I visited friends in Northern California. Not “Northern California = San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles” but “Northern California = North of Santa Rosa as opposed to San Francisco” . It was a revelation.
North of Santa Rosa the hills are covered with vineyards or redwood forests, not housing developments.
North of Santa Rosa US 101 winds along the rivers whenever possible, because that is the way one could travel between the forbidding mountains of the coast range and the desert area of the Central Valley (yes, desert before irrigation)
North of Santa Rosa wealth comes from agriculture, whether that be dairy, winery, timber forest, orchard, or illegal pot farm.
North of Santa Rose the largest “city” is Redding, named for a land agent of the Central Pacific railroad when the railroad decided to route its north-south route through the town formerly known as Poverty Flats. Today it is best known for a beautiful pedestrian bridge.
It’s easy to make fun of farming communities. I couldn’t help but giggle at the front page article in the Humboldt Beacon lauding the selection of a local girl as California Beef Ambassador, with the quote that she will “be the face of California beef.” And I broke into a laugh as the article noted that the girl’s great-grandmother had been “Cowbelle of the Year” in Humboldt County some years back, while her mother had been Cattle Woman of the Year in 2005.
Then I thought again. It’s a lucky family that can trace four generations in the same community, and that has carried on a common interest, whether it be agriculture, education, or industry, across the same number of generations. There’s a lot to be said for continuity, a lot to be said for roots.
I thought more about roots and continuity when I visited the small cemetery in the town. It was nothing like the carefully manicured death theme parks in metro areas, with their restrictions on size, shape and structure of grave markers and memorial tributes. The graves were mostly marked with tombstones, but also with wooden crosses, hand-carved slabs of redwood, or mosaic tile and colored beads set in concrete to spell out the names of the dead. Some family names stretched back to gold rush times when the village was founded.
Most, but not all, of the graves were carefully tended. Many were festooned with fresh or artificial flowers. One grave was covered with porcelain figurines ranging from the Madonna to Mickey Mouse, all meticulously clean.
My favorite was the grave of “beloved mother” Ruth Miner. Her simple black marble plaque was carved with her name, birth, and death dates. Just below was a second carved marble plaque announcing “I AM AN ATHEIST ALL DRESSED UP NO PLACE TO GO”.
From her gravesite on the hill planted with blooming rhododendrons, I looked over the village with its church spires and beyond to the verdant valley dotted with grazing cows. I thought to myself “Ruth, where would you want to go from here?”
I was watching a PBS documentary on the Old West – you know the type. Lots of historic photographs, lots of historic documents, and some expert talking heads explaining it all with their names and credentials briefly headlined.
Suddenly I shouted in amazement. An unusual name, familiar from my remote past, had flashed ont he screen. Through the changes years had made I saw a familiar smile. “I know that guy!”
A quick Google search on the name turned up additional photographs confirming my recognition, an impressive list of awards for academic and journalistic excellence, and an email contact. I fired off an email:
Subject: Wow! My former student is a PBS pundit!
I was watching the PBS show on Butch Cassidy and saw you as a historical authority. There could not be two Ken Verdoia’s in the world! And you look like yourself, only in 1967 you had no need to shave. I am so excited that my star 9th grade student in my student teaching year at MVHS has risen to eminence!
Maybe you remember me as the insecure Stanford intern who wore a fake hairpiece to make myself look older and taller. I remember you in the freshman talent show lip-synching as Harvey Johnson looking for a prom date,
I’m living in Los Altos and doing some writing for the local paper and my own entertainment. I see you are affiliated with the U of Utah (my parents’ alma mater, as it happens) I am so delighted to see what you have become!
Best of lives,
Allyson Johnson (formerly known to you as Miss Young)
The next morning I had this response in my inbox”
Through forty years in journalism, nearly thirty of those contributing to PBS, I have received many, many messages after a report or program. None as surprising and delightful as yours waiting for me this morning.
I am quite stunned that you would remember a student in such a manner. Particularly one so closely resembling wallpaper. But, yes, you do accurately cite the mime-like 14 year olds pushing their way through “Bye Bye Birdie” at Mountain View High School!
How wonderful for me…and what a thoughtful, inclusive gesture by you. Your memory is a generous gift that has started this day on a particularly happy note.
Next time you gather with friends, I hope you share this recollection. And, then, confidently inform them it was your insightful tutelage that launched a career!
All my very best wishes,
In a later exchange of emails, Ken told me, “Every step along the way… elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies… there has been a kind and generous mentor who has made a difference. Not ‘steering’ me, but demonstrating how courage, strength and ability are born of purposeful education.”
Since I was a girl I had always planned to be a teacher, but in the end I only taught high school English for seven years. Teaching is a hard job, and I was not particularly gifted. Still, I feel honoree to think that my blundering enthusiasm for good reading and good writing all those years ago might have earned me a small place among those who “made a difference.”
