A cascarón is an emptied chicken egg that has been filled with confetti. The Spanish word cascarón means “eggshell.” Similar to Easter eggs, popular in many cultures, these hollow eggs are a tradition that started in Spain and spread to Mexico when Spain colonized Central America. It is still a widespread tradition in the southwestern United States and Mexico. María Antonia Richardson and her daughter Mariana would have made many cascarones for fiestas during their lifetimes. To make these eggs, early California women poked small holes in one end of the eggs, blew out the raw contents, and rinsed the empty shells. After the shells dried, the women filled them with cologne or tiny pieces of brightly colored cut paper and sealed the holes with melted candle wax. The cascarones were saved to use at an Easter fiesta or a party. As guests arrived or during the dancing, a woman or man would secret an egg in one hand, hide it behind his or her back, and crack the cascarón on the head of the surprised partner or friend. A shower of fragrant cologne or bits of colored paper would cover the unsuspecting victim’s hair. Today, decorated cascarones are popular for birthdays and holidays such as New Year’s, Carnival, Cinco de Mayo, the Day of the Dead, and of course, Easter.
Just as many other people are, I’m anxiously waiting for a Covid-19 vaccination. How fortunate we are to live now when so many vaccines are available to prevent deadly diseases that regularly dispatched people at a young age. As I read in Bill Bryson’s book The Body: a Guide for Occupants, vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and measles saved the lives of millions. Better sanitation, improved diets, and fresher foods also helped in a major way.
In the early 1800s in Alta California, there were no doctors and little medicine. Smallpox caused virulent epidemics in the Native American population, but occasionally the vaccine was available to inoculate some of them. Because Captain Richardson had some medical experience during his service in the British merchant marines, he helped the friars at the California missions when he could. For common illnesses, most medicines were made from plants. Blackberry syrup was used to treat coughs. Indigenous people in California drank a tea made with the leaves of a native shrub, now known as mountain balm, as a remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, and bronchitis. After they taught Spanish settlers to use it, the Spanish called the herb yerba santa, meaning “holy or sacred herb.” Chemicals in the leaves are effective in loosening phlegm. Chumash people in Southern California probably taught Richardson to use the leaves in a poultice to relieve pain from sprains, bruises, and arthritis. When doctors or naval surgeons visited California, they might provide doses of medicines such as laudanum, mercury, or calomel. Some of these proved to be worse than the illnesses they were supposed to cure. Laudanum was addictive, and mercury, used to treat syphilis, could kill the patient.
I recently heard the late night TV host Stephen Colbert say that 2021 is the year of the sea shanty. These jaunty work songs are suddenly popular on TikTok and other social media. During the age of the sailing ship, sailors sang a shanty such as “The Drunken Sailor” in unison while they were aloft reefing (rolling up) sails or hauling up the anchor:
“Way, hay, and up she rises,
Way, hay, and up she rises,
Way, hay, and up she rises,
Early in the morning.”
Naturally I included sea shanties to Captain William Richardson’s story. From his life in the British merchant marine and on whalers, he’d collected a repertoire of songs. He possessed a marvelous voice and loved to entertain dinner guests with spirited sea shanties. His audience joined him on the chorus, stamping their feet and clapping in time to the lively tune. In one dinner scene, I describe him with a glass of aguardiente in one hand and his arm around his wife, as he sang this folk song:
“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year,
And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer,
But now I’m returning with gold in great store,
And I never will play the wild rover no more.
And it’s No, Nay, Never
No, Never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No, Never, No more….”
Why sea shanties are suddenly popular again is a mystery. Perhaps because we are all in this Covid-19 crisis together and the cheery tunes help to alleviate the monotony of quarantine just like the monotony sailors dealt with, toiling at sea and confined to a small ship.
Now that I’m entering my second year with my blog, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the good and the bad from 2020. Most people will condemn the Plague Year as the worst ever. But I remembered the introductory sentence in Charles Dickens’ story The Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I certainly harbor negative memories about much of the past year and sympathize with medical staff, first responders, and those who contracted Covid-19. Many people also suffered through wildfires, hurricanes, and protests that turned violent. Because of where I live, I was not as confined as those in tiny apartments or living alone and feel fortunate that we dealt only with smoke and not the fires. As many others did, I agonized over not being with family and friends and missed traveling. But I can also look back at my achievements this year.
One of the best things was achieving my goal of starting this blog. In tandem with that writing, I finished the first draft of my novel because I had nowhere to go. I read that William Shakespeare might have been confined to quarters when the bubonic plague swept through London in 1606, and so he wrote a play, his tragedy King Lear. Obviously, confinement can lead to achievements. I followed author Anne Lamott’s advice also—in order to write you must sit in a chair in front of your open computer or blank yellow pad. After finishing my first draft, several good friends agreed to be the first readers of my novel, which I count as an accomplishment, and I’m truly thankful for their feedback and encouragement.
On the tech side, learning to use Zoom kept my brain from turning to mush. And my new skill in setting up Zoom meetings helped my book club by maintaining our collective sanity in kind of group therapy sessions as well as getting us together to discuss several wonderful books.
Besides writing, I finally managed to read many of the good books I collected over the past few years and stacked in piles around the house. These were my favorites:
- Bill Bryson’s The Body: a Guide for Occupants–amazing details about the body told in his breezy style with funny, quirky quips. I learned so much about the human body as well as more about the history of medicine.
- The Dutch House by Anne Patchett–a wonderful writer with deep insights into people, their motivations, and their failings
- The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy — this book told me much I did not know about sailing in the 1800s and helped me really understand the camaraderie and fears of sailors confined on a small ship on the sea
- Becoming by Michelle Obama —what a great read! This book told me so much more about her and her life in the White House.
