In 1890, 1900 and 1910 on the US census form these two questions appeared: "Mother of how many children?" "Number of these children living?" While my country's infant and child mortality rates have declined since the government began tracking them, they are still painfully high among poor families. Thinking this day of all the mothers, like my Great-grandma Josephine whose answer to those questions in 1900 was 8 children, 4 living. Blessings on all those around this world who live with such grief.
I have spent the day doing research on the tenements where my great-grandparents lived in San Francisco prior to their South of Market neighborhood being completely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire - in their building and most of the building around them there was no water, and there were no windows, no skylights, no ventilation of any kind, no wonder my great-grandmother died of throat cancer at age 43 - I can't even imagine the level of cooking and kerosine smoke she must have inhaled daily! There is this wild idea that San Francisco didn't have the same kind of tenements and slums that many other cities had around the turn of the 20th century but that is just not so - it's just that the evidence of them were completely destroyed. I am mindful that there are places like that in our world even today - may we as a species work together to change that.
return to the Land of Your Soul.”
This morning I woke to geese singing their honking song as they flew over me returning North. What is it that compels them to make this migratory journey of returning, North to South, South to North? My mother says that when she married my father he also had a compelling need to migrate from French Gulch (the small, Northern California mountain town where they both grew up), to the city of San Francisco which lay to the South. It was very out of character. My father was born in the woods, high in the Trinity Mountains, raised in the mountains, and spent most of his life living and working in those Northern California mountains. But for a brief time, after he married my young mother, they flew South, to San Francisco where they nested in an apartment on Geary Street near Van Ness. They only lived there long enough for her to get pregnant and have me at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. By the time I was six months old we had migrated North, back up into the mountains, returning to the land of his soul.
“Return again, return again, return to The Land of Your Soul.”
Going to college was not part of my family culture. But from a fairly young age I felt this drive, this need, this compulsion to fly myself South to San Francisco to go to college. I didn’t even know what colleges were there, I just knew I needed to get there. So at the very same age my mother had been when she gave me birth seventeen years before, I migrated South to San Francisco State University. It was the late 1970s and part of my college experience was playing designated herded (we didn’t drive) for my eclectic group of friends. With our fake IDs we danced to driving disco at a Queer bar called The Stud, which at the time was on Folsom Street, South of Market.
“Return again, return again, return to The Land of Your Soul.”
My father still lived in that small Northern California mountain town called French Gulch in October of 2012 when he died, two weeks before my October birthday. I was with him as he breathed his last breath. After his death I began to feel a compelling need to find out more about the early years of his mother, my grandma Winnie who had lived most of her long life up North in the Trinity Mountains, but was not from there. She had migrated there as a young bride, her husband, my grandpa Russell, brought her North to those Trinity Mountains where he had been born and raised. But I knew she had originally come from San Francisco, born just a couple of years before the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. What I later learned was that her family lived in the part of the city known at “South of the Slot,” only a couple blocks from where I, as a young college student, danced to driving disco in the late 1970s. As I continued my search for her story I found that the orphanage where my grandma Winnie lived after her mother died in October of 1907, was less than a block from the apartment on Geary Street where my young father felt compelled to live at the time I was born, in October of 1959.
“Return again, return again, return to The Land of Your Soul.”
A few days ago I sat at my computer continuing my work to discover and tell the story of my Grandma Winnie’s family, the family whose story had been lost in the trauma of Earthquake and Fire, death and orphanages. My grandma’s mother, Josie Romero Lindsey Smith, died on October 22, 1907 in Hahnemann Hospital, which had been located on California street in San Francisco. I suddenly felt a strong compulsion to look at my birth certificate and tore through my files to find that Children's Hospital, where I was born on October 23, 1959, was also on California Street in San Francisco. The two hospitals had merged somewhere between my great-grandma Josie’s death in 1907 and my birth in 1959, fifty two years later almost to the day.
“Return again, return again, return to The Land of Your Soul.”
