November 10, 2016

Melania Gets a Groundhog

Just off my easel is the next in my series of paintings about interesting women that I have personally known and what influence they may have had. I call this painting, "Melania finds a Groundhog." Many reading this might conclude that I am referring to Melania Trump. Any one of my six brothers looking at this painting will know instantly what exactly it means. It is not a painting of Melania Trump, but a painting of Melania Perik, my grandmother. She came to America just before the Bolshevik Revolution, around 1916. This would have put her arrival time in the period between 1880 and 1924, when folks from Eastern Europe were not considered white, but in the category of an "unassimilable race." The chief eugenicists at the time, Madrian Grant and Charles Davenport, would have identified her as "inferior stock." Over the decades, those epitaphs were dispensed with and the "others" increasingly were drawn in to the status quo. Yet even in these modern times we live in, people here in South Carolina sometimes note that I look just a little different and have a name they can’t pronounce so I get the "what are you?" question. I had to ask myself that same question in looking at the exit poll results that have come out declaring that white women have voted about 53% for Donald Trump for president.

I hate those little boxes that we keep being asked to check. A good many of us have ancestors from here, there and everywhere anyway. The box check makes me feel like I have to submit my genetic makeup to a referendum and vote on it...Irish genes check here...genes bordering on Asia stand aside. The "other" box is increasingly calling my name as a way to retroactively embrace the "unassimilable race" category. Apparently my voting preferences put me there. At other times I feel like drawing my own box, checking it, and labeling it the " none-of-your-dammed-business" category, totally emasculating efforts to throw this back in everyone’s face later. Or maybe I could interpret the word "race" as a marker of how quickly one can move in a sporting event. I would also have to draw my own box here, check it, and write in "very slow."

But getting back to Melania Perik, not Trump. She was decidedly "different." Her name was changed to "Molly" when she came in to the country, in a misguided attempt to hide that difference. It didn’t work. She never assimilated. I don’t think she even became an American citizen. She had skin of pale gold, flat features and very long, straight, black hair. She was always very robust and had a personality that bordered on what seemed akin to Attila The Hun. She lived on a farm in rural New Jersey with her husband Dmitri. I never new Dmitri because he died very young, before I was born. So Melania spent most of her life as a widow, having to handle the farm chores by herself. One such chore entailed keeping marauding animals away from crops. The New Jersey groundhog was the most devastating of these. They can grow up to thirty inches long and can weigh up to thirty-one pounds. That would seem to be intimidating for a small woman like my grandmother, who stood just over four feet tall. Yet she was famous for running down groundhogs and catching them with her bare hands, promptly dispatching them. She did this until she moved off the farm in her mid-eighties.

The rental house Melania moved in to was small but had a parcel set aside for a small garden. No sooner had Melania’s lettuce appeared, however, when so did a large groundhog. She could have dispatched him, as she told me that she was able to run him down and catch him by the tail. Instead she had a different idea. Melania told me that she went to her landlady’s house, holding the groundhog by the tail, rang the doorbell with her free hand. She proudly showed her catch to the landlady when she came to the door. I wish that I could have seen the expression on the landlady’s face.

For some reason, at that moment my grandmother decided that her groundhog hunting days were over. She let that last one live, naming him Moshky. Moshky and Melania shared a garden for the blessed time that they were both able.

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