Part One – Spring longing begins…
“All theology is a kind of birthday
Each one who is born
Comes into the world as a question
For which old answers
Are not sufficient.
Birth is question and revelation
The ground of birth is paradise
Yet we are born a thousand miles
Away from our home.
Paradise weeps in us
And we wander further away.
This is the theology of our birthdays.” Thomas Merton
“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski
I’ve learned a lot from maps. I was born in Sacramento, California in 1946, almost a century after the city was founded where the American River came west from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and met the Sacramento River in its southward journey down the long valley and through the wide delta to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.
Sacramento started out mapping its streets squarely and naming them logically with the alphabet marching north to south and a sequence of numbered streets moving from west to east through the grid pattern of the town. It turned out the juncture of First and A streets was in the middle of the Central Pacific rail yards, and First Street would be named Front Street for its location on the riverbank, but 100 years later when I was a boy numbered streets still marched eastward to 57th and south to where Y Street was renamed Broadway and the next sequence of streets began — numbered again, but with the distinct suffix of Avenue instead.
There were anomalies, Streets with names like Mission Way and El Dorado Way (where we lived) interposed themselves within the number scheme and other streets like I (named Eye) and L (remaining L) seemed to appear sporadically and were occasionally lost with the sequence of letters jumping from H to J (Jay) and to M to Folsom Boulevard, the name that O Street took after 30th street, which had been renamed Alhambra Boulevard.
After 57th Street the Southern Pacific rail tracks curled south then east like a snake hugging the edge of the American River and both H and Jay Street tunnelled under the tracks to reappear between the new district of River Park and the site for the proposed State College before combining and crossing the Jay Street Bridge to become Fair Oaks Boulevard flanked by hop fields and various small farms being subdivided for more new housing.
As I write this, almost three quarters of a century after this chronology begins, online maps remind me of my memories inadequacies. The streets north of A Street and the railroad tracks but south of the River were named North A, B, C and following and current online maps note inner neighbourhoods and outlying towns I don’t remember, and the bus lines I used to know have been renumbered. And now I live, according to Google, 7,815 miles away from Sacramento, California in Wangaratta, two and a half hours northeast of Melbourne, Australia.
So things change, memories falter or become imbued with personal references and other background music, and the old foundational stories turn with times necessities to take on different shapes, serve other purposes and options, but the grid pattern I remember as a boy served as an initial map of meaning, somehow focussed my life, telling me where to go and when to turn and what to look out for and even mapped out the places where I shouldn’t look. I see them still.
My mother’s side of the family arrived in California early, some settling near San Francisco and others in Sacramento. Some were gold-miners, farmers and hotel keepers and others supplied workers for the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad, farmed and worked for the Wells Fargo Bank. Some were more successful; my great grandfather’s older brother , William Benson Storey, was the president of the Santa Fe Railroad and my grandfather’s younger brother was Herbert Hoover’s family doctor at Stanford University. Most of us were somewhere between comfortable working class or precarious middle class.
In 1922 when my mother (the youngest of three children) was six years old her parents moved from Chico, Butte Country, in the north of the Sacramento Valley, to Suisun-Fairfield, Solano County, on the outer edge of San Francisco Bay where my grandfather Chester Storey would become the manager of the branch line of the local narrow gauge electric railway. Their three children graduated from Armijo High School and in the case of their son Herb, went on to graduate from Stanford University. Ruth Ellen attended Chico State College briefly then went to Sacramento to work as a secretary for the State government. She was joined later by her sister Mildred and when, in 1940, Chet Storey inherited money from the president of the Santa Fe, retired from the railway and moved with his wife to the leafier suburbs of Sacramento.
