Making Family Memories – Part Two

BLOG #37, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part Two
September 16, 2015

There were still only three of us, Marji, Connie and me that first evening. After checking into our cabin, Connie and I joined Marji around the campfire. It was good to relax, gaze into the flames, and catch up on family matters.

Next day was quiet so we joined Marji in a food-buying expedition in nearby Chester, adjacent to beautiful Lake Almanor. By evening, our numbers ballooned, each contingent making a dramatic entrance into the fireside area: brother-in-law Elmer; daughter Michelle, son-in-law Duane, grandsons Taylor and Seth; our son Greg; my cousin Steve and wife Roxann; nephew Shane, wife Lisa, and daughter Chloe. With fourteen now sitting around the campfire, it seemed that everyone was simultaneously talking to someone! Our kids had been backpacking in the coastal Redwoods for most of a week and thus had lots of hike-related experiences to share. It was fascinating to watch perhaps nature’s largest pine cones (sugarpine) contorting and writhing after they’d burst into flames in the fire-pit.

By Thursday, horseshoe-tossing had become a marathon. Except for meals, the action there never stopped. In time we were joined by our beloved Charlotte (long ago adopted into our family), nephew Jessie, and grandniece Lexi—bringing us up to near full-strength. In the evening, Steve (the storyteller of our family) regaled the campfire audience with story after story, many of them involving members of our family who are no longer with us. Few of us had ever heard them before. Steve has a wonderful gift: he can step back in time a half-century or more and remember every action, every word said, on a given day. Even vividly remembering things that took place when he was only two or three! Finally, reluctantly, we said our good nights and wended our way to cabins, trailer houses, or tents for the night. Some slept on the bank just above Mill Creek which, being spring-fed, was immune to California’s four-year drought, and thundered down the canyon.

Friday, it was time to caravan over to Lake Almanor where cousin Avenelle and Jim hosted us for the afternoon, ferrying most of us across the lake to a lakeside restaurant on the other side; the rest of our family circled around the lake by car. It proved to be a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon. Virtually the moment we returned to Mill Creek, clanging horseshoes were heard again. Others of us took walks into the towering evergreens that make the Mill Creek area so unforgettable. All around us, other family reunions were taking place. When the Central Valley’s heat gets to near furnace temperatures, everyone who can, flees to the mountains for blessed relief. That’s a key reason why the resort is booked up a year ahead of time. Later on, after a light snack, it was campfire time again. One of the stories Steve told us had to do with a mountain lion that stalked him in the Sierras—only by a miracle did Steve escape alive. And Elmer’s large stock of sugar pine cones continued to be raided one by one—after each performance, Elmer would be begged to “please burn one more!”

On Saturday, the family caravanned into the heart of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a place a number of us were unfamiliar with. The hike up to Bumpass Hell Hot Springs was most memorable, reminding us of Yellowstone National Park’s much more extensive stretch of performing sulphuric hot springs and geysers. Afterwards, we watched the informative film in the new Visitor’s Center. Shawn, who’d been involved in fighting the big Willow Creek fire in the Trinity Alps, had driven all the way to Mill Creek to be with us for the evening. After supper, Elmer and Seth teamed up to show us a family film most of us had never even heard about: the 1935 Golden Wedding Anniversary of my great grandparents, Dr. Ira and Emma Bond Wheeler in Healdsburg, California. What was funny was seeing the arrival of a long stream of family members in what to us were antique cars. Clearly, they’d packed in as many family members as could be shoe-horned in, for each disgorged an astonishingly large number of people before the car moved on and the next one arrived. This film had to have been one of the earlier family films ever made.

Afterwards, Shawn, a stand-up comedian if there ever was one, stood up and kept us in proverbial stitches for well over an hour. Especially did the cousins revel in his inimitable family-related humor. Much later, when the last sugarpine cone had writhed into embers, we bid farewell to everyone, for some left that evening and others very early next morning.

But on Sunday morning, after another delicious breakfast served on Mill Creek Restaurant’s outside deck, one after another, many with moist eyes, bid each other good-bye, each wondering if ever, on this earth, they’d be able to see the same family members assemble.