This morning I woke to geese singing their honking song as they flew over me returning North. What is it that compels them to make this migratory journey of returning, North to South, South to North? What was it that compelled my father to migrate South to San Francisco just long enough for me to be born where my great-grandma, whose name he didn’t even know, had died? All I know is that I am grateful to him for flying South, so that San Francisco would be the land of my soul, the place for me to return again, and this story could be told. What’s remembered, lives.
And you? Where are you compelled to fly? Where do you return again? Where is The Land of Your Soul?
The line, “Return again, return again, return to the Land of Your Soul” is from a chant I learned as a college student at women’s retreats in San Francisco in the late 1970s.
Music and Lyrics by Schlomo Carlebach - sung by Shaina Noll - and I just noticed that this particular video was posted on YouTube on August 22, 2015 which would have been my father’s 79th birthday….
I spent the day in the downtown public library in Santa Barbara. First of all I want to give my appreciation and gratitude to the reference librarians, especially the woman with the red hair whose name, I am embarrassed to say, I did not get. I was there all day going over obscure local history books, pamphlets, magazines, clippings, and pages of The Santa Barbara Independent on microfiche. Not only did she go way and beyond the call of duty for me, but patiently gave an elderly homeless man crayons and paper because he wanted to draw pictures of his friends, answered all manner of questions from a wide range of people, and made sure folks there for computer help were taken care of...what a gift she is to this library and community.
Not long into my searching I struck a vein of ancestral gold. Turns out my Great-grandma Josie Romero's father, Mariano Romero, was a saloon keep. I am beginning to think that every ancestral root I follow down into the past has either a bartender or minister. It appears that I can not escape the mandate of my DNA which calls me to carefully listen while people tell me their troubles.
I spent the day reading about my ancestors, the Romero family, putting on big dances and parties in honor of the patron saint of Montecito (just south of Santa Barbara), Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Blessed Mary mother of Christ). I spent the day finding bits of the story of Katie Fogleman (aka Vogleman) coming to work for the Swift family and falling in love with neighbor Mariano Romero - both raising young daughters from previous relationships. I read about how they lived on "Romero Hill" with uncles and aunties and cousins all around. When I found a photo of great-greatgrandpa Mariano, my heart danced. I left the library and walked down the street wanting to say to anyone who spoke Spanish in my hearing, "Could you be my cousin?"
Tomorrow I head to Mission Santa Barbara for more digging.
When my grandma Winnie was a toddler she was one of 60,000 poor folk displaced completely by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire when the crowed South of Market slums where they lived were destroyed. She and her family lived in a refugee camp at the foot of Potrero Hill until October of 1907 when the court took the remaining minor children and placed them in different orphanages after her mother's death. I have spent the last year finding their stories and am beginning the journey of crafting them into a book to honor their lives, lives that were forgotten for so many years. In my Reclaiming Witch Tradition we say, "What's remembered, lives." I will be blogging about this journey of researching, remembering, writing, and bringing them to life. Already for me they are very alive and I'd like to introduce you to them through this blog as I write this book. Please join me in this journey of making them live again, I would love your company. - Blessings Lizann
From the upcoming Winter issue of SageWoman Magazine issue #89 "Roots and Wings"
It is a strange thing, the idea of healing the wounds of our ancestors. It requires going deep into the Earth that holds the great and intricately entwined roots that were their relationships, experiences, cultural identities, and the historical events through which they lived. I couldn’t really begin the long process of tending to my Grandma Winnie’s wounded roots (she, a crone when I was born into her life in 1959), until I became a crone myself over fifty years later. I wonder if that is part of the work of crones. If somehow when we are the oldest living generation, with memories that stretch back into the lives of the dead, yet engaged with several generations of the living, that we are more prepared to help heal those roots. I wonder if croning makes us more open to the hard magic of tending those wounded roots so that the generations from which they sprout, can fly freer, with mended wings.
Growing up I only knew my Grandma Winnie was a complicated and mercurial being who could go from cackling delight to flashing anger in short order. But I didn’t know why. Growing up, I only knew her in the second half of her life, an old, but still wild woman, living in a shack with my grandfather in a small mountain town in Northern California. I only knew her surrounded by the history and stories of his family, but not hers. When I was a child, if I asked her about her own family roots she would simply say, “There are some things better left forgotten.” Yet, by the time I was an adult I had became aware of some of her wounded roots.
