February 1958

March 3, 2012

The other morning when I was sick, and Ronny was sick, I had a time-travel breakthrough.

I didn’t know I was sick yet. The fast-acting stomach virus hit Ronny twelve hours before it hit me, so he was already in bed drifting in and out of uneasy sleep. I occupied myself with some reading. I drank coffee and stared out the window at the pines. I listened to the winter silence. After a few hours like this, I found myself entering a new state of mind.

I stepped outside into the cold late morning. The morning mist was clearing, damp chill still hanging in the air. My gaze settled south towards the road. I recalled one of our recent conversations about time-travel.

Every so often we find ourselves in places that are detached from time. They are here, right now, but they are also then. They are places where we look around in wonder while we realize we could be in 1958, or 1932, or maybe even 1874. There are no visual cues in these places to fix us in 2012 exactly, no cellphone towers or plastic shopping bags.

My eyes had gone out of focus as I’d recalled our thoughts on time and places. It was a reverie. Blinking, I drew myself back into that cold, damp morning and looked more closely at the scene on which I’d been passively staring. I could not see the road exactly. Instead, I could see the line of trees that edged the road, the neighbor’s cow pasture that fronted the road, the clusters of second-growth woodland in the distance, and more closely the fence at the edge of the yard.

What did this scene look like in 1958?

The greens of the grasses and trees were the same greens that they would have been 74 years ago. The swirling grays in the sky were the same too. The chair on the lawn was of a vintage that could have conceivably already been a few years’ aged in the outdoors, with the same patina and gentle layer of burgeoning grime. The telephone wires I could see through the trees could have been there, on a country road in North Carolina in 1958. My eyes danced excitedly around the scene as I took in the barbed wire fence, the clothesline, the birds in the sky. I tried to determine exactly where in my field of vision it would become clear that I was in 2012, and I mentally blocked that part out. As I focused on the 1958 in front of me, I began to imagine what I would have worn on a Sunday morning, February 1958, if my boyfriend was sick with the flu and I was drinking coffee outside. I was wearing penny loafers and jeans. A woman like me could have certainly worn penny loafers and jeans and a funny-looking hand-knit hat. More questions came to me: Who would I have been, who would he have been, what would his kitchen sink look like?

I heard the rumble of a car, and I looked back in the direction of the road. As the sound of it got closer I could feel my fantasy drifting away, and then, a brightly colored old Chevy truck ambled by through the trees. Unbelievable. I had thought a 90s-era Toyota passenger car was going to come into sight and erase my moment of time-drifting. I really was time-traveling. A shiny, new-looking 1950s vehicle had entered the picture. This was too much, and I turned away towards the house.

Third grade

February 24, 2012

I was up at 4:30 this morning. That’s a little earlier than usual, but I do like to wake up before dawn. I need an hour of unscheduled time in the mornings before I do anything else. Usually I spend that hour drinking coffee outside in the darkness, looking at the moon and the stars, talking myself down from my various disasters and anxieties. Once I put my thoughts in all their right places, I am ready to wake up the children and start our day.

Some morning sessions are stressful. Sometimes they start in bed, and I spend most of the morning talking myself out of bed.

This morning was a particularly helpful morning, though. As the twenty threads of thought wound themselves around each other, I caught a passing thought and brought it into focus. It was a thought that surprised me, and I had to spend some time examining it more closely.

“At least she’s almost safe, we’re almost there,” I had thought to myself.


“She” is my youngest daughter, who will turn nine years old this coming summer. And pretty soon, she will be safe from the Horrendous Things that happen to little girls.

Her age is important to this thought process. She is in third grade. She is 8. Horrendous Things happened to me when I was in third grade, things so Horrendous that I have spent decades erasing the memories.

And that might explain some of my responses to the life stressors from the last few years in my life.

2009 was a big year. It started with a job loss that ended my career as a librarian. My health was seriously compromised in a dramatic fashion. And also my father died. That was three years ago. I’d like to say that I’m picking up the pieces now, but in actuality the pieces are still falling. I have developed an arsenal of skills to cope and have found love and peace in delightful places with extraordinary people. But I have also been isolating my daughters and myself from the world that can and will harm us.

Significantly, my oldest daughter entered third grade in 2009.

I have spent the last three years fiercely protecting myself and my children. I didn’t need to do it like that. But that’s ok. I have hope for the future.

La Vaquita 2/7/2012

February 17, 2012

Getting lost in Durham, looking for La Vaquita, which turns out to be a drive-up roadside taco place. We order through a window and eat on benches. There are still payphones on the edges of parking lots, in the corners where weeds grow and cigarette butts and bottlecaps collect.

We lift them up

January 25, 2012

When I was in college I attended mass pretty often at the Newman Hall affiliated with UC Berkeley. Newman Hall was named for Cardinal John Henry Newman, a well-regarded British Catholic intellectual from the 19th century. Cardinal Newman continues to be known for his liberal,thoughtful, almost humanist approach to God, religion, and Catholicism. As one might assume, the Catholic church in Berkeley was quite a bit more radical than your average church.

