Wednesday, April 8, 2009

{the stories we tell}

i have been going through all of the things in my parent's former house the past few weeks, dividing things equally into "mom" and "dad" boxes. it is surreal to be shuffling through the most mundane items- mugs, measuring cups, our childhood toys, knick-knacks, and  be reminded of our lifetime as a family, of countless moments that all add up to comprise one's life, and one's personal history. there is a strangeness to the fact that these inanimate objects are essentially worthless and could be thrown out without anyone specifically remembering that they are absent, and that simultaneously one glance at these same inanimate objects sparks years of meaning and memory just because they were a part of one family's daily life. 

and then a few days ago, matt and i received news that a very special elderly woman in our lives, jamie, had passed away. i cried when i got the email; jamie had such a regular, ordinary life on paper, but she was an amazing woman. this cleaning of a home, this passing of a dear soul, it has made me think a lot about the measure of one's life.

about ten years ago, i lived with jamie and her husband al for a summer in their place in southern california; then i would also stay there every month when i went down to visit matt. he and his roommate brian lived about 2 blocks from jamie and al. i had my own key, and because i was young and in love with matt, i would wake up early, go work out at the y, spend most of the day with matt (i helped run an art camp for the summer with matt and brian), and then return late at night to my little room at al and jamie's, which was decorated with kitschy stuffed clowns and lamps with red lightbulbs

that season was a wonderful one for me, not just because i was young and in love, but also because it was as if jamie and al were my grandparents. we would pick all of the fruit off of their trees: plums, pluots, figs, and make jam. we would watch the shows jag, law and order and the news together. they would tell me stories of all of the people in the photos on their family room wall. stories of their meeting on a train in the midwest. stories of the foster children they raised. of the biological children they raised. stories of canning and cooking in oklahoma growing up. stories of going to powwows (al is part native american.) stories of jamie's youth growing up in oakland: going to oakland high, walking with her sister through trestle glen, raising money for the golden gate bridge to be built by wearing maroon silk shirts to school, living off of grand avenue- just blocks from the house i am now packing up. jamie would cook: texas toast, chicken and dumplings, casseroles, and always try to feed me seconds and thirds. we would play mexican train, long lines of dominos stretching across the family room table.

here was this regular woman, in her 70's at the time, who had a lifetime of amazing stories. she was the inspiration for the public art grant i did in the city of oakland called "stories we tell", because i wanted people to hear the stories that women like jamie carry - stories that disappear unless we take the time to listen to them. our society is so quick to separate us all out into age categories, and the older, wiser members of us get pushed to the side and ignored. in the grand scheme of the world, i realize that most outside of her closest family members will even realize that jamie perry is absent. but her life, her stories, her marriage, her kindness, have made me a better woman. i hope my life is as long and as rich in generosity as hers was.

(listen to each other's stories)


  1. what a lovely tribute! how did the grant go?

  2. My grandfather was a great repository of stories -- growing up during the depression, fighting in WWII, working in all sorts of interesting jobs, traveling around the world. In his last years, we all scrambled to grab onto as many stories as we could, but he would always get self-conscious and clam up whenever we tried to write them down or record him. It's been almost three years since his death, and despite our best efforts we're already starting to forget a lot of details. Still, whenever I mention "piper cubs and slide rules" to my husband, he knows what I'm talking about!

  3. I am so sorry for your loss, on many levels. Last year, next week, my husbands grandma passed away (we were quite close) and I felt humbled when I saw the amount of things , the treasures of her life, like avon figurines & costume jewelry collected over many many years, boxed up and hauled away to the Goodwill. Truly, at the end of it all we are not remembered for our stuff but for our heart...the life we lived You wrote a lovely tribute. Peace be with you.

  4. I'm so glad you're telling your story, Susannah - and that we get to listen. Thinking of you.

  5. this was really amazing. thank you susannah.

  6. i love the way you write. if i had one ounce of writers creativity that you have in a sentence, i would write all of the time.
    thanks for leaving a response on my blog, i look forward in keeping up with your beautiful daughter's journey.


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