My maternal Great-Grandparents, Arthur and Elsie Allen lived at the top of the hill on the southeast point of Pinoleville Rancheria for many decades. I am told that the house was originally a one-room affair somewhere lower and to the west before it was lifted and moved up the hill. By the mid-1970s, they had added a porch, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms — one for each old person.
Arthur's bedroom was a pretty staid affair. He had a few portraits of old popes hanging on the walls and a framed 'Christ in Gethsemane' print above the door. He spent a great part of each morning clearing his throat in a loud way. You could honestly hear him at the bottom of the hill, where we lived with my Grandparents.
He dressed in thermal underwear, Pendleton shirts (always tucked) and chinos. He was of the Fedora generation. Like Elsie, he, of course, wore horn-rimmed glasses, which were de rigueur. The Allens preferred Ford LTDs.
Arthur was a man of very few words and I don't recall many conversations with him at all. On the days that I was visiting with them, we would generally just read. They kept a collection of National Geographics and Reader's Digests. I would sit on the checkered tile floor or the green convertible sofa near both of them and read my little heart out. (I learned to read at age three along with my beloved older cousin Sherine, who was learning at school.) By that time, Arthur was a fixture in visor-style reading glasses under the pole lamp with tweed shades.
Once, he did tell me a disturbing story about a fascist parade. I was young, likely too young for such a tale, but his very-serious message got through and stays with me. Do not be a fascist. Do not support fascism.
Elsie called Arthur “ta'a-face.” “Ta'a” is pomo for ass. It was a term of endearment. These were very fun people.
Elsie. What can be said about Elsie?
Elsie Allen was a legendary character, Pomo sage and master basketweaver whose life story is a near-perfect summation of the Native American experience. You can check her wikipedia entry for a general summary and she has been described in these pages.
To my unending gratitude, she was my Great-Grandmother.
Elsie was a muumuu and wool sweater kind of a lady. Her feet were big and I remember her cutting the front canvas out of a pair of Keds to afford her toes some liberty.
She was quite the raconteur and someone interesting was always knocking at her door. Sisters from St. Mary's Church were frequent visitors although Elsie had put aside Catholicism by that time. Millie Gillespie was a dear friend of hers also.
Elsie traveled to New York City and to Israel, among many other places. Many was the time that we would show up to visit and find her pulling out of the garage on her way to Santa Rosa or San Francisco. She brought back animals carved from olive wood when she returned from
the Holy Land. She told me that '70s NYC had garbage piled too high in the streets and it was not to her liking.
She was always in some stage of a few basket projects. Either she was ruminating on a pattern that had appeared in a dream or she was checking on the progress of some willow loops that were drying out on the porch. Daily, though, there was weaving.
Her bedroom was set up with a bed on one side and her weaving area on the other. There was a long folding table covered with the components that would become her work.
She taught me the differences between the various materials and the awls. I sat on the canvas dropcloth at her feet and strippped bark from the redbud or, more importantly, cleaned and trimmed willow. I would rip old dresses to make the fabric with which she tied her willow rounds.
I learned a lot from these masters.I learned to enjoy silence and exciting stories. I heard of world wars and the ugly truth of colonization. I was told about the ways to be and those which were taboo. I gained a respect for time and patience, knowledge and craft. I developed a taste for travel and a decided tolerance for different cultures.
They lived out the wish of Elsie's mother Annie Ramon-Burke, which was that Elsie should follow the baskets around and show people that Pomo Indians weren't stupid.
Elsie and Arthur passed on while I was in my teens. Rarely a day goes by that I don't reflect on their deep presence in my life.