Party Like It’s 1850

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The main plot and some of the sub-plots of my work-in-progress revolve around relationships between the sexes. I try to be faithful to the attitudes of people of the mid-19th century in my book, even though modern readers are often put off by how formal people were compared to our own times. My characters come from many classes—from educated to illiterate, urban to rural. It’s difficult to know for certain how different people were from today.

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Dancing a cotillion in the 19th century

So I was delighted to come across a description of a party in Sacramento in March 1850. The March 23, 1850, issue of the Placer Times—published exactly 166 years ago today—contained a lengthy account of a cotillion at the Gordon House a week or so prior to the paper’s publication. I won’t quote the whole thing, because it’s quite lengthy. But here’s an excerpt:

The Gordon House Cotillion Party. . . .

“On Tuesday evening last the votaries of Terpsichore assembled at the Gordon House and tripped it on the light fantastic toe till the wee short hours of Wednesday morn had marked the figure three on old time’s hour glass.
“. . .
“As we entered the ball room, the music was in full blast, bearing its gay and lively sounds to the hearts of the therein assembled beauty and fashion, and moving their happy possessors nimbly to and fro, obedient to the welcome call of the manager. The room, though small was well lighted and tastefully arranged, for which the host and company too may, I presume, thank the ladies of the house.
“A feeling of sympathetic joy thrilling through you, could not be restrained on witnessing the happy, smiling countenances of the dancers. The gay laugh, the gentle whisper, the amiable smile, the bashful courting glance, the bright; flashing of pretty eyes, the tripping of nimble feet, the rustling of silks and satins, the magnetic influence in touching a soft, tiny hand—all lent their aid to make the scene a happy one. — Indeed, it was a happy time, and although not so much so as at the previous ball of Thursday evening at the Fort, still all appeared gay and cheerful. There is no telling, however, how far off some one’s thoughts were, even if smiles did play around the mouth and light up the countenance.
“We had the felicity of dancing with several of the ladies. Where all were so handsome, it would appear invidious to particularize, but I cannot withhold my perfect acquiescence in the prevailing opinion that Mrs. H. was decidedly the queen of the night. Her fine figure, well set off in a rich black silk dress, and her amiable disposition fully entitled her to this distinction.

[and then our chivalrous author describes many other women attendees, and then some of the men]

“Several Colonels and Captains were also present, but those titles arc now-a-days more common than “mister.” So those who are no farther advanced than Colonel, can’t shine among the big ’uns. They must get up a hop among their own kidney, and then they can bud.
“. . .
“Bye the bye, I must not forget the supper, which was served up in Gordon best style.—Turkeys, ducks, oysters, preserves, jellies, plain and fruit cake, confectionary, nuts, raisins, with coffee and cream, all of which, including the ice cream, was “not to be beat.” San Francisco stands entirely in the shade. Our “doings” are “did” by perfect connoisseurs who are “some” in their lines.
“The company did ample justice to the repast, and parted with the hope of soon meeting again. Till then au revoir.

(I also discovered that just a few weeks after this cotillion, the April 18, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript, advertised an auction of the furniture, fixtures, and goodwill of the Gordon House. Apparently, the “Gordon best style” did not last very long.)

Not everyone in the mid-19th century society was enamored of dancing. The August 30, 1850, edition of the Sacramento Transcript reported:

Some of the eastern papers are out against dancing, declaring that the chief votaries of the Terpsichorean art are brainless young men and giddy young ladies. But the worst of it is that the modest cotillion is almost banished from dancing parties, and supplanted by the voluptuous polka. One editor confesses to being old fashioned enough to dislike seeing a wife or sister, whirling round a room in the arms of a comparative stranger who is probably a puppy. There are many persons in every society who conscientiously object to dancing—believing that it leads to dissipation of another character. Others believe that dancing is an innocent amusement, and instead of being hurtful and leading to dissipation, that it is merely a pleasant pastime and beneficial to health. For our part we are not disposed to set up as an umpire in the matter, being willing that those disposed may “trip the light fantastic toe” so long as they have a toe to trip; and equally willing that the antidancing society may preach away until they bring about the millenium they desire, when the “head shall triumph over the heels.

So, in 1850, as in 2016, it appears to take all kinds. My characters can dance or not dance, as their morals move them. But you can see that formal descriptions of relationships between men and women prevailed—at least in the social classes that read the newspapers.

