Genetic Predispositions: Part 1
Because of the nature of the broken relationship with my father, I am only privy to half of the knowledge of my genetic composition—and even that half is a blurry snapshot as opposed to a well-developed photograph, since much of the story of the ancestors that brought me into existence is one of poverty and addiction. It all begins with my great, great, great grandfather James Mahon the first.
James Mahon was born in Ireland and eventually immigrated to New York with his wife, Martha, in the early 1800’s. They moved to a town in Colorado now known as Buena Vista, and were the area’s first settlers—the settlement was originally known as Mahonville. Mahonville is the heart of my family’s history. James and Martha ranched the land, raising primarily cattle and horses. As was the case for most ranch families at the time, they took to having children for the sake of having extra ranch hands. One such child, James II, became my great, great grandfather. He was eleven years old when his father was kicked to death by a mule. He married a half-French half-Native woman named Eva Paquette, who helped him operate the family ranch. They had four children, three of whom they kicked out of the house before adulthood. The middle-child of the three in exile was my great grandfather, James “Squanto” Mahon III, cast from home to take on the world at age thirteen. His sister, who was only fourteen at the time, married a thirty-something year old man in exchange for shelter and horses for her and her siblings.
Through the careful work of Sqaunto’s daughter, my grandmother, the details of his life have been preserved via oral mythology. It is through my interviews with her that I am able to recount a vivid portrayal of struggle, triumph, and failure—that I am able to tell the story of where I came from.
I: Squanto Mahon
Call Me Squanto
Little Jimmy was out helping his father one day, at a very young age. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, but there he was riding his own horse and herding cattle while his father tended the nearby potato fields with a couple of ranch hands.Well, Little Jimmy decided work shouldn’t have to be work. He plucked a feather from the air, which had fallen hundreds of feet from a passing hawk, and positioned it triumphantly in his hat. With dirt he painted his face into that of a warrior, and by removing his shirt he heightened this effect. “Aiyeeyeeyeeyeeyee!” he wailed, striking the behinds of cattle with the wooden “tomahawk” he’d broken off a nearby pine. The ranch hands were amused by his antics as they worked, and indulged in some fun of their own; as Jimmy rode by them, he would imitate the motions of an arrow being drawn and loosed in their direction, and one by one they would collapse, clutching their chests and cursing, “Damn you, Squanto!” The name stuck, and Little Jimmy became Squanto until the day he died.
While it’s true Squanto earned his name in part from “playing Indian” in his father’s field, it was also partially ascribable to his appearance and genetics. Squanto’s grandfather, Harness, was a French Canuk who left his tribe in Canada and migrated to Colorado, where he met Squanto’s grandmother. Harness spent his final days in Salida, a larger town outside of Buena Vista. When he sensed his death was near, he retreated to the mountains and constructed for himself a “stone igloo.” Once inside, he slit his wrists and the mountainside consumed him. His body wasn’t found until years later.
The innocence of my great grandfather is
The last preservation of my Native roots.
Could he not have known the men in that field
Were mocking him? That they were actually racist?
All his life Squanto wore that name like a badge of honor.
How could he have known?
Would he have cared if he had?
He was Squanto, the Indian-Cowboy,
And goddamn, the title somehow captured
The essence of the man who wore it.
“Now!” hollered Squanto to his little sister, signaling her to scare the unworked horses out of the barn while he sat perched above the exit. Within seconds six broncs were running and bucking with all the angst of creatures who still remembered what it meant to be free. The largest one, black as night with legs that could kick a head clean off its shoulders, came out a little slower than the rest. Just slow enough.
“Gotcha now!” yelled Squanto as he leapt from his hiding place and on to the beast’s back, clutching frantically for a fistful of mane, which he managed to find. It was no use though. With one wild spring of its hind legs the horse sent Squanto flying through the air and into the soft dirt. “Dammit,” grunted Squanto while he glared away his sister’s giggles. They corralled the horses back into the barn, and Squanto climbed back into position.
