Curating a gallery of your lifetime

To start our new year, my husband and I travelled across the continent to Florida, celebrating his 75th birthday. We had a wonderful time – and like all of our adventures in recent years, took a lot of pictures. Recently, I had sorted through my mac photo library for all the pictures that need “tagging” and organization; as I renew my documentation of piles of family photos and letters, documents and memories, it becomes even more critical to, well, not get so far behind. Easier said than done! It’s hard to press “delete” on that 5th picture of the trip to such and such; it’s even harder, for some reason, to put an old print in the trash (either after scanning, or after giving up on figuring out who and what is in that picture!)

As we wandered through two wonderful museums – the Ringling in Sarasota, and the Museum of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America in St. Petersburg – I admired the art of displaying, curating, and describing the works that have been preserved. When I started this blog, I had created a page (as opposed to a post – one of those things I had to learn) with a few pictures. Since the blog “premiered” almost two years ago, my library of images has been expanded – including those in posts here. And I was inspired to do a little bit of “urban renewal” on that gallery of my life, which you can find here …

In revising that page, I realized that the images themselves had no context, no description or setting to explain why they mattered enough to me to share with the thousands of strangers around the globe who might, one day, stumble in to my little blog – and hence, this post. So, without further ado – here are the images in that gallery, a little tour of sorts for you to amble through – those who know me, and those who do not.

My mother shortly before her 1954 marriage, and my father and brother welcome me home in 1958. Their lives were not easy – but they loved me with their best love, as they knew how. Just as I am learning, still. Even from them – although they have passed, learning about my family history – and it’s place in so many changes in our world and nation – has helped me find my path ahead.

For much of my adult life, my getaway, refuge and place of renewal was Disneyland. Even though I grew up less than an hour away, our financial resources didn’t allow for regular visits until I finished school and started working. I was lonely and isolated – the happiest place on earth became a second home. I loved the artistry, the music, and I met many creative giants. I felt less alone there for a while – but in time, I knew I had to make a choice. Here I am with my favorite character, Pinocchio – I wanted to be a “real boy” too! And, in 2006, at the inaugural half marathon weekend – I trained for 9 months just to finish the course (this is from the 5k run). I still love Disneyland – but mainly the one of my memories, rather than that which remains.

Coming out, later than most, in 2012 opened new doors in my life, and new frontiers. Here I am with the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA, “Indoor skydiving” with my family in Perris, CA, and on the glacier of Alaska. I began to travel, and to understand who I was, and who I could be others – being authentic and loving without shame.

But I never imagined I would become a “biker” – albeit only marginally. Getting my 2001 Centennial “Indian Chief” was a real step outside my comfort zone. But it brought me new friends, new confidence, along with a lot of bills! It was big, beautiful, loud – and unreliable. But I rode it to the Satyrs Motorcycle Club “Badger flat” run in 2012, to Vegas, in Long Beach Pride, and to that mecca of gay history – San Francisco. It was my faithful steed, carrying me to new adventures.

As I child, I found comforts in the stories of old – and in the teachings of my faith. Believe it or not, for most of my life we did not have a TV in my home growing up – but going to the movies, and escaping the reality that I could not then change, opened my eyes to new dreams. Two of my favorites, that still touch my heart after decades, in sense represent the same them – that there is always hope. Seeing George Bailey discover that his life had meaning even though his dreams were not fulfilled; and seeing a child who felt different and longed to belong could learn to choose and through that, have some dreams come true – these moments echo in my life daily.

This year, 2022, marks 10 years since I “came out” to family and friends – sometimes with tears; some, followed by goodbyes. More importantly, I came out to myself – discovering much that I had believed and been taught was not true. And the greatest miracle of all – that something unimaginable to me for virtually all of my life could happen – Love found me, and brought my husband into my life. We were married in 2018 surrounded by family and friends – present and absent – and we continue find new happiness together, sharing joy with others. Is there a greater gift in life? Yes, like a boat out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through.

So, here we are at the last display area in my little gallery. From this picture of me, nearly 40 years ago – standing on the edge of the sea of Galilee, seeking answers; today, here in San Francisco; with my father a lifetime ago . Still exploring faith, history – still growing. Hopefully, still giving a little to others around me as I muddle through. Dare I say I am blessed? I am.

Good news, folks – there are no posters in the gift shop on the exit. But there is something I hope you can “take home” from this free tour. I encourage you – some slow afternoon, some rainy weekend, or tonight – perhaps with a family member – pull out a box, or a thumb drive. Look at the images – which bring life to your heart, a smile to your face? Which come alive when you see that moment again?

For most of the memories in your life – the stories of your joys and sorrows, the tales handed down from your family, the misty legends that are still in the shadows of your attic of recollections – and for all the images and scraps that you have stuck somewhere, in boxes or bags, or not even on paper but on that drive you never reference anymore – their shelf life ends with you. You and only you can take steps to share them with others, to transfer the custody of those questionable treasures – or to wipe them from history, never to be seen again. As I scan the stacks of photos I inherited that have no identification, and I see the faces and landscapes, the babies and the elderly looking back at me – their lives are literally in my hands. We don’t, as a culture, keep photo albums much anymore – we have videos and data files – and a time will come, my friend, when someone other than you will open that box, or that computer file, and say – I don’t want to bother with these. So as you see these moments from my life, I challenge you – take the time to do this yourself for those stacks. Make the time – for your loved ones, and for those who will not have memories of you or your grandparents. They are priceless, they are irreplaceable, and they have meaning. We are their archivists – they are the true family jewels.

That’s it for this visit, friends – hope you enjoyed, but more importantly, I hope you get a chance to not only revisit past joys – but create new ones, new images, new memories as our world reopens. Thanks for stopping by – see you soon!

PS – Special New year savings on subscriptions – free! Worth every penny!

The chairman of the Board, and the melodies that linger

This week, we got to attend our wonderful San Francisco Symphony again for the first time in more than two years – it was an unforgettable evening of joy.  And our second concert is coming up Wednesday – a holiday musical tribute to the artistry of two giants – Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald.  I’ve been reflecting on the power of music, universal in its ability to provide a sort of magical ticket away from the daily stresses and rebirth joy – perhaps through remembered moments, perhaps by unearthing some lesser explored part of our hearts, setting energies free to sing and dance, even if only to ourselves.  I listen to music constantly – rediscovering songs I had forgotten through streaming services, along with new artists, new voices. It lifts us, it can inspire, infuriate, renew and reveal – artists vocal and instrumental, composers and lyricists whose names deserve more recognition than the performers.  Some – a few – are timeless; we can form bonds with music that last a lifetime, that become the soundtrack to our history. 

My Mom loved music too – and as we look forward to hearing the Sinatra tribute this week, I realize how much his music meant to her throughout her lifetime. My memories of her are many, but they all have a common thread –  she suffered from debilitating pain throughout her time on earth.  Born in 1926, having me as her second child in 1958, she was already developing problems from rheumatoid arthritis after my brother’s birth 3 years prior.   She had health problems from childhood, multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, and by the time I was five, separated from my Dad, disabled and raising two boys on minimal child support and alimony.   As the years and the deterioration of her muscle strength progressed, she had to have special shoes made for her feet and became dependent on pain treatments that today’s patients happily can avoid. I remember the many nights when she would try to take care of things around the house, pushing through the pain, and the sounds of her distress and discomfort were not easily ignored – nor easily forgotten, decades later. 

This is not the “Mom” I knew – but in her day, she was quite the “pin up” girl from So Cal!

But music could somehow transform, or at least diminish, her distress into joy, in moments.  She had a pretty large collection of 78’s – big, bulky, scratched, in these sort of cardboard folio albums – along with later LP’s.  She also had held onto an upright piano, gifted from her mother who passed before my entry on the scene – and encouraged me to take piano lessons, which I did for years.  She also would occasionally peck at the keys a bit, but more often just turn on the radio.  As a teen, I remember digging through the record cabinet, wondering at the names – some I knew, many were unknown.  She didn’t listen to 70’s artists; I think her most contemporary albums were by Jack Jones and Rod McKuen (no Beatles, and certainly no rock!) – but there were many scratched 78’s and several 50’s/60’s albums by Frank Sinatra – the “Chairman of the Board”, “The Voice”, the emblem of a generation.  

It wasn’t until my 40’s, when she entered a long term care facility and I took on the years long task of cleaning and repairing her home, and the many boxes of her life that remained unopened for decades, that I began to see how much Sinatra had been part of her life.  By this time, I had become more familiar with the music of that era – certainly loving many of the songs he made popular, especially later when I started enjoying karaoke at the bars in Palm Springs.   Frank himself had passed by then – I’d seen some movies and knew a little of his history from the tributes and television coverage.  So, when I came across the boxes of photos, and the magazines, and programs – it was like a time capsule of my Mom’s love affair with his songs.  

The 1943 Hollywood Bowl program – the first “popular” artist to perform there.

It was during those years, the final few of her life, that she began to share some of her memories of the 40’s in LA – before meeting my Dad, before the ravages of health gnarled her hands and distorted her feet, keeping her in a physical prison and to a degree an emotional one as well.  Seeing pictures of her as a glamour teen, in a bathing suit, were kind of astonishing – this was not the woman who had raised me, to my eyes at least.  Growing up in Long Beach and working in that area, she had made friends with ties to Hollywood, somehow – after all, as a teenager at the outset of World War II, with so many young men leaving to fight for freedom, young women were exploring new ways of living that their parents never imagined.  She had gone on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney, had lunch at the Paramount studios commissary with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth one table over, and visited the home of Errol Flynn – a young woman bursting with life, and dreams and hopes of romance.  All influenced by the crooner that ruled the radio, and in time movies as well – Frank. 

A signed drawing by my Mom, clearly copied (with love) from a publicity photo.

She told me how her father took her to the Hollywood Bowl in 1943 to see Frank break with long held tradition there – somewhat controversially – performing “popular song” instead of the usual classical fare.  Years later, visiting the Bowl Museum, I heard a recording of his comments that night – it was the beginning of many ups and downs in his career, but a pinnacle for the scrawny kid from Hoboken.  My uncle, a few years her senior, was in England building glider planes for the Allies – he told me later how much all the enlisted men hated Sinatra for staying home, getting all the attention from the screaming fans.  It surprised me to see on display at the museum the same program I had found in her belongings, carefully preserved.  