My paternal grandparents, John Whalley and Mary Nuttall, had come to California in 1909 from Haywood, a village outside Manchester in Lancashire, where their families worked in the cotton mills and they had owned a grocery store with a post-office and a lending library. They bought a small parcel of land south of Sacramento to grow grapes and my father John and his twin sister Margaret were born there in 1913. An elder son had died at birth. They stayed on the land for about five years, then moved into central Sacramento where my grandfather took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad and my grandmother worked as a housekeeper in the public hospital. In the late thirties they moved to Pacific Grove, California where my grandfather died in 1944, After that Mary Whalley returned to Sacramento and lived there until she died in 1969.
My father and aunt both played tennis and had junior memberships in the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, becoming part of a fairly exclusive clique of young people. My dad won the state men’s doubles badminton championship in a tournament in Pasadena. My father and his sister graduated from Sacramento High School in 1931 and my aunt became the women’s editor of the local morning paper not long after. My father went into a three year printing apprenticeship program run by the state of California, to be trained as a printer and typographer. After he finished this he worked for a short while at a small paper in Quincy, a village in the northern Sierras, then returned to Sacramento where he resumed working for the state printing office.
My mother had been working at the State Engineers Office in 1937 when she met my father and they were married in the Chapel of intercession at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on January 22 the following year. Their first son, Thomas Herbert, was born in Sacramento on April 16 of 1939 and I was born in seven years and one day later on April 17 of 1946. I have wondered if being born less than nine months after the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki accounts for an more than occasional feeling of having walked into a room where an extended argument has just come to an abrupt and pregnant pause and I might be called upon to make some sort of response.
For most of my early life my father was a junior partner in a small printing business, and my mother was a housewife. Sometimes there was enough money and other times we came home from the tennis club to find the electric power had been switched off for lack of payment. My mother’s parents usually bailed us out.
Early in my childhood we lived at 838 El Dorado Way, between H and Jay, 53rd and 54th Streets, and when I was 10 my parents moved to a rented house at 951 41st Street near Jay Street . My maternal grandparents lived at 901 44th on the corner of Eye, my widowed paternal grandmother lived on H Street between 27th and 28th and was a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral at 2620 M Street (which had been renamed Capital Avenue), my father worked at 617 Jay Street and we were family member of the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club at 3951 N Street. As a family we had friends in the neighbourhood and the tennis club and frequently went to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Berkeley, Chico, Fairfield, Oakland, Oroville and Palo Alto.
As cultural Christians we were vaguely Congregational on my mother’s side while my paternal grandfather still attended the local cathedral and had raised my father as an Episcopalian — but the tennis club was the closest thing to a church we had in my youth. The club gave me some normative definitions of ways and means to live together. It gave community, a shared purpose, provided a place for both discipline and joy, a safe place for me and my family to go to meet the world.
Sutter Lawn Tennis Club was organised in 1919 and originally had grass courts, but by the fifties there were 5 composition courts and a new swimming pool. Sacramento’s climate meant you could play tennis most of the year and we were at the club most weekends. I had swimming and tennis lessons when I was 5 or 6, often played doubles with my family and, from late May to mid-September, played around the pool every Saturday or Sunday. But when I was in my early teens and the family was going through tough times I decided I didn’t like practicing or playing strategically: I’d try percentage shots that didn’t pay off, and I had a tendency to lose focus and get too tight when the score was against me. So I played a lot less and we ended up leaving the club anyway.
When I was a boy my family called me Bobby and, occasionally, Robby, except for my paternal aunt who used to called me “Robair” using an urgent and somewhat conspiratorial voice. I went with Bob in primary school and for forty years following until I changed my business cards to Robert and prepared for a late-middle age life change. When I moved to Melbourne Australia at the age of 54, I decided to open another new door and now prefer to be called Rob.
Two early memories I can date: First, a late summer day with my parents and brother meeting my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin next to the Golden Bears at the 1949 California State Fair on the 100th anniversary of the Gold Rush. The other was during preparations for the New Years Eve party that year at the tennis club. My parents were on the decoration committee, and were dressing up a mannequin dressed as the old year with white robe and flowing beard), when a former Olympic swimmer repeatably rehearsed emerging from the men’s locker room with a small white diaper over his silver racing trunks to celebrate the new year.
