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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hints of Drama and Back Story

This is me at about age five, sitting on the living room coffee table at Bolinas Avenue, trying my best to assemble a Sunday School collection box shaped like a church. This picture, while slightly out of focus, has very fond memories for me, largely because Dad had me pose for it, and for those few brief moments I was the center of his attention. Dad never had any time for - or if the truth be told, interest in - teaching me how to ride a bike or playing catch or reading stories to me. If  you wanted to be with Dad it was always on his terms, doing what he wanted to do, which was the lesson Bill and Dave learned and came to embrace early on. By the time I was old enough to be included on camping trips, Dad and my brothers had progressed to more physically demanding pack trips deep into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on which I came to understand that I would have been an encumbrance rather than a welcome addition. As a result I developed no interest in hunting or fishing - or for that matter the discomforts of camping - making any time with Dad at this point in my life severely limited.

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.


It truly is an ill wind that doesn't blow some good, and such was the case with our life on the seminary, at least from my perspective. While Dad was to become an even more shadowy presence at home - and then more irritable than before - having more than twice the house than on Brookside Drive allowed everyone to retire to their own corner before coming to blows. Fights between my brothers became non-existent on Bolinas Avenue, or at very least less direct, more subtle and non-physical. And while having her mother directly under foot was a decided source of tension for Mom, Grandma had announced that in moving in with us she would be taking over my care, allowing Mom to give more attention to everyone else, especially Steve, who as the former youngest I had abruptly preempted as the center of Mom's attention.

My grandmother lived with us for only two years, but looking back I can now see how she was instrumental in shaping my character, mostly for the better. In setting up her new room on Bolinas Avenue, she picked out furniture that was just the right height for a three-year-old to climb into and sit beside her when it came time for stories, always some kind of an adventure with an underlying moral or life lesson, like "Robot the Rabbit" and later "Bowser the Hound," perennial favorites in our household. Grandma also bought bags of colored plastic cars and little figurines which I remember she would have me sort by color, size or any other characteristic she could come up with, and in place of that we also stuck colored straight pins in her tomato pin cushion to make stars and pinwheels and other patterns, all of which encouraged me to be observant, to see patterns and order, to have an appreciation of differences and similarities, and to notice the kind of details that I found with time most others ignored. If not her best student, I was undoubtedly one of her most devoted and at the very least certainly her last.

And while there were no other children on campus of any age when we first arrived, the gradual increase of new professors and administrators generated an influx of young families which produced a small group of neighborhood kids for me to play with. The experience was similar to what my brothers had on Brookside Drive, the primary difference being that while the youngest at home - where I counted for very little - out on the main drive up Seminary Hill where the campus kids congregated, I was the oldest, an elder statesman, or at the very least the cruise director, organizing games and activities that everyone, whatever their age, could participate in. For as much as our parents were seldom found in the same room together except as compelled, the seminary children were frequently together every day, an isolated group of youngsters largely removed from the rest of the town, a fate which required us to get along and make the most of and value each other's company - even if the adults found each other repellent. 


In addition to her friendship with Betty Duncan, Mom found real pleasure in putting her sewing skills to use as costume mistress for the Festival Theatre, a professional acting troupe that took up residence in the seminary's abandoned gymnasium in 1960. In this  publicity photo for Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of our Teeth," one of the company's earliest productions, Mom is in her element, the center of attention, her handiwork being admired and confirmed by other women, and my brother Steve near at hand. Modeling their costumes as the pet dinosaur and mastodon that appear in the first act are cast members Greg Duncan and Steve, with Mom, Betty Come (another professor's wife who was included in the photo to demonstrate faculty support of the production), and Betty Duncan, who shared costuming duties with Mom. Both Steve and Greg would at various times later serve as technical managers at the Festival Theatre.

