant lawns, studying between classes. My mother was a beautiful woman, but the most beautiful thing about her may have been her mind.

And I think that’s why I enjoy these particular trips, with this particular group of kids. It’s my way of repaying Mom. One of them might take her place, studying in the sunlight on the lawn at a place like Memorial Glade.  She would love that idea.

And she would love these kids because she would understand them completely.  Despite my ne'er-do-well grandfather, I believe completely that my mother's empathy and her love for the written word had deep genetic and psychological roots in County Wicklow.

So she would love without hesitation the AVIDS who show the incredible desire, the hunger, to improve themselves that she’d had, who refuse to complain when things get tough, who extend themselves to help their classmates, because she believed that all of us, and all of our lives, are intricately and intimately connected, and that this connection requires us to be responsible to and accountable for each other.

The young person who understands these things is close to my mother’s heart.

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Tags: California, Family, United States, Wicklow


Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 27, 2015 at 7:51am

Lovely memories Jim

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