Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From The Archives

Okay, so I am a total shitheel of a blogger recently. Things have been a little hairy--though also great at the same time, which is weird.

Like, hairy: I'm being audited by the IRS, I have to do financial aid paperwork for my kid, I just moved, and I went to LA for a week and forgot all the essential paperwork for me to deal with setting up the audit appointment or do my taxes.

Because that's how I roll (badly. with much chaos and entropy.) This led to four days of stress-puking. Which sucked. I hate ginger ale, and Coca-Cola even more. Also Tums. Which is pretty much all I can weakly ingest when I'm in the midst of a stress-puking fest. Which may well be more than you want to know. Oh well.

The cool stuff includes that I got to be in LA because my beau was shooting the pilot for a sitcom, and I think it's actually really good. Funny and dark and snarky and hip and did I mention snarky? I think I would actually watch this one even if I didn't know the beau. Which is kind of amazing because I'm not a big network TV chica AT ALL... not since the Golden Age of Friday Night Television Lineup when I was little (Partridge Family, Nanny and the Professor, and The Brady Bunch. And then Love American Style if Mom spaced out and we got to stay up for extra time. HEAVEN.)

Here is the really coolest part: the beau is not a yeller. He just calmly reassured me about stuff and even drove back into the city with me when I... um... forgot the essential paperwork a second time. Which is pretty fucking awesome of him.

So now I got through most of the yucky crap, and get to do some fun stuff: unpacking. I am reunited with all of my stuff in one place, and actually have room for it because I'm renting an old funky farmhouse north of Manhattan. I had this storage pod thing delivered last week, and it's the first time in five years I've had all my books (25 cartons. A lot of carrying of boxes this week.) And all my pictures. And all my, well, archives.

The archives are really the coolest part, for me. Like, I got to reread my first-ever report card from this great Waldorf School kindergarten on Oahu, Mohala Pua. I actually went to school there for part of the years I was four, five, and eight. Totally loved it. We didn't have to wear shoes, and Friday was Aloha Day so we wore Hawaiian stuff, and I learned to do routines with Poi Balls.

So my first report card says:

PERIOD: April 7, 1969 to June 6, 1969

Cornelia seems to be a child of considerable inner strength. In her quiet way, she can stand her ground in any situation. She is kind and considerate, too, but she shows her feelings in rather a matter of fact way. "Here," she will say, and give her teachers each a flower, the stem lovingly wrapped in wet paper, and then walk away, barely waiting for any comment.... 
She constantly surprises her teacher with her charming and independent ideas while working with clay and beeswax. She can concentrate for a long time on any activity.... She has a lovely singing voice.

That was from Frau Kudar, who also taught me to knit. I am still a terrible knitter (everything looks rather like fuzzy tumors when I'm done, exactly like the first potholder I did with Frau Kudar, which, if I remember correctly, took me 1,207 years to finish--all during recess. And looked like a fuzzy tumor at the end.)

And then I dug deeper in the box of letters and stuff, and got to a layer of letters that had been sent to and from my dad when he was a kid, through when he lived in Switzerland in the early Seventies. These were all given to me by his brother David, maybe twenty years ago. Dad had left them all in some bureau or something at his parents' house in Purchase, New York.

Uncle David gave me a box full of Dad's things that Dad didn't want. I guess he recognized me as having the archivist gene or something. Which I do in spades.

I treasure this stuff, but sometimes it makes me cry, too.

Here's a picture of their house (from the front):

Here's the back:

It was pretty fancy, which made it even weirder that Dad ended up living in his car in Malibu for thirteen years. Maybe that's why I ended up writing mysteries--I always want to figure out what the hell happened to everyone.

I actually used this house as a setting in my first novel, only I gave it to a demented fictional great-grandmother on my mother's side and moved it from Purchase to Oyster Bay. (Chaos and entropy, see above.)

Here's another picture from the archives--a copy of the sketch John Singer Sargent did of Grandaddy Read:

Anyway, among the letters was one mailed on December 21, 1942, from the Pacific theater, from my grandfather to Dad. The address is just "Frederick H. Read, Purchase, New York." Not even a street, or a zip code. And Dad would have been about four years old.