As a toddler she had lived through the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and ended up in an orphanage. I learned that she had a younger brother with whom she hadn’t spoken since they fought over something she “couldn’t remember,” back in their twenties. When I was in my thirties and she was in in eighties, I finally convinced her to call her estranged brother. His widow answered the phone, he had died six month before. I was old enough at that time to feel that she carried a sense of shame and deep wounds, but could not find a way to get her to even talk about it, and so I could not try to follow those wounded and exposed roots down into the ground of her younger life.
After her death in 1992, my father and I cleaned out her shack, and he stored away photos and papers. Twenty later, when he died, I inherited them. As a witch, the dead and I have always been friends, and somehow, having my father as an ally on the other side of the veil seemed to make me bolder about wanting to follow my Grandma Winnie’s tender roots down. With my father now on her side of the veil, there even seemed to be a shift in her presence. She seemed to move aside and no longer block my curiosity and wondering. So I began that long and dark descent down those wounded roots.
However, even though Grandma Winnie had now given me her tacit assent, she was not an active presence as I learned about her family of origin. I learned that Grandma Winnie’s mother, Josie, died of cancer a year and a half after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. The family was still living in a refugee encampment made up of the displaced poor from their South of Market immigrant neighborhood when my great-grandma Josie died. My grandma Winnie was not an active presence as I learned about her father’s violence, and why the children were taken from him and placed in an orphanage. All that information began to shed light for me on why my Grandma Winnie thought she should be ashamed of her family.
My great-grandma Josie on the other hand was delighted to be remembered after generations, and I strongly felt her presence. She and I fell deeply in love as she guided my research and chatted away about every scrap of information I discovered while pouring through census records, old city directories, and stacks of newspaper editions (both of us excited at each mention of their names or any news of their neighborhood). My great-grandma Josie added a running commentary as I poured over books about San Francisco in the 1880s, 1890s, and through the turn of the century. She guided my historical research and she introduced me to her first husband and their nine children. As I uncovered the facts of their lives, her strong presence helped me feel her heartbreak at the deaths of four of their children, and then the death of her first husband. Yet, she also helped me feel the joy and pleasure she’d had in her 43 years of life growing up Josephine “Josie” Juarez Romero in Santa Barbara, then moving to wild San Francisco and living as Josie Lindsey with her first husband and their brood, and finally as Josie Smith when she married her second husband, my great-grandpa David and gave birth to my grandma Winnie and her little brother. I realized that I now knew much more about my grandma Winnie’s family that she had ever known in her own life.
This wonderful relationship and knowledge of my great-grandma Josie, gave me the strength to travel down the wounded roots of my great-grandpa David. In my grandma Winnie’s papers and photos was a document from The California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in which David was portrayed as a violent alcoholic. That was the only scrap of information Grandma Winnie had of him. I found myself holding his presence at bay as well, although twice he’d come to me in dreams. I continued to do historical research about him. I found out he’d been a carpenter. I found that he’d lived across the street from my Grandma Josie and her first husband, and that they’d married three years after she’d become a widow. I found out that not long after Josie died and the children had been placed in orphanages, that he came back to the court to make sure they knew his step-children we eligible for the Civil War pension of Josie’s first husband. I found out that my great-grandpa David never remarried, and that he’d died in the 1930s. Still, I didn’t feel comfortable embracing his presence for a long time. I realize now that I was feeling the echo of my grandma Winnie’s sense of shame, based on the very little she’d know about him in her life.
Deep into the process I finally asked a dear friend who is a powerful worker of magic, if he would help me build a magical container/space so I could finally meet my great-grandpa David. We went far into the Redwoods to a place strong with its own magic, and cast a circle. My friend called Lady Love and Father Time. I stood swaying following my own DNA down those tangled wounded roots. I was expecting pain and suffering, violence and anger. Instead I found a gentle presence who had lived through great grief. My great-grandpa David and I spent time just being with each other.
