“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.