Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the second excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”
My parents were children of the Great Depression, an era of desperate times for all but the richest Americans. For both my parents, poverty was compounded as they were children of widowed mothers who endured the racism and discrimination faced by Mexican Americans of that time. As children, they had no understanding of the American Dream and no real path to achieving it. As adults, they worked tirelessly to provide that opportunity for their children, and the little house on 48 Viewmont Avenue was the base of operations for their pursuit of the dream.
My dad was born Federico Olquín García in the dusty hamlet of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 15, 1926. The oral history of my family doesn’t provide much about the first 16 years of his life. This much we know: his parents were Juan and Isabela “Chabela” García, also native New Mexicans, and he had one brother and two sisters. Juan worked in the dangerous and back-breaking copper mines of southern New Mexico and Chabela tended to the home and their four children.
They lived in a small adobe structure with a dirt floor built by Juan and a younger brother. When my dad was about eleven years-old, his father died of respiratory problems related to his endless hours working in the mines. With her four kids in tow, Chabela left Las Cruces to join relatives in Phoenix, Arizona. Family stories contend that my dad had to help drive the long and hot road to Arizona. If this is true, his childhood had disappeared in a flash and his years of responsibility and obligation came upon him overnight.
In October 1942, my dad left the small apartment he shared with his mother in south Phoenix to join the U.S Navy. Like many of his generation, my dad shared little about his experience as a sailor during World War II. He told us that he served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Pacific Ocean, but recounted nothing about battles and dangerous situations. History tells us that the Wasp engaged in several brutal battles with Japanese aircraft from October 1942 through the end of the war, the time my dad served on the carrier. In a personal log he carried, he wrote in detail about the last days of the war and the Wasp’s return to the United States.
My mom was an only child born to a single mother in on January 31, 1930, in Colton, California. Colton, a busy railroad hub and farming town in southern California, was one of many stops on the state’s farm-working circuit where her mother, Joaquina Othon, and her Tía Lipa traveled in search of seasonal work. My grandmother Joaquina was an independent woman trying to eke out a living for herself and her young daughter. Like my dad, little is known about my mom’s early life.
Within several years, my mom and her mom were again on the road, this time to Phoenix to help Tía Lipa care for my great-grandmother who arrived from Sonora, Mexico, to live out the last years of her life. My grandmother continued working odd jobs as a housekeeper, babysitter, and seasonal worker to support her daughter, sister, and ailing mother. Due to my grandmother’s tireless work ethic, my mom had a financially poor, but relatively stable life during her teen years. It was during this time that the lonely young woman raised by her mother, an aunt, and an aging grandmother, dreamed of one day having a big family with many children and grandchildren of her own.
My parents met during a late summer day in 1949 when my mom went out to the neighborhood park with a cousin to watch some boys play baseball. My mom caught the eye of my dad as he strut around the diamond with a smile that could be seen across the field. He was calling at my grandmother’s front door the next morning respectfully asking permission to talk to my mom.
My dad knew his way around girls from the many ports of call on the trip back to the U.S. after the war and his frequent attendance at south Phoenix nightclubs. But this girl was different: polite, demure, and dignified. Before long, he was stopping to see my mom everyday sitting on one end of the old sofa talking with her as she sat on the other end. Her mom and Tía Lipa sat across the tiny living room knitting a blanket or listening to the radio as the young couple talked, laughed, and sometimes just sat.
Their courtship was a whirlwind. After several months dating in my grandmother’s living room, they were allowed to go out to together to the movies or to share a soda, and six months later after they met, mom and dad were married in a small Catholic church on April 23, 1950. They had no place to live, no money, and no idea what the future would hold. All they had was each other and my skeptical grandmother watching their every move.
There will be no post next Wednesday. Chapter 1 returns on January 1, 2014, as my parents move to San Jose looking for opportunity.