A couple of Fridays ago, I visited Mary O’Brien at her home a couple of miles south of Navarro. She had made some delicious iced tea and kept my glass full throughout the interview, and then added a beer near the end!
Mary was born of English/German/Welsh/Belgian descent, in the town of Appleton, Wisconsin in 1948. “We lived in nearby rural Chilton but my parents knew the doctor in town as a friend. No sooner was I born than my father was off to accept a residency at the University of Kansas Medical Center. My mother followed on the train with me in a size 13 D Florsheim shoe box – that’s true!” Mary was later joined by two younger brothers, Creighton and Dan.
Mary’s father, Dr. Creighton Hardin, had been a captain in the Army Medical Corps during World War 2 and her mother, Helen Tank, was at the University of Wisconsin as a personal assistant/secretary to the famous historian and novelist, Wallace Stegner. “My father was Episcopalian and my Mom a Catholic. We were raised Catholic and I attended Mass every Sunday until I was about sixteen.”
Her father was a plastic surgeon in Kansas City on the Kansas side of the border with Missouri. “After first being in a city apartment we moved to a very nice house in the suburbs, a family neighborhood called Prairie Village. It was a little like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ but not quite as white-washed as that. They were conservative times, particularly in Kansas, and most people in our environment were Republican, although my Mother was a closet Democrat. I was probably more conservative as a teenager than at any time since.”
Mary was a very social and out-going child and thoroughly enjoyed Junior High and High School where she was a good student, particularly in English, History, and Languages. “I enjoyed learning and was involved with the school drama society, student government, and the Pep Club”…Mary’s high school had 2400 students – virtually all white, no black. “It never registered with me at the time… Despite being comfortably off, during the summers I would get jobs – the work ethic was ingrained in us. I worked in a gift shop at the hospital one year, and after graduation I was a lifeguard at the lake for the summer – I loved swimming. My parents made sure I found work and if I couldn’t they found it for me. One summer, when I was sixteen, my mother gave me ‘The Joy of Cooking’ and announced that I would be cooking the family dinners for a month. I had to plan them, buy the food, prepare the dinner, and serve it. I’ve actually always liked cooking ever since.”
Mary graduated in 1966 and in the following fall she entered Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. “This was amazing to me – it was the first time I had come into contact with people from a variety of different backgrounds and ethnicities. I immediately became involved in many aspects of University life, planning the Freshman Carnival, showing parents around the University campus, and signing up for the Student Drama productions. This was the mid-sixties and sororities were huge at that time and I joined one – Pi Beta Phi. I had done acting at school, plus was involved in the wardrobe, the set design, etc and now I did more of this and less on stage stuff… The drama bug had been with me since I was a little kid when I’d boss other little kids around – I once convinced my brother Dan that he could fly for our neighborhood production of ‘Peter Pan’ – he tried it and fell off a roof, chipping his teeth, for which I have never been forgiven!”
During the summer of 1968 Mary worked as a waitress in Chicago (ultimately being fired for dropping too many things), and was very aware of events going on downtown at the famously tumultuous Democratic Convention of that year, although she was not directly involved herself. Then during her senior year, with the Vietnam War raging, she was involved in a strike at the University following the institution’s investments in South East Asia. “We organized sit-ins and demonstrations and finally, after two weeks, the University announced it was pulling its investments out and so we returned to school. My father had told me that this was hurting my education but my focus was changing and I had gone from being an English major to one in Political Science. I was seeing things very differently; I was pissed off with a lot of things, particularly world politics but also my parents. However, I did take my father’s advice at this time to have a back-up vocation, adding a teaching credential to my other studies…I was also enjoying a very full social life, with different boyfriends and drinking voluminously with the other girls – we had found an old bar predominantly full of older black guys and we’d drink there, play their jukebox, and dance around. Who knows what they made of ten white sorority girls?”
“I was always very comfortable in the Sorority lifestyle and made lifelong friends there, twelve of us still get together annually to this day. However, upon graduating I knew that I would not follow the traditional pattern of marrying a frat boy just starting in his new profession and having his kids. When I graduated in 1970, five other sorority girls and I went to Europe for the summer. We rented two small Renault cars, driving stick shifts for the first time, and traveled all around, driving by night and partying by day in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. In Portugal I met a local fisherman who proposed to me after two days – I said no and broke his heart.”
Upon her return from Europe in the fall of 1970, Mary and her best friend each borrowed $500 from their parents. “We had no plans, we just knew we wanted to escape from the Midwest so we put the names of five places in a hat and drew one out to see where we’d go. It was San Francisco, which is where I was hoping for, and we upper middle class girls got on a plane and came out to California.”
