Category Archives: Family History

What We Leave Behind

“We create stories and stories create us. It is a rondo.” — Chinua Achebe

“If no one knows you, then you are no one.” — Dan Chaon

I’ve been in New Hampshire almost three months and there is plenty to say about this place, work on the farms, and various other going-ons. But, I’d like to dive into something else tonight.

I started writing this a few weeks ago. It’s about my grandmother. She passed away in April and would have just celebrated her 91st birthday. I’m living in her summer house now in Tamworth, a small town on the edge of the White Mountains. I’ll save the rest of the catch up for another day…

Tonight, going through her books underneath the grandfather clock, I discover more than a library of novels. It is a library of a life. There are cards in pages from old friends, daughters, grandchildren. “Mom, we thought you’d like this one,” tucked into a book on tennis. “Went to the bookstore together in search of a good story for you,” a note from Jenny and Steve reads, “it was fun spending the time thinking of you and what you might like to read.” “To Joan,” writes another Steve, “I have so enjoyed our friendship over the years. You are truly a special woman. I hope you enjoy reading about my year in Vietnam.”

Then there are her own notes. Raven’s Children was “written by a young man met in Chocorua tennis tournament, Sept 1993.” Or, sometimes, there’s just a record of outside opinions — under Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: “Sus + Jacques think terrific; Chele Miller did NOT enjoy.”

But what really gets me are the notes she has scrawled in pencil on the covers of two Red-Tails in Love, A Wildlife Drama in Central Park copies. “Do NOT give away,” says the paperback. “Please return,” says the hardcover. Curiosity gets the better of me and I steal the hardcover up to bed to read (it’s pretty good).

A year ago I sat at the table behind me and talked to her. I had brought a recorder so that I could get some of her stories right (and have her voice telling them). What was it like growing up in Boston and Honolulu? To be the star of the Cambridge Skating Club and recite the words to Aloha ‘Oe?

There’s just something about the way she could tell a story. I’ve listened to that recording a few times since she died. There’s some relief in hearing it — hearing her humor, the cadence of her voice, how she would put things.

On the recording you can hear the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock (as well as the washer going and a steady hum of a lawnmower). You can hear me leave the recorder on while we sit back — interview over — and she starts moving around the kitchen, asking my Mom something, telling me, over the sound of a faucet, that it’s nice I care to know these things.

I’m here now with the same clock ticking, the lawnmower, the washing machine, the faucet — all are here, but she’s gone. She’s buried in a cemetery down the road. She’s next to a boulder that used to be in the driveway; a stone her late husband Bill used to always back his car into (another good story of hers).

They say we don’t leave this world with anything but ourselves, and that’s true. But there are things, many things, we leave behind.

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Hawaiian Roots

I’m writing this while still in San Francisco on Saturday night but when you see it I’ll be flying over the Pacific on my way to Hawaii (oh, the wonders of modern technology!).

My Grandma on board the S.S. Matsonia from San Francisco to Honolulu, 1930

California has been a time to connect with good friends, wear flip flops, walk the beach, and scratch the surface of a state I’ve known very little about but always had my eye on. From surfing in San Diego to a drive up the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) to a bike ride over the Golden Gate to Sausalito, it’s been an active and wonderful two weeks.

Tide pools in San Diego

San Francisco's version of a back alley

My little Subaru headed up the PCH on a stormy but brilliant night

Evening walk around Lake Merritt, Oakland

Little Italy storefront, San Francisco

Storm and sun above Big Sur

Looking out at the Golden Gate from Coit Tower

Blue House on Francisco Street, Berkeley

But I’m on to Hawaii. A place I’ve never seen but feel, all the same, like it’s a part of me already. The birthplace of my mother. The island where my grandparents met. The island where their parents met. I’ve bought a one way ticket and am ready to dive in, explore the family history, and make some of my own.

I’m landing on the Big Island tonight (Tuesday night) and not sure when I’ll get to write again — from Mike’s fruit farm I’ll be staying at first in Kapoho? From my uncle Phil’s house in Oahu? From a tent on Kauai? We’ll see how my Hawaiian wanderings unfold. As an old Siberian Yupik saying goes, “what you do not see, do not hear, do not experience, you will never really know.” It’s time to know.

Much love and aloha.

My grandma with her dad (my great-grandfather "Foffie") under the hose in Honolulu

The grandparents as young kids in Oahu (my grandpa "Ogi" far right and grandma covering her eyes)

My grandma with her grandpa (my great-great grandfather, George P. Castle)

My grandma (the youngest) and her sister Anne with Mom and Dad in the pool near Diamond Head, 1926

Making Ice Cream

Visiting my Grandma this August, I decided it was high time I learned how to make her red raspberry ice cream. It has been a staple of our family reunions in New Hampshire for years (and the key ingredient to many late night cousin talks and general merrymaking.) It is also my absolute, hands down, favorite ice cream in the world.

The main event

Recipe book and family history bible

I knew where the raspberries came from, had spent an afternoon or two picking the bushes up the hill as a kid, but had never seen her make it before. I didn’t even know where the recipe came from. But one day I finally convince her I’m serious about making it and she plops the blue book in my hand: “Ice Cream Desserts For Every Occasion.” It is a relic from a bygone era of housewifedom. It opens: “Does ever a day go by that the homemaker doesn’t ask herself, ‘What shall I make for dessert?’, or, ‘How can I serve and dress up my frozen dessert?'”. Umm, yes, every moment of my life up until now…

Inside is a series of what used to be blank pages now covered in handwritten notes (mostly my Grandma’s) that span 70 years. An anthropologist’s gold mine.

Notations galore!

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August Days

Today my Grandma will head down to her Boston apartment from her summer home in Tamworth, New Hampshire. I came up here pretty much fresh out of the car from Chicago on August 6th and — to both of our surprise — have barely left.

I don’t think I’ve spent more than a string of days with her in the past ten years so the opportunity to be with her, not rush out the door, and enjoy day-to-day moments of making dinner, doing puzzles, taking drives, and watching Jeopardy (and our new favorite — Shark Tank) has been a real treasure.

"Westwind" at sunset

Her home here — called “Westwind” for the steady gusts that blow through the pines on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest — is full of history from her life, her parents (who bought the property in the 1910s), and the family that came before. Our drives around the dirt roads that piece together the town are full of stories. I can barely keep up with the names in her head. And sometimes — most times — she says things that completely floor me.

Sandwich Range of the White Mountains in the distance. Finally climbed all the local peaks after years of staring out at them every summer!

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