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.

8 responses to “Stumbling on stories

  1. Thank you for posting your story about stumbling on stories. It is fascinating to read how others learn of their heritage and to meet people who share an appreciation for family history. In my home, we have a spot we have named “The Heritage Room.” In it, we have gathered and displayed many of the family photos and artifacts. Nothing fancy. Mine was a modest background. Like yours, my own parents seemed less interested in digging up family stories than I am. But, they did save things like framed photos, old dressers, my grandfather’s wine press from Italy, etc. Hopefully, my children will treasure the stories AND the artifacts. Keep on telling them! Keep on writing to preserve them!

  2. Jan, How cool that you’ve designated a “Heritage Room” in your house! I do that in my writing, I guess, since two of my twelve published books are memoir, and I’m working on memoir number three right now. (Hence the trip to Berkeley to do some digging.) As I said in WALKING NATURE HOME, family stories are one kind of the “memes,” units of cultural inheritance, that we pass along to our children, along with songs, fashions, foods, language, sayings, and the other strands that we weave into culture. Your kids are lucky that you are actively saving and nurturing those memes….

  3. Glad people like you pass along family stories. I’ve been listening closely in my family and only recently started hearing tell of many stories I’d never known as a girl growing up. We lived in another state and were not very close to our family for years.

  4. Isn’t it interesting how we get to a certain age and those family stories become something to actively listen to? From listening closely you might think about writing down the stories you find most interesting–and who knows where those stories might take you!

  5. Susan you had me riveted to the computer screen with your every word! This piece read like a mystery story, the tale of a woman trying to throw light upon the darkened hallways of her past. I feel as if I have just read a gorgeous novel or memoir. Thank you! This has been an extra special experience! Love and hugs, Edith xxx

  6. Edith, Thank you. That day was part of the research for the memoir after the one I’m writing now, so I’m delighted to hear that it was compelling. I am fascinated by all I don’t know about my family, as much by trying to understand why my mom, an only child, didn’t tell me much about her fascinating family…. Hugs back to you!

  7. Susan,

    “The memoir after the one I’m writing now.” You are too funny, my dear.

    I like the frame of the pilgrimage as a way to recover from the apparent impoverishment of your family’s stories. To have stories revealed through object and place–tactile and physical–is rich.

    I also see the line of descent in each of the character’s in this story. Of course you are an artist. Of course you are riding Danny Boy to school. Of course you are a student of nature. Of course!

    Janet

  8. Janet, Thank you for seeing the line of descent in each of the characters. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, and that reminds me of other stories. In particular, I hadn’t ever thought of what I share with my mother’s mother, my grandmother Janet who rode Danny Boy the 40 or so miles from their farm in what is now Silicon Valley to Berkeley. She was not a fond grandmother–she had no use for other women, really–but I realize that we did share a love for horses. Funny how I didn’t see that then; of course, she never talked to me about Danny Boy. So there’s a new angle on the story….

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