The Blog

My Grandmother’s Writing Desk: Made of wood and memories

 

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother Frances’ desk.  She was fond of it and I have many memories of seeing my grandmother sitting on the stool in front of her desk and writing Christmas and birthday cards to her family.

My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  I remember her sitting at her desk, opening up her journal and making little notes in it – notes about the births, weddings, deaths and divorces in our family.  She also wrote notes about a particularly good game of bridge she had played or having the best score in a golf match.  She wrote get-well cards to her friends and planned trips to see her out-of-town family or friends, all while sitting at her desk.  She paid her bills and wrote donation checks to her local SPCA and to many other charities in the San Francisco Bay area.

When I was just five years old, I remember sitting at my grandmother’s desk. This desk was always paired with a round heavy stool.  I have happy memories of lying on top of the stool, spreading my arms out wide and spinning myself around and around until I was sick.

One interesting thing about this desk is the many hiding places that it contains.  I still gain pleasure from the idea that things can be hidden in the desk in plain sight but invisible to someone unfamiliar with the desk’s design. The hidden compartments are handy places to hide cash, love letters or perhaps even a secret diary – don’t tell anyone, though!

This desk also comes complete with a delicate, tiny brass key, which still works. 

 

 

As I recall being told, my grandfather bought this desk for my grandmother sometime between 1930 and 1940.  My grandmother used it every day until just a few weeks before her death. She died on February 3, 2008 at the age of 105.  After my grandmother’s death, my aunt sent the desk to me by freight truck all the way from San Francisco to Virginia.

When I received the desk, my first thought was to give it a good polishing.  I spent an afternoon cleaning and buffing the old desk.  Surprisingly, during the process, I found some things that had slid under the drawers and behind several of the compartments – a piece of carbon paper, instructions on how to do tubular crocheting, my grandmother’s 1955 Certificate of Members in the American National Red Cross, a recipe for baked fish and a few old canceled checks. Most pieces even show my grandmother’s beautiful and flowery penmanship.

Sometimes I think about having the desk refinished, but then I tell myself that all of the patina and provenance that goes along with the desk would surely disappear in the process.

I don’t think I will ever have my grandmother’s desk refinished. Today, as I look at the writing surface of the desk, I can still see faint traces of my grandmother’s handwriting in the wood’s surface. Her story and the love she had for her family is engrained in the surface of the desk she used for over sixty years.

I am so very grateful to now be in possession of my grandmother’s old desk along with all of its precious memories.  I hope that one of my daughters will want to keep this desk after I am gone.

Do you own a piece of furniture that is considered a family treasure and that holds memories for you?  I’d like to suggest that you write those memories down.  Future generations will enjoy knowing the history of that very special family heirloom.

Letters to a Little Girl from the White House

My mother married my stepfather in April 1963.

I was eleven years old at the time.

But let me back track a bit.

In 1962, my stepfather-to-be came to San Francisco to attend a professional conference.  A girlfriend of my mother’s introduced my mother to my stepfather and cupid’s arrow stuck hard and fast.

Within two year’s time, my mother and I moved from San Francisco, California to Bethesda, Maryland, and life changed dramatically for both of us.

Throughout the long months before flying to Maryland, my stepfather wrote me many letters.  Each letter was a personal introduction of sorts.  In the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl I surely didn’t know what to expect from the man who would soon marry my mother and become the only father I had ever known.

Through the letters, he slowly revealed the kind of person he was and the kind of father he would be to me through his frequent and loving letters, which were either typed or handwritten and mailed directly to me.

He told me that he had a fifteen-foot sailboat and was fond of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.  He said that he wanted to teach me how to sail.  He told me that he was from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his family still lived there and I would eventually meet them all. I knew he had an artistic side because he often included funny pictures and poems in his letters, all for my enjoyment.  He told me that he wanted to teach me how to ice skate in the winter months on the frozen canals in Washington, DC.  He was a devoted Roman Catholic and asked about my religious upbringing. He valued a strong and traditional education and his work caused him to travel widely.

But there was one thing that really stuck out about these letters. They were written on White House stationery.

 

At that time, my stepfather was acting as legal counsel for the Kennedy Administration. Several of the letters even mention my stepfather’s personal interactions with JFK.

December 16, 1962

By the way, during this past week, the President held his Christmas Party for his staff.  I shook hands with him and wished him a Merry Christmas.  During the evening, Caroline and one of her small friends came down the stairs to say hello to everybody. I sure wish you had been here to enjoy all the fun. 

Many of the specific memories have faded for me. My stepfather, now 84 years old, has Alzheimer’s disease.  As I hold my stepfather’s letters in my hands, I feel somehow connected to him again, and to my childhood, and to the love and affection that was so well expressed on sheets of paper.

Do you have family letters stored in shoeboxes up in your attic or on a shelf in your bedroom closet? When was the last time you read those letters and simply remembered days gone by?  What do those letters mean to you?  Please write and tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

Finding History in Unexpected Places: The House at 167 Corona

My grandparents Raymond and Frances Mackin married in September 7, 1929, at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, California. By the end of the very next month the Stock Market collapsed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression.

Frances, in her memoir, recalled:

“On returning from our honeymoon in Los Angeles, we rented a pleasant apartment on Washington Street, near Fillmore.  In less than a year we moved to a larger apartment on Balboa near 21st Avenue.  We were living there when my daughter, Catherine was born.  The landlady wasn’t very happy with us for having a child so we soon moved to a third floor flat on 43rd Avenue between Cabrillo and Fulton.  The stair climbing there was too much for me so we rented a small house on 40th Avenue near Fulton.  Roger and David were born while we lived there.  Our landlord was a very nice man, whom we seldom saw, and we were greatly surprised when for some reason or other he gave us his equity in the house.  This amounted to about $3,500 – a nice sum for 1935.  We soon sold the house on 40th Avenue and bought a larger one at 167 Corona Street in Ingleside Terrace.  Frannie was born there in 1939.” 

