I met Jenny Carpio, more affectionately referred to as “Grandma” by the friends of her granddaughter, on Mother’s Day weekend in 1997 when I was visiting Seattle. At the time, I was trying to decide what graduate school to attend and her granddaughter Meda (a friend from college) offered to serve as tour guide and host during the visit. While graduate school ultimately led me to southern California, the relationship I developed with Meda’s family endured. When you first met Jenny, you immediately sensed that she had a sense of humor, that she was a bit mischievous, and that people who didn’t know Jenny underestimated her strength, determination, and dare I say it… stubbornness. Clearly her granddaughters come by their adventurous souls honestly –the same fight and determination I’ve witnessed in them, comes in no small part from Jenny. During that first visit in 1997, I learned very quickly that Grandma could tell a story like no other. I still smile every time I see a Blue Hawaii with an umbrella in it. She famously told a story about how her daughter Brenda helped her overcome a fear of flying in Hawaii by plying her with “yummy blue drinks that had umbrellas in it” (and perhaps a few other things) before getting on the airplane.
Over the past six years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Grandma about her life history. In fact, when she couldn’t remember my name she called me ‘the interviewer.’ She generously gave hours of her time, relaying her thoughts, stories, and experiences –revisiting joys and traumas of her youth. The first interview began with one simple question, “Tell me about that first trip you took with your granddaughters to New Mexico?” Her stories evolved into a complex, emotional, and at times heartbreaking biographical account of a life that spanned three states, a time period ranging from the Great Depression to the present day; and impacted three generations of her family. This half Mexican, half Native American woman was born in Santa Fé, New Mexico, and has lived all over the country. She spent her childhood in New Mexico, and lived as a young adult in San Pedro, California. World War II eventually brought her to Seattle, Washington where she worked for Boeing and met her future husband, a young Filipino who also worked for the company. She and her family have resided in Seattle since that time.
Her story represents a part of American history often lost or ignored. During our time together she spoke extensively about being abandoned at a young age at St. Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was able to recall very clearly, feelings of anger, confusion, sadness, frustration and abandonment. She remembers arriving at school with her brother with only a small handful of belongings and wondering when they could return home. For years, she was stuck at the school because her father signed paperwork prohibiting her mother from contacting the two children or release them from school. Through good fortune and the kind-hearted act of the lawyer that her mother happened to work for, they were finally rescued from the school. As she recalled the moment when she was ‘rescued,’ Jenny could recall with amazing accuracy not only how happy and joyous she felt, but the exact color of the suit and hat that the lawyer wore and “how absolutely beautiful her mom was.” For Jenny, her mother represented happiness, love, and security. Above all else, she remembers her mother for her strength, tenacity, and perseverance –all characteristics that she tried to embody in her day to day life –and ones she wanted to teach to her son, daughters, and granddaughters.
I could spend hours talking about the stories Jenny shared, but this isn’t that time or place. It is hard to convey in words the way she made those around her laugh until they cried, or how her voice took on an edge of conviction when she was angry or annoyed, or how her turns of phrase revealed so much about the way she viewed the world. I hope one day, you will ask me to retell the story of Grandma Jenny “losing” her granddaughters Maring and Meda in the museum because she didn’t like dealing “with all that smarty pants book stuff “her granddaughters liked. I know that she shared painful truths that she once tried to forget and shared pieces of her life that others would choose to leave silenced and in the past. My hope is that in sharing it with me and knowing that I would pass it on to her family, that it provided a measure of peace and healing. For me, this time was incredibly special because it taught me about love, sacrifice, perseverance and hope. I am a better person for knowing Grandma.
This past Saturday, Jenny left this world after a long and protracted health battle. I like to think that she started a new journey that reunites her with her mother and the family that she desperately missed during the sunset of her life. While I will always regret not committing the time to publishing her story before she passed, I trust that I can pass her stories along for her to her family and others. I don’t have the words to express my profound sadness, but also my gratitude. As I typed this I found my listening to Natalie Merchant’s Kind and Generous –so maybe I will end this entry by borrowing her words.
“Oh, I want to thank you for so many gifts you gave with love and tenderness,
I wanna thank you
I want to thank you for your generosity, the love and the honesty that you gave me
I want to thank you, show my gratitude, my love and my respect for you,
I wanna thank you”
Thank you Grandma Jenny for all that you’ve given the world. You will be missed.
Rest in Peace.