AFTERWARDS

Many have been the heartfelt responses since then. Especially having to do with the cousins who were together long enough to really get to know each other. Thanks to the serenity of Mill Creek and the scarcity of electronic media, everyone had a unique opportunity to really get to know each other in a deep way. But more than that, the young people were able to perceive parents, uncles and aunts, and grandparents, as flesh-and-blood people who not only once were so much like them but, seen with their contemporaries, shed their authority-figure-selves and were young-at-heart just like their descendants. And the numbers were just right: any more and they wouldn’t have been able to really get to know, appreciate, and love each one to the extent they did. Some of them have already, only a month later, said, “Oh, when can we do this again!”

Our personal conclusion: For each one of us, it was a life-changing experience!

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Making Family Memories Around a Mill Creek Campfire

BLOG #36, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING FAMILY MEMORIES
AROUND A MILL CREEK CAMPFIRE
Part One
September 9, 2015

It took close to two years to make the family reunion happen; after all, Mill Creek, California, is relatively unknown to most people. One member of our family came from Idaho, one from Florida, four from Maryland, two from Nevada, two from Colorado, and eight from various places in California–eighteen of us in all.

Miracle of miracles, eventually all eighteen arrived at Mill Creek—in spite of fierce forest fires burning all across Northern California. Especially in the San Joaquin Valley, smoke was thick, and most roads leading to the coast were closed due to the fires—at times it seemed like the entire Golden State was on fire!

The focal center of this gathering of the clan was Marji and Elmer Raymond’s trailer house and fire-pit. My sister Marji had been the main choreographer of the reunion. As we watched one contingent after another make their appearance, I couldn’t help but step backwards in time more than half a century when annual Thanksgiving reunions of the Wheeler and Bond clans were a given. High on Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain at Grandpa Rollo and Grandma Ruby’s Angwin ranch, it was unthinkable to miss Thanksgiving with extended family. The pattern was unvarying: car door after car door being slammed, Grandma Ruby’s singing out her unvarying, “Why you dear souls!” and “Why Papa!,” as each new arrival was hugged—all this while dogs barked excitedly and cats scurried for cover. The women gathered in the kitchen, each bringing food. The crescendo of family gossip and laughter made it a wonderful place to be—and the smaller children played with the well-over-a-hundred-year-old blocks by the fireplace (some of the blocks had crossed the plains in wagon trains a century before). Grandma Ruby (who was deaf, could read lips) ruled over this segment of the reunion. Outside, a little distance off, Grandpa Rollo ruled over the men in their marathon horseshoe tournaments that stopped only for dinner, or darkness. The continuous clinks as horseshoes reached the stake was etched in the soundtracks of my memory forever. The older boys watched in fascination as ringer after ringer rang out. Grandpa’s usually rang out most because rarely did his tosses miss the stake. There was much laughter and bantering and shouts when ringers were capped by other ringers. Since the usual Thanksgiving head-count averaged over eighty, the cumulative hubbub never stopped except to eat. And what meals those were! Only for the blessing was there momentary silence. At night, Grandpa challenged all comers at caroms. Eventually, the carom boards were put away and all gathered around the upright piano to sing. Grandma Ruby “listened” by putting her hand on the piano top and seraphically “feeling” the music. Eventually, the kids were put to bed but the adult socializing continued far into the night. And next day, the slammed car-doors and “you dear souls!” and “Why Papa’s” were heard once more, as the yearly ritual came to an end.

Except for an occasional funeral, once Grandpa and Grandma were moved to Oregon, the Napa Valley reunions stopped, and family members never again gathered together in mass as they had before. So you can imagine the memories that were brought back to Marji, my cousin Steve, and me as once more we heard the continuing ring of horseshoes—with one big difference—the marksmanship being generally so poor that it was a serendipity when a horseshoe actually touched a stake!

But this time, Marji made sure the women weren’t prisoners of the kitchen: breakfast and lunch could be eaten at the Mill Creek Restaurant or in the cabins; only the dinner would be picked up under the tent adjacent to the fire-pit and eaten around it.

Next week, we’ll take you through “the rest of the story.”

SEA AND SAND, LEAVING OUR HEARTS ON LA SELVA BEACH

One mile of beachfront.  How many high school graduates can claim such a thing? Yet ‘tis true: Connie and I were both lucky enough to graduate from a parochial high school, Monterey Bay Academy, that owns one mile of beachfront on one of America’s most beautiful—and expensive—stretches of real estate.

Not that we valued it much half a century ago: “So the place has a beach—ho hum.”  Of course teenagers, in any age, have little concept of value, for perceived value is a by-product of time and the battering of the years.