The return address is stamped "Commander Wm. A. READ, Staff, Commander Air Force, Pacific Fleet, Fleet P.O. San Francisco Calif." A second stamp, hand-initialed, reads "PASSED BY NAVAL CENSOR."

Here's what the letter says:

Dear Freddy-Pie,
I thought your letter was just great, and I enjoyed it very much. Write me another soon because I like to hear from you.
I got the present you and Jeanie-Pie sent me and I liked it very much. I thought it was very nice of you both to send it to me.
Mom said you had a new carpenter set, and were the new carpenter. I think that will be a big help. Be careful how you use your hammer and don't hit yourself on the finger!
I hope you are taking very good care of Mom for me. That's your job until I get home.
I hope Santa Claus brought you lots of presents, because you are a good boy and he ought to.
I will be thinking of you at Purchase on Christmas day and I hope you have a very merry Christmas!
Lots of love to you,
Basically, this letter just kills me, because I knew them both so much later when things were so much more complicated--bitter and sad and crazy and broken. I wish I could just hit the rewind button for them both--or at least tell everyone in 1942 that Grandaddy and Uncle Bill and Uncle Curtis and Uncle Peter and Uncle Roddy and Uncle David would all come home safe from the war. And there would be plenty of sugar for iced tea, and long summer afternoons on the terrace, and wonderful stories.

And also, Dad called my sister Freya-Pie, and me Corneli-Burger. I never knew that was something he'd learned from his father, until yesterday when I found this letter. And Dad would draw us each little pictures of pies and burgers, respectively, next to our names whenever he wrote us.

Here's a picture of Grandaddy around 1942 (I think):

It also kills me because I think when you write a letter like that to your youngest of nine children and you're away fighting your second war, you're probably thinking that it might be all he has left to remember of you, if you don't come home, you know? 

I love how he's trying to tell Dad that he thinks he's brave and a good carpenter and able to take care of Grandmama... and I picture Grandmama reading this aloud to tiny little Dad. And all that... well. Shit. It's touching. There are three of those nine kids still alive, everyone else is gone.

Here's a picture of Dad about the time the letter was written:

And then there's stuff from Mom's side of the family, too. Like, here's a picture my first stepfather Michael took of me when I was seven. I'm on the right, and on the left is my great-great-grandmother Cornelia Parrish Ludlam. She was seven when that was taken of her:

Michael set the whole thing up so that they photos would be kind of mirror images, black dress/white dress, light/dark background... but we're both resting our hands on very similarly patterned wing chairs. The one in my photo was in Mrs. Wilcox's house down the road from where we lived in Carmel. I think seeing Mrs. Wilcox's chair is what made Michael think of doing the whole thing. Or maybe it was Mom's idea. Actually, it would totally have been Mom's idea... she's got a great eye and is very thoughtful about stuff like this. But I digress.

Michael shot a picture of the original photo of Cornelia the First and developed them both together in the darkroom in our basement. He was an interesting guy, that way. He was kind of an asshole in other ways, but I try to remember the nice stuff about him, especially because now he has dementia and is in a nursing home in Hawaii.

Here's another photo Michael took. This one is of Angela Davis, which might give you some idea of the extremes of my life, generally:

He gave that to me when I visited him in Hawaii in 1988, on my way home from backpacking around Asia for a year to get married back in New York. 

I told him I missed the clarity of the Sixties, when I knew who the good guys and bad guys were, and everything just seemed like it would turn out okay.

Michael asked, "Who were the good guys, to you?"

I said, "I don't know... like, Angela Davis."  So he dug this out and sent it home with me. I'll put it up in my kitchen, like always.

And right now I'm really, really happy that all these disparate mementos are under one roof--my Viet Cong flag from a peace march in Berkeley in 1969, and the photo of Dad and his parents and all his siblings right after everyone came home from the war, and pictures of my children from birth onward, and all my favorite books from when I was little, and when I've been a grownup too. Too much to list, seriously.

I try to parse meaning from it all, whether or not that's possible. Maybe I can save the best parts of everyone. Maybe I can learn something from all these shards of the past that's worth passing along to whomever will come in the generations after. Because someone else will have the archivist gene. And maybe, in retrospect, we will all become whole again.


