Image of the author: “Portagee Red Tall in the Saddle” (about 1971)
Veterans soldier up – theirs is a culture of pride. That’s okay; I have no shame in showing my emotions to the VA psychiatrist. “Ask my husband about his dead service friends,” I say, knowing where to dig for PTSD. Ask him, and he responds like it happened yesterday when he was ordered out of the water to watch his Army buddy drown. Today I watch him swim underwater, reaching outer buoys in a single breath. We are north of the Columbia River on Lake Chelan in Washington, a resort town amidst arid canyons of orchards that produce apples, peaches and cherries like modern Gardens of Babylon. In Chelan, this small crescent of sand is scrunched between private resorts where white tourists in matching swimwear play on the lake with ski boats and paddle boards. The public beach attracts migrant fruit pickers who swim in shorts and t-shirts. We join the migrants to share the relief of cold water on a hot Sunday. A woman and two children bob on logs of drift wood. Her gaze is shy at first, reminding me of Andy. He’s my new breakfast friend back in Moses Lake. We’re relating over black coffee, Sausage McMuffins and homelessness. He lives in a truck and we live in a camp trailer. I feel at home among people real enough to understand life’s circumstances are often mismatched with our hopes and expectations. Moments of communal lake bobbing and shared coffee are precious. Authenticity is a great cultural value.
I’m standing with a group of women at a national writer’s conference, listening to casual banter about career television writing. My fingers hold a second glass of California merlot and already I’ve circled the appetizer table twice in hopes meat will materialize between melon cubes and grapes, but cheese will suffice. I’m no California fruitarian. Neither am I in television. But I’m fascinated to hear first-hand from those who are. Through the power of stories, I experience backstage tensions and script dilemmas. Other writers have clumped into groups, and my inner-note-taker notices how people gravitate to cultural familiarity – the willowy white women in classic business casuals; the Latinos with flowing hand movements and rapid speech; the trans-genders in sleeveless tops and flippy sandals. Diversity has marked this conference and yet at the conclusion, the groups seem culturally separated into comfort zones by choice. I choose to stand with the strong women of color. They welcome me with open gestures and language.
My stomach tightens until lungs ache for air. It’s taken me all day and 20 playlists to drive across Montana for the wedding of my cousin I’ve not seen in 17 years. She’s recently recited catechisms, plunged a Catholic baptismal and asked me to stand in for her absentee-mother. This willful return to a culture I have no stake in anymore leaves me gasping. She’s asked me to read in ceremony from the King James Bible, and I wonder which patron saint will help. It occurs to me she has no idea I’m not Catholic. Family dynamics led to our distance. My cousin and I share the pain of acknowledging family incest; with freedom comes exile. I’ve been away 17 years. Therapy. College. Career. Protecting my own children. Married to a soldier who protects me. She’s freshly cleaved and has no family for her side of the pews. My cousin marries a Montana rancher, the culture of our origins, and cowboys at the reception consider me skeptically – overweight, overeducated, and dressed like a high-flatulent city-slicker. One by one my cousin persuades the gathering with stories about me riding nostril-flared horses and holding my seat in a saddle. One lanky cowpoke even asks me to dance. I don’t mention my unseen back injury and pain increases with the beat of the song. Silence I thought I’d purged still slays me. No matter how long I’ve been away from the familiar, I’m still a shadow-child of the west.
Her gruff demeanor doesn’t fool me. Other managers discreetly list her faults and affronts. I recognize a kindred I’m-not-from-Minnesota spirit. Her boldness reminds me of the western states where I grew up. Her space bubble recedes when she talks to me or any other employee until she’s in your face. That’s not Minnesota nice. I watch the natives withdraw; a discreet step backwards, a tuck of the chin. Not me. I stand and take her on fully. I’m quiet, so I surprise her with the volume of my laughter one day, and she looks at me with thoughtful expression. Most people miss my constant stream of humor. I like to josh. She catches on, and we become the company jokesters, surviving unwritten cultural code through humor. Laughter leads to stories and stories require food. She shares her Caribbean culture with me, her family, her son, her New Guinea father and Bahamian mother united in Christ-centered faith, her injustices and joys. I’ve never hungered as much as when I’m with her; no longer workmates but life-long friends. She can describe Caribbean fruits and meals to the point of me salivating. Her cooking is beyond hot-damn, and my son learns from hers how to eat a whole habenaro. Over time, her beautiful dark skin, powerful body, thick hair and strong nose comes to resemble how I see myself.
A Catholic liberal arts college — and I express loathing to my therapist. I want a college education enough to walk over hot coals of memory to get it. I want the education my family of origin scorned. My parents abandoned me in 1985 when I applied to college. They packed up, moved out of the house, lived in one of my father’s logging camps and left me behind. I was 17. I finished high school on my own. I lived in my childhood home empty save for my bedroom. A ranch-hand I worked with drove me to an emergency room in the middle of the night when I got sick with mono. My parents attended my high school graduation, and then my father asked if I was serious about college. I said yes, and he packed up my truck with my bed and belongings, and disowned me. Six months later he reclaimed me after I nearly killed myself in a drunk-driving accident. He was thrilled. It meant I was not serious about college. But he was wrong, and I felt helpless when he again packed up my bed and belongings, and locked them in storage until I came to my senses. I abandoned my things. Found a warrior. College remains a beacon for the knowledge my soul seeks, the truth of ignorance I want to escape from my family, and if it is a Catholic liberal arts college, so be it. My husband stands by me in this mercurial time of moving forward through the past. It’s time for voice reclamation.
