Friday, December 10, 2010

Write Roots - Online Genealogy & Memoir Resources

Today I read that Ancestry Library Edition, the public library subscription version of by Proquest, is one of the most widely utilized electronic subscription databases for genealogy in our Silicon Valley public libraries.

With the popularity of scrap booking, Census, and family tree-maker sites and software, plus the expansion of local historical society resources and projects as Baby Boomers age, I suspect that our generation will play a major role in documenting and recording the lineage and memories of our first, second, and third-generation relatives. In doing so, we will create a tangible record of our own rites of passage, as "memoir" scribes of our generation.

In writing about memoir, especially within the constraints of history, first learning the historical record and details of one’s heritage (even when the opportunity for gathering oral histories may no longer be available), may provide a valuable breadcrumb trail through creative options of how best to organize your writing.

In my own family our cherished family oral historical beliefs were discovered to be a bit scrambled. Of course, the online heraldry sites said we come from royalty, that we were from another nationality altogether, and that we had a family crest. Well, it sounds like fun, but I think we are a lot like every other family, only special because we love each other, not because we are related to knights, kings or queens.

In reality, generations of the maternal side of my family fished along the rocky Adriatic coast, when they weren't growing grapes or making wine. Some were from generations of educated folk whose heritage was linked to regions which were home to the ancient Celts. The paternal side of my family is Northern European, and not much is known about them as borders and records changed or were lost during war times. But there was another stunning revelation.

When a distant cousin researched our family records, she found that much of what we thought we knew, which had been handed down through our family's oral and written histories, was wrong.

In trying to remember the past, our family's elderly first generation had some dates and places confused, and there was a secret first (or second wife) attached to our great grandfather, depending whose side of the family was telling the story.

Instead of clinging to what we wanted to believe about our past, we received the gift of our real heritage and history. It was wonderful and all courtesy of records which my cousin found through online record searches, a historical path of detection which you can follow yourself or with the help of a librarian and a local genealogy center.

Aside from taking you deeper into your personal or family journey, genealogy and history sites will ground you in the authentic events which shaped your historic past, the silent backdrop which sets the atmosphere and tone of your memoir.

The following works illustrate several methods of writing an historic memoir:
• Placing your family memoir within an historical perspective and framing it as an allegory of the times, offers readers a broader view of your personal story within regional or worldwide events of significance. Greg Mortenson’s books, Three Cups of Tea (2009) and Stones into Schools (2010) integrate one man’s journey from failed, scruffy mountain climber to respected international humanitarian, all within the framework of cultural and political events in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Likewise, taking a much-documented political or international event and telling the story of its personal impact on you, or the lives of a handful of people you knew well, personalizes history and brings it vividly alive for the reader. The ongoing popularity of era-based oral histories by Studs Terkel, some even contemporized in graphic novel format illustrates the multigenerational appeal of presenting real people who survived and thrived during typically summarized major local or world events, clustering a common major cultural memoir into vignettes, with one individual, one story at a time.

A more recent work, Angel Island: immigrant gateway to America, by Erika Lee and Judy Yung (2010) employs oral histories, holding-cell drawings, and government records to tell the story of Pacific immigrants who were endlessly becalmed on this San Francisco Bay gateway island while attempting to gain entry into the United States. Both Lee and Yung are descended from Angel Island detainees, which lend certain pathos to their memoir.

Contemporary biography may also highlight an era, a personal transformation, or handle difficult subjects and memories within an historic perspective. Keith Richard’s new biography, Life, Keith Richards (2010) has received positive reviews for its surprising poignancy as Richards reveals aspects of his childhood and adolescent years which are markedly different from the hard-driving, drug-saturated public persona which unfolded across the tabloids in his role as a founding member of the Rolling Stones. Transformational stories like these, framed by a specific era and its music, fashion, and world events, enrich the ability of readers to relate to the subject of the memoir. Even those readers who are unaware of Richards, per se, may relate to a story of self-annealing honesty.

Writing memoir from these perspectives closely follows aspects of Journalism, with its requirement for factual and accurate reporting of documented events. A subset of journalism which includes chronological reporting on authentic events, coupled with personal impressions and view points, has been termed, Narrative Journalism or “Creative Nonfiction.” One of my favorite introductions to this marriage of Journalism and memoir is Telling True Stories: A nonfiction writers’ guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. In this work noted nonfiction writers like Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Susan Orlean and others, share their insights on the meaning and craft of narrative journalism.

