A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A long life well lived

(Above: Hillside Club Poster by David Lance Goines)

Berkeley lost its oldest resident, and the historic Hillside Club lost its longest-serving member, when Marjorie Robinson died April 25 at her home on Fresno Street, where she lived for the last 70 years. She was exactly 104 ½ years old.
I had the pleasure of meeting her at her birthday party last Oct. 25 at the Hillside Club, and it was like a guided tour through local history.
Think what this area was like when she was growing up: no Bay Bridge and no Golden Gate Bridge. And everything north of Berkeley was nothing but farmland.
She graduated from Berkeley High in 1923, and it was a very different place.
"When young men got in trouble, the principal used to put them in a barrel and roll it down the stairs for punishment. You couldn't get away with that today."
But the most memorable event of her youth was the 1923 Berkeley Hills fire, which destroyed nearly 600 homes, including the house next door to hers.
"My mother and I had gone to Oakland to do a little shopping. We were coming home on the Grove Street streetcar and suddenly saw hundreds of cars coming the other way. Nearly all the hills were on fire."
When they got to Grove Street - now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way - and University Avenue, the conductor suddenly announced, "This is far as we go," and her mother told her, "You go ahead and save what you can; I'll try to catch up with you later."
She dashed up Shattuck Avenue, circling around the police barriers until she got to Cedar Street, a block away from her home.
"A policeman was holding people back, so when he turned the other way I ducked under the rope and ran to our house."
When she got there, it was full of looters.
"People were ransacking the place, helping themselves to things like my parents' crystal decanters. They were piling stuff on a tablecloth on the dining room table, getting ready to take everything away.
"One man came up to me, thinking I was another looter, and handed me one of my father's old shoes filled with my mother's jewelry. He said, 'Here. There's enough for everybody.'
"I yelled, 'This is my home!' at the top of my lungs. And for some reason, it worked. They dropped everything and ran away."
That night, a new hazard appeared: Hundreds of rubber-neckers, who had come from as far away as Marin County to view the fire.
"The problem was that they were driving over the fire hoses, cutting the water off. So a firemen said to me, 'Stand here in the middle of the street and don't let anyone run over the hoses.' I stood there all night until 5 a.m., when the National Guard arrived and told me, 'We'll take over now.'"
But there was much more to her life, including two husbands, two children, 10 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
She was active in the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, which she joined in 1939. She was also president of the Athene of California, Northbrae Women’s Club, Alameda District Federation of Women’s Clubs and - at age 99 - Chapter LG of the PEO Sisterhood, one of the pioneer societies for women.
Hers was a long life, well lived. And a lot of people miss her already.