Horses were an essential part of Mahon family life. They were sold and bartered, rode in the rodeo, and, most importantly, used for transportation. They were Squanto’s life. From an early age he was mesmerized by the creatures—captivated by their elegance and power. Before he was big enough to ride for real he would try to break the untamed horses for fun, and his fascination never died.
Squanto was as wild as the horses he broke.
He was equally fearless
And as free as they come.
The previous year Squanto graduated from eighth grade, and today was his first day of high school. He was anxious because money had been particularly tight at the time, and his few articles of clothing were worn and dirty. His boots were his father’s and not his own, and were four or five sizes too big. Still, Squanto hopped up on his horse, gritted his teeth, swallowed his angst and set off for school.
“Hey boots, where are you going with that boy?” shouted the first man he saw as he neared the edge of town. Squanto bowed his head in shame, turned his horse on a dime, and galloped him the whole way home. With that, his educational career ended.
If Squanto had known what it meant to be impoverished, he would’ve known that his family was an extreme case of it. They had no running water or electricity, and ate only the vegetables they grew in the garden or the livestock they raised in the field. They didn’t have cars, so they couldn’t afford to see much of the world. There was no such thing as “luxuries” in their household. At a time when the country itself was considered poor, the Mahons were among the poorest, and the embarrassment of not having money cost my great grandfather his education.
Treat him as dirt, for
He cannot afford to be clean.
Strip him of dignity, for
the poor deserve none.
Let him know that he is poor, for
The sake of his always remaining that way.
But know also that money
Does not define a man.
Squanto’s first real job after leaving school was planting trees for the US Civilian Conservation Core. He was only seventeen, the minimum age allowed to work for the CCC, but the older guys took a liking to him nonetheless. In their free time they liked to box, so Squanto decided to learn. It turned out he was one tough son of a bitch, and he started to think of himself as some sort of “prizefighter.” His new friends decided they should put his ability to the test and booked him a small fight in Buena Vista.
“Hey there, buddy,” approached Squanto’s opponent before the match, “Let’s try to not hurt one another ok?”
“Well what the hell d’ya mean by that? Ain’t we fighting?” asked Squanto.
“Yeah, but let’s not hurt each other. Just kinda try to fool the public and get our cut, okay?”
“Yeah, sure, ok.” Squanto agreed, but the second that bell rang his opponent flew across the ring like a bat out of hell and knocked him down with one clean shot. After overcoming his shock, Squanto scrambled to his feet. His fury got the better of him, and he abandoned all he’d learned about boxing. He was a raging bull, and after knocking this cowboy to the ground he was going to stomp on him. Squanto climbed on the man’s chest and let him have it until the ref pulled him off. He was disqualified.
But goddamn if he didn’t almost kill the cheap bastard.
Money was never something Squanto had enough of. Before planting trees, Squanto earned his keep by helping his aunt’s significant other bootleg whiskey. After working for the CCC, Squanto found work as a horse breaker for a wealthy rancher who paid him in food and housing. He continued to box in the towns around Buena Vista whenever he could find a paying fight. Around this time he also started riding horses in rodeos, and he was fairly successful; he even got to ride at Madison Square Garden once. Then, when he was in his early twenties, he joined the army. His job during World War II was to set and arm defensive mines in New York Harbor. After leaving the army he continued to rodeo a little bit, but worked primarily as a construction worker for nine years.
Although humble in his later years,
Squanto believed he was the best at anything he attempted while he was young.
In his own mind,
He was a prizefighter.
He was rodeo god.
He was a hell-raising, Indian-Cowboy:
Headstrong, stubborn, and ready
To take on the world with closed fists.
Babe and the Later Years
“Goddamn what a babe,” said Squanto’s brother Adlor, nodding towards the recent divorcee.
“I’ll be damned if she’s not mine in a month,” replied Squanto. He was fresh out of the military, and was considered by some the most eligible bachelor in Buena Vista. “Hey babe,” he said clumsily as he approached her, “Let me buy you a drink.” They were married within the year.