A recording of Frank Sinatra’s 1943 Hollywood Bowl appearance … almost 80 years ago. You can even hear the screaming, swooning fans …. including my Mom (but probably not my Grandpa!)

She even shared how, as the president of a chapter of the Sinatra Fan Club, she had attended some of the earlier west coast radio feeds earlier in his career, from LA for the Major Bowes Amateur hour – a few of which I share here – with notations for the timing of the breaks, and songs, on the I imagine now rare scripts.  Thinking of her in Los Angeles, occasionally getting to ask for his autograph, long before the realities of life brought her elsewhere with two sons and no husband or job or car – I began to understand her life from a different perspective. 

As I enjoy the recordings of Frank today – and have retained the photos and magazines and other items, despite my brothers encouragement to sell them since at the time of his passing they had more value – I also remember the joy that those songs brought my Mom, a kind of healing, at least for a moment, a respite of sorts for her spirit.  Perhaps, when she sang along with those records, or played the radio for a special song while struggling to keep up with the responsibilities that lay on her alone, she was carried back to those moments – those hopes and dreams.  But my Mom never expressed regret that things did not work out as she had imagined – she focused on the challenges of the day, caring for us, and trying to sort through the choices we all have to make, in whatever circumstances we face.  

Unlike Mom, I never saw Sinatra perform live – at least, not that Sinatra.  After my Mom’s passing, a friend and I drove to see his son, Frank Jr., perform in Orange County – sitting a few seats away, his daughter Nancy (without her boots), knowing and reliving their own memories of their father through song.  The upcoming symphony performance is nearly sold out – a remarkable testimony to the legacy of Sinatra and Ella, the composers and artists, and the power of music to give us life.  Over two years ago, we enjoyed a similar tribute to my own favorite vocalist, Nat King Cole, and Aretha Franklin there – voices that remind us that our humanity is shared, our desires are not so different, and our yearnings unchanged from generations prior.   I am glad we can again be gathered together, celebrating not only the season, but the timelessness of music – and of the hopes that it nourishes.  My heart will sing along; I will smile, thinking, just maybe, Mom will be listening, too.  

The smallest of Mom’s signed pics – and yet, somehow, my favorite.

Wherever your week takes you – I hope you find some joy. It’s there, for the discovery – and the sharing. Until next time – thanks for stopping by to visit. You are always welcome!

It’s the season of giving – at least, it is when I post this! But, whenever you may read this, subscriptions to new posts is still a bargain – at nothing! Worth every cent and more … hopefully!

Looking for Lorenzo ….

Sometimes, our family history has loose ends – blind alleys, unsolved mysteries.  Perhaps you took advantage of the post Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sales which offer DNA tests to reveal our hidden secrets – or at least that appears to be the appeal for many.  An easy way to find out where we are from, and what our ancestors were like.  Sometimes, it is easy – but not always.

The “percentage match” we get from online sources gets rapidly smaller by generations

The “matches” that flood our email for tiny percentages of DNA connections are dependent on so many moving pieces – who submits a test, the “odds” of shared segments, and how each testing company samples from your own submissions.  The databases are constantly changing; the “ethnicity estimates” are only as good as the data that the company uses which can be misleading.  Think about it – even your “full” sibling – a brother or sister from the same two parents – will never have more than 50% shared DNA “markers”, much likely less – and with every generation, the percentage declines. 

When it comes to researching my own heritage, I was fortunate, in a way – my father had written a letter to my brother and I with his notes on various family members.   Dated April 16, 1965, shortly after my parent’s divorce, and during a period that he was facing many uncertainties, it offered some facts on his mother and father’s heritages, with scribbled notes and typos – but it was at least a jumping off point for my journey. Another page appears to be a request for further information from perhaps a distant family member; and, as I would learn in time, it was not entirely factual.  As you too may discover in digging into your ancestry, the “family lore” is often vague, rife with errors and misspellings, and incomplete or shaded by time. 

Because I grew up so isolated from most of my family – and because I was not in a home where there was a lot of visits from friends or neighbors – when I started to dig through boxes and found the diaries and letters, I felt like I was discovering family I never knew.  In time, my new “family” members became more real, with each new revelation, or old photo identified.  On my Mom’s side, there was a lot of documentation – less on my Dad’s.  I had known his parents only when very young – but now, as an adult, I found gaining an understanding of their lives to be very meaningful, and I wanted to learn more.  I sought out cousins, and using websites like Ancestry, found distant family on both sides around the world. 

Christmas time in the 60’s – with my paternal grandma Bela, daughter of Jim Grey (I’m with Santa!)

But one branch of the family remained a mystery – the parents of my paternal great grandmother.  My father’s great grandmother, Ramona Pereida had married my great grandfather – alternately referred to as James Grey, or Jim Grey, or James Gray in various documents; in fact, on her death certificate, even her husband misspelled her maiden name as “Perryda”.   They had met in southern Mexico when he was working on (no music, please) the railroad – he had been born James Gronso Jr., but changed his name when he left his parents (purportedly after fathering a child out of wedlock) to seek his fortune in the expanding west.  I had been able to find his family’s descendants – they were thrilled to learn what had happened to him, lost to time – but in Arizona territory, and Mexico itself, records of family were not as extensive in the late 1800’s, and I had little to go on. 

My father’s letter described Ramona’s parents briefly; Lorenzo, her father, “lived in Nogales; his father or grandfather came from Spain and was executed during the reign of Maximilian”.  Her mother was “Ligrada Corrella De Pierada”; they had “married in Hermosillo Mexico”, and supposedly had 13 children, practiced medicine, but “was not a doctor”.  Other “facts” about siblings and history were scant – and in time, I realized, erroneous.    But I was fascinated with the old pictures of Jim Grey on a desert landscape, and his wife and two older daughters, Dora and Bela.  I never was able to talk with my grandmother Bela about her knowledge; she passed when I was quite young. But, I am sure some if not all of the notes my Dad made were from her memory. 

The only photo I have of great grandma Ramona, and her daughters Dora and grandma Bela – c. 1894

Fortunately, in time – thank you Ancestry and the Internet – I found a Pereida relative (and the correct spelling!) and through him, a distant cousin – descendants of siblings of James’ wife, Ramona.  Like many Hispanic families, they had named children after parents – and so, there were records for a Lorenzo Pereida in Arizona – just not “mine”.  Together, we visited Nogales, and found the gravesite of his wife, Librada (not Ligrada) – or, “Liberty” – and other members, neglected in a long forgotten plot.  And, another cousin – descended from my grandmother’s sister Dora – had a video recording of the youngest sister, Aunt Monie – in which she made a startling claim that Lorenzo had come to San Francisco from not Spain, but Portugal; returned there, and then emigrated to Mexico where he met Librada and married her. 

The 3 adult daughters of James and Ramona – Dora, Bela and Monie

So many questions – where did this Lorenzo come from? Was he indeed somehow a practitioner of medicine, and did he cross the ocean multiple times?  Had he emigrated to San Francisco prior to the gold rush (I would love that, as it would make me eligible for some rather distinguished associations here!), and if so, why did he go back?  What if any was the family connection to Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, killed in 1867?  My hope was that if I could find even more living descendants of Ramona’s supposedly dozen siblings, they could provide some answers.  And, yes, secretly, I harbored a hope that there would be a chest of rubies and gold that was being held for my share of the family (well, one must dream, sometimes!) 

As of today – I don’t have those answers.  The DNA tests that I purchased through 23 and me, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and My Heritage sometimes provide “connections” that seem promising – I write, but there have been few responses and no real information.  I am glad I connected with the cousins that I did find online – we have shared what little we know.  I search the archives of the Newspapers.com website occasionally finding Pereida references, sometimes to a sibling, but mostly of dubious shared heritage;  there is evidence to suggest that the family name has closer ties to Portugal than Spain, but I have found no contacts there as of today. 

There were two “finds” in the past year, courtesy of the indexing and online references provided by the Latter Day Saints FamilySearch.org website.  It is free to all; and because their faith tenets emphasize the importance of tracking down family, they devote many resources to indexing and sharing records from around the world.   Being “trapped” – oops, sheltering in place – gave me more time to poke around, and I was very excited to finally find a formal record naming Lorenzo Perieda and his wife Librada Corella de Pereida – from July 26, 1887.   The civil registry of Nogales recognized that James and his wife, Ramona, brought their 3 children (!) of varying ages to be formally recorded as legitimate offspring (I guess people weren’t in a big rush back then!) 

A friend in LA and his friend who was more familiar with “traditional” Spanish handwriting and language helped translate the wording – which revealed that by that point, Lorenzo was deceased.  And just last week my sister in law helped me “walk through” a marriage record of “Santiago” Grey and Librada Pereida, in Spanish of course, from the civil registration records of Sonora Mexico.  It states, among much “legalese” (yes, even back then) that they wed in her mother’s Guaymas home on February 6, 1882, with witnesses present – including Librada.  But there is no mention of Lorenzo.  From the Nogales gravesite and other records, we know that his wife, Librada, passed in 1908;  my father’s letter only mentioned that Lorenzo died in Ures, Mexico – whether his grave exists today, I do not know.  

I found this 1851 illustration of Ures, Mexico, by John Russell Bartlett from the “John Carter Brown” library online in Rhode Island …. this is the life my great grandparents would have known.

Why does any of this matter?  I cannot answer that, other than a sense in my heart.  Perhaps it is because I, as a childless man, know the probability that I will be forgotten in time; I would like to preserve the memories of Lorenzo, his family and more relatives for my nieces and nephews, and their children – hoping that they will find some value, as I have, in understanding what our forebears went through for us to have our lives here today.   I had this interest long before Pixar’s “Coco” used the Day of the Dead to urge us to “remember me” for our lost relatives; I can almost relive sitting in my mother’s bedroom, going through boxes, and the sense of wonder I had at the old pictures and letters, and the lives of those who came before.  I wanted so desperately to have a sense of belonging as a child; to have the family that my schoolmates talked about; perhaps in a sense I am still trying to rebuild what was lost.  And, maybe, in a way, I will save a little bit of me for those who remain after I am gone – just as those who wrote the letters, took the photos, and saved the family Bibles did from decades past. 

