Posts Tagged ‘Family’

The Portrait of Marta’s Papa

Thursday, April 25th, 2019

I don’t think Marta began calling him “Papa” until later.  As I recall, when she was five or six, he was still “daddy.”  No matter.  She adored him and the feeling was mutual.

One afternoon at his Walnut Creek home – the basement apartment of a friend’s home with its big picture windows and the huge green jungle plants just outside – Marta painted his portrait.  Maybe “drew” is the operable word here, not “painted.”  She used felt tipped markers and created a Modigliani masterpiece – or so we thought then.  Our opinions on the matter haven’t changed.

Bill LaRue

A year or two later, while her Papa was away photographing with Minor White, my Uncle Willard came for a visit from New York.  He came out to Castro Valley where we were living then – for dinner, maybe, and to see our wonderful new Eichler house.  On the “tour” he paused to admire the portrait and asked Marta if she would consider selling it.  She would.

The transaction was made.  For a crisp, new five-dollar bill, Willard took the portrait (matted and framed) off the wall and onto the plane to New York.  Marta’s Papa was gone on his photography journey for several months but, on his return, it took him only a few moments to discover that there was a blank space above his chest of drawers.

Willard Espy

“Get it back!” he commanded.  I wrote Willard.  He was unwilling.  I called Willard.  He was still unwilling and there may have been tears from my end.  Eventually, the portrait was returned with a note.  “Where is my five-dollar bill?”

Marta’s Papa cherished that portrait always. When he died a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help wondering if he and Willard might, at last, come to peace about it.  After all, they both adored Marta.  And the portrait, as well.  And why, for heaven’s sake, wouldn’t they?

Say what? Oysterville, Connecticut?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

First Cousin Craig Little

My cousin Craig called last night from his home in upstate New York. Craig Little, PhD; recently retired sociology/anthropology professor from SUNY (State University of New York) Cortland; the eldest of my father’s two nephews and, in one of those genetic anomalies, dad’s (almost) spitting image! I hadn’t heard his voice for ten or more years and haven’t seen him since our 2004 Oysterville Sesquicentennial.

He and his wife Elaine have been spending time in Hartford, Connecticut, settling the estate of Elaine’s mother.  It’s a long process, apparently, and has given them a chance to get to know the town.  Among other discoveries are a number of recently restored murals done under the auspices of FDR’s WPA projects.  But, the real reason Craig called is that, somewhere along the way, they ran across a small book called Oysterville: Poems edited by Laurel Peterson.

Oysterville: Poems

“Really?  Oysterville not Osterville?” I asked.  Osterville on New York’s Long Island has been known to be confused with ours.  But, no.  This was Oysterville: Poems and Craig was pretty sure there had never been an Oysterville, Connecticut.  (There is an Oysterville Vodka, however, distilled in Florida and distributed throughout the eastern U.S. Who knew?)    Craig had searched “Oysterville” on his computer and what came up was “Oysterville Daybook” by me.  And my most recent entry (yesterday’s!) had included mention of the WPA.  Wow!  That might be only one or two degrees of separation…

I’m eager to communicate with Laurel Peterson, an English Professor at Norwalk Community College.  I have a few questions for her.  But first I want to read the poems.  The book should be here tomorrow.

The Cuzzins Come Calling!

Friday, February 22nd, 2019


It’s one of those “just like yesterday” visits, yet we think it’s been two years since Cheryl and Virg have been here.  We were SO pleased when they responded to our “it’s been a long, long time” invitation and said they’d be able to come for a two-night stay!

As usual, they arrived laden – with gifts (two painted rock chickens by Cheryl, and a matching oven mitt and two bright red kitchen towels!) and food.  It’s not that we won’t feed them – it’s just what they do.  They bring all the makings for the first night’s dinner and Virg barbecues (steaks!) while Cheryl does the trimmings in the kitchen.  Our job is to eat and enjoy!

Cheryl is my cousin on the Espy side and, now that Willard has gone on to meet the ancestors in person, Cheryl’s brother Ralph is our family genealogist.  He says we are third cousins twice removed…  Mostly, we just think of ourselves as friends – a friendship that began when they lived here at the beach, probably about a mile due west from us.  They moved away in 2009 and, though they are in Lacy for half of the year, our visits have become more and more infrequent.