One of the curious aspects of a Catholic mass is the rote call and response between priest and congregation. There is a formula for a mass. To one unfamiliar with the schedule, it may seem unpredictable, when all that kneeling, standing, and sitting happens. But the Catholics know what’s going on. There are ways to know which song to sing from the book at any given time. There are names for the different parts of the mass. The Catholics also know exactly what to say, when. One of my favorite parts of the mass is called the Sursum Corda, and it goes like this:

Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.

Except in the Catholic church in Berkeley, Newman Hall, I learned how to say the last line like this:

People: It is right to give God thanks and praise.

You wouldn’t think it, but that one little change from a masculine pronoun “him” to the word “God” was quite unusual. For years after, when I attended other churches, I took special delight in saying the Sursum Corda like we did in Berkeley, while the parishioners around me said it the way they did. My sturdy word, “God” sounded so loud compared to their amassed “him.”

I don’t go to church anymore, and I’m not a Catholic anymore. That’s a different story. But tonight, I found myself breathing the words of the Sursum Corda as my eyes stared onto the clear, starry sky. In shock and sadness, slumped over, I sat on the bench at the edge of my front yard in the darkness. My lungs are moving more slowly than usual tonight, but my heart beats fast. It hurts. It should not hurt tomorrow. That is why I lifted up my head, and my heart, to the night sky and repeated these old words that cause comfort.

I am not a religious person, but I believe in beauty, and I believe in the world. There is a lot of pain in religion. But the joyful moments captivate me. To me, the Sursum Corda is a joyous conversation.

“Lift up your hearts.”

Fern frond

October 17, 2011

A childhood memory:

I was with my mother in downtown San Diego. We were always riding buses back then, to the hospital for Mom’s prenatal visits, and to visit Jim.

It was rainy. That was unusual, and the streets were gray and shiny. A florist at his stall handed me a Boston fern frond. He showed me the underside, the tiny raised bumps of seeds. I ran my fingers over the bumps and smiled.

My mom let me push the button for the pedestrian signal at the crosswalk. I pushed it 3 times. But then I couldn’t remember if I’d really pushed it 3 times. What if I’d really pushed it 4 times? Then the light would never change. You have to push the button an odd number of times to make it change. So I pushed the button again, just in case. A panic set over me then. What if I had really pushed the button 3 times, and by pressing the button again just in case like I had, what if I had messed it up? So I pushed the button again. I was paralyzed. I was terrified that the pedestrian signal wouldn’t come on, and it would be my fault.

The forward motion of my mom as she moved to cross the street pulled my hand that was in hers. The light had changed. I hadn’t broken it. I rubbed the undersides of the leaves on the fern frond, the tip of my finger tracing the lines of the fern seeds. We crossed the road.

I’ve been reading a book, Carol Berkin’s First Generations: Women In Colonial America.

The title gives away the subject matter pretty well. It’s a synthesis of different approaches in research to the study of women in the American Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The subject matter is endlessly fascinating to me. There are chapters that address the regional differences that had an effect on women’s lives as well as chapters about race and class. It is really striking to me just how important property and inheritance laws are in determining how a culture thinks of women.

Two chapters in particular have been phenomenal; I especially enjoyed reading the chapter about English immigrants to the Chesapeake Bay in the 17th century and the chapter that focused on the experiences of Native American women throughout the Colonial period.

As I’ve been reading the book, however, I’ve noticed my critical thinking skills kicking in, and I’ve found myself analyzing the structure of the author’s writing. It’s so transparently Academic Writing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but on numerous occasions I have found myself questioning the author’s argument because I recognize the way it is constructed. I have written arguments like that myself, usually late at night, just hours before a paper is due. I have also noticed what seem to be holes in the research that the author has attempted, for whatever reason, to neatly patch over. I have done that too. Maybe I didn’t have enough time to do the research, or there weren’t enough sources to make a solid conclusion, but I wanted to keep the content. Some chapters read like stand-alone academic papers. I know that many books get their start as a great doctoral dissertation or Master’s thesis, when the writer is encouraged to flesh out the topic. If that were the case with this book, I think I might have identified which chapter was its genesis.

I’ve also been wondering if my analytic activity while reading the book interferes with my enjoyment of it. Just because I know what the author’s doing, does that make it a bad book? I’m relieved to decide that no, it doesn’t, not for me. She’s good at it, this style of writing. And maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve read a book like this, I forgot that I actually think about them when I’m reading. It’s part of engaging with the book, right? Maybe it also means that I know how to write things like this, that’s why I recognize it.

In a different telling of my life I would have gotten a PhD and been a real fancypants academic, but I didn’t figure out in time what topics I needed to explore, nor did I have the confidence to believe that my PhD would be worth something. Oh well. The real telling of my life is going its own way, and that’s just fine.

