Family History

Mother’s Day

Wednesday, May 15th, 2024

I was looking forward to the regular Sunday Creek Freak work party at the Restoration and Enhancement project.  In addition to the four steady College Corps Fellows–including Kennedy, whom I’d seen in a fine performance of a bizarre play at the Spanos theatre the night before, plus grandson Lucas–two new volunteers had signed up.

Late in the previous week the unfinished tasks of moving tree trunks into position together with Josh and his Skid Steer and starting the contracted maintenance program of weeding the plantings, along with testing the irrigation system, were completed.

 

Earlier in the week the first field trip along the creek project led by Creek Lands Conservation took place, involving 60 fifth graders bussed in for three hours.

 

 

I’d been anxiously working toward these outcomes for months.

After 7:00 AM shopping for dinner groceries and snacks for the Fellows, I drove to the main gate under overcast skies to carry out Sunday chores– watering starts, feeding the barn cat, opening the hoop house, and putting out alfalfa for the sheep in the pen.  When I got to the feed shed, there they were, two baby lambs, their umbilical chords still wet and hanging, one bloodstained mother and her still pregnant sister..

An unwilled Hallelujah! sprang from my lungs. Mother’s Day!  I pulled out the phone and took pictures to send to staff and family.

Inside the enclosure I lowered myself creakily to the ground but soon felt as if I was floating in the still atmosphere around mother and babies.

The quiet was broken by notification of a text message from Lana, the new volunteer who was waiting at the assembly point by the bridge.  I drove out to meet her and the others and told them we’d go to the sheep shed before work.  There we were joined by Teresa and her group who had earlier heard my shout.

20 minutes later we gathered tools and wheelbarrows and returned to the Creek path.  I sent six of the helpers to load wood chips from the pile into orange buckets and spread them for mulch around the new plants.  Michael joined me to load the seven heavy stumps I’d cut earlier in the week and unloaded them at the Outlook and Water Shed.

By 10:30 the mulch job was done and we met for snacks and chat at the picnic table by the shed. Afterwards the whole crew teamed up to roll a log Michael and I couldn’t budge into its rightful spot.

Then they resumed last week’s work on the staircase to the creek bank while Lucas helped me clear brush and logs for an adjoing future single-track trail loop.

Following the  conclusion of the work party at noon, I dropped him off at Orcutt and went home to remind the grandsons about the holiday dinner by text, phone and email.

After my midday nap, I biked back to the farm to revisit the lambs. There I met Shane, Candace and their baby August enjoying the occasion in the afternoon sunshine.

Back home again, I chewed half a gummy, opened a beer, studied the recipe and got the garlic stuffed City Farm-raised leg of lamb into the oven. Ian and Ethan arrived at 6, Lucas and Claire at 6:30. Mothers Jan and Claire were honored at the feast.

I can still feel the hard hugs from those three strong  young men I used to hold as babies.

 

Jan’s Lavra Talk February 24 2024

Saturday, February 24th, 2024

Activist or Official

El Dia de Muertos 2023

Monday, November 6th, 2023

Jan and I received invitations to two parties celebrating this holiday, both asking us to bring an ancestor’s picture and favorite dish to share.  That morning I felt an irresistible impulse to try to cook spaetzele, a favorite of my grandmother’s. I found several Youtube instructions for doing that, one featuring an Oma who spoke the same low Swabian dialect I remembered.

We attended the party at the home of our neighbors across the street, a beautiful young family the father of prominently Mexican descent.  The house was packed with people of several generations and ethnicities and the ofrenda–traditional memorial altar–overflowed with pictures and mementos, to which I happily contributed my own.

Spaetzele

This is a South German dumpling noodle that I loved to eat as a child and even more to watch my grandmother, Elise Wertheimer Marx (1878-1970), prepare over her stove.

I was reminded of it this past July when Jan and I visited Bodersweier, the village where she was born and where her family lived back to the 1700’s.  They were either driven out or murdered by the Nazis.

We were invited there by a German couple our age who’ve worked tirelessly on German Jewish reconciliation, in particular on recording the history of the local Jewish community.  Their son, the mayor of the nearby small city, Kehl, invited us to lunch where Spaetzle was served.

