Adulting Still Includes Storytime
Food and fireworks aside, July Fourth conjures an array of visual images plucked straight from the illustrations in a history book: defeated Redcoats, quill pens and parchment, and wigged white men wearing knickers and stockings, a fashion trend that, thankfully, never repeated until Hamilton hit Broadway.
In reality, countless lesser events – rarely dissected in a classroom – led to the creation of this country. Sounds so obvious, but how easily we forget we didn’t drop from a stork, and our towns and cities and the means that connect them didn’t drop from … well, bigger storks?
During my recent “roots research” trip to the rural Nebraska Sandhills, my joy overflowed as I Willa Cather-ed my way over the prairie acres my people have tended since they were part of the Homestead Act of 1862.
One evening, after my cousin and I sipped a little “liquid courage,” we knocked on the door of the magnificent home my Austrian great grandfather built and asked for a peek inside. I wish I had the space to fully describe the tour. Fever dreams have made more sense.
The talkative, eclectic owners, with at least 17 major DIY construction projects at various stages of completion throughout the house, were surprisingly eager to explain all of them. Meanwhile, their teenagers grumbled, and Mittens, their cat, nibbled from a pot of what appeared to be yesterday’s dinner coagulating on the stove. Fortunately, the one thing they hadn’t altered was the staircase my grandmother descended on Christmas Day, 1914, to marry my grandfather.
Few stories make it into history books, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. History is sacred, especially the small moments. Our number of grandparents double with every generation. The cosmic Rube Goldberg machine explains how each of us eventually achieved a birth certificate containing many avenues worthy of exploration. Every story was “woven against a backdrop” of something.
Although I have no ancestors from Orinda, I still found our local Walking History Tour, presented by a member of the Orinda Historical Society, fascinating — a third grade field trip I was happy to have chaperoned.
How many readers knew the boxy little structure with the funky roof that sits in front of East Bay Pediatrics at the intersection of Bates and Davis Road was once our train depot? Granted, the railroad only ran from Emeryville to Orinda, and then backed up to Emeryville, no joke, in reverse. The train chronically ran so behind schedule its motto was, “Better a late train than no train at all.” As a lifelong “Petticoat Junction” fan, this charming tidbit of local history suckered me right in.
And why is it called the DeLaveaga Depot when our town is called Orinda? Because E.I. DeLaveaga, an investor from San Francisco, purchased the land in foreclosure from William Walker Camron, the first developer.
Camron’s wife enjoyed the poetry of Katherine Philips, an English poet of the 17th century known as “The Matchless Orinda,” “Orinda” being the poet’s pseudonym. In her honor, Alice Camron named their estate “Orinda Park.” And now we know why OPP is called Orinda Park Pool.
Seriously. You never know when you’ll be asked a trivia question for big money. You can thank me later.
“But wait, there’s more.” You see, William Camron hit a rough patch, lost all his money and ditched his family. His wife had to relinquish her beloved Orinda Park, selling to DeLaveaga. Is it just me, or can’t you see this story making a great episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History?”
This Fourth of July, ask your older lovies to share their stories. Excavate the smallest moments: what was their favorite sweet? How did they style their hair? Describe their first job. What made them laugh the hardest? Gently pry the story floodgates open. Learn their favorite novel, and then you read it too. Travel the pages with them. The elderly weren’t always frail and hard of hearing; tales of their coltish years just might surprise you. Left untold, their stories will be the only gold taken with them to the grave.