The following year we had season tickets to the Sacramento Music Circus where I remember seeing Showboat and Oklahoma. At a meal at the new Sacramento Inn following the second show, we saw the actress playing Ado Annie sitting alone across the room and I insisted on walking over to her table tell her how much I liked the show and that I thought she was beautiful. I was five years old.
At the age of six I began attending El Dorado School on Jay Street, a stuccoed off-white building with a red tiled roofed which I thought looked like a California mission with a centrally placed two story auditorium as the church, kindergarten, first and second grade to the left, middle grades, library and art room in a central wing and the higher grade classrooms in newer wooden temporary buildings to the side. My first morning in kindergarten when the teacher told a girl named Mary Ann that she had to stop crying which only made her cry more. I told the teacher that someone should slap her face and she led me to the principal’s office who called my mother and had his secretary take me to the lunchroom and give me a peanut butter sandwich. I was happy to see my mother but decided I didn’t like my first schoolteacher.
My third grade teacher, Miss Hussong, told stories while chalking large capital letters on the blackboard, then turning the letters into characters in the story. We also had weekly talent shows where I remember sang songs I heard on the radio or saw on Perry Como’s television show. Once I told a joke I had heard at home and Miss Hussong told me I was very witty. The next year in fourth grade some friends and I were scheduled to go to the auditorium to work on our musical play, the plot shifting depending on what movie I had seen with my father at the Esquire, Alhambra, Tower or Crest Theatre the previous Saturday, and generally I took the Frank Sinatra role, although after seeing Guys and Dolls I went with Marlon Brando. Summer vacation came before we ever had an opening performance.
My parents were nice people. They always hoped for the best, loved to laugh. One summer the teenagers around the pool told my mother that they had agreed she and my father were the most popular adults in the club. We played tennis and went swimming during summer weekends at the club, and took occasional day trips to the San Francisco Zoo or Aquarium or the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, stopping first for clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember summer trips to the mountains, the highway following the American or Truckee River upstream with the convertible top down and the sharp smell of pine forests. They loved to entertain and laugh, were well liked with lots of friends, gave great parties on Saturday nights, and shared ambitious plans for the future with a deep hope that it would all be coming true in the near future. Some Sunday afternoons my mother and I would visit houses “open for inspection” in better neighbourhoods where we hoped to move soon.
But when things did not go well the family tended to get quiet, avoid the pain in hope that it might go away, focus elsewhere. “Let’s not talk about that now.” So nothing was discussed, everyone kept quiet, looking in another direction. And when I was in my last two years at El Dorado School a lot went wrong; my grandfather was operated on for liver cancer on my eleventh birthday and died exactly two months later on the Friday before Father’s Day. The year before my father had sold his part of the printing business to pay for back taxes and we moved to a rental house, my older brother graduated from high school, started at the local junior college, took a part-time job and moved with a friend into his own apartment, a family friend who had lived with us for two years left the Air Force to return to his parents home in Florida, and everyone in the family worried that my maternal grandmother, who had a nervous breakdown five years before, would be unable to bear her husbands death. My parents argued more, the drinking got worse, and during that summer I remember sitting barefoot in the front seat of my mother’s Buick convertible outside a neighbourhood market while my father went in to buy liquor for a Saturday night, and looking down to see the summer sun shining on one thick dark hair growing on the centre of my right big toe.
I graduated at mid-term at the end of 1957 and went into the seventh grade early the next year, attending junior high school. My grades went down almost immediately and I would wake up on Monday mornings with reasons for not going like headaches, stomach pains, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea. I fell behind on homework and my grades went down and I would not walk into a classroom late for fear that other students would look at me and know about some betrayal that I did not understand; some vague disease that kept me home in the mornings behind semi-closed venetian blinds and made me fear crowds and avoid kids my own age. Finally I refused to go to school more days than not, and after the Easter vacation in 1958 I refused to go to school at all, and I didn’t want to talk about it either.