A few years back, with my Pereida cousin Rudy, when we visited Nogales in search of heritage

I would love, one day, to visit the point where Lorenzo began his own journey – to know why he made the life changing choice to board a ship and cross an ocean, perhaps more than once, and how he came to Hermosillo,  and where Librada came from, and her parents.  The DNA tests might one day provide, if not a connection, a clue or a confirmation – or it might just be luck.  But I do think I will stand there, and be in awe again at the mysteriously woven tapestry of my life – all our lives.  I hope my own digging inspires some of you to consider what you can do to preserve your stories, your ancestors, for the future generations; their voices speak to us, their wisdom and their sacrifices, their love and their hopes.  We may not seem them clearly – but they are worth remembering and honoring, and from that, carrying forward in our own lives.  I wish you well in your quests. 

If you haven’t seen Pixar’s Coco, it is well worth a visit …. and remembering ….

Act quickly – a free subscription to “The New NormL” is the perfect holiday gift!

An art mystery, a heart’s history

Well, friends, it’s our first February of Covid – more than 11 months since our initial shutdown here in San Francisco. Of course, this is the month of Valentine’s candy and cards, so I wanted to share some discoveries about love echoing in faded words and forgotten names. But this is not your Hallmark card valentine – so it will take a while to get to the heart of our tale; over a century, in fact.  In “real time”, not “reading time”!  Come to think of it, it has taken me 20 years to write these words.

Aunt Monie was the crazy relative.  Of course, that’s probably what some of my family say about me – they have a point.  But Aunt Monie – technically my great aunt, being my paternal grandmothers younger sister – she did it with gusto.  The youngest of 3 surviving sisters, born in Nogales, Arizona in 1902, where her father worked with Santa Fe.  Not long after, the Grey family moved to Needles, California and her oldest sister Dora was one of the famous “Harvey Girls” there.   

Crazy Aunt Monie as I remember her, under her portrait

Monie was the only one of the 3 sisters that I have actual memories of – my grandmother Bela, the middle sister, passed when I was quite young, and there are fragments of moments, feelings really, that remain – probably inspired by the handful of photos.  But Monie lived into my young adulthood – showing up occasionally, sometimes without notice, and always full of life.  Perhaps a bit like “Auntie Mame” but only popping into my life every 5 years or so. 

She was a personal care nurse, and a single mother – having married 3 times – and from what everyone says, being very comfortable in intimate relationships (short term and long) well into her 70s.  At one point in her life, she operated a kind of roadhouse/bar in the Fortana/Rialto area of Southern California’s “Inland Empire” with an illegal “one armed bandit” slot machine in the back room.  And yes, she loved to drink! 

Monie and her second husband had a son – Bill – who I saw rarely.  I knew from comments my Dad and stepmother made that he was different- not realizing what that meant, as a teen in the 70’s – Bill was a homosexual (this was before “gay” was in common use, and the other words were far less polite).  I just knew that everything was a little different on those few occasions we visited – and, in time, both Monie and Bill moved to Hawaii, so I didn’t see them for several years. 

Bill Rennie as a child in California

Then, shortly after I graduated college and began my professional career, I was selected for an assignment in Hawaii.  I had actually never flown in a plane until I got out of college.  My assignment was on Maui, so I spent a few days ahead in Oahu – my only visit there, now nearly 40 years ago.  As it turned out, that remains my most vivid memory of our visits before her passing at age 93.  Monie drove me around, meeting a friend who was well known in the indigenous people community and famous for her ukulele singing, but her son Bill was not there – and I was a bit relieved.  By this time I knew he was “gay” – and so was I – but there was nothing I wanted to do with him, or that part of myself. 

Of course, as I have shared in other posts, life had a plan other than the one I sought to cling to – and in the process of exploring my family history, I learned Bill, “Cousin Bill” as my Dad called him, had actually moved to Palm Springs from Hawaii.  Anxious to quiz him about some of the family lore, I convinced my stepmother to drive out to see him – more than 30 years after my last encounter with him as a teen.  Over the 4-5 years since that visit, I learned a lot about him and my family – and in time, I became involved in his care. Sadly, my father, bitter from disappointing memories of encounters with his aunt and cousin over the years, refused my request to bring Bill to visit for Thanksgiving 2005. He pass in October 2006, preceded that year by my mother and stepmother, and followed the following year by my father.  It was a time of loss and learning, slowly, to journey through grief. 

As I dealt with Bill’s estate and personal effects, being greatly helped by his neighbors Jim and Niles who cared so lovingly for his needs in his last years, there were many possessions in his ramshackle mobile home and storage unit.  He had lived a flamboyant life, and was for many years a very sought after hairdresser, in California and Hawaii – even taking care of Betty Ford’s styling when she and the President would visit Honolulu.  One painting he had always told me had been a gift to his mother, Monie – an oil painting, of what he said was the old harbor there before the hotels starting getting tall.  In fact, supposedly this was the very site of the hotel made famous in the TV credits for “Hawaii Five O” where the camera zoomed in on Jack Lord weekly to that famous theme music. 

You can see the hotel, and the yacht club, in this famous TV opening.

Bill, and Monie before him, had a reputation with my Dad and family of … exaggerating, to be polite.  Dad called her Phony Aunt Monie! So it didn’t entirely surprise me when I looked into the history of that hotel – the Illikai – opened in 1964. Back then, it was the first “high rise” hotel in Honolulu –  Which wouldn’t really be relevant, except – he had said this was the boat harbor, before the skyline was altered by construction.  and as near as I can determine this would have been the Ala Wai yacht harbor, also the site of the Waikiki yacht club.  But ….. the mystery arises from inscription on the back of this painting.  

It’s faded, understandably – partly in English, partly in French.  On one side, the words are printed “The Yatch (sp) Club”, Honolulu, September 60 and the artists name – seemingly, Giordani.  The style of signature matches that on the lower left of the oil painting itself, but for years I had been unable to find any reference to an artist by that name.  On the left reverse of the frame, in French – “A ma tres cheri ami Mona, en hommage et sincere amitie j’ai de tout coeur”.   Now my junior high spanish was 50 years ago, but with slight uncertainties about the handwriting, that basically says – To my dear friend Mona, in homage to the singer friendship I carry in my heart”.   Signed, seemingly, as on the front – Giordany? Or … Giordani;  and dated May 19th, 1965, Honolulu Hawaii.   

Or is it September 66?  Hard to say, but by then, the artist would have to be painting from memory if in fact this was near the site of that famous Jack Lord hotel shot seen for many years.  The Yacht club still exists – but is not in proximity to the hotel – and so, it would seem, the story about this being the the “site” of that hotel before construction is, like perhaps many of Bill’s stories … exaggerated.  

Still it is, I think, a lovely painting – of a time gone by – and I had always been curious about the identity of the artist.  Not being a student of art personally, I cannot say that it is particularly remarkable, although certainly well beyond anything I could ever produce.  And having seen episodes of Antiques Roadshow where seemingly common items turn out to be worth untold amounts of riches, well, one has dreams.  But I could never be sure of the spelling of the name – not knowing if it was a first, last, or other kind of signature.  My google searches turned up nothing;  when I recently took it to get reframed, as it is, other than photos and letters, the last piece of the legacy of Monie and Bill that I have – I decided to try again to see if, somehow, this work of art was by a well known artist. 

But my initial 2021 web searches did not turn up any results that seemed to match any artist working in Hawaii in that era;  and there were many names with life spans that did not correlate.  That is, until I decided to search images and … eureka.  A photo of a painting by an Aldo Giordani, with the same unmistakeable signature and similar style.  Was he famous? Was I going to be rich?  How to find out more?  I realized my subscription to Newspapers.com might shed some light, having used it to find out some amazing, sometimes shocking, stories about family events – and, indeed, there were some articles that finally gave me some insight into the artist behind the painting. 

Aldo was born in 1914, from a family of generations of artists, including his father, Italo Giordani.  According to one article from the Austin Texas American Statesman in 1974, he studied at the Eclose des Beaux Arts in Paris, working in both oil and sculpture.  He traveled extensively, and according to that same article (pictured – screen shot) he was captured by French forces while serving in the Italian military in Algeria – and served 3 years in prison.  From there, somehow, he made his way to Polynesia; then to Hawaii;  from there, at some point after his dedication to Monie,  to Canada, Mexico, Montana, and Texas.  A 1972 Billings Montana article quotes him as saying, explaining that he never married – “I can’t deny I’m attracted by women.  But I look for something besides the physical, the sex. I look in a woman’s face, her eyes.  That tells much. Women are very emotional”.   Ah, Italians.  Apparently, he also loved to cook, and hosted parties and receptions with international cuisine from his many travels.   But after the several articles from all these locations, Aldo seems to have, like so many, trailed off in time.  I found a reference to him passing in 1980, and another to a lawsuit in Taos for unknown cause, as well as a notice to auction off an unpaid storage unit in Hawaii.  

1972 article about another Giordani artwork – I wonder if it still is on display?

So, like Monie, and to a degree Bill, Aldo was a bit of a gypsy, a bit of a showman, and perhaps a scoundrel – a colorful man with colorful art, who enjoyed life.  What their story was together, is lost.  You may well ask why I would put time into researching something so seemingly obscure and meaningless, but as I have written in the past – there is something about these moments in time, these artifacts of mostly forgotten lives, that speaks to something more timeless.  Love, intimacy, yearning;  hope, inspiration and the quiet corners of our hearts that we sometimes turn off the lights and shut the doors to, forgetting they existed.  Monie touched many lives with her caring for patients, Bill with his lovers, friends, and styling conquests, Aldo and his apparently profuse creations of art, now probably mostly gone.  I cannot hear the ocean when I see this painting, but I remember Monie and Bill, as do my brothers – and probably few, if any, others.  But I feel the colors, of the caked oil strokes, and of their energy, their laughter and their love.  

Bill was always gracious, loving – and mostly, outrageous. He was, himself.

Whether we all pass into something once we leave this earth, the reality is, most of us, our lives and our longings – will fade and be forgotten.  Walk through any old cemetery and reflect on the struggles and triumphs of all those lives, now for the ages, and the immediacy of our seemingly insurmountable crises will possibly feel a little less weighty.  I am glad I have this painting and hope one of my nieces or nephews will one day ask me about it, and when the time comes, hang in in their home.  Like many who will pass without children, I wonder what they will remember of me.  For you, dear readers – if any – think about, in this digital age when so many pictures and films, thoughts and hopes, songs and tears have no long term physical existence – what pieces of your life will survive your time on this earth?  And, answering that question – what can each of us do with the days ahead, whose number is unknown, whose opportunities to feel the sun and the ocean breeze, or the touch of a loved ones hand, will not always be ours to treasure anew, only to remember. 