This was yet another layer of awakening  in a chain extending from last year’s post linking memories of the dead to the account of my father’s passing during his nursing home’s Halloween party in 1995.

What made the festivity on our street staggeringly poignant was learning that the couple had recently miscarried their second baby, conceived when their first severely autistic love-lavished child turned three years old.

And also that their next door neighbors were pregnant again after having lost their first at six months:

Kehl and Bodersweier July 31

Wednesday, October 25th, 2023

The Hotel Regent Contades seemed like an appropriate staging area for the most anticipated event of our trip, a visit to the ancestral home of my paternal ancestors to which we had been ceremoniously invited by Karl and Hannah Britz, as reported in the background introduction to this chronology.

Our hosts had sent instructions for travel by tram to Kehl, the small city opposite Strassbourg on the German side of the Rhine.

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On the bridge, I recalled my grandmother’s tale of her husband Rudolph’s swim across the river to Strassbourg with my father on his back, much to her dismay. (more…)

Halloween 2022

Monday, November 7th, 2022

On Friday the 28, Jan and I visited the Reis Family Mortuary on Nipomo Street to complete the pre-arrangements for “immediate burial” in the gravesites we purchased last June in the SLO Cemetery. This is the bottom of the line selection. It includes transport and storage of the remains until the grave is dug, delivery to the cemetery, cotton shroud, cardboard box and death certificate for $1845 each, in keeping with our choice of green burial.  One option we added was permission to have a witness at the interment for an additional $250. Had we gone with the mortuary affiliated with the cemetery, the price would have been $3250.

The mortuary is located near the center of town in an attractive neo-colonial building.

LisaMae, the amiable Salesperson, made the lengthy process of filling out forms, upbeat and casual.  As it concluded, we were greeted by a gentleman in jeans and suspenders with a missing lower tooth, who introduced himself as Kirk, the son of the former owner. Though we both felt heavily in need of afternoon naps, Kirk insisted we tour  the museum his father had created. He led us down two flights of stairs, not into a dark crypt but  a riotous display of memorabilia–newspaper front pages going back to the 1930’s glued to the walls, collections of hash pipes, dolls, model trains, and bumper stickers–stored in three rooms connected by vault-like refrigeration doors, relics of the dairy operation which had occupied the site in the early 20th century.

Over the weekend, Jan’s brother stayed with us, two weeks after the memorial in Long Beach for his wife, who died recently after a year’s ordeal with brain cancer. I drove him to the RR Station at 5:00 am on the 31st and then went to the farm to tend the new lambs.  I came back home with a pumpkin and felt an unexpected need creeping over me to do something for the holiday. I emailed friends living nearby with an invitation to stop by for a drink while trick-or-treating with their kids and  set to work carving the pumpkin with the saw on my Leatherman, stuffing a warty squash in the hole for a nose.

As the afternoon darkened, I felt an urge to visit our burial plots just across the freeway. Since I expected she’d never been there, I invited my co-worker, K., to join me for a Halloween excursion. Hesitantly she agreed.

On the way, I delivered what had become my spiel about the place: its location between Central Coast Brewery and the Sunset Drive-In adjacent to a littered hobo highway, its use extending back to the Civil War, its inclusion of many SLO City notables, its Jewish and Muslim sections. We parked on Elks Lane and walked down the main thoroughfare toward the bizarre Dorn pyramid. I pointed out the sites close to it that Jan and I had purchased in January.

At the top of the serpentine outcrop on which it perched, I recounted the tale of  the husband who built it as a memorial for his wife and daughter after they died in childbirth with the intention of eventually joining them but soon afterward moved to San Francisco, started a new family and never returned.  I recollected being there 30 years earlier with students in my Shakespeare class who had chosen it for the location to video their performance of the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet.

Walking back to the car, I declared that this place felt comfortable to me because at my age death seemed  a natural and sometimes welcome prospect rather than the tragedy of dying young.  I’ve had the time to live out my opportunities and choices.

On the return drive, K. was quiet. I worried that my pressuring her to go there might have awakened the pain I remembered in her voice when she spoke about her father, who died when she was a teenager.