However, except for a few bits of “catch up” about family matters and changes on the Peninsula, our transition to the here-and-now from the once-and- was is seamless.  From our perspective, it helps a lot that Cheryl and Virg never seem to age.

Their secret is a totally healthy lifestyle – as far as we can tell.  They exercise.  They eat healthy and sparingly.  (The steak, they pointed out, is a rare treat for them.)  They walk and ride their bikes regularly.  They have well -rounded interests – are musicians, enjoy a place on Lake Chelan in summer with the attendant boating and water skiing, have forested property near Elma that Virg maintains, visit family yearly in Arizona about whom Cheryl records and creates fabulous books.  Really, they are the poster children for retirement years!

And, somehow, they make us feel that we are doing just fine, too. When they leave us on Saturday, I’m pretty sure I won’t feel guilty that I don’t do all those healthy lifestyle things.  I’ll just be ever-grateful that I know people who do and… that they are cousins!!  Yay!

… should you care to accept it…

Saturday, November 24th, 2018

I am so enjoying the interviewing and researching process involved in my current Observer series, “Our Grands and Greats.”  I am blown away by how much (but sometimes how little) those I interview know about their forebears.  I’ve just completed the eleventh article in the series and I have a formed a tentative rule of thumb about our knowledge of our ancestors:  the closer the family has stayed to their ‘roots,’ the more they know.  In general, those who are fourth or fifth or sixth generation here on the Peninsula know far more about their forefathers than their recently arrived neighbors.

It stands to reason, of course.  If people didn’t move on to start a new life, they obviously remained better acquainted with and connected to the place of their origins.  And, probably, their ‘things’ did too – the photographs, perhaps some treasured letters, their “good” furniture or Sunday dishes were less likely to become disbursed.  And with the things, there are often stories.  If we’re lucky those don’t get lost either.

For me, it’s the stories that really connect us to our forebears.  With all the possibilities these days on and similar sites, we may have the illusion that we are learning about great-grandpa or great-great grandma.  But are we?  What lies beyond the dates and place names and copies of marriage licenses?  What sort of person was he or she?  Who were their neighbors and how did they get along? What of their character traits?  Did they have a good sense of humor?  Were they outgoing?  And what would they have considered their crowning achievement?

I loved listening to my grandmother when I was a child.  One story she told me was about her love of swimming in the “tank” (as they called the indoor swimming pool) when she was a girl.  “As soon as I dove in, I’d kick off my swimming togs,” she told me.  “I loved the freedom of being unclothed in the water.”  I remember only that I wondered why she felt that way, little realizing what the swimming ‘togs’ of the 1880s looked like and must have felt like weighted down with water.  Nor did I wonder about who else might be with her or any other privacy ramifications.  I wish I’d asked, but I’m ever grateful that I had that even that little peek.

And my mom’s story about being the only girl of the 14 kids about her age in Oysterville.  “I was always a tag-along,” she told me.  And when I asked, she said, “Yes, I was definitely a tomboy.  I was the youngest of seven and I think my mother just let Willard and Edwin look after me.  She let me wear coveralls at home, but I had to put on a dress when I went up to Grandpa’s house.”  My totally feminine mom — with her hats and her jewelry and her love of clothes shopping!  A tomboy!  Putting that together with her first-ever purchase of blue jeans at 86 years old – she was going out with Les Wilson on his boat – gives a totally different look at who she was.

That R.H. Espy had a “tot” of whiskey every day before breakfast makes him a little more human.  That my great aunt Dora – so stern and formidable seeming as an old woman – begged and begged her mother for hair ribbons when she was a girl or that my garrulous Aunt Mona confused “no” and “yes” when she was very young — until the day someone offered her a piece of candy and, at her response, didn’t give it to her.