I finally had a sense of my great-grandpa that, while not excusing that period of violence in his life, explained it. I understood with compassion his deep love for my great-grandma. I understood the deep friendship he’d had with her first husband and the sense of responsibility he’d had for not only his two children, but all his step-children. I understood his PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol. As I followed those wounded roots down, encountering the rocks they had grown around, my own heart flooded with compassion and love for my great-grandpa David and our whole extended family.
My understanding and compassion for all of them flowed down through my own roots, through my DNA, though my father’s roots, through his DNA, through my grandma Winnie’s roots, through her DNA. My understanding and compassion for all of us flowed through each wounded and tender root, down to the people who were the parents and family my grandma Winnie never knew in life.
Then something amazing happened. I felt the wounded roots of my ancestors begin to heal. With that healing process has come joy. Grandma Winnie’s presence is vastly different. There is less shame now that the story is more fully known and understood with tenderness, gratitude, and deep love. I swear she even looks different in all the old photos I have of her, more buoyant, no longer weighted down. Now I feel those same roots feeding my generation and the generations after me with greater strength and new sweetness. It is a strange thing, this idea of healing the wounds of our ancestors, but if we can, it indeed does allow the generations that follow, to fly freer, with mended wings.
First published on the SageWoman channel at Pagan Square in February 2015
The official letter states: “On October 26th, 1907 Mrs. Smith, suffering from a cancer of the throat, died in Hahnemann Hospital.” Mrs. Smith was my great-grandmother, Josephine Romero Lindsey Smith. Over the past two months as I have been digging, and researching, and listening, she has been rising in my DNA and consciousness from the deep ashes of time, and the wild tragedy that was the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.
This past Ash Wednesday, guided by her rising spirit, I found myself in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the South of Market district of San Francisco. Ash Wednesday is the day when Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, go to Mass and have ashes smudged on their foreheads while a priest says, “Remember that you are ashes, and to ashes you shall return.”
St. Patrick’s was completely destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Out of the ash and rubble they used the soot stained bricks to rebuild. And so, sitting there, I was surrounded by some of the same bricks that had possibly once surrounded my Great-grandma Josephine Romeo Lindsey Smith. I listened to them, those bricks, whisper to me of the Earth Herself rocking and shifting that April morning in 1906. I listened to them whisper to me of the burning that happened after the quaking, the burning that went on for three more days reducing every scrap of wood in that neighborhood to char and ash. I slipped off my shoes, knowing that I was on sacred ground, and walked forward to receive the ashes that connected me to my great-grandma Josephine and the close to two hundred and fifty thousand people who had lost their homes and loved ones in that tragedy over one hundred years ago. I walked forward to receive the ashes in remembrance of that time when blocks and blocks of San Francisco shook and burned and were reduced to rubble and charred wood, melted metal, and ash, so much ash.
Carrying the ash mark on my forehead I walked south five blocks to 414 Clementina Street. My Great-grandma Josephine had lived there with her first husband, Alex Lindsey, and six of their children: Robert, Myron, Josephine, Margaret, Alexander, and Joseph. It was a neighborhood packed with immigrants and an over abundance of single men, mostly laborers. My great-grandma Josephine and her family lived at that address for a decade from 1891-1901. The two children carrying their parents names, Josephine and Alexander, died while they lived there. Then in 1901 her husband died leaving her a widow, pregnant with their daughter Virginia. Again I slipped off my shoes and walked the 400 block of Clementina Street in reverence for their lives, and the lives of their neighbors and friends, lived there long ago. I wove my way to the 100 block where the widow Lindsey had moved with her remaining children after the death of her husband. Finally I walked a few blocks back to Clara Street where they lived after she married her second husband, my great-grandfather, David Smith. There, Josephine and David had two children, my grandma Winnie, and Josephine’s last child, David. This was where they lived that April morning of 1906.