I love these little glimpses of the past that my research finds for me.

When have you chuckled at something you’ve learned about the past?

Telling History Through Family Stories: The Tenement Museum

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My husband and I recently spent time with our son and his girlfriend in New York. They took us to see the Tenement Museum in Manhattan, which explains what life was like at various points in time in a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on the lower East Side.

This tenement was built in 1863 and initially was owned by Lukas Glockner, a German immigrant who lived there with his family. There were 28 apartments in the building, none of which had running water or indoor plumbing in 1863. Later in the 19th century, New York City ordinances required that tenement owners supply water and toilets in their buildings. Water lines were added to every apartment, and each floor had a toilet. Over time, gas and electricity were also added. 97 Orchard Street remained open until 1935, and 7000 tenants lived there in its 72 years of occupancy.

We took the “Hard Times” tour which showed two apartments—one set up to depict a German family in the 1870s and the other to display how Italian family lived in the 1930s. As a writer of historical fiction, I was impressed by the research done by the curators of the Tenement Museum to make the settings accurate. They had found government documents such as census records and court filings to tell the stories of the families who lived there.

gumpslide1 natalie gumpertz

Nathalie Gumpertz

The German Gumpertz family suffered a tragic loss when the husband Julius disappeared, leaving his wife Nathalie and four small children alone during the economic downturn of the 1870s. After her infant son died, Mrs. Gumpertz kept her three daughters alive by taking in sewing. Ultimately, she had her husband declared dead and was able to benefit from a small inheritance he received from a German relative, which enabled her to leave 97 Orchard Street. (The Tenement Museum curators later discovered that Julius Gumpertz had survived in Cleveland. But surely he had forfeited any moral right to his inheritance when abandoned his family.)

baldslide1 Adolfo Baldizzi

Adolpho Baldizzi

The Sicilian Baldizzi family lived at 97 Orchard Street during the Great Depression. Adopho Baldizzi immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1923. His wife Rosaria arrived later. He had papers; she did not. When the Depression hit, Mr. Baldizzi was unable to find work as a carpenter, and could only find odd repair jobs. His wife went to work in a factory making coats. She later quit when her income threatened the family’s receipt of benefits.

The Museum has an oral history from the Baldizzis’ daughter Josephine, who described her childhood in this tenement. The family sat around the kitchen table, playing cards or listening to the radio. Above the table is a wood cabinet her father made. The cabinet is still in the apartment as restored.

Both Nathalie Gumpertz and Rosaria Baldizzi played large roles in helping their families survive through economic downturns. During this Women’s History Month, let’s remember them, and all the women who have held their families together through hard times.

When has your family gone through hard times and how did you survive? Write about it.

Bonsai Tree: A Lesson in History

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One day during my recent visit to New York, my friend and I walked through the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Early March is not the best time to see this Botanical Garden. The day was cold, and the wind blew. Most of the trees and plants were dead or dormant. The only blooms we saw outside the greenhouses were crocuses, though there were many fields carpeted in the low-slung purple blossoms.

Inside the greenhouses tropical plants thrived. We shed our multiple layers of coats to walk through a rainforest. Our glasses fogged as we strolled past banana trees and ferns and yellow crane flowers and another bright red flower, the name of which I have forgotten.

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277-year-old bonsai tree at Brooklyn Botanical Garden

20160303_102759 labelIn another greenhouse—this one open to the air, though sheltered from the wind—the bonsai trees stood peacefully, as some of them had for centuries. The tag beside one tree said that it was about 277 years old in 2000 when the Botanical Gardens acquired it.

Think of that—a tree that dates back to 1723. That year, Friedrich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach were writing their beautiful music. Voltaire was alive (he got smallpox in 1723). The early economist Adam Smith was born, and the architect/astronomer Christopher Wren died.

It was before the American Revolution. In 1723, Benjamin Franklin, age 17, ran away from his home in Boston to Philadelphia, and almost immediately went to London.

Only one branch of my ancestors had made it to America by 1723—the first of my Hooker forefathers, Joseph Hooker, emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1689. He lived until 1753, so he was alive when this tree sprouted. His grandson John Hooker (also my ancestor) was born in 1722, just about the time this bonsai began.