Isabell “Babe” Wells had seven children from her first marriage. Together with Squanto she had three more girls, the oldest of whom is my grandmother. She and Squanto opened a pool hall and liquor store in Buena Vista, where my grandma and her siblings grew up. Squanto spent the majority of his adult life running the liquor store while Babe operated the pool hall. A stroke is what finally ended Squanto’s long and arduous life of labor.
We hope our children learn from it.
My grandmother (whom I’ll affectionately refer to as Nana henceforth) hardly knew her father growing up. Most of what she knows—all of what I know—about Squanto comes from an interview she conducted with him after his stroke during his final days. He was practically a non-factor in her life growing up. She raised herself, her younger sisters (Yvonne and Connie,) and her blind half-brother (Bobby,) after her second-to-last remaining half-brother moved out of the house when she was about eight. From that time forward she played mom. This is why there is no discussion of Squanto’s children in the portrayal of his life; he was an abusive, alcoholic, absent father.
Nana was born into similar circumstances as her father, since he never managed to escape them. The birthright of the poor is poorness.
She describes her young self as the “Hillbilly from Hell:” no electricity, no running water, and very few nice things. They had some horses, a garden, and a nearby creek where they got water: everything a child needs to survive on their own.
II: Penny Mahon
Penny was six years old the summer she took her sisters camping. They were both younger than four. Leaving the ranch wasn’t hard, as the girls possessed unsupervised freedom; so much so, that three little girls ventured out into the forest on their own and survived there for a week.
“Penny, Penny look I caught one!” cried Connie to Penny as she wrestled with a fish at the end of her father’s fly rod.
“Good job!” Penny called back, followed by, “Yvonne help your sister unhook that fish. Perfect timing too. Just got this damn fire lit.” Penny gutted Yvonne’s fish and cooked it together with her own catches. They roasted them on the fire, and ate them with some raspberries from a bush Connie had happened upon while gathering wood.
The scene I’ve just illustrated is almost too bizarre to be true, but it comes straight from the horse’s mouth. As my Nana tells it, she had more life skills when she was six than she has now at sixty. She cooked, cleaned, built fires, and took care of her siblings. She was their provider and their protector, as well as their teacher; if not for her guidance they wouldn’t have attended school, if not for her nurturing they wouldn’t have survived at home.
Nana speaks of that week at Buffalo Meadows with nostalgia
And warmth in her voice. Pride also peeks its head in her tone.
Who needs a father, anyways?
Life is survival.
Penny Mahon survived.
Old Enough to Work
“Cherries and worms, get your cherries and worms here,” Bobby said charismatically as Penny guided him around the pier, “We have the sweetest cherries and the fattest worms this side of Salida right here, folks.”
They’d spent the better part of the day picking the choke cherries and catching worms, and they’d figured a quarter a bucket for either was more than fair. They were about to start begging—Penny leading with the usual “help my poor blind brother and I eat” pitch and Bobby’s unmatched charisma closing the deal—but were spared the humiliation by an elderly fisherman. He smiled warmly as he said, “I’ll take everything you got.”
Money meant survival, and everyone did whatever they could to earn some. Nana and her brother Bobby sold whatever they could to whoever they could from the time she was about five. Everyone who could work did; labor wasn’t optional. They made due, improvised, and lived off what they had.
Work ethic of my Nana’s degree is all but lost.
I like to tell myself I work hard,
But I don’t know what it means to work hard.
I haven’t the slightest insight as to what it means
To have to work to survive.
She knew what it was to work; to struggle for every cent,
For every meal.
But she never lost optimism.
She never succumbed to the pressure.
It wasn’t a bad childhood, she tells me.
Dirty Town Drunk
“Dammit Penny, fall off that horse again and I’m leaving you behind,” her older brother Jim told her, as she lost her balance and fell in the dirt. She was quite a sight: clothes worn and dirty before she’d even fallen—not to mention two sizes too big everywhere—hair matted and unkempt, and body much too small to be riding alone. Jim hopped off his horse and casually tossed her back on hers. “That’s the last time now, I’m serious.”