Her South of Market neighborhood sustained almost complete structural damage in the actual quaking of the earth that morning in April. It was built on silt and human made landfill over what was originally the bay’s marsh. Densely populated by the poorest of San Francisco’s working class, the buildings packed together tight, when the earthquake hit, the wooden structures collapsed killing and trapping hundreds, possibly thousands of people. Then the fires consumed the broken wood and any bodies not recovered.
Originally the papers reported that only a couple hundred people had died in the earthquake and fire, numbers played down for political reasons. But a century later, we’ve come to know that thousands died, mostly in my Great-grandma Josephine’s neighborhood, and in Chinatown which was also more densely packed with working class immigrants. Thousands of those names were deliberately not recorded in order to downplay the magnitude of the event as the city chased money for rebuilding. I believe my great-grandma Josephine’s thirteen year old daughter, Margaret, was one of them. I can find records of all the other children after 1906, but nothing on Margaret.
Knowing what I now know of what happened in that part of town, of fire and smoke inhalation, ash and tragedy, my great-grandmother’s death, a year and a half later of a “cancer of the throat,” makes painful sense.
Her South of Market neighborhood continued to hold the scars and pain for decades. It was a toxic site recovering from San Francisco’s collective grief. But the Earth Herself, over the last 100 years has been doing what She does: taking that pain and ash and composting it so that it can be broken down and transformed. As I walk around the neighborhood in 2015 there are signs that new life has risen from the ashes. I talk with a man whose family also included some Romeros, like my Grandma Josephine. He came here in the 1950s to live with his grandmother, and slowly more folk moved in and began to build community. I thought about my own experience in the 1980s dancing at the bar, The Stud, which at the time, was in that neighborhood on Folsom Street. I am sure the ecstasy of dancers soaked in sweat and disco ball light, and the gay leather community in clubs all over the neighborhood, helped heal and transform the energy as well. Struggling artists moved in and channeled the pain into sculpture and experimental theater pieces. At the spot where my Grandma Josephine had lived with her first husband Alex and their children, I found a new apartment complex, which opened just six month ago. They are tiny little places, not unlike what was there one hundred years ago, packed with immigrants and an over abundance of single men, now from the tech industry. Two young men were sitting on one of the stoops right there were my great-grandma lived. They were having lunch in the sunshine. I told them a bit of the story of the people who lived right there over a century ago. We talked and laughed. My great-grandma Josephine, like the neighborhood, risen from the ashes, was present as well in the sunshine and laughter.
As I continue this journey of digging and researching , listening and remembering the past, my great-grandma Josephine, and the generations that came from her, will continue to rise from the ashes. It is the work we do to heal the past. Blessings on all our rising.
First posted at the SageWoman Channel on Pagan Square in January 2015
“There are things,” my Grandma Winnie would say, “better left forgotten.” That was always her response to questions about her life. So, for many years all I really knew about her was what we lived together in the tiny mountain community of French Gulch. When she died in the early 1990’s in her early 90s, my father and I cleaned out the shack where she had lived with my Grandpa Russell. I came away with a bit more information about who she was from my father’s stories of her. We sorted through a box of photos, and my dad did his best to identify the images as I wrote on the backs. Then he showed me a letter, typed in 1911 in San Francisco. The letterhead was from The California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “There are things,” I heard my Grandma Winnie say in my head, “better left forgotten.”
The letter began:
“Re: Winifred and David Smith
Dear Madam, Complying with your request for a brief history of these two children...”
In just a few paragraphs the letter revealed a family who had survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It talked about a mother dying of “a cancer of the throat” in October of 1907, and shortly thereafter of a little girl and her brother taken away from their father who was, “...a man of violent temper and intemperate habits.” I tucked the letter away with the photos and other mementos of my grandparents. I was curious, of course, but every time I thought about it I would hear her voice, “Better left forgotten.”
