Thursday, March 26, 2015

The tribe of sunny childhood

People who had a good childhood always remember it as sunny---or so I once read.  Some archetypal confluence of morning with childhood and sunlight with happiness?  A transposition of nature to the emotional weather of human memory?  Whatever the case, news of this widespread trope punctured my sense of uniqueness.  I belonged to a subset of the human family: the lucky tribe of sunny childhood. 

I should have been suspicious about all this sunniness and trope potential.  Where I grew up---a hillside in southern Marin County in northern California---the weather was often cool and gray.  The area was called Almonte, named for the train stop below on the flat, marshy land near Richardson’s Bay.[i]  It was an unincorporated district outside the city limits of Mill Valley.[ii]  In the 1950s it was a territory of volunteer fire departments and septic tanks (often backed up).  From time to time pioneer-spirited residents would take up a collection to pave the dirt and gravel roads.

Half and quarter-acre lots carved out of large tracts of land meant that hardly anyone lived “next door.”   Our house was on a quarter acre of clay soil on a steep slope that was hard to garden, but my mother persisted. Sometimes in the summer she would disturb a rattlesnake; she would shriek for Werner, a German Swiss neighbor, who would trudge across the road and kill it with a shovel. 

When I was seven years old and a second grader, I was old enough to walk down the hill to the Almonte  stop where the school bus picked up us hinterland kids.  

I walked down to the bus stop with another kid, Billy Harker, who lived higher up the hillside.  Grown-ups called him “BillyHarker,” as if the name Billy alone were insufficient.  He was prone to tears and whining when in difficulty.  

For the start of this school year my mother had made me a new dress.  The cotton material was distinctive:  a black background flecked with small, bright yellow flowers.  A festive change from play clothes, pants and checked shirts from Montgomery Ward.  The dress was a simple pattern that she mastered and replicated in different materials for different occasions: polished cotton, dotted Swiss, and white piqué. 

Walking down my backyard hillside Billy and I stretched out our legs to reach the steps---redwood rounds, slick with morning moisture and the silvery slime left by snails.  The steps ended at Lark Lane, a gravel path that turned downhill again at a steep, semi-paved street called Wisteria to the school bus stop.  Toward the bottom the hill we broke into a run, racing to set our lunch bags down in a line that ruled who would get on the school bus first.   

My grade school was in Homestead Valley, another unincorporated area but more densely settled because it was sheltered and warm.  The last leg of the bus route wound along Evergreen Avenue to the end of the narrow valley where the school was.  The oldest houses looked like summer cottages, with redwood shake exteriors and front porches, glassed in with small panes and shaded with vines.  A few newer houses had begun to appear, ranch style and modern. 

Two buildings comprised Homestead school.[iii]  The older of the two had been built against a hillside so we had to walk upstairs to the classrooms for grades five and six.  A modern, low slung building, added for the postwar boom, followed the contours of the land, its single story sloped downward and formed an L-shape which housed the kindergarten and first four grades.  Here too was the nurse’s room with pictures of Yosemite on the walls above the couch.   Once when I was sick the principal, Miss Grimm, drove me home in her trim Chevy sport coupe, her short white gloves clutching the steering wheel.

And then a cloud appeared.

After sixth grade, I would leave Homestead and go (a different bus ride) to the new junior high school for seventh and eighth grade---a catapult into high school, the anteroom to 1950s pre-teenage life.  My parents were alarmed. 

Why they hadn’t seen this event coming eludes me, but suddenly my father mobilized.   Recalling his formative years of Catholic education in New York, he sought out the nuns. 

Half an hour away in a larger town, San Rafael, Dominican sisters had a convent and boarding school.[iv]  Since 1890 wealthy San Francisco families and some Marin County locals had entrusted their daughters to the genteel and capable nuns.  Many of the sisters themselves were products of this educational process.   

We had to be interviewed, my parents and I.  Our appointment was at the convent motherhouse, the first term learned in the language of this new environment.  The vanilla-colored Victorian frame building with towers, gables, and red-brown mansard roof rose four stories above a curving gravel drive.  At the top of a central flight of steps awnings shaded the front door flanked by della Robbia medallions.   Climbing the steps to the main entrance on the second floor, it seemed as if we rose up between massive celestial wings of the building.  Someone ushered us into the dim coolness of the foyer.  A round mahogany table with a bowl of flowers filled the central entryway that opened to parlor rooms on each side.  We stood waiting.