The stories don’t have to long.  They just have to go a bit farther than a name and a date.  Write them down!  One here; one there.  They’ll add up to more than you can imagine.  And while you’re at it – write down your own stories – What was your most embarrassing moment as a teen?   Who was your best friend before you started school and what kinds of things did you do?  What was your biggest adventure as a young adult?  Write it down!  For posterity!  So your descendants will know more than a name and date.

Marta and Charlie and Charlie’s Tchotchkes

Sunday, September 16th, 2018

Charlie and Marta, September 2018

For the four decades (1940s-1970s) that I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Northern California and Southern California were worlds apart.  Different climates, different lifestyles, and a “fur piece” to travel.  So, we seldom did, even though we had friends and relatives throughout SoCal as people began to call it.

When son Charlie made Cal Arts his choice for college and made animation script writing his choice of careers, we both knew that it was a sort of parting of the ways.  He has lived in the LA area ever since – more than forty years now.  I, perhaps, compounded things by moving up to the Northwest — though we didn’t visit back and forth much even before that.  Four hundred miles was four hundred miles, after all.

Charlie’s Tchotchkes

Marta, my daughter-but-not-by-birth, on the other hand, has remained in the Bay Area – in Oakland, Berkeley, and mostly Marin.  Our non-California friends sometimes remark, “How nice.  Do they see a lot of each other?”  Those in the know don’t need to ask. They understand that Charlie and Marta see each other seldom – mostly when both of them manage to get up here to Oysterville for Christmas.

So, last week when Marta was visiting a “long lost” friend in LA, they took the time to have lunch with Charlie.  Marta hadn’t been at Charlie’s house for years (maybe twenty) and she called later to report.  “I’d forgotten how big it is!” she said.  “And I’d forgotten that he keeps his Emmys in that hidden-away cabinet with all his other tchotchkes!”  And we both shook our heads and laughed.  Not that I could see her.  We weren’t skyping.  But I knew.

Charlie’s Tchotchkes Some More

She sent me a couple of pictures.  When did Charlie turn into his Uncle Jim?  How is it that Marta still looks like she did a gazillion years back?  And why am I thrilled that they are still as goofy as they were when they were little kids?  I do wish there weren’t so many states between us.  But… I console myself that Christmas is coming, with or without the tchotchkes.

About “George by George!”

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

My cousin Ruth’s book is out!  I am so pleased for her and proud, too.  She did what so many of us “threaten” to do – documented a branch of her family by writing and publishing a hard-cover book, complete with reproductions of documents, photographs, and letters by and about her beloved grandfather, George Maloney.  But it wasn’t just a two-and-a-half year project.  Her documentation is rounded out by information gathered on her trips to the UK over the course of a lifetime and by her contuing contacts with family members there.

Ruth retired several years ago from her long-time job with Farmers Insurance and has devoted a huge portion of her time to this project ever since.  I think it’s a “limited edition” with enough copies printed for family members and perhaps a few more.  She was her own publisher but she did hire an editor to assist with the final putting-together part.

Ruth Espy Maloney is my second cousin on the Espy side.  Her father and my mother were grandchildren of R.H. Espy.  George Maloney was Ruth’s mother’s father – the “grampa” on the other side of her family.  She grew up right next door to him and can credit many of her interests, skills, and character traits directly to him.  I know this because I had the pleasure of reading the book about Grampa George earlier this year and the privilege of writing a foreword for the book.  And I’ve known Ruth all her life.

Shortly before Grampa George died at age 86, he began writing the story of his life.  He called it “George by George” and when Ruth completed her book based on that autobiographical material, she thought it was a most fitting title.  It evokes a long-ago time – the time when my own grandfathers and their friends used the expression, “By George!” to underscore or emphasize a thought or an idea.  “A mild expletive” the dictionary says, that can be traced back to the 16th century, “comparable to words like golly and gosh.”

I don’t know about the “expletive” part – but I do know that Ruth has set the bar high for the rest of us family members who have the idea that we’d like to write about a relative or forebear.  Ruth, you did a great job, by George!

Many Happy Returns!

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

When my grandfather celebrated his final birthday in 1958, he proudly declared that he and the United States had been born the very same year.  Well, he was a bit confused but, after all, what’s a century or two in the grand scheme of things?  1876 or 1776?  Either way it was a long time!  We wished him many happy returns, though we all knew it was unlikely.

