My husband just got back from a big family reunion in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his extended family still lives. The photo above was given to us by my husband’s cousin Roasalba via her mother Nellie (the only one in the photograph still alive) – it shows his great-grandparents surrounded by the entire Larios family in the late 1920’s.
Yesterday I headed to my own family reunion – the Culver-Garletts Gathering in the tiny town of Bay View, Washington – so I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between history and memory, and about how nostalgia interacts with them and changes them. A storyteller is deeply enmeshed in this mix.
Bay View Civic Hall is a small wooden building, one room with attached kitchen, at the corner of C Street and 4th. The waters of Padilla Bay border the west edge of town, and the great Samish River lazes through the Skagit Valley just to the southeast. This is tulip country, settled by the Dutch and by Scandanavians, and its greatest claim to fame is probably the huge Skagit Valley Tulip Festival each year. The snow geese and trumpeter swans come each winter like something right out of a fairy tale and dot the countryside. Bay View Cemetery is just up the road a ways from the Civic Hall – that’s the cemetery where Lyman Culver (1821-1901, my great-grandmother’s father-in-law… I think) is buried, It’s about just the right size for a cemetery – about 900 souls buried there over its 150+- year history. My great-grandmother’s mother and father are also buried there – Cynthia Alice Garletts (1858-1950) and Henry C. Garletts (1877-1928.) No – wait – that can’t be right – Alice was married to Henry, but this Henry C. was nineteen years her junior, so maybe that’s her son in the grave nearby…? But that would make him my great-grandmother’s brother. I don’t think she had a brother named Henry. Or maybe that’s the Henry that was called Pete. Hmmm.
Lots of this gets muddy for me because two of the Garletts sisters (one was my great-grandmother Hester Irene Garletts, pictured above, the other was Myrtle) married two Culver brothers (one of them was Lyman’s son, Daniel – or was it his grandson?) Daniel, my great-grandfather, stands like a figure out of a Steinbeck novel in the photo below. I don’t mean to get sentimental about all this – my grandmother divorced him, and people’s opinions of him depend on which side of the Garletts-Culver hyphen you are on. So I don’t feel sentimental when I look at that photo. But I wishI remembered this man.
Yesterday’s gathering didn’t really help me straighten out who’s who. My brother put together a lovely display of photographs, and I tried to put faces to names – that usually makes things easier by making people feel real, something a writer tries to do by naming and painting a picture with words. But the problem is, these people are history to me, not memory. As soon as I saw a photo of someone I actually knew (for example, Hester Irene’s daughter, Mary Alice, who was my grandmother) then memories rushed in, and the person felt real.
This was the first gathering of the descendants of the Culver-Garletts union, though there have been many Pioneer Picnics in Bay View which were not specific to a particular family. Relatives came to our reunion that I’d never met, and I saw photos I’d never seen before, and there was an abundance of fried chicken, lemonade and multiple versions of macaroni/tabouli/jicama/potato salad – Italian/Levantine Arab/Mexican/German cuisine – we’ve gone global. One of my sons, Josh – interested in genealogy – attended. My cousin’s daughter went, too, so we had a sprinkling of Gen-X-ers from our side of the family tree. [Gen-X – I wonder what Lyman would have thought of cell phones and blogs and iPads??] To take history back even farther, many of us are related to Nicholas Vance Sheffer, (1825-1910), a certified pioneer of Washington State who came out by wagon train to the Oregon territories. Or was that his father? They shared a name, and I get confused. For Christmas not too long ago my mother – now 86 and sharing lots of memories I’ve never heard before – presented my brother, sister and me and all of our children with Pioneer Certificates issued by the State of Washington during its Centennial Year. My mother’s side of the family has been in this part of the world for seven generations – eight if you count my grandson. For the kids and for me, there is history in those pioneer certificates, but no memory. So I try to show them family photos, like the one below of the Culver side of the family gathered many years ago in Olalla, Kitsap County, Washington.
The reunion in Mexico gathered together about 80 people; yesterday only about 30 family members came to Bay View. We hoped there would be some lawn outside so we could play bocce, an old Italian game using heavy silver balls tossed like horseshoes. Bocce balls came over with Italian immigrants, along with the immigrants’ memories of (and nostalgia for) home. As I write this, I realize how many countries and tradtitions come into play whenever a large American family gathers together in this new millennium. Imagine at the turn of the 20th century, with so many new immigrants to America, how the longing for home – the origin of the word “nostalgia” – must have permeated everything.
As writers, we try to turn history into story, pulling from both memory and imagination to put faces to names. I loved historical fiction as a kid – because those stories felt possible, felt as if the writer’s imagination had fused history and memory and made them a single engine rather than two machines on more-or-less parallel tracks. Fantasy didn’t have that kind of heat for me. Of course, history is one thing – at its purest (though is it ever pure?) history is “Just the facts, Ma’am”, and memory is a single perspective on those facts. Toss in nostalgia (originally considered a physical disease) and you’re in dangerous territory – facts and memories get distorted by wistfulness, and suddenly all the lines blur. When nostalgia seeps into fiction – especially into stories for kids – it can be suffocating if not handled carefully, since nostalgia is usually an artifact of age, and few kids (at least the picture book crowd I write for) suffer from it.
History (those irrefutable “born” and “died” dates underneath the pictures of so many of my ancestors) tapped at the windows of the Bay View Civic Hall yesterday, and memories floated around waiting for someone to pluck them out of the air. Combine the tapping and the floating with nostalgia about red barns and snow geese and the Old Country, and it was quite a day for a writer. Below is a picture of my little side of the clan. I remember the day it was taken, on the beach near Gig Harbor. Neighbors came and gave us some of the oysters they had gathered that day. My cousin Randy paddled in by kayak. We toasted marshmallows…maybe I can write a story about it. Maybe my grandson will share this photo with his great-grandchilden. Maybe they will look at us and wish they had known us..