Times were hard in Michigan at the turn of the century. My great-grandmother, Mary Martell, had died not long after the birth of Uncle Noah. Jobs were scarce. Unemployment was high. The future did not look promising. Meanwhile, the railroads were promoting the good life in the Pacific Northwest. After much family soul-searching, they succumbed. The entire family— Martells and Dews—headed West. They settled in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. All except Sam. For reasons I still do not know, Sam broke away from the family and moved to Chicago.
“He changed his name to Sam Constantino. And traveled, he did…with a rough crowd,” my grandmother once told me. She let it drop there. It was some 30 years before the family heard from Sam again.
In Vancouver, Washington, the Martells and the Deweys started over. They were strong, working-class people. My mother entered second grade in the local Catholic schools. However, it was a painful experience for her, At that time, she could speak only French-Canadian, with some smattering of English. And she once told me that she endured teasing and taunting from other kids.
This may be one reason why the family went out of its way in later years to avoid speaking or teaching French to me as a child. They also clung to a mistaken and distorted determination to bury their French-Canadian past and become totally Americanized. During my earliest years, for example, while it was common for my mother and my grandparents to speak in French around the house among themselves, they switched to English whenever I was around. As a result, I did not grow up with bilingual capability. One of my genuine regrets.
My mother did not attend school beyond the fifth grade. When she was about eleven, my grandparents along with Aunt Phoebe moved to Oregon City, Oregon, where they started a new life on the Diamond A river boats. These were shallow-drafted, double-decked cargo boats with huge rear paddle wheels. Along with the cargo, they herded giant log rafts to the saw mills and the paper mills of the lower Willamette and Columbia rivers.
My grandmother, Josephine, worked on the boats as a cook. My grandfather, Jim Dewey, worked as a deck hand and logging roustabout. Mymother and Aunt Phoebe, not yet in their teens, went along for the fun. They spent much of their time studying from schoolbooks and fishing over the side.