NOTE: After today I’m going to be gone for awhile. I’m going to my family’s place on Vashon Island to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. THERE IS NO INTERNET THERE! So, while Adam will be here publishing posts I’ve written in advance, I won’t be here to see your comments and respond to you as usual. Please do continue to comment on posts, though, and I’ll write to you once I’m back—sometime after June 7th.
I’ve been digging into a little family history lately, working on a project with a friend. I’ve written to you all about my Grandpa Hammar teaching me to sing (see previous post My Singing Heritage), and I’ve mentioned my Great Grandpa Casson’s tug (see previous post Tell Me Your Dreams). The fact is, my great grandparents on my mother’s side, were very important to me growing up.
They lived on the beach on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, the southern-most San Juan Island, although most people don’t think of it as such. It sits in the bay between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, and there is still no bridge connecting it to the mainland. There are car ferries that run from both ends of the island to the two cities and, more recently, a foot ferry into Seattle.
This land has been in my family since my great great grandparents, David Levi and Alice Jane Hake moved there in the late 1890s, I believe. There is a family legend, fiercely denied by many, that my great great grandfather won what had been the Vashon Island Yacht Club and its surrounding acreage in a poker game. I’m one of the few family members who love the romance of that story, true or not. The yacht club was torn down in 1953, and there are few pictures remaining, but one shows my great great grandfather standing on the porch wearing a brocade vest and a black cowboy hat, with a gun belt hanging diagonally off his hips. I don’t have that particular photo but I do have two of the old place:
My mom and I agreed, recently, that we both felt as though we’d grown up on the island, although I only spent some weekends throughout the year there and a couple of weeks each summer. I think this speaks to the fact that the island itself, and my grandparents, were integral to my growing up. In every generation there seems to be one person for whom the island holds a special place. That was mom for her generation and me for mine.
There is much about this heritage of mine on Vashon Island that I don’t know, but what I do know is this: my great grandparents had a profound effect on my development as a human being. Grandma was a painter. My family still owns one of her paintings that she painted on the canvas of her covered wagon. Here’s a photo of it:
She was also a musician, playing the piano and even writing music. We found published sheet music with her name on it after she passed away. And she was something of a naturalist. She loved nature and taught me to see its beauty and also to respect it. Her gardens were so beautiful that boats would often anchor off shore, their people rowing in, just to see them up close. Here’s a photo of her as a young woman:
They scrabbled together their living. Grandpa ran a tug, delivered newspapers up on the island, and repaired boat motors and sold gasoline from his dock on the bay. Here’s the only photo I have of him, which I love:
I learned a healthy respect for the water at a very young age. Grandma taught me to swim and grandpa taught me to row. Once I was proficient in both, I was allowed to go out on the bay, alone, whenever I wanted, weather permitting. In addition to my time on the bay, I spent a ton of time in my grandpa’s shop—a magical place much like Bill Loyd’s studio today (see previous post The Farmer’s Mantra). Grandma and grandpa were artists in their own right, creating what came naturally to each.
And I suppose they were living an alternative lifestyle all those years ago, one I seem to be emulating now. In fact Truchas reminds me very much of Vashon. I think it’s one of the reasons I feel so comfortable in this old, remote place.
I wrote this poem about them that was published in a little anthology titled, The Islanders, back in 1978:
My grandpa used to own this beach;
his newspapers and ford and
his gasoline dock.
He smelled like boats and books
and log booms.
He had quiet cold winters here with grandma.
They were a simple folk, hardly
I’ll always remember grandma’s
coal fires and her roses,
and drawers full of coconut cookies.
Their house was gold and umber
to a little girl, and frightening
and protected and enchanted.
The sand gritted the carpets, dust
covered the flowers, and they
loved each other so much.
But now they’re gone–
their house, the sheds, the docks,
the chickens, and the roses.
But I am here
and I remember.
Love to you all,