Connie and I have just returned from another alumni weekend.  They say that wherever it is you grow up becomes part of your DNA: if it be mountains, always mountains will call to you; if it be plains, always plains will call to you; if it be the desert, always deserts will call to you; and if it be a coast—always the sea will summon you home.

A fifth generation Californian on both sides of my family, I cannot be very long absent from it without saying to Connie (also California-born), “Honey, I need an ocean-fix—I’m hungry for the sea.”  And we go.  In this case, make that “went.”  And we stayed at one of our favorite cliff-dwellings: Santa Cruz’s Sea and Sand Inn, so that every night we could listen to the waves thunder up the beach, accompanied by the inimitable croaking bark of seals. 

Alumni weekend just gave us an excuse for going.  Those classmates of long ago—it hurts to see them; but it hurts more not to.  Every year that passes, there are more who’ll never come again.  And those who are still with us walk slower than they used to.  But Time can sometimes be kind, gifting alumni with a second set of lens: they see through the wrinkles and stooped shoulders to the still vibrant spirit within.  To them, by some inexplicable miracle, the campus hunk is the campus hunk still, the campus clown is funnier than ever, and the campus dreamgirl is the campus dreamgirl still.

I can never be more than minutes on the MBA campus without responding to tidal suction: I have to wend my way down to the beach, ditch my shoes, roll up my pantlegs, and immerse myself in my personal paradise-regained.  And there, as always, time telescopes for me, the past seamlessly merging with the present.

We also go back to our alma mater because of music.  And this year’s music could happen but once, for Arladell Nelson-Speyer was “coming home” after a twelve-year hiatus.  Arladell, who’d directed the academy’s legendary touring choral group, the Oceanaires, for thirty long years (half the entire history of the school).  Arladell, who’d during those twelve intervening years endured enough heartbreak for three lifetimes—and our own hearts vicariously broke for her.  Since we couldn’t take away her anguish, we settled for second best: being there for her.

So—shades of Mr. Holland’s Opus (a 1965 Disney tearjerker chronicling the thirty-year career of a beloved mentor and teacher of music)—out went a call: “Oceanaires—all Oceanaires—come home!”  And they came, from all over the nation.  About a quarter of the thousand or so Oceanaires who have ever been—answered that call.  On that memorable Saturday afternoon, they packed the stage.  Connie (one of those precious few original Oceanaires) joined them, standing side by side with Muffy Lindgren Ramsland, another member of a trio that performed for all four years in academy.

Arladell had practiced with them, and wielded the whip as in days gone by; so they were ready to sing their hearts out.  The sound was the same, yet richer because of their cumulative size; the bass section sending chills up our spines with a deep rumble never evidenced when they were young.

Oh we never wanted it to end!  For it was life—all of our lives—that we were hearing and seeing.  Since the old familiar songs appeared in our printed programs: “The Morning Trumpet,” “E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come,” “I Will Give You Thanks, Oh Lord,” “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Soon-ah Will Be Done,” “Honor and Glory,” and “I want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” each of us (listeners as well as singers) inwardly checked them off on our personal bucket lists.  And we mourned because the last number was that much closer.

But all too soon, it had to end: It was time for the Oceanaires’ signature piece, “Ride the Chariot in the Mornin’, Lord.”  As it progressed to its inevitable conclusion, I wept—we all wept—instinctively recognizing that we’d never experience the likes of it again, for no recording could possibly ever recapture that magical moment.  So we stood, clapping and cheering and weeping until our hands were sore and our voices were hoarse.  Connie later testified that the emotional overload among the singers was even greater—if that could even be possible—than ours. For older singers, that is: none of the 2010 Oceanaires could possibly understand the thoughts swirling in the minds of those whose life journey was nearing its terminus.

* * * * *

Monterey Bay Academy.  I’m reminded of a remark attributed to Daniel Webster, who when asked where he graduated from, responded with, “Oh, sir, it is but a small school—but there are those of us who love it.”  Just so, our beloved academy.  One of the unsung, virtually unknown little coeducational Christian academies, where boys and girls still come from all over the world, where close to 70% work part of their way, where 90% go on to college—and the friendships born in dormitories here last for life.  Indeed, no other friendships ever formed in later years can possibly compare to these, forged in life’s morning years on La Selva Beach.

So, if you have a son, daughter, niece, nephew, or grandchild you covet such a launching pad for, as this, delay not a moment, but e-mail the Principal, Tim Kubrock, and enroll that lucky teenager immediately at Monterey Bay Academy.