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For thirteen of the first fifteen years of my life I was confused about my cultural identity. I met George Nieto when I was two and a half years old, and I got it into my head that I was a Mexican, not the American-Franco/German that I, in fact, was. My fair complexion, and brown hair and eyes betrayed me throughout life. I wasn’t ashamed of my heritage, and I did indeed love my parents and grandparents. In fact, the French part was actually pretty cool because I saw it as my hereditary link to Latin culture, and the same goes for the Catholic religion I’d been baptized into, but those two things didn’t alter the genetic reality of my situation. And the fact that my childhood screen heroes were guys like Leo Carrillo, Anthony Quinn and Jay Silverheals didn’t make me either a Mexican or a native north American, no matter how much I wanted it to be so. My problem was that I lived in a light beige skin, surrounded by family, friends and neighbors of a similar shade, but mentally, I was a Mexicano, or at the very least, an American-Mexican.
I was lucky to be born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lucky, that is, because Minneapolis was then and still is a town that’s steeped in Native American culture and myth. The birth took place in the front room of my grandparents’ house seven and a half months before Japanese warplanes made their attack on Pearl Harbor. I’ve always felt fortunate to have been born in the house because it stood on land that was farmed and hunted on by tribesmen of the Sioux nation long before my European ancestors even knew it existed.
It was an auspicious and interesting beginning. According to my mother, my actual birth had been an easy one. It was just a long time coming; I was a month overdue. It happened on a Monday afternoon as the springtime bloomed. Grandma was waiting at the bus stop as my mom and my big brother, Frank, got off the bus. Grandma pulled Frank and her youngest daughter, my Aunt Jessie, back to her house in a red wagon. My mom walked the one block down to her doctor’s office on the corner of Queen Avenue and Lowry Avenue.
I’ve always carried a picture in my mind’s eye of Francesca on that day, bracing her lower back, palms flat on her high rump, elbows akimbo, toes pointing slightly outward, as she waddled off down the street. I don’t doubt she felt bad about her dumpy appearance that afternoon, but I’m sure she also had a strong sense of the bloom that pregnancy bestows on a woman. When she wasn’t pregnant, which is the only way I ever saw her, she was really beautiful—an absolute knockout. She was five feet four inches tall, and she weighed around a hundred and ten pounds. Her light brown hair, medium-length with a permanent wave, soft brown eyes, and creamy-smooth skin all highlighted her Judy Garland smile.
After the exam and the doctor’s reassurance that everything was fine, even though she was in her tenth month, she left his office, cut through the Cleveland school playground, and walked the other half block to my grandma’s house. I must’ve heard this story a half dozen times from as many points of view when I was a little kid. Mom told it to me first, having experienced it from beginning to end. Grandma, Antoine (that’s my dad), and Grandpa each added his or her own twist to the tale. They were there too.
“When I got to the top of the steps, I pulled open the screen door, and my water broke right when I turned the doorknob,” Francesca said in her Minnesota/Great Lakes accent. “I pushed the door open and called out to Ma. She was fixin’ dinner. Frank and Jessie were out in the back yard with Pa and all my brothers and sisters, except Helen and Danny. They were all there, you know? Ma came out of the kitchen on the run to help me get to the couch. Then she hurried out to the front porch and called out to Missus Rungren, next door. She had a telephone, so she called the doctor.”
Grandma came back into the house just in time to be my mom’s midwife. By the time Missus Rungren arrived on the scene, I was already born. She also had an anecdote about that day. When I was eight years old, we were back in Minneapolis for my Uncle Danny’s ordination into the priesthood. At a party at Grandma’s house, Missus Rungren told a gathering in the living room all about it.
“We were lucky the doctor didn’t leave his office yet,” Missus Rungren said. “When I phoned him, he said he’d get an ambulance out here, and he’d come right over for an emergency house call. I hung up and rushed over here, but I was too late because you were already born. You gave me a bit of a scare. When I first saw you, it looked like your umbilical cord was around your neck, but it wasn’t, and you were fine. Such a big baby. You were crying. You wanted to be fed.”
