Not your typical Thanksgiving story

How my grandmother ended up at a Cuban cockfight in a fur coat with a man who wasn’t her husband…

I was not born early enough to meet either Dominick or Carmela, my great-grandparents, and that is my loss. Both came to the United States as teenagers. Had they stayed in Italy, though, they might not have been allowed to marry. Carmela’s parents had been relatively well-off in Sicily, while Dominick had little formal education and was forced into the hard life of coal mining in the hills of West Virginia. Moving to the United States was a bit of an equalizer—all immigrants struggle—but Carmela’s family still had their pride. When Dominick proposed marriage, Carmela’s mother demanded that he build his bride a big house in Morgantown. None of their children could explain to me how he got the money to do that, but he did. And, in the day before interstate highways, he even managed to commute to and from the mine so that his wife did not have to live in the hollow.

Dominick-house-Morgantown
My great-grandparents’ house in the South Park Historic District in Morgantown, a short walk from the high school. It has three bedrooms and one bathroom. Dominick and Carmela had six children, and my grandmother and her first husband lived in this house when they were newly married. That’s nine people. ONE BATHROOM.

Dominick worked hard and managed to keep his wife and seven children in their family home throughout the Great Depression. There are two reasons often given for how he accomplished this impressive feat. First, it seems that he was such a consistent and reliable worker that his boss at the mine always made sure to keep him on, despite dramatic layoffs. Second, and more relevant for these times, his mortgage was replaced by a loan from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal program. In this program, the federal government bought out mortgages from banks (who were happy to exchange it for bonds) and then gave a more favorable, more patient loan to the homeowner. Where was this in 2007, huh?

Not only did Dominick keep his job and his house, but he also made sure that his younger children—male and female—were college-educated at West Virginia University right down the street. Unfortunately, the older children were not so fortunate. For example, Dominick and Carmela’s eldest child, Josephine, was not able to go to college. This woman, my grandmother, graduated high school square in the middle of the Depression, in 1937. I still wear her class ring. (I guess the fact that she was still able to buy a class ring at this time is something, at least.)

Morgantown-High-1937-class-ring
1937 Morgantown High School class ring passed down from my grandmother, Josephine.

Now, even though Dominick and Carmela married for love, they did not give Josephine the same choice. Her first marriage was arranged to another coal miner, and it failed—spectacularly. Her husband was domineering and abusive. This was my grandfather that I barely knew.

When my mother and her sister were in high school, Jo left her family for the man she had loved since high school. Why hadn’t she married Jess to begin with? Class mattered, once again. Jess’s family ran a profitable grocery store. While Dominick and Carmella were upstanding citizens and homeowners, their daughter was not what Jess’s family had in mind. After being denied this first time, Josephine and Jess ultimately ran away together. Far away. To Cuba. In 1958. The year before the revolution.

Jennifer-Hallock-grandmother-Cuba

This is my favorite photo of Jo. This photo finds her and Jess watching a cockfight at a resort in Wajay, Havana. Apparently, it was cold because my grandmother is wearing a fur coat. Jess looks typically uptight next to her. They do not have the body language of recently requited lovers, to say the least. (Jess—or “Uncle Jess” as I called him—was never very demonstrative, to say the least, but he was always very kind to me.) They would later marry, divorce, and remarry. Status update: complicated.

Jennifer-Hallock-Josephine-Jess-Cuba-

The whole thing is still a sore subject in my family. It caused a lot of pain and embarrassment. It was the fifties, when Josephine’s Catholic family did not find domestic abuse a reason to dissolve a marriage. (They did not believe in divorce, in any case.) Moreover, because my grandmother was in Cuba, my mother and her sister had to change high schools and move in with their father, who quickly remarried to a recent widow with two daughters. (They lived in Fairmont, West Virginia, the birthplace of the pepperoni roll—see below—and the hometown of Della Berget, the heroine of Hotel Oriente.)

Country-Club-Bakery-Pepperoni-Roll-Twitter

My mother’s relationship with Josephine thawed only when I grew to be about five or six years old. It was Josephine’s more settled and reliable sister, Anita, who planned my mother’s wedding, for example. It was Anita who still filled the role of grandmother for much of my life, until her death this past summer. (Miss you, Ya!)

