3K Meanwhile Back at the Ranch
August 3, 2007
Frequently, people who write real memoirs not only relate interesting tales about their mother and father, grandparents, uncles and aunts, but also provide interesting information about their family’s histories and ethnic roots as well.
I have a few tales to tell from my own experiences, but I can’t take you much further than that. I’m sure all my relatives had interesting tales to relate, but most of the time, I was out to lunch as a small child.
In part, this was because I didn’t like my parents or my grandparents, didn’t feel much rapport with my siblings, and was pretty dubious about my aunts and uncles as well. On the other hand, if by some paradox of space-time a duplicate of twelve-year-old Random showed up on my doorstep, I would probably say, What a whiny, self-pitying, self-obsessed little brat! Hold still, while I get my air rifle so I can put you out of your misery.
I imagine Grandma Agnes had interesting tales to tell about how she was a young feminist who wrote and published movie reviews in the local newspaper when she was a young woman. I wasn’t interested in talking to Grandma Agnes any more than I absolutely had to.
No doubt my maternal Grandma, whom I only remember as “Baba Manya,” and got to know a bit when she and her second husband sold their farm in Indiana and moved to California, had interesting tales to tell of growing up in the old country. All I remember was how difficult it was to comprehend what she had to say through her thick Yiddish-laden Ukrainian accent. As much as I disliked my father, I wasn’t particularly interested in her conspiratorial whispers to me that he was gambling away our family’s money. (For all his faults, as far as I know this accusation had no basis in fact.)
With a little effort on my part, I might have drawn some interesting stories out of her second husband, Alex about how he avoided combat while unwillingly serving in the Russian army during WWI, but I never made the effort to penetrate his usual stance of sarcastic surliness toward the world.
There were no ethnic or language barriers keeping me from asking Uncle Donald’s family about their roots as ranching pioneers in the high desert of California. The summer when my parents moved from Los Angeles to Brea, they parked their three oldest kids on the Nichols ranch near Hemet and paid Donald’s younger sister Arlene, who had just graduated from high school, to take care of us and out of their hair for the summer.
It was a real ranch that looked like the backdrop of every cowboy movie you’ve ever seen. I suppose at one time the Nichols family made a living ranching, and they still had a few cows and horses, though I suspect that was more out of habit than any real commitment to a ranching lifestyle. At one time the ranch had a stream and a regular supply of running water; now it was down to a creaky windmill that produced a tiny trickle. The three Random siblings learned to get by on one bath a week (one batch of water in an iron tub in the yard), and to wash the dishes very efficiently once a week as well. A few years later when I read the well-known science fiction novel Dune about a desert world where humans learned to do without much water, I sneered, Been there, done that.
Donald’s mother, “Mannie,” lived in Hemet; his grandparents lived in a small house by the creaky old windmill. His relatives were nice enough and I wasn’t mistreated, but my memory is that they were either telling me to do something I didn’t want to do or not to do something I did want to do, so I didn’t particularly seek out opportunities to talk with them.
Donald and his brother Dick could ride horses and rope cows, though I don’t think they thought of themselves as “cowboys.”
Donald had an engineering degree and an interest in topics such as literature, politics, philosophy, and religion as well. He was rather taciturn, though Naomi would say to me, “Donald doesn’t say much, but he is very deep and observes everything very carefully.” Every so often he would say something that sounded profound to me. I was very intimidated by him because I figured he was observing me carefully and finding the results wanting and deficient.
Donald’s brother, Dick, was also taciturn, but he fit the role of the old, “Aw, shucks, Ma’m” shootkicking cowboy better. He certainly could sit a horse and rope a steer. I don’t remember how he made a living, but certainly wasn’t by cowpoking.
As my brother and I climbed the hills and rocks a lot, we were warned to watch out for rattlesnakes. In the ranch house there was a big jar containing a pickled rattlesnake that Uncle Donald had once killed. As I scrambled around the rocks, I listened with a combination of delighted anticipation and terror for a rattle, but I never heard one and I never encountered a live rattlesnake.
There were guns around. I suppose the Nichols occasionally hunted, but mostly in that regard I remember them making sarcastic comments about city folks who went hunting on their ranch and would shoot one of their cows and then explain they had mistaken it for a deer.
Once or twice we (my brother and I) were allowed to fire a .22 at tin cans, and we weren’t allowed to do anything unsafe, but we didn’t get the careful training on gun lore and gun handling that many of my readers report of their childhoods.
My most vivid memory of guns from our time on the ranch involves a time when Dick was loading a rifle as Naomi walked into the living room with her two small daughters. Perhaps influenced by her mother’s obsessions and perhaps just being a protective mother, she strongly expressed her wish not to have loaded weapons around the ranch house. It was obvious that Dick was irritated by his sister-in-law’s sissified city ways, and he muttered something about handling the weapon in a perfectly safe manner, but in the interest of maintaining family harmony, he removed the ammunition from the ranch house, though not entirely graciously.
Next: Thoughts on Growing Up Dangerously