I just divvied up nine pounds of chuck roast between two slow cookers, layering each one on top of a bed of carrots and potatoes and onions, then a couple of sheets of Reynolds Wrap crimped together and punctured so that the roast juices can run down into the vegetables but the roast will hold together, then the meat, then a cup of water and Lipton soup mix poured over the top. Company will be here at noon: my kids and my parents and my parents’ friends who have known me since I was in college, my husband since he was in third grade, and my children from the day they were born.
As you age, the people who remember you when you were young are fewer and fewer. Then finally it’s just you standing there, keeper of the stories, holding in your heart the endings of those who have gone before you and the beginnings of those who are following after you. And they follow so fast. That is the way of the world, which makes it natural, but does not make it easy.
Being a historian complicates the picture. For instance, I can tell you without a shred of doubt that all four of my grandparents favored the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The number of Americans who opposed that act was dishearteningly small. Some may have regarded it as “a necessary evil,” a drastic measure, something regrettable, and gosh it seemed awful unfair – but they did not protest it. And many benefited from it, including my maternal grandparents.
They were destitute when they arrived in California – dirty Okies, unwanted and unwelcome, who slept rough for months in the very fields they picked. Their first job in California was pulling carrots in Bakersfield. That’s a job that machines mostly do now – plant breeding and hybridization has produced carrot crops that all mature at the same time, and all reach a fairly uniform length. A carrot harvester slices into the ground at a depth just a tiny bit below the roots’ mature length and then peels up the whole row in one pass.
My grandparents followed the work, followed the crops, moving north with the harvest, pulling carrots, picking peas, and finally, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, picking tomatoes. They slept in the field of the tomato farmer, beneath a windbreak of fig trees planted at one end. (I learned this at my grandmother’s funeral.) The farmer was Italian, maybe a few years older than my grandfather, with a kind wife and a big family. My grandfather was a sturdy, hard-working fireplug of a man, who smoked but didn’t drink, and my grandmother was a kind young mother with one small child. And that Italian farmer offered my grandfather a job, working for him as a foreman.
So then my grandparents lived in the nearby migrant housing camp for a while, and my grandfather was able to apprentice himself to a carpenter and earn a little more money that way through the winter months. And in a couple of years, when World War II hit, he had steady work. He built the barracks at the nearby Air Force base that popped up overnight in the middle of the tomato fields and bean fields.
He also built the barracks for the Japanese-Americans who were gathered in a “collection camp” at the county fairgrounds.
I would have to do some research to figure out which job came first – probably the internment camp barracks, thrown up fast and on the cheap. The Air Force base would have gotten a slower start, and building it out was a job that lasted through the war and after.
So building the housing at a temporary prison camp for his fellow citizens was the economic opportunity that helped my grandparents rise from dirt poverty to respectable poverty. They ended up buying a small lot in an unincorporated neighborhood springing up beyond the edge of town in a 50-year floodplain. I don’t know who owned that land before my grandparents got their city-lot sized patch of it, but I can ask my mother. I know my grandfather built the entire house himself, in between his other jobs.
And I know that the neighborhood was out near the Italian family’s homestead, and I know that throughout World War II, when there was a dusk to dawn curfew on Italian-Americans in California, my grandparents helped those neighbors who had first given them a chance in California. I learned this too at my grandmother’s funeral, when the youngest son of that family, Azio, an old grandfather himself now, spoke of my grandmother driving out to their home in the evening to bring them whatever his mother needed but couldn’t get during the day because she couldn’t drive and the men used their trucks all day for work and there was no time for Azio’s father to run an errand into town and get home before curfew.
My family’s story is a story of displacement – they were displaced by the largest man-made natural disaster in history. They were environmental and economic refugees, desperate for work, desperate to live. So they migrated to California, where they were despised for being poor and uneducated, ignorant cotton-pickin’ Okies. And they worked in the fields alongside Japanese farmworkers, and Black farmworkers, and Mexican and Chicano farmworkers – the laboring classes. And they chanced at last on an Italian tomato farmer who needed a foreman, and who hired my grandfather for the job – surely because he showed competence and skill and an absolutely unceasing ability to work hard, but also in part because he was not Japanese or Black or Mexican or Chicano.
And the sudden removal of thirty or forty percent of agricultural laborers before the summer harvest of 1942, as well as the seizure and auction of their land and property – that “made room” in the agricultural economy of the San Joaquin Valley for my grandparents to stop being farmworkers and become farmers themselves, leasing tomato fields from year to year, joining the tomato growers co-op, moving finally in the 1960s from their tiny four-room hand-built house into a small A-frame home with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a sitting room, a real parlor, and a full bathroom.
Japanese internment surely had something to do with that economic rise, and “Operation Wetback” surely did as well. Those two U.S. government initiatives, supported broadly by most American citizens during and after World War II, created demand for labor, drove up wages, and allowed some of the poorest whites to rise.
That’s not how we tell our family stories when we gather together and reminisce. And that’s okay.
But when I teach, and I talk about the home front during World War II, and I talk about the post-war economy, this is one of the stories I tell. And I tell my students that together my four grandparents held up the very sky for me, and their love buoyed me from my birth and carries me even now, and I will love them all my life. But I tell them that these other things – these things are true as well, and it is my job as a historian to acknowledge these things too, and to help my students see that we can be grateful for those who came before us, and even proud of them, and we can love them, but that does not obligate us to honor their every deed or ignore how they were implicated and implicated themselves in grievous wrongs.
I don’t know if this is the best way to teach U.S. history, but this is how I do it.
Okay, the roast has been slow-cooking for two and a half hours. Company arrives at noon. I have to make a few more things, then make myself presentable. It helps that I look just like my grandmother – the same thick chestnut-colored hair, graying little and graying late, and the same dimpled smile – and that the warmth and tenderness of her own heart leapt to my own, like flame kindling flame. That makes the labor of love both natural and easy.