The bonsai stood in its rock bed for more than a century before the events described in my novel of 1847 took place—the shooting of a cannon from the top of Independence Rock and the massacre of the Whitmans in Oregon. The tree was more than 200 years old when my parents were born in 1933. It is now closing in on its 300th birthday.

I have been impressed by the age of human edifices—the Roman Forum and the ruins of Pompeii. I have been impressed by huge natural wonders formed over time—the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains. But a tree? Other than a few redwoods, I’ve rarely been impressed by the history of a tree.

The text describing the bonsai exhibit said:

“Bonsai is sometimes misconstrued as an exercise in restricting growth. Trees are mistakenly valued only for age, rather than for how they capture a moment in nature.”

For me, this bonsai tree captured not only a moment in nature but the passage of time. I thought of all that has happened in human history during its lifespan.

As I continue to reflect on this bonsai, I also contemplate my own lifespan. I wonder what legacy I will leave behind. Will someone someday reflect on my life as I reflect on my ancestors coming to a New World, on the emigrants to Oregon, and on the miracles of music and invention that have been created in the last 300 years?

And I also admire a Japanese potter who nourished this bonsai three centuries ago and who brought me to these moments of contemplation.

When have you viewed something old and been in awe of its history?

The Perfect Pi Day (3-14-16) and the Difficulty of Acting Imperfectly

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Pi Day 20160302_171811.jpg

The window of the Little Pie Company

There is nothing connecting the two topics of this post—Pi Day and deliberately bad acting—except that I noticed them on the same day recently. I was in New York City spending time with a friend. We were in Manhattan to see two shows. Both were comedies, and we laughed uproariously. In between the shows, we walked around the theater district and ate dinner.

As we walked around the theater district, we passed the Little Pie Company on 43rd Street. My friend really wanted to buy a pie, even though we were about to go eat a large dinner. I, too, was tempted. The pies looked wonderful. They had not only full-size pies, but little five-inch pies—just perfect for a late-night snack or for breakfast the next morning. The only reason we didn’t buy anything is because we didn’t want to carry our pies into the theater while we watched the evening show.

Inside the Little Pie Company was a sign reminding us that Pi Day was rapidly approaching. I’d forgotten about Pi Day. But this year it is as perfect as Pi Day comes. Today is, after all, 3-14-16, which is as close to 3.14159… as the calendar can get.

So Happy Pi Day.

One of the plays we saw was Noises Off, a farce by Michael Frayn. Act I takes place as an acting company is doing the dress rehearsal of a play that will open that night. The actors in the play within the play are really bad. They don’t know their lines or their marks or how to handle their props. Act II takes place a month later, while they are touring. The setting is backstage while the play is going on, and the audience sees how the interpersonal relationships between the actors have deteriorated, with disastrous effects on their ability to perform. Act III is on the final leg of the tour, when the play is beyond salvaging, the script is abandoned, and the more capable actors try to ad lib their way through to some sort of end.

What makes Noises Off remarkable is that the cast’s bad acting in the play within a play is so good. One character visibly counts her steps and the seconds between her lines—she has memorized her role and cannot deviate. Another can deliver his lines capably but cannot speak a coherent sentence that isn’t in the script. Another seems to be in the early stages of dementia and forgets lines, props, and everything but her own ego. There’s a character who’s a drunk. The director is having affairs with two female cast members. And, oh, there’s the guy who gets nose bleeds. The audience gets sucked into these personalities and their foibles. We know why the actors are failing, we wait for them to fail, and we laugh with glee when it happens.

I realized as I watched that it is hard to be bad. We all work to be good at what we do. We want to improve. It is equally difficult to be deliberately bad. To be consistently bad. To be consistent at anything takes work. It is as difficult to deliberately miss a tennis serve in the same way every time as it is to plant the ball in a particular corner of the court.

These actors had to miss their cues in the same way every time, with the same precise timing as if they had been acrobats catching each other without a net. It was as impressive a performance of ineptness as I have ever seen.

So I had the perfect Pi Day and the perfect bad play within a play both revealed to me on the same day.

I am sorry to say that Noises Off just closed on Broadway, but if you ever have a chance to see it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. In its perfect imperfection. (My son said he enjoyed the movie.)

When have you been impressed with perfection or imperfection?

Nursery School: Singing in the Rain

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child-in-a-raincoat

Photo by George Hodan. This child isn’t me, but it captures how I felt during rainy Corvallis winters.