  1. Cornelia, when you do show up, you sure make the wait worthwhile.

    I was impressed at your Hawaiian kindergarten teacher's writing ability, and that no one in the poi ball video beaned herself. Love the letter to your young dad, too.

  2. This is classic, Cornelia, fascinatingly classic. You've still got a way with clay and beeswax.

  3. from Jacqueline

    Gosh, I hate it when I write a comment and the whole lot fizzles as soon as I try to post it! I'll try to remember what I said:

    Dearest C, What you're creating again is a scrapbook in your home - all those memories, those flappings of paper, of photographs, of letters, school reports, postcards, well, it's as if everything tipped out of that pod and came into bloom. And it's just so powerful to read. Yes, you make it worth coming to the page when you have your say, and I love your heart, and your memories and your honesty, and I hope against hope that this all ends up in one place someday, and I can read what they will call a memoir, but it will be so much more. It will be about the making of a really amazing woman, a really extraordinary writer. Now let's try to post this bugger again!

  4. Yup, we really are related. I have the letters my parents exchanged after my dad was discharged from the navy after WWII ended and he came back to Alberta, leaving his sweetheart in Nova Scotia. I also have the train ticket that he saved from his trip back to the east coast to marry mom.
    (signed, "cousin" Terry)

  5. Thank you, you guys! And now that I've assembled YET ANOTHER Ikea bookshelf, I'm driving to Jersey City to try to buy two Pierre Deux armchairs off craigslist. Because I am not above rifling OTHER people's archives, either.

  6. Wow, Cornelia. I have just finished re-reading Invisible Boy for perhaps the twelfth time, struggling again with my under-brain insisting that I actually wrote it, and then I read this. How are we so completely different (Oh my God, COMPLETELY) and yet so profoundly the same?

  7. Welcome back, Miss C! I have all the love letters my dad sent my mother from Europe during WWII. She thought about burning them after he died but never did. After she died, I read a couple of them but won't read more. Too difficult.

  8. Funny and so moving at the same time. I like your writing so much.

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  10. Angela Davis? Hell. I worked in support of Joanne Chesimarde when it was illegal to even be a member of the BLA.

    Good guys? Bad Guys? I was pretty confused.

    I was working with a white teenaged girl [underaged girlfriend of a BLA "officer"] on a pamphlet called "Break Da Chains" which explained that the bank guard had to die because he was wearing the uniform of the White Atmy. She turned to me and said, "Isn't it great that the Third World finally has its own army?"

    That was the moment I stopped being a radical.

  11. I was just talking to someone the other day about how one of the differences between our generations (him growing up in the 60s, me in the 80-90s) is that he grew up feeling as though he knew who the bad guys were, that there was hope in it all ending soon, and they had a sense of individual agency in creating peace. And my generation has come of age with the sense that anyone could become an enemy with no end in sight, and nothing an individual can do will help bring peace. It's a striking(and kind-of sad) difference, really.

    That picture of Angela Davis is *great*

  12. I so love your writing, and you! I'm so damn glad for you that you have a place north of the city for all your STUFF & I'm TOTALLY jealous that you are apparently going to scam some Pierre Deux chairs off Craig's List & I think you deserve the wonderful Beau after all the previous nonsense & just generally.
    Wish you were in Cow Hampshire still, cause I'd try to inveigle you to come visit. I loved your memories and reminiscences -- my great dad called me "booby" and I miss him very much. Love you and am eager for next book. And, BTW, fuck the IRS. Not in a good way, I mean.

  13. that Hawaii report card sounds suspiciously like your sarah Lawrence evaluations!

  14. Cornelia Read4/25/2013 4:55 PM

    Because Sarah Lawrence was Waldorf for (semi) grownups, I think.

  15. Simply the best blog post of 2013!

  16. I like the word "beau." What's the feminine equivalent, do you think? I'm too old to have a "girlfriend" so I never know how to introduce my...uh...girlfriend. "My lady" sounds Victorian. Help!

  17. Beautiful, and very moving, Cornelia...