Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment in back of my grandparent’s house

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, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. 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 so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

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

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

My great-grandmother, Janet Maclay (Cannon) with her horse, Danny Boy

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with  Danny Boy (~1918)

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

Molly shares my fascination with family stories, so when we were planning my recent visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

On the appointed day, they drove me through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. Molly navigated through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

The top of the campanile from 1631 La Vereda Road

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad. We parked there, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at the street.

My great-grandparents’ house at 1631 La Vereda Road

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

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon,” I said, and 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 back then, and she was a key part of it.”

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

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

As Molly navigated carefully down that steep bit of street, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. 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 gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Molly and Mark, for exploring Berkeley with me. And thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.

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