About that time I remember looking at the paperback rack by the checkout stand at that same neighbourhood market, seeming saw a copy of a famous stripper’s memoirs, “Gypsy – soon to be a musical starring Ethel Merman,” and asking my mother to buy it for me. I loved the story of 1920s and 30s vaudeville, burlesque and Broadway, and in 1959 when the musical came to San Francisco’s Geary Theatre with the National Company my mother and I saw Ethel Merman striding down the centre aisle demanding her eldest daughter, “Sing out, Louise!”
Then my mother and I were both seeing therapists and my parents were advised to not pressure me on return to junior high classes. And now my parents marriage was close to breaking up and rather than going to the tennis club on Saturday’s we were driving near the town where my mother grew up and a sheep ranch that my aunt’s husband managed for his father’s infirm sister and cleaning up the abandoned bunkhouse with plans for making it into a weekend retreat.
Sometimes on Saturday mornings we’d stop at the Italian grocery on Folsom Boulevard and get salami and cheese and bread rolls and beer and Pepsi Cola, then we’d drive through the downtown and past the redevelopment building sites west of the State Capitol. We crossed the Sacramento River on Tower Bridge, driving over the Yolo causeway, which flooded during wet winters, and past the University campus at Davis to Solano County to make a right turn off the highway at the Giant Orange where we sometimes got fresh fruit. We drove through Dixon on the narrow road bisecting green or yellow flat fields of grain or bright safflower and sometimes after autumn harvest sheep were feeding in the stubble barely separated from the road by spare wire fences that looked like musical notes should be hanging on them.
In 1960 my brother married his high school sweetheart and, when my uncle’s aunt moved to a nursing home, the main house on the ranch became available and my mother and I stayed there more often while my father came down on the bus or train most weekends. But after he was released from the hospital following a liver disease my father rented a small apartment downtown and my mother had movers empty the rental house in Sacramento and her cousin from Oroville helped us with a final cleanup and then the drive to the ranch with the movers arriving with the full van the next day. It rained hard as we drove down through the flat fields on dark roads. I remember opening the last gate and closing it behind us as we parked by the garage at the back of the house. I had felt lost in the house on 41st street where all I knew was where I wasn’t; but at least people knew who I had been, and who, I assumed, I should be — but now no one knew me at all and I felt like I was becoming invisible, castaway in a far off desert. I would return to Sacramento four years later to start a long journey as a peripatetic tertiary student, but I didn’t know that then.
My mother used to have what she called “A Happy.” This was a particular and sudden unsought but seized upon sense of joy which would show up in the present moment like sun breaking through clouds or fog. Sometimes it came in looking out a window, other times with the radio music or company present or something one of the dogs did. But to her it was a gift she was quick to receive and share. She would say, “I’m having a happy,” and we would all go to the sun porch ( with screened windows all ‘round, walls painted green with white wicker sofa and chairs, potted plants and orange covered cushions) which she called the thinking room — and we’d sit there with a certain sense of privilege brought about by fresh tea or coffee, the dogs or the canary, the morning sunlight, the sounds of the chickens ‘round the corner or a tractor in the distance; some present transient glory inviting us to wait, watch and respond to what was right in front of us, happening here and now.
I think it was the greatest gift she shared, this availability for responding to certain instances of freely given life: an ephemeral light brought into close focus by an acquired appreciation to be shared that came in listening for unintended humour or wisdom in overheard conversation, insights that came in witnessing some performance of street humour, music, drama, comedy, pathos; in light-filled sunrooms or in sidewalk awakenings where the evidence of glory walked into our daily life and made itself available to share in newborn thanksgiving. Looking back there a number epiphanies of the daily kind which opened into laughable and fresh-breathed mystery. Like Robert Browning’s poem on his Last Duchess, “She liked where ere she looked and her look went everywhere,” and accompanying her on these forays into the land of happy always seemed a gifted adventure.
