Manataka® American Indian Council
By Grandmother L. Cota Nupah Makah
Gray strips of light seeped around the old green window shade. Dust floated in the air and danced across the floor. I lay here wondering what time it was but did not want to get up to see. The light shuffle of my Aunt Rose's feet in the kitchen as she put on the coffee sound down the hall way. For such a big tall women she walked softly.
Soon the sweet smell of freshly made coffee filled the room.
My Aunt came quietly into the room waking my two cousins Mandy and Alma, or Shorty as we called her, by gently shaking the bed. I was already awake and sitting up when she got to my cot. She gave my arm a pat and then turned to leave the room.
"Hurry", she said softly, "or you will miss the wagon". We tumbled out of our beds not stopping to make them. Pulling on long lose skirts and cotton blouses running a brush through our hair was all we had time for that morning. These long skirts were necessary for picking fruit. We would tuck the side up in our waist band to form a pouch for gathering the fruit. After filling the pouch we would go to our boxes and gently let the fruit fall gently into the boxes.
Aunt Rose and Uncle Johnny were not really my Aunt and Uncle but were long time friends of my mothers family. As was common in those days we just called them Aunt and Uncle.
We walked quietly, passing through the warm kitchen, and slipped into our sandals at the door.
My Aunt handed each of us a brown paper bag and a wax paper wrapped biscuit dripping with butter and jam.
As we stepped out of the door the shock of the cold California morning fog hit us.
The kitchen had been so warm and I could still smell the coffee. How I wished that I could have stayed behind for a hot cup with heavy cream from my Aunt Rose's cow.
Mandy and Shorty ran ahead of me, brown legs flying and long hair streaming out behind. Every morning we raced up the path to the main road.
Today I came a slow second to my cousins.
Stooping over to catch my breath and holding the stitch in my side I could hear the old tractor putting up the hill.
Mandy and Shorty tied their hair back with colorful handkerchiefs and I dug mine out of my pocket.
This summer I was to spend three weeks helping my Aunt Rose, and working in the orchards with my cousins.
Today we were going to the apricot orchards that covered a near by hill.
The back canyons and valley outside of Watsonville were full of these small fruit orchards.
Each year the farmers paid the gypsy migrant workers to pick the fruit.
We were not gypsies but with our dark hair and tan skin we could pass ourselves off as if we were.
During my younger days I had sit under the kitchen table listening to adult conversations. Most of my young life was spent gathering information about every family member. Some I am sure was not for little ears but they forgot I was there listening.
No one spoke much of my Aunt Rose and Uncle Johnny.
It was rumored that my Aunt Rose was a gypsies and that my Uncle Johnny had taken her in and given her a home on his small farm. I could not imagine Aunt Rose as a motor cycle riding gypsy, like they all said she was. Even after I had seen the pictures of her sitting on a Harley and wearing leathers, she still did not fit that life style. The woman in those pictures looked like my cousins, but with a harder face and empty eyes.
At times she would take down the beautiful rose wood mandolin that she kept on the wall. She had a wonderful voice, she would sing and play songs from her people. Mandy and Shorty would sing along with her. I did not understand the word but managed to keep up my part of the singing.
Uncle Johnny was a small man who had a weak heart he was never very strong.
He and Rose hardly ever talked but seem to have some sort of communication that did not need conversation. They had three children two girls and one boy.
I can still see him sitting by the fire place and smoking his old pipe.
Buddy their son, was small like my Uncle, and suffered from asthma; the girls were all tall and strong like my Aunt.
My Uncle raised flowers it was not only his work but his hobby. On his farm were rows and rows of green houses that contained exotic flowers.
I loved to help him in the green house with my cousin Buddy. Uncle Johnny was always patient with me and told me the long proper
Latin names for each flower. My favorite green houses were the ones that held his prize orchids.
Aunt Rose and the girls did all the heavy work on the farm.
I was use to hard farm work and helped with all of the barn chores. My cousins were also very active in 4H and other farm youth organizations.
There were times I found myself wishing that I would never have to leave this peaceful home.
I did not have these things in my life, we lived to far away from towns and moved to often for that.
Every year my Aunt Rose grew a big garden and we helped her can the things that we picked from the garden. We also canned and preserved hundreds of jars of jam for sale at the Sacramento Fair.
You could say they actually lived off the flower business and what they grew on the farm. Aunt Rose also worked in the packing sheds when the lettuce and carrots were in season.
My father had a problem with my Aunt Rose she was just to much for him to handle. She wore pants all the time and he thought this was not proper. I think she took some pleasure in pushing his buttons. When she really wanted to upset him she pulled out her small corn cob pipe and smoked.
