Monday, May 4, 2015

From American Land in Germany to Hippie Land in Berkeley: an Interview with my Grandma



 

It was Monday night, and my mom, my grandma, Michael, and I had just finished dinner from Taj Palace (a local Indian food restaurant) that we took to my house. We walked from the dining table we had cleaned up to the couches in the living room. Then we all sat down: my mom and I sat on the large couch, Michael sat on the small couch, and Grandma sat in the chair, which was across the room from me. I got out a black ballpoint pen and a notepad of paper, and I started to scribble at the top of the page to get the ink to start coming out. I was ready to begin the interview.
            Grandma has grey and white straight hair that is cut at about shoulder length. She usually dresses fairly casually, and often wears a scarf, fun earrings, and colorful long socks. Grandma is friendly, soft spoken, and she likes to laugh. She moved here recently from Petaluma, and she lives on our block. Grandma loves to garden, and her house has lots of small fruit trees including a persimmon tree, fig trees, limequats, Myer lemons, and orange trees. Even still, she is jealous of my dad’s mandarin orange tree.
            I explained to my grandma what the interview was about. Then I asked her,” What was your childhood like?”
            She replied, “Well, that’s kind of a big question. Do you think you could ask about a specific part of it?”
            I decided to ask, “What was it like being a kid on a military base in Germany?”
            Grandma replied, “I don’t remember much because I was a little kid, but I remember my parents would drop me off at the movies for kids on Saturday morning. One of my favorites was “Hop along Cassidy”, so I got a Hop along Cassidy dress up kit for my 4th birthday. I also went to kindergarten there and learned to speak German, so sometimes I would have to translate what people at the door were saying to my parents. Another thing I remember was sometimes going to Munich and seeing the bombed buildings (they hadn’t repaired them yet from the war). There was also a Christmas where we didn’t get any snow, so I looked for Santa’s sled tracks in the dirt. That winter we drove to the mountains and went to what was probably an old Nazi hunting lodge. I remember we went sledding, and I loved the onion rings there. When my mom was pregnant my parents asked me, “Do you want a baby brother or a baby sister?” and I told them that I wanted a baby sister, and then I got my little brother Jon. After this I thought, “So that’s how much they care about my opinion.”
            We all started laughing. Then Grandma continued and said, “It was also the beginning of the Cold War, so there were pretty much four zones in Germany including a Russian zone. We were in the American zone, but the Russians made land grabs, so we had to be prepared to leave all the time. They gave us K-rations (easy to carry food) which I raided, so my parents had to hide them in Jon’s room. I really liked the hard chocolate in the K rations.
I was five when we left Germany on an ocean liner which was carrying passengers and dead bodies of fallen soldiers. It was a stormy ride, and I was very seasick. My mom packed Easter baskets for my brother and me, and I remember I ate jelly beans, and I threw up jelly beans!” (all of us laughed). When we arrived in New York, I remember one of my first reactions was - Wow! The buildings aren’t bombed.”
            “Then we moved to Oklahoma for a year where the military base was new. People told my parents not to let their kids drink the water because it had fluoride in it. If they hadn’t listened I guess I wouldn’t need all this dental work now. We lived in two houses while we were there. One of them was an old Victorian house with a 78 in it.”
“What’s a 78?” I asked,
“Oh, a 78 is an old vinyl record that played at 78 rpm. We listened to operas that I hated, and I remember it took a lot of 78s to get through one opera. Oklahoma had lots of bugs and tornados and we didn’t have a tornado cellar. I didn’t like Oklahoma, so I was glad when we left,” said Grandma. “Then we moved to Quogue in New York.”
            Next I asked, “What was it like in Quogue?”
            Grandma answered, “I was very small and I got bullied in school by one creepy boy whose dad owned a Ford dealership. In the summer my cousin Sharon lived with our grandparents in town, and we hung out along with my friend Nancy. Quogue was near the water so we swam and went fishing in the summer. In the afternoon we might go crabbing in my uncle’s rowboat. It leaked, so one of us always had the job of bailing the water out of the boat. We caught crabs and dropped them straight into boiling water to cook them. Looking back at it, we were pretty merciless. At one point, we became enterprising and started to dig up clams from the mud at the beach. We took them to the grocery store and got paid for them.
We would sometimes go to Hampton Bay with our cousins. We would ride over there sitting on the top of the seats in the convertible, or in the back of a pickup truck. It was fun. There really wasn’t the same understanding of safety at the time.
            “I have one more question about Quogue.” I said, “What was your family like as a kid?”
            “My parents argued a lot,” said Grandma. “My brother Jon is four years younger than me. He was really nice until kindergarten when he found this obnoxious peer group. I didn’t like that. Then things went south with our parents, so we were kind of thrown together and got closer to each other. Then I went to college, and Jon was alone in high school and things were harder on him. He was in high school when our parents split up.”
            “Now I have another question. Mom said you were a hippie. Why did you become a hippie?”
            I don’t really know that I did,” replied Grandma. “Well, not entirely. It was the spirit of the time when Richard (my grandpa) and I were in college at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. I was an overachiever in high school and college, but I felt like someday I’d like to do something. Then Vietnam hit so grad school became dangerous.”
            When I was in college, my mom and dad split up, and my mom, Kaye, moved to southern California and remarried. She invited us to visit, so we went over Christmas break. It was my first time in California. During the trip, my mom joked ‘What’s a nice guy like him doing with a girl like you?” about Richard. This doesn’t describe her though- she was really a nice, funny woman. Kaye lived in Ontario, CA which is near Irvine. There was a huge mountain you could see from her house sometimes, but she would tell the story that she didn’t know it existed the first three months she lived there because of all the smog.