Mahalo, Aldo Giordani; Aloha, Monie and Bill – until we meet again. I treasure your love, and am reminded the love we receive is mean not to hold within our hearts forever, but to give anew.

Thanks for visiting, friends. You all stay safe, and keep on keeping on.

Beyond the stars on a magic carpet

This week I was freed. 

We’d been exposed to COVID courtesy of a visiting home repairman whose brief stop to pick up a check led to receiving a call less than 48 hours later, courtesy of SF city health. We were to quarantine with testing and daily monitoring by phone for two weeks. Happily, our initial tests were both clear, and again just before our ultimate release.  I chose to celebrate by daring to indulge in an experience few else were pursuing these days. 

I’m calling to your memories. I’m asking you to think back as far as you can — a moment long ago when you sat with a roomful of mostly strangers, and the lights dimmed to darkness, and the room hushed as everyone around you became quiet.  Perhaps you heard a fanfare, the curtains opened – revealing a shiny silvery screen, and beams of light bringing to your eyes a vision. 

No one reading this today was present 125 years ago when, shortly after Christmas, two brothers created a public gathering that transformed the world. Louis and Augusta Lumiere charged one franc each to 33 Parisians to watch less than 10 minutes of silent film.  They had not invented the film process but did create their unique mechanism for projection to a paying audience.  This very first commercial film screening soon resulted in their opening a chain of local “cinemas”, and in time to the world. 

Moments from a century of film magic, in less than 5 minutes

Although I do not think it was my first movie, my first movie memory was going to the old Corona theater in 1966 with my older brother, I was 8, he was 10 and the scenes of the fire engulfing the forest ignited not only the screen but my imagination.  In the more than 5 decades since I have no idea how many films I have seen; many in the theater, but also on Tv, or college retrospectives, then in time VHS rentals, laserdiscs, and DVDs – but always, always I knew movies were their best in a dark cinema. 

The visions, dreams, stories and songs, were a place I could escape. Where I could find hope, joy, and worlds of adventure for a dollar matinee and a bike ride. In time, I would attend previews, revivals and world premieres; visiting Grauman’s Chinese, the movie palaces of downtown LA built by Charlie Chaplin and countless visits to multiplexes, many now converted to retail or RV showrooms or torn down. 

A 1953 movie premiere at the Chinese – the “golden age” – before my time.

I was often – correction, nearly always – alone, even in a crowded theater. Sometimes I would chat with strangers about the film as we waited, but most were with others, and I was more comfortable waiting for the lights to dim and to leave my neighbors behind. I learned about the artists of screenwriting, direction, production design, editing, scoring and of course the stars. My parents in shared their memories – my Mom of trips to see musicals (and going on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney), my Dad of being terrified by Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. In time I took my younger brother to Superman and Star Wars; and his first R rated movie, Die Hard; more recently, with his wife and kids, and now my husband, to see even more Star Wars.  Funny how I can remember many of these screenings, theaters, and those times when others enjoyed or hated the film along with me as we chatted after some blockbuster or art film. Too many memories to begin to share – and in recent years, new memories with my husband, a reality beyond even my own romance inspired imagination that no screenwriter could have sold to a studio. 

But earlier this year, of course, no new memories could be created. Theaters like our beautiful Castro, dark for months for the first time in its nearly century long life. Others closed forever, now; chains in bankruptcy, studios ceasing production and deferring release, selling new films direct to Amazon that had been created for audiences to enjoy in the crowded darkness, their drinks and popcorn left in cases. The seats cold.  Like so many lives and businesses – the future uncertain, but the present, silent – more so than any DW Griffith epic or Harold Lloyd comedy. The lights off, the doors locked.

If you EVER get a chance again … go to the Castro Theater. History, magic and more.

Recently, the powers that be in their unknowable wisdom deigned it safe to allow some there to reopen. Sadly, here in SF most remain shuttered; unlike their neighboring cities, they are not being allowed to sell refreshments, which for years has been the only source of profits, especially for independent cinemas; the studios take most of the ticket cut, which is more meager than ever.  Somehow, other sources of food and drink are safe, including restaurants recently reopened for indoor service, but that part of the cinema experience is not permitted here – and so our local theaters remain dark for now. 

But nearby cities had been screening for a few weeks, and now that I could at last get out, I knew exactly what I wanted to see! With all the closures and delays in movie releases, most of the “summer blockbusters” were, well, either not summer, or bust. But one filmmaker whose works have always been creative, and sometimes breathtaking, insisted his project be released in theaters as planned – if delayed – and I wanted very much to see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in IMAX.   A theater nearby, south of the city itself, had it on IMAX matinee for the final day the first day of my “release” – and my husband having opted out, I drove to the BART parking structure adjacent.  Usually crowded up to multiple levels, it was nearly deserted – as was the sidewalk past the some open, some closed eateries featuring pizzas, ice cream, sandwiches and more.My ticket was “touchless” with an assigned seat, no adjacent viewers – in fact, only 4 seats were showing as sold that morning out of the entire theater.  The concession area was open, but semi deserted – and entering the theater itself, a hand cleansing station greeted me as I found my seat in silence.  There was no typical “pre-show” with ads, promotions, etc. – but a few “previews of coming attractions” with dates that have now been pushed into 2021.  

You don’t need my evaluation of the film itself – there are plenty of those online.  Rather, I invite you to remember what it was like to go, perhaps with a date, or your family, or a group of friends, to see some film you love to watch even today – whether it was Forrest Gump or Star Wars, James Bond or a Disney classic.  The joy you felt, or the fear or surprises you shared; the music that soared.  These were magic carpets taking us to new worlds in the dark;  showing us what life might have to offer, promising us a future we might never know, and for some, the promise of what discovering what it is to love, be loved, and even lose love. We may see ourselves, or perhaps not – perhaps we will get a glimpse of who we want to become. Films are not always a true representation of life, but they capture the energy of our spirit in a way that combines imagery, sound, story and more that is unique to sitting in that dark room, climbing on the carpet, and letting it take us where it will.  When the ride ends, and we walk out, we may not remember those moments consciously – but they are a part of our common cultural heritage now.  

Perhaps you recall the wonderful, Oscar winning theme music for “Chariots of Fire” created by Vangelis. He also had several albums as part of the team “Jon and Vangelis” – one, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”, is titled for their evocative, and very lengthy, tribute to how film captures our spirits, our hearts, and creates a shared experience that can last a lifetime.  Of course, it refers to “The Maltese Falcon” but moves into other moments that you may recognize as well.  

Silent gold movies, talkies, technicolor, long ago; my younger ways stand clearer, clearer than my footprints. Stardom greats I’ve followed closely, closer than the nearest heartbeat; longer than expected – they were great. Oh love oh love; just to see them; acting on the silver screen, oh my. Clark Gable, Fairbanks, Maureen O’Sullivan; fantasy would fill my life – and I love fantasy so much. Did you see? In the morning light? I really talked, yes I did, to God’s early morning light – and I was privileged then, as I am to this day, to be with you.

Closing lyrics, “Friends of Mr. Cairo”, Jon and Vangelis, 1981.

I hope you will take the time to view this in one sitting, quietly – the creator of this video clearly loves the music, and the films, and melded the two into this hymn to how films find a place deep in our hearts. 

Turn off the lights, turn off the world around you, and remember what it is to dream.

My wish for you is that one day, perhaps soon but one day, you will again be able to enjoy a movie you love – whether new, or old – in a darkened theater full of strangers, on a screen larger than any in your home, without distraction, and with all the popcorn and soda you have missed.  I hope Bob and I, with our friends and families, will have those moments ahead as well, at the Castro theater with it’s beautiful pipe organ and cavernous edifice, inviting passersby “Come, enter the temple – see the light dance and the hear the angels sing”. The flickering spirits are waiting for you to join them again in the darkness.  As my old film mentors Siskel and Ebert used to say every Sunday evening on TV as they shared thoughts on what magic film offers us – save me the aisle seat. 

Talk to the chair

As I have written the past few months, I have been gifted with very kind and encouraging feedback.  Strangers have started to subscribe to my blog; I hope it is because there is something that touched them or encouraged them.  But my family and friends have, at times, expressed concern – that my sharing, my openness and recollection may be stirring more pain within myself.  Their words are, I am certain, coming from love, and I appreciate and understand their responses. 

It’s absolutely true that writing from the heart is sometimes very difficult; it takes a lot of soul searching, and sifting through repeatedly, trying to determine what is the hoped for “wisdom” that I might share from my experiences.  My goal is not to evoke sympathy or pity, but by honestly opening up about some of my history, to provide you, the reader – whether you know me, or never meet me – something that you can grasp and use, that you can say – yes, yes, there is a truth here, a discovery that has meaning, in your life, now.  My reward – your gain from the price I paid.

I have realized the past few weeks that one of the most difficult entries I shared needed … a sequel. A follow up to show that what I laid bare in those words back in May led to something better, in my life – peace, in my heart, and hopefully in time through that for others in my circle, through how we care for one another.  Ripples in the pond between our joined lives, wherever they may connect.

“Sometimes I cry when I see the boys” original post here ……

The title of that May post, taken from one of my father’s letters to my Mom, revealed bluntly some of the less than wonderful, far from ideal facts about my relationship with my Dad.  Some aspects, not all – there were chapters to our shared lives that there is no point in shining a light on here, which impacted not only me, but other family members. Our shattered natures often lead to chasms, and in my case, there was a period of several years where, except for my Mom, my direct family was not present in my life.  But despite those moments, which were desperately painful in many ways – in time, there was healing.  Today, I realize how important it is to share some of how that came about, with you – for whatever meaning it might have in perhaps not your own relationships, but possibly someone you love, or someone you have yet to meet.  

We do things to protect our bruised and wounded hearts.  We hide, we bury, we put on emotional masks and learn to present the self we want others to see, to love and accept.  Yes, in my case there were elements that had not only to do with the deepest parts of how I connect with others, but also very old, and very fully woven into my spirit, habits of thought and feeling.  In my work with the first counselor who helped me come to a place of greater acceptance and understanding of grace than what I had been taught, I grew into new freedoms.  In time, I sought out another counselor, one who could relate more fully from his own experience and insight to my history; his name was Patrick.  He passed a few years ago, but he gave me a gift to share, and I will do my best, today. 