Other stories came into play in those four years when, following the advice of a therapist, my parents did not enrol me in the local high school. I was very shy around people my own age and tended to be stilted with adults I did not know well: becoming one of those hidden adolescents trying to figure out the answer without understanding the question: scared, precocious, and very anxious to find a world where I would fit in, where I would make sense. I worked occasionally for my uncle around the ranch, but had no real friends outside immediate family: I worried that I would die and no one would come to my funeral. I was very anxious to find a world where I would fit in so I watched old movies on television and came home from the local library loaded down; some popular psychology and sociology, but mainly humour, biography and fiction. Looking back I recall three authors who gave me hope.
Elizabeth Goudge’s book, “Pilgrims Inn” was in my grandparents bookcase before I could read, and I recall sitting on the floor puzzling over the sketches of the main characters on the covers and inside the binding. When I was 14 or 15 I start reading it. The Elliot’s, a family in post-World War II England move to an old house on the English coast and find themselves recipients of a surprising love. Walking in nearby woods at dusk, Nadine Elliott has a realisation of the connectedness of life and the compassion it calls for: “Quite suddenly you felt like your life was not an isolated thing, but one that existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, ‘We don’t need each other’”
J. D. Salinger’s first novel, “Catcher in the Rye,” was rich reading for an apprehensive teenager, and the two stories in “Franny and Zooey” touched me more deeply. The second story begins when a young acting student returns to her parents New York apartment home to have a religious breakdown/breakthrough. Her older brother Zooey accuses her of withdrawing from the family structure in order to pray. At one point he says something like, “How can you claim to be a pilgrim, to follow holiness, then turn down a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup we have in this house?” And when Franny says she no longer want to be an actress because it seems to be egocentric and self obsessed. Her brothers responds, “The only thing you can do now…the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to — be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?”
And then he reminds her of something their older brother told him when they appeared together on a radio show together; “to shine my shoes… for the Fat Lady.” He pictured someone with cancer listening to the radio, “sitting on a parch and swatting flies on a hot day” and asks if his sister is listening to him; “I’ll tell you a terrible secret… There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady… Don’t you know that… secret yet? And don’t you know… who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy… It’s Christ Himself…”
When I was seventeen I borrowed Joan Didion’s early first book, “Run River”, from the Rio Vista library. Set in the nearby Sacramento delta, Didion’s early work was loaded with scenes from the birthplace we shared: meals at the Capitol Tamale Parlor on Tenth Street and the shady veranda at the Senator Hotel around the corner by the park. In Slouching towards Bethlehem she shares a reoccurring sense of anomie writing that, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” and I found that comforting. As a native daughter and a pilgrim who had traveled far, she offered words, memories and meanings that linked me deeper to the city where I was born, the place I had left behind, and her memories grafted onto the lost years I was trying to rehabilitate. At that time my father told me he had received a letter from Didion’s father following the death of his own father in 1940. I don’t remember whether the senior Didion was president of the school board or on the board of the bank at Eighth and Jay Streets, but when my father shared the kindness of a leading citizen writing a sympathy letter to him it fused another facet of my own identity as a writer and a fourth generation native of Sacramento.
That summer after my father’s stay in hospital and our moving to the ranch I remember him pouring out tall glasses of ice tea from the carafe in the refrigerator and going out to his vegetable garden to hand water the plants, pick off tomato bugs, and gather fresh produce for dinner. He would end up sitting in an old red kitchen chair that had been appropriated from the wash-house to rest by the shade of the grapevines — sitting in the late afternoon sun with an appreciation of the garden that was almost palpable, was healing to us all.
It reminded me of times we shared when I was younger and taking the bus down Jay street with him on Saturday morning at the quiet print shop for a few hours, ending with lunch across Jay Street at an Italian cafeteria where high-hatted chefs lavishly cut slices off a massive side of rare roast beef for a dipped sandwich on a French roll. Sometimes we’d walk over to the capitol and look at the rotunda, check out the red and green chambers of the Senate and the Assembly.