The Willamette Valley is wet. That’s what I remember most about the winters when we lived in Corvallis, Oregon, between 1959 and 1961. As I am writing my current work-in-progress, I find it easy to write about winters on homesteads near Oregon City—I just think of my preschool days. Wet. Dark. Depressing. It isn’t a heavy rain, but it seems almost constant.

I attended preschool at Oregon State University, where my father was a graduate student. As a four-year-old, I didn’t know the particulars of how the school was organized. I didn’t realize until much later in life that the teachers were students learning about early childhood education and that my preschool (it may have been called a nursery school—I just thought of it as “school”) was a laboratory for these students.

This preschool was my first school experience—my first organized activity of any type. Before that, I had only had my little brother to play with, or an occasional neighbor or friend who visited.

When I got to my last school experience—law school—I discovered that one of my law school classmates had also gone to the OSU preschool about the same time I did. We might have been classmates then, too, although neither of us remembered the other.

I enjoyed preschool. When I started there, my brother was too young to go, so it was something I got to do by myself, because I was a big girl. Later, he went to the school also, but he went on different days and was in a class for younger children. That meant we developed different friends, and we each got some alone time with Mommy.

The preschool curriculum was typical. I learned all the usual songs and dances. I remember Ring around the Rosie, the Hokey Pokey, and Farmer in the Dell. I also remember quiet time, even though we were only there for two or three hours each day—we were supposed to rest, and I think we could look at books.

And every day we had a period of time for outside play. Even when it rained, which was often.

Some days none of the kids wanted to go outside. If all the children agreed, the teachers didn’t have to take us outside. But because outside play was part of the curriculum, if someone wanted to go out, the teachers had to accommodate us.

I have always hated the rain. I was born in the desert of Richland, Washington. That dry climate is still my preference, despite my early years in Oregon and my now 35-plus years in the Midwest. I’d really rather not go outside in the rain.

But one day at preschool, I wanted to be ornery. It was raining hard, and it was cold. Nevertheless, I insisted on going outside. I knew I had the power to make it happen. Maybe I just wanted to follow the rules. I can still be a stickler for rules, but only when I want to be. Now, I also ignore rules I think are stupid. And the rule that kids had to go outside, even in the rain, was really a stupid rule.

None of the other kids wanted to go outside. Sometimes the teachers made everyone go out, but this day, the teachers let the rest of the children stay inside. I and one teacher (a young man) went outside by ourselves. (Think of how unlikely an event that would be today—a teacher is not permitted to be alone with a student, if it can be prevented.)

I bundled up in my coat and mittens, and we went out. I rode a tricycle and I talked to the teacher. It was really a miserable experience being outside in the rain without anyone else to play with. I lasted about fifteen minutes before I agreed to go back inside.

But I had saved face and made my point. Even at four years old, I could make my case and stick to it. Even if I wasn’t very nice about it.

When have you been ornery?

Fear of Drilling? You Betcha

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800px-Dental_Chair_UMSODAs I sat in the dentist’s office a couple of weeks ago waiting for the anesthetic to take hold, I worked on a crossword puzzle. The clue for one of the longer words in the puzzle was “Fear associated with drilling.” The answer was not apparent to me. I worked around the word, and soon determined that the end of the long answer was PHOBIA. That made sense. But the beginning? I still didn’t know.

The dentist arrived, ready to torture me. I didn’t get back to the puzzle until I was home. When I picked it up again, the answer leapt out at me—DENTOPHOBIA! I’d experienced it that morning. What a coincidence.

I have been quite lucky over the years with my teeth. Probably because I lived in Corvallis, Oregon, as a preschooler. Corvallis was an early adopter of fluoridated water. For the two-and-a-half year period that my family resided there, I imbibed fluoride every day. I never had any cavities as a child. As I went through grade school and high school, my friends complained frequently about having their cavities filled, and I was rather smug.

My first unpleasant experience at the dentist occurred when I was eight. A permanent tooth was growing in behind a baby tooth, and the dentist in Richland, Washington, where we lived then, decided he should pull the baby tooth. I wasn’t afraid, because the dentist had never hurt me before. I climbed in his chair and smiled, ready for anything, including the sucker he would give me after the procedure.

Then came the shot of novocaine.