- Educated by Tara Westover—I was frightened, amazed, and thrilled for her as she took me through her memories of her life growing up.
I hope you can look back at your year to recall wonderful things that happened. Cheers to you and 2021 — make it a fabulous year for you. As for me, I plan to continue my work on my novel about Captain William A. Richardson and look forward to publishing it.
Bull and bear fights were a common entertainment in early California. Vaqueros rode into the hills, searched for a grizzly bear, lassoed it, and dragged it back to a corral, which was often set up near a California mission. When a bull was dragged into the same corral, the bear’s rear leg was tied to one of the bull’s forelegs, and the two beasts were forced to attack each other. Somewhere I had read that these fights were the early origins of the stock market terms. The way the animals attack inspired the name. A bull thrusts its horns up, while a bear swipes its claws down. A bull market refers to a rise in stock prices while a bear market portends a downward trend. In her recollections of social life and customs in the 1830s, Captain Richardson’s daughter Mariana described watching such a fight when she was nine years old, the animals attacking each other as they tried to break away and escape. However, after checking on the Merriam-Webster website, I found another origin story. An old proverb warned it was unwise to sell a bear’s skin before catching the bear, meaning don’t buy something of no value. The term “bearskin jobber” came into use, “bearskin” was shortened to “bear,” and that term was applied to a stock being sold by a speculator or the actual speculator. Bull market might originate from the use of bulletin board notices for the early London Stock Exchange: the more bulletins on the board, the stronger the market.
A notice about knitting scarves for homeless people caught my attention and I am now adding my donation to the cause. As I calculated how long the project might take (probably about two weeks), I paused to think about making clothing two hundred years ago. It took me a year to knit just one sweater, but in early California, every stitch of clothing was sewn by hand. Talk about labor intensive! All baby clothes, dresses, shirts, linens, bedding. Often many pieces were decorated with embroidery. The Native American women at the missions were taught to weave to make blankets and rough cloth, using the wool from mission sheep and goats. The Franciscan friars taught them to sew clothing also. My knitting is just a hobby. The women in the past made their clothes out of necessity. And some men too. They did buy some clothing from trading ships—boots and shoes, hats, fine Peruvian wool or Chinese silk shawls, men’s jackets.
Pioneers across the West did such work. We have all heard of sewing bees and women neighbors gathering to make patchwork quilts as gifts for soon-to-be-married couples. But think of all the cooking and cleaning that women did as well! Churning butter, making cheese, baking bread, endless housework. They served as the family doctors and nurses and prepared birthday and holiday celebrations. They performed truly amazing amounts of work and should be remembered and honored as much as the well-known male historical figures are.
I never realized how large the California territory was when Spain and then Mexico claimed the land. The region called Californias stretched past the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the current states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, as well as some of Arizona. Baja California was also part of this area. The Republic of Mexico governed Nuevo Mexico and Tejas (or Texas) as well. This land fit like puzzle pieces next to what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, which the United States purchased from France. The United States annexed the Mexican territories of Alta California and Nuevo Mexico after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Texas had become a republic but then joined the States as well. The United States actually compensated Mexico for these territories — a highly unusual action at the time for a victor in a war.
Actually there are two memorials to Captain Richardson’s life. A plaque listing events in his life is found on a sidewalk near the Sausalito harbor docks. I lived in Sausalito for a while and yet never noticed this marker. Linda H., a dear friend interested in my writing, discovered it. Another marker honors Captain Richardson’s memory in Gabrielson Park near the Sausalito Ferry terminal. Two of the captain’s descendants from his daughter Mariana Richardson Torres, Davis Lewis and his sister Letitia Davis, attended the 1999 dedication ceremony for the monument. The memorial is fitting especially since Richardson’s gravestone, somewhere on a San Rafael hillside, can no longer be found. These two markers are important reminders of Captain Richardson’s life and work on San Francisco Bay. Many thanks to my niece Liz Lowry for the photograph of the anchor and marker. The beginning of the inscription on the plaque reads:
William A. Richardson
Founder of Sausalito
In 1822 English-born Richardson arrived in San
Francisco Bay on the whaler Orion.
I won’t quote the rest of the text on this tribute to Richardson because it contains spoilers. I would rather you read my book when it is published to discover the whole story about this remarkable and somewhat forgotten man and his courageous family.
When I was visiting Point Reyes, I stopped my car to look over the hills covered with scrub oak, dry grasses, and poison oak. How daunting all those miles of hills and valleys would have seemed to me if I had to travel in a slow, bone-rattling oxcart, or on horseback, or worse, on foot! Those hardy Californios and explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might walk for many days to get anywhere. They thought nothing of riding 150 miles to attend a dance, known as a fandango. Men and women would camp and sleep on the hard ground under a blanket and the night sky. Besides hundreds of elk and deer, they might meet up with bears, wolves, or mountain lions. Much of the time there were only trails, no roads for a wagon or cart. Now we cover the same distance by car or truck in a matter of hours.
Fresh, ripe fruit just picked from a tree is much juicier and sweeter than store-bought. As I bit into one of our plums, I thought about the lives of early California people, both Native Americans and the Mexicans, and understood how much they yearned for fresh fruits, berries, and especially greens after a long winter without any. When my plum tree produced masses of fruit last year, I decided to preserve as much as I could. It takes lots of time and energy, boiling jars, picking, pitting, and cooking the fruit, and preserving it in canning jars. But it is worth it to have sweet plum jam on toast when snow covers the ground. Early settlers would not have that luxury of juicy stone fruit jams, but they would have stored apples and pears for winter and maybe citrus fruits would be brought on ships from southern Alta California. How lucky we are in the twenty-first century to get produce from around the world. Yet I still think that your own homegrown fruits and vegetables taste the best.