I make no apologies for my upbringing in faith, knowing full well that many have different backgrounds, beliefs and understandings – finding comfort in accepting that I will never have all the answers, and don’t need to beyond those which work for me, and bring me to a place of continuing to grow in caring and acceptance of others who enter my life.  Patrick was not a particularly spiritual person; in fact, I would go so far as to say he might have described himself as agnostic.  But he accepted that a huge portion of the challenges I faced to growth was reconciling what I had been taught, what I desired and felt, and that finding some balance between those was critical for my own peace of mind. He respected what was important to me. 

What came as a surprise to me was his insights, in time, into my father’s alcoholism; Patrick was very experienced in addiction treatment, theory and related issues.  I did not feel that addiction was a problem in my life; I had been studious to avoid drink for many reasons; I was well aware that studies indicated there were genetic factors that impact predisposition to intergenerational addictive behaviors.  Eventually I came to realize that there were other escape routes that I had learned to embrace, that did not provide the answers I sought; they were not to be found in a bottle but had their own power over me.  I suspect we all face those illusory mirages of hope at times; our culture, and many others, is filled with stories of miracles and magic that at their best create unrealistic desires for wish fulfillment, and at their worst, deception and destruction.  Sometimes even in the “answers” that we turn to for hope, disappointment lurks.  Turning from those false solutions to truth is not an easy process. 

I did not think that my father’s alcoholism was an ongoing issue for me; by the time I began working with Patrick, it was maybe 6 years since Dad’s passing; I was “out”, I was making friends, and dealing with the stresses of everyday life.  But Patrick recognized in me the echoes of the ravages of disfunction, and the coping habits which at the time seemed to protect me, which actually were now working against a fuller life.  He recommended an extremely technical volume on addiction, and I am thankful for his faith in my intellect to work through it – I began to see that my own behaviors were built in some ways on a foundation of just surviving those problems that impacted me deeply at a young age, but which I still carried long after those years into my ongoing life – and they were not working for me, but against me. 

But what really surprised me was his suggestion that I spend a week at the Betty Ford program in Palm Desert, CA. 

Betty Ford, whose Center, now joined with Hazelden, still changes lives

Now, before you jump to conclusions (I sure did, initially), know this – he felt it would give me insight to attend “family week”, not the program itself – a sort of “day camp” for those whose loved ones were in the residential program could learn about their own behavior and how to support their family member after they left the facility.  Of course – my father was not in the facility – but Patrick knew the administrator and after discussion with them, I agreed to attend for a 5-day program.  We reviewed a lot of material about the nature of addiction, but also heard presentations by experts in the field, about codependence and how the family unit is impacted, short term and long term, by the damage and pain they seek relief from. 

I felt out of place; I was newly “out”, trying to deal with a lot in my own personal life, and facing some pretty severe challenges in my career as well.  The others in the program, well, they were pretty – “normal”, I guess – parents, spouses, children.  I did not feel connected with them at all.  And then, there was the fact that I was the only one who had no family in the program itself; once again, in more than one ways, I was reminded of my differentness, my outsider status. 

One of the key components of the week, for everyone but me, was for them to sit down with their loved one who was a residential participant, and have an honest discussion – sharing their feelings; being open; being vulnerable;  trying to find a bridge ahead for everyone in the family, patient and supporters.  I was impressed with the program, and more so with their courage – but again, I felt – weird.  The administrator had told me that participating in one of the central aspects of the program was up to me …. Did I want to have an opportunity to talk?  Not with the other participants – we did some of that, for sure, in the program; but … with my father.  No, not in some “séance”; but in a way that would allow me to express what I felt, what I carried inside, that I never had with him, fully, in real life. 

In the last year of his life, after the passing of both my stepmother and mother, we had built bridges; my Dad had accepted my coming out, and as I will share more fully in another entry one day, he supported me in ways that no one else in my family could, or perhaps would, as we both dealt with our individual grief as best we were able.   In a way, we healed together. After his passing, and all that had happened in my life in the years since, I didn’t think there was ground left to cover; but I talked with Patrick – and decided I needed whatever I could get from this program, from this experience, that I could take with me into the future.  For me. 

So I said “yes”. After the other “family sharing” times were pretty much complete – I sat down, surrounded by a circle of strangers who knew a little, but not much, of my life and challenges – facing an empty chair.  I cannot tell you today exactly what came out of my mouth, or shall I say my heart – it was painful; there were tears.  There was release.  But I promise you this – for me, my Dad was sitting there.  He heard me;  we connected.  As I told him from those deeply wounded parts of my own childhood spirit still hovering inside me, as they do for us all, the pain of what had happened began to be, somehow, released; and being surrounded by, as some might say, “clouds of witnesses” whose own journey might be not entirely similar but not entirely different – I knew, finally – I was not alone.  There was nothing wrong with me, back in those years, or in that moment where we connected, somehow, even across the barrier of eternity. 

And from there … I moved on; I grew, and still am. I tell you honestly, even just in writing this to you – there is healing. There are still tears, but I know now tears are not my enemy. 

At the time, I did not talk of these events with hardly anyone in my life; family reading this now, may be disappointed I did not share with them.  But I am sharing with you because …. In writing about my father’s pain; his issues, his failures – first, it was important to say there was more to him than those disappointments. There is more to all of us, even though we too have let others down; we have caused our loved ones disappointment.  I was given a chance to find some peace in a way I would never have thought possible.  Yes, there were moments of reconciliation while he was still living;  but in a way, I believe, my experience illustrates that it is never too late to reach into our own hearts and search, through sludge and mire, through all the lies we embraced and the shadows we hid behind – to walk forward, in forgiveness.  

As I get older, retired now, much of my life now consists of quieter times, especially staying at home and not seeing our family and friends as much; perhaps particularly because I am somewhat the family historian, and going through old papers and photos brings up memories. I appreciate the loving concern of those of you who read some of my entries and wonder if sharing these moments might not be worth the cost, emotionally, to me in writing them.  My answer is a resounding YES – if only one person out there finds some encouragement, some hope in what you are facing today because my words somehow ring true for you – yes, yes yes. I did not always have someone in my life at the darkest times; I know what loneliness and desperation are.  There is HOPE.  I found it – believe me friends, you can too.  It is there, waiting.

One does not have to be a member of the Christian faith, or part of that heritage that has become buried under countless traditions, arguments and myths – to see the wisdom of the words that have been called “the beatitudes”.  I am sure there are similar passages in other faiths, perhaps some that have meaning for you that I will never hear.  Those words, spoken on a hill to a crowd that came with their own hopes of miracles, freedoms, or promised deliverance – that did not, for most, come to pass they way they expected, and for the Teacher, led to a painful end of life – they hold for many a kind of mystical poetic power beyond understanding.  This is why I am reminded of the passage in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verse 9 – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”.  These few words are quietly nestled between similar blessings for those who are pure of heart, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.   And yet – of all these words now called the “sermon on the mount”, of all the characteristics that are described and the outcomes promised for those who embrace them – I only now realize that only the peacemaker has the blessing of joining in harmony with the very nature, the essence, of God.  Children, of God. 

Over the years, I, like you perhaps, have questioned most of what I was taught to simply accept, including translation, historical accuracy, documentation and the impact of mostly now forgotten ancient traditions in interpreting what we call “scripture”.  But for me … I believe there is a special kind of peace in seeking reconciliation.  With those in our life now; with those no longer in our life; and with that Power, however we define it, that exists outside the scope of our comprehension and understanding, for now at least, perhaps forever.  We may sense those aspects of a larger spirit that we struggle to put into words, in whatever language – faith, hope, love, forgiveness; reaching out, to make peace, when we can – in what little way we are able. 

We cannot always reconcile, or find peace, with everyone in our life; it’s not fully within our power.  But our willingness to seek it out, is. The realization that the making of that effort is of itself a reflection of the very nature of the Eternal, of our spirit, and that which exists outside time itself – came to life for me, facing a seemingly empty chair, in a room filled with strangers I never saw again.  Perhaps there is a chair you need to face – even if, like mine, empty for now.

Today I know and appreciate the love – imperfect but real – of my father in a way I was unable to grasp before those moments of healing.  We each have our own seasons and paths in life; we must choose for ourselves as best we can and trust that in time good will come of it.  I know there remain bridges to be built, and I have hope they can and will be.  Thank you for taking the time to listen to this moment of my journey, as I continue hopefully to grow.  Perhaps my words will give you hope, as well.   Blessed be, indeed, the peacemakers, all of us, children of God.  

Grandpa and Grandma Neighbor

It’s never too late to say thank you. Even when it might appear to be well overdue. 

There are all kinds of ways to create families, to love others and to have a sense of belonging and connection. From a traditional perspective, I did not really have any kind of relationship with my natural  grandparents; my fathers parents passed before I was 10, and although I have some pictures, they did not live nearby and we saw them rarely, especially after my parents separated.  Today I know them probably better than anyone else alive – but through their letters, photos and diary, not my memories. My mother’s mother passed before I was born, and my mothers father remarried and live out of state; her economic and physical circumstances and own broken relation with him kept him farther away than the miles themselves. 

With my paternal grandfather on the beach at their Oceanside home c. 1963

But looking back I can see that our neighbors in many ways filled the gap.  Here, I do not share the names off the living, or their pictures – except in the case of myself, and occasionally my husband. In fact, sorting through my family records and the literally hundreds of photos from my parents, their parents and before, is going to be a very long term project.   Still, when I ran across a portrait of our next door neighbors from my childhood, I feel that sharing their gifts to me might have meaning for you, distant readers.  It’s my pleasure to introduce you to them, today.

We moved to our amazing all electric “Medallion home” in 1962 – there actually was a large gold emblem in the porch – it was one of the last sold.  I was four, my brother 7, and my parents marriage would be over not long after.  On one side, the Burchetts lived with two daughters, and across the street, the Millers with four children, three older than me  – and these were not large homes.  But next door, it was just the Milbrats.  I had no idea of their age, of course – to me, they were just old.  Even as I grew into my college years, I really didn’t know much about them, except that they had grown children – and that they were exceedingly kind.  In some ways, they were angels in our lives. 

Yes, that’s our then future president shilling Medallion Homes!

I remember, after my father left and we struggled financially, it was Mr. Milbrat rather than my Dad who taught me how to ride my bicycle, encouraging me.  He lent us yard tools so that my older brother and I could try to keep up with all the work – they had a beautiful backyard, and a neatly trimmed lawn out front.  But perhaps most importantly, they welcomed us into their home on very special occasions – to watch television.  For most of my upbringing, due to broken TV tubes and limited funds, we did not have a functioning TV in our home, which definitely accentuated my sense of differentness from the families around us – no father, no car, no income really and – no TV!!!  That was certainly a reason I rode to the library a lot.

