My American Mama
When She Met Her Father In Law
Over Memorial Day weekend in 1975 in a small central California town, three African American college football players were attacked, walking across campus, by several carloads of white locals. The police broke up the fight, but didn’t stop the white youths from following the black students back to their dorms, where at least a dozen more whites were waiting. A fight broke out, and some white college students came to the aid of the black athletes. It became a fight between college students and townies. By the end of the evening thirteen African American students, the entire black population of the town, were “escorted” out of the town.
This is where my father was raised. This is where he chose to settle with his Mexican bride.
When my parents met, neither could speak the other’s language. That was still the case three months later when they were married. I’ll tell that story another time.
This is the story of the time my mother met her soon-to-be father in law.
My dad was brought to California as a little boy, along with his mother and three siblings, by my grandfather who had found work in the oilfields. They were of French and Germen descent, and had previously lived in Texas and Oklahoma, and as such were a good ol’ southern family with good ol’ southern values.
My dad was about to begin his first teaching job in the Coachella Valley in southern California, and that’s where he met and courted my mom. After he proposed, and she accepted, he called his parents and told them that he was engaged. My grandparents immediately drove the five hours south to meet the girl my dad was planning to marry.
So, my dad took my mom to meet his parents for dinner at a little diner. My mom said that my grandmother had a sweet, reassuring smile and didn’t say much. (I would later find out that that was pretty uncharacteristic of my feisty 5-foot tall grandmother.) My 6 foot 4-inch, 300 pound grandfather, on the other had, was quite imposing. The conversation got heated, and my mom got nervous. She couldn’t understand a whole lot of English yet, but she does remember hearing my grandfather say, “Son, I will not allow you to marry this little girl.”
“But Daddy, I love her.”
“I’m a Mason. I cannot have a Catholic in my family.”
“Daddy, you know I’ve never defied you. But this time I’m going to. I love her, and I’m going to marry her.”
So, marry her he did. And several months later, they relocated to that little oil town in central California.
At this point, my parents were staying at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather had taken to calling my mom “Sugar”. One morning, at around 5:00 am, there was a knock on my parents’ bedroom door. It was my grandfather, “Sugar. Get dressed. You’re coming to work with me today.” My mom looked to my dad for some sort of explanation. “You better go with him,” was all that my dad offered. So, my mom, confused both because of the language barrier and the early hour, got dressed and went with my grandfather.
They got into his old pickup truck and he drove her all around town to the local coffee shops and early morning breakfast spots. He took her to all the oil leases, including the one where he worked. He was well liked in the town and was greeted warmly everywhere they went. And on that morning he began each conversation with, “Fellas, I want you to meet my number one daughter.”
For years I’ve heard this story. My mom, who never knew her own father, tears up every time she tells about how “Daddy” introduced his number one daughter to everyone town that day. I tear up too, because I know this was my grandfather’s way of loving his son, and protecting my American mama.