My mother’s father died in 1966, and, since we grew up in southern California, we didn’t visit all that often. So any memories are necessarily distant. Mainly, I remember Easter – which seems to be the time we visited most – my sisters in rustling dresses, me in slippery, polished leather shoes and starched collars (stiff anyway) that pressed into my neck as we sat for what seemed an eternity in the wooden pews.
Grandpa Laurance L. Cross came from a long line of Alabama preachers, a Presbyterian who found that denomination constricting. He left it soon after he started the Northbrae Community Church in 1924, where he was the minister until his death. He was also Berkeley’s mayor from 1947 to 1955 and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 1954. He was strict with his six children, but never anything but warm with his grandchildren. I remember only smiles and rimless glasses and a cloud of white hair above his buttoned suit vest. And his soft Alabama lilt: “Toin this way, child.”
He and Grandma lived in the parsonage on Los Angeles Avenue, in a leafy, hilly neighborhood a few blocks from the church. This is what I remember most vividly.
Grandma sitting before the mirror in their bedroom brushing out her waist-length hair. Grandpa at the dining table dipping his teabag a prescribed number of times (three? four?) into his china cup after dinner. Caffeine was a vice, if not a sin. He did not approve of either. With, apparently, a personal exception now and then.
I remember looking out the sheer second-floor window that my Uncle Leland had used to escape the no-going-out-at-night rule. I remember the basement with its rows of birdcages and shelves full of bells. I’m not sure I remember hearing the mockingbirds in those cages, or if I was just told the story.
Outside the home, Grandpa was a progressive force. Throughout the 1930s he hosted a daily, hour-long live radio program on NBC called “Crosscuts of the Day.” It was not a religious program. And, rare for those days, it featured black performers.
Six days a week Grandpa would ride an early-morning ferry to San Francisco, and precisely at 8 a.m. listeners would hear the ring of a crosscut saw slicing a real log in the studio. The saw was manned by two of the four black men (they were called colored boys back then) who sang a cappella and played the roles of workers on an imaginary plantation. Grandpa played the bemused, benevolent “Colonel.” Live Alabama mockingbirds sang in the background.
My mother says now that some of the stories were so un-PC it makes her blanch to think about them. But, for the time, they represented a kind of radical tolerance.
Occasionally, Grandpa would have one of his kids on the show. My mother once said on-air that she collected pretty rocks, and hundreds of agates came in the mail from around the world addressed to little Miriam. Her sister said that she liked bells. Same thing: bells of all shapes and descriptions poured in through the mails. Some of these survive in various family collections.
Soon after Grandpa was elected Berkeley’s mayor he instigated a sister-city relationship with Osaka, in defeated, devastated Japan. I remember a photograph of Grandma and Grandpa getting off a plane in Japan. Or maybe they were coming back here, with a delegation of Japanese? I’m not sure. I do have a tangible piece of that early postwar diplomacy: A delicate samurai watercolor hangs now in Ellen’s and my bathroom.
As for the church itself, and my memory assignment, I’m afraid I can’t go much beyond the uncomfortable shoes. There was the wall of modernist stained glass behind Grandpa as he spoke. There was his black, floor-length robe and silk sash. Was it gold? I see on the church’s website that a statue of Saint Francis my mother sculpted is still there in the garden.
The church now is apparently just as progressive it was in Grandpa’s time. He used to preach that true Christianity was less a church-based doctrine than “a way to a life abundant.” They talk now on their website about walking a balance between “being Christ focused and universally inclusive.” They want to offer, they say, a “spiritual comfort-zone free of judgment or pressure.” Good old Berkeley.
The Saint Francis in the garden walks alone, arms folded at his waist, deep in thought. He seems no more certain about the mysteries than I was as a child, or Grandpa Cross was, or I am now.