When I recently wrote about Fort Ross, that was the conclusion to an essay I had worked on for two months. And after I posted it, I still wasn’t satisfied.
It took me a little while to figure out why. I left out the biggest reason Fort Ross has always been so special to me, and I think why I was so keen on P loving the Fort herself: my paternal grandmother, Nana.
From Egham to the Sonoma Coast
Jacqueline Giles was born in Egham, outside of London. She endured the Blitz (but would jump at loud noises for the rest of her life) and joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, also known as the Wrens. Women couldn’t join the navy directly, but much as with Rosie the Riveter in the US, the Wrens fulfilled a variety of roles to release men to serve at sea.
Jaci was on the verge of taking an assignment to Australia when she met a young American naval officer who looked a bit like Elvis in his hey-day. She eventually married Moses Hallett in Southampton.
Boy, am I glad she chose how she did.
After the war, she was finally able to join Moses (known to posterity as Momo) in the US, but only after an odyssey of military cargo flights that went through Ireland and could have left her stranded in Greenland if a higher-ranking person needed the seat.
But she made it, landing in New York and meeting a man she didn’t at first recognize, “not out of uniform,” and her family grew to include two sons, and, eventually and more importantly, me (and my sister and cousins), at which point Jaci transformed into Nana.
Not that this defined her. She loved Fort Ross; she and Momo spent many years volunteering in the Visitor Center store (eventually Momo stopped going as his knees deteriorated, the inevitable results of playing offensive line at Harvard), and she got into archaeology, participating in digs around the coves and meadows of the Fort.
She was quiet and observant, but always with typical English dry wit. She loved gins-and-tonic, and then (after M introduced her to them) Brandy Alexanders, which she always relished even while maintaining a slightly sheepish air as if she were getting away with something daring.
She was kind, warm like mellow evening fire. She would let you know when you were pulling shenanigans as a kid. And she was always up for an outing to the Fort, to walk out along the bluff and down to the beach.
Nana was always an anchor in my life, as was Momo. My maternal grandparents were lovely too, but there was always a veil between us, a little distance both literal and figurative (as they were in Montana still while my most formative years were in California – they both passed not long after we moved back to Hamilton in 1989). But Nana and Momo, well, they were as familiar and cozy as their house, Fat Sun.
Momo passed away before I moved back to San Francisco. He was a solid, wonderful grandfather, adept at backrubs and Christmas present clues involving Latin (family tradition extends Christmas present time by requiring the giftee to try to guess what the gift could be; mentally running down my wishlist was my cheat technique).
In the years after I moved back to California, I often visited Nana and Uncle Michael (whose family moved back to Fat Sun), and we would talk long into the night in front of the fire, or just watch Jeopardy! or PBS. Those were heady and happy days; the strangeness of becoming friends with a grandmother, relating to her as an adult.
Nana passed away in May, 2014, just under a year after P was born. Which means they were able to meet, a fact that’s always comforted me, especially now that her cousin Colin, close to her since childhood and a beacon of her legacy, passed away last year, leaving Hammersmith all the poorer for it.
Growing a California Girl
When P was born, she had the most-ridiculous head of hair. The long-running joke was that she took all the hair from my (rapidly-receding) hairline.
And not only was there a lot of hair, it was also ridiculously curly, and we didn’t know where it came from.
Until we saw this photo of Nana as a girl and compared it to photos of P.
“Ohhhhh, right,” we said.
P is growing up ebulliently. She runs at “ultimate speed” in a blur of pink and blue around the car in our driveway, wearing her Fox Girl outfit and Wonder Woman pants. She digs in dirt and stares at crabs fighting and eating each other in tide pools. She uses hugs to assert dominance over her parents. She and her BFF worry that the chickens are trying to burrow out from the coop. She knows about the pink river dolphins of the Amazon because of Wild Kratts. She lives with such inevitability and such “oh, of course she’s here” that I can’t imagine Nana ever having moved to Australia, but in some universe, maybe that happened.
When I showed P the Fort Ross beach, she wasn’t awed that I was there as a child; she just ran across the miniature dam of beach rocks (possibly the same dam from my childhood) that forded the estuarine creek to reach the beach proper, then started playing the in the stones, sand, and water.
I don’t know about souls. I mean, I think I have one. There’s something fluid and adaptable sloshing around inside this body, and I don’t think these terrible puns could be the result of some mechanical or biological or otherwise demanded by nature (or at least M hopes they aren’t). And Soul is a transcendent film. But I don’t know how much they flit or transfer or communicate (my mom will be shocked at this statement, because she’s written several books on the subject; sorry, Mom!).
But I can’t help wonder if a spark of something transferred from Nana to P when they met.
Or maybe it didn’t transfer, but it’s waiting to pass on.
The reality is that most people aren’t as important as we think we are, not even to our own universe. But that’s not to say we don’t have streaks of gold and silver to weave and pass on through the air.
We can’t live up to the legacies of our grandparents who survived the war. And we don’t know what wonderful things our children will accomplish in our wake. But we can help. We can make sure the spark left by our parents and grandparents gets passed down to our children through love, stories, and recollections.
We are no longer the central characters of our own stories; we’re simply in the middle of a flowing narrative that will continue after we go to shore. We’re a conduit to teach our children what was special about the past, and what was wrong; what’s great about the present, and what’s fucked up; what they can do and what they should do.
To show them the ocean and tell them all about the grandparents whose waves continue to roll to the shore of present day, on whose crest we’re all still finding our way.
Love you, Nana. And love you, P.