Grandma, God and Aimee

Grandma was what was known in her day as a “good woman”, who fervently believed it her duty to mold everyone into a better person.  Divorced early in her first marriage (to my grandfather), with two little girls, and a boarding house to run, she somehow continued a small boutique millinery business which catered to a few wealthy women in Beverly Hills.  In the late 1920’s the economy slowed down, jobs were lost, boarders found cheaper lodging, ladies adornment was found not to be as necessary as another meal, and the boarding house began a number of moves within the Los Angeles area, each time to a less prestigious location.  Grandma too, went to work wherever she could.

Aimee Semple McPherson, an early evangelist, began using the media, radio, newspaper and revival meetings to promote her Foursquare gospel.  She was a strong, unmarried passionate woman who easily took command of an audience wherever she appeared.  Her dramatic approach to life and entrepreneurship greatly appealed to my grandmother, and she began attending Aimee’s meetings, though mostly for Aimee herself instead of her message.  Indeed, at my birth, Grandma had an entire congregation of Aimee’s praying for my safe delivery!

By my earliest memory, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, became Grandma’s new loadstar, and poor Aimee was placed in the recycle bin.  I think what turned the tide in Mary’s direction, was the fact of Aimee’s supposed abduction and ultimate reappearance stumbling out of a Mexican desert.  After a month long absence, it was suspected, and pretty much proven that she had had a tryst with her male secretary who was a married man.  Although Grandma was quite fond of the opposite sex,  (indeed she had four husbands,) she took personal offense at this betrayal, and Aimee and her teaching were things of the past.

Though she would have been unaware of it, Grandma Nellie slipped easily into the new rising of the women’s movement.  She was a Yankee born and bred, strong, independent and opinionated, and yet she loved a good time.   In that respect, she had not fit well into Aimee’s assemblage.    The fact that Mary Baker Eddy and Aimee were lone women who each founded a powerful religion, drew Nellie like a magnet to each in their turn; Mary lasted the whole of Nellie’s life.  As with the learning of any new thing, the study of Christian Science consumed a lot of Grandma’s time during the Great Depression, and as a child, attendance at Sunday morning and evening services as well as Wednesday evening  testimonials, was expected of me.  I am by nature, irreverent, dubious,  and logical, and by the age of 13 I could no longer hide my reluctance to believe, even though I blush to say that   the promise of “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes was a great draw!   Thus I was a great disappointment to Grandma, who never recognized the fact that in many ways, I was a great deal like her!  However, unlike her, I have been married for  65 years (but still counting!)

My Dad

I didn’t really know my dad.  At least until it was almost too late.  As a small child living within the family at my grandmother’s, he was a recurrent visitor full of fun, who came for short periods between trips to the sea.  He was a young man who had chosen the United States Navy as his career.  Unfortunately, this included being away from his family frequently.  I looked forward to his “visits”, and was saddened by his absences.  It was during the Great Depression, and his seemed a good choice as a profession, since most of the country was out of work.  Occasionally we packed up our few belongings, and the three of us, my parents & I, lived for short periods in San Diego, Port Orchard, WA., Alameda, and always back to Grandma’s in Long Beach.  These were the Naval bases along our western coast.

In 1938, when I was ten years old, we bought our fiirst car, an old Chevrolet sedan, packed up again, and moved for two years to New London, Connecticut, the United States submarine base.  My father was to take his training as a diver for underwater repair work.  I did not understand that he was being promoted rather rapidly,  I simply enjoyed the experiene of having him at our dinner table every day.  We fished, and hunted, and he taught me to swim in the Thames River by throwing me into the stream and ordering me to swim.  We lived on a lake which froze in the winter, so we all learned to skate, except my father, who simply ran on his skates  and hoped for the best,  After 2 years, in 1940, we moved again to Long Beach, and he shipped out to sea, this time for 2 1/2 years.  The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor , Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, and unbeknownst to us, my father was there in port during the bombing.

He came into port again for a couple of weeks when I was a sophomore, and was bewildered to find that I was a young lady.  He didn’t like it much!  He was much changed after seeing so much war, and really never regained his former cheerful self.  By this time, he was a Master Chief petty officer, and used to giving orders which he expected one to follow without question.  I was much used to doing as I pleased, which in those days was really quite harmless!  He was rather gruff, and I was intimidated by him.  He was sent to sea again, and did not return until nearly my wedding day in 1946 when the war was over.

