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TRAVEL TALES: Stories remembered and preserved

by Jan Wheatcroft

My life has been made up of stories. As a small child I sat under the ironing board while Sirreaner ironed and told me stories of her life and answered all my nosy questions about sex and growing up. I felt safe and captivated by the descriptions that only she would share with me. 

My mother told me stories about her life growing up in pre-WWII New York in an indulged home cared for by a nasty governess. Her stories reminded me of scary fairy tales with mean witches and a rigid set of rules and punishments. I loved hearing them but they frightened me. In one she defied the “mean” governess, and wouldn’t eat the “blanc mange” dessert and so she got no food served to her except for that “blanc mange” for two days. In the end she won and got to eat with the rest of the children. I admired her determination. 

Stories about my mother’s mother were famous in the family. She was one of five children and was the “hot head” of the family. My favorite story was how she fell into an outhouse hole as a child and a man with high boots saved her life by pulling her out with his boot on his leg. I howled and gasped at that story as a child, especially when I went to camp in the redwoods and had to use outhouses.

My grandmother, Jewish, fell in love with her boss, Catholic, and they eloped. She lived at home for a while never telling her family that she had married, but they found out and threw her out. I loved hearing stories about my grandmother. She always behaved a bit wildly and defied traditional customs. I thought she was very brave. These old family stories formed much of my history, defining where I came from and who I am today.  They indicate my resilience and strength. 

As I walk around Claremont I often see something that brings up a past memory. In a front yard on 12th Street I saw a lovely Manzanita tree with its crackling reddish-brown bark peeling away in its characteristic style, and I was immediately back at Camp Trinity in the Redding redwoods where Manzanita grew freely.

I went to that camp for four summers, swimming in the river, plucking chickens for dinner, riding horses, hiking, telling stories and singing around a campfire at night.  One of the craft projects was to gather pieces of Manzanita wood that had fallen and dried. We would sand and polish them to create lamps or sculptures from our finds. Just from that Claremont walk and tree sighting all sorts of memories flooded back. 

My aunt passed a year ago. She was the oldest of our family and had kept our stories alive for all the children, cousins and grandchildren. I realize that I am now the oldest one and I wonder how many family members will be interested in all the stories I hold.

I have been traveling with and visiting my friend, Frances, for more than 20 years. We met in Greece on the island of Skyros at a personal development center, The Skyros Center. She has remained an extremely special and important person in my life. We began our travel adventures together to Thailand and then to India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, France, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary and so many more places some more than once.

One of my favorite parts of our trips was when we lay in our beds at night, telling each other our life stories. I loved getting to know her over the years through those wonderful memories she shared about growing up, which was so different from the way my life was.

I loved best the stories of how she traveled with friends and family across the Middle East to India in Range Rovers or Jeeps. These trips sounded so exciting, dangerous and adventurous to me. They became woven into our travels as well as in my mind and imagination. My stories never seemed nearly as interesting to share.

Today I have 15 travel journals filled with the trips we took, pictures I drew and photographs I glued in, and the stories and places we went. I know that Frances has her journals, too. During those “arty” years, I always traveled with pens, colored pencils, glue sticks, scissors and a camera. Most nights we would spend time working on our journals while the memories were alive and “hot.”  I am so glad that we did this. 

I love to walk in Claremont, pass by a house and say, “I lived here.”?It is true I have lived in more that 11 houses all over Claremont, north and south. Each house meant a somewhat different life for me. They each embody the richness and fullness of my life in a city where so many changes occurred and are occurring even now.

But I remember, and in remembering I bring myself the joy of the interesting life I am living. My stories, (our stories) sustain us. They bring the memories of the past into the present to be savored. They color our world.

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