This sure looks familiar … it took courage to climb aboard!

This was the era of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, preceded by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with your host, Marlin Perkins.  The Milbrats welcomed us in every Sunday night to watch thrilling shows like Zorro and The Horse without a head, that I remember so clearly.  And, at Christmas we would watch the specials – I particularly loved “The little drummer boy”, since we sang that song in my elementary district wide choir led by Mr. Farmer – that show, narrated by Greer Garson and animated by the famous Rankin Bass Studios, still moves me to this day.  On New Years day, we would head over to watch the Rose Parade;  and, historically, it was in front of the Milbrat’s tv that I saw the Apollo moon landing.  Oh, but, we also had to endure neighbors gathering to watch slide shows of their travels, and weird documentaries like “If these walls could speak” hosted by Vincent Price, and of course – National Geographic specials featuring Jacques Cousteau, back when there were an astounding 7 channels on TV. 

I still love watching this program, and hearing “One Star in the Night”

They were very involved in out local church as well, the Methodist church, where Mrs. Milbrat would donate her knitted goods and baked treats – always delicious! We would see them at the seasonal bazaaars, and annual Christmas nativity programs that we participated in, as well.  Mrs. Milbrat was particularly sweet and kind – I remembers being fascinated by her stamp collection (yes, I was truly that nerdy) from I think her mother who had served as a postmistress decades before – I am sure it was quite valuable, even then. I think occasionally they would give us a lift to the doctor, but we mostly relied on taxis, or on my Dad’s weekly stopping by to pick me up to shop at the Alpha Beta not too far away – sending me in to the liquor store next door sometimes to pick up cigarettes or beer, as well.  

I think after my father remarried that he and my stepmother, partly motivated to perhaps reduce the amount of time I watched tv at their home after junior high, which they lived nearby, and things like “Seymour presents” on Saturdays, gave me a small black and white portable TV. I would watch in my bedroom for hours, catching up on reruns of Get Smart and beginning my love of old movies – to escape the loneliness of the house, now holding only my mother and I.  And I drifted away from youth group and choir at church, starting to attend the more modern “Cross roads” that was large, new, and had guitar music and a popular pastor who appeared with his family on “Family Feud” in my teens.  The Milbrats were always there next door – my mother would talk with Mrs. Milbrat, and her other friends from bible study, on the phone for hours.  But they slowly became less of a presence in my life.

Oh Skylark … Have you seen a valley green with spring?

And then an amazing thing happened, in 1979, the summer after my third year in college – my Mom presented me with my first car.  She said she realized my father was never going to help me get behind a wheel – my brother had left to live with them in part so he would be able to drive once he was licensed in high school.  Of course, my Mom had not worked in all the years since they first married, and her income was limited to a small alimony and disability payments from the state; but, the Milbrats daughter had decided she was finished with her 1965 Buick Skylark, and I think out of the kindness of their hearts, they sold it to my Mom for a mere $350.  It was somewhat beat up, and my father immediately found many things that were wrong with it. But, it ran – and I finally had “wheels”, and no longer needed him to give me a weekly lift from Corona to my Cal Poly campus and dorms.  A year later, after graduation, I remember distinctly a co worker at my first job, with a San Bernardino CPA firm, ridiculing it as the “Jupiter Two” from Lost in Space – but it was, nevertheless, a thing of beauty (in function if not form), to me. 

There was one other “gift”, in a way, that came from the Milbrats, and remained in our lives, for a while.  She made wonderful stuffed toys, dolls, and puppets – and when my younger brother was born in 1971, I bought her handmade “Raggedy Andy” doll as a gift for him. He had it for years, calling it “Baby Andy”. In time, my mother bought two more – one for my older brother and one for me, to give to our children.  What happened to my older brother’s Andy is unknown to me – perhaps one of his kids, now grown, has it stored away – but I kept mine in a drawer with my own childhood mementos for many years. Because, of course, I knew – as did my Mom in time – that I would not be having any children to pass it on to. Five years ago, I had the joy of giving it to the daughter of a dear friend who was expecting her own first child, and sharing with them what it meant to me, and knowing it too would finally become a beloved companion.  Another enduring gift of love.

Not Mrs. Milbrat’s Andy, but … a friendly face, even now.

Then, in May 1980, shortly before my college graduation, Mom called my dorm room to let me know Mrs. Milbrat had died; and, the family was asking me to be a pallbearer.  At this point in my life, I had never even been to a funeral; well, probably to my fathers parents services, but not in my memory.  I was shy and reluctant to be around so many strangers, but I remember driving to the chapel in Loma Linda and then to the cemetery, and returning to campus.  I know that my presence meant something to Mr. Milbrat, but to the rest I probably seemed like an outsider – and, I guess in many ways, I was.  After I began my job in San Bernardino, he moved away, and eventually word reached us a few years later that he had passed. 

Presenting – my best neighbors ever … Oscar and Beatrice Milbrat

When I came across their picture in my endless sorting of faded documents and forgotten faces, I reflected on how much the simple kindnesses of these “chance” neighbors had touched my life, in ways that at the time I did not appreciate.  Of course, as a child, I always thanked them – especially when they bought one of the many fund raisers I had to tramp through the neighborhood hawking, like seed packets, cans of nuts for cub scouts, or engraved Christmas cards for church youth group.  But I was a child, and as I grew, I became too busy to appreciate all their kindnesses, busy with work, career, and trying to make my way through my own life with it’s challenges that I mostly bore alone. 

So, this week, I delved into the amazing online resources available through services like Ancestry, Newspapers.com, and other resources that until now I had only explored for my own family of birth – realizing that in many ways, the Milbrats were my grandma and grandpa of the spirit. What I found was a bit surprising. Oscar, born in 1893 in Alabama, had been a grocer in Orange county – and had been married previously, in Yucatan Mexico in 1925. (It really is remarkable the information one can find on these services!)   Apparently his first wife had unsuccessfully filed for divorce, according to a short newspaper article in Santa Ana that she had filed a police report for her husband being too noisy in repairing her roof!  She passed in 1957, and two years later he married Beatrice – he was 66, she was 51, and the daughter I had thought was theirs, was only his.  After he passed in 1985, he was laid to rest back in Orange County, beside his first wife, not Beatrice – and so, childless, she perhaps today is largely forgotten.  But, not by me.   

There are all kinds of angels in our lives, you know.  Not like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, necessarily – not even people whose names we know, perhaps.  They may just pass through, but they give us moments of grace, love, encouragement and hope.  Even better – we can be those sources for others – it doesn’t really cost us much, if anything, to take a moment to be kind, to listen, to smile.  And I think, despite the fact that the tract home neighborhoods of the past don’t exist for us all anymore, we still have neighbors, just in a different way – online, social networks.  Our need to connect still drives us deeply within, and there are days when I lie in bed thinking – did I touch someone today?  Did I take a moment to show them care, to be as the best neighbor of all, Mr. Rogers, would – just be present with them?  

To me, the Milbrats were like Mr. AND Mrs. Rogers, right next door

Is there someone who touched your life like my neighbors? Perhaps someone who in the past, or now, is making a difference in your life that you have never really acknowledged or expressed?   Perhaps you’d like to take a moment to reach out and check on them, and say a heartfelt thanks. Or, if like the Milbrats, they have moved on – then the best way to thank and honor them is to share what they gave you, with someone who crosses your path soon.  Yes, indeed – what the world needs now is love, sweet love – for and from each of us, especially this very moment. 

I thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Milbrat – Oscar and Beatrice – Grandpa and Grandma neighbor – for your love.  Your caring, acceptance, and giving spirits.  I have to admit – I don’t measure up, by a long shot.  But perhaps, sharing their lives with you today, will help us all remember – we have the power to touch lives, moment by moment in small ways – that echo through those lives in ways we will never know.  We can reach out and together – rise.  Let us do so, today.

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of … let’s change that!

Do we “simply choose to forget”?

These days, when many of us are spending far more time at home than we might have planned – it’s an opportunity to clean up, sort through and toss out.  I can attest that not everyone embraces this vision with vigor, but there is something about digging into old boxes that has always held a sense of adventure and discovery for me.   Growing up, my Mom had a bedroom that was basically “off limits” – filled with boxes and old furniture, but more importantly I think for her, filled with memories she did not want to be reminded of, yet could not find a way to let go. 

When her lifelong health problems ultimately reached a point where she was unable to care for herself safely, she seemed to be at the end of her days – and I went through a period of desperation to find a housing and care facility.  Ultimately, she improved – and I felt the “right thing” to do was to sell my home and return to that childhood tract house, where so many of my formative years and experiences still hung in the air.  Being raised by a disabled single parent who had no earnings, no car and little interaction with the outside world had shaped me in many ways, so returning to living alone in a home drenched in memories was not much of a change. 

Surprisingly, Mom hung on for eight more years, and during that time, I took on what I came to view as a “redemption” of the house, which had always needed much in the way of repairs and care that was never without our means.  I wanted it to be a home that someone would be delighted to call their own, knowing the time would come that she would move into eternity, and others would make the house their own.  As I began digging through the closets filled with old clothes and more, I began to uncover something I had not expected – shadows of the past that had not been viewed in decades. 

There were photo albums from my parents, grandparents and boxes containing images from unknown ancestors. I unfolded faded letters dating back decades (including my father’s as shared previously), greeting cards, travel brochures and more.  Going through them with first my parents, then in time other cousins and family members, opened a window to my heritage but, in time, also to a fuller realization of my own worth, and hope.   

But today I am sharing about a member of the family in particular who met me in my infancy and passed not long after – my maternal grandmothers second husband. Grandma Jean had divorced my grandfather Richard before WWII – a pretty uncommon act back then. High school sweethearts in Denver, they’d both lost their mothers as teenagers, and after marrying in Oregon, raised her younger brother and sister and had two children – my uncle, and then my mother. Sadly, Jean passed a year before my birth. My mother had issues with her father until his passing – he lived out of state, and I never knew him either. But Mom loved her mother dearly – in fact I am named for Jean’s younger brother Norman who died during the 1918 flu epidemic. 

