August on the Farm: What's in a Name?

My great-grandfather met my great-grandmother when he was over in England fighting during World War I. They married in the UK, and once the war was over traveled by boat back to the Bay Area. My grandmother was almost born during that overseas journey, but fortunately it didn’t happen until they were back on American soil. (And I say fortunately because I guess that my great-grandmother got it in her head to name her “Fleeta” if it did happen on the naval fleet they were on. I am certain my grandmother’s life would have had an entirely different trajectory has she been christened Fleeta.

Instead she skated by as Dorothy Lorraine Cabral. Her mother, as a mentioned before, was English, and her father was American but of strong Portuguese (more on this later) heritage. Most of his family lived in the farming communities of the Central Valley. Granny and her brother, my great-Uncle Will, would spend their summers in Atwater on the farms for most of their childhood and early teen years.

So when we were growing up, we’d hear all sorts of stories about their summers on the farms, how meticulously clean the houses were, and how so much of the day was spent doing laundry and cooking the huge meals for the men who’d been out on the ranches all day. Stories of their teenage uncles who’d race home before midnight on Saturday in order to down a sandwich before Sunday (for sustenance during the Eucharistic fast until mass the next day.) How Uncle Will would ride horses around town. We had goats when I was a kid, but this was a different a world all together.

So the few times we did visit the valley it made a huge impression on me as a child. I did a report on “dairying” in the 4th grade, a term that was already so antiquated my 4th grade teacher had no idea what I was writing about thanks I’m sure to a combination of misspellings on my part and dated information from our home encyclopedia set. Remember those sets? You were academically frozen in time after your parents made that purchase, and heaven help you if your parents had picked up a second hand set that was really archaic (what do you mean Gerald Ford isn’t president anymore?) But I thought dairying sounded so cool.

I remember one visit so vividly, the rows and rows of fruit and walnut trees so uniformly planted, and the pristine white corral fencing down their drive that seemed to go on forever. We turned a bend and all the relatives were on lawn chairs in a half circle under an enormous shade tree, with lemonades ready for our arrival.

When we drove up our current house’s driveway for the first time, it was a déjà vu feeling of that Atwater visit, even if this fencing was dilapidated, it was a long white fence with shade trees in the front. We had been beaten out of so many properties the past few years I couldn’t bear to get my hopes up, but underneath all the junk everywhere I could see bones for our own little Atwater.

Over the past few years, fixing up the property and establishing our little herd, I’ve thought of that side of the family a lot. Usually with awe. What we are doing here is miniscule compared to those ranches, and yet there are plenty moments where we’re ready to crack out the lawn chairs and lemonade and call it a day. How did they work the way they did? They tended to hundreds of acres of almond trees and a dairy, dawn to dusk--how?

So why the walk down Memory Lane? Last week, when the girls were busy with their special activities for the summer, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. I was reading an article about how the Basque settled in the Central Valley, and it prompted me to google a bit about the Portuguese who had done the same.

And when I googled my grandmother’s Portuguese maiden name, Cabral, this is what popped up:

“Recorded in the spellings of Cabrera, Cabral, Cabrallo, and Cabrales, this Spanish and Portuguese surname is both residential and job descriptive. It describes a person who lived at a goat farm, which in most cases would also mean a goat farmer.”

The little we do here with our herd of 20 pales in comparison to those real farms of my ancestors in the valley, but now I do think my granny, were she alive today, would be pleased. Apparently, it’s in our blood, or at the very least, in our family name.

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