George Washington and George Washington Birimisa
TRIP TO WATSONVILLE [Very much abridged to omit the names of some who might not want their personalities broadcast to the world.]:
With an impending trip to Croatia, the native land of his parents, George Birimisa wanted to return to Watsonville where he spent his early years with those parents, Charles (Charlie) and Anna. He wanted to revisit the sites of early trauma, but also to see a man (T.M) who has arranged for him to meet with surviving Birimisa cousins there in their native area of Croatia, and to meet a man there who has written books about that part of Croatia and who will be able to clear up a lot of family history for George and to show him where the Birimisas had lived. We agreed to meet T.M. at the town plaza, that used to be the center of town where George, at 9, in 1933, saw his father give a fiery Communist speech from the Victorian bandstand to a large crowd. The police disbursed the gathering with a fire hose and arrested his father. In jail he developed pneumonia and died soon after.
....Seeing three white bearded men enter the Blue Sky café, the young waitress, pretty, with long, straight black hair, asked us if we were brothers, and later she would say, “Do you boys want anything else?” T.M. and George pieced together a network of family and community associations in the Croatian community in Watsonville that also touched on small town class structure. We went to visit the large Victorian house belonging to wealthier relatives
that had been even larger to George’s childish eyes when his mother had dressed herself and her three children in their best clothes and came to that door to seek financial aid only to be turned away. The same relatives took over their house after his father's death made it impossible to keep up on house payments.
We went to a cemetery and found Charlie Birimisa’s grave, a slab where we left George for a while so he could sit and have a cry.
T.M. knew of an old woman whose great grandmother was a sister of George’s great grandmother, making her George’s second cousin, from the wealthier relatives, but Tom arranged a visit, and she gave George a sense of acceptance that somewhat mollified his grim childhood.
Mrs. V. lived in a large comfortable house where she had always lived; it overlooked a valley and mountains. The valley had fields of rows of raspberry plants, some under large aluminum hoops that were covered in white plastic sheets, looking like giant white caterpillars. She missed the days when the valley was all apple trees when she could watch the changes through the seasons, and I could imagine how beautiful it must have been when the valley was all white apple blossoms.
The three Croatians pieced together family and community relations and the local cultural events of the Croatians (with specific strange dishes), but their knowledge extended also to the links with the villages in the old country to the local Croatians. Mrs. V. remembered George’s family, although George, later, felt that in her lady-like way she had painted an innocent portrait of him, his siblings, and their parents. She revealed another nickname for Charlie Birimisa: “Rough Rider,” that she assumed was because of some association wih horses (how he rode? how he trained them?)
There is no way to summarize the traumas and divisions of members of George’s family, tragic separations and tragic ends, but, as an orphan, after his father died and his mother abandoned her children, George spent time in various Catholic facilities and orphanages, and T.M. left us finally at the site of one of those schools. We went into the church over that school (St. Francis Something Or Other) to pay our disrespects....
George had not liked the route I followed, from Mapquest, to get there, and insisted he would guide us home. We happened to enter some construction zone where the cars were bumper to bumper for miles, resembling the scenes in Godard’s WEEKEND.
I am not sure yet where we ended up before we guessed that we were on the wrong highway. Was it Nevada? At first when we saw a vast body of water, we asked “Is it the Bay?” It was some kind of San Luis Something Or Other Reservoir, and it was worth getting lost to see it near the end of the day on that particular day where the particular twilight coloring on the hills and the unbelievable shade of blue in the water created a scene of ineffable beauty.
When a Latino man tried to explain how we would have to go back in the direction from which we came, almost back to Watsonville, and that it would probably take us about 45 minutes to get back where we started before we began again to travel to San Francisco, we began a long period of mad hysteria that made everything funny. It became a theme that no matter where we drove, we would end up back in Watsonville, drawn back to that kind and helpful man, T.M.
We retraced our way, past previous minor stops for coffee; a walk down a tree-lined country lane that was like an outdoor garage sale; a fruit and vegetable stand that had closed for the day; and found our way back to Highway 101.
If we had not been so terribly delayed, we would not have arrived back in the City at an hour where we could be amazed by the appearance of a golden full moon, mammoth in the sky. I dropped George off at his building on Berry Street around 10 p.m. As I drove across the Bay Bridge to my own home, I saw that the moon had become a normal-size white moon, merely full and perfect.