During our pre-school years my cousin Sheri and I each lived for periods of time with our grandparents. Their home was a sun-filled, stucco, California airplane bungalow on a deep lot with a green-floored wrap-around porch, honeysuckle-twined and overgrown back yard, hydrangeas, ferns, a driveway shared with the neighbors and a three-car garage. Other than breakfast, we ate in a dining room with built-in everything including a drop-front desk. The breakfast room, windowed on three sides, was so much cozier than the formal dining room. We sat closer together, close enough for Grandpa to add the insisted-upon extra pat of butter to our oatmeal bowls.
It had been at least 20 years since Sheri and I had seen each other or been in touch at all when we met again at a small family reunion our Aunt Nancy held to celebrate a visit from her last sibling, Mary Ellen. We cousins began to e-mail each other and discovered we shared a sense of humor, political leaning and life-long adoration of our grandparents.
Factual history and folklore combined in the roots of our grandparents' stories. Gertrude was from Boston, from a lineage that reached back to the revolution. We grew up hearing that her mother had donated all the heirlooms in her possession to a museum in Massachusetts in exchange for having a portion of the building named for her. Charles, or Charlie, had been a hero in World War I, a sheriff, law school graduate who did not pass the bar exam because, as the story goes, he took too long answering the questions in details considered a little too minute.
Two different scenarios explained his extreme sensitivity to the sun. The first was that it resulted from being mustard-gassed in France (which did leave him with tuberculosis for which he was treated throughout his life). The second, the popularly-held explanation, was that he had been severely sunburned (he was Finnish, very fair-skinned to start with) when riding with General Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa.
Gertrude and Charlie met on a troop ship to the front in Europe, our grandmother a recent graduate of nursing school in Boston. They married once the war ended and were zealous members of the American Legion for the rest of their days. They are buried in a San Diego veterans' cemetery, atop a tranquil, ocean view hillside they would have enjoyed.
More Recent Developments
One night five or six years ago, I awoke with the television still on. Letterman was nearly over, the last - musical - guest having just started his song. I came in on the words "Pancho Villa," then "Black Jack Pershing" and I thought, "Grandpa." Having, at that time, the ability to record and replay, when the song ended I took it back to the beginning. Yes, that was Paul on the accordion and yes, Tom Russell's song might be considered a tale from our genealogy. It was also, in my later interpretation, a sort of Cormac McCarthy novel set to music.
I did not call Sheri in the middle of the night, babbling of my discovery. I waited until the next morning when we could play our DVRs in unison. Not too long after, we saw Tom Russell perform at one the local Unitarian churches. As he autographed our CDs he listened graciously to an abridged version of what drew us there, how his music, which appeals to me in its own right, told a piece of our collective story. Since that concert, Sheri played the song for Nancy and her daughter Lisa as they drove through the hills and scrub oaks of mid-state California, the adventure-of-choice for our terminally-ill aunt. I know the volume was up, the windows open. It IS that kind of song, whether one of your relatives was among the horsemen or not.
Sheri naps in my mind and heart today having just come through a setback in her cancer treatment, from which I believe she will rally. Nancy has been gone for several years, Grandma and Grandpa for decades. Bless Tom Russell, a fine singer/musician/songwriter/cowboy poet and his evocative, serendipitous performance, for the delight he has given all in the family who have heard him, for innocently keeping our legends alive. We come from remarkable bravery, Sheri and I, resilience is our legacy. We have rides that await us. I'll keep the horses watered until then.
Addendum: Sheri died a year ago tomorrow and is remembered here. We were allotted no further rides, no further conversations. It will be a day of missing her, sending love to her husband and singing our Tom Russell memorial song, whoops and all, as many times as the day will hold.