Back at Citrus Court the setting sun put on a florescent pink lightshow. I set the jack o’lantern onto the transformer in the front yard, moved up the slider bench for a ringside seat and poured wine for Jan and me.  As the streetlights came on, the Court awakened with costumed revelers.  First were our immediate neighbors, dressed as ’70s hippies, carrying their 2 year old, severely autistic child, who made an instant of smiling eye-contact, then turned away.  Then a group of costumed young couples and children paraded by carrying their own drinks. Other families, including a laughing grandma in a wheelchair, stopped to say hello.  Older kids dressed as media characters I couldn’t recognize, filled both sidewalks. The joyful street life recalled trick-or-treating in the poor New York district we lived in until I was eight.

Next morning at the Farm I was greeted by Miss J., the Waldorf outdoor school’s teacher. She asked me to look at the altar she’d created inside their little geodesic dome to observe November 1, Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead.

Her bright display of flowers and food, colored cutouts, and photographs of departed family members brought a shock of recognition. I’d forgotten that this was the holiday of jolly mourning, the mood which  stirred me into activity yesterday afternoon.  I’d forgotten that in the corner of my study I kept such an altar year-round on an antique washstand containing the ashes of my parents.

The 1950’s wedding portrait of Miss Jewel’s grandmother and and grandfather completed the epiphany:  combining festivity and grief, we find a bit of what’s beyond our grasp.

Postscript

Thanksgiving Day morning November 24.

Getting up early after a wakeful night, I look for something to do before it gets light enough for my holiday farm chores and randomly browse this blog.  Noticing “Lund Retreat 2007,” an unremembered occasion, I open the 7-entry set, and take some pleasure in the prose and the awakened reminiscence of that autumnal solo excursion to the place which, fifteen years ago, I still regarded as my true home.  The third entry is dated October 31 and chronicles a visit to the Uhlman’s house, where Ronnie said she assumed I knew the answer to her question about the proper Jewish ritual for unveiling a gravestone the first year after interment.  Slightly shamed I told her I had no idea and changed the subject.

Back at Knoll House I happily answered Jan’s phone call.  She mentioned she’d been grieving for Henry on this Jahrzeit of his death in 1995.  With a flash it came back: Halloween in the nursing home, the staff in costume, the arrival of the mortuary attendant who identified himself as “Neptune,” and all that followed– an event recorded twelve years earlier so as not to be forgotten, but nevertheless forgotten on that very day.

Reading that as the light comes up this morning, there’s another flash.  The memory that was lost a few weeks ago, despite the mysterious impulse and visit to the cemetery and contemplation at the shrine behind me and despite the next day’s surprise recollection–that purpose of the Jahrzeit was still unrealized…until now.

Lost and Found

Friday, August 19th, 2022

Hi Alexander

I came across your film as accidentally as you came across my Shakespeare at Swanton website.

As part of general downsizing efforts, a couple of weeks ago my wife, Jan, sent a beautiful Afghan dress she acquired in 1972, when we homesteaded in the woods of British Columbia, to a friend born and still living there, who took a photo of it, worn by her daughter riding a ropeswing on the property their family leases from us.

Seeing it reminded me of another woodland use of the dress in 1999 at Swanton Ranch. So I googled the old website to download a picture of it worn by  a student playing Hermia in scenes from A Midsummernight’s Dream that the class filmed there.

I was amazed to find the link to your “Shakespeare at Swanton” video and astounded to watch it.

I’m still pulsing with the world wide web of connections it activated. Parallel surprises of happening upon a relic in the course of searching for lost treasure—lost through fire and aging and through the digital loss of “bitrot” and software updates.

And parallel grief for the losses of Time: 1960’s back-to-the-land hippies turning 80, ’90’s English majors now in their ’40’s, a 2021 forestry student graduated and out in the world.

And the transformation of it all, through memory and art, via the alchemy of Shakespeare.
___________________

March 2024 Postscript: A further variation on the theme of Alex’ video and this post.  Shortly after this entry was written, Cal Poly University erased the whole website which included “Shakespeare at Swanton” from its server. Almost two years later, the site was resurrected from its 404 grave on a different server with a new URL–smarxpoly.net–which allowed for the link here to be reactivated. Thank you, Ty Griffin, for all the work you did to make this happen.

