Monday, December 12, 2011


This past weekend, BP and I flew to the SF Bay Area to spend the weekend with my mom. This is the first Christmas since my dad died, and we’re all getting used to the different rhythms in our family life without him. We helped Mom decorate the tree, and made Christmas cookies. We cooked on her massive 6-burner antique gas stove, ate too much and drank too much, did a challenging jigsaw puzzle (one of our traditions whenever we visit), went for a long hike in Tilden Park, walked the dogs, and had an all around good time. It’s always hard to leave and fly back south.

My mom lives in the same house where I grew up, which is only a few miles from the house where she grew up and the house where my dad grew up. Both of their families are deeply entwined in the history of this place, generations back. My dad's ashes were interred next to his great grandparents, up in Petaluma. So my roots go deep here.

Mom is an amateur genealogist, and in the process of researching our family over the years, she collected an impressive number of family photos. These now hang floor to ceiling in a long back hallway. The earliest pictures are daguerreotypes from the 1860s. It’s fascinating to look through and see the faces of my immediate family looking out from the sepia tints of a hundred-plus years ago.

That civil war soldier has my mom’s bright blue eyes (you can tell by how light they are on the daguerreotype). The picture of my grandfather from the 1890s looks just like my oldest brother. My dad’s wedding picture shows the same quirky smile that I have, with the corners of our mouths not really curling up. That picture of my middle brother as a teenager 40 years ago is the spitting image of his son in 2005. There are flappers and ladies in tight corsets, gentlemen in thick mustaches and cellophane collars, and quite a few navy uniforms from different wars. And the animals of this animal-loving family are also memorialized: from the fading black and white photo of my teenage dad with his horses and his dog, to the dogs that mark my parents’ long marriage. It’s a web of my own personal history, each photo labeled on the back in my mother’s looped handwriting.

I love the Berkeley hills in the winter, with the fog dripping from the eucalyptus. I pluck leaves from the bay laurel trees when I hike through the canyons, and they scent my pockets with memories. I tried several times to get a job back home, but academic jobs are few and far between, with hundreds of applicants for each one.

Still, I’m incredibly fortunate that I got a good job in California, but now I live 450 miles from home. I can’t claim to being a native San Franciscan any more, not like my Grandmother who went through the great 1906 earthquake and had that distinctive old San Francisco accent with its faintly mid-Atlantic intonations. So BP and I have put down our own roots where we are, and are likely to stay there, even though like most Southern Californians, we come from somewhere else. We’ll spend Christmas at our own home with BP’s kids and other family and friends, while my brothers will join mom.

Mom is 84, and my visits to the old family home have a poignancy to them now; we all know they are finite. I’m approaching 50 and with that milestone, the sense of time’s passage becomes more bittersweet. I doubt we’ll go up there very often once Mom is gone. It’s a sense of belonging that will be lost.


JCF said...


And even less likely you'll make it an hour-and-a-half East from Berkeley to Sacra-tomato?

You and I have lived in the same Golden State the past year and a half, but you (and BP) seem just as far away as when I was in Michigan! :-/

Happy holidays, anyway.

IT said...

JCF, time with my mom is limited, and precious. We don't even see our friends in Berkeley when we're there.

Counterlight said...

What a great good fortune to be able to call the Bay Area an ancestral home.

Counterlight said...

The various Caves of Machpelah for my ancestors lie everywhere from Texas to the middle of Poland.

it's margaret said...

I know those same hills and that same fog and those same leaves....

--I wonder if our people knew each other? --or, as many old Berkeley families are --related!?

My great grandmother made big money in the 1906 earthquake. She went back in the wrecked house off Dolores St. and rescued her cast iron cook pot --and cooked her little butt off for weeks --paid by the City to do so!

I'm glad you got some precious time in with your mom.