We lived in Alameda then, which was home to some of my father’s relatives, and had an apartment in his aunt’s large home, which had been built by my great-grandfather in the mid 1800’s.  Shortly after I was married, my parents moved to Grants Pass, Oregon, where he had been born and raised.  My mother and I had lived there for a number of months during the war, and had then moved back to Alameda.  Naturally, during the ensuing years, we visited them and went fishing and camping together, but I never had a real conversation with him; he always deferred to my mother.  He would answer the phone, and then pass it to her.

When my mother lay dying, I went to Brookings, Oregon where they were living then, and stayed with her for two long months.  He had to be forced to leave her side to get some sleep, but still no conversations.  Finally one night I told him we were on navy time now, and he would serve a 4 hour watch just like everyone else.  He went meekly to bed and we carried on as before.  He was particularly grumpy one evening,  and suddenly I remembered grabbing him and tickling him when I was a child to get him happy again.  The ice was broken and we started a friendship.  It didn’t last long enough.  He died 10 years later after having a massive stroke. 

I’m glad I knew you Dad, and I still miss you.


A heart is the easiest thing to break.




“How does it feel to be a great-grandmother?”  I have been asked this question numerous times in the past few months, and each time I have have unthinkingly answered “Great! in the same offhanded manner we reply “Fine”, to those who inquire as to our general health.  In the latter instance, no one really cares, but recently I have given more thought to the larger question of “how does it REALLY feel to be a great-grandmother.

Great-grandmothers are supposed to be old and bound to their rocking chairs and a certain amount of dignity.  I am neither.  I don’t think I am inordinately vain, but I do not deny that when I heard of my promotion to this more recent station in life, I hastened to examine my face for any newly acquired wrinkles.  To my great relief, there were none which had not been there the day before, and I was still able to climb into my jogging shoes and take off on my daily run.  I am active and agile, and have always clocked in a mile or two every day , so clearly being a great-grandmother has nothing to do with old age and infirmity.  Our society does seem to stereotype people, and perhaps we react   accordingly, adjusting our dress and behavior to match what we think is acceptable.

Are great-grandmothers supposed to be wise, all-knowing, and full of good advice?  I am not.  I am still learning luckily, and as the years pass, there is so much more to learn.  And occasionally I forget what it was I knew so well yesterday.  I am also evolving, which to me means living.  for to remain the same person year after year with the same values and habits, would be like wearing the same dress one’s whole life.

So, what IS being a great-grandmother and how does it feel?  I am in the middle of five generations, and I have known members of all these generations, my grandmother being the earliest in my recollections.  I remember how it felt to be a child, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother.  It felt natural and wonderful.  Of all those roles, the characterization of “child” was the only one which occasioned no curiosity.  No one really cares how it feels to be a child.  Wouldn’t they all be surprised to learn that a child stores all the memories good and bad in their memory bank and learns from those experiences forever.  All the other parts we play in our lifetime fall naturally into place and can be just as wonderful.

I look forward not only to holding my great-grandchild, but to running and playing and sharing all the magic in my world.             Written in August 1995

This lovely great-granddaughter will celebrate her 16th birthday this summer.  She is learning wisdom, and the lessons of today are not always easy.  She is tall, beautiful and strong, and a great joy to our family.  The world is hers to explore and to claim her place in it.  How has it felt to be a great-grandmother?  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.   May you always walk in balance dear Dakota.

An Embarrassment

Shame is officially dead in the American public.  We seem to be in a circle of bad behavior.  There are no new sins,  just new ways of committing them.   Each day we see either an elected public official or a so-called celebrity caught in an unacceptable situation.  Most recently,  Rep. Anthony Weiner joined the ranks of online perverts.  Disgraceful.

I call Alameda my hometown, and last week a 57 year old unstable man committed suicide in the beautiful  Bay where I used to picnic and swim; this news  normally worth only a small column in the Alameda Times Star newspaper.  However he did this in full view of the Fire Department, the Police Department, and a beach full of onlookers.  And no one tried to either talk him out of it or actually go into the water, in the hour he spent trying to decide to end his life.  The efforts they used required no “hands on” endeavor.  His mother, an 84 year old woman, unable herself to go in, frantically called and tried to stop him.

The excuses that were given from the fire personnel were that there was no one with training in water rescue, and that they would lose their jobs if they went after him.  Alameda is an island for heavens sake, and the water that he drowned in was shallow out to about 200 feet.  He waded fully clothed the entire way.  The police dept. was afraid he might be on drugs or violent and would not take a chance.

When he was finally floating face down in the water, a young woman passing by ran in and hauled the 6’3″ 240 lb. man to the shore.

