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.

The Desk – Actual and Fictional

The Desk

The Desk

“Is there a real desk?” I‘m often asked. After all, it’s one of the main characters in my novel.

The answer is yes, it sits by the window in my writing studio. And yes, it’s a family heirloom, but I don’t know how far back it goes. Like other family ancestors and future descendants, it’s an inspiration.

For your enjoyment, here’s an excerpt from The Desk, where it first appears in Christie’s life – the present time narrator whose nights have been haunted ever since inheriting the desk.

(Still a draft, so your comments are welcome!)

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2010, Sierra Nevada Homestead

I shove the comforter onto my husband’s side and slide off the edge of the bed, angry and desperate in what is now my sixth sleepless night.  Feeling my way down the dark hallway, I stop in the doorway of my studio.  A sliver of moonlight hesitating behind the shadowed curtains catches my eye.

“What is it?” I ask the darkness.

In the corner is the dim form of a small oak desk huddled beneath the weathered windowsill. It seems frail, frightened even. I step closer.

“You’ve got something to do with this. I can feel it.”

As if summoned, I pull out my old needlepoint chair with the sagging center, and sit.  I run my hands along the desktop.  It’s a simple, straightforward little desk, hardly two by three feet on top. The three vertical slats down each side are spanned by a narrow shelf beneath, a foot above the ground. It was made without nails, held together by the clasped hands of tongue and grove construction.

My sister had recently offered this odd piece of family furniture to me, releasing it from years of exile in her basement.

     “I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation.  There’d be some place for it in my already crowded home. It wasn’t a notable piece but I didn’t want it to leave the family. I rub the musty top in slow, circular motions while I think.

Beneath the desktop, I find a small drawer that slides out reluctantly.  Someone had covered the bottom of the drawer with ugly blue and white grid contact paper – a relic of the ‘60’s.  A small edge is pulled back. Along the front, the narrow tray for pens is stained with black and blue splotches.  A small heart had been carved in the front corner of the desktop, and a circular watermark marred the back left corner where a hot drink had been carelessly placed. Two of the legs have small, teeth-like gashes at the base. Although the oak grain may once have been polished into a deep gloss, along the way, dust had settled into the small grooves, leaving a feeling of tired brittleness.

“Did I forget to welcome you home?”  I exhale and look around, aware that I’m now conversing with a desk.

“This is my studio. I write here.” I point across the room to the computer table against the south window. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I describe the stacks of reference books, the watercolor sketches of ospreys, owls and lizards taped to the curtains, the photos of husband and grandchildren tucked around the printer, boxes of upright pens and watercolor pencils, and my thirty-year-old prayer plant.

“I’m working on an article about the up-slope migration of flora and fauna in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  It’s due in two days and now the editor wants more facts to support climate change.  I know he’s being pressured, but I’m about to tell him to shove it.”

“And. . . I hardly need another desk,” I continue, feeling irritated and wishing I hadn’t been so quick to take it.  “But family’s family.”  I think about the photograph of my mother as a young wife in the 1940’s, sitting at this very desk with the mouthpiece of a heavy black telephone to her ear.  She never talked about the desk or who had it before her, even though she knew I was passionate about our family’s history.

I reach over to the bookcase that the desk is now squeezed against, and gently tap the frayed binding of my great-grandmother’s scrapbook stuffed with tattered, yellowed news clippings of her speeches. My hand brushes over the tops of faded leather editions of Emerson, Cooper, Longfellow, and Thoreau, all inherited from my grandmother’s library. A thin hand-printed book of great-grandfather’s letters home from the Gold Rush is lying face down on the shelf.  I tuck it back into place with a smile.

“You should feel right at home.  You’re surrounded by family.”

Four chimes reverberate from Grandfather clock in the hallway and I sigh. Another lost night.

“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I really need to get some sleep. I’ve mountains of work before Tuesday’s deadline.”  I push the chair back against the desk.  “Try listening to the ticking in the hallway,” I say, thinking of the wind-up alarm clock we used to put in our puppy’s bed. I give the desk a pat, then head back to curl up next my husband’s warm body.

“I mean it,” I whisper. “I desperately need some deep sleep.”

The next morning I awaken at nine, exhausted. I toss my favorite purple shawl around my shoulders and start my morning routine with toast and coffee.  I’m usually perked up by the anticipation of freshly ground French roast, but this morning even the coffee seems lifeless. I plod my way upstairs to my studio and place the plate of buttered sourdough toast and mug of black coffee on the little desk by the window.  I’m glad my husband has already left for work. On days like this I’ve learned it’s just better to stay away from people.

I’m there in time to watch the first rays of light cascade through the west facing window, illuminating a path across the top of the desk. It’s my favorite time of day and today especially, I need the reprieve before facing the work ahead.  As if on cue, Buddy sniffs me out and with tail thumping, positions himself at my side to catch the last bite of toast – a routine we’ve developed over the years that is both annoying and tender.

The morning sun moves imperceptibly across the dull brown striations of oak grain as I start my morning meditation.  But today I am distracted by the drifting light – the turning of the earth –  the turning of time, I remind myself. I struggle to focus on my breath – in and out, in and out. The hallway clock accompanies me with a steady tick, tock, tick tock, its pendulum sweeping each second into the past. Last night’s voices hover at the edge, demanding my attention.

Then, from that still space that has eluded me all week, I sense a voice of remarkable clarity.

     Now.

      The sun pauses at the edge. Dust motes are suspended in mid-air.

     It’s time.

“Don’t do this to me,” I say. “I don’t have time.”  But my hands are already reaching under the drawer to slide it open. My fingers feel along the bottom and lift out a forest green leather notebook. I watch my palms press the blank pages open against the oak desktop, then lift the black filigree pen from its tray. Though my hand trembles, the voices are calm.

I begin to write.

Evolution of The Desk

Stone Portal 2Do we have the ability to influence our ancestors?  Or our future descendants?  On a restless night several years ago, I found these thoughts changing the course of my novel.

I started out inspired to write about my Great Grandmother Emily who settled during the 1849 Gold Rush in the Sacramento Valley.   But I didn’t want to write yet another biography of a head-strong, determined western woman.  The book shelf’s already full of those!  So I stepped back to look at the larger landscape.

3. Misty Autumn Back Road.Camptonville 11.07Of course…we’re all spirit, and if time transcends the here and now, we all have access to each other’s lives.  What if I could slip back into my great-grandmother’s life and tell her what she’d need to know that might ward off future ecological devastation?  Or hear my great-granddaughter imploring me to build now what she’d need to survive when she returns to our abandoned homestead in the far future?

PetroglyphAnd what if we’re all connected by the vision of an ancient woman of wisdom who saw it all?  Shima’a found a portal that transcended time.  From the heartwood of an oak tree (that as an acorn grew from her heart when she died), a small oak writing desk became her means of inspiring women to gather their power and create new ways of living together. The old, aggressive masculine constructs have run their course. If earth and humanity are to survive, the feminine has to ascend.

 

© All materials copyright Shirley DicKard, 2012 – 2013, except as otherwise noted.