Zowie!

The novocaine worked, and the rest of the tooth-pulling didn’t hurt. But I’d rarely in my young life been in as much pain as when that shot of novocaine went in. (Other than the broken collarbone I’ll write about sometime.)

After the tooth was removed, I got my sucker. Then my dad took me to the bookstore, where he bought me a Nancy Drew book. I usually only got to buy a book after report cards came out (assuming it was a good report, which mine always were). So I got an extra book that year, and lorded it over my brother, who didn’t get an extra Hardy Boys book.

I never had orthodontia in high school when most of my friends did. My teeth were crooked, partly because that baby tooth came out too late, and partly because my small mouth could not accommodate increasing numbers of larger permanent teeth. My parents took me to an orthodontist, but apparently he was the only conservative orthodontist in America.

“She has a good bite,” he told my mother. “No need for braces.”

How he knew I had a good bite I couldn’t figure out. I hadn’t bitten him. I was an adult before I figured out that “a good bite” meant the teeth meshed well together.

But I later regretted his conservative approach. When I moved to Kansas City, my dentist encouraged me to have my wisdom teeth taken out and then consult an orthodontist about braces.

“My grandmother didn’t have her wisdom teeth out until she was seventy-five,” I told him. “I’m going to try to beat her.” We’ve laughed at that over the years. So far I’ve won—I still have my wisdom teeth. After that one bad experience as an eight-year-old, I’ve done everything I can to avoid dental pain.

But some problems cannot be avoided as we age. In 1998, one of my teeth cracked, and I needed a crown. I feared the shot, but dental procedures had improved immensely in the intervening thirty-four years. I felt the shot, but I tolerated it reasonably well. Getting the crown fit wasn’t fun, but I can’t say it caused a lot of pain.

Then I got my first cavity in 2002, at age 46. That’s a pretty good record—the Corvallis fluoridation had provided me with over four decades of protection. Again I feared the shot. Again it wasn’t bad.

But the drilling! The vibrations sent chills down my spine.

So when I learned last month that I had to have that cavity refilled—it’s still my only cavity—I told the dentist (a new guy in the office, who didn’t know about my aversion to having my wisdom teeth out) that I was a wuss. I even told him about the shot when I was eight. I was whining, I know. Many people have had it far worse than I have.

This dentist was very careful when he gave me the shot. I hated it, because he put in very slowly. It didn’t hurt, but it took forever, and the anticipation was worse than if he’d done it quickly (though he told me it would have hurt more).

And then the drilling. More chills.

So, dentophobia? I have it. Fear associated with drilling? Yep. It’s not as inbred in me as my arachnophobia, but I have it.

What phobias do you have?

My Mother’s Last Doll

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Mother's little guy

My mother’s little guy

I’ve written before about my first doll. I’ve written about my mother’s Storybook Bride doll that I could never play with. And I’ve written about the sewing doll that my grandmother and I made clothes for. This post is about my mother’s last doll.

It wasn’t really a doll. It was a knitted humanoid figure stuffed with cotton batting. My mother’s college friend made it for her, along with a matching hat and scarf. She sent these items after my mother moved into assisted living because of her Alzheimer’s Disease.

By that time, Mother wasn’t walking and stayed in the building almost all the time. She only went outside to go to doctor appointments and an occasional wheeling around the premises in good weather. She didn’t need the hat and scarf.

But she kept that stuffed creature with her always. She called it her “little guy.”

“Where’s my little guy?” she asked whenever it wasn’t in her lap.

My father always gave it to her before he wheeled her out to meals. “Here’s your little guy,” he told her.

Many Alzheimer’s patients need a lot of tactile sensation as their more complex cognitive abilities diminish. They rub at their clothes or pick at furniture, or find something to keep their fingers moving. Some adopt dolls or stuffed animals as “loveys”, just as toddlers do.

Before Mother had her little guy, she ran her fingers over the tablecloth at meals and on her trousers when she wasn’t at the table. The soft yarn on the little guy seemed to fill a need. I don’t know if my mother realized that her good friend had knit the doll for her or not.

The two friends met for the last time in Monterey, California, in February 2011. My parents had rented a house in Carmel that month, and I spent a week with them there. While I was there, Mother’s friend, who lives in Sacramento, California, drove down for a visit.

Mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by then. Her abilities had diminished significantly, but she knew her friend well on that visit. We had lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, and afterward the friend and I shared a few tears at Mother’s decline. I know it hurt this fifty-plus-year friend of my mother’s to see how much Mother had lost. My mother had been the smart one in their college group, while the friend was more artsy. But she was far more competent than my mother that February afternoon.

It was about two years later that the friend sent Mother the hat, scarf, and doll.

MTH first doll and little guy

Mother’s last doll and my first doll

After my mother died, my father and I packed up most of her clothes to give away. But a few things didn’t find their way into the Goodwill bags. When my father died just six months later, my siblings and I found the knitted little guy, together with the doll I later determined had been my first doll.

I don’t know how these two dolls came to be together. As I wrote in an earlier post, I didn’t even know the origins of the other doll until I saw the picture of my first Christmas.

But somehow it seems fitting that my first doll and my mother’s last doll stayed together. I’ve kept them both. They are still together.

March 4 would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday. I will be thinking of her, and of her friend who knit the little guy.

What “lasts” do you remember about a loved one?

Leap Year: A Four-Year Assessment of Life

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happy-leap-year-2016-clipart-1I haven’t written a post about leap year before. The opportunity only comes along only once every four years, and I had barely started writing this blog in February 2012.

I tend to use mile markers to assess my life over the longer term. For example, on a major birthday, I might ask myself what I have accomplished in the last decade. Or I will mark that this year is the 40th anniversary of my graduation from college. So when I focused on this Leap Year post, I asked myself: What has happened in my life in the four years that I have been blogging?

Regular readers will be well aware of most of the major events in my life, but listing them helps me to reflect on what has occurred, if only to see how I have been changed.

When I started this blog early in 2012, my parents and both of my in-laws were still alive. Now, three of them are dead. My daughter’s skiing accident was still a year in the future, and she hadn’t bought her house or dog. My son lived in a different city and hadn’t started dating his current girlfriend. Suffice it to say, my world has changed in four years.

Here are some major markers in my life in the last four years. Some I’ve written about on this blog, but not all. Some are documented in my journal, and others exist only in my memory.

  • January 2012: I published the first post on this blog
  • March 2012: Publication of my Family Recipe anthology
  • September 2012: My father-in-law died (anticipated, but still unexpected)
  • November 2012: Our 35th wedding anniversary
  • December 2012: The last time my family spent Christmas with my parents (unsuspected at the time)
  • January 2013: My mother moved into assisted living because her Alzeimer’s was worsening
  • February 2013: My daughter broke her leg and I went to care for her (sudden)
  • March 2013: My mother turned 80
  • April 2013: My father turned 80
  • June 2013: My father’s last visit to my home in Kansas City (unsuspected at the time)
  • November 2013: Publication of my first novel, under a pseudonym
  • January 2014: I joined the board of a local writing organization
  • June 2014: My last visit with my mother (unsuspected at the time)
  • July 2014: My mother died (anticipated, but still unexpected)
  • August 2014: My mother’s memorial service
  • September 2014: My husband and I took a Rhine River cruise
  • October 2014: My husband retired
  • December 2014: My last trip to visit my father (unsuspected at the time)
  • January 2015: My father died (sudden)
  • January 2015: I resigned from the local writing organization, knowing I would be unable to fulfill my commitment to the group
  • March 2015: The last time I stayed in my parents’ house—still full of their possessions and memories
  • April 2015: My father’s memorial service
  • July 2015: The last time I was in my parents’ house—empty by now
  • August 2015: A family reunion of my husband’s family in Cannon Beach, Oregon
  • October 2015: Publication of my novel, Lead Me Home—the first novel I published under my own name
  • October 2015: My husband went back to work temporarily
  • December 2015: My parents’ house sold

What I glean from putting together this list is how many events come upon us unexpectedly, like illness and injury and death. We cope as best we can, our lives thrown into turmoil. It takes days or months or years for us to regain a sense of control—if we ever do.

Other events we anticipate, like trips and retirements. The reality may live up to the anticipation, or it may not, or it may be different in ways we never expected (for better and for worse).

And yet other events we do not appreciate until much later. Like the last visit with someone. Or a trip you expect to make again, but then realize you will never return to that place. All you have is the memories, which make them more poignant than you thought they would be.

We must savor each moment. Which is a challenge as we face our harried lives. And which is difficult when we are thrown into turmoil.