            Kaye’s new husband, DeWayne, had a brand new VW beetle. We would drive up to Mount Baldy with the windows closed, and then we would open the windows and a whoosh of air would come out of the car. Kaye and DeWayne drove us up Highway 1 to Berkeley so we could visit friends there. It was winter, but the hills were green and I thought it was beautiful. Finally we got to Berkeley where we stayed with friends of Richard’s. Everyone seemed so free compared to people on the east coast. We spent the next two years being good students in Philadelphia.”
“That means they worked hard and got good grades,” my mom pointed out to me.
“I know,” I said.
“Yes we did,” Grandma agreed. “So after two years of being good students, we graduated and moved to California. We got a used VW beetle with its radio removed as our graduation present. Richard got some wire mesh, and created two sections of the car. One for people in the front, and one for the four cats we brought with us in the back. We strapped our suitcases to the top of the car and we left to go across the country. As the trip progressed, the rule about where people were and where the cats were became looser. At one point, one of the cats was on Richard’s lap, and it helped him steer. We had a big orange cat named Frodo whose eyes got giant when we drove through the Rockies. Mostly we camped out and stayed in hotels.
            We also drove through Canada, and even considered fleeing to Canada if Richard got drafted. Canadians were very nice to us when we drove through Ontario. For example, we stopped a diner for dinner, and they offered us some fish for our cats, who feasted on the fish they gave us. Finally we drove down I-5 to Berkley where we lived in a communal house with several Sci-Fi fans.”
“No one else there had jobs,” my mom said.
“Yes,” said Grandma, “We were the only ones that had jobs. I worked for the county clerk. There were workers in the commune, and there were artists…”
“People who leeched off them!” my mom interrupted laughing along with all of us.
“Yeah,” said Grandma. “Anyway, Grandpa was the daily hero. He always had a good job. One day one of the freeloaders’ moms came and stayed with us. She thought we were responsible and said “You’re the only hippies I know who have Health Insurance.”
Then I got pregnant, so we had to move out since we couldn’t support the freeloaders and a baby.”
“Babies are the ultimate freeloaders”, chuckled my mom,” They take your money for eighteen years, and then they just leave.”
We all laughed.
“Yeah”, so we left the freeloaders to support our own freeloader,” laughed my grandma.” We moved in with a responsible couple. We were going to do the back to the land thing, but it fell through. Then Richard got a job at U.C. Berkley, but the grant ran out so he got a job at Kaiser with computers. He had to stretch his qualifications, so he learned three computer languages in a week. I also started sewing for the Society for Creative Anachronisms which reenacted the middle ages, but allowed some things not from the time, such as glasses. We lived on the edge of being hippies. That was the happiest year of my life.”
“The Society for Creative Anachronisms was the very beginning of Renaissance fairs”, commented my mom.
“Grandpa also managed to stay ahead of the draft board, and finally he became a father, so he was way down on the list. He was very smart, and was a triple major in Astronomy, Chemistry, and Physics who graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Now I have another question. Why did you choose a career as an attorney?”
“That’s a long story, said my Grandma. “I was very timid, and I had low self-esteem, so I thought I wouldn’t get into Law School but I decided to take the LCAT anyway. I worked a pink collar job at the time. My supervisor’s son had also taken the test, and he talked down to me, thinking I wouldn’t get in. Then I got a score in the high 700s, which was very good. I told my supervisor and he was surprised! I even got into Bolt Law School at UC Berkeley. Then I quit my job, but I was worried we wouldn’t have enough money, so I considered going to Golden Gate Law School which offered classes after work. But then Richard got head-hunted into a better job, so he got a better salary and said ‘Look, now you can go to Bolt.’ So I went to Bolt Law School at U.C. Berkeley and sometimes I even brought your mom, who was very little.”
“I loved the vending machines there,” said my mom.
“And the pinball machines. You were very good at pinball, remember?” said Grandma.
“Oh yeah,” said my mom.
“One day I brought your mom to a class,” Grandma continued. “The lecturer saw her and asked if she might like to go to his office, where his son was, and they played on the typewriter all through the class. Your mom was very good. The first year I was scared, so I studied very hard. A couple of summers later I took the BAR exam. Richard took Morgan to the California Academy of Sciences a lot that summer while I was studying.”
“She yelled at me to be quiet,” said my mom. “And I couldn’t figure out why. So Dad took me out for ice cream, or to Golden Gate Park, and sometimes we would sneak off to McDonalds which was fun because Grandma was a health Nazi during the seventies.”
“Yeah,” said Grandma. “She was also worried when I became a lawyer and would go to visit prisoners. She told her grandma, and Grandma Kaye said ’If they ever take my daughter, I’ll march right down there and tell them to give her back or I’ll give them such a bop!’ That calmed your mom down. So, to answer your question, I guess I became a lawyer because I wanted to make a difference in the world, especially seeing what was going on with the Civil Rights movement at the time.”
“Wow, I said. “That’s neat. Thanks!”
***
During the interview, I learned that my grandma became a lawyer because she was inspired by the Civil Rights movement. That surprised me. I also learned that my grandma is very determined; for example, she drove four cats across the country (this doesn’t surprise me) and she went to Law School. I also had a change of opinion about hippies. I used to imagine hippies as people who wanted change and didn’t get jobs, but I learned that many hippies were responsible people with jobs who wanted society to change for the better (even though some fit my original idea of them). In conclusion, I admire my grandma a lot more for being responsible and determined, even when she and Grandpa were hippies.
 

*Boldfaced text indicates direct quotes

1 comment:

  1. Caelan, this is beautiful. It's a wonderful profile of a wonderful lady. You are very lucky. BTW, Caelan's mom: I have a pinball machine collection (12). You are hereby invited to play.

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