To increase your breadth of historical knowledge while writing memoir, these online sites are particularly helpful:

The Ellis Island Foundation The American Memory Collection
The U.S. Census Online
• The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration U.S. Census page and related genealogy pages featuring passenger ship manifests, immigration records, and military service records, among other resources.
• LDS Family History Centers - Family Search
• University of Houston’s Digital History site
• American Cultural History: The Twentieth Century (by decade)
• Ancestry Library Edition is available for free at some local libraries and can be accessed online with your library card.

---Catherine Alexander Bright,

Kerr Jars - A Silicon Valley Holiday Memoir

The peeling, creaky ladder went over, spilling at least half a bucket of juicy, Burgundy-colored Royal Ann cherries, most of them tumbling in a sorry heap in the dirt at my feet.

It was 102 in the shade at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and if I weren't trying to keep pace with my buff, older male cousins, I would have cried some deeply female pre-adolescent tears. I was dirty, sweaty, shy, and tired, and I had two more miserable hours among the cicadas, bees, and fruit flies, before cooling relief, in the form of the Meyer lemonade and liverwurst sandwiches which were waiting in my mother's linoleum-patterned kitchen.

Pears soap. A long shower. My faithful Woodhue Cologne. My pink bedroom with it's white lace pillows, collection of special rocks, and dog-eared Agatha Christie novels, one bookmarked and waiting. I would disappear from the jovial warmth of family to find my quiet indoor oasis, although our house had only one bathroom and our entire, gregarious family had descended for the cherry harvest.

We grew Blenheim and Moorpark apricots, along with Royal Ann and Bing cherries, cots which my aunts, cousins, and I would cut faithfully every summer, then dry. Our French Prune crop would be picked and sent to dry yards, then packaged by a local family conglomerate who would make their fortune selling dried produce internationally.

During summer the valley air would smell like a candy store of ripe fruit, sticky with juice and sugar, at least until the peaches were harvested and the canneries would leave the skins to sour and decay in large, steaming piles. All of these visions, scents, and memories live on in my mother's fruit-filled Kerr jars, still tucked away on a shelf, cool and dark, waiting to restore me back to another time, rich with family, the scent of summer, and bounty in the life that was astonishingly simple compared to today.

Our family's European heritage would translate into a holiday gifts of our dried fruits to the postman, to our neighbors, doctors, dentist, tax accountant, and to out-of-state relatives and friends. We would stuff our dried prunes with chopped walnuts or whole roasted almonds, then dip them in dark chocolate, lining up the warm nuggets in dripping rows on old, bent cooling racks. My aunt and uncle, who had an apple orchard in the Wine County, before they converted it to grape varietals, would give us boxes of their spicy, sweet Gravenstein apples, more intensely delicious than any other apple I have tasted since. From this we made our own applesauce, cider, and apple cake, staples on our holiday tables.

I have no idea how my parents managed to produce a large tomato crop every year, since my plants seem to disappear from the valley's clay-hard soil, roots and all, long before they have a chance to produce. From their large crops of tomatoes, bell peppers, and herbs, my mother made her own canned, stewed tomatoes, which appeared in some form at every evening meal, cherry-red, gently tart, and carrot-sweet.

I have a deep, new respect for my father, now that I am tending his garden and caring for the family home. I earned my own advanced academic degree to escape the farming life and work as a public librarian, although I now long to recreate the simplicity and abundance of my agricultural memory, while relishing visits to my cousins and their wine and vineyard-related businesses in Napa and Sonoma counties.My father was a wonderful cook, an accomplished dirt gardener, a skilled carpenter who erected redwood patios, decks, a workshop, and other outbuildings. 

He was also a dedicated home journeyman who wrestled skillfully with his own electrical and plumbing work, all while working dawn to dusk as a butcher. I never remember him once being home sick in his 40 years of employment. I wish I had his strength, knowledge, and skill, as I slowly restore the old family home and gardens, now surrounded by Hewlett Packard and Apple Computer, in what has become one artery within the heart of California's Silicon Valley. The picture I have included shows him with three of my six California cousins. He bought them all cowboy outfits around this time, in the late 1940's.

It was a European tradition in our family to have a kettle of Cioppino on Christmas Eve. Everyone would gather and contribute some portion of the fish, Polenta, Ciabatta, or produce. The lace tablecloths would come out, wine glasses would appear, and a tray of relishes and French onion and clam dips would be set out in crystal bowls. As a special treat we would carefully boil ravioli's, either home made or from La Villa Deli in Willow Glen, and have their Cucciddata cookies for dessert, which was a special treat. For summer holidays we would have large bouquets of gorgeous chrysanthemums from our neighbor's hothouses, at least in the early years, before they moved to farm their acres of blooms in the Fresno area.