Hard rock Christian music shakes my speakers due to a mishap with radio transceivers in the apartment below. I still listen to country, but by my third pregnancy I prefer Stevie Ray Vaughn and Heart. I blame my husband. He’s logging in Montana because I need to escape my parents and grandparents. He has no idea what happened to me in childhood at this point, but he’s learned they are manipulative and dangerous. He has no idea how adept they are at hiding sexual misconduct from the greater world. You don’t know the dangers of incest until you’ve lived in sexual captivity in a place they call home. I’m still hiding my shame, and the stereo receiver unnerves me with its intrusion. My new friends arrive to take me to aerobics, and we leave our toddlers with our saw-dust covered husbands. We’re a culture forged by industry. At the aerobics class, a town woman – because we logging women are on the outskirts of society – makes a mumbled complaint to her companion about too much brown skin in this class. I’m the quiet one. My two boisterous friends, a Latino transplant from Phoenix and a proud native of Rocky Boy Reservation, reverse roles with me. They say nothing. Although not the target of the comment, I shout with a feigned cowboy drawl, “Well excuse me, Ma’am! I guess Portagees ain’t allowed in here!” We bust up laughing because my friends know I’m Portuguese and my maiden name was Fernandes. No one else gets the joke.
My pants are green, my shirt khaki and I’m holding a long-handled scrub-brush for cleaning campground bathrooms. I’m 16, and this is my first job not working for my parents or the neighboring ranch that employs me because I can ride a back-country horse. When you sit a saddle tall, no one cares your age or gender. Horse skills are a great western equalizer. Dealing with horse shit and cow shit makes me a natural for cleaning bathroom stalls. I’m proud of this job, working for the California State Park system. I want to be an archeologist and write historical romances. My male workmates try to haze me, but I’m buckaroo-tough and can turn the jokes on them. Evidently I was hired according to affirmative action because I’m female and my last name is Fernandes. I’m not feminine-looking — I like the masculinity of my uniform– but I don’t think that’s why the visiting Regional Supervisor frowns upon meeting me. He can’t possibly know of what led me to reject make-up, dresses and thoughts of being slender because the local sheriff covered up my suicide attempt. He couldn’t understand that now I write stories in my head because my parents threw away all the ones I committed to paper. But he is concerned with my appearance. He says, “But you don’t look like a Fernandes…”
My mother is trying to make Great-Grandma Fernandes’s enchiladas, but she’s frustrated to follow the time-consuming recipe. Recipes fascinate me. Food fascinates me, but I’m not allowed to eat what my father does. They don’t know I steal slices of cake from the one I’m not supposed to have. I skim slivers across the cuts already made. Knowing I can steal bites makes the forced regiments of grapefruit halves tolerable. At this point in life I still think enchiladas are Portuguese. The family calls me Portagee Red, a cultural jest to explain my auburn hair. They tell me I have Great-Grandma Fernandes’s big nose. I think it’s a Portagee nose. I can swear in Portuguese, and I’m scolded for exclaiming words I don’t understand, but like the feel for their emphasis. I have trophies from rodeos I have trouble recalling, I was so young. I can’t recall much. Horses. Checking cattle. Silver dollars. Being called cry-baby. There’s a song about it… “Charli and I went hunting for flies when I bopped Charli right in the eyes. I said you want more? No! No! My eyes are too sore…” They laugh. I shudder. I don’t always like horses or being a Portagee and I don’t understand why. I go and hide in a book. Chili powder and cumin floats in the air.
Snippets of memory: I don’t know how old I am, but I make the sign of the cross as we pass the Tres Pinos Catholic Church. My father’s sister is driving. After she genuflects, she slaps my hand and hisses that I’m not allowed. In kindergarten I can’t recall the nuns ever speaking. A priest says something about the sins of fathers and I decide if God is going to punish me because of what the men in my family do, I’m done with God. I shock my mother with this statement she never lets me forget.
My father’s family came to the Colonies in 1752 and each generation baptized the next Catholic. Until mine. College revealed an educated faith to me, and a best friend who lived and died by her Catholic culture revealed its beauty. Horse skills revealed a knack for wrangling words. Ancestry.com revealed I’m only 14 percent Portuguese. The name is authentic, but it turns out my hair is Scots, my skin German and my nose Basque. Great-Grandma Fernandes who passed down enchiladas as Portagee food was half Scots, half French. They were all Catholic, but the baptismal font couldn’t protect me and my cousin from the sludge of our family mix.
According to my DNA, I have trace amounts of Mali in my blood; a cultural lost home. I can feel the pulsing genome of where first humans are said to be from and can smell earthen clay from God’s hidden place. If I let my feet wander bare, I might find the path back.
Maybe I’ve always been homeless.