Penny held on the best she could, but when she fell off again a mile outside of town Jim rode on without her. He just couldn’t be late for class again. She understood. She spent the next ten minutes scraping together enough dirt and rocks to give herself the boost she needed to get back on to her horse, then she made it all the way to the edge of town before falling off again. The school wasn’t much farther so she decided to just walk the rest of the way.
As she passed a local bar, her face flushed red with embarrassment when she heard a familiar voice call her name.
“Penny!” yelled Squanto, who was handcuffed to a post outside of the bar. “Get your ass over here and help me figure a way outta these damned things.” But Penny continued to walk toward school with her head down. She was late enough as it was, and she knew her father would be too drunk to remember her betrayal. “Penny goddammit, you get back here!”
As if her morning hadn’t been hell enough already, the instant she entered her classroom the teacher started to harass her. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the dirty little daughter of the dirty town drunk, late again.” Penny ignored her and took her seat. “What’s your excuse today? It certainly couldn’t have taken you long to get ready.” Penny continued ignoring her, and the teacher gave up and went on teaching.
My Nana and her siblings, like their father, were bullied constantly at school because of their poverty—mostly by teachers. They were made to have their fingernails checked for scum in front of the whole class on a regular basis, and were the subjects of constant ridicule. Nana, however, refused to give in to the shame of poverty the same way her father had. She stuck it out and attained her high school diploma, working legitimate jobs (unlike her childhood work) and going to school the entire time, all the while raising her siblings and facilitating their educational and survival needs.
It’s funny, in a morbidly paradoxical way:
The best way to make money is by educating oneself;
The only way to get a fair education is to have money.
My Nana didn’t need fair.
She had work ethic and self-discipline—even intelligence—against all the odds.
She was smart enough to want an education, and driven enough to make it happen
With or without anyone to help her.
Shortly after high school Penny began working behind a switchboard at the town motel. It was there she met my grandfather, Mo Cunliffe. Mo had just returned from Vietnam and was looking for work in Buena Vista. Fate brought the two of them together. They had three children, Lisa (the oldest,) Joey (the youngest,) and Aimee (my mother.) Penny hadn’t known then the toll Vietnam took on a young man.
One night Penny and Mo looked through pictures Mo had taken while in Vietnam, their children draped over their laps and shoulders.
“Here are me and some of my buddies,” Mo stated, indicating with his index finger which of the men in the photograph was him. He moved his finger. “That one there is Captain Davis. He was my pilot, and the person who told me what to do.”
“Show them a picture of your helicopter, Mo,” Penny chimed in.
“Well sure,” he said, flipping to a page in the scrapbook full of pictures of his helicopter: some with him and Captain Davis in it, some with just him, and some of just the machine.
“What’s that thing you’ve got there Daddy?” piped up Aimee, pointing to a picture of her father seated in the door of the helicopter, holding his firearm.
“That there is my M60. My gun. Lucy, I called her.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Did you have to shoot a lot of people?” The smile, and all other expression on Mo’s face, evaporated like a cloud in Death Valley. Penny began fidgeting with angst.
“Well that Captain Davis…” he started, pausing for a moment, then resuming, “He had me shoot just about everything that moved. Gooks with big guns who shot at us. Gooks with little guns who shot at us. Even the gooks without guns.” He stared at the white of the wall, fixated on its blankness as if he were looking from the side of his chopper at the fires of Vietnam.
“Mo, stop,” Penny pleaded, but he continued as if he hadn’t heard. She didn’t know if he had.
“Even the little zipperhead children who tried to run. Even their zipperhead mothers who tried to shield them from us. Everyone, Davis told me, shoot everyone you see…”
“Mo!” Penny screamed, knocking him lose of his trance. Her children sat silent with petrification.
“Sorry,” Mo said, “I’m sorry.” He asked his children if they wanted to see anymore pictures. They said it was ok.
