Harriet Margaret Wright

She was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.  When I was growing up in Aloha, Oregon, we went to her house in California for Christmas, “going home for the holidays.”  The first house I remember was a small one-story in Oakland, which must have been 1629 Josephine Street.  My first memories are of the Christmas when my Aunt Harriet came back from the war, where she had been serving with the Red Cross.  She brought me a Swiss chalet jewelry box.  And I remember the big dining table and getting to set out the place markers which my father had made.  This must have been 1945 after the end of gas rationing when we could drive down there.  Although we must have visited once before when I was told I fell in the fish pond in the yard.  I wonder if that was before we moved from Berkeley when I was a year and a half.

But the house I really remember was the one on the hill in Mill Valley.  This seemed like a palace to me, with its levels climbing up and the turret, all wood-shingled.  I loved the living room with the built-in window seat in the bay window, looking out over the town.  I’m not sure we could really see The Bay, but I knew that was why they were called bay windows.  I would sit there and read The Wizard of Oz, which was always waiting for me on the bookshelf.  I would play with my cousins, John and Kevin.  And help Harriet decorate the tree.  Grandma would be out in the kitchen cooking.  I remember the pie keeper cupboard with the screen window to let them cool.  And the tin-lined flour drawer.  And all the little nocks and crannies.  I never spent much time with Grandmother then; she was too busy.

It was when I returned to the Bay Area in 1961 that I got to know her.  By that time, she and Harriet were living in the house on Walnut Avenue in Mill Valley, down out of the hills.  Then I got to spend weekends on the day bed in the back room overlooking the garden.  It was in that yard that I chose to be married on a beautiful April day under the flowering fruit tree.  Grandma had her old pedal sewing machine there and would work on quilts for sending to Alaska as a church charity.  She must have been 77 at this time and was slowing down a bit.  She still cooked for us.  And she and I would have tea in front of the fire while waiting for Harriet to come home from work.

She has always been my image of what a grandmother should be.  She wore her hair in a bun and had long dresses.  She vigorously disapproved of public displays of affection, such as holding hands on the street.  She was shocked that I did not wear a girdle (in l960).  But she woke up at night and wrote poetry. Once she came to visit us in Washington, D.C. and embarrassed me with her questions to the tour guide at Lee House.  She was never shy and full of curiosity and opinions.  I always felt she loved and accepted me, even though I did things she didn’t like.  And she taught me to be frugal.  “Turn out the light.  You are burning a hole in the daylight.”  And she saved tinfoil and string and rubber bands.  And hid the modern appliances behind tin trays in the kitchen.

I learned a few things about her life from my mother and other family members.  I know her husband, my grandfather, was senile at the end.  He died in March of 1947, before I was 6, and I have no memories of him, although my mother said he stayed with us in Aloha for a while.  I know at one time Grandmother had an antique store in Berkeley, which I seem to remember visiting.  I know they lived on The Ranch in Santa Rosa, which is where my parents were married in 1931.  Now I see they lived there for at least 10 years, from 1930 to 1940.

I suppose they moved out there after the fight between my grandfather and his brothers who had the dairy business together.  This was the Walnut Grove Cremery, founded in 1898 by their father, Benjamin Burroughs.  The brothers raised the cows on the ranch in Knightsen.  My grandfather, Willis Prescott, delivered the milk in Oakland.  I know my Aunt Harriet was bitter about the way it ended and felt her father had been treated unfairly.  But I have never heard any details.  And my mother was friendly with the family out on the ranch.  Now I wonder what my grandparents did during those years in Santa Rosa.  And did they move back into Oakland when Harriet and Bill both went to World War II?

My mother told me when she was growing up they lived next door to “the Aunts”, my grandfather’s sisters, Olive and Helen.  From the records, I see that the brothers Ben and Ernest also lived there in 1900.  By 1910 Father Benjamin was dead and the boys seem to have moved out to the ranch and Harriet Jane Burroughs lived there with Great Aunt Anna Ballard and four daughters — Florence, Etta, Helen, and Olive.  Helen and Olive were in their 20s when Kay was born.  She remembers them taking her on fun excursions into town when she was a girl.

Now I realize why the movement for women’s liberation never really appealed to me.  My grandmother  had already given  me  a model of a strong woman, living a full life on  her own.  Even though she spent most of her time at home, her curiosity was always present, ready to engage with the world.  It has always seemed natural to me that a  woman can  do anything she wants and be fulfilled in her life in creating a home and family.  My grandmother raised her daughters that way and they went on to create successful lives as independent women.  And there were other smart and vibrant women in  the family, like Aunt Etta and Great-Aunt Anna Ballard.

I would like to explore what I can find about the family background of my  remarkable grandmother.  Her story goes back to the early colonial days.  We will  follow the  trail back across the country from California, a typical American story of the westward movement.  My grandmother had a small covered wagon in the backyard, so I think  she may  have set me  on this path of tracing  the pioneers.