I remember the two of us on Saturday train rides to San Francisco to the Oakland Mole when I was 10 or 11 and catching the “San Rafael” across the bay to the Ferry Building where the foot of Market Street met the Embarcadero and the city spread out like a open promise with un-numbered possibilities radiating out like the streetcars and taxis and trains and buses as noisy and fresh and rich as Benny Goodman’s big band sound.
Over those years my father came down most weekends and my parents marriage got better and in 1963, when I was 17, he moved down to manage a local branch of a large Sacramento printer in the nearby town where my mother had grown up.
When I turned 18 years old, I took a nationwide tertiary entrance exam and scored extremely well on the verbal sections and amazingly bad on the quantitative part. My totalled score enabled me to return to Sacramento, stay with my maternal grandmother, and attend the local junior college without a high school diploma. I was back in school but felt as though I lacked some crucial secondary socialisation, feared that I missed a special ingredient. I would spend a lot of time trying to make up for that.
Later that year my brother gave me a book by the editor of Esquire Magazine called “What Every Young Man Should Know.” It contained a one page list of all the proper clothing that the young man in the know should know about. educating myself in the serious business of being an adult, which seemed to be mainly a matter of getting the right accessories I checked the list as I could afford to buy the items. At the same time I decided that I join a fraternity, a tennis club and a church as well. This, I assumed, would give me a series of walls and safety nets to make the world make sense. I would have all my bases covered.
So fast-forward to the early nineties when I’m working as a tertiary chaplain in San Francisco and speaking to a priest of a nearby parish about my lost adolescence and unorthodox education. He surprises me by saying he respected my parents for easing the pressure and taking care of me that way, then told me that the previous year his high-school hating teenaged son had dropped out of school, run away from home, and was now living on the streets of the Haight Ashbury district of the city.
That opened a new and kinder light on my history, but there might have been other options. Looking back I’ve wonder if family therapy, facing and discussing problems and feelings, answering questions and telling the truth — maybe attending a few AA and AlAnon meetings or two would have made a difference; but that’s judging what was done then by what’s on the horizon now, and it’s a far different world. Looking back from here it’s clear that the the father was prone to drinking too much and likely depressed, the mother was uninfluenced by feminist writings and heavily co-dependent, the elder son was moving away from his family of origin in instinctual and understandable survival mode, and the younger son was smart, deeply scared and almost certainly gay. Nowadays it could be a TV series, though I am still not sure if it should be labelled comedy, drama or farce and looking back I still don’t know whether I want to laugh or cry or simply change the channel.
Nor am I sure whether I was hobbled or helped by the years at the ranch: the solitude, the sense I didn’t fit in anywhere — lost with a growing hunger to be seen, known and valued. But there was more to it too, more to be seen if I had known to enlarge the lens of my looking.
I remember one warm summer evening on the ranch when I was fourteen sitting in T-shirt and shorts with my back against the warm stucco wall on the front porch on the west side of that 1930s California bungalow ranch house watching the sunset turning white clouds mottled rose over the brown rolling hills some thirty miles away and something happened that surprised me.
Maybe vigilance was the focus for me at the time; trying to make sense of the world without a formal education or a peer group, figuring that if I look for all the clues the puzzle would make sense, and the chaos turn into order that I could control or at least understand. These things were on my mind that particular evening when, just for a moment, I became aware of a subtle change in the air.
I know now there is often a moment in a summer evening when the earth baked by the sun since morning starts to give up its heat to the cooler evening, when a fresh breeze announces that day is ending and evening beginning with a kind of give-and-take rhythm, almost a scent of silent music, and in that instance I didn’t feel alone.
It was just one moment and changed nothing: but all these years later I still wonder if the land I wanted to escape from in those days might have also been a place for faithful pilgrimage and might have contained, in those warm sunsets and silent mornings, the eloquent offering of a compassionate wisdom I’m still yet to fully understand.