The marriage between my Nana and Mo didn’t last long—about five years. Mo’s PTSD was beyond severe, and he never readjusted to normality. His racist, violent language and behavior threatened Nana’s children, and she was forced to leave him. Shortly after, desperately needing the support of a man to properly provide for her children, she married Phil Jorgenson. He was a construction worker with two children of his own: my uncles Ted and John. He was the person I grew up knowing as my grandfather, and the primary male role model in my mother’s life. I only ever met Mo once, and was too little to remember the occasion now.
Sometimes life hands us a hammer, and nails,
And tells us to build a house.
Sometimes life hands us an automatic weapon, and bullets,
And tells us to fire at foreign children.
Life is weird like that.
Fathers are weird like that, too.
“I swear if anyone buys me another drink I’m gonna start stripping!” Penny’s sister Connie half-slurred half-yelled from the end of the bar, mortifying her sister in front of the other honors students and her professor. She was even more embarrassed when all of the male students—and her professor—all sent drinks to that end of the bar. This was supposed to be her night, but her drunk-ass sister was ruining it. Well, perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic. After all, her peers reacted light heartedly, her sister wasn’t actually going to strip, and, after all, nothing could actually ruin it.
By taking twenty credit hours a semester (though still working full-time) Penny earned her degree in social work at thirty five years old, taking only three years to do it. What’s more, Penny had not only graduated, but had done so with honors. This outing was meant to commemorate her and the other honors students’ achievements. Nothing could take away her sense of pride and accomplishment—not even belligerent siblings.
My Nana’s work as a social worker, after her children, was the greatest joy of her life. Her job was to take children out of abusive homes and place them with foster parents. She described the job as the zenith of her life’s success, and as the most rewarding thing she’s ever done. She took great pride in the fact that none of the adoptions of the children she worked with were forced. That is, she convinced mothers to give up their children willingly, consoling them with the knowledge that bright futures were only possible with parents who could afford children.
The best people
Come from nothing
And when finally they have something
All they want
Is to give it to people
Who come from nothing.
In Star Valley, Wyoming, situated high in the mountains overlooking the town, is the most gorgeous house I have ever seen. My Papa Phil built the entire thing from the ground up, improving upon it until the day he died. It is the house my mother and her siblings grew up in. It is a house where I have all the memories of my Nana and Papa, as well as some aunts and uncles and cousins whom I rarely see. It is, I have to repeat, gorgeous: surrounded by trees, wildlife and fresh mountain air. My Nana still owns this house, though my Papa passed when I was about halfway through high school.
But she doesn’t live there. Instead, she lives in a small trailer in Buena Vista. The entire structure reeks of cigarette smoke. That’s all my Nana does these days; she sits at the table in her little trailer and drinks and smokes with her boyfriend Mike. He is the most redneck, backwards man I have ever met in my life, and he grew up in Buena Vista with my Nana. He is uneducated, perverted, and downright gross (the first time I met him I watched him practically make out with his own daughter, just as an example). He is also a raging alcoholic, which is the reason why I believe she’s with him—he is the only one who will tolerate her own addiction. The drinking will kill them both before too long, and just like that the cycle will be complete: a poor, drunk death to compliment a poor, drunk birth.
My Papa spent the final days of his life restoring a vintage Firebird to better-than-perfect condition. It never left the garage. Now I am disgusted to see Mike drive it around as his own personal toy. Nothing would disgust me more than to see him inherit my Papa’s house, too. She tells me he keeps her happy. I don’t believe it. I can’t. Not a man like that. But he keeps her company. He gives her somebody to drink with. I suppose that’s a bit more than Squanto had in his final days.
The saddest part to me is that, on days when I talk to her before she’s reached an incoherent level of drunkenness, days like the one when I conducted this interview, she is still one of the most intelligent, empathetic, beautiful souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to. I can still find my Nana somewhere inside of my Nana’s ghost—and the comparison all but kills me.
I would like to say that my family’s cyclical addictive habits ends with my Nana, but to do so would be a blatant lie.