A swish of robes and Sister Kathleen greeted us.  My father leaned forward to introduce my mother and me in turn.  He warmed to the nun’s pink and slightly freckled face, her cheeks plumped by the taut white wimple around pale skin protected for decades by the habit.  From beneath the front layers of folds and panels of creamy material a hand extended gesturing us into the parlor on our left.  A sunlit room it seems---or is this the trope talking?

Offering stories of the Jesuits back east and references to the faith---my dad beamed in his Irish glory with Sister Kathleen. My mother, a Catholic convert, without the ease of the Church’s native born, passed muster with her manners.

No discussion about how such schooling would be paid for, as I recall.  The critical factor was my suitability to become, in sister’s words, a “Dominican girl.”  Another deft movement of folds and panels of creamy material and Sister rose.  Would we like to see the Convent chapel?  She guided us from the bright parlors into a dark hallway.  Dim outlines of console tables against the walls in the gloaming high-ceilinged corridor.  A right turn and then at the left an open doorway.  We glanced in and then sister skillfully steered us round and back along the hallway and to the parlors again.  The interview was over.  I would begin the sixth grade in September.

Until now my religious instruction had been weekly sessions at the Homestead Valley clubhouse. We few Catholic kids sat on wooden folding chairs and repeated the Baltimore Catechism with unappealing and unintellectual sisters recently imported from Ireland to begin a new school attached to the Mill Valley parish. 

I don’t recall fear or apprehension.  I was eager to please.  Sensing the rise in status, I was game to master the protocols and proprieties in a new world of daily uniforms with aprons before me. The days of skinned knees and checked shirts were over.

In July 1990, the motherhouse of the San Rafael Dominican sisters caught fire.  While stripping the exterior in preparation for repainting, a worker’s blow torch ignited wood on the top floor of the building.  Nearly one hundred firemen from San Francisco and surrounding communities responded to a major alarm.  Thirty sisters were evacuated, but the Victorian building burned beyond repair.[v] 

The Dominican sisters rebuilt their convent.  The building that opened in 2005 was designed to environmental specifications. The two-story design is relaxed and modest like the life of the sisters there, open to the world outside and the social issues that engage the sisters now.[vi]  They no longer teach; the old convent education survives in their students’ memory, and in my case, bolstered by the tribal trope.

I am embarrassed to say that the people embedded in my childhood memory exist as attributes of place and atmosphere.  My recollections swing on the hinge of the physical---buildings and houses, yards, streets, the out-of-doors.  Perhaps that’s the work of a human trope rooted in the physical world.

Nothing unique here, I suppose.
 Just another story from the lucky human tribe of sunny childhood.

[i] Virginia Smith, 1982, “The Almonte (‘to the mountain’ in Spanish) Train Station, which used to sit on the marsh directly opposite the existing bus stop, was an important transfer point on the Northwestern Pacific Electric Railroad.

[v] The Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse, designed by San Francisco architect Thomas J. Welsh, was a monument in the Bay Area. and and

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Violet" (1904)

Until last summer three packing boxes filled a hallway cubby hole in my house.  Inside them were family pieces---silver and china---wrapped in recycled newsprint sheets left over from my mother’s last move.  At age eighty-one, my mother had arrived from Oregon to spend, as it turned out, the last decade of her life with me in Flint.  Stevens Movers, a venerable Michigan company and still full service, was lavish with paper.[1] 

Two mature women joining into one household meant duplication, decisions about which silver and china to save for “best”---to re-wrap and put away.  We held protracted parley in the course of which my mother and I recalled family and events connected with this stuff.  In the end, each of us mooted a case for this or that item and the rest was boxed, shoved into the hallway cubby hole for later. 

My mother died six years ago and I am back again to one life in this Michigan house, not two.   There is no need to “save for good” anymore; future state occasions are unlikely or---let’s face it---my participation in them is not assured.   

Time for a different household philosophy.

I pulled out the boxes and opened one; out from their stiff paper nests and into my life tumbled objects I remembered that my mother always identified by their original owner’s name or a past event.  Burgundy colored felt rolls unfurled, their soft pockets releasing silver teaspoons, pearl handled forks, napkin rings that clattered onto the table.  Vestiges of elegant dining in my grandmothers’ time.  