During holiday meals my father would have a few glasses of red wine and talk wistfully of his Navy days in Guiuan (Eastern Samar) in the Philippines. He was in charge of the vegetable garden near his Quonset hut (and of censoring mail), and would send my mother long letters about his produce, including photos of himself holding boxes of his vegetables and flowers while wearing native dress. He was a kind-hearted and fun-loving man who would find the horrors of war heartbreakingly unbearable. His Navy garden gave him solace, plus my mother's agricultural family, with it's seasonal rituals and strong ties, would strengthen and ground him with wonderful meals filled with fresh produce, among a family who thrived on European traditions and cookery in all its forms.

As I run an old broom down the stacks of my mother's fruit-filled Kerr canning jar cases, I remember the beautiful molasses-colored eyes of one horse, it's large ivory teeth reaching over an old, white-washed corral, to grasp and crunch my offerings of late-summer carrots and apples. My mother and I regularly passed the same horse ranch as we walked down our rural, country lane to "Joe the Egg Man's house," as we called it then, where we would watch Joe candle each egg lovingly, before gently placing it in the cartons which we saved between visits. It's hard to believe that these early years existed in Silicon Valley, now home to a highly educated, high-tech international brain trust, a renowned center of venture capitalism, several world class universities, an astonishingly successful hub of ethnic diversity, and a thriving cultural explosion of opportunities. Back then, it was a dusty, verdant river valley, lush with produce and hard-working first and second generation Asian, Latin, and European families.

Today my mother and father are long gone and the orchard has been subdivided, yet I still have a shed filled with my mother's home-canned apricots, peaches, and cherries from 40-50 years ago. They are no longer safe to eat and some day I will have to dispose of them, but they carry the life-blood of so many family summers in their sealed, sweet chambers, that the time to finally let go of their Dandelion Wine-like magic may not exist in my lifetime.

Recipes (Click images to enlarge)

Brandied Cherries

I was surprised to find several large jars of brandied Royal Ann cherries in my mother's closet after she passed away. 

I have included her recipe for this treat, which is luscious over ice cream or cheesecake. My grandfather made his own wine, whiskey, and brandy when he had a ranch in Cupertino near the current site of the county library and Cupertino City Hall. He used goats to keep the weeds down in the orchard, but that's a story for another time.

Sherry Prune Cake

If you have not tried Prune Cake or Prune Muffins, they are naturally sweet, incredibly moist, and delicious with spicy goodness. I like to add some walnuts to my muffins, and usually leave out the egg yolks and reducing the sugar in my mother's original recipe. I also replace the milk with buttermilk.

My mother's recipe for Sherry Prune Cake is shown in her handwriting, however, her recipe seems to have a few missing steps or ingredients and has never turned out very well for me. Baking temperature is 325 degrees or 300 degrees for glass pans (not shown on the recipe card).

Make sure to oil the pan well and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, as her prune cake has a tendency to stick to the baking pan. Baking times will vary based on the moisture in the prunes (watch the browning of this cake and test with a toothpick to determine that adequate baking time has taken place.) For all of these reasons, using a Bundt or tube pan is not recommended.

To find books with holiday recipes, California Farm life records, and holiday memoirs (on

---Catherine Alexander Bright,

Monday, November 1, 2010

Don't think of Oranges - Memoir Resources for Writers

It took years for me to actually trust myself enough to write, solely for the joy of writing.

Like many women, I felt compelled to write cogently and authoritatively when I had an issue or position to present for a practical purpose. However, writing about my own history, about my family memories, and about the many activities within my region of the country, felt less like an authentic life pursuit because, well, it was "fun."

In my upbringing and within my family of origin, "fun" was considered to be highly suspicious stuff. It implied that not enough of the real, "important" work might be getting done, like picking fruit, canning, sewing, learning the Catechism and declension of Latin nouns, and writing those ubiquitous, weekly thank-you notes we penned so often in the 1950's and 1960's. "Thank you for your thank-note. I really enjoyed it."

In the 50's and 60's "fun" meant that you were somehow getting into something that might have to be mentioned in Confession. The parents weren't sure what your quiet, soul-cleansing revelation might be on Saturday morning, but they knew it would be a negative reflection on their parenting, one way or another. Our parents worked hard, they were honest, and even they weren't happy all the time, so how could their kids possibly expect to be happy without some misguided wrongdoing involved?

Good, hard, sober work was highly valued on my mother's side of the family. "Work" consisted of those activities which, a) garnered a stable income but not so much cash that anyone else in the family might become too jealous or resentful, b) kept a boss consistently in focus because their opinion mattered much more than yours ever would, could, or should, c) led to regular promotions [for caveat, see "a"], and, d) gave one's parents bragging rights over the success of their child within the loamy family ecosystem, rife with the sprouting eyes of their own past successes and failures. 