Initially they stayed in a residential hotel on Union Square, where they felt the need to take a baseball bat for protection whenever they went to the communal bathroom at night. “Once again I had arrived in a place where there was nobody within my frame of reference from previous experiences. San Francisco seemed to be full of prostitutes and pimps. I had led such a conservative, sheltered, and naïve life to this point – it was mind-blowing to me.”
Mary found a job as a clerk in the Blue Shield Insurance Claims Department where one day she was on the elevator when she met a certain Ron O’Brien, a long-haired, wire-rimmed glasses-wearing hippy who was working for the phone company. “He looked like he should have been in the Youngbloods! (A folk rock band of the 60’s). I pretty much forced myself on him and though he had a girlfriend I was so persistent that he asked me out.” She then found a job through a temping agency at an Advertising Agency in Fisherman’s Wharf and soon found herself in the Creative Department where she stayed for a couple of years.
“Ron and I went through an on again/off again relationship for a couple of years but by 1972 we were living together in the Richmond District near to Golden Gate Park. In 1973, the sorority girl from Wisconsin and the blue-collar phone guy originally from Minnesota got married with Ron’s seven year old son, Aaron, also living with us.”
“I loved the City – its music scene, the coffee shops, the gay community, the art galleries, the theatre. I started a baby-sitting business out of our home on Clement Street in the Richmond. We then had a daughter, Molly, in 1974, and I think we felt we’d be there for some time. However, other older kids on the public courts were repeatedly bullying Aaron, who was a basketball star in the making. They stole his bike, his baseball mitt, and they’d hit him. It was terrible. I was getting tired of the baby-sitting, our apartment was too small for the four of us – it was a combination of factors but we were ripe to move. We began to think about where to go and considered the Sunset District and thought about moving out of the City completely – Half Moon Bay was considered. Then we thought about an even more extreme move.”
“Ron’s family had moved to California to work in the shipyards in the war and had settled in a place called Anderson Valley in 1947 when the shipyards closed. His family had originally bought about fifty acres with a large chicken farm near to Gschwend Road in Philo/Navarro and this had been split up. There was a trailer on about six acres available so, after five years in the City, Ron and I, with the two kids, moved to the Valley in June of 1975 – to the location where we’ve lived ever since.”
Not for the first time Mary underwent major culture shock. “This was very different from anywhere I’d been before. We stayed in that trailer for sixteen years! I knew only my in-laws, who were delightful in there own way but were not going to be my friends. Ron had to work in Santa Rosa as the phone company would not give him a transfer to the Valley, and was gone all week. Then I gave birth to our son Sam in November of that year. It was a lot to take on. I knew how to start a fire and how to cook but had no other country experience to refer to. I almost left the day his parents asked me to help with the chicken cull and I found myself with my hand up inside a chicken!”
However, Mary stayed and slowly joined the community, starting with the Catholic Church where she played the organ (she had played for three years as a child) and met friends such as Joyce Schriner and then Kathy Cox, with whom she taught catechism at the church for a few years and who also had kids of the same age. For three years she volunteered at the school and for the first time realized that she actually enjoyed working with kids. She particularly liked teaching drama and in the summer gave swimming lessons along with Barbara Goodell. “I must have taught a couple of hundred kids how to swim in the eight years or more that we did that – I am very proud of that accomplishment.” Apart from these activities, there were always kids being dropped of at various other homes and she became friends with the other mothers.
From 1978-79, Mary decided to get her credential in Special Ed and this involved traveling to U.C. Davis every other weekend, four and a half hours away. During this time she became one of the founding board members of the Peachland School where for two years she taught fifteen hours a week whilst also teaching as a speech aid at the Elementary School. Then from 1981-82 she worked at the Valley’s Bachmann Hill School for court-placed kids from the Bay Area until she finally began teaching at the High School in 1983 in Special Ed. However, this did not work out as well as she expected – “too much paperwork; not enough teaching and learning” – and in 1986 Superintendent J.R. Collins offered her the Junior High teaching job which she did full-time for nearly twenty years, mainly teaching English, American History, and Drama.
“Since 2005 I have been part-time but I am still involved with much of the administration, coordinating the Special Ed Department, and supporting new teachers. I continue to look forward to it every day. I always have, and on reflection perhaps my commitment meant that at times I was not a good parent for my own kids, particularly during their teenage years. I guess that comes with the territory as I was too aware of them, too controlling, too clingy may be. There were some tough times but we get along well now. We have two grandchildren – Molly’s Emma who is nearly two and Aaron’s Julia, who is seven. Aaron coaches basketball and is a high school teacher in Oakland, Molly is in the Sacramento area with a C.P.A. background, and Sam is a teacher in Reno, and also an actor and stand-up comedian.”