Pearl-handled cutlery still seems a bit over the top for a kitchen drawer.  Those pieces were tucked back into their rolls, their grosgrain ribbons retied, but the silver teaspoons have entered my daily life.  A set of six: their handles are engraved with the letter “V”---the first initial of my maternal grandmother’s new married surname---and probably a wedding gift.  The script grapheme lays gracefully in the oval blank toward the top of the tip.  I decided to use them every day. 

My grandmother, Esther Wilkins, was married in Caldwell, Idaho, on February 15, 1912.  The wedding date is engraved in the bowl of a different teaspoon in the felt role, a commemorative piece.  Esther was thirty-two when she married, a bit beyond youthful prime.  She had been sent out west from Indiana because of poor health.  She lived to eighty-eight.  Her maternal uncle, George Little, was a judge in Caldwell, a respected town figure and a family man with wife Flora and children, Edna and Wesley. [2]  What year my grandmother arrived, I cannot say.  Decades later, she still corresponded with “cousin Edna.”

Esther worked in a bank in Caldwell and earned her own money.  She liked nice things and remembered proudly how she ordered gloves and shoes from Chicago. Old photographs show her with three other young ladies, all in puffy white shirtwaists, their long dark skirts billowing in the wind.  The ladies clutch their broad brimmed hats as they pose in front of a house in glaring sunlight.  No other buildings can be seen.

Idaho territory was admitted to the Union in 1890.  Besides farming or ranching, gold and gem mining lured prospectors there and Esther relished adventure.  She told of suitor who took her on an excursion to the gold mines.  He gave her a gold nugget that she had made into a pin. 

When Esther married in 1912 she chose an easterner, Samuel van Hyning, three years younger than she was. Ladies must have remarked on this.  Samuel had run away from his Ohio farm home when he was seventeen; the story was his father would not let him have a buggy.  He survived in Idaho (among the Basques, he said) working as a shepherd.  “Lonely beyond imagining,” he told my mother. But by the time he married Esther he ran a grocery store in Caldwell.  A metal scoop from the store survives.  “Drink with VanHyning & Co. Groceries Use Hills Bros. Coffee Caldwell" reads the raised print stamped on the inside.

But back to the spoons.  The pattern is Wallace “Violet,” first issued in 1904.[3]  The design has the sentimental sweetness of many flower patterns I’ve viewed online, unlike formal designs available in the Edwardian era.[4]  They give tactile pleasure---their handles fit comfortably in my fingers; the bowl is deep. The spoon has “balance”---its tip and foot rest evenly on the table.

Stories about my grandmother come to my mind each day when I use her teaspoons.  But my strong attachment to objects and their stories also complicated my life.   My Catholic schooling cautioned us impressionable girls that “worldly goods” were inferior things, dead weight that kept you from rising to spiritual heights. 

Equally powerful was my family’s adherence to social propriety.  Acquisitiveness was a double whammy: both ill-mannered and a sign of weak character.  “Greedy Mae,” my mother would chide me---or some unsuspecting child who took the last cookie on a plate.  I imagine that my grandmother Esther must have called her that.  My mother was acquisitive too.  

My attachment to things is inherited. 

As an only child I spent hours observing things---household objects, clothing, accessories, furniture and all their intriguing shapes and textures---while adults talked.   I observed people too, but objects did not move around or stare back at me, interrupt my gaze and question me.  Objects were silent as I was, complicit and, so I thought, waiting for me to inspect them more closely.

All this childhood peering at stuff might serve some higher purpose for a future artist, a painter or sculptor, a craftsman or perhaps a physicist, even a collector.  I can say in my defense, however, that long observation of objects led me to observation of people and sharpened my intuition. 

Decades later in Poland, I met an elderly lady helped me learn Polish while I did small household tasks for her in return.  She lived in one of the cinderblock apartment buildings of the time. The flat was two rooms, a bathroom, and a windowless kitchen; in the first postwar decades people were grateful to get one. A Biedermeier cherry armoire covered half of one wall; its rosy, reddish-brown wood warmed the bleakness of the room.

