Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Stumbling on Family Stories

“In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence.... The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.”

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know little about the people I come from.

The Big Sur Coast, by my great-grandmother, Jennie Cannon

The stories I know come mostly from photographs and the artifacts salvaged from my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings, and copies of scientific papers written by her husband, my botanist great-granddad, who studied deserts the world around.
Recently, I visited Berkeley, California, on a hunt for stories in the neighborhood where my mom grew up, including the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met in college.

The top of the campanile from La Vereda Road

I wound my way up steep, narrow, and switchbacking streets, to the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my botanist and artist great-grandparents.

I recognized the place; I had walked there decades before with my granddad. Through a gap in the trees across the road, I spotted the iconic UC-Berkeley campanile (a tall bell tower).

 A man stood on the porch of my great-grandparents’ house. On impulse, I asked, “Do you live here?”

 He turned.

My great-mother Jennie in her studio, about 1924

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

 “Who were they?”

 “Dr. William Austin Cannon—” he interrupted,

 “Any relation to Jennie?”

 “She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave; she was a key part of it.”

 I was stunned. I had no idea. A stranger who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

 I thanked him. Before I left, I looked one more time at the view, and saw another chunk of story.

"The Campanile," by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in my great-grandmother’s painting of the Campanile. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her porch high above the campus, only she had turned the tower a quarter turn.

 In that visit, I discovered a story and a bond with the great-grandmother who died before I was born. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

 I’m no artist, but I’ve always been independent, and walked my own path. I have also always searched for stories in the landscapes around me. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.

Award-winning writer and teacher Susan J. Tweit is a field ecologist who studied grizzly bears and wildfires before falling in love with the stories the data revealed. She has won national and regional awards for her work, including twelve books--the most recent is the memoir Walking Nature Home, hundreds of of articles and essays for magazines and newspapers from Audubon and Popular Mechanics to the Los Angeles Times, as well as commentaries for public radio. Her blog, hailed as "rich in the wisdom of one come face-to-face with the fragility, beauty and poetics of everyday life," chronicles her efforts to take life with love and honesty, or to paraphrase songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, "with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand."
Photo by Roberta Smith   Visit Susan's blog for more information

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