Family Reunion: July, 2009

Five years ago, my parents decided to go on a reunion vacation with my mother’s siblings.  The interesting thing about that is that my mother never really got along all that well with her brothers and sisters: hierarchical society = hierarchical family.  My mother was the oldest girl of nine children, so while Grandma was busy gestating, Mom spent much of her teenage/young adult life being part-time mother to six younger siblings.  Not that it was all misery — she was naturally bossy and had very clear ideas about the order of the universe.

The reunion was a success.  Mom showed me pictures of them lounging around in a posh Japanese hotel room, wearing yukatas, eating little delicacies, and sipping tea.  They looked happy to be together — they were healthy in mind, spirit, and bank accounts.  They were survivors.

This past week we hosted a reunion of DH and his siblings.  I’ve known them for 25 years, but contact has been sporadic at best.  Our fault, really — DH because he is probably the least loquacious of the sibs, me because I have enough trouble relating to my own brothers.

But this reunion . . . .  I enjoyed talking to them all, even the problem BIL (every family has one of those, right?), the vet addicted to nicotine and narcotics — though not necessarily in that order.

“I still dream about running,” DH’s twin sister confided.  She has MS, and as her son says, is “trying really hard to stay out of a wheelchair.”

“She sure is a high maintenance girl,” the youngest brother commented of one SIL.  “First she wants to breathe, now she wants to pee.”  We were at 8500 feet, and they were all lowlanders.  He always did have a sardonic sense of humor.

“It’s not the going up that’s bad,” DH’s oldest brother grumped, “it’s the coming down.”  An old tennis injury, two knee surgeries, arthritis, and a probable knee replacement in a few more years.  But he still has his black Porsche, a youthful indulgence he drives to work everyday.

I see them then at my wedding — no wrinkles, no grey hair, no kids, no minivan.  The time blurs: the boys are still competitive, oldest sister still loves horses, twin sister is still the nurturer.  They share the same smiles, they have their Dad’s eyes.  Next year we will have another reunion; I believe I will go.

Birthday Pies: Estes Park Pie Company

Birthday Pies: Estes Park Pie Shop and Bakery

Historian v. Historian

At some point during my undergraduate career, I took a class on America in the 1960s, taught jointly by Barton Bernstein and Clay Carson.  It was a very popular course, but I dropped out about half-way through the quarter.  I remember iconic 60s music as the students streamed into the lecture hall, setting the mood for whatever was the topic of the day.  Unfortunately, that is pretty much all I recall of the class — but then, I don’t remember as much of those four years as I was convinced I would remember.

Two nights ago, I read a many-page letter from Barton Bernstein to the editor of the Stanford alumni magazine; it was a rebuttal to the front cover feature story of the January/February issue.  The story consisted of excerpts from the memoir of former Stanford University president Richard Lyman on the tumultuous period from 1966 to 1972, when among other things, protesters burned down the Navy ROTC building and took over Encina Hall.  The paragraphs that particularly incensed Bernstein were these:

During the afternoon of April 24 [1970], we had given a garden party at our home on campus for the outgoing and incoming deans of humanities and sciences . . . .  That noon, Professor Barton Bernstein of history had thoughtfully given a White Plaza rally directions for getting to our house, where radicals lined the approaches to shout abuse at arriving guests . . . .  That night I returned from a visit to the police station and was talking with my wife in a bedroom at the back of the house when there was a loud crash. Someone had hurled a big Coca-Cola bottle full of red paint through our kitchen windows, narrowly missing the head of a security guard . . . .

Worse yet, in the morning we discovered two large rocks that had been thrown through an upstairs window . . . .  No one throws rocks through upstairs windows in the middle of the night unless they intend to maim, if not kill, occupants of the house.

And Bernstein’s rebuttal (a fuming history professor on the offensive is an impressive sight):

His uncritically relying upon such memory after nearly 40 years, and especially for people in about their ninth decade, as in the case of the two aged Lymans, seems surprisingly perilous, if not actually reckless in both personal and legal ways. And his relying upon such memory, when he and his wife, by his own report, cannot even remember who gave him/them the (alleged) information on April 24, 1970, seems even riskier and, indeed, even more remarkably irresponsible. And his tying that basically unsourced “memory” to what he defines as an intentionally maiming or killing nighttime attack on April 24, 1970, seems even more reckless—especially because his home address was public knowledge.

Based on my checking about a fifth of Lyman’s book, I can assert, with incontrovertible documentary proof, more than 30 errors in his recent volume. That includes at least five more cases of plagiarism, a few surprising mistakes on ex-President Pitzer’s pre-Stanford background, confusion on at least five people’s names, and quite a few marred, massaged or mangled quotations. Collectively, all that, especially with the book’s repeated plagiarism (presumably unintentional by Lyman) is stunning and dismaying.

Stunning and dismaying, indeed, because Richard Lyman, like Barton Bernstein, is a historian.  He, of all people, should have known that that just because a book is a memoir does not exempt it from basic fact-checking.  Memory is constructed — this is one of those lessons hammered into history graduate students from day one.  Construction and reconstruction allows one to identify with, and understand, the past, but it is the boring laundry list of people and dates and places that provide the order and framework  for ruminations and reflections on the events of a lifetime.  Lyman owns his memories and the interpretation of those memories, but a history created from faulty memories is something else: it is a myth.

Opie v. Opie

Opie v. Opie


“So how much money did my parents give you for the down payment on your house?”