I was instructed to serve her tea, placing the sole silver teaspoon in the household on her saucer.  Relatives, she said, had been deported to Siberia; a spoon was the most valuable item one could have.  Armoire and teaspoon, relics large and small of a time when objects of daily life were beautiful and useful.  In times of calamity, life sustaining.

Shortly after my grandmother’s teaspoons entered my kitchen, I read Susanna Moore’s “The Life of Objects.” [5]  On the eve of World War II, Beatrice Palmer leaves Ireland for Berlin to work in the aristocratic Metzenberg household.  She enters a German family with Jewish connections where generations of wealth and taste have amassed a significant art collection.  From tapestries, sculptures, and porcelain, to stationery and cigarette holders, all manner of objects bespeak refinement.  Beatrice learns the German term, vorzügliche: exquisite.  Her cultural education occurs as the Metzenbergs flee to their country estate. Disdainful of Hitler, unable to abandon their heritage, they sell or barter their possessions for food and safety.  Eventually the Metzenberg world crumbles under Allied bombing and Russian pillage.  Beatrice survives, more educated and perceptive, and without regret as she says, “having passed through fire and into selfhood.”[6]

No fires of war singed me into selfhood. My young education occurred in a peaceful time---idyllic as I recollect it now.  The objects that entranced my gaze were minor in comparison to those described in Susanna Moore’s novel.  Still, the fate of objects is to break or scatter, to be cut loose from their settings as their owners’ lives dissolve.  I write to evoke the fragments of my grandmother’s life that some silver teaspoons represent to me.

Other stuff remains; two of the three boxes returned to the cubby hole this summer.  Next year, I’ll pull them out again.  Just now I’m still not ready tackle the china, but I think I’ll take another look at those napkin rings. 

Read more essays like this in East Village Magazine at

[3] According to Wikipedia, Wallace “grew to be the largest manufacturer of flat tableware in the world. At the start of the 20th century, about 3 tons of steel and 1.5 tons of nickel silver were used daily. The company opened selling houses in New York and Chicago.”

[4] The teaspoons are not the full 6-inch size that would be part of a full place setting.  They are the “5 o’clock” size:  5 and 3/8 inches, designed for tea---extra teaspoons usable for any occasion.

[5] Susanna Moore, The Life of Objects, 2013.

[6] Claire Messud, The New York Review of Books, Feb. 7, 2013. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing for Gary. December 28, 2014

I'm at my desk on this gray December morning.  Today’s writing ritual honors Gary Custer who is far away in Michigan in an intensive care unit.  It's 10:15 in my California time zone and I have another good hour to go.  Gary lays in a bed, intubated and semi-conscious, I am told. His devoted brother, Ed, sits nearby.  Ed waits for a sign of communication from crotchety Gary.

Gary edits and publishes the East Village Magazine, a monthly news magazine published in Flint, Michigan, since 1976. The eight-page publication---all 620 issues of it---is Gary’s life work. In thirty-eight years he has never missed an issue.

The magazine is part of a nonprofit entity called the Village Information Center.  According to Ed, the term "village" came from Marshall McLuhan's concept of a global village in the 1960s. Gary is that kind of village man. 

As Gary describes it, the magazine began “as an information co-operative, a group of people working together to provide the group some of the information they needed to protect and improve their neighborhood.” [1]  Confidence in a changing composition of an “information co-op” where each person provides something toward the production of the magazine---reflects the idealism of the founders. Gary is one of the last of them.

Contributions and several small grants and keep the magazine afloat, bobbling atop red ink waters. Unclassified ads supply some revenue. Contributions from local supporters and from all of us writers help.

It’s a slim publication, but when I see the glossy East Village magazine cover downtown at the Farmer’s Market or at the Lunch Studio I think I’m in New York. A slick urban sensibility emanates from the black and white cover photographs done by Gary’s brother Ed. In recent years their subjects often have been local architectural compositions that arrest the eye.  An artist and photographer, Ed provides stark shots that render the magazine distinctive, instantly recognizable in the sad stacks of flyers slipping off tables and falling through racks in cafes, markets, and campus lounges around town.   

My home town, Mill Valley, had characters like Gary---people defined by one pursuit, monothematic, and indefatigable.  Characters tend to sturdy and long lived, immediately recognizable by trademarks of dress and language and concerns. It takes time to acquire the distinction of being a local character.  When they disappear we suddenly realize how essential they are to the place we love.    