I’m not sure why that scenario popped into my head this morning when I thought about this 242nd birthday of our nation.  I guess it’s the “Many Happy Returns” part.  We seem to say those words automatically, whether or not the likelihood of their coming true makes sense.  On this July Fourth, of all the 82 I’ve been privileged to celebrate, I think “Many Happy Returns” should be our mantra.  Our mantra and our prayer.

Like my beloved Papa, our nation is a little confused.  I hope we can put our collective wisdom and goodwill together and find a way to clarify our path – with justice and liberty for all!

Names, Games, and Game-Changers

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

My Great-Great Grandmother, Rachel Medora Pryor Taylor

A few years ago, I was at a dinner party and the hostess asked the group (six of us, as I remember) if we knew the maiden names of both of our grandmothers.  She and I were the only ones who did.  When it came to our great-grandmothers, I was the only one who could ‘pass the test’ – not surprising given my Uncle Willard’s lifelong interest in our family genealogy and his delight in sharing his findings with all of us.

Now that and other similar programs have become popular, I think a greater percentage of those dinner guests could probably name their most immediate forebears.  Not only that, but I imagine they might know something about those progenitors – where they lived and what they did for a living, and where they were born. If they were not born in the United States, perhaps their descendants might even know the circumstances under which they came to this country.

My Great- Great Grandmother, Sara Rand Richardson

What most of us probably wouldn’t be able to answer is whether or not our forebears entered the United States ‘legally.’   To answer that question, of course, it’s necessary to know what the immigration laws, if any, were at the time those brave souls left everything behind to begin a new life.  Or… were there any laws at all?  There weren’t always, you know.  The very first immigration law in our country was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Since that time, there have been many quotas and rules and regulations and hoops to jump through, all depending, of course, on the political climate of the time.

These are thoughts that course through my mind every single time I hear or read the smug comments such as the one in today’s Letters to the Editor in the Chinook Observer.  It begins Once again you feature a story about the detention of an illegal alien. Just the terminology telegraphs negativity, at least to me.  My mind immediately goes to little green extraterrestrials who are up to no good.   I much prefer “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant” but I’m certainly not so naïve as to think changing our vocabulary on this issue will resolve any problems.

My Great-Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Carson Espy

I don’t think it would be amiss if people knew a bit about their own grands and greats and great-greats.  More importantly, they should find out the circumstances under which their own families got here (all of us, except possibly our indigenous population, originally arrived from somewhere else) and what, exactly, the immigration laws were at the time.  That would be a start, perhaps, to figuring out why we got to where we are today and how we might solve some of the immigration difficulties we are facing.

So… let’s begin.  Do you know the maiden names of your eight great-great grandmothers?

Just a Glimmer

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe

The blurb on the back of the book I’m reading says, “You do not hear them talking; you hear them feeling…”  I love that!  And, it’s true.  The book is Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe.  Written in 1967 and published two years later, it is a definitive look at life in an East Anglian village at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century.

The table of contents reveals the scope of this amazing work which catches the memories of those who grew up in the era of horses, before anything in their lives was mechanized.  The Introduction covers Population and Houses, Work in the Village, and Domesday for 1936 and 1966: the Second Agricultural Revolution.  Twenty chapters follow:

1) The Survivors; 2) God; 3) The Ringing Men; 4) To be a Farmer’s Boy?; 5) Good Service; 6) The Forge; 7) The Wheelwright; 8) The Craftsmen; 9) The School; 10) The Agricultural Training Centre; 11) Officers and Gentlemen; 12) The Orchard Men; 13) Four Ladies; 14) The Young Men; 15) The Law; 16) Limitations 17) The Vet; 18) Not By Bread Alone; 19) The Northern Invaders; 20) The Hour of Death.

There are so many unexpected bits of information in the book – probably ‘useless’ information to most but, somehow, satisfying to me who would like nothing better than to step back in time for a few days to get a greater understanding of how life was here in Oysterville long ago, in my grandfather’s childhood.  “The horses were friends and loved like men,” said one of the old Akenfield farmers.  “The ploughmen talked softly to their teams all day long and you could see the horses listening.”