Early on, however, it was not quite so rosy. There was the professor's son, for example, who threatened me with a knife and made me drop my pants, as well as the administrator's three daughters who took off my clothes and played doctor with me while our mothers were having tea downstairs (these same girls later threw rocks at me, I suspect in retribution for whatever punishment they may have received for praying upon my compliant nature).  While these two families moved off campus shortly thereafter, both incidents took place in the house later occupied by the Lees, whose children were much younger than I but nevertheless became like a second family to me. A fourth generation Chinese American, their father Bob Lee set a tone of professorial lèse-majesté around the house by singing the barroom version of Bizet's "Toreador's Song," complete with references to cuspidors and their purpose, while their mother May Lee made intoxicatingly delicious Chinese wedding cookies and could whip up the best potato salad ever at a moment's notice. The Lees also had a boarder named Margot, a nursing student from Sacramento whose parents were Christian Scientists. She drove a baby blue Volkswagen Beetle and could do no wrong in my eyes.

For my brothers the transition to Bolinas Avenue was more difficult, being removed from their established circle of friends, and in that were not as fortunate as I. Mom and Dad, however, found good friends in Stuart and Betty Duncan, who lived just off campus across the street. Stu, the son of a seminary professor, had returned to San Anselmo after service in World War II and joined the seminary's maintenance staff, eventually becoming chief superintendent. In Stu Dad found a replacement for Walt on pack trips, one who had a first hand understanding Dad's work, but from an entirely different and therefore illuminating perspective. In Betty Mom similarly enjoyed the leavening companionship of a woman who shared many of the same skills and interests as Mom, but who never seemed to let any of them take over her life or impose themselves upon Betty's calm enjoyment of simply sitting out on her back porch on a sunny day with a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle, the dirty dishes and laundry left to take care of themselves.

Included in the Duncan package were their two children, Greg and Linda, who were approximately the same ages as Steve and I, and which in conjunction with the friendship of our parents established all of us as intimates in our mutually extended families. During these years Linda and I in particular were inseparable in a very compartmentalized sense. For while on most afternoons the Lees and I would organize games of "Sardines," "Colored Eggs," and "Mother May I," Linda and I would periodically spend days together at our house, sometimes for as long as three weeks non-stop, developing elaborate plot lines and characters, and building little sets of houses and villages out of blocks, American Bricks and a commingling of pieces from my diverse Marx Brothers play sets (of everything from "Fort Ticonderoga" to "Ben Hur"), all for acting out stories revolving around what are now collectible animal-shaped erasers, an activity we simply referred to as "playing rubber animals." 

Christmas dinner was a much smaller affair in comparison to our Thanksgiving blow-outs, but even here at this point in her life Mom unfailingly put on the dog with candles, centerpiece, china, silver and crystal goblets. In this picture (not one of Dad's better compositions) the napkins have felt poinsettia napkin rings that Mom made and we still have. From the left are Dave, Bill, Mom, me, Steve, Bob (obscured) and Dad - who in spite of all the fuss (or perhaps because of it) came to the table in flannel shirts, or in Steve's case his tee shirt. While my brothers look put upon, I am clearly impressed by the domestic pageantry. Note the priscilla curtains are still fresh and gleaming from their fall cleaning.

With or without rubber animals, the Duncans were regular fixtures at our house - and vice verse - particularly in warm summer months for pot luck suppers and picnics outdoors, a comfortable and leisurely routine I don't recall being repeated inside at either house when the weather turned colder. School, of course, intervened, as did the seminary's academic year, during which Mom's focus turned to maintaining the traditional home gatherings for Dad's students - something the other new professor's wives seldom if ever undertook. Mom also gave much of her attention to the Thanksgiving extravaganzas that over Dad's protests she would annually orchestrate for every living relative within a day's drive of San Anselmo. Always up for a party and a houseful of people as hostess (and less so as guest), Mom had suppressed the full expression of this convivial part of her nature until moving to Bolinas Avenue, where she at last had the space and the rationale for assuming the cloak of society hostess Pearl Mesta

In that period of our lives dinner was the fundamental ritual at our house, one which took on banquet proportions on holidays with relatives. For months in advance Mom would approach the arrival of both Dad's Adamses and her Luthers with as many stratagems as Eisenhower's invasion of Normandy. Cookbooks and home magazines were always key to her planing effort, but first and foremost was the cleaning of the house with an attention to detail that bordered on the obsessive compulsive. Mom categorized this level of cleaning as "knock down, drag out" and it had as it's main thrust the cleaning of the muslin priscilla curtains she had made and that hung on every window, and which in a year's time would become limp, dusty and fly specked.  Removed with the utmost care, they were treated for stains and repaired as needed, and then washed, starched (using liquid, not spray starch) and ironed - every ruffle and flounce of them - to a razor sharp and gleaming crispness that spoke to a dazzling standard of cleanliness, which in the final analysis was certainly exhausting if not always entirely exhaustive. 