The night of our Northbay Reclaiming Winter Solstice Ritual 2014, I was talking to a friend who lived in San Francisco. We were sharing what we loved about the City. One of the things my friend mentioned was, “the ghosts.” When I got home that night I felt compelled to pull out that letter and re-read it. This time, along with my grandmother’s voice, I felt the tiny stirring of another presence inviting me to know more. The letter mentioned an address where the family lived in a “wretched little refugee shack.” I looked it up on Google Maps. It was close to where I was planning on spending the actual Solstice night in vigil in San Francisco. Driving through the streets of old SF neighborhoods, that other presence continued to stir. But then my Grandmother’s voice spoke up again, “There are things better left forgotten,” and so I didn’t go to the address. But it was too late. Something was remembered.
The last week of December I found myself pulling out over 3,000 pages of my own life, journal entries I’d kept since I was fifteen, and read every single word. Strengthened by my own life story, and the growing awareness of that other presence, I began researching my Grandma Winnie’s childhood story. I used the collective consciousness of the Internet to pull up maps of where they had lived, of the hospital where my great-grandma, Josephine, had died, of the orphanage where my Grandma Winnie and her little brother, David, were probably placed. I found the marriage notice for my Great-grandma Josephine and Great-grandpa David, and the address where they lived before the 1906 earthquake and fire.
As a witch, I began preparing myself to meet Grandma Winnie’s pain, to meet her resistance to remembering “things better left forgotten.” I grounded myself in the Spirits of The Land of San Francisco. I worked with the Waxing Moon of late December to help me gather strength and wisdom, then with the Waning Moon of early January to help me release and transform the fear and pain held by my Grandmother for over one hundred years. I called on the compassionate heart of Christ, that energy and being that, in my life, has held and transformed my own deep pain.
Then I drove back down to San Francisco. I showed my friend (the one who loved the ghosts) the letter, and shared what I knew of the story, no longer forgotten. Then I went to the address where they lived in 1907. According to the SF building records, that building, built in 1900, had survived the earthquake and fire. It did not resemble a “wretched little refugee shack.” So possibly in those tumultuous times, shacks sprang up around surviving buildings using their addresses to locate the dispossessed. I stood with my back to the surviving building. Even if they didn’t live in it, my Grandma’s small child feet walked this part of the street, her small child hands touched this very wall, low to the ground. I closed my eyes and waited for my Grandma Winnie’s pain.
What happened instead was that I felt her mother, my Great-grandma Josephine, stretch and come alive in my DNA. She was the other presence that had been stirring in me. In my Reclaiming Witch tradition we say, “What’s remembered, lives,” and in standing with my back to that wall remembering, she embraced me with a rush of joy at once again living.
For the next day and a half, Great-grandma Josephine and I visited all the places where I knew she had lived and died. We spent hours at the California Historical Society Research Library on Mission Street, combing through old City Directories, piecing together more information. I knew she had been married before my great-grandfather. She told me about him as I traced the places where they lived in San Francisco. She said her marriage had been a long and happy one until he died in 1901. She told me about my Great-grandpa David, yes he was a violent man when he drank, and yes he was a passionate man who married her not long after she was widowed.
I took her with me when I left San Francisco and drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge, which had been constructed years after she died. She is with me now as I continue my research, helping guide my inquiry through the time and space that is the Internet to find her maiden name, Romero, and the names of her children by her first husband, Alex.
Grandma Winnie? She has so far been silent, but no longer resistant. I know that with my Great-grandma Josephine’s love and guidance, we will finally remember much of what Grandma Winnie thought best forgotten, and in the remembering, may the trauma and pain be transformed so that the wisdom and joy and beauty of their beings, live.
And you? What and who in your own life needs to be remembered to live? As you follow your own path of remembering, may the unexpected presence of Life bless you and yours.
After over a year of research, both historical and deeply spiritual, I'm starting to write my next book based on the life of my great-grandma Josephine Juarez Romero Lindsey Smith (Josie) and her family. They lived "South of the Slot" in San Francisco in the late 19th century and through the 1906 earthquake and fire. She had 11 children, seven of whom lived to be adults. Her life had been forgotten but now she lives and speaks through my heart and imagination and DNA. Please wish me well as I start the writing part of what has already been a remarkable relationship with Grandma Josie and her life and spirit.