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Pioneer Lady

My Grandma Agnes was born in Washington state in 1899 and lived to be 99 years old. She moved with her family to Imperial Valley California in 1905 and grew up on a farm there.  Her father was 56 at the time but moved his family to the desert because he heard the farming was good there and they grew cotton. Life was hard in the desert. They had to scrape the topsoil of the land before they could even think of planting with a device known as the Fresno scraper, drawn by four horses.  They had canals for irrigation. The area was drawing many immigrants for the farming and was developmental in many areas. My grandma had one of the very first x-rays. She fell off a horse and broke her arm. A horse and buggy took her to a hospital where one of the very first x-ray machines existed. I think she was ten or eleven at the time.  They lived in a tent house; there was wood up to waist level but the rest of the walls and roof were a canvas tent.  They would run across the street to dip themselves in the rain barrel before bed and throw the rain water on the walls and sheets to keep cool at night.  I asked my grandmother if it was hard and she said oh no – she loved it. She could have all the animals she wanted and there was always something to do.  They played in the canals and helped on the farm. She said she didn’t know about air conditioning and didn’t know any different so she was happy..

Grandma Agnes was the youngest of four children and there was a great difference in age between she and her two older brothers.  Her sister Grace was I believe ten years older. Grandma Agnes loved to read. She loved school and wrote the Brawley High School’s fight song.  She was the first one in her family to go to college and went to University of California Berkeley where she made a lot of friends and lived in a sorority.  She fondly told me of going to the baths at Ocean Beach with her friends.

Never one to go for an MRS degree,  Agnes then went on to grad school in Boston and got a job in publishing at Harper’s. She loved walking to work in her little grey suit.  Again no complaints about the cold; she was just so excited to be a working girl. She met my Grandpa – we called him Pop but everyone called him Leo even though his first name was John.  He was an engineer from MIT who went on to design the aqueducts in the San Fernando Valley.  He was very interested in Agnes but she was off to visit Europe for the first time.  When she returned and was in California with her family he happily took the train across the country to see her. “I would have followed her to the ends of the earth,” he confessed once to my aunt Molly.  Besides falling in love with Agnes, Leo fell in love with the desert.  When they married they moved to Los Angeles to raise a family.  He worked for the D.W.P. and she worked as an educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, driving across town to teach children who were confined to home.  She later taught at UCLA and declared she would disown me or any of my sisters if we even applied to U.S.C. I never dared tell her of my screenwriting classes I took there.

In their retirement they traveled all over the world and would come home with gifts from places like Kenya and Ireland and extensive slideshows of photos taken by Pop.  Sadly on their trip to China with my Dad Pop suffered his first stroke.  It was frightening to say the least getting him back to the states.  After that he was not quite the same – he was always happy and excited to see us but had difficulty speaking. It was hard on my grandma, but she helped care for him until he passed in 1987 at the age of 88.

The last decade of Agnes’ life she lived in Quaker Village, a lovely retirement home for seniors in Stanford California. She ran the library and found the other three democrats who lived there.  I would go visit her and we would walk back from lunch to her little apartment.  One day she pulled her walker over to park on a bench.  She wanted to tell me things.  I asked her what her favorite time of her life was and she said she loved taking the family out to the desert, packing up my dad and aunt Grace and getting out into the desert air. The tradition continued with their grandchildren.  She and Pop had an A-frame cabin in the high desert. It’s  where I saw my first snow.  He was an avid photographer and we would go on hikes leaving him behind to set up his tripod. We hiked up a hill and would always bring a rock to put on the rock pile.

Agnes always had a great attitude and did not take her privileges for granted. When it came time to vote she insisted on going in person.  I said she could send an absentee ballot but she pointed her crooked little finger and said, “I was alive when women got the vote. I want to go in person.” She never missed an election and was always very interested in what was going on in the world, years of yellow National Geographic magazines lining her bookshelves as a reminder. I suppose when you grow up like she did in the desert seeing the world is always a wonderful adventure.

In this year’s election there is the greatest possibility ever of a woman becoming our president, and yet there is still no equal rights amendment to the constitution.  Like Agnes I don’t want to take my privileges for granted nor do I want to be stymied by my position as a woman in society.  I want to be like Agnes, using my knowledge to help others and forging ahead despite what societal norms about women dictate.  Happy National Woman’s Day. Let’s make it a point to get that Equal Rights Amendment passed.