What events have been most significant in your life since Leap Year 2012?

Jessie Benton Frémont: One Woman’s Perspective on the Californian Gold Rush

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Jessie Benton Fremont in 1856

Jessie Benton Fremont in 1856

The sequel to Lead Me Home takes place during the California Gold Rush and the development of California as a state. Some scenes are set in Monterey, California, during the Constitutional Convention of 1849. That convention was full of early California luminaries—delegates included John C. Frémont and Lansford Hasting, both of whom had written guides used by emigrants to the West.

Jessie Benton Frémont, daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton and wife of John C. Frémont, traveled to meet her husband in California, leaving the East Coast in 1848. However, she was delayed in Panama through the winter because of illness. She arrived in San Francisco in June 1849, and then made her way to Monterey.

In A Year of American Travel, a memoir published in 1878, Mrs. Frémont described her experiences during her time in California. She said of the lure of the gold fields:

no man of any degree voluntarily kept away from the mines or San Francisco; it was their great opportunity for sudden money making.

She also wrote about the difficulty of transporting gold in California in 1849:

The buckskin bags containing about a hundred pounds of gold were put for safety under the straw mattress. There were no banks nor places of deposit of any kind. You had to trust some man that you knew or keep guard yourself. We sent this [gold] back to Monterey and it accumulated in trunks in our rooms there.

In writing my book, I have struggled with how to show the transportation of gold from the mines to the cities. I’m not sure I have it right, although based on Mrs. Frémont’s description, it might be that any and all methods were used. Clearly, there was no organized system of storing gold during those early years of the Gold Rush.

Though there were tidbits like those I’ve quoted above, what I most enjoyed about Mrs. Frémont’s book was the female perspective.

Unlike the male writers of the era, Mrs. Frémont describes the challenges of setting up housekeeping in a land where “every eatable thing had been eaten off the face of the country and nothing raised.” The Frémonts lived in rooms in the Governor’s residence in Monterey, and during the Constitutional Convention, Mrs. Frémont held open houses for the men attending the Convention. I loved the combination of domestic difficulties and political issues she discussed, often on the same page.

She describes the difficulty of finding a laundress, and how she finally found a Black slave woman, but couldn’t hire her unless she bought the woman, which she refused to do. She writes:

I go into this laundry incident a little fully because, simple as it seemed, it soon after became of political importance. The Convention had met at Monterey to settle the Constitution of the state, and the question whether slavery should or should not be admitted was, as every one remembers, the exciting feature. With slave labor there would be no delay in opening up the mineral wealth of the country, and to the fabulous profits of the owners. . . . Paid labor must necessarily be scanty in numbers, very expensive, and equally unreliable. There was also the consideration, which is strong when you are made to feel it, that it would put an end to the great discomfort of being without a class to attend to the daily necessities of life. The want of proper food, proper clothing, were the sources of ill-health as well as discomfort, and there seemed no way to get at a class to attend to this where no one would work for wages, for they could be too independent in other ways. . . . These were a troublesome class in the Convention. To these might be added nearly every woman in the country, who lifted up her voice and wept over her discomforts.

And,

Every one knows the important part of a good dinner in diplomacy. . . . The very badly prepared food with which the members of the Convention had to be content during their work made them ready to cry out for cooks at the price of any principle. Here it was my good fortune to be of service, and come in aid to the serious work being done by men opposed to slavery Our rooms in the Castro house were very pretty . . . . My army and navy allies helped me to keep them orderly; and although I had then only the two Indian men, we managed to be very comfortable. We had the grand wood fires; everybody sent me birds and squirrels of their shooting, and these are never so good as when broiled on the coals. . . . We had every good thing in fruits, vegetables, and sweets that France puts up for transportation, and all served on beautiful Chinese and French china and glass.

