Guest Columnist Lin Joyce: My Grandmother, Recalling San Francisco In The 1920s

Lin Joyce grandmother Frances photoLin Joyce, a personal historian based in Washington, D.C., is wife to Bill and mom to Annie and Susie and grandmother to Emily, Cameron and Jacob. She is head interviewer for Reel Tributes, a company that produces personal history documentaries that combine personal videos, pictures and music WWW.REELTRIBUTES.COM. Lin is also Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for the Association of Personal Historians. Three years ago, she founded The Life Stories Program for Capital Caring, a hospice serving the Metropolitan Washington D.C. area, to train hospice patients to preserve family memories. She believes everyone has a story to tell, and loves playing a part in helping to tell those stories.

Dear Annie and Susie,
In the mid 1990s, I paid my grandmother, Frances, a visit in the city of my birth, San Francisco. I would visit her at least once or twice a year, usually for eight to ten days at a time, but this particular visit was to be special. It would ultimately change the course of my life.
It was an overcast morning and we had nothing particular to do that day. We sat leisurely eating our breakfast of hot cereal, stewed apricots with cinnamon, tea and toasted Parisian sour dough bread.

Soon she began to tell me about the year she saw San Francisco for the first time. Now in her 90s, she spoke of being 21 years old and more than ready to leave home and become an independent woman. Her family lived in Sellwood, Oregon, just outside of Portland, and this was a big move for her.

My grandmother decided in 1923 to move to Los Angeles together with a school friend named Nora. Quickly my grandmother obtained a job as a secretary at Selig Zoo and Movie Studio, both located near Lincoln Park in East Los Angeles.

Colonel William Nicholas Selig had shot the first motion picture ever produced in Los Angeles. He also had a famous private zoo on that site — in reality a home for the animal actors. While she worked there, she saw a crew shooting scenes for the picture “Abraham Lincoln.”

She recalled getting to know the elephant trainer, the lion trainer and Blossom Seeley, an ex-vaudeville star who operated the studio cafeteria. The elephant trainer let my grandma ride the elephant bareback, and the lion trainer showed her his scars. My grandmother was always slender and she recalled Blossom trying to persuade my grandmother to fatten her up.
One lunchtime, my grandmother recalled seeing actors in costume eating in the movie studio canteen. Amusing, she said, to see people eat lunch while dressed up as cowboys and Indians.

As I listened to my grandmother speak, I thought, “What will become of these stories about an age long gone when she passes away?” It dawned on me that as her oldest granddaughter, I had to do something. And I got an idea.

“Grandma,” I said, “what would you think about me tape recording some of your memories while I’m visiting you? I think your stories are really wonderful and the rest of the family would love having your stories preserved.”

“Really?” she said. “Do you think anyone would really care about what happened in my life?”

“Absolutely! Would you allow me to ask you some questions about what you remember?”

“Well, okay then. It might even be fun.”

That afternoon I drove to a nearby Radio Shack in Westlake Village and bought a three pack of Sony’s highest quality recording cassette tape. My grandmother already owned a simple tape recorder. I knew I had everything I needed to begin.

That very day we began a most pleasant task that, unknown to me, would began my new life as a personal historian. Up until that point, I had had no idea of what a personal historian even did.

Over the next eight years, I went to San Francisco many times to visit my grandmother. I recorded 15 hours of memories in all – stories of war and peace, vastly expanding technology, social change, travel and her reflections on living to be 104 years old.

Oh, how I loved to hear her reflect on days long gone. Each and every minute with her turned into treasure.

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

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