Education was also valued, but only if it lead to a, b, c, and d. Too much education was considered excessive and self-promoting, especially for the women of the family. It distracted from time which could be spent, you guessed it, at work.

I should say that a counterpart to "d" above, was a certain Greek chorus of woe and heightened phone activity when I or my cousins experienced challenges within our work or personal lives. We were all responsible, we paid our bills on time, contributed to charity, volunteered selflessly, but our parents remained concerned and vigilant lest too much happiness lead us astray. 

"Why do you want to go to graduate school? Don't you have enough education already?" "Can you afford a vacation?" "Where is he taking you? What does he do for a living? He does what?" (All said with the look.)

I remember one widely-reported incident regarding the health of one of my cousin's, well, how should I say this, "private parts." This was a second-generation subject of morbid controversy for at least three weeks running, no matter how much my poor cousin tried to quell the topic among our aunts. I would rather not have known anything about it, or them. (Don't think about oranges. Please don't even talk about oranges. I don't even want to know you have oranges.) When I had a biopsy in later years my family never knew about it. I took a good friend and we found copious ice cream varieties afterward. No oranges were harmed in the making of my personal drama. I would like to thank the Academy.

So, we learned early not to report the truth when our lives were a bit shaky or bumpy. We were always winners. We always succeeded. We never told our parents the real truth of our lives, because it would explode exponentially beyond our control, like a an exquisitely hand-tied fly, cast high over a broad, fast-running stream. One which we knew we could never reel in and recast, for it would be forever lost among the reeds on a swift current moving ever forward, until summer's heat and a new year left it tattered and scorched, waiting to be rediscovered and reexamined. In our family, secrets and sore spots never died, they were reconstituted like enhanced gravy at each holiday meal and appeared nearly as often.

Our mothers and aunts were born into a family where a married woman did not have hobbies, which were considered to be too unproductive. Hence, whatever foolishness we had gotten into (or out of) each week became our parents' version of living reality TV. Tune in, take an aspirin, call your sister, and talk about the worst case scenario. My cousins and I were the Cuban Missile Crisis, Med Fly, Whip 'n Chill, "Duck, cover, and HOLD," "Can't get no satisfaction," generation. We chewed on sugar-stiffened doilies, we melted red licorice in the steam of our mentholated vaporizers, and we beat our parents at Gin Rummy but had to do the dishes anyway.

Our parents were more cautious, coming from a generation which had tasted wild abandon in the rhythmic flavors of Scat, Swing, and Jive, yet had it all suddenly yanked out of their grasp by the advent of war. They could remember a long, arduous climb out of the Great Depression with much deserved pride, so WWII was a secondary shock to their sense of trust in stability. Swing music, unfortunately, was now a pulsing reminder of the War years.

We loved them, we respected them, and we clashed. We tried to convince them that being happy had inherrent value. We no longer believed that if we collected enough psychic Green Stamps that some day, long in the future, we could finally redeem our filled, sticky books for that elusive free gift, happiness.

We watched the murders of JFK, RFK, MLK Jr., and John Lennon. We watched Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to love the Bomb, and tried to forget the Cold War, despite the constant drone of late-night flights into Moffett Field. We wanted some happy right now, because our future was not guaranteed, according to the lingering fears of The Greatest Generation. We wanted just enough happy to know that we were really alive today. Touch wood.

If we could, just for a few moments, feel the warmth of the sun on our Yardley-washed faces, feel it's heat though our tie-dyed t-shirts, and know that blissful release from winter's cold down to our Birkenstocked toes, we could leave this fragile life with not just a material legacy, fulfulling the dream of our parents, but with a life dream, a memory of having reached inside for a creative joy that grew out of our own intrinsic sense of value. We could finally be at peace.


Here are some books which have led me back to the joy of writing and a creative mindset, when I have, at times, temporarily abandoned a lifestyle which included my art. (Titles of these books are linked to WorldCat, which will allow you to enter your zip code and find them in a library near you. WorldCat also finds these books for you on Amazon and other online book retailers, if available.)
  • For those of you who, like me, seem to get sidelined away from writing (or your own particular art form), I have found Julia Cameron's How to Avoid Making Art (or anything else you Enjoy) (Penguin 2005) to be a great kick-start back into living your writing dream and eliminating self-imposed distractions. Cameron uses simple, humorous, line drawings to illustrate concepts particularly appropriate for women who get too involved in others lives and find themselves with no time left for their own creative journey.