Even after Josephine and Jess were invited back to the table, things did not always go smoothly. Jess became a landlord of student apartments in Morgantown, and it was Josephine’s job to scour them. Jo scrubbed floors during the day and slaved over the stove in the evening—hardly a romance. She worked hard, and my mother resented Jess for that, not surprisingly. Uncle Jess was certainly set in his ways by the time I knew him. He was a Pabst Blue Ribbon man—tall boys—and he wanted his beer with dinner. Not before dinner, not after dinner, but just as dinner hit the table. Yet he was Josephine’s choice. I cannot explain it.

I do have good memories of Josephine and Jess, though. They mostly involve obscene amounts of food. Thanksgiving included at least three main course choices—turkey, ham, and maybe even a meat chop of some kind—plus about a thousand side dishes, the best of which were the stuffed artichokes. Jess, the grocer’s son, never trusted any supermarket in Columbus. Every holiday he arrived with a car of overflowing bags from his favorite Italian haunts in Morgantown. On the pepperoni front, I appreciated his snobbery. We had a tradition that he would bring in that bag first for me. It was a good tradition.

Josephine should get the most credit for the food, though. Once my grandmother was staying with me while my parents were away, and my high school boyfriend came over for dinner. She had prepared her signature dish: true Sicilian spaghetti with her own fresh pasta CUT BY HAND. He naively accepted her offer of seconds, which meant that she piled a new plate taller than the first. He looked at me, stunned, like he wanted me to get him out of eating the whole darned thing. I just shrugged at him. You don’t mess with an Italian grandma. Unfortunately, that kind of eating, along with chain smoking and obesity, led to her unfortunate death in 1991. I miss her too.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to give thanks for the bounty we always enjoyed at Josephine’s table. Her legacy was complicated. Her (and her parents’) choices did not really pay off, at least not for her. But she was not afraid to try, and I admire her for that.

rancho-luna-wajay-havana

Gilded Age Ganja

By now you have heard the results of the 2016 election: marijuana won. Well, at least in four states. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized recreational use. Also, Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota legalized certain medical uses. You can see which way the smoke is blowing. Maine’s marijuana question passed by less than one percent of the vote, but that ambivalence does not express the sea-change in American attitudes towards pot. According to the Washington Post, more than 1 in 5 Americans now “now live in states where the recreational use of marijuana is, or soon will be, legal.”

But how long has it been illegal? Would it surprise you to know only 80 years, since 1937? In fact, would it surprise you know that during the colonial era, cannabis was not only legal but—in 1619— required of all farmers in Virginia to plant? And that cannabis served as legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland? This may be stretching the truth a little, but only a little. I am conflating two strains of plants: hemp and marijuana. What is the difference? Well, both are the same species—cannabis sativa—but marijuana has significantly higher levels of the intoxicant delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, until recently, hemp has been more commercially productive. Its strong fibers can be used for rope, paper, textiles, plastic, food, biofuel, and animal feed.

In the colonial era, it was cordage and textile uses that made cannabis so versatile. Not that people throughout history did not know of the more recreational properties, of course. Throughout Asia and Europe, cannabis was used for pain relief, spiritual escapes, and a nice little high after work. But we do not need to go that far back. After all, this blog focuses on the Gilded Age at the turn of the twentieth century—and this is when attitudes towards marijuana changed.

An advertisement for Dr. James's cannabis tonic, courtesy of The Library of Congress.
An advertisement for Dr. James’s cannabis tonic, courtesy of The Library of Congress.

You see, in the Edwardian era, cannabis was legal. That is what they called it, too: cannabis. Or, if one wanted to be a little more flash: Indian hemp, ganja, or (in a more potent preparation) hashish. One of the most popular Edwardian uses for cannabis was as a foot soak for corns. But it was also sold as a cure for consumption, bronchitis, asthma, veterinary indigestion, and simple coughs. It was not until 1906 that over-the-counter products had to declare any cannabis on their labels, but before then any number of “remedies” could have given a nice tipple. Keep in mind that this was also the era when cocaine was sold for toothaches, heroin was advertised in medical journals, and tincture of opium (laudanum) was packed in doses for infants. So, there was that.

A smattering of Edwardian remedies, courtesy of The Telegraph, ProCon.org, and Wikimedia Commons.
A smattering of Edwardian remedies, courtesy of The Telegraph, ProCon.org, and Wikimedia Commons.