Gary fills the character bill in baggy jeans and a denim or flannel shirt.  A beard. His transportation mode is bicycle. He lives in the Village Information Center at 720 East Second Street which is also the magazine office.  He works seven days a week, sixteen-plus hours a day.  The office walls are stacked with old issues.  There’s an antique computer, a couch-like piece of furniture, a table and a couple of chairs. Toward the back of the room a partition screens a stove or hot plate and a bathroom.  A bottle of Bushmill’s sometimes emerges for Sunday proofing sessions, though he does not imbibe.  Gary is, not surprisingly, a beer man.

When I retired from teaching, people congratulated me.  They said, “Now you can travel and relax.  Enjoy life.”

Gary said, "Good.  Now you can write."  

I told Gary that I wanted to write personal essays for my blog.  “Fine," Gary said. "You can send them to me first.”

And so I did, but not enough to satisfy Gary. He is the copy omnivore. Every few weeks the new East Village Magazine gets ready to go to press.  Layout and proofing finished, Gary can begin to think about beefing up the online version of the magazine where space is limitless.  He shoots me a cryptic email.  It's usually something like, "Anything for our discerning readers?" 

I kick it back with a metaphor like, "Got a couple of pots on the back burner.  One is almost ready."  Gary will answer "Stir and send."  He will not be sucked into imagery. Gary wants copy; I want to procrastinate. Gary supplies the nudge an amateur writer needs.  More like an elbow to the ribs. “Just write,” he says.   

Gary is an old school newspaper man.  After an essay of mine reaches him, he makes few changes, but the changes are telling. Titles, definite articles, verb forms, and paragraph length are his blue pencil territory. 

My submissions carry a title---some enigmatic phrase that sparked my idea for the essay, a reminder of the notion I want to reprise in its conclusion.  My titles mean something to me. 

Gary prefers curt and telegraphic titles.  He extracts them from the body of the essay and discards what I’ve sent in. Whenever possible he omits definite and indefinite articles. Once he removed a definite article in a poem title.  The poet was offended; staff writers went on the warpath.  It was all over by the next deadline; we gave up, and the poet mailed in a check. 

Gary is not big on the subjunctive---to which I am academically inclined.    I studied foreign languages; teachers drilled the verbal nuances of wishes and doubts, or the counterfactual and the hypothetical into my brain.  He is a man of the indicative mood.

Nor is Gary much of a clause man, as in subordinate clauses (where subjunctives may lurk). One of my happy grammar school experiences was to diagram compound and compound-complex sentences on a blackboard.  Later, as a scholar, I learned the utility of the semicolon. Syntactical variety is not Gary’s metier.  "Subject, verb, object," he says.

Gary likes short paragraphs---punchy, you might call them.  I was trained in the topic sentence followed by development tradition.  When I first see my writing in print or online, it strikes me like a kid with a bad haircut.  Over my five years writing for Gary, however, I have capitulated.  When I re-read what he has printed I like it better than what I’d submitted.   

After Gary puts an essay online, he will send another cryptic email.   “Good essay” or “very good,” he will write.  I am happy.   And then he will add, “Any corrections?”  This is Gary’s amalgam of editorial exactitude and making nice. I sigh. Unless I detect an error of fact, I am resigned.  Titles, articles, paragraphs---I bow to Gary’s blue pencil.

Last November, in a moment of uncharacteristic effusion, Gary described the current staff the best he’s ever had.[2]  The magazine was poised to move from eight pages to twelve. We writers were elated.  Now, however, we meet in emergency session, stunned and sorrowing.  The most important member is not likely to return. 

Gary believed that “there are always people who don’t contribute, but we provided them the magazine in the hopes they would change their mind when they found out the value of the co-op.” [3] He lived this conviction with a mind over matter determination.  The hospital ICU will do its best for Gary’s heart and lungs, but the magazine is up to us now.

Read more essays like this one in East Village Magazine at

[1] Gary Custer (GPC) East Village Magazine Editorial: Your information co-op could use your help Saturday, November 01, 2014

[2] Gary Custer (GPC) East Village Magazine Editorial: Your information co-op could use your help Saturday, November 01, 2014

[3] Gary Custer (GPC) East Village Magazine Editorial: Your information co-op could use your help Saturday, November 01, 2014