One has to wonder if our home was on fire in Alameda, or if a criminal act was being perpetrated, if our first responders would respond.  We have all been so proud of our firemen, who do save so many lives and give unstintingly of their service.  These few men on a small beach in Alameda blackened the name of their fellow firemen in the Alameda department, and made me ashamed of my hometown.


Isn’t “burgeoning” a wonderful onomatopoeic word!   It leaves no doubt about who it is.  This morning, after a confusing winter and spring, my garden is burgeoning. Doesn’t everything reduce in the end  to a poetic image?

The fig tree fairly bumped into me as I passed it,   One of the red camellias with which I had become terribly disappointed, and threatened to send to the ash heap, leaned out with lovely new baby leaves and an apoology which I generously accepted.  The weather here, as in most other places around the world it seems, could not decide which cloak it wanted from day to day , so the plants, like us, had to adapt.  But reward has been baskets of flowers and the possibiity of red juicy tomatoes in a month or so.  Dr. Advice has been planting like crazy to confirm his neighborhood reputation as tomato guru.  I envision an overabundance of tomato sauce, but I’m hoping for new recipes for other uses for them!

Tulips  w/c by KSR

San Ildefonso

We eased our car into the large and dusty plaza on a quiet Sunday morning for  an impromptu and univited visit to old friends of Georgia’s.  Most likely everyone was in church as there was no movement or sound to greet our arrival.  The car came to a shuddering stop under a large and ancient gnarled cottonwood tree in front of a small house. The slight breeze rustled the leaves above us with a crackling sound which reminded me of popcorn popping very slowly.  Georgia started her schooling here in this village where her mother taught so many years ago.  As I wondered why we did not get out and go up to the door, a man warily stepped outside and carefully studied our car and it’s California license plate trying to determine if we were friend or stranger.  Georgia said it was quite rude to simply walk up to the door before this little ritual took place.  Then she got out of the car and asked for Arsenio Sanchez, who was  a childhood friend along with Desideria Martinez and others.  After a contemplative moment he replied “I am Arsenio Sanchez”.  Using her maiden name, she identified herself and me as her friend.  He broke into a huge delighted smile as he recognized her name and her mother’s name.   Asking if Desideria still lived in the village, he laughed and said he had married her and they had had several children.

Just then people emerged from the old church across the plaza, attesting to the fact that mass was over.  Since this was the Sanchez ‘s day to feed the priest, he insisted that we join them for the dinner to be served at 10:30 a.m., as soon as the rest of the family arrived.  I had known that San Ildefonso was the home of Maria Martinez, the world famous Pueblo potter, but had not known that Arsenio was her nephew, and that she would be joining them for dinner.  As a potter, this was tremendously exciting news.  The young priest arrived in his car, bringing with him tiny Maria and her younger sister, while Desideri walked across the plaza with their children and several other family members.  No one seemed distressed that there would be two strangers, one an Anglo, joining them for lunch.  And what a lunch it was!  Stewed chilis with beef  and dried corn in a thin red chili sauce,  rice with onions and tomato, several vegetables, potato salad, Indian bread, coffee and Kool-Aid.  For dessert we had pears and cupcakes, an altogether satisfying meal.

Maria is very wrinkled and frail and was  dressed in San Ildefonso style with tiny, high red boots with silver concho buttons.  She has grey-sprinkled black hair worn in a chongo, as  all the older women did. The villages of  women and girls often could be identified by their various hairstyles.  She remembered Georgia well, upon learning where in California  we were from, she told me stories about Palo Alto where her son, Juan went to Stanford, and about San Francisco, where she and her husband Julian made pottery at the world’s fair in 1939.  She was famous for the famous black pottery of the Pueblo, which was achieved by firing white native clay under sheep dung, until smoked into a wonderful glaze-free finish.  She unarguably is the “mother of all” Indian potters, and began the black pottery craze sweeping first the Southwest, and as her fame spread, more and more collectors around the world drove the prices up into the stratosphere.  Today a Maria pot sells for many thousands of dollars.  There are now numerous potters from San Ildefonso and Santa Clara making beautiful black pottery as well, most of them from entire families.  Georgia told her that I too was a potter and sculptor, and this gracious lady even flattered me by saying she hoped she could see some of my work sometime!  She took me across the plaza and showed me her studio and explained the way she worked.  She can no longer dig the clay, but her son, Popovi Da does it now and is a wonderful potter in his own right.  I felt fortunate to be allowed to meet this remarkble lady, so much older than I, and recognize the connection we both had to the earth.

Touch The Earth, watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen













Helen Harbin, Potter  w/c sketch