Author Archives: susanjtweit

Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment behind my grandparents house in Berkeley, California, where my great-grandmother Mira Maclay, a writer and journalist, lived.

In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother Jennie Cannon

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with her horse, Danny Boy, in about 1918

When my step-daughter Molly and I were planning my visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

So off we headed through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. We drove through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

My Cannon great-grandparents’ house in the north Berkeley Hills.

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad.

We parked, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at me, on the street.

The iconic campanile on the UC-Berkeley campus from my great-grandparents’ house.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon–” He interrupted,

“Any relation to Jennie?”

“She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave back then, and she was a key part of it.”

I was stunned. I had no idea. A guy who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

Before we left, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

I’m no artist, but I’ve always gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.

Brain Cancer by the Numbers

Richard and me at Carpenter Ranch in northwestern Colorado, last September

Recently, I devoted an entire afternoon to pulling together last year’s financial information for taxes. I had procrastinated as long as I could because looking at our accounts reminds me forcibly that there is no “our” anymore—the love of my life and my husband for more than 28 years, Richard Cabe, died four months ago.

Opening the computer file containing our household accounts reminded me of the gift of Richard’s presence in my life—and now, my grief at his absence. After he was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to give up a regular work schedule, he took over the chore of keeping our books; he continued until about three months before he died, when the glioblastoma trashing his right brain made deciphering a spreadsheet impossible.

As I began tallying the various categories of expenses and income for the tax forms, I realized that those data tell part of the story of the last year in our journey with his brain cancer. It’s a skewed picture, but interesting nonetheless.

For instance, there’s Richard’s income for the year: $19,250. That’s ten months of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, beginning last January. (Since he didn’t survive the entire month of November, he didn’t get that month’s disability payment.)

My income is a more complex calculation since I’m self-employed. I grossed less than his total disability benefits, no surprise since most of my attention was going to helping him live well with brain cancer for as long as he could, and my expenses were higher than usual. The bottom line: I earned… nothing. Looked at strictly from an accounting perspective, caregiving clearly does not pay.

Our co-pays to the Veterans Administration for his medical care topped $5,000 for the year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider the extent of that care: two brain surgeries, one cranial drain procedure, and three separate stays in the ICU; a five-month course of Avastin, a chemo drug administered intravenously every two weeks at the VA Medical Center’s infusion clinic; six MRIs just in February and March, plus two CT scans in that same time period; visits to his oncologist every other week between March and his last visit in October (and weekly calls from her thereafter); the services of the palliative care team; and two full months of hospice care at home.

"Mountain Goat," our trusty Subaru, on the road to Denver

Probably the most telling fact for me is that we racked up 6,387 miles on our Subaru odometer just driving back and forth to Denver. At an average of 350 miles round-trip, that’s 18 trips over the mountains in nine months. Actually, there were 19 trips, but the one where Richard rode to Denver via emergency ambulance transport in the middle of the night and friends drove me wasn’t logged on our car’s odometer.

What those figures don’t reveal is also remarkable. For much of the year, he lived well. His brain didn’t always dance to the tune he wanted it to, but that didn’t keep him from working on his sculpture, harvesting the garden, fixing things in the house, reading formidable art theory tomes, and having thoughtful conversations about sculpture, the idea of terraphilia, the economics of local food production, and the daily practice of lovingkindness.

His brain cancer didn’t hinder his enjoyment of his morning coffee and daily dose of dark chocolate and Belgian beer, the feel of sunshine on his back, the sound of goldfinches’ bell-like voices, long walks around town, or our Big Trip, a 4,000-mile swing across the West and down the Pacific Coast from Puget Sound to San Simeon.

Nor can those careful numbers show just how improbably happy we were at the miracle of being together even as we knew his life was coming to an end.

What a smile!

It’s not that the numbers lie; they’re only part of the story of our journey with his brain cancer, a journey that took us each through a metamorphosis neither of us imagined happening so soon. Yet here we are, me doing “our” taxes and Richard… wherever bright spirits go. Still smiling, I bet.

Data are just that: data. But numbers sometimes tell a story we hadn’t seen before. What life-stories do your personal numbers reveal?

(Adapted from a post on Susan’s personal blog.)