Five years ago, at the age of 92, Patricia Hernan Grube was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. For many people of her advanced years, surgery would not be a viable option, but the neurologists decided that in this case, the patient was strong enough to survive it. They were right.
“When the surgeon was cutting into my head,” remembers Grube, “she said, ‘I need a stronger saw. This woman has a hard head.’ And all my kids said, ‘Yep, we all knew that.’”
At 97, Grube is still recovering from the trauma of brain surgery. But, in keeping with her hard-headedness, she’s not exactly slowing down.
A longtime Santa Cruz-based playwright and poet, Grube is having a high-profile 2020, having released two books this year: a new collection of poems, many of them about the frustrations of being an elder in a culture that often ignores elders, called Then and Now; and a memoir of her family’s experience living for two years in the African nation of Zambia in the early 1970s titled Chickens in Africa.
Grube has spent most of the second half of her life as a writer, particularly as a playwright. She has been involved in the Santa Cruz-based Actors’ Theatre for more than 30 years and has seen several of her plays produced, both 10-minute short plays in the theater’s 8 Tens @ 8 festival, and full-length plays. Her play Relative Shades—featuring three incarnations of the same woman at different stages of her life—was considered one of the best plays of the year when it debuted at Actors’ Theatre in 1994.
“I enjoy writing plays more than anything else,” she says. Before the pandemic, Grube had been negotiating to have another of her plays produced. What Is the Question? is a play about the final years of writer/critic Gertrude Stein during World War II.
“Someday it will be done,” she says. “But I may not see it.”
In the meantime, Grube is celebrating the release of her latest works. The new book of poems, elegantly designed by Grube’s daughter Alice Hughes, features a few previously published poems, but mostly it’s new work, on a theme: what it’s like to be seen as an old person.
“Older people are not very much loved these days,” she says. “At a certain point, you end up being seen as just an old person with nothing to say. And the reason that there’s nothing to say is that no one ever asks.”
Friends and fans have responded most to a poem called “The Gift,” which is about the very real phenomenon of older people being literally overlooked in public places, such as standing in line at grocery stores and movie theaters:
Now I know I have a knack, a talent,/ an ability to become invisible./ The disturbing thing is that/ I have no control over the time or place./ Sometimes this is annoying, sometimes amusing.
“I’ve read that several times at different events,” she says. “Everybody’s laughing. But I remind them, ‘Someday this will happen to you.’ And some in the audience are, ‘It already has!’”
Chickens in Africa is an absorbing account of the Grube family’s two-year odyssey living in southern Africa from 1970 to 1972. Grube and her husband Lester had seven children, five of whom went to Africa with them (the other two were adults by that time). Lester Grube went to Zambia to help the newly independent government there establish a poultry industry. Zambia was subject to British colonialism for decades, until it gained its independence in 1964.
“Colonialism was just another form of slavery,” Grube says. “Instead of bringing the people to you to be slaves, they go and enslave the people where they are. When the colonials left, there was no one to handle the business, because no one had been trained. That’s what people like my husband were doing, training the people there to take over.”
Most of the book was written in 2013, before Grube’s brain-tumor battle. She gathered together old letters she had written and sent to her mother, as well as others sent to a friend, at the time.
“Letters were almost like a journal,” she says. “All I had to do there was take care of the kids and answer letters.”
At the same time, she had discovered an old audio recording of Lester Grube talking about the Zambia experience. The complete transcript is part of the new memoir. There is also a chapter written by each of the children, written from their memories of the period, as well as many family photos.
“I sat down to write some stories (of the period), but it was not very big, not enough to make a book. Then I thought I’d ask the kids if they wanted to write something. They all contributed, even the ones who had only come to visit us.”
“My parents were doers,” writes Stephen Grube in the new book, and indeed, the book outlines the efforts of Lester and Patricia Grube in the early farm workers movement in California in the 1960s, before moving to Ndola, Zambia. It also provides anecdotes and background stories of what it was like for a white American family to come face to face with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa, and the uncomfortable realities reflected in the cultures there.
But Chickens In Africa is not the end of Patricia Grube’s writing about her life. Even at 97, she’s readying another book for publication, this one called Generations. “It goes back to my childhood,” she says. “I’ve got stories about my father, and things about my grandmother and how she taught me to do things. There’s some letters I found from some great-greats. It should be out by next year.”
She would also still like to tell the world about her late husband, the Peace Corps idealist and World War II veteran. “He did more things in his life than anyone I know, working for racial justice, working with farmworkers. I shouldn’t be writing about myself. I should be writing about him. He was a person who loved everybody and everybody loved him. I don’t think he would have believed it if someone said they didn’t like him. Me, I’ve always been just the opposite.”