Thursday, March 4, 2010


During our pre-school years my cousin Sharon and I each lived for periods of time with our grandparents. Their home was a sun-filled, stucco California airplane bungalow with a wide wrap-around porch, deep lot, hydrangeas, dining room with built-in everything including a drop-front desk, a Gingham Dog and Calico Cat cream-and-sugar set in the breakfast room, monitor-top refrigerator and an basement where the washing machine was kept.
It had been at least 20 years since Sharon 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. Sharon and I 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, our grandmother, 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, was our grandfather and we knew he had been a hero in World War I and 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. The two had met on a troop ship to the front in Europe, our grandmother a recent graduate of nursing school in Boston. Both stayed active as members of the American Legion throughout their lives and are buried in a San Diego veterans' cemetery, a choice piece of ocean-view real estate they would have enjoyed.
One night five or six years ago, I woke up having fallen asleep with the tv on. Letterman was on, his 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 was a tale from our genetic history. It was also, in my later interpretation, a sort of Cormac McCarthy novel set to music.
I did not call Sharon in the middle of the night, shrieking the names of Villa and Pershing and our grandfather. I waited until the next morning. She had recorded the show and could play back the song and we squealed and laughed together in recognition. We learned that Tom Russell would be appearing soon in concert in my area and she treated us to tickets. The night of the performance, as he autographed CDs during intermission, Mr. Russell was very polite as we "oh my Godded" our family tale, how his music, something which appeals to me in its own right, told a piece of our collective story. During the intervening years, Sharon had a chance to play the song for our aunt and one of her daughters. As they drove to Solvang, she started the CD and there was Grandpa, unnamed rider in a musical adventure. I imagine the volume up, maybe the windows open. It IS that kind of song, whether one of your relatives was among the horsemen or not.
Sharon resides 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 and his lively, serendipitous performance for the delight he has given all in the family who have heard him, for keeping our legends alive. We come from remarkable bravery, Sharon and I, resilience is our legacy. We have rides that await us. I'll keep the horses watered until then.


Lisa Hoffman said...

Yet another excellent snapshot, beautifully written.
How wonderful a thing, to turn family history into a story shared with the World...with a sound track!

Prayers for Sheri. It's obvious that she hales from Hearty and Poetic stock!

Donna B. said...

AWESOME POST! I love that song! Course, I am a sucker for that country-Mex mix...gets my toes tappin'.

I really enjoyed your description of your Grandma and Grandpa's home. Sounds perfectly cozy and warm.

My prayers to Sheri as well...

Really, really, think you should be making a proud salary with your writing!