For Mrs. Frémont, the debate over slavery was personal. Using slave labor would improve her standard of living, but at great expense to her principles:

Our property was chiefly in mines, by this time proved to be of the richest quality. The difiiculties of working them by paid labor or bodies of men working on shares had been experienced and were fully understood. Only a slight portion of the gold taken out could be counted on as ours in this way of working them. . . . With slaves in the mines, as our Southern friends constantly urged upon us, we would have certain and immediate wealth by millions. We had just come through the ordeal of want of income. It had involved separation from each other, from home, exposure to many forms of danger to health and life. This was a subject for serious consideration.
“Our decision was made on the side of free labor. It was not only the question of injustice to the blacks, but of justice to the white men crowding into the country. Here was a field where labor was amply repaid, where man’s energy, his physical as well as mental strength, could bring him a great return. We were in the rebound from our own plan of patient waiting and slow gains to all the immediate happiness and power given by the new order of things. Slave labor would shut off this happiness from those who had only their labor to depend upon. It would have been a very poor return for the good fortune that had come to us if we had taken part in shutting it out from these.

Nevertheless, the gold on the Frémonts’ property enriched them and enabled them to return East to family much sooner than they had anticipated.

We had planned to stay in California about seven years . . . . The “unforeseen” in this case was the discovery of gold. That delightful factor changed our calculations, abolished all our plans, and substituted a power to live where we pleased and do as we pleased, when close upon this came another unforeseen force which made it impossible to put our own will and pleasure first.
“What we had done in Monterey when the State Constitution was being framed there had enrolled us on the antislavery side. . . . Mr. Frémont could have been either Governor or first Senator from the state. As Governor he could have overlooked his private interests to the greatest advantage—in certain ways have been of most use to the state; but, on the other hand, as Senator he could defend the interests of the state in Congress. To me the over ruling consideration was that what I so much wished myself would be rendered obligatory, and that we should have to return to Washington and our old home life be restored.
“It was foreseen that the antislavery clause would be opposed and need a positive defender but no one foresaw the prolonged opposition and bitterness of the contest which did follow. . . .

And so, John Frémont successfully ran to be a U.S. Senator from California, and the Frémonts returned to Washington, where Jessie’s father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, had worked for many years.

When have you read a unique perspectives on a historical event?

Binge Reading

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Admit it. You’ve done it. I’ll bet 90% of my readers have done it. You’ve stayed up too late reading. Or you’ve neglected your job or housework or other obligations to read just one more chapter.

It’s called binge reading. It’s a recognized disorder. There’s even a WikiHow on the steps to do it.

I’m guilty.

As a writer, it is the greatest compliment I can receive to have someone tell me they couldn’t put my book down, they had to find out what happened, they read until 2:00am. I grin every time I hear someone say that, and I’ve been privileged to hear people tell me that my novels are page-turners.

As a reader, I’ve done it all too often, and regretted it the next day.

What makes a book a page turner? I’m sure the answer is unique to each reader. And WikiHow doesn’t provide any guidance on this question.

My tastes are eclectic—I’ve binged on thrillers, mysteries, romance novels, and literary fiction. I rarely binge on non-fiction, though Unbroken came close. I want interesting characters I care about, accessible writing, and bad things happening to good people that make me want to know how they will survive. I want to feel with the characters about their predicaments.

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I come from a family of binge-readers. This bookcase in my parents’ last home was filled two-deep with books.

I started binging in childhood. I could check out six books at a time at the public library in Richland, Washington. I began reading in the car in the way home (which I regretted because of motion sickness, but usually couldn’t stop myself). I often had one book finished by the time we reached our house.

I continued reading straight through my six books, and then move on to my brother’s. That all took a day or two in the summer time, and then I’d beg my mother to take us back to the library again. My favorites at the time were Phyllis Whitney’s mysteries for kids and Nancy Drew mysteries, though I’d binge on my brother’s Hardy Boys and Robert Heinlein books also.

As an adult, I remember one fateful night in Mobile, Alabama, in the early to mid-1990s. Another attorney and I were there taking depositions, and the depositions ended a day early. We couldn’t get a flight home to Kansas City until the next morning.

I had discovered that the paralegal traveling with us had the newest Mary Higgins Clark novel. Mary Higgins Clark in her prime was the perfect binge author, because her villains were sadistically vile, but the nice women they attacked always survived after suffering multiple incidents of significant terror. And the heroines got the guy as well.

I borrowed the paralegal’s book and read well into the night. I knew I shouldn’t, but all I would be doing the next day was sitting on an airplane. After making our connection, we would get back to Kansas City too late to make it worth going into the office. So I read until I finished . . . around 3:00am. I staggered to make our morning flight.

I don’t even remember which Mary Higgins Clark book it was. But it was worth it.

What books have you binge-read?

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