Family Myth-Makers

A cherished story in my family is that Great Grandma came to California by covered wagon during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Only she didn’t.  Hard as I try to hold on to the version of my great grandparents making  a tortuous six-month wagon “road trip” from Michigan to California to start  a new life together, the evidence just isn’t there.

Nonetheless, I refuse to be swayed by facts. So what if dusty historical biographies and frayed yellow obituaries record that it was actually 1874 when Emily Anna Bacon Hoppin accompanied her new husband, Charles, back to his 800 acre ranch in Yolo, California. She might even have taken the new transcontinental railroad, recently opened in 1869 for all we know.  But inside of me is a small child who won’t release her fingers around a favorite shiny pebble. In my heart, Great Grandmother did come to California by covered wagon during the Gold Rush.

“It’s the storyteller’s right to embellish the story,” my Grandma Dot-Dot once confessed as she spun yet another legendary tale about her mother’s life in the late 1800’s. I interviewed Grandma before she died and transcribed her stories into a book which I gave to the extended family. It was a meritage of memory and facts. From her child’s-eye perspective of early California ranch life, Grandma fashioned her mother into a larger-than-life figure who was not to be reckoned with. “Emily Hoppin was known as a woman who stood by her principles,” Grandma told us. “Why she and her women friends threatened to close down the local saloons so many times, they were known as the Three Musketeers. Grandma delighted in planting family stories into our fertile imaginations. She was our myth-maker.

I learned from Grandma Dot-Dot that stories are more important than facts.  Stories nurture the heart; facts languish in the head.  This is why I describe the novel I’m working on as part historical fiction, part memoir, and part future-fantasy. Despite my struggle to be historically accurate, I’m finding that the family’s mythology is much more enduring.

In my next blog, I’ll describe my discovery of an historical detail while traveling through the Nevada desert – a fact that somehow never made it into the family’s records or mythology.

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2015, except as otherwise noted.

5 thoughts on “Family Myth-Makers

  1. Yes, those little pesky facts that we uncover as we lift the stones of the past and our imaginative-memories–but never let the facts get in the way of a good story! 94-in-May Peggy Wood of Capay told me when I first came “home” to the Capay Valley to research and write the stories and was having a hard time finding all the “facts”: “Betsy, do the best you can and make up the rest! It’s YOUR story, after all!” Well, she was right: the best History can do is give us the spark and then we need to embellish it so that we are creating an opera of the lives that went before! I look forward to your book!!
    Betsy Monroe — greatercapayvalley.org “The History and Stories of the Capay Valley”

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  2. Shirley… My understanding of how Charles and Emily hooked up was that he had his “eye” on Emily from afar for some time as she was growing up back in Niles; and made a “claim” that he would come back to marry her when the time was appropriate. Considering that Emily and Charles had a 26 year difference in age that’s what I always understood as “the story.” I still treasure “The Home Place…Growing Up on the Yolo Ranch” and regard it as one of your sterling contributions to the family history and still a great story. Any news on the “pooch” front? Tchribbbbs From: Shirley DicKard To: cbyal@yahoo.com Sent: Tuesday, October 6, 2015 11:13 PM Subject: [New post] Family Myth-Makers #yiv2011023201 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv2011023201 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv2011023201 a.yiv2011023201primaryactionlink:link, #yiv2011023201 a.yiv2011023201primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv2011023201 a.yiv2011023201primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv2011023201 a.yiv2011023201primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv2011023201 WordPress.com | Shirley DicKard posted: “A cherished story in my family is that Great Grandma came to California by covered wagon during the 1849 Gold Rush.  Only she didn’t.  Hard as I try to hold on to the version of my great grandparents making  a tortuous six-month wagon “road trip” from” | |

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    • Hi Chris,
      Good to hear from you. You’re right about Charles declaring he would return and marry her – Emily was only a baby at the time, and as Grandma Dot-Dot told us, he held her on his knee and said he’d return to marry her some day. Which he did. I’m weaving that story into “The Desk” as well. But somehow my sisters and I grew up with the image of Great-Grandma Emily coming to California by covered wagon, which we may have conflated into the Gold Rush era – not 25 years later. So if pressed to be accurate, I’ll say “soon after the Gold Rush.” Fortunately, my book is just “inspired” by the life of Great-Grandma. (and pooch arrives tomorrow!)

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