H.A.Espy Children on Danny, 1924

My grandfather would have understood that.  When his last horse, Countess, died in 1944, Willard began his ‘Family Man’ column (in Good Housekeeping Magazine) by quoting Papa’s letter: “It was a relief for her to be gone,” he says (Countess was past thirty), but she wanted to live and so I wanted her to. She was the last animate tie to the old ranch, when you boys were on it with me.” Her death reminds him, he says, that he is lonesome and old.

Willard went on to say that the letter made him see a herd of four-legged ghosts – the horses Empress, Fanny and Prince, Blaze and Lassy and many of the cows as well.  He remembered that when Papa got sick and had to give up the ranch, he had kept the animals that would not sell and they had died one by one.  Countess was the last and only the summer before had become so feeble that she could not pull the harrow across the garden plot so Papa had unhitched her and pulled it himself.

I think I might have read Akenfield before – maybe thirty or forty years ago.  There are phrases and, yes, feelings (as that blurb said) that I remember.  Pleasant glimmers of a book and of a past almost remembered.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Dale Espy Little, 1999 — “Mom at 88”

My mother gave up driving when she was about a year younger than I.  She cut up her driver’s license and sold her car and became a big believer in Dial-a-Ride.  She also took advantage of every “do-you-need-anything-at-Jack’s” offer made to her by friends and neighbors and wasn’t at all hesitant to ask a stranger (most likely a tourist visiting the church) for a ride (most likely to the post office.)  I worried and admired in equal parts.

Mom’s leap into ‘Dependence on the Kindness of Strangers’ was occasioned by a fender bender that she had in Ocean Park.  No one was hurt and no one was ticketed but she felt it was a wake-up call to quit driving.  I have been thinking about that a lot since our own mega-mishap last week.  In fact, one of the first things Nyel said was, “Maybe it’s time I stop driving…”  Yikes!

We actually considered that possibility – weighed the pros and cons of living far off the beaten track where just getting groceries entails a 15-mile round-trip by car.  We decided that between the two of us and with a spiffy new mega-safe vehicle, we could probably manage for a while longer.  But totaling our little Prius definitely gave us pause.  And it made me think of my indomitable mother and how gutsy she was and so soon (within a year) after my dad had died and she was living on her own for the first time in all of her 80 years!

Helen Richardson Espy, 1947 – “Granny at 69”

I also thought about my two grandmothers, neither of whom ever learned to drive.  Granted, cars didn’t “come in” until they were middle-aged.  I doubt if it even occurred to either of them to learn to drive.  They had managed their households (one in Oysterville, one in Boston) and raised their families without ‘machines’ and just riding in one as a passenger was a big step.

My Oysterville grandmother did have a buggy – a used one sent to her in 1914 by her father who lived in Berkeley.  The day it arrived, she wrote to her daughter, Medora:

It is the nicest looking buggy on the Peninsula – just what I wanted – a low, high-backed seat phaeton – rubber tired, roll back top.  Eva told me it was dilapidated but there is nothing wrong except a piece out of one tire.  It is not so shining new looking as the big buggy but it looks like the city and home to me…

Mary Woods Little, c 1955 – “Nana at 75”

There are not pictures or other references to that conveyance.  I don’t know who hitched it up for her, where she went in it, or how long she had it.  I doubt very much if she went grocery shopping in it.  After all, in those days there were vegetables and fruits in the garden or ‘put up for winter’ in the pantry, there were kids at home to run to the Sam Andrews’ store just up the street for dry goods and, in the summer, Theophilus Goulter came house-to-house, once a week, with his meat wagon.

I’m unclear about my Bostonian grandmother.  She and my grandfather lived in the West Roxbury neighborhood.  Perhaps there were shops nearby or perhaps my grandfather took her into town once a week.  Whatever arrangements she made, she carried on independently in her own home, even after she was widowed.  Though I was well into my twenties by the time she died, I was too young and too far away to pay close attention to the details.  Isn’t that always the way?