It is an interesting quirk of my brother’s, this proprietary referral to our parents as his parents; I don’t think he is even aware of it.

“They didn’t,” I said.  It is another quirk of my brother’s, not ever wasting time on the niceties of social exchange at the beginning of phone calls.



“Well, I just wanted to know, because I’m going to withdraw some money from my parents’ account, and I didn’t want to take out too much. Or too little.  So I want to know how much they gave you, to make things equitable.”

“But even if they never gave you money, you have negative equity in their account,” he continued, thinking out loud.  As I said, my brother doesn’t believe in social niceties.

“The constituents at home are kinda upset about how much money my parents have given our brother.  So this will look like a present from grandparents to grandson.”

“And most of it is my money anyway,” he added.  “I have been giving money to my parents over the last 18 years, and you know what our brother does?  Every time he wants to eat out, he invites Dad, and when he and his family are done, he never reaches for the bill.  He waits for my Dad to pay.  I’ll tell you the last straw.  So I was talking to him one day on the phone, and I said, “You know Dad loves sushi, so why don’t you take him out for sushi one of these days?’  And he said sure, no problem.  Then two weeks later, he sent me a bill for two hundred dollars, because he had taken Dad out to sushi, and since it was my suggestion to begin with I should pay.  And that bill included dinner for his wife and three kids too!”

Usually after one of these conversations with either brother, I wonder which of us is from a different planet.  My older brothers are both multi-millionaires, and they are feuding over who is more entitled to the parents’ comparatively meager retirement savings.

There’s a reason I live in a different state.

If on a Summer Morning

Strang Farm

Strang Farm

Double Concrete Silos

Double Concrete Silos


Secondary Cabin

One of our favorite six-mile loops takes us down a washboard dirt road past gravel works, old homesteads, and a marshy nature preserve.   The  Arapaho Bend Natural Area, a haven for migratory birds as well as our usual bands of year-round Canada geese, was reclaimed from old gravel pits and named after the Arapaho natives who once gathered under the cottonwoods.  The homesteads, long abandoned, were among the earliest claims in this area of the city.  But look past the still-active gravel works, ignore the hum of the interstate highway farther east, and see the reminders:  concrete silos, twin sentinels of time; a loafing shed, slowly collapsing back into the earth; a drunken sloop of metal roof, creaking in the breeze.   A chain-link fence surrounds the charred remains of the James Strang Cabin, hastily erected after someone started a “campfire” inside the house in 2002.  Not much protection against human predators, and certainly not against time.

James Strang

James Strang in front of his cabin, c. 1890s

James Strang, sitting on lower branch of the Arapaho "Council Tree," c. 1890s

DNR: Cry Me a Rivulet

The Thing that Refuses to Die!

Back in April, after I was chastised by National Park Service representatives for apparently over-estimating the intelligence of the average American adult (as well as the intelligence of the average NPS science communication assistant) by using big words like rivulet, I went into a corner and sulked.  And blogged.  I then consigned the report to oblivion and went on to something else — and so under-the-radar was the project that no one noticed!  Not the Natural Resource Specialist, not the Science Communication Assistant, not my nominal supervisor(s).  Or so I thought . . . .  until last week, when I received a rather ominous email requesting a “more updated version” for some other unit of the NPS to look at.

What to do, aside from looking really shocked by the turn of events?


1.  Ignore the request.

2.  Challenge my pancreas to a duel.

3.  Clear out my arteries.

I managed #1 for five day . . . .  and on Day 6, performed #2 with this:

Berry Cake

. . . . and in conjunction with #3, a glass of wine (to raise my HDL, of course).

Thus fortified, I retrieved the report, pretended to be an intelligent NPS specialist of some sort, and decided it is still a pretty fine piece of work.  Done!

And I kept all the big words,  like rivulet . . . .  and garrote . . . .

History at Hand



In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons . . . .

So begins Elizabeth Gaskell’s delightful Cranford (1853).  My little copy is from 1906, and belonged to:

Isabella Huffsmith

Isabella Huffsmith

Because of this book, I discovered that there is a whole world out there devoted to handwriting research and genealogy.  Well, of course — perfect sense if I had ever thought about it.  What does Isabella Huffsmith’s handwriting say about her?  That she lived during a time when people used ink pots, and schools actually taught handwriting according to systems — I’m guessing the Palmer method, in her case.  That she read this book as a schoolgirl: the book was published by Ginn & Company as part of their Standard English Classics series of inexpensive school texts.  That she kept this book but perhaps did not read it again — the pages are crisp, the binding tight.  A memento of her girlhood?  Frugality? Or just because?

I picked this book up a few years ago from a used bookstore in northern Colorado, and on the off-chance that there might be information on the internet about Isabella Huffsmith, I started searching last night.  And there was in fact a Isabella Huffsmith born in Weld County in 1898!  If this is the same Isabella — and the dates and region do match — she too came from Colorado pioneer stock and married Charles Ovid Plumb (1895 – 1997) in 1918.  C. O.’s grandfather Plumb had been a wealthy Union Colonist, and maternal grandfather White had settled in Greeley in 1871 and had been a farmer, mason, postmaster, and mayor.  Isabella and C. O. moved to the White-Plumb Farm in 1923 and spent the rest of their lives there, farming and raising six girls.  Isabella died in 1991, but before her death, she and C. O. decided  to deed the property to the City of Greeley to be used as an agricultural heritage center after their deaths.

The Plumb Farm Learning Center was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.