Life Story Interview:
Deb Fields Graham
By Sara Karam
HRD 664, Culture, Tradition and Diversity
University of Southern Maine
I was born in the Panama Canal Zone. I have no recollection of this time, we moved when I was around one years old. My father worked for WR Grace and Company importing and exporting goods. My Mom did not work outside the home. I do not remember hearing any stories surrounding my own birth. There are family stories surrounding both of my brothers’ births. For example, my younger brother had a dry birth. I was born in hospital, which was traditional for Americans living in the Canal Zone.
When I was around one, we moved to Venezuela, to a large city. Again, I have very few memories of this time. My older brother has the family picture albums. Here, it was just I, my older and younger brothers as the only American children living in this area of Venezuela. As with everyone there of our economic influence, we had nursemaid and a cook. My mom did not have to be much more than a wife and mother. Mom did home school us for a while because all the schools were there parochial schools. We eventually did go to the Catholic schools.
I made a joke, but not it was not really a joke that the priests in South America were all trained in Spain, the land of the inquisition. Priests at school were harsh, especially because we were not Catholic. More to the point, it was because we were not baptized. We were truly ostracized; not allowed to hear the word of God when the other students were having Catechism. I remember being shunted out to the hall for an hour every day while the nuns gave Catechism to rest of the world. This past July, my older brother and I were talking about our childhood. He and I have different child hood memories, however we shared that same thought about the school in Venezuela. On the other hand, my younger brother remembers being punished by having to kneel for an hour on inverted bottle caps. This does not seem possible to me, since he has no scars on his knees from bleeding. Chances are, what he remembers is a very painful experience, possibly because of the tile floors at the school. That is sad to me, that 40 years later he has this recollection of having to kneel on bottle caps!
By the time we went to Puerto Rico and there were Protestants around, my mother insisted we attend the Christian church, as opposed to Catholic Church. I was about 10 at this time. However, during Girl Scout summer camp, the first thing I would do was go to Catholic Church because I wanted to see what was it that I was not allowed to see. So, on Sunday mornings I would attend the Christian services then head immediately over to the Catholic Church services. Later on the television show “Welcome Back Kotter” there was a Puerto Rican Jew, Epstein. This struck me as odd because it was very Catholic down there. That was my early childhood religious training.
Other memories of Venezuela include ones because we were the only Americans there. Such as, we were the only ones who celebrated Santa Claus. I grew up with American traditions but it felt as if I had two lives; spruce or pine?. Because my mother felt she had to have her tree. It was of course something else for the Venezuelans neighbors to talk about. On the other hand, I still celebrate, on January 6th, 3 Kings Day, which is their holiday. Back then; it was the only holiday the people of Venezuela celebrated around that time. It involved putting out hay for the camels on their way to see baby Jesus and receiving gifts in return.
Because we were home schooled in Venezuela I do not remember having many friends. But, I do remember being friends with our maid’s children. My first language was Spanish; my first word was agua. So I was truly born speaking 2 languages
I was probably in Venezuela until 3rd grade; I only know this because we came to Bangor, briefly, when I was in the third grade prior to moving to Puerto Rico. I remember attending some kind of fireworks and I made reference to how stupid the people looked, and a hand clamped over my mouth. I guess one did not say that kind of thing!
Growing up in Venezuela, I listen to music a lot. I remember music being piped into the trees. The same thing was true in Puerto Rico when we lived there. There was music in the parks. Music all the time. It was just wonderful, there were benches and trees and music all the time. It was classical music, not our definition classical, not ballads either. Just very upbeat. I see pictures now or movies where they are showing parks and there is no music coming out of the trees and I think that is so odd because that is not what I remember. The music was blaring all the time at home, too. Not on our side of the house, but the maids’ side.
We had a foreign exchange student live with us 6 years ago here in South Portland. His family would send videos. Without fail, whenever there was more than 1 or 2 persons in the video, there would be music and dancing. That is not something Americans do. They are quite reserve in that way. It seems odd now, but not then, to have music playing all the time.
What I miss most is the music. We should try to get the parks around here to play music. Portland tried, but it was more to be a deterrent from having kids hanging out. That’s not what music should be. We don’t have the parks with a bustle of activity, benches all over the place, the men playing dominos and the music.
When I moved to Puerto Rico, I spoke 2 languages, but primarily English. But it was interesting because there words in Venezuela that were completely innocuous in Puerto Rico. This was the first time I was ever really aware of the differences in the same language. For example, I remember an incident when I was in school in Puerto Rico. the word I was using was bico which means bug in Venezuela but in Puerto Rico it means cock. I said something about the mucho bicho. The words in the 2 countries had nothing to do with one another! When I said the thing about mucho bicho at school in Puerto Rico and was shushed immediately!
When living in Puerto Rico, I tried cooking, much to my parents chagrin. I was not a good cook. Even when I got married the first time, I was still not a good cook. I could not make mash potatoes. I can cook now, but David [her husband] does not like the Puerto Rican food of beans and rice. So I make it when he is not home. I was at Shaw’s once and I bought a set of aluminum pots, like my cook used growing up used. I have not used them yet, but every time I look at them, I remember a time when I was more innocent.
