Month: May 2018

Melba’s Books

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A few years after my mother Melba died, Bob did also. We went through their home and put numbers on items; then, by turns, made selections of what we hoped to keep in rememberance of them. At my first turn I chose Melba’s books. There were not many, but they are a wellspring of memory. When I read them, or even see them as I walk by, they speak. She was an English Major and an English teacher who taught us in a one room 10 child school in Santo Domingo, Mexico using the Calvert System1 , a home school program still in existence. In the early 1940s it provided for the equivalent of our eight grades; there was not much history of the US included then, but we learned about Britain from 1066 on. Melba also filled our lives with books and poetry, often reading aloud, as when Bob worked on our Holden Washington miner’s cabin in the evenings.

She was always a writer and a poet. It was common to memorize poetry in her youth; in her 9th decade she could quote long strings of poems. Dad tried to do so also, but he couldn’t get out more than a few lines before he began to tear and choke up. Despite that sentimentality Dad’s books were like he was: An engineer. A miner. Melba’s books were mostly British and American poetry and literature of the past few centuries.

150 feet of books line the walls of our home today, where 6 feet are Melba’s, and 15 feet are my grandfather Leon’s. Even when I walk by they whisper. Melba’s is the voice of Poetry from many anthologies, Tennyson, Browning, Gibran, Longfellow, Yeats, Lowell, Kipling, Frost, Poe, Coleridge; Leon’s oft quoted poets, include include Shakespeare and McLeish beside a first issue of the 1908 Brittanica,and the Harvard great books series. Melba’s kitchen writing desk was always decorated with cuts and clippings from poems of all kinds including Silberstein and Seuss.

Lost in Melba’s forest of poetry, are some Lakeside Press publications 2. The Southwestern Expedition of Zebulon M. Pike;  The Border and the Buffalo by J R Cook; Bidwell’s Echoes of the Past; Commerce of the Prairies by Josiah Greg; , and My Life on the Plains by George A Custer3. Why?

Melba always wanted to write her own book about her grandparents crossing the plains in covered Wagons during the mid 1800s; but she didn’t collect much first person material or didn’t have it sufficiently to memory; maybe sheep and orchard farmers had more urgent concerns. So she collected and studied about overland U S travel. I have a chapter of the book she began to write; but the rest was stillborn. What is left behind are mainly the books she collected for research.

The mid 19th century was a time of Westward US exploration and expansion; a time of agressive and roughshod Manifest Destiny. Among the Lakeside series are expeditionary books that may have influenced Gregg: the incomparable and magnificient Lewis and Clark Expedition; three less successful reports of Zebulon Pike; The reports of Cook, and Custer, filled with historic names and connections, and well recounted details of the times. They are plainly written, clear, though sometimes – no,often- shocking to 21st century sensibilities. As in reading Mark Twain, we must forgive Gregg and Cook and Custer for living in their own times, while honoring their contribution to our own history.

Commerce of the Prairies by Josiah Gregg is exemplary; he was a physician but became so sickly, with stomach problems and tuberculososis that he could not work. In those days an oft reccommended treatment for chronic illness was good air and exercise.4 Gregg, became a traveling saleman of sorts: a commercial trader, joining wagon trains moving manufactured goods from Independence Missouri to Santa Fe, Mexico, and later to Chihuahua. His health improved so quickly and dramatically, that he continued to make trips back and forth during the next ten years until his death.

His book is rich with details of the journeys, the people, the land, and the problems on the way.

This is a cut from Gregg;

gregg map

and this is a map of the Coronado expedition of 1540, made to discover Quivera, a supposed  ‘seven cities of gold ‘:

Coronado_expedition (1)

If one is fortunate enough to be born into a place, and a time, or into a family who read, and who write, that is where you will find one another always; among the words and pages that survive life. Those connections are far more alive, more acessable, more real and more personal than a grave or body ash.

If one does not have the kind of inter-generational tradition or inter- connectedness that good fortune, and family, and reading and writing provide, I urge their creation: Read. Write. To do so is far easier and more pracrtical and attractive than centuries ago. Word processing, browsing, and self publishing and even social media, make all the difference. I urge anyone who can, to read and to write, both for self, and for those with whom life is most closely and dearly shared.

Sometimes, If I wonder who I am, I listen to my Mama’s and Grandfather’s books, and their words. Thank you, Melba and Happy Mother’s Day! Thank you, Leon!

2 Lakeside Classics is a series started in 1903 to reprint neglected classic works. In 1910 selections turned to first-person narratives of American history, especially those which were rare or out of print. Themes included the Civil War, the Old West, exploration and frontier life. . The first was Ben Franklin’s autobiography. By 2015, the series included 113 volumes.

George Armstrong Custer was always a cussed rebel, graduating last in his class at West Point. Yet he became, above all, a lifelong member of the US Army calvalry. He earned fame and success during the Indian Wars on the Plains. In his book he makes very clear that it was Warfare with great cruelty on both sides. The interaction between tribes, the Indian Bureau, Settlers, traders and plaines people are described in much detail. Especially where warfare is concerned, the Indians and Custer made up rules as they went. In that sense they were perfect enimies. His book begins with a detalied description of ‘the Great American Desert’: The Great Plains. He.served with many historic figures like Sheridan, Billy the Kid, and Gen Hancock; his book is rich with descriptions of soldiers, Chiefs, settlers, guides, and the motives and nature of buffalo slaughter; His campaign, understanding and defeat of the Witchita, and his insightful, tough and politic negotiations with the Cheyenne are remarkable. Of course, we know the ending of Custer at Little Big Horn, in another great historic event. Cook, Gregg. and Custer are great ‘reads’!

4Coincidentally, my grandfather Leon went West for the first time in about 1900 when that was reccommended to improve his vision, possibly over- strained by studies. My grandmother, Anna Hart a native of Nova Scotia, joined him, and like Gregg they became incurable Westerners. Leon was an ordained Methodist Minister for 60 years in California, Hawaii, and Panama. He maintained connections with the East of course, but intermitteltly and at a distance; viz, he was a longstanding friend and compatriot of another Methodist minister, Martin Luther King. Yet the West in them dominated. Leon attended Stanford briefly when it was still a farm; he and Anna attended Stanford School of Medicine as volunteer cadavers when they died. He left many books, including the Harvard Classics, and a first edition of the 1908 Brittanica. Leon was also a writer. He left hundreds of sermons, though cryptically abbrevited, pamphlets, letters, and several history books.