On genealogy

August 23, 2011

Here’s a little secret:

When I was a small girl I had really dorky secret obsessions/pursuits. They embarrassed me, both in their subject matter, and the fervor with which I pursued them.

One of those secret obsessions was the genealogy of obscure European noble or royal families. I spent hours reading Debrett’s Peerage from the library, making neatly spaced and annotated tables in notebooks. The tidy accumulation of data into family trees fascinated me. One generation came after another, and they went on and on, but sometimes they didn’t. I started to learn how history affected demographic patterns, when I noticed that in the 18th century British families had lots and lots of children who lived to adulthood, which had been (and still is) an uncommon family pattern in world history. These patterns in the family trees came because families were able to grow and live due to advances in medicine, wealth generated by new technologies, and other social conditions and innovations.

I became fascinated by the Spanish succession, how the interplay of unions between close family members meant generations of uncles marrying their nieces, and cousins (on both sides of their family) marrying cousins, which both tangled up and tightened lines of inheritance. The fates of nations directly arose from the patterns I saw in the family trees, as ambivalences in the pattern started wars and combined nations. They also lead to sad inherited conditions that eventually ended lines and actually physically deformed the people.

But how could I explain something like that to my friends? As a 10 year old? As a 14 year old? As as 20 year old? It’s impossible. So I kept it to myself.

Then I had my own children, grew older, became a librarian, worked in an archives, learned the tools I needed to research REAL PEOPLE’s histories, and I became focused squarely on my own family’s history. Now I engage in genealogical research as a hobby. Yes, one of my favorite pursuits is an old lady hobby.

But I’ve always been fascinated with history. And I’ve always loved neat progressions of data like those in family trees (or library catalog cards, or lists of Signers of Famous Documents). And I grew up in California, where everything was brand-new and lacking history – read Douglas Coupland’s excellent Microserfs for a fantastic encapsulation of this phenomenon – and the idea that my own family had a past FASCINATES THE HELL out of me.

So now I’ve learned some interesting things. I’ve just scratched the surface. The majority of my ancestors were immigrants, and when i reach the immigrant point, I lose the tools I have to keep following the family line.

My father’s father Sidney Davies immigrated to the United States from Wales, so I assume at least 25% of my ancestors were Welsh.
My father’s mother Alice Bracker was the daughter of immigrants from Germany, so I assume at least 25% of my ancestors were German.
My mother’s mother’s father (my great-grandfather Frank Richards) was the son of immigrants from Germany, so that’s 12.5% more of my ancestors being German.
And my mother’s mother’s mother (my great-grandmother Edith Jones) was the daughter of immigrants from England and Canada.

I know, it’s a lot of confusing data, especially without the cool charts, but basically that means that I don’t know very much at all about 75% of my ancestors because they are from other countries, and I don’t know how to do that kind of research yet.

So I’ve focused my attention on that other 25% of my family that comes from my mother’s father, my Grandpa Alfred Dallas Sloan, who died when I was a little girl and always makes me think of John Wayne. I remember him, and I remember his funeral because that was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body, and I liked getting dressed up, and it was shocking and new to see so many sad people at once, and I enjoyed the wake very much. The wake was the only time I’ve ever felt like i got a real taste of the 1950s in real life experience.

Grandpa Sloan’s family is my American side of the family. This is the part of the family that goes back to the very beginnings of what has become the United States, my country. I’ve found clusters of ancestors that fascinate me. There are pre-Revolutionary War families of English and Scottish stock that lived right here where I live now. Some of them were Patriots in the War. Some of them were Regulators. They lived on this orange land that I walk upon, and I recognize their surnames in the names of things around me.

There are Quakers who came with William Penn and stayed for a while in Philadelphia and Berks County, and later, German Quakers. There are English indentured servants in early 17th century Maryland, working on tobacco farms, dying before their children were grown, short and hard lives. There are prominent New England Puritans, but just a few, but VERY PROMINENT.

Regardless of their entry point and time into the country, most of the lines seem to have followed a route into North Carolina, then a constant progression westward through Tennessee and Kentucky that stopped for a century in Missouri. That Missouri farmboy grandfather of mine went off to the Korean War, came back to San Diego, California, and that’s part of how I become a California girl.

But isn’t that NEAT? I mean, that so many of them lived HERE. Right here, I’m talking about. North Carolina. Orange County and Chatham County. Somehow, of all the places I could have called home, I chose those counties. I chose this place, where my friends and community live and struggle and grow and smile.

I think sometimes of the places I have had potential opportunities to move to in my life, for jobs and school: Ann Arbor, Madison, New Orleans, deepest darkest Connecticut, Boulder, DC, Chicago. I have absolutely no family ties to any of those places. As far as I have researched, none of my ancestors have ever lived in those places. Out of all the places where I have deeply considered living, I chose Chapel Hill, a place where the hills for miles around are littered with the bones of my distant cousins.