“Jeekers!” Grandma said. “You were a fat little baby, and you were hungry from the start. I was in the kitchen gettin’ dinner ready. Danny was right there at the dining room table doing his homework. All the other kids were in the back yard with Conrad. Just as soon as I got Frannie settled on the davenport, your little head popped out, and the next thing I knew, I was holdin’ you in my arms.”
Since it was a late Monday afternoon, so close to the dinner hour, all but one of my mom’s siblings were around the house. Helen, the next in age to Francesca, missed it because she was a University of Minnesota coed and lived on campus. Danny, who was graduating from high school in June and going to seminary in September, was the second person after Grandma to see me. Maddy (short for Madeleine), Luke, Casey and Edith, tenth grade, eighth grade, fifth grade and second grade respectively all came in to stare in wonder and awe at the goings-on on the living room davenport.
The doctor showed up ten minutes later. He immediately cut and tied off my umbilical cord. Then he did all of his checking with the stethoscope, and Grandma and Missus Rungren cleaned up the afterbirth with the water Grandma had heated on the stove while she was waiting for him to show.
I wasn’t fifteen minutes old and already suckling when Dad showed up. He was a pressman’s feeder at a big printing company in downtown Minneapolis named Brown and Bigelow, trying, without much success, to break into the lithographers union. Minneapolis was a union town, and the only way you could get anywhere in the printer’s union in those days was if you were related to someone in the hierarchy. Needless to say, Antoine didn’t have relatives, or friends for that matter, anywhere in the hierarchy, but he did know a couple of guys in the rank and file.
He knew how to run a press and he should have been an apprentice pressman like his buddies in the union, but since he couldn’t gain membership, he was stuck as a feeder. The feeder was the guy who oiled the press first thing in the morning, and then he kept paper-loaded skids fed into it for an eight hour shift. When the paper came out all printed up at the other end, the feeder then unloaded it and muscled it over to the bindery. When I was in high school, I got a job as a feeder in one of the print shops where Antoine worked, so I know, first hand, how hard the work is. For him it was back-breaking labor that barely paid a subsistence wage, but he considered himself lucky to even have a job, because, as far as he was concerned, the Depression was still going on, and he had no idea then that it would end in just seven and a half months.
The first time I heard the story of my father’s arrival at my birth, I tried to imagine how he looked that day. Antoine was a wiry little guy who bore a strong resemblance to James Cagney in facial features, stature and attitude. His thinning, black hair was parted on the left and combed straight back on the sides and top, and it was such a contrast to his white skin that it made his cobalt-blue eyes really stand out. I’m sure he was hunched and hobbled that afternoon after eight hours on the job. I picture him straightening up and coming alive at the sight of his newborn son as he came into a house that hummed with women, children and childbirth.
“I got there before the ambulance,” Antoine said at the ordination gathering in Grandma’s living room. “What a little roly poly you was! Prit’near tipped the scales at twelve pounds!” My dad always liked to exaggerate. “The cord just barely cut, and already you was suckin’ on your ma’s tit. Your curled-up little fingers were on each side of your head, tryin’ to get a-hold of that tit. I stuck my baby finger into one of your hands, and you just grabbed onto it and squeezed to beat hell. Then you pulled your face away from that tit and hauled off and gave me a big grin, and not a tooth in your head.”
Grandpa—his name was Conrad Konig—had been home from work since three-thirty. He was out in the back yard with the kids when all the excitement started. He was also a little guy, but he was stockier than my dad and he had a pot belly. He had about an inch and a half of wispy, gray hair that wrapped around the back of his head from one temple to the other. He and Grandma both had soft brown eyes, framed by rimless wire bifocals. They both also had false teeth from a young age. Grandpa and Grandma—her name was Gretchen—were both a couple of inches taller than Mom, and Grandma probably weighed more than Grandpa. He looked like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Mister Magoo. Grandma, on the other hand, could’ve doubled for Marjorie Main in her role as Ma Kettle.
“I be jiggered if you wasn’t a picture of contentment, nursin’ the way you was,” Grandpa said. “And so alert too. Seemed like you knew what was goin’ on around you from the first day on.”
