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Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller - May 2015


Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller
May 2015

Countering our Mortality

Into the mists of the past…that’s corny, isn’t it? But it’s also apt.

Here we are, each the center of our small universes, our small spheres brushing up against one another’s in our daily interactions and overlapping where our relationships become intimate. We accumulate evidence of our existence: paper and now electronic files (imagine the data held in our names by credit card companies, medical records departments and the “National Security Agency”). We consume food, and leave our waste, consume artifacts and leave their waste…and create progeny who multiply these processes. We take up space. We fill chairs and big comfy beds and buzz around in cars and occupy tables in restaurants. As we age, our consumption shrinks. We require less food, less space, until finally, confined to our most expensive bed, hooked up to monitors in a hospital, we expire with a breath. And enter the mists of time.

Oh yes, they will remember us, the children who sometimes seem to have forgotten us already, the friends who are on the same trajectory, and the communities we served. Some of us leave behind great works. Who can forget Shakespeare or Mozart? Or Hitler, for that matter. Good and bad leave an imprint on the sands of history. But the rest of us? Not so much.

Impermanence, Buddhists reverently call it. Impermanence is the reality of our lives and our only chance at happiness is to be mindful of it. Meditating on impermanence we become more present in the moment. We savor the experience of our days. Knowing that all suffer the pangs of confusion and loss, denial and fear, we have compassion for them and for ourselves. We become tender.

The older we become, the more we are prone to look back, not only over our own lives but into the further reaches of the past.  Witness the current absorption with genealogy. The Internet has made it possible for everyone to draw her own family tree. Genealogy, judging from the workshop I just took at Readers’ Books with Catherine Sevenau, is a painstaking, laborious pursuit that can become a sort of addiction. At 2 o’clock in the morning, Catherine might be found beneath the eaves, hovering over her computer trying to find a missing relative or correct a record with a misspelled name. But it has its rewards.

Catherine must be well known in Sonoma. She’s a realtor with Century 21. Don’t realtors know everybody? She also co-hosts Random Acts, the monthly open mic readings at Readers Books. For five years, she owned a carrot juice company.

Genealogy is her passion. It’s a calling, she writes, in a poem posted at one of her three family websites, this one dedicated to her father’s line, the Clemens: 

“What calls us to find the ancestors?/ It goes beyond a simple curiosity. We are taken over, compelled, as if possessed by something bigger/than us that is begging to be revealed.”

Intimations of immortality? She warned us not to do our genealogy in the bedroom, lest our ancestors come seeking us in the middle of the night. She laughed, saying, “This may sound a little woo-woo, but our ancestors want to be found.”

What calls people to go trekking all over the country – or even all over the globe – peering at gravestones, birth certificates, marriage and death certificates, census records, and newspaper microfiche, tracking down old photos and sitting up late at night to figure out who is in the picture? Is it a hedge against impermanence? Or is it just the delight of discovery?

In a hilarious narrative of a trip she took with her brother and his wife across Utah, Nevada and Montana tracking down her more famous lineage, the Chatfields (her great grandfather was a Civil War soldier who recorded his experiences in letters and diaries) she made some shocking discoveries:

“We…discovered the best family legends we had in the books we are putting together AREN’T EVEN TRUE!

“Grandpa didn’t gamble away the ranch. They never owned a ranch. And if they had owned a ranch, it would not have been worth $150,000. Hell, in 1915, you could have bought the whole godforsaken state of Montana for $150,000.”

“Truth,” she sums up, “the downside of research.” 

You can save your future genealogist the embarrassment of such errors by writing your own personal history! But I’ve run out of space. Contact me if you’d like to know more:

Stephanie Hiller, a personal historian and writer, lives in Sonoma.