The house across the street will be torn down by its new owners,, and a new two-story house with a basement will appear in its place.It is a perfectly good house, a 1950’s 3-bedroom 2-bath ranch style with the kitchen in front and a patio in back looking at a deep back yard filled with fruit trees. These are only the third owners.
The first owners were airline pilots: he flew for Pan Am; she had ferried war planes across the country during World War II. The house was built as part of the new San Antonio development after the war .
At some point in the late 50’s the first owners added a second-story addition behind the garage with an additional bathroom, family room and fireplace downstairs, a playroom and additional bedroom upstairs to accommodate their growing family. The owner did a lot of the work himself; the staircase was narrow and lacked a banister. It would never have passed code today.
The children grew up and moved away, and the wife became the dowager overseer of the street. From her strategically placed kitchen window she could see anyone arriving or leaving up or down the street, or coming around the corner. She made no secret of her vigilance. When I was a teenager and my parents were planning to go out of town, our neighbor came over to ask my mother “If I see a strange car parked over night while you’re gone and Allyson is home, do you want me to tell you or not?”
The first owners aged and moved to be closer to one of their children. They kept the house empty for over 30 years. Prop 13 kept their taxes miniscule, so it was cheap storage, and convenient to stay when they visited friends on the Peninsula. Finally the children arrived, cleared out the house, and it was sold.
The second owners were a young family with young children. They loved the vintage ranch style of the house, the avocado and terra-cotta wallpaper in the kitchen, the rice paper on the walls of the living room, even the bead curtain in the kitchen window. They put on a new roof and installed new windows. They built an elaborate playhouse in the back yard for their kids. They hosted a guacamole party for the neighborhood when the avocado tree was in fruit.
But it didn’t last. After only a couple of years the wife found a fixer upper in north Los Altos that was even more of a challenge. The house went up for sale again. It sold to another young couple with young children at roughly 1000 times its original cost.
It was the deep back yard. The new owners came over to show us the plans for a new house on the lot. “We’ll have the family room and kitchen at the back, looking over the swimming pool. The kids will be playing in the back; they won’t bother you. In front there will be just a home office and bedrooms. We want to use as much of the back yard as we can. We’ll plant trees in the front so the house won’t look so big.”
The change makes me sad. Sad to see the old house go. Sad that the new family plans to be invisible in their back yard behind their two-stories plus basement. Sad that there will be no eagle eye on the street, unless it’s mine. My kitchen does face the corner.
I found the letter as I was cleaning out my desk upstairs – the one where unfinished business had collected over several previous employments.
Some years back, shortly after the dot-com bust, I was working for a small non- profit organization loosely affiliated with the Department of Commerce. We were struggling to increase international business in Silicon Valley. It was then that I met Corinne Gilb.
Corinne was a tall, stately lady, with a crown of smooth brown hair shading into steel-gray, level gray eyes, and a smoothly modulated voice brimming with confidence. She and I connected because I was studying Mandarin Chinese, and she had been a delegate to several conferences in mainland China related to the automotive business. I was fascinated because she had actually been to places I had only dreamed of going, and had acquired expertise in areas which I had always thought closed to women. Corinne seemed to me to be the first real grown-up I had encountered.
Corinne invited me to come to her house for tea. Hers was an elegant house sheltered within the twisted cul-de-sacs of Atherton, shielded from any vagrant noise by tall walls and taller trees. The large rooms were lined with bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling, crammed with books related to Corinne’s many areas of interest. I saw copies of some of the same Chinese texts I had been studying, next to bound journals in Chinese. “Yes,” Corinne said, “I taught myself to read Mandarin so I could keep up with what was happening in China. “ I was in awe.
A tea service had been set up noiselessly in the front room by an invisible servant. We drank tea from dainty porcelain cups. She talked about what she had learned as a delegate to the Chinese conferences, at a technical level I only half understood. She listened patiently to my half-formed ideas; she may have been flattered by my evident admiration.
After we finished tea, she showed me to the door. She said “I enjoyed this meeting. Maybe you and I and our husbands could meet for lunch sometime. I would like to meet your husband…”
I was abashed. My husband did not begrudge the time I spent exploring Chinese culture and international business, but he did not share these interests. I could only imagine Corinne’s husband – what would the four of us find to talk about?
“Give me a call when you have a good time,” said Corinne. I gave her my thanks and left. I did not mention her invitation to my husband, nor did I call Corinne. She sent a note, and then a Christmas card. She had been in ill health, but still wanted to have lunch. My not having called became an obstacle to my calling – the budding friendship withered because I was afraid to expose how little I really knew – as if Corinne had not already guessed that. Then I got a notice that her husband had died. I was young, I didn’t know very many people who had died. I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.
Some months later, I got another letter from Corinne. It was a typed letter, a form letter. It said goodbye. She had been diagnosed much too late with metastasized breast cancer. In the letter she wrote of being near death, but still participating in conferences, overseeing the publication of books, writing reviews, and presiding over her family. Scrawled in a shaky hand at the bottom of the letter was a note: “So sorry we never had that lunch.”