Lund Retreat/Transitions 2021

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

The “Atmospheric river” is still flowing.  The drum solo of rain on the roof hasn’t stopped since arrival here yesterday morning.

 

Before departure from the South Terminal, the agent announced that unless the pilot found a hole in the clouds to allow visibility the flight would go back without landing.  But the young captain with delicate wrists and blond hair flowing over her epaulets brought us in smoothly to the cinder block shack of an airport that hasn’t been improved at least since our arrival here in 1970.

IMG_1473I haven’t yet stopped loving this weather.  The compensation for drought in SLO, the heightened coziness of the wood fire, friendly cats and house’s silence, the 14 hour night and half-light of day inviting intermittent sleep, the absence of stimulation and obligation permit words to flow from thoughts and thoughts to flow from words.

This trip has been intended as a retreat to allow processing of recent events that are taking on the appearance of a life transition. “Retreat” has several associations with this place: its mythic remoteness at the end of the road and the time and expense it takes to get here, the initial retreat from war and society that brought us here from New York in 1970, the  summers of 1996 and 1997 holed up to start and finish my book, “Shakespeare and the Bible,”and the writing and meditation retreat on Cortez Island I attended in 2010.

Meditating hasn’t yet happened here, but this journaling may better serve my purposes.

Life transitions are times when the future seems undetermined, subject to the vagaries of chance and choice, when the present holds promise and danger, when the past reopens.  This one was brought on my long-anticipated retirement from the position of Executive Director of City Farm SLO.  The result of the successful accomplishments of our two young staff members, Kayla and Shane, whose salaries were financed by generous new supporters, it became clear that finally the organization could survive and thrive without me.

At the advice of a canny professional fund-raiser, a campaign was planned to mark the changeover in leadership with a public celebration targeting people of means and influence.  The admission price was $50 along with discreet requests for additional donations. Using a well-tried method for non-profits to generate support and money, the theme was to be a tribute to my past dedication. Kayla focused publicity on her photo of me tending our sheep that recalled the literary archetype of the old shepherd I’d explored 40 years ago in my doctoral dissertation. I sent personalized invitations to all the friends and relatives for whom Jan and I had addresses. (more…)

On the Edge

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

July 21

I hear the toilet flush every few minutes.

At dinner tonight, Jan seemed out of sorts and only picked at the meal I’d prepared. She said she’d been having intestinal discomfort all afternoon. When I’d finished, she asked if I could clean up the kitchen so she could lie down.

I went back to the bedroom after I was done and she told me she had bad diarrhea and that she’d looked it up.  That was an initial symptom of Covid 19.  Of course it could be just a stomach flu or food poisoning, since she’d had so little contact with people and was always masked and distant, but who knows.  It was best for me to sleep in my study.

I went back there and read that though not well known, this is a relatively frequent first symptom, especially among the elderly, and that  sometimes it signals a very mild case though sometimes its a prelude to the more serious respiratory symptoms. We will call Dr. Hanson in the morning and try to set up a test.

In the morning I have an appointment to meet Jeff W. at the farm and receive a check for $25,000, the first of two installments of a donation to City Farm by Larry C., whose promise has made the last two weeks some of the most joyful in my life.  They have been filled with plans and prospects and exchanges with all the people associated with the Farm about how this donation, and the possible additional support it can leverage will allow for a campaign to make the place live up to its vast potential within the next two years.  During the same time we have taken on a dynamic new tenant and received word from another quarter of a donation of the money and work to add a 40 tree orchard, along with promises of weed abatement from our neighbors and the City, the commitment of Jen, a highly capable consultant to lead business plan strategizing and a commitment from Josh to help organize a charette for ambitious site development. Also the announcement we were  awarded a  grant from the City Human Relations Commission and the submission of an application for a renewal of our Sprouts Foundation grant.  Also contact from Cheryl at NRCS indicating that she will put in for several EQIP grants for appropriate Farm Projects.  As a result of the concerted efforts of Tree, Shane and me, the vegetable garden has come to full fruit and blossom such that everyone who shows up is astounded. The closest to this I can compare was the news in 1988 that I was hired for the tenure-track job at Cal Poly, a logical, wished-for and seven-year-deferred opportunity to take control of my future and build some long term accomplishments. I’ve been working full time as a volunteer at the Farm an equal amount of time hoping just for this to happen.