My mother’s parents – teenager in love a century ago

Mom had told me that at some point grandma Jean had remarried, and they were seemingly quite happy until her own passing in the late 50’s. As with her not so socially acceptable in those days divorce, she again made a choice that in her time was rare – as an Episcopalian, she married a man of the Jewish faith. There were photographs, and even color slides, of their many trips together and with families – including strangers that were apparently his own. Other than a few unfamiliar names mentioned in passing in those old letters – there was only one other fact that many in my extended family recalled quite clearly.  And it was not a pretty story. 

Grandma passed in spring 1957, and he remarried shortly thereafter. Following my own birth in spring 1958, he had stopped by my parent’s home in Vacaville, near where my father worked at the state prison.  Less than six months later, at the mountain cabin where he, my grandmother, mother, cousins and other family members celebrated summer vacations and winter getaways, my mother’s uncle found his body, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My mother’s cousin David, still alive today, clearly recalls the incident, but with more expressive verbiage. 

It was just one of those family stories, about people I never knew. But I looked through the photos and slides to see strangers faces from 50 years ago or more, and wondered what had happened to them.  Now, after retiring, and in this time of isolation where I finally am trying to piece together so many little fragments of my heritage, my family’s journeys, for those who will follow – I came across those color slides with strangers faces and unfamiliar names again. I thought of another cousin who maybe 3-4 years back had gotten a call from descendant of his 3rd wife – they had found some of our grandmother’s items in boxes and wondered if we wanted them.  To my ongoing regret, that never led to us reconnecting and recovering those pieces of the past. 

With all the amassing records and resources available to us online today, you’ve probably seen programs on PBS or elsewhere about “discovering family”. Well, perhaps at least part selfishly – knowing that it might possibly reconnect me with other records from my grandmother – I decided to see what I could learn about this gentleman and track down someone who might want to preserve these photos of strangers that I had found, who might be their ancestors.  At this point, I should explain I am taking care to not mention names, due to privacy – I generally do not share photos of living persons other than myself (with one exception).  However, I do feel the photos of those long gone, in many cases of family I knew little or none at all while they lived, bring the stories and discoveries that I share here a little bit more “to life”.  

As I scoured Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com and other site, knowing little more than his name and profession, to see if I could find reference to my grandmother’s second husband, some interesting facts appeared about his subsequent marriage and death – social notices, mainly, but then – an obituary. And in time, another article – describing his death, not from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but – “an overdose of pills”? I was not surprised that the harsher truth of his passing had been softened, but i was not expecting another revelation. The memorial service article mentioning and naming children from a prior marriage – one that neither my Mom, nor her cousins and family, ever knew of. 

Among them, a son – and from the date, and with his name (because, of course, the daughters might have married, and I would not have as great a likelihood of finding their “trail”) – I found a high school yearbook from southern California with his picture.  From there – articles about his life, incidentals really – and with a bit more digging, I find several addresses.  I realize some percentage, maybe a high percentage, of you might think why I am doing this – reaching out to a stranger who is not a blood relative, may not even know my grandmother married his father, and that I might be opening doors that he or his family prefer to leave shut? 

I can’t tell you for sure that I know reaching out is the right choice – but I did. I wrote a letter; I made a call.  At this point, there has been no response – possibly by choice, maybe by chance. But I do know that if someone were to reach out to me with an offer of photos of family that I had never seen, and maybe to learn a bit about their lives from someone who knew them – I would jump at the chance.  Would I bring up the circumstances of his father’s passing?No, I would not – but if he asked, I would share what I knew. 

Because in my life, at least, learning the truth – the facts, the hard history rather than the pretty fairy tales – has given me strength.  Courage – to accept myself, and others, imperfect as we are – working on that every day, believe me.  Knowing that those who came before experienced not just joy and summer vacations and new cars and baby showers of the photos now faded, but also disappointment, uncertainty, and yes – failure – gives me hope, because I face those, we face those – every day.  Especially now. 

There is a conflict erupting in our communities, country and world, between so many fragments over so many divides.  I understand, in part, the rage of those who see the emblems of a past that brings pain even now and want them to be gone.  I can listen to the words, the hearts of others who truly believe that it is better to bury the past.  Yes, the dead are gone from us- but while we have their memories, their past remains.  We each must decide – for ourselves, and for those who follow, in our family whether of blood or of choice – what memories will we preserve. What steps will we take to pass on those pieces of the past – whether in our garage in a crumpled box, or in a remote corner of our memory?  Will we decide to let them go?  Or will we choose to let those who follow make that decision for themselves. 

I am not ready to throw away these pictures of stranger just yet – but the time will come.  It does not cost me to save them still; it is not a burden.  But their knowledge will end with me, I am certain.  My focus must be on preserving the lives, hopes, dreams and memories of those truly dear to me, for those who like me, one day, will look at them perhaps with a sense of awe, and wonder. Perhaps in time, even the lessons of my life will somehow speak, after I am gone, and as was the gift to me, provide a doorway to a greater faith, a stronger hope, and a deeper love. 

Tattered pages, echoes of faith

Robert Titus Pence and Elizabeth Conger … their names written in faded ink on a colorful page, along with their children.  Nearly 175 years have passed since they wed in 1847 – but it still speaks.  I hear the whispers as I carefully explore the pages, images, and scraps inserted by those long gone. 

Robert’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Bentz, changed his name to Henry Pence when he emigrated to the colonies in 1749, arriving in Philadelphia with his family at age 9 – hard to imagine a journey like that for a little boy.  Henry married at age 25 and had at least 16 children, raising them in the colony of Virginia, including Robert’s father, “Judge” John Pence. Born there is 1774, John really was a judge, and eventually settled in Oquawka, IL on the western border, married 3 times and fathered 16 children as well.  Just think of how many grandchildren Henry must have had! Robert was born in 1817.  After his first wife and infant daughter passed, Robert married Elizabeth Conger in June 0f 1847, and raised their family of 11 children in Oquawka. 

“RT Pence 1876” is written on an otherwise blank front page of the leather bound bible, making it nearly 150 years old.  It is huge and heavy, worn – perhaps from use, but probably mostly from age.  It is difficult to imagine someone reading this by candlelight, carrying it across the continent over generations. The “family record” page is in color, and legible – but the binding is collapsed, pages missing and torn.    Like many of the items that have found their way to my files, library and stacks of paper – it is irreplaceable.  A reminder of people mostly forgotten except through a few preserved stories and photos with forgotten faces.  They speak to me through these once lost treasures – and their unspoken testimony. 

After their first child, son Harry, was born, Robert captained a wagon train to Hangtown, California, during the gold rush – now, Placerville.  The account of that journey was shared with the readers of the Oquawka “Spectator”, departing in March 1850 and arriving in July.  I had always thought that was how his family came to be here in California, spreading west – but I was wrong.  He returned home, safely but not richer, and remained for nearly 20 more years – their last child, my great grandfather Arthur Sherman Pence, was born there in 1847.  In 1870, Robert and family lived in Kansas, but eventually he bought ranch property in Parkfield, California. 

I have always thought it providential that so many pieces of my family history have somehow found their way into the stacks of paper I now sort through, gaining and understanding of how challenging it was for my ancestors to come from other continents here, hoping for a brighter future.  It was not easy for any of them, from Germany, Portugal, Scotland and Britain, nor from the family members they married from Spain, Mexico, and other areas of Europe – building new lives, surviving, sacrificing and struggling.  Their lives are woven through time into a tapestry whose colors I am just beginning to see – a living legacy across the west and beyond. 

The Sutro library here in San Francisco has a copy of a book written by another son of Robert’s, Kingsley Adolphus Pence – who, although married, died childless, but lived a fascinating life.  Like me, he developed an interest in writing about his family heritage, and published his book in 1912, now available online as well as in many genealogical libraries, including many photos and anecdotes.  Another distant relative, Richard “Dick” Pence, was a pioneer as well, an early advocate of computer based genealogy. He maintained a website about the extended Pence family which I found online, and corresponded with before he passed in 2009.  He provided me with the transcription of my great great grandfather’s journey west.  It is intriguing to me that two generations at least before me were drawn to understanding their family’s past. 

As I turn through the pages of the Bible, I realize I am probably the first in decades to do so.  How it came into my Uncle Morley’s hands I am not certain, but I am grateful to have it now.  There is a letter from Robert Titus written from Parkfield in 1886 – mostly illegible, to one of his sons. I know that my great grandfather, Robert and Elizabeth’s youngest child Richard, eventually worked for the railroad in California and Oregon, where he met his wife Nellie, one of the pioneer Applegate family.  As was the case with many families, unlike his parents, they had only one child – my grandfather, whose two children were my uncle and Mother.  There are letters from Arthur to his brother, thankfully typed – and from them I learn that he needed his brother to provide a notarized statement of the Bible as proof of Arthur’s birthdate and citizenship.  This would make him eligible for the Railroad Retirement act of 1934, in the depths of the depression – he had remarried and was reaching out for help, and the Bible record of his birth gave him the proof he needed to receive it. 

There are also clues to the heritage of Richard Titus Pence wife, Elizabeth Conger, who was little more than a name to me. I find inserted among the pages a copy of the Oquawka Spectator from August, 1902 … describing her passing and burial.  There are also two handwritten brochures from her brother, an O. T. Conger, who is mentioned in the newspaper. One appears to be a treatise on “Foreign Missions” that he presented in Lincoln, Omaha, Malvern and New Albany on occasions ranging from 1874 to 1885; another, in very tiny detailed script, is titled “A quiver of arrows” and includes thoughts and stories – apparently a reference for him in developing sermons, as a little digging shows him to have been a respected Baptist minister.  I find online his obituary showing he left behind a widow and 3 children – I hope one day to find a descendant who would see these as treasures to preserve of their own heritage. 

But it is the remembrance article from 1902 that tells me the most about Elizabeth, her family, and the impact of faith on at least some of her children.  Robert had passed in 1889 and she spent her final years with a daughter’s family in Colorado; at the time of her passing, five sons remained alive, and one, Robert Lincoln Pence, accompanied his mother’s body back by train from Colorado to Illinois, to be buried where her husband family had been laid to rest at Rozetta cemetery.  As I read the words, the depth of feeling is conveyed in a way that still holds power over 100 years later ..

“And now, in the old grave yard, where are laid her father and mother, where he sisters are laid, where he husband and our father, where her daughters and our sisters are sleeping, in the presence of old associates, the casket, borne by the arms of old friends, is our mother laid. Perhaps we, her sons, may never be permitted to see the graves of those near to us again, but in this old haven of rest, the old burial ground at Rozetta, it seems meet to leave her”.  

