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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Finally, a reprieve from idleness:

Okay, I know what the book says. Little ole ladies are essentially fit for little more than bridge, church socials, and the occasional book club outing. Grandmothering is supposed to be all consuming, and (for those of us still in control of our wits) social activism should be carefully assigned by the deacon and should involve little more than cookie baking with the girl scouts and/or collecting recipes for the church fundraiser. Not so. There are still a few of us stubborn old women who insist upon staying in there until a suitable replacement turns up and takes over. Some of us may be carrying around talents and abilities not so easily replicated, and in such cases, opting out simply isn't an option. Yes, I'm one of those. I knew Mable Kuss!

A couple of weeks ago there was a call from Elizabeth, Park Ranger at the Rosie the Riveter Historic National Park. She was calling to invite me to attend a social event being planned for tomorrow that would involve the volunteers from four newly-combined national parks in the area; John Muir in Martinez, Port Chicago in Concord, Eugene O'Neill's Tao House in Alamo, and Rosie the Riveter Historical National Park in Richmond.

In an interesting move after the recent retirement of the former park superintendent, the National Park Service chose to bring together under a single adminstrative staff, all four parks largely for economic reasons, I'm sure. Three of those posts most certainly require extensive educational backgrounds in curating, interpretation, and fiscal policy. The fourth will be a people position, one requiring knowledge of and experience in the social/cultural life of the area. It is called community outreach, I believe. Guess who?


On Sunday, we'd attended a concert hosted by the city of Richmond and featuring the East Bay Symphony orchestra under the baton of Maestro Michael Morgan. During the reception that followed (it was the opening event for the city's centennial year celebration), we chatted for a few minutes with the new acting park superintendent. It brought to mind the fact that -- already in motion -- were our plans to visit Tao House on Tuesday. (Do you see how my life serendipitously has these periods when I'm acting on information not yet received?)

By coincidence, Tom and I drove out to Alamo on Tuesday to visit Tao House -- for no particular reason. About a week before I'd suggested that we might enjoy this as our next field trip (we've been doing a lot of touring of interesting local historical sites of late). I'd been busily chatting as we drove.

When our family lived in the rural Diablo Valley during the period before it became heavily populated suburbs, Tao House was that lovely isolated stand-alone estate that we could see from the Danville Highway. We knew that the celebrated but reclusive author, Eugene O'Neill lived there but no one ever saw him. The O'Neill family name appeared nowhere -- but the house sat highly visible about midway up the slope on the edge of the heavily wooded Las Trampas area in the foothills. We'd heard that Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre) lived in Orinda (never quite sure this was true). He never turned up in our circles, either.

What we did know was that on Wayne Avenue -- in the flatlands below Tao House -- lived my husband's parents. There were fewer than a dozen sprawling one-story ranch homes, each surrounded by open lands, orchards, or truck gardens. Tom and Reba Reid kept a couple of horses and the extended family held the annual Fourth of July picnic on their grounds. We could look up and see high in the distance, Tao House.

Then there was Mabel Kuss. She was from a pioneer family whose home was halfway up the foothills and may have been the only one within walking distance of Tao House. She was also a member of the Unitarian-Universalist fellowship that we were deeply involved in. I'm certain that Mabel would have known the O'Neills and/or their daughters. Mabel was elderly (perhaps the age that I am now) at the time that I was a young wife and mother. She was a lovely woman with a serenity that I can recall still when I close my eyes.

On Tuesday when scanning the road maps in preparation for our trip to Tao House, there it was. The street leading up to that monument bears the name, Kuss Lane. I've lived long enough now so that those I knew intimately have been memorialized in the signage. No honor could be more fitting in this case. Mabel was much-loved.

Driving along in what was now completely unfamiliar territory, it was almost impossible to tell when one small town started or ended. The orchards had been replaced long ago by lovely homes and tasteful retail businesses blended carefully into the landscape. I almost drove past Wayne Avenue (The Reids had lost their home tragically in a fire years ago) and wouldn't have recognized anything, anyway. We turned up Del Amigo on our way to Tao House only to be stopped by a mechanized gate partway up the hill before we reached Mabel's old home. We could go no further as residents of the area pressed their remotes and moved past us to the access road into the main streets as we clung to the side of the road so that they might pass. Tao House now sits in a gated community. One can only visit by appointment and such visits are limited to 3-4 per day and can only be arranged for by being picked up in Danville by a park van for the trip to the site. It seemed curious that a publicly-owned national historic park monument would have such restrictions, but in some ways it seems a continuation of the legacy of reclusiveness that had shielded O'Neill's life and home from prying eyes and ears. In a small way it fit nicely the sense of mystery that was a part of Tao House.

Which brings us to yesterday when I drove out to the Rosie office on the Richmond marina after a reminder call from Elizabeth -- to pick up a detailed map telling us where we're to meet for tomorrow's bay cruise from the Berkeley Marina. In a brief chat I was able to ask her my questions about Tao House (she'd visited earlier in the day) and in the process learned that (according to Elizabeth) there were job openings under the reorganization and that my name had come up during the discussions but that staff was under the impression that I'd accepted another position and was not available. "Howard is in his office now. Do come in and see him, Betty." Which led to the conversation with the new park superintendent that ended with him saying, "...I'll send you the information packet right away, Betty."

During the conversation, it was clear that three of the new positions will require extensive education and training within the national park system, as well as experience. The fourth is something quite different. The community relations job would draw upon my experience as a field representative for the state of California over the past years; a time when I worked in almost all of the geographic areas in which these four parks are situated. In addition, I now have the experience of the two-month contract fulfilled with the park system last winter, serving in the same capacity, and for which I received the best evaluation of my entire career.

But beyond all that, I'm the only person who remembers Mable Kuss! Or, who knew Tao House when the author lived there. Or, who wrote an article on a memory of the tragic explosion of the munitions at Port Chicago for the Berkeley Daily Planet last fall. But now I need to bone up on John Muir whom I didn't know, but I can fake it. (Okay, so I'm just not quite that old!)

Tomorrow we'll take the Bay cruise with the 4-park volunteer group, and I'll get a chance to visit with the national park service staff again.

The Delphinus is described as a large, two decked, white vessel (32 guests expected), and is ordinarily chartered by small groups for trips up to Alaska. We'll tour the entire Rosie the Riveter park with a view from the water for the first time (for me), visit the Rosie Museum Collection, stop and board the Red Oak Victory (ship being lovingly restored by some who served aboard her in WWII), then back to the Berkeley Marina for a 1 o'clock lunch.

And, maybe, just maybe -- when the decisions are made and the new hiring begins (within the next few weeks, I presume) -- I'll be back in the thick of life using up and transforming old time into new.

That's as it should be, I think.

I'm beginning to believe that I've stumbled onto the formula for living that works for me. With no sense of being driven or denial of aging or awareness of diminishing power -- I quite naturally continue to bend into the winds of change, intuitively, with neither compass nor map in a kind of effortless dance -- and at times get out of sequence with events because it's all so organic.

Wouldn't it be great if I could use this whatever-it-is to read the stock market or to predict whether the country will survive the present administration through the next election cycle?





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