At Thanksgiving, when there invariably was company, Mom always out did herself. Here the table is set with the water goblets Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty gave Mom as wedding presents, along with the sterling silver and the assorted famille rose and cabbage leaf Chinese import ware Dad’s mother brought back with them from their years living in the Orient. It’s interesting that Dad arranged for evocative lighting in this photo, given that he invariably scorned this kind of fuss and wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded him of his mother, their life overseas or their home in Berkeley.

The accompanying Thanksgiving dinners were in many ways as important (if not more so) than Christmas, and it seemed at times that the entirety of the preparations, as well as the event itself, was our raison d'être as a family - and perhaps it was as far as Mom was concerned at this point in her life. She often said she married Dad for his family, having gone by his home in Berkeley and seen all the lights on and heard the laughter at some gathering, and then later attending parties there and being surrounded by his brothers and sisters and the in-laws and cousins, and even Cora the cook, who was more a member of the family than an employee.  Mom wanted to be a part of that energy, and at the house on Bolinas Avenue there was at last room to at least recreate something of those occasions, which I would later find captured in the Thanksgiving scenes of Woody Allen's "Hannah And Her Sisters," albeit without the alcohol, incestuous infidelities, and Central Park views. Even so, the procession of aunts and uncles and cousins at our house I now see as a kind of theater, the players making entrances, acting out parts and speaking lines scripted by the life events they had experienced in common.

I didn't comprehend any of that at the time, but nevertheless I picked up hints of drama and back story each and every year. On my father's side of the crowd the conversations inevitably had throw away lines involving pioneer missionaries in Korea, invasion by the Japanese and war with the communists. There were references of Dad and his sister Mary being raised by an
amah, of Dad being found playing with the leper boy, and of the visit to their house in Taegu by President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice Longworth, who was on a diplomatic tour of the Orient. And presiding overall was "Mother" (who gave birth to Dad and Mary in Korea) as distinguished from "Mama" (who was the mother of Dad and Mary's much older half brothers Ned, Ben, George and half sister Dorothy), and Father (not Papa) whose name was always mentioned with the most reverential of tones. Interspersed were accounts of the fruitless travels around this country to recover their father's health, the countless visits to Neenah, and the house in Berkeley that Mother ran as a missionary hostel, the guest rooms filled almost to the day she died.

On Mom's side there was an equally heavy dosage of bitterness and romance, but of an entirely different sort. The child of itinerant farmers pursuing the elusive dream of financial security, Grandma grew up in a sod house in Nebraska, her father raising sorghum and later in California becoming one of countless carpenters who worked on the home of the deranged rifle millionairess, Sarah Winchester, and after that living off whatever Grandma could provide them as a rural schoolteacher. Then there was Mom being spat on during World War I because her father was a German, and Grandma being wiped out by the depression and receiving no help as a widow from her wealthy brother-in-law Ellerslie, founder of the groundbreaking California Chemical Company, the creator of Ortho sprays. The frosting on top of this crazy cake was Great Uncle Alvin Seale, the explorer, soldier of fortune, ichthyologist, friend of John Muir, founding director of San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, and founding curator of Honolulu's Bishop Museum - whose Hoosier origins, world travels and rifle-totting approach to specimen collecting made him the embodiment of George Lucas' Indiana Jones.

The past, clearly, was the most distinguished and honored guest at our family gatherings, which was very exciting and hard to fully understand, even though I never missed a moment of the proceedings. Even more confusing, however, was the
strum und drang that was standing just off stage in the wings, waiting to make a dramatic entrance into our lives.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

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