At this point, cannabis customers considered themselves more “cosmopolitan” than the average drug user. Some men believed cannabis to be a female aphrodisiac: “It is just the thing to rouse the wild demimondaine instinct that lurks in the back of the heads of some romantic girls.” A more broadminded pot philosopher said: “It has been contended by an astute philosopher that true happiness will only be possible when time and space are abolished. Well, this is what hashish temporarily accomplishes.”

Hemp had its partisans, too. At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a worldwide shortage of naval cordage. When the United States took the Philippines as a colony, they found a local substitute: abaca, or Manila hemp. This is an entirely different species—a type of banana plant, actually—but its fibers were similar to cannabis sativa. This was the only export of the Philippines that the American colonial government allowed to be freely traded, as long as it was sold only to the States. (Later, during World War II, another hemp shortage so threatened the naval war effort that the government handed out seeds and gave draft deferments for farmers willing to grow it. They even made a film called “Hemp for Victory.”) The problem for Mr. Hemp, though, was that his cousin ruined the party, at least in the United States.

If everyone was so happy with their cannabis—both plants—in the Edwardian era, what happened? The 1910 Mexican Revolution! Um, what? No, really. The unrest south of the border sent large numbers of refugees into the United States. Cue the xenophobic backlash. What better evidence of the insidious social ills brought by these new immigrants than a dangerous new drug that turned American children into imbeciles?

A 1922 diatribe against the evils of marijuana in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, courtesy of The Library of Congress. That is a pretty risqué illustration.
A 1922 diatribe against the evils of marijuana in the Ogden Standard-Examiner, courtesy of The Library of Congress. That is a pretty risqué illustration.

That is when the name of the intoxicant changed. It was no longer cannabis, or Indian hemp, or ganja. It was marijuana—an Anglicization of the Latin American term marihuana, which itself came from either Chinese immigrants, Angolan slaves, or just a spontaneous combination of Maria and Juana. We don’t really know. The point was to portray the drug as something new, something wicked, something “loco” that would cause “incurable insanity.” The delivery system used by Mexicans—smoking—was evidence of this distinction.

One newspaper account said:

After three or four puffs the beginner’s mind becomes confused. There is, at first, a harmless sort of mental exhilaration. All the worries and sordidness in the user’s life fade away. He finds himself floating through space as if on a cloud and doing everything, in fancy, that he ever wanted to do….Then comes a period in which hallucinations dominate the addict. Motive-less merriment or maudlin emotion usually follows, after which a pugnacious attitude ensues.

Pugnacious? Yep. Others agreed. They said that marijuana was “more ruinous in its effects than cocaine, heroin, opium, morphine, or any of the others.” Another suggests curing a marijuana addiction with cocaine, which he believes is less habit-forming. It may be true that the drug then was not the same as the drug today, but racism was also a factor, at least in the late 1910s and the 1920s. The irony is that Mexico banned marijuana in 1920—17 years before the United States—and yet Americans still blamed the “infection” on them. For example, a Mohave County sheriff wrote up a public account of a run-in he had with a “bad Mexican,” a man appropriately named Marijuana for the substance that he sold. This kind of tale filled the papers.

But the anti-marijuana movement really gained traction in the Great Depression. This may be because this is when the drug became more popular with white Americans, or it may be because of the breakdown in social norms that came with high unemployment and population dispersal. And then a movie called Reefer Madness hit the screens in 1936. In the movie, a group of young smokers see their enjoyable evening go from casual fun to promiscuous sex to crushing depression to suicide. Within a year, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, “restricting possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses” (PBS).

That’s not the same thing as totally illegal, right? It took the conservative backlash of the 1970s and 1980s to do that. But maybe we have come full circle to the Summer of Love—or, as the case may be, to the Winter of Love. But, who knows? Pot is still illegal under federal law, and though the Obama administration adopted a policy of noninterference with the states in 2013, President-Elect Donald Trump might not feel the same way. As a boarding school teacher in Massachusetts, I am not terribly excited about the idea of patrolling dorms in a pot-accessible state. But maybe I will buy some for my mother for her corns…

(Featured image is an ad for Pico’s cough remedy, courtesy of the Library of Congress.)