To my surprise, I discovered writing is a lot like crossing an ocean.
When writing my memoir, Ready to Come About, there were many moments of: ‘What the hell was I thinking’. ‘This is way more than I bargained for’. ‘I’m not equipped to do this; was I ever stupid to even think I was’. ‘Will I survive? If I do, I swear, never again!’
Then I stumbled onto Brian Henry’s creative writing courses, the very first of which was Writing Personal Stories. These courses were jam-packed with information that helped equip me with what I needed to get through to the other side.
However, writing a book differs from an ocean crossing in that it is a journey of years, and it is necessarily a solitary endeavor, most of the time. But you can’t do it entirely alone. It’s important to meet people who talk the same language, who consider writing a worthwhile endeavor, who too spend whole afternoons inserting and taking out commas, only to insert them again in the morning. Through these courses I was introduced to a wonderful writing community, the support of which was essential.
So it feels extra-special to be a guest speaker in Brian’s fabulous upcoming online course, “Writing Personal Stories” where, eleven years ago, my memoir-writing journey began. Check out the details here.
Carol Kane Neilson, known as C.K., was born October 1, 1884, in Far Rockaway, Queens County, New York. He was one of the five sons of Louis Neilson and Anne Perry Rodgers Neilson. And he was David’s grandfather.
The Neilsons were well connected, New York City high society types. J.P. Morgan was a close family friend, for whom C.K. worked as a bike courier in his teens. C.K.’s brother, Frederick, hob-knobbed with Charlie Chaplin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Douglas Fairbanks.
A career on Wall Street might have been expected for C.K., but, as with many an interesting life story, there were struggles. And there were turns.
C.K. had a severe stutter. This stood as a barrier in elite social circles.
A trip to Texas would further influence his life’s trajectory. While on a mission to buy polo ponies for the movers and shakers of Long Island, he became obsessed with all things western. He discovered he was a cowboy at heart.
In 1905, at age 21, C.K. received an inheritance with which he bought a ranch and apple orchard in Colorado, and left his New York City world behind.
Over time, C.K. got to know the couple who owned the neighbouring ranch. They were friends with a young woman, Elsie Deems, another well-to-do New Yorker who spent part of her youth on the Rockefeller estate. Elsie was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, the first U.S. college for women. So her family had big expectations for her too.
This couple next door had a feeling C.K. and Elsie would hit it off. So they invited Elsie to Colorado for a visit. Although it was years before online dating, their objective was the same. And their hunch was right.
Elsie and C.K. married in 1917. Their first child, David’s mother, Nancy, was born in 1918 in Paonia, Colorado. And life was good… for a few years at least.
In 1922 a river overflowed, washing out their ranch and wiping out their investment. So, they packed up what little they had left and headed further west to the hot, dry central valley of California.
In 1923 C.K. landed a position with Cal Pack, a huge farming and food packing company associated with Del Monte. There they had their second daughter, David’s aunt, Caroline, in 1928. A year later C.K. was given full management of a 700-acre farm, Langdon Ranch, owned and operated by Cal Pack. And the little family moved into the ranch house on the property.
Years later Elsie would recount how the ranch house had been the meeting place for the county where big ideas were born. One of those big ideas was the development of the Merced County Park System. C.K.’s focus was Lake Yosemite, particularly the installation of a pleasure craft boat dock.
After the dock was built, and race night became a big thing in the area, C.K. figured he needed a boat to join in. So he bought a kit and built an eighteen-foot sloop in, of all places, the second floor of the ranch house. According to family, a wall was knocked out and a rope system rigged to extract and lower the finished boat which, they added, did not go smoothly!
In the early 1980s, just after David and I got married, David took me to California to meet his family. And we made a side trip to Langdon Ranch. There, in the heat, surrounded by dust and dirt, beneath towering Eucalyptus trees stood the old ranch house. This once grand estate with splendid parlours and gracious rooms, was now empty and boarded up, but I could feel its majesty, its history, the beehive it must have been in C.K.’s days.
In 1946, due to C.K.’s failing health, the family left Langdon Ranch and moved to a smaller 28-acre ranch near Atwater, California. And, in 1947, C.K. passed away.
So how does this relate to my memoir, Ready to Come About? Well, in short, if it weren’t for C.K., and that intrepid family gene, I’d have never crossed an ocean in a small sailboat. So, thank you, C.K.!
“Didn’t even know you sail,” I said as evenly as possible.“Oh yeah. I did. My aunt Caroline gave me a small sailboat my grandfather had built. I used to sail it on Lake Yosemite, an irrigation lake about seven miles from our house. My mom would drop me off there on her way to work. I’d sail back and forth all day long and imagine I was crossing an ocean, even though it was only a mile wide. Silly.”
Excerpt from “Ready to Come About” (Dundurn Press)