“I’m lending this to you. Remember, I want it back.”
My grandmother hands me a non-descript, navy blue book. The only details on the worn, hard cover are the title, Reminiscences, and the author’s name below it, O.R. Baldwin. An unknown author, no book jacket, not a title that particularly grabs the attention. It’s the kind of book one would find in a secondhand bookstore and wonder, “who actually buys this?”, maybe try to bargain down the price a bit. Inside, the cover there is a scrawling note:
To my darling Sylvia from her grandfatherOR Baldwin.
The O stands for Orville, my great-great grandfather.
One quiet morning I finally crack the book open. There is a forward from Orville’s wife, Anna, my great-great grandmother:
“This is the loveliest thing that ‘Father’ has done for his children.”
I laugh, thinking to myself: What sort of ego must one have to write an autobiography just to pass the time? Nonetheless, I am intrigued. This is a chance to know a generation I have never heard of, remembered by only a handful of the living.
In the first chapter, I meet not O.R. Baldwin, but his father (my great-great-great grandfather), Orville Dwight Baldwin. I’ll call him Dwight. Born in 1843, Dwight spent his youth in the state of New York, working odd jobs to bring in money for his family. One of Dwight’s many jobs was as an assistant to a “prestidigitator” – a magician. Much of Orville’s writing will be like this: antiquated and lofty words thrown about his paragraphs. His thoughts will jump from one story to another without warning. It becomes apparent, at least to me, that this book was never meant for wider circulation. These are the stories of a grandfather meant to entertain his children and grandchildren.
I am startled to uncover these older family ties to the United States. I had grown up with the narratives of recently immigrated families on both sides. My father’s family were Swiss-Italian farmers from only a few generations before. My mother came from Colombia in her twenties. I had grown up with a perception that my history in this country did not reach that far back. But with this book, I discover that the story of my Colombian family is a split between the two nations. One of Orville’s daughters, Doris, would marry a Colombian and follow her husband back to his country, creating the mix of nationalities that I recognize so well in one of her daughters, Sylvia, who happens to be my grandmother.
The following chapters of Orville’s own life are a surreal mix of Indian Jones and Laura Ingalls Wilder as he flies through his adolescence in California and into his life as a young adult. He recounts a trip abroad, spending over a year exploring numerous countries. He describes the poisonous snakes he runs across in Egypt and the night he hikes out alone to climb a pyramid in Giza, watching the moon rise from its peak. At one point, the family’s journey comes to a halt due to a cholera quarantine, blocking their trip to Syria. These are tales I’d expect in some dated adventure novel, not as the memories of my ancestor at sixteen years of age. I am not sure how many of his tales to believe, but I find myself wondering, even hoping, that this sense of adventure might be hereditary.
Perhaps a stranger would find many of these stories too odd to be true. As a member of this family, I can say stories just as strange have been told by my mother and grandmother when they recount their lives in Colombia. As a young child, my grandmother was accustomed to traversing the Panama Canal with her American mother, going between their home in Bogotá, Colombia and their relatives in the bay of San Francisco, California. Wild animals, people from all over the world, and adventures on the high seas are scattered throughout her memories.
At the age of twenty-one, Orville marries Anna Duprey, who is eighteen at the time. Not long after, Orville drags his wife and his young children to his childhood dream: a ranch in northern California. Orville’s stories waver back and forth between the mundane and the outlandish, writing about the challenging transition from city to country life. He describes his quirky and rough neighbors, recounting bar fights and rifle shots- usually over livestock or land disputes. He tells of perilous journeys to town by horseback or wagon, how many times the washed-out roads and rivers put their lives in danger. He includes a story about rescuing a young neighbor’s life after being bitten by a rattlesnake. To top it all off, his passion for animals leads to a menagerie including tamed squirrels, deer, and even crocodiles the family buys from a traveling zoo.
The story of family history on my mother’s side has always had a heavy dividing line: life in Colombia, and the time after. Like my grandmother, my mother spent her youth in Colombia, but left during the country’s more unstable years to settle in the United States. The time before was filled with rich and vivid adventures in the noisy and vibrant city of Bogotá, and in the mysterious and wild llanos where the family would spend hot summers. The time after, was the story of a family settling into life in America, it did not carry the magical surrealism I adored. These were years of working and settling down into the rhythm of life within a different country. Like my mother and grandmother, I had placed the time in Colombia, the time before, on a pedestal. In exploring Orville’s history, I am discovering how family narratives can twist and change from one generation to the next, how stories can quickly be lost.
In each paragraph, I find myself looking for similarities between myself and this man called Orville. It is obvious we are different individuals. Orville is an American man with wealth, privilege and the easy self-confidence of one who knows he belongs. I am the daughter of a multi-cultural household, who grew up balancing two countries in my heart, sifting through the complexities of a mixed identity. I wonder if we would even get along, were we to have lived in the same era. Nevertheless, I continue reading. I mull over the complexity of my own identity, this torn feeling in my heart that has never allowed me to identify as the child of a single country. When I am in the U.S., I feel that I am not quite American, yet when I am in Colombia, I am most definitely not Colombian. There is a part of me that hopes to uncover a family secret within this book, some sign that points to who I am and how I fit into this world.
Somehow, in the midst of his many tales, Orville mentions only in passing the historical events I am most intrigued to hear about: World War I, the pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II. He remembers waking to the earthquake of 1906 on his ranch in Calistoga and recounts how hard it was to find farmhands afterwards, as wages were doubled in San Francisco while the city was being rebuilt. I wonder how much of this narrative is shaped by the way in which he wants to tell it or how he perceives it, rather than seeing history through an objective lens. The ranch is his vocation, and these are the stories he has decided to pass down to future generations. The famous, historic events almost pass him by without his even realizing it, and I wonder: have I done this too, in my own lifetime?
When Orville mentions that one of his daughters must return from their life in Colombia because of diabetes, I am almost angry. Diabetes! Is this the gift my ancestors have left to me: a faulty pancreas? Within Orville’s words I have been searching for an anchor, a place to finally call home. All I find are tales about the coyotes and mountain lions of northern California, and unfortunate genetic defects. There is no x-marks-the-spot, I remain the half-Colombian, half-American I have always been.
Once I give up my search for some revelation about my identity, I realize what a gift I have been given. How many of us carry stories of our great grandfathers or of our great-great grandmothers? Stories are how we remember our history and honor our ancestors, and yet not all can trace their history back to generations of the past. I am lucky and privileged to be given this window into history; moments in time that I otherwise would not have known. It doesn’t matter whether these tales changed history or simply recount daily life as it was. The richness of these tales and the joy that I can sense from Orville as he recounts his memories, remind me to cherish the memories I myself am creating now.
As I turn to the last page, the story feels as if it is not quite over. I flip back to the forward by Anna, Orville’s wife. At the bottom of the page, Anna has written the following:
“These memories are our Life – and something of the Love and Laughter will reach through other generations to the children we will never know and they will feel close to us through these lively stories of our day.”
If I were to write my own autobiography, and raise children of my own, what would they learn about this era? Would I include the pandemic of 2020? The protests for Black Lives Matter? Would I have been a participant in the making of history or simply an observer? Will my great-great grandchildren find solace in my words and memories?
Yet again, the power of storytelling binds humans together, connecting us through experiences and relationships as we form our own history. As I write these words, I am continuing the narrative that my great-great grandfather began almost a century ago. I would give anything to see the person who will pick up this thread and continue with the narrative once I am gone.