Grandpas Village

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Grandpa, who had little schooling, was determined that all his sons should go through college, and they did. Uncle Ed became a lawyer; Uncle Will was water engineer of San Francisco; Uncle Cecil was an Oregon banker. Only Pop returned to Oysterville to make his career, and not by his own wish. He had planned to become a classics teacher but halfway through the University of California switched from Latin and Greek to an engineering major in order to help his father recover oyster money drained off by gold mines. Pop’s mining career was aborted almost at once when his father, falling ill, called him home to nurse him and his landholdings. Pop spent the rest of his life in Oysterville, ranching, politicking, and snapping up oyster beds whenever the state sold them for taxes. A frustrating life, on the face of it, for an ambitious and energetic man; but if Pop was ever discouraged, he did not let it show. Genial, talkative, gregarious, he would never have dreamed of admitting that he considered the welfare of the few people left in Oysterville, and indeed of the entire population of Pacific County, to be his personal responsibility by inheritance. He carried out that responsibility unassumingly and with good humor, liking them all.

At one time or another Grandpa had acquired land scattered all the way from the Canadian border to Los Angeles—land of which his children became co-owners as stockholders in the Espy Estate Company. Pop owned in addition a couple of thousand acres of Oysterville upland and as many of empty and valueless oyster beds. So we were land-poor. I have known Pop to postpone mailing an important letter because he could not find two cents to buy a stamp. Once in a while, however, the Espy Estate Company would dispose at fire-sale prices of a few hundred acres of timberland or a few thousand square feet of city realestate, and for a little while there would be cash all around. On those occasions Pop would bring gifts from South Bend; I cannot for the life of me remember what they were, except that books were generally included and that the most costly present, clearly chosen with love and infinite care, always went to Mom. Then Pop would pay some thing on his debts, buy some more empty oyster beds, and we would be poor again.

 

After fifty years my mother still could not believe that Oysterville, dearly as she had come to love it, was real.

That was the fault of her background. Helen Medora, born May 28, 1878, was the only daughter of Daniel Sidney Richardson, Consul General of the United States in Mexico City, and Annie Medora (Taylor) Richardson, whose father had huffily removed his wife and family to Mexico after his side lost in the War Between the States. Before Helen reached her first birthday, family matters called Daniel back to his California home. Husband, wife, and infant returned to the States along trails so infested with bandits that a squad of Mexican soldiers was assigned to escort them to the border.

Helen grew up in the San Francisco Bay area—a quiet, dreamy girl, much given to reading (a dubious habit that she was to encourage later in her own children). From her mother she inherited a passion for privacy, a pinch of snobbishness, and a devotion to her family that verged on idolatry. Helen’s mother considered San Francisco so barbarous by comparison with Mexico City that she seldom left the shelter of her home. (•Do you know,” she wept to her husband soon after their arrival, “that in this country the washerwomen are called washer ladies ?•)

If San Francisco seemed primitive to Grandma Richardson, I leave you to imagine how Oysterville seemed to my mother.

Her arrival was unpropitious. The next-to-the-last leg of the trip was via the narrow-gauge railroad of the II-waco Railroad and Navigation Company, more commonly known as the Clamshell line.

“The conductor,” she recalled years later, “asked if Pop and I had seen the wreck of the Petrimpus , a three-masted German bark that had recently come ashore. We hadn’t, and he insisted on stopping the train so that we could walk through a quarter of a mile of soft sand to look over that stranded boat. We held up the train for forty-five minutes. And nobody seemed to care at all!”

The train stopped, reports Washington historian Lucile McDonald, “on the slightest excuse—to pick up a family carrying tired children, to shovel drifting sand from the track, or to shoot a bear spied in a field. Once passengers waited while the engine crew captured a runaway horse. Another time a woman dropped a ball of yarn out of a coach window; the conductor halted the train, got out, retrieved the wool, and rolled it.”

Before Mom’s first visit to Oysterville she asked Uncle Ed, then just starting his law practice in San Francisco, whether the Espys lived in the country. “Oh, no,” he replied—”we are right in the middle of town.”

It was, come to think of it, a typically legalistic reply. He did not mention that his definition of town bore no relation to hers.