Whenever I take my mother-in-law on errands around town, she speaks of how much Cloverdale has changed since she moved here in 1974.
Of course, she also brought with her some much earlier memories. Although she was born in Fresno, soon after that her family returned to this part of the state her parents knew so well.
Mary’s father was born and raised on a ranch just a short drive farther up from our place, which is four miles from town on Pine Mountain. Grandpa McGrath helped his dad on the ranch and attended Cloverdale schools. As a young man he worked and lived in logging camps all over Mendocino and Sonoma counties. At one of those camps, he met, courted and married a pretty cook, Selma Salmela, the daughter of Finnish immigrants who traveled on a ship around the Horn to settle in Navarro.
At first the newlyweds lived in Boonville, but following wherever the work took them, they moved every few years — Calpella, Fort Bragg, Ukiah, Point Arena. When Mary was in high school, they left the area for a lumber mill job in Weed. After the last child left home, Harold and Selma moved to Sebastopol where they spent their last years.
Having raised three boys herself, Mary often talks of her sympathy for her mother, who initially had four daughters born two years apart. After seven years without babies, the four girls were joined by another sister in 1941 followed by their only brother in 1943. My mother-in-law wonders how her mother coped with moving so often with such a large family, not to mention that in those days many rural homes had no power, no running water and heated with a wood stove.
I love the stories she tells of those early years. One of her favorite memories was riding the milk route with her dad. He picked up milk and cream from the dairy farms along the coast. One foggy night Mary had to walk beside the truck with her hand on the door so she could help navigate those twisting roads that often ran along a steep incline that dropped straight to the ocean.
When the truck held a full load, Mary’s dad drove to Petaluma to the creamery. His route was Highway 128 all the way to Cloverdale, then south to Petaluma. It was a two-day trip including the night spent in a hotel. He made the trip twice a week. When school let out for the summer, Mary went along to keep her dad company.
“It was always an adventure,” she would say with a smile.
Sadly, Mary has lost much of her history. Possibly the worst thing about Alzheimer’s is it robs you of the stories that connect you to your past. The telling and retelling of family stories make us who we are. As I see Mary losing increasingly larger parts of her past, I can see the light in her eyes fading with the inability to remember who she was then and more and more losing who she is now.
Even as a young girl, stories were how I processed my life. When people tell me their family stories, it’s a sacred moment, a sharing of the richness of their lives. I carry many of those stories with me. Without planning it, I find myself becoming my husband’s family historian. Sometimes with my mother-in-law and others, I’m able to return the gift of their trust in me by retelling their stories to them, reminding them of some of life’s most precious moments.
Pamela Tinnin writes from her ranch on Pine Mountain. She can be reached at email@example.com.