There is something else I carry over from my childhood. It is not necessary a tradition, but any time I hear the word hurricane, I go into hurricane mode. David laughs at me, but I sterilize the bathtub; fill up the big vats of water. Even though they say the hurricane is not coming up the northeast coast. I get ready, because I can remember doing that growing up in Puerto Rico. I did not do it this last time for Isabelle, [the most recent Atlantic hurricane] because she definitely was not coming up. But had she, I am here to tell you I would of made sure the gas tank was full, etc. That is a carryover from my youth. I can remember, in Puerto Rico, waking up to the living room. We could see the ocean from our bedroom. I had no idea how we got into the living room, but it was a safer place to sleep. My dad had gone into hurricane mode, like I do now.
I started high school in 1964, in Puerto Rico. This was same time as the integration of Ole Miss. I remember this was all we heard on the news or saw on the news. This was the first time in my life that it occurred to me that there were people who did not like other people because of the race; I mean color of their skin. It was not till I came to Bangor, that I saw this prejudice first hand. That was different.
After school in Puerto Rico we all hung out at the club. We would all go there after school to swim and hang out, then, come home and do our homework. My recollection of Puerto Rico weather is very few rainy days, but low humidity and warm. I have many memories at being outside at the club with my friends.
We moved back to Bangor when I was 15. What I remember about that time was being frigged up. My daddy was dying, and mother did not know how to deal with it, or with me not dealing with it. Looking back, the kids in Bangor, compared to the Puerto Rican kids, at least the kids I went to school with, were not more sophisticated, but rather seemed brighter, less sheltered or coddled. We all had curfews down there in Puerto Rico. We all had to be home at a certain time. The school I went to in Puerto Rico had 125 students. Of course the school in Bangor had much more. That was a hideous adjustment, hideous. Small is definitely better.
The American teenagers were doing things I never even thought of doing, including drugs. I am sure they were around in Puerto Rico but not the way they were in Bangor. On the other hand, we drank a lot of rum in Puerto Rico. And I don’t remember it being the problem, as drugs were when we came to Maine. I could go into a bar at 15 in Puerto Rico and be served. Shortly after, we moved to Maine, we went out to the Bangor House for dinner, and my mother was not allowed to go into the bar unescorted. I kid you not! Back then; the bars were closed on Sunday My mother ordered a drink. That was not done; we had been out of the states too long.
Having lived in the two cultures, there are parts of me that identify with both cultures and parts I puzzle over. As a Puerto Rican, I still don’t understand why most Puerto Ricans want U.S. citizenship. They have US currency, US postal, but they do not pay federal taxes. They have the all benefits of being American citizen. Maybe its because they don’t vote in the national elections. But they do vote for their local officials and governor.
An example of my American influence is once when Cuban friend asked me one day how I could do that? When I asked how I could do what?, she said talk to everyone. As we talked about what she meant, it was about the traditions in the place we grew up. Married women did not do talk to everyone in Cuba or Puerto Rico. But, that was my American influence, allowing me to talk to everyone.
I am drawn toward England and Scotland now, not because of the climate but because of the people. There in the villages that David and I like to hang out in, the way of life is like the ‘50’s and ‘60’s way of life. I have not found that here in the states. Where neighbors took care of each other.
I think that is why I am so drawn to book group and mah jongg [These are 2 groups that Deb participates in regularly outside of her home and work life.] It is because there is such a strong sense of community even if it is just for 2 or 3 hours.
Recently I spent some time tracking down an Argentine singer that I literally grew up with hearing. As I get older, I find myself wanting to surround my self with nice memories and traditions from my youth. I am glad I grew up in Puerto Rico. There were no problems. I became a young woman. It was a great place to be. I have been back to Bangor, but not Puerto Rico. I spend a lot of time missing San Juan, especially in the winter. But I want to remember Puerto Rico the way it was for me then, not the way it is today.
I grew up in the Midwestern United States. It would seem on the surface, that Deb and I would have little in common to our individual life stories. However there are some interesting shared experiences, despite the different culture environments that we grew up.
We both came from a close family unit. This I believe gives us our shared sense of what community means, and desire to be active in small groups where community is present. Like Deb, when I travel, I am drawn toward the smaller villages and places. I attended a large high school, like Deb did in Bangor. I think I would of excelled more in a smaller school like the one she attended in Puerto Rico.
I had some similar experiences as Deb growing up. My family traveled frequently growing up. It was through these experiences, I learned about how the same words in the same language can mean different things in different parts of the country. Like Deb, I have a clear memory of one of my first such lessons. My family and I were on an extended vacation in the Northeastern United States. While in Philadelphia, in a restaurant with my family, I ordered a pop to go with my meal. The server laughed, because pop Philadelphia meant lollipop or father figure, not a soda, like it did in the Midwest. For the remainder of that vacation, I would order a coke, because I was unsure of what word was correct for where we were.
The influence of being surrounded by music all the time was clearly evident in Deb’s life on the day of our conversation. In the background, there was music playing, much like she described was hearing being played in the parks of her childhood homes; classical and upbeat. I completed my interview in her home, and can attest to extensive CD collection also a reflection of this influence.
In my family of origin, we also often had music in the background. My parent’s first choice of music was classical in the European tradition. When I was a young adult, I had the opportunity to spend three summers working at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. Here, there was music in the trees all the time, as Deb described the parks of her youth. I still relish those summer mornings I can awake to classical music, even if it only on the radio.
From listening to Deb’s life story, I see more clearly the benefits of being exposed to other cultures. In her case she was immersed in them, because of her father’s occupation forced them to live abroad. For me it was opportunities to travel. In either case, I think we both became individuals who embrace diversity, and seek out cross culture experiences and community to enrich our lives. As for music in our lives, I think it provides a universal language in which to communicate and a higher understanding of the world in which we live.