  • For women who tend to want to wait to write or live fully until they have achieved some inner laundry list of perfection, Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth (Scribner 2010) is a revelation of wisdom about coming to a place of wholeness, so your life may actually begin right now. If you are waiting until you lose 20 pounds, get your garage cleaned out, put your kids though college, or finally have your remodel done before you live your dream, this book is for you.

  • Sometimes changing focus from a busy life to a writing life can present challenges. We can't tell our children, our jobs, or our elderly parents to stop having needs or crises so we can have time to write. If you need help finding your writing voice within a chaotic life, Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away: The practice of writing Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 2007) has pages of prompts which can give unfocused and distracted writing a starting point. Her suggested exercises and themes are also helpful for blocked writers.

  • Lastly, and I say this truly in all seriousness, we all need a life-memoir tiara. Not a Burt Parks, Miss America type of thing, but a self-made crown which reminds us of the best of who we are and how far we have come on our writing or life journey. Build yourself a circular ode to your spirit, whether in chicken wire, pipe cleaners and old earrings, or an embellished, aluminum pie plate covered with old magazine photos, glitter, and old buttons. Let it remind you that you have a creative, inner life and a writing spirit which needs tending. For home crafted tiara ideas, I like Crowns and Tiaras: Add a little sparkle, glitter, and glamour to every Day (Sterling Publishing, 2007), by Kerri Judd and Danyel Montecinos. Wear it with pride.


There are a wealth of classes and events available for writers of memoir and creative nonfiction in Silicon Valley. Here are some well-established resources:

  • Stanford Continuing Education offers classroom instruction through The Writers Studio, plus online writing instruction through The Online Writers Studio. Both sites list courses in memoir and other genre, including creative nonfiction. Stanford Continuing Studies also offers public events featuring notable writers. On November 18, 2010 the Speak, Memory series begins with readings from works by Jorge Luis Borges, Oliver Sachs, and Anne Tyler.

  • The Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University has presented some outstanding programs with notable authors. In 2011 E. L. Doctorow will be featured in a booksigning on March 23rd, followed by an onstage interview on March 24th, as part of the 2011 Martha Heasley Cox Lecture series.

---Catherine Alexander Bright,

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Oktoberfesting around the Bay

If you've never experienced Oktoberfest there are a few places around the Bay Area which do a great job in recreating this celebration of music, food, and beer.

In this region The Nature Friends have two mountain top "Tourist clubs," one in Mill Valley just below Mt. Tamalpais and the other in Oakland's East Bay hills. Oktoberfests in both locations offer delicious Bavarian food, live bands, and beer on tap in beautiful mountain settings. It's not just about the beer, it's about being transported to a lively, European mountaintop chalet among folks who want to enjoy this annual celebration with friends and family members.

One of my favorite Oktoberfest sites is Joan and Peter's German Restaurant in San Juan Bautista. We had fun sitting in their outside picnic area listening to Alpiners USA while eating huge roasted veal shanks, then tossing the bones over the fence to a (very) happy dog belonging to their neighbors. Unfortunately Joan and Peter have discontinued their Oktoberfest celebration, at least for now. If they receive some requests, perhaps they will reconsider (hint, hint, nudge, nudge).

If you can't make it to one of these sites and like me, have nostalgia and yearning for some good Polka (or accordion) music in a 1950's family setting, check out Les Blank's 1984 documentary, "In Heaven there is no beer." YouTube has an outtake from this film featuring that great polka classic, "Who Stole the Kiszka?

If you are a hardcore accordion fan (go ahead, admit it), one of the quirkiest squeezebox festivals takes place in Cotati, California every August at the Cotati Accordion FestivalIf you go, don't miss the performance of "Lady of Spain," by anyone and everyone who shows up with an instrument. (The festival site provides LOS sheet music.) Those Darn Accordions often make an appearance, adding their own whimsy and rock-accordion vibe.

Of course, the grandaddy of all Oktoberfests for this region takes place in San Francisco at Pier 48, Oktoberfest by the Bay. Like most Oktoberfests, it takes place at the end of September, so plan on buying your tickets early for next year, or visit their Entertainment page to tap your feet with a free listen to the Chico Bavarian Band playing the Chicken dance. Nature Friends Schuhplatter provide traditional Bavarian dancing at this event as well. (Need Chicken Dance lessons before the next festival? Here is an old link from The Lawrence Welk Show that will show you how it's done. Those dancers did not get paid enough to have this professional clip live on in posterity.)

Click on "Find it for me" to see WorldCat resources on these subjects which may be available in your local library. (Enter your zip code to find your local branch.)
Thanks to the S.F. Nature Friends for allowing me to use their photo.

---Catherine Alexander Bright,