But accompanying the excitement has been a  undertone of foreboding.  With the sadness and fear that’s come over the world since last February, how is it possible that I could be so blessed?  With the  powerlessness felt by so many, how can I dare to feel so empowered?

It’s still possible that Jan’s condition could be a false alarm. But unlikely. If not, the grand new changes will be overshadowed by others.

I remain in this space: https://www.stevenmarx.net/2012/06/biopsy/

July 22

Jan sleeps all day and doesnt eat. I make an appointment for COVID test for both of us, for the next day at the Vet’s Hall.  Last time our results were negative.

I’m at Farm on and off.

July 23

Jan wakes up feeling better, but still strange.  We drives separately to the Vets hall for the test. No results available for 4-6 days.  Neither our primary physician nor her nurse is available. Jan sets up protocol whereby we approach only at 6 foot distance, both masked.  She has me set up table beside bedroom door where I leave her food and other stuff.  We communicate mostly by text and email.

I write a thank you letter to Larry outlining plans for use of his donation, ready to send as soon as the check is deposited. Jeff meets me at the farm with the check, I deposit it and send letter, and correspond with Connor about the Tuffshed barn. Jan’s students are submitting their masters’ theses about which she and they have fretted for months. She’s deeply gratified by the results.

July 24

I finalize the Tuffshed order–alot of poor communication with the salesperson. Corey gives me a hard time when I tell him we’ll need his front acre starting January 2021.

I pick 12lbs of peaches at Cal Poly.

I experience slight dizziness, which get me scared.

July 26 8:00 a.m.

Jan organized a Zoom birthday party for herself yesterday and led it from the bedroom, still in quarantine.  Attended by Joe, Amy, Abel, Ethan, Mark, Sonia, Travis, Hana, Dahlia, Claire, Lucas, Gregg and me.  Claire supplied balloons, bday cake and banner.  A lovely time, but a little anxious.

I woke this morning to an email with my test results: negative.  Big relief, especially after hearing yesterday’s Sci-Fri podcast about the long term after-effects of infection.  I’m impatient to hear Jan’s.  She sleeps for another two hours, gets up but her results not sent. We maintain distance.

July 27

At my bathroom run at 2:30 A.M. I see light under the bedroom door where Jan is quarantined.  I dont knock but wonder what’s happening. When I come out at 5:00 she’s still asleep, but as I drink my coffee in the arm chair her door opens and hear her glittering voice: “I got the results.  They’re negative.”

Shelter at Home

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

[for our  53rd anniversary]

In the living room within these walls
Snug we sit on the softened sofa
And watch the dance of pixels on the screen
Replacing our extinguished hearth.

I recall the cozy chesterfield
Where we cuddled in front of the fire
While the storm roared in the hollow,
Our future but a threatening swirl.

Could we then have seen ahead
Our joy and comfort half a century hence,
Before the plague began to rage,
That moment might have lost its treasured worth

Like this perilous time’s, when every minute counts
When 25 million precious minutes since
Cannot be taken from us
By whatever now our future holds in store.

 

Reminders of the “Good Old Days”

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

[Updated June 30 2013]

gute alte zeit_2.jpg

Soon after their move to San Luis Obispo in 1989, my parents, Lise and Henry Marx, presented Jan and me with a gift they’d been working on for several years: a collection of German proverbs they had learned from their parents and grandparents.

I remember continually hearing these sayings from my earliest childhood until their final days. Each time one was uttered there was a moment of satisfaction”the speaker pleased to have found a way to make familiar sense out of some new experience and the hearer gratified to grasp the connection.  Growing up as a first generation American, I reacted to these old-world pieties with boredom and embarrassment.

(more…)