It was not uncommon to see her repair the tractor or do the work a man would normally do on a farm.
I do not think I ever saw my Aunt Rose in a dress or skirt but one time when she had to go to court to sign business papers for the farm. I was surprised at how beautiful she was all dressed up in that suit. I can remember her letting my mother fix her hair and make up.
The put put of the tractor became louder and I could see it through the fog.
The Mexican man driving did not stop but slowed down long enough for us to jump on the old flat bed wagon. The three of us sit in the tail gate and dangled out feet over the edge.
The wagon was already full of other pickers who sit bundled up in shawls and poncho blankets. No conversation could be heard only the steady put put of the tractor.
The dirt road up the hill was rutted and grass grew high in the middle. When we hit the rutted road our feet would touch the ground.
We pulled our legs back into the wagon and hung on tight as the tractor made the last hill. Finally with a wheeze and a bang the old tractor came to a stop. Everyone got off the wagon and went to the packing shed to get their numbers.
After signing in we were each given some cards with our number on them. Each time you filled a crate you took it to the wagon and gave the driver one of your cards with your number on it. He wrote it down and put the card in the crate that you had picked.
At the end of the day you were paid by the number of cards you had turned in to the wagon driver.
We each took several flat crates and began to pick the apricots.
As the sun broke free of the fog bank you could see the apricots hanging like ribbons from the trees. It would be a hot day but a good picking day.
I picked standing on the ground most of the morning no need to climb until later in the day.
At lunch we sit on the grass and ate our sandwiches, and hard boiled eggs then had apricots for dessert. The other workers talked in soft voices in a language that I did not understand. The laughter, floated over the hill side as the workers sit eating mayonnaise, bean, and onion sandwiches and drinking sweet wine.
My cousins and I stayed apart from the workers. We had been warned long ago that Gypsies took young girls like us and they were never seen again. Of course we were also told that the bums on the rail road tracks with their bundles, also put young children in them.
I realize now that this was to keep us off the tracks and away from harm.
There were many such transit workers riding the rails and walking the back roads in those days, work was not easy to find. Some lived in Hobo jungles or camps along the tracks. There was no work after the war so the men just wondered from town to town picking up odd jobs.
My mother would always feed the men who came knocking at our door.
I know my father would not approve of this if he were home. You never knew who these men were, some were probably dangerous; but she still would put out a dish of food on the steps when one came knocking.
I finished my sandwich and dusted off my hands on the grass. My skirt was spotted with squashed apricots and my hands sticky from picking the ripe fruit.
I walked over to the water bucket to get a drink and put some water on my face.
This morning I had picked over 20 flats of fruit, by night I would have at least 50 flats picked, my pay today would be good. We made sometimes 25 to 30 cents a flat. That evening we would be harder picking, we would have to climb more to get our flats filled. Long skirts did not make it easy to climb trees but we managed. We would take the hem of our skirts up from behind and pull them between our legs. Then taking that end of the skirt hem we tucked it in the front of our skirt waist band. This gave you two pouches to pick in and got the long skirt up out of the way.
The Gypsy women all did this to form a kind of baggy pants effect. The apricot trees were low to the ground so you did not need a ladder, just be able to climb.
We always had fun even when we worked so hard. By the end of the first day the other workers were more open to talking with us. As the days went by we formed a bond by the time we were done picking.
My cousins and I loved music and often sing all the way home. Sometimes the other workers sang songs from their own culture. We would all part at the end of the day looking forward to the next morning.
If the chickens and ducks were laying we would bring eggs to sell to the other workers. Some times we brought apples and other things my Aunt made to sale.
Aunt Rose was an excellent cook her fruit cakes were really something to see. Each year she made us a very special one with pecans and pineapple.
The best days were when we worked close to home then we could ride to the orchards on my Aunts old gray horse. He would carry all three of us on his bare back and never complain.
I spent several summers when we lived in the Salinas Valley at my Aunts working. These were some of my happier memories of growing up.
My father for some reason liked to get back at my Aunt Rose by called her horse a plow horse.
The battle between them lasted until she passed shortly after Uncle Johnny.
Many times she would say to us that Uncle Johnny was the one who gave her a life worth living. She always spoke kindly of him even after he passed.
Some time in this life we are lucky to see or be a part of this love that two people have for each other. I will not forget the kindness and love that they shared with me.
Love and Blessings Waynonaha
EMAIL | HOME | INDEX | TRADING POST