Wednesday, December 21, 2011


My grandmother Mavis was 47 when I showed up. She and my grandfather Ralph were then living in the outer LA county province of Pomona (a city I'd return to, by complete coincidence, 30 years later). She taught at Mt. SAC College, he taught at Cal Poly Pomona. After their back yard vanished in an overnight mudslide, they moved to Keno, Oregon. But Keno eventually proved too remote - too eerily silent at night -  and they relocated to the relatively sprawling metropolis of Klamath Falls. They lived there until his death in 1997, and her death late last month. She was 89. 

It's a typical grandparent story. Here’s what’s not typical; my grandmother was a nuclear physicist. Raised in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, she was the first in her family to graduate college, and she went on to work with radioactive isotope treatment for liver and thyroid disease at Stanford Research Institute. Despite her sense of humor – wry? dry? – there was something slightly formidable about her intellect. Although we were very close for four decades, she was never "grandma" or "grammy" or "grim grams". I only called her “Grandmother”.  

Here’s a wonderful photo of her from the late 1950’s, working on the first smog study in Los Angeles. I’m not sure of the context, or the nature of her research, or the tie-in to her particular field. I didn’t start trying to sort out the chronology of her career until it was too late, the precise sequence of her life eluding both of us.

At some point before my existence, she worked on weapons systems at General Dynamics. We never discussed this period in her life. During the years I knew her, Grandmother was a progressive’s progressive. She was a founding member of the Northwest Energy Coalition and the Klamath Solar Association, as well as president of the county’s League of Women Voters and active with the Oregon Citizens Utility Board. Sorting her voluminous papers earlier this month, I was struck by the absurd breadth of her interests: solar power, reproductive rights, campaign finance reform, sheaths of technical info on heavy water reactors, power grids, energy efficiency, many articles addressing Enron before Enron’s collapse, lists of legislators, and literally thousands of newspaper clippings, each neatly dated, and many underlined or highlighted. I got through 10 bankers boxes of information, only slightly more than half her paper estate.

In life, it was a little too easy to overlook the scope of her accomplishments in general. Ralph got her into gambling (she financed her unsuccessful 1990 State Legislature race with $7k in poker winnings). She got him into piloting, and they took their Cessna on several cross country flights, including jaunts over the Canadian wilderness and rural Mexico. They lived in Europe for 4 years in the late 1950s, and she traveled on her own to Australia, China, Israel, and the Soviet Union. She was the only person I ever met to fly over the North Pole (although not in her own Cessna). 

As a devout agnostic, I have to at least entertain the possibility that somewhere she and my grandfather have been reunited, perhaps with some (or all?) of their wonderful animals: Corky, Pee Wee, Pete, Trudy, Vasi. As a devout atheist, she might be very annoyed at receiving extra innings. Or was she a devout atheist? I'd always assumed so. Discussing the matter with my mom, however, the best we could remember was that my Grandmother had once called organized religion “awfully silly”. It's one more detail requiring the clarification that will now never come.