At ten to six an ambulance pulled up at the curb. The attendants wheeled Mom and me out to it on a gurney. The doctor walked alongside the gurney and got in the back of the ambulance with us. After he made arrangements with Grandma and Grandpa to leave Frank with them, Dad followed us to the hospital in the car. Mom got settled in her room, and I was taken to the nursery where I was weighed (eleven pounds two ounces) and measured (twenty-two inches). Dad took care of the paperwork for the birth certificate. I was named after him: Jerôme Antoine Farot (his name was Antoine Georges Farot, and he was proud of his French heritage, thus the caret over the O in my name).
I was the healthiest of the three babies my mom had. My older brother Frank was born five weeks premature, spent a month an a half in the incubator, and, according to Antoine, was still small enough to fit into a shoe box when they brought him home from the hospital. My younger brother Jean (the French pronunciation) was born with one lung and died when he was only six months old. Mom was in hard labor for hours with my two brothers and only a few minutes with me.
Frank’s full name was Franklin Paul Farot. He was named after President Roosevelt, who was Antoine’s idol. Dad rode the rails from Minneapolis to Seal Beach, California when he was fifteen years old. He left Seal Beach a year later and went up into the Owens Valley to work in a CCC camp. He told the story many times over the years of how he once shook hands with Roosevelt when he came touring the camp. He thought the guy was great, or as he put it himself countless times through the years, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one hell of a swell fella’.” Frank’s middle name came from Paul Konig, who was Mom’s cousin and Dad’s best friend.
I don’t remember too much about those early years in Minneapolis. Because I’ve always been such a warm-weather person, I find it ironic that the only two memories that remain are snow memories. It was probably our last winter living there. I was freezing, and I didn’t like it one bit. My Latin blood was rebelling. One night right after a fresh snowfall a pregnant Francesca with Frank and me in tow got off of a city bus. As it pulled away from the corner, the reek of acrid diesel wafted in the air and clashed with the crisp, fresh smell of the new fallen snow. Every time I’ve ever been in the snow and smelled its fresh scent, I’m reminded of that night those many years ago.
The only other memory I have from that time is of one snow-covered day when we were at Grandma’s house. As Mom and Grandma sat over steaming coffee mugs at the dining room table, Frank, Jessie and I wrestled Uncle Casey’s skis up the basement steps. The coal furnace roared on that cold winter day, emitting the smell of coal gas, heating the dank, musty basement as well as the house above. That day must have been a coal delivery day because the stuff was piled almost to the lip of the coal chute. When we got the skis out the back door at the top of the basement steps, the freezing cold took my breath away. It didn’t even seem to faze Jessie and Frank. We took the skis around front and tried to use them like toboggans to go down the five foot embankment from Grandma’s front yard to the sidewalk. We weren’t too successful as the skis were probably at least six feet long. Frank and Jessie were having a great time, but I was miserable from the cold. I yearned for the desert, yet I knew nothing about it.
I don’t remember a thing about my little brother Jean. He was named after our other grandpa Jean Farot. His middle name was Georges, after Dad, and he was born twenty-two months after me. He only lived for six months. One night Mom went in to check on him in his crib, and he lay dead, the result of complications from having just one lung. That was a defining moment in my mother’s life and the event that finally convinced her and my dad to leave Minneapolis and head for southern California. America was fully engaged in the wars in Europe and the Pacific, and Antoine had heard that there were good job opportunities at the naval ship yard in Long Beach. His job at Brown and Bigelow was more than ever a dead end, and Mom just wanted to get out of Minneapolis and get shut of the reminders of her late infant son.
So they packed as much as they could get into the thirty-six Packard Dad was driving at the time, tied a loaded steamer trunk to the rear bumper, and one morning in late September the four of us headed west and south. I don’t remember anything about that trip, but Mom later told me that when we crossed over the Rocky Mountains, I was getting some pretty bad nose bleeds which scared her a couple of times. We were otherwise lucky, driving away from winter, and actually winning the race with the weather, making it to warm and sunny Long Beach by the middle of the first week of October with no car trouble, not even a flat tire.
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