Month: March 2018

My Historic ‘Sleeping Beauty’

WANTED: Rich “prince” to awaken sleeping beauty and bring her back to life.

Just down the street from where I live is this adorable little building. You could drive by it a hundred times and never notice it, because its classical facade hides shyly behind a high wall of greenery.

Sadly, it’s been sitting there, unused, for many years.

I’ve walked by this corner almost daily since I moved to San Rafael, and my insatiable curiosity finally led me to Google the address. Who knew my lonely little building was once a miniature palace?

This small gem began as a pavilion in San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition. It was part of the Liberal Arts Palace, housing the Victor Talking Machine Co. exhibit on the future of the Victrola.

In 1916, a bevy of prominent San Rafael women, members of the San Rafael Improvement Club, purchased the Greek Revival pavilion and had it moved across the bay. They knew it would make a perfect clubhouse.

These civic-minded ladies were a formidable force. Already, they had combated huge swarms of mosquitoes that bred in the town’s swampy bay. By 1917, club members had planted 6,000 trees, some of which still shade the streets of Downtown San Rafael.

Over the years, the pavilion served not only as headquarters for the Improvement Club, but also as a community gathering place for dances and special events.

Eventually, the club had to sell the building, no longer able to keep it up. Unused since 1997, it’s now in private hands. The grounds are well maintained, but there are no visible signs of life behind that screen of shrubs.

According to Google, the pavilion is 60 feet square, has hardwood floors, and can hold up to 200 people. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. (Only one other building remains from the 1915 Exposition: the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts.)

I want someone with money and a dream to come along and “kiss” my Sleeping Beauty. I want it to be awakened, re-purposed and enjoyed, to once again be a charming part of the local community.

Here’s an idea: Wouldn’t a “Ladies’ Ice Cream Emporium & Historical Museum” be just the thing?


New Meaning from Old Love Letters

I never really knew much about my father. He was killed by a drunk driver when I was five. My mother, left with three little children and not much in the way of resources, was devastated.

For years, she was unable to talk about him. No photographs of my dad were displayed in our home. Childish questions about him brought no answers, just tears. Her memories remained raw, too painful to share.

But she kept hundreds of letters he’d written to her, almost daily, during their four-year courtship. The marriage was postpone numerous times. First, they waited for him to regain his health after a near-fatal illness during his premed studies.

Then they waited until he got a a master’s degree and university teaching job, because he wanted to be a good provider. (The family came later. More waiting until, against all odds, he finally got his long-delayed M.D. degree.)

He went on to become the sole physician in Ellettsville, Indiana, where he soon became an integral part of all aspects of community life. He only lived another seven years before the fatal accident, but his impact on the town was huge. I guess you could say he was a big fish in a small Midwestern pond.

As an adult, I was given copies of the glowing obituaries for Rayburn Castle Austin, M.D., written years earlier. It was like reading about someone I’d heard of but didn’t really know.

Then, just before my mother’s death at age 96, she gave the letters to me and my sister, and we divided them up. I stuck mine away in storage, unread, while I moved around the country.

When I finally brought the letters home, I stared at them. Why did my mother keep them all those years? To my knowledge, she never re-read the letter — too painful. So she must have intended for her children to read them. Maybe that was her way of helping us to finally get to know him.

I decided I should read the letters.

My mother stored them in cardboard boxes in her overhead garage space. Unfortunately, mice found them, and a number were destroyed beyond readability; others were left decorated with big holes and mousie teeth marks.

Still, many of them were in surprisingly good condition. But reading them was not easy. My dad wrote with pencil and green ink, which had faded over time. And his handwriting, a typical doctor’s script, was difficult to decipher.

But as I read, a picture of him began to emerge. Some of the letters ache with loneliness and longing for his sweetheart, true love letters. Most are accounts of his everyday life, with all its joys, difficulties, rewards and frustrations.

I saw that by using the words he wrote, I could build up a mind’s-eye model of him, the way a child builds a Starship out of Lego bricks.

So that’s what I did. It’s a picture that will always be unfinished, but now I can fill in a lot more of the white spaces: who my father was, the ways I’m like him, the ways we differ. That means so much to me.

I wish I had truly known him, but I am so grateful for what I’ve learned, and so thankful to my mother for her unexpected gift.

Note: None of her letters to him have survived; perhaps she destroyed them.

Postscript: A month after his death, my dad was given a posthumous Community Service Award by Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker, who paid tribute to his life of service, and presented a memorial plaque to his young widow, my mother. At the ceremony, held at the Ellettsville Consolidated School, the governor also placed the first shovelful of dirt around a tree planted in my father’s memory.

Until I read about the award as an adult, I never knew that at the school I attended as a child, there was a tree planted for my father. I wonder if it is still there.

You Can’t Take It With You – But What If You Could?

Mummy at Legion of Honor

The saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” The ancient Egyptians, however, believed something quite different.

There’s a fascinating exhibit at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Art Museum — “Mummies and Medicine: The Future of the Past” — that chronicles research being done by a team of Stanford University scientists, using up-to-date technology to unlock the  secrets of the museum’s two resident mummies.

The primary aim of the research is to explore how these people lived, died, and prepared for eternity. They believed that the spirit endures forever. Furthermore, at some future time, it will be reunited with the body, which has been preserved by mummification.

Therefore, during one’s lifetime, it was necessary to plan ahead. You specified the kind of tomb you wanted (and could afford) — maybe not so different from what some people do today, buying a cemetery plot and tombstone, and spelling out what should be written on it.

The ancient Egyptians went a step further. They wanted to make sure they had crucial things with them during that long, eternal time. So, they would make a list: “Here are things I might need, and these are my most treasured belongings. Please put them in my tomb, along with Mummified Me.”

For example, they might designate such things as furniture, clothes, and everyday items deemed essential, along with expensive things to preserve their status. (Or, maybe just to keep their heirs from getting it.)

Apparently the Egyptians were very diligent about “advance directives” and end-of-life planning. Anyway, it made me think. What if our culture encouraged the same practice? What material things would be considered indispensable? The latest designer jeans? A fully loaded iPhone? That new Tesla?

Maybe just a lot of books. And a lot of Godiva chocolates.

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