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Friday, 07 September 2007

In Search of My Father’s America

By Marti

Lately these days, I seem to come across the word "place" in my readings. Place blogs, sense of place, ebb and flow of place.

I grew up as a first generation American in a small town in central California. The place of my parents was Spain but in 1923, my father decided to seek his fortune in the United States as did so many immigrants.

In 1932, my mother also left Spain to become a seeker of a new place and arrived on Ellis Island. Both of my parents used to tell stories about traveling throughout the United States. They would tell of the many places that they had seen either by work or by glances out of a train window.

"Who sent you?" my father would say as he laughingly told one of his countless stories of all of the jobs he held in America. He never said the United States, always America. "Who sent you" was in reference to his job as the keeper at the door of a speakeasy in California in the 20’s. He had memorized the phrase because he knew very few words in English.

My father was a contract shepherd whose first job was in Idaho. He tended sheep, at times on foot with his dog and other times, on horseback. He later moved to Nevada, again as a contract shepherd.

In Utah, he worked for a time in the copper mines but after hearing about the climate and the vastness of California, he decided to seek his fortune in the golden state. In California he plucked chickens, guarded the front door of a speak-easy, made cheese for a local creamery, served in the army from 1940 - 1941 and finally worked as a janitor at my high school, the local bank and the drug store in my hometown.

"I ate a lot of oatmeal and bread," my mother would say as she told stories about boarding a train from New York and riding it all the way across the country to California to work in her sister and brother-in-law’s French laundry. Mother had a sponsor with her until Chicago and then she was on her own.

She crossed this country with no knowledge of the English language and relied on smiles and gestures to mime what she would like to eat on the train. She would say, "I arrived in California with a lop-sided view of the world." Her lop-sidedness was due to a permanent crick in her neck from gawking at the incredible and, at times, strange scenery that met her eyes whenever she looked out the train windows.

Giving up the place of your birth to begin a new life took such strength and courage but both of my parents kept the memory of their first place in their hearts and by recreating holiday traditions, cooking special foods and playing many flamenco records on the old phonograph.

My father would say that he had given up one country for another but all countries are special in their own way. "Spain is a great country, but America has so many interesting places that I wish I could see," he would say. This was an especially poignant comment for we never owned a car when I was growing up. This did not deter us from our yearly vacation to San Francisco because we traveled by train, an adventure in the 1950s.

As my husband and I were getting ready to enter a new phase in our lives, semi-retirement, my father’s words came into my head: "America is full of so many interesting places." When we sold our California home in 2002, we took my father’s words to heart and decided to travel and see some of these places - sort of living the RV lifestyle without the RV.

We undertook this journey with the hope of discovering "a sense of place." Our intent was to live in several places, getting a feel for the geography, the land, (we garden everywhere we live), the people and if we were very fortunate, a sense of the way of the community.

From the tropical splendor of Maui, to the snowy mountains of Washington and now to the heat and beauty of the Texas Hill Country, we have lived in many different places. What I have discovered about a sense of place is that you can travel the country, seeing, touching, tasting, talking to people, participating in their community events and come to know something about each one.

The most important discovery of all, however, is that place truly resides within your heart and soul and memories.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Wow!!!!!!!! What a wonderful story! I really envy you the adventure you're living!

My Navy years afforded me glimpses of most of Calfiornia, Oregon, Washington State, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. I've often thought I'd like to take a trip, such as you describe, of those places again, but it doesn't appear to be in the picture. It's beautiful country out there. Perhaps we can get another description somed time in the future from you....

what beautiful stories of Courage and Spirit! I agree with Jim. Tell more,Please!

Thanks everyone for your kind comments.

The spirit of adventure truly comes from my parents who gave up everything to come to America.

More adventures may come forth as we discuss our next move; possibly to Virginia, a land rich in American history and wonderful Celtic influenced music.

My parents have always been my heroes.

I loved your snd felt there were
some similarites to my own. My parents emigarated from Poland after WWI and had to make their way in the US, but they never regretted leaving their native country. They lived in New York City, the Catskill Mountains and northern California before settling in Napa, California.
And I emigrated to Australia when I was 25, where I have lived since 1972, so I know the pain of leaving family and customs behind to take on the adventure of living in a new place.
I keep thinking that I should write about some of these changes, especially my adjusting to life in
Australia. Your story has inspired me. I'd like to read more about the transitions.

Yes, by all means Celia, do write about your Australian adventure. It is gratifying to see how we can share our stories and in doing so, a spark is lit, an inspiration comes forth. Your story of moving to Australia is just such a spark so please share when you can and thank you for your kind words.


Beautiful story, a great one to archive for your family history.

I love the stories of young men and women who had the courage to leave their homes and families in Europe or Asia and venture all alone to America.

Thank God America did not let them down. Most of the people I know who came here ended up successful. Most really did attain the American dream of home and family and freedom...

Hurrah for our side!!!!!

Marti, what lovely memories you have about your parents. I bet there are many more tales you can tell and I look forward to reading them!

Nice to keep getting comments on one of my favorite pieces of writing:

Candace: Your words about family archives are so important and I thank Ronni as well, for providing this wonderful forum.

Nancy: This country is great not only for the many people who were brave enough to give up everything to get here but for the many people who went out of their way with kindness and caring to make them feel welcome.

Suzzwords: I do have many stores but it is only now that I have acquired contemplative time and the wisdom of years to realize what true treasures they are.

What a wonderful history you have. I'd love hearing more as well. One of the things I am not able to do is travel extensively... No courage, I talk myself out of it before the plan is ever made. We do travel two or three weeks a year, and several weekends or days. So I can live vicariously through you.

Dorothy from grammology

Dear Dorothy,

Thanks for your comment and I sense a fellow traveler reading between the lines. It is not about courage but about the willingness to see with open eyes and an open heart. For me, traveling does not have to be to far destinations. Some of our best times have been just around the corner. You do travel from what you have just written and I for one, would love to know of some of your two and three week experiences.


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