The rest of the story

You may be wondering how this information came to my attention.  My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  She loved to reminisce and share her life experiences.  It was this love that fueled her curiosity.  In 1984 she found out that the house on Corona was for sale (again).  My grandmother had to know the details of this house that had been her home over forty years before.  A quick trip to Franciscan Properties yielded the listing (below) and told her everything she wanted to know.

Years later, I learned more about that house on Corona Street.  My grandmother told me that they didn’t have enough money to pay the down payment, though they knew they could easily afford the monthly payments.

The owner of the house made an offer to my grandfather –if he would take over the monthly payments, my grandparents could have the house.  This would never happen in 2012, but life was a bit different back in 1935.

It turned out that the owner of the house was going through serious financial problems and a nasty divorce, and really wanted to get rid of this house.

My grandmother further told me that by virtue of owning this house, they were now well established financially.  Remember this was in 1935 – the Great Depression was being felt worldwide.  Many people were struggling financially and losing their homes altogether. My grandparents felt very fortunate.

This is just one of the stories I have learned about the early lives of my grandparents.  And finding this listing among our trove of family documents makes this story come alive for me.

Moral of this story — You never know where your family’s history will come from.

And as a side note: I Googled this house last night and found that it sold for $817,000 two years ago. Too bad it didn’t stay in our family— that would have been some return.

What tidbits of information have you found out about your family in unexpected places? Write us and let us know!

Mining for Memories: Looking and Listening for Gold (Guest Post)

Note: This post was featured on the wonderful blog Women’s Memoirs. To read the post in its entirety, including the introduction by Kendra Bonnett, please visit http://womensmemoirs.com/memoir-writing-book-business/memoir-writing-tips-interviewing-and-the-art-of-listening/

I remember Mary, a very elderly woman I once interviewed. She wanted to preserve her life stories but was struggling with how and where to begin.

I asked Mary, “Do you have a family heirloom that is a precious piece of your family’s story?”

It didn’t take her but a moment or two before she said, “Yes, I do. It is one of the most cherished things that I own.”

“Would you share that with me?”

Within a few moments she returned to her chair gingerly carrying a hand carved wooden pipe rack, which housed three pipes. She held the pipe rack in her frail hands, as if the items were sacred.

My curiosity intensified, as she gently caressed the items. “Please tell me about what you are holding.”

“These were my father’s pipes,” Mary began.

As she spoke, her face took on a serene and tender expression. “He died nearly fifty years ago, but I still remember how in the evening hours, after supper was done, that my father would sit next to the fire in his rocking chair and smoke his pipe. Even after all these years, I can still remember the fruity aroma of that pipe tobacco as it smoldered in the bowl of the pipe. I remember sitting on the floor at his feet working on a wooden puzzle or looking at a picture book. My mother was there, too. Nothing could have improved this moment in time.”

Mary continued: “My father and mother were nurturing parents, and I always felt their love.” And then she got quiet, lost in her memories.

“Mary,” I asked, “How did your parents show their love for you?”

“They listened to me. They listened to me talk about my childhood dreams. They gave me their time and attention, and I knew that they cared about what mattered to me.

“One day when I was about six years old I was given a kitten. Not long after getting the kitten, it ran out of the front door of our home and was hit by a car and killed. I cried and cried over the loss of my kitten. My mother took me in her arms and rocked me softly. I still remember how quiet she was. She hardly said a thing, but I knew that she cared about how I was feeling.”

A pipe rack holding three pipes…and the memories arrived. As interviewer, I hardly had to say a thing to Mary because her memories flooded into her mind as she held, smelled, felt and saw the memories in her mind’s eye. Sometimes that is all it takes to find memories more priceless than gold.

Like her parents so many years earlier, I listened.

 

A letter to myself on my (future) 80th birthday

Dear Me,

You have now lived a full eight decades of life.  Congratulations!   As you look back I hope that you will be able to say that it has been a good ride over these last eighty years.  I also hope that your body has continued to serve you well.  I sure hope that you have all your teeth, not too many wrinkles (except for those smile lines!) and that you still like to wear a nice fitting pair of black jeans.You will be the talk of the family if you do!

On your birthday, I’m sure you’re celebrating by remembering your long and amazing life. With the family by your side, you’ll watch the home videos we made, flip through the scrapbooks and photo albums, and talk about your favorite heirlooms from your grandparents that you still have on the mantle. You’re lucky, not only to be in good health but also to have recorded so much of your life history for the rest of the family to enjoy.

But please don’t forget – even though you are now an old lady (in body, but young in spirit), you can still continue with this legacy work.  Don’t forget to talk about your experiences, hopes, dreams, and what life has taught you along the way. Your children and grandchildren need to hear you tell your stories. They might be curious how you cherished the hippy era, living in San Francisco and that funny smelling stuff you smoked back then.  On second thought, maybe you might not want to tell them about that.

But do tell them about growing up. They will want to hear about how you felt when you became a mom for the first time.  They will be curious to know what got you through the tough times in life – through multiple miscarriages, the suicide of a close family member, and the disappointments  of rejection and failure. But most importantly, tell them how you bounced back and always kept your head up high. Life is all about learning from our hardships, and you’ve certainly done that.

Oh, before I forget, have a HAPPY BIRTHDAY and as you blow out the candles on your cake, please make a wish that you will live at least another 20 years. You still have a lot to accomplish and the energy to do it!

Photo credit: Birthday cakes blog