“With tenure I am in a decent situation although obviously the education cutbacks are affecting us all at the school. Meanwhile I continue to have a social life here in the Valley through various activities. I am a member of a wonderful Book Club, a conglomerate of about fourteen, fifty to eighty year olds; I am in the I.C.W. (Independent Career Women) and work on their scholarship committee; I am a member of the Grange, and help with their Variety Show when I can, although I rarely go to meetings now; I have done various things for the Food Bank, particularly during their Xmas Exchange; I was involved with the Recreation Committee planning summer activities for kids; and for three years I organized the Black and White Ball.”
In 2005, Mary was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and took a year off but feels she has built herself up to good health now. “I feel blessed to be able to do what I want to do. Linda Brennan and I started a Cancer Support Group in the Valley and we have meetings once a month, usually the 2nd Monday or Tuesday, people can call either of us for information.”
As usual I asked my guest for their responses to various issues that Valley folk often find themselves discussing… With Mary being a teacher for so many years what better topic to start with – The School System? – “The High School was ‘under siege’ for many years in the seventies, run into the ground and with administrative changes often occurring. That situation has greatly improved. The High School has gone from 5% Hispanic to nearly 70% since those days and that requires a different way of teaching for the staff as a whole to adopt. However I believe we have done a good job. The children who have been pulled out and sent to Mendocino or Ukiah have said that the educational experience at A.V. compared well to these others. I believe the crux to the kids leaving has been the limited social life available in the Valley life compared to those other places. I would argue that many kids have done better here academically than if they had gone elsewhere… Having said that I question whether the academic program is not adequate for all groups of kids. Some are held back by the academic vocabulary that they are unfamiliar with. We are working on this issue. The good teachers realize that some kids struggle whilst others are dying to learn more and that sometimes you are teaching two classes in one. Therefore designing the classes is critical and time must be spent in doing this, not just in the planning of classes, getting the materials needed, and organizing it… We have a firm but fair, ‘family’ situation at the school. It is the heart of the community and has been for years. I do wonder about the future though. I am pleased overall with the new teachers but there are not enough of them and there is a core of teachers who will be retiring in the next few years. The Valley has changed so much in the last 30 years but the school has continued to serve the students well. I wonder where the next generation of leadership and teachers will come from. I’d love to see our graduates come back to teach here. We have just had the first Hispanic graduate do that – Ester Soto – and hopefully many more will follow her…Meanwhile I think it would behoove the School District to consider people from outside the Valley for future leadership positions. At least consider it – there is nothing wrong with that. I am a part of the very same group that has been here for a long time and perhaps a shake-up might be good.”…
KZYX & Z, the local public radio station? – “I witnessed its birth twenty years ago and Ron was the chief engineer and then had a show on the air. It plays a very important part in Valley life and in community building. I am a big fan”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I think it was good that Bruce Anderson went away and came back ‘kinder and gentler.’ I do read it quite often but do not subscribe as I used to”… The wineries? – “I like wine and worked for Navarro for a time to earn some extra money to get the kids through college. However, like many others I am concerned about the water issue and have spoken at length with the four women who have been pushing the Alternative General Plan for the Valley’s future. How do we regulate the usage of water? What are they spraying and what are the effects? I do know that an unusually large number of women seem to have suffered from breast and ovarian cancer here. It’s something to think about and investigate further.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Mary many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “ ‘You’re kidding me!’ That works well with kids.”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “I don’t like to hear the word ‘fuck’. I used to swear a lot but not now.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Reading and being able to talk about what I’ve read with people I care about. Being in the Book Club has greatly broadened my repertoire.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “That I sometimes get to into myself and seem unable to see, feel, think. That I get too self-absorbed at times but fortunately these days I can normally get myself out of this.”
What sound or noise do you love? – “I love to wake up in the summertime and hear the birds singing.”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “Loud rap music with misogynist lyrics and bad words.”
What is your favorite curse word? – “As I said I’ve reigned that in and now it would be ‘damn’ or ‘shitty’ “
Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “I like romantic movies, screenplays by Nora Ephron, Frank Capra movies such as ‘It happened one night’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. As for a book, one that has stuck with me is ‘Suite Francaise’ by Irene Nemirovsky, about a French Jewish woman in World War 2 Paris.”
What is your favorite hobby? – “Reading, cooking, swimming, clothes and jewelry, talking with friends.”
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “I think I would have been a good private detective as I am very observant and detailed. Plus I like the idea of working in a trench coat and hat pulled down low.”
What profession would you not like to do? – “Working on septic systems…or a dietician.”
What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The birth of my children.”
What was the saddest? – ‘ The death of my father in 2003 at the age of 84. My mother died many years ago at 57 in 1975.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I appreciate my sense of humor and am thankful for it getting me through sixty-one years so far. I enjoy people and hope I am a loyal friend and helpmate.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I think he’\s likely to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”