Thursday, July 01, 2010

Grandfather Trilogy (Pt. II): Ross Florentino Cariaga

Ross Cariaga, circa 1963

My paternal grandfather, Ross Florentino Cariaga, was born in the year 1913, in the Philippine Islands, which, at that time, was a territory of the United States. He was from the Ilocos Norte region (the same region from which came Ferdinand Marcos).  His mother died birthing him and so young Ross was partially orphaned at the very moment he entered the world.  Grandpa came to America at 17 years of age with other young friends from school, without his family and basically alone.  It was a decade before the Japanese invasion of the Islands in 1941, and when the war broke out, Grandpa was ten years in America, working as a migrant agricultural worker.  He harvested grapes, asparagus and pears all up and down the Pacific Coast for many years before wedding my grandmother, Jenny Rodriguez in 1938 and settling in Fresno, California.

Grandpa and Grandma had three children:  Rosalind (my Auntie Lina) born in 1939, Ross, Junior, (my father) born in 1940, and Donald (my Uncle Don) born in 1946.  The family lived in Fresno through the 40s and 50s before moving south to Coachella, California sometime around 1960. 

Me and Eric and Grandma and Grandpa Cariaga

Grandpa managed a camp for migrant workers (mostly Filipinos and Mexicans) outside Indio, California for many years.  Some of my earliest memories are of times out at "the Camp" as my family called it, playing with my cousins in the dry, oppressive heat of the Coachella Valley.

In the late 70s, Ross and Jenny divorced.  Sometime in the 80s, Ross remarried a Filipina, Gunding, with whom he remained married to the end of his life.  

In our family, Grandpa's word was not questioned.  All of his grandchildren learned from birth that Grandpa was to be obeyed and treated with respect and reverence. 

He was a small man, standing 5' 3", with a small stature.  But his expressive manner, especially when he was angry, would cause anyone to reel. He was notoriously impatient, and capable of quick, angry outbursts that would set you hopping to obey.  He would bark a command, in his heavily-accented English (the accent grew thicker when he was angry), thrusting his face forward, raising his eyebrows so that his forehead creased, flailing his hands.

Grandpa, circa 1992, a year before his passing

In my high school and college years, living in Klamath Falls, Grandpa would come visit every year.  At least once during each visit, Grandpa would spend an entire day cooking Filipino food for us all to enjoy.  Over time, we established the tradition that I would drive Grandpa to the various markets around town so that he could buy the food.  There were various meats, vegetable greens, lots of ginger, vinegar, soy sauce. 

We'd go to the market, Grandpa wandering through the produce section, or the butcher shop; me, pushing the cart behind him.  At intervals he would send me running off after some item or another.  For example, he would mutter:  "Son, go get the grapefruit," and as I started away he would say, "Get the big one."

I'd locate the grapefruit and carefully select the biggest one I could find, then come back with it.  "Like this, Grandpa?" I would ask, holding the fruit up for him to see.

"The big one!" he would shout, his eyes flaring, his chin thrust out at me.  "The big one!"  And, as I stood there flummoxed he would grab my hand and pull me over to the grapefruit stand where he invariably found a fruit that was bigger and riper than the one I selected.  There was always a warm affection behind his anger, and the entire oft-repeated exchange was funny to me.  Not that I dared smile.  Heaven forefend what that insolence might elicit!

Grandpa, the way I remember him
In later years, Grandpa became less animated, less volatile.  One of the last times I saw Grandpa, we had a  brief conversation about President Marcos.  It was shortly after Ferdinand and Imelda (ah, Imelda!) had been deposed and escaped to Hawaii. 

We were in the kitchen at Dad's house on Klamath Lake.  Grandpa was sitting at the kitchen table with the newspaper spread on the tabletop in front of him. I was standing by the cold wood stove.  The morning was warm and sunny, like most Klamath Basin mornings in the late spring.  We were sipping coffee.

The Islands were going through some unrest at the time and I was a young man, eager to draw firm conclusions from everything I saw.  "You know, Grandpa, one thing I'll say for Marcos:  he may have been crooked, but he kept the country together." Mentally, I braced myself for a rebuke.

Grandpa leaned back in the kitchen chair. His brown skin was dotted with liver marks.  A few sparse strands of hair still clung to his scalp at the very back of his head.  "Yeah, son," he said.  "He kept the country together."  He smiled, serenely:  a wide open-mouthed smile.  The deep wrinkles about his eyes grew deeper, more pronounced.  His smile said more to me than his words.  It was a gentle smile, tinged with a hint of resignation and satisfaction.  He made no attempt to correct what he surely must have thought to be the naivete of my opinion.  I had the sense that he was content with the man that I had become; the man that he helped shape.

I suddenly saw how much he had aged in the years since I had last seen him.

In 1993, Grandpa passed away in Palm Springs, California.  The Cariaga family lost our patriarch:  the man who came all the way across the wide Pacific Ocean to plant a seed in the New World.  We were all sad, of course.  But my own grief was assuaged by my faith that Grandpa, as he passed, was content with his legacy, with the progress of this thing he had started in America.  The gentle smile he showed me that morning in Klamath Falls had told me as much.

To be continued...

(Read Pt 1:  William Robert Metzger here.)

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