Oquawka Spectator notice of passing of Elizabeth Conger Pence, August 1902
Memorial Card for Robert Titus Pence, in my grandfather’s papers

I do not know fully the history of how my ancestor’s viewed faith – many families then, and some now, simply had bibles given to them. So, it is impossible to know what meaning faith had to these souls long gone; whether the Bible was simply a volume to record births, or a source of hope and encouragement.  For now, it is time to put it away again, until such time comes as another follows after my quest ends. It and other documents of faith for families over centuries has served many different purposes, and for many today they are of lesser relevance – but the impact of faith itself on their voyages, their quest, reaches into our own even if only buried deep in our DNA.  Whatever answers they sought, and found, are not unlike those that many of us have today, in very different times. They too, perhaps even more so, faced an uncertain future, with hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles. The faith of our fathers and mothers may be one we do not share, or even know – but its seeds brought forth our own lives as well. I find comfort in these letters, and these tattered pages, knowing that as they sought strength and guidance to make their way through the challenge of an emerging world, so shall I.  So shall, hopefully, we all.  

“Sometimes I cry when I see the boys”

Memorial day weekend, 2020

What do we gain by looking at the past?  Some might say, very little.  Yes, we live in the present, and hope and plan for a better future – but the past still speaks.  It tells us stories – sometimes in words, in letters, more recently in videos, and silently in photos, in eyes that gaze into our present from times we never walked in, and people we never knew in life.   

Perhaps you, like myself and many others, look back on your childhood and feel a combination of gratitude, nostalgia, and yearning – some things you treasure, some you wish could have been different. Although we cannot change what happened –sometimes, life gives us an opportunity to see the past through new eyes.  I was given that opportunity, and it helped me understand my heritage, my family, and life in ways that I would not otherwise appreciated.  I feel today’s attempt to share how this came to pass for me will not be fully successful – too long, too personal, perhaps – but if you are willing to come along, let me try to share how seeing the past anew helped me build a better future. 

My Parents – in their only “Non wedding” picture together …..

This look back begins with a stack of letters in the 1960’s – from probably my age four to age 8 or 9.  My Mom, as she did with so many things, kept the letters – some would I know question the wisdom in that, but I am grateful she did.  They are undated, for the most part – all but a few typewritten, from my Dad to my Mom.  He would type them at work, I believe – some even on the stationary of the “correctional institution” where he spent his career.  Although I have wonderful childhood memories, I have few of my parents being together; they divorced when I was 7, being separated much of the time before then.  So they are my father’s words, not my memories.  Whether my Mom wrote back is unknown, but I doubt that she would have. 

Here is the beginning of one from I believe 1964, just the first stanza of a poem from my Dad to Mom – 

Ten years ago today, you became my wife

My pledge of love to you was for all of my life

Our honeymoon I remember, so well, so very well

Why did it have to change and become a living hell.

The poem, titled “To Nancy with Love”, continues for 7 more stanzas.  One page, brimming with regret, anger, sadness, pleading – like all of the roughly 2 dozen others.  My parents had married in 1954, my brother born the next year, I in 1958.  She had worked at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, her coworker’s husband worked with my Dad at the state prison at Terminal Island; they met, dated and were wed at her mother’s home. They honeymooned in Ensenada (she kept the napkins and matches from the hotel) and ultimately moved into central and then Northern California as my Dad transferred to different correctional facilities, eventually returning to Southern California, where family remained and where I grew up.  

Wedding Day, May 1, 1954 – Long Beach, California

Dad’s letters are filled with pain, but vary wildly, sometimes even within the same letter – one five pages long, typewritten.  Dad revisits arguments, his attraction to other women, medications, group meetings, talking with doctors and counselors and even the priest at the prison; feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, apologies.  Promising that he has always loved her, always will; in one, he blames Mom for the most recent incident, whatever that was, and points out her “unhappy life with your father”, which was true.  Her parents had divorced in the 30s, when that was quite rare, and I know she was scarred by it.  But he also admits to his problems with drinking; of physical violence between them; of emotional abuse. He talks about leaving our home after a heated argument, emotionally upset, and driving the car off the freeway.   “I often cry when I see the boys”. Yes, I realize, he truly did cry.  Nearly 6 decades later, I can feel the pain in his words.  He wanted a better life, but he didn’t know how to make it happen.  

Of course, all these letters were written while they were separated, and in some cases even after the divorce.  Some letters touch on problems at work, staying with his older brother whose wife had died, his ailing parents, his mother’s stroke and hospitalization and his father’s decline.  In his later years, Dad told me stories of his own father’s alcoholic issues – about his mother sending him to “get his father home from the whorehouse in time for Sunday dinner”.  One letter includes a detailed budget, with the notation – “Since there isn’t any money, I will have to stop drinking, but not because of your dramatic performances and emotional feelings”.  She was emotional; she also had severe health problems, exacerbated by rheumatoid arthritis that developed after my brother’s birth.  They struggled financially, like many families.  And I am sure there were other families in our neighborhood dealing with alcoholism, or worse issues.  

It is somewhat revealing to read Dad’s thoughts about my brother and I, referencing regret about missing my birthday, our first Christmas apart, and other events.  In one, he says my brother has “much better control of his temper” and that I am “still full of the devil but is growing also”.  There is a note about taking my brother camping for the weekend with the neighbor boy (their father was a local attorney, also divorced).   In one he talks about plans to go to Disneyland “soon” – I remember a trip, perhaps that was a seed that led to my own love of “the happiest place on earth” – a place I saw as a  refuge from my own pain in adult life, when I had not yet realized the answer to the loneliness and isolation I struggled with, like Dad, lay within, not in escape from reality.  

The only pic I have of me with both my parents together

Mom also had stacks of letters from attorneys; issues about his owing fees, the ownership of the home and property; and Dad’s handwritten will leaving his property to my brother and me.  One attorney letter advised Mom that Dad was going to tell the state, who had financed the home mortgage under a veteran program, that he was abandoning the home and to take action against her; in another, her attorney indicates that Dad was representing their divorce was “off” due to “conciliation” – but that was not to be.  Their divorce was final in October 1965 after years of separation.  In the end, the home was awarded to Mom, along with $150/month alimony and $100/month child support for each of us – $350 a month. Mom’s physical and emotional deterioration continued; she never returned to work.  

In 1966, when I was 8, my Dad married a wonderful woman who did what she could to include both my brother and I in their lives.   We went on vacations to Pismo Beach and Arizona, I spent weekends visiting them a few blocks away.  In time, they had a son, and he and his family continue to be a blessing in my life.  My Dad did all he could, I believe – within his ability – to provide for my brother and I, to support us.  I remember the weekend visits, the trips to work, watching “Seymour presents” and “The Outer Limits” on TV together, and later, support and encouragement in other ways.  But no one has all happy memories. 

Friend, I do not want you to read these words and be downcast or depressed.  But something inside me quietly whispers that whatever value my experience has to offer others is dependent on understanding the depth of what came before.  I literally have only one memory of my parents being together – my coming home from kindergarten with classmate Tina from down the street, to find my father screaming at my mother outside the home, her on the porch crying, and then him driving away.  I suspect it was a form of self-preservation that the rest was erased from my memory.   In a home with little money for anything other than food, I grew up feeling different from all the children in my classes; I remember the pain of 5th grade open house when I was the only child with no one coming to participate, and the loneliness of not being able to talk about TV programs with others because we had no TV in our home, and no car to go to school events. And, in time, I became aware of the other difference, the one that was not allowed, that caused my isolation to become even deeper – from others, and from myself.  I buried my soul so deeply that life without hope, and intimacy, seemed normal. 

We put together photograph albums, we set them aside, with the pretty pictures, the smiles, the happy memories.  They are wonderful to revisit, and good to preserve.  Personally, I do believe there is just as much, if not more – to learn from our family’s struggles and losses.   Growing through them.  Understanding them, perhaps – and maybe, using those lessons to chart a better path ahead.  It may seem contradictory to expectation, but for me – coming to understand the flaws and challenges and disappointments of the past gives me hope.   

Trying to see the world through my Dad’s glasses … even then

When I first found these letters, I was 40; my Mom was in a care facility as I began the nearly 8 yearlong process of what I now call “reclaiming” my childhood home.  She had a bedroom, their bedroom, filled with boxes and things she had shut away.  In them, I found the letters, and … treasures.  Photos of family I never knew.  Family I reconnected with.  And in time, that led to sharing, stories – healing. 

My Dad and I had a difficult relationship for many years.  My own journey seeking help – for a long time, for the wrong problem, unfortunately – led to separation from most of my family other than my Mom.  During that period, I found the letters, and I learned to see that my understanding of the past was, like all of ours, incomplete – I came to a point where I realized that forgiveness was the only door that led to hope.

It took years, help from others, and pain – but in time, I made peace with my Dad. I dare to say we became close; my stepmother passed in early 2006, and my Mom a few months after. Dad outlived them both, and I am glad I could offer him support and care in those days.  After they were gone – I continued to gain insight into their struggles, and mine as well. Eventually the desperation of my own emotional isolation and embedded shame brought me to a place where I found – acceptance, of them, from them, and for myself. Recovery, hope, faith – and love.  And, in a way, I feel closer to both of them now than ever before.  I know them differently today. 

One letter is different from all the others – Dad wrote it to my brother and I at Christmas, with a note that he asked Mom to read it to us.  In it, he writes – “I know that you both will someday have children of your own and my fondest desire is that you will become good, strong men who are loving, and will love your wives and your children. Never become mad or hateful as you only hurt the ones you really love and yourself”. Is that not the wish for every father for their sons?  My mother has two grandchildren, my father four; none from me, but in my imperfect way, I try to share with all four the love that my parents had for their fathers, and I.  And, thank God, I have come to know love, not in the way my parents wished, but one just as real and alive. 

I close the file on these letters from the past; but I do not destroy them. They have shared their lesson with me, and perhaps hopefully with you.  Parents and children, spouses and lovers, hopes and disappointments, sorrow and joy – like the rhythms of waves washing into our lives, generations repeating the longing of our hearts.  With forgiveness, we have the chance to begin again, and build life anew – together.  It is not easy, but there is a way to seek it, and to give it, for us all.  I am thankful I found that doorway, and the life beyond and ahead.