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One Mother's Mission

The fourth-grade project that taught lessons to last a lifetime

February 04, 2007|Susan Straight | Susan Straight is a novelist and contributing writer for West.

Three dusty California missions have sat near my desk for years. One has corrugated cardboard for a roof, one has sturdy plywood painted red, and one has magenta-tinted lasagna tiles that have taken quite a beating. By all rights, I should clean my office and get rid of those childhood memories. But instead, I've decided to relive what those long days meant.

Many fourth-graders in California elementary schools build replicas of missions. I'm talking about our famous California missions, strung as if on a flung rosary throughout much of the state. During that fourth-grade year, students replicate a mission of their choice, and the week that they soldier through the playgrounds carrying their buildings is one of my favorites.

I made a mission, with my dad, in 1970. He mixed plaster of Paris with me, for the whitewashed adobe walls, and then helped me fashion a vineyard with twigs. I placed moss on the plywood base, for grass. But it was the visit to the mission itself, San Gabriel Arcangel, that formed much of my vision of history and life in California. It was the beginning of my desire to travel every year, to touch history and feel its grandeur and poverty and injustices.

When each of my daughters reached the fourth grade, I turned the mission project into something that lasted for months. I could do that, as I was already a single mother and ran things back then. Each child picked three missions to visit, so we could decide on the one we'd make, and getting out the map of California was the first thrill. Gaila, my eldest, chose San Juan Bautista, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo and La Purisima.

During spring break, we loaded up the van and headed north on the 101. The April rain-fed grasses were lush, the oaks looked like dark-green parachutes landing on the distant hills. (Our soundtrack that first year was the Spice Girls, if you need a timeline.) Gaila was 9, Delphine 7, and Rosette 3.

San Juan Bautista was a lovely small town, and the mission was beautifully preserved. The square form appealed to Gaila. She took notes, drew sketches, and we admired the garden. But then we wandered to the rear of the property and saw the faint remains of the original El Camino Real. The four of us found a dirt path and we walked on that trail. We imagined how hard the journeys must have been, even with the beauty of wild mustard in clouds of yellow all around us. When we entered the mission grounds again, we saw the cemetery.

Days later, outside Lompoc, we saw La Purisima. That mission was more isolated, standing not in a pretty town like Carmel or San Juan Capistrano, but alone on a windswept plain. The walls were rosy buff, and the chapel looked much as it must have earlier in the century--stark, with a wooden altar and cross. In the soldiers' quarters were small rope beds. We stopped at the infirmary, where many Indians died of smallpox in the spare, dark room. We walked outside the mission boundaries because Delphine had seen small crosses in a barren field.

Many Indians were buried here, outside the mission grounds. Delphine's face changed. "This is where I would have been buried," she said.

She and her sisters are part Cherokee, African and Irish, from their father. She was right.

As we stood there, the romance of fig trees and bougainvillea shading plaster walls, and gilt decorations in ornate chapels, began to fade.

We did not hate the missions then, or our California history. But we got back into our van changed by history. We began to talk about our family's heritage as immigrants and slaves and military veterans and builders and survivors. From then on, our landscapes--the walls of tumbleweeds that line chain-link fences in winter near Glen Avon, where I was born amid migrants from the Dust Bowl; the fields near the Santa Ana riverbed where friends originally from Georgia raised pigs; the street near our house called Wong Way, after the original neighborhood of Chinese men who owned laundries and shops--seemed overlaid with a patina of history.

That was partly because our California past was being erased so quickly and thoroughly by housing developments and freeways and shopping malls. But it also was because I was lucky enough to have three kids who loved to drive and tell stories and stop with me to look around, to find beach glass and iridescent fig beetles and even a fossil now and then.

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