So am I, Corinne.
“Child-proof” – Ha! (LATC October)
It happened just like they warn in the Emergency Care manuals
We had been having houseguests with small children all summer. We had childproofed the main rooms with all the breakable gewgaws put away. We had taken the cleaning supplies out of the children’s bathroom. We had the toys in an easily accessible closet and we locked the door to the attic.
But we had not hosted a two-year-old in years.
It started just like they warned it would. “Where’s Joshua?” “I thought he was with you!”
Then the search began. Not in the kitchen. Not upstairs. Not next door at Grandma’s. Not visible walking up or down the street. Finally his dad found him –in the master bathroom. It had never occurred to me to make this part of the house off limits, because no other visiting child had ever ventured into this part of the house without escort.
There were about a dozen bright red ibuprofen pills scattered, some smushed, on the floor.
Never underestimate the tenacity of a 2-year-old.
It had been a new box of ibuprojen, flaps still glued. It was shut away in a drawer.
Joshua had opened the drawer and found the box.
Joshua had ripped the box open.
Inside was a “child-proof” bottle, the kind where you have to press on the sides at the same time as you turn the lid. No problem for Joshua: he bit down on the lid with his gleaming white baby teeth and turned. No more lid.
The contents were kept fresh by a vacuum -glued foil-lined seal. Many is the time I have sworn at these seals as I tried to pry them off with fingernails, toenail clippers, or scissors. Again, no problem for Joshua. Joshua gnawed through the seal like a roof rat gnawing through an orange.
Then, fortunately, he spilled half of the pills on the floor. His dad found him as he was trying to replace them in the bottle.
He told us he had not eaten any of the pills.
Maybe he was a little scared because he had spilled and smashed some, and made a mess. Maybe he knew he was in trouble, and told us he had not eaten any so that the trouble would be less.
We all watched him like a hawk for signs of drowsiness, stomach pain, nausea…. nothing. Two-year-olds are tough.
There had been other close calls for toddlers in my experience. Once my little brother fell out of the car as it was going around a corner – he just opened the door and “Poof!” he was gone. (This was before the days of child safety seats.) Once my grandson slipped out of his flotation jacket in the swimming pool and was two feet down before I grabbed him. But these were accident of poor design, not carelessness or lack of oversight. This time I felt responsible – I should have been more vigilant.
For the rest of the visit, “Where’s Joshua?” became my mantra. Even with my elevated level of surveillance, it was amazing how quickly the two-year-old could be gone. Once he got as far as the end of the street, down by the un-fenced creek. “Where were you going?” “I was just walking.”
Happily, Joshua survived the visit. His curiosity is no longer my immediate problem. But his visit left me with a lot less complacency about the safety of my home and the adequacy of my imagination in recognizing hazards. The next time I have miniature guests, I’ll invest in padlocks.
If the guest is Joshua, he will probably find the bolt cutters in the garage.
Traveling with a woman friend, she will offer the window seat.
She will refuse the airline snack, but offer to give you hers.
If you do not eat your airline snack after all, she will take it in case of future need.
She will offer to watch your carry-on bags while you go to the rest room.
She will offer to refill your water bottle if she is going to refill hers.
If she is driving, and she takes a wrong turn out of the airport, she will blame herself.
If she is the shotgun rider, she will apologize for not paying attention to the signs.
If her memory of the route disagrees with the GPS, she will go along with the GPS – up to a point.
If she is one of three passengers in the back seat, she will offer to sit in the middle.
Though she has never met you before, she may tell you all about the latest activities, vagaries, and eccentricities of her father, her late husband, her late husband’s first wife, her second husband’s ex-wife, her son, his wife, her son’s wife’s first husband, and her stepson’s mother-in-law.
She will show you pictures of her grandchildren.
She will solicit reading suggestions for her book group.
If you are going for a walk she will remind you to put on sunscreen.
She will offer to loan you sunscreen.
If she is a houseguest, she will offer to help peel vegetables, set the table, or entertain any small children underfoot.
If she is the hostess and there are small children underfoot, she will be the one to eat at the children’s table in the kitchen.
* * *
I had written the above about halfway through a week at a women’s camp in the Rockies, mostly with women of about my own age. The women in the group were largely teachers or former teachers. They were mostly white. They had gone to Girl Scout camps. They knew all the camp songs.
Then I had an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women a generation younger. I realized that the above list of “typical women’s behaviors” is perhaps not typical at all, except when applied to women of a certain age and up-bringing.
The youngest woman in the group had no first or second husband, no children or grandchildren, no smartphone filled with pictures to show, had never been to camp. She didn’t belong to a book group. She didn’t know the words to “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya”. She was at the camp with her mother. In two months she planned to begin a tour of duty with the Air Force. She will probably go to Afghanistan.
I’ll bet she won’t volunteer for the middle of the back seat in the jet.