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Rising From the Ashes

The official letter states:  “On October 26th, 1907 Mrs. Smith, suffering from a cancer of the throat, died in Hahnemann Hospital.”  Mrs. Smith was my great-grandmother, Josephine Romero Lindsey Smith.  Over the past two months as I have been digging and researching and listening, she has been rising in my DNA and consciousness from the deep ashes of time, and the wild tragedy that was the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.


This past Ash Wednesday, guided by her rising spirit, I found myself in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the South of Market district of San Francisco.  Ash Wednesday is the day when Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, go to Mass and have ashes smudged on their foreheads while a priest says, “Remember that you are ashes, and to ashes you shall return.”  


St. Patrick’s was completely destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.  Out of the ash and rubble they used the soot stained bricks to rebuild.  And so, sitting there, I was surrounded by some of the same bricks that had possibly once surrounded my Great-grandma Josephine Romeo Lindsey Smith.  I listened to them, those bricks, whisper to me of the Earth Herself rocking and shifting that April morning in 1906.  I listened to them whisper to me of the burning that happened after the quaking, the burning that went on for three more days reducing every scrap of wood in that neighborhood to char and ash.  I slipped off my shoes, knowing that I was on sacred ground, and walked forward to receive the ashes that connected me to my great-grandma Josephine and the close to two hundred and fifty thousand people who had lost their homes and loved ones in that tragedy over one hundred years ago.  I walked forward to receive the ashes in remembrance of that time when blocks and blocks of San Francisco shook and burned and were reduced to rubble and charred wood, melted metal, and ash, so much ash.


Carrying the ash mark on my forehead I walked south five blocks to 414 Clementina Street.  My Great-grandma Josephine had lived there with her first husband, Alex Lindsey, and six of their children: Robert, Myron, Josephine, Margaret, Alexander, and Joseph.  It was a neighborhood packed with immigrants and an over abundance of single men, mostly laborers.  My great-grandma Josephine and her family lived at that address for a decade from 1891-1901. The two children carrying their parents names, Josephine and Alexander, died while they lived there.   Then in 1901 her husband died leaving her a widow, pregnant with their daughter Virginia.  Again I slipped off my shoes and walked the 400 block of Clementina Street in reverence for their lives, and the lives of their neighbors and friends, lived there long ago.  I wove my way to the 100 block where the widow Lindsey had moved with her remaining children after the death of her husband.  Finally I walked a few blocks back to Clara Street where they lived after she married her second husband, my great-grandfather, David Smith.  There, Josephine and David had two children, my grandma Winnie, and Josephine’s last child, David. This was where they lived that April morning of 1906.


Her South of Market neighborhood sustained almost complete structural damage in the actual quaking of the earth that morning in April.  It was built on silt and human made landfill over what was originally the bay’s marsh.  Densely populated by the poorest of San Francisco’s working class, the buildings packed together tight, when the earthquake hit, the wooden structures collapsed killing and trapping hundreds, possibly thousands of people.  Then the fires consumed the broken wood and any bodies not recovered.


Originally the papers reported that only a couple hundred people had died in the earthquake and fire, numbers played down for political reasons.  But a century later, we’ve come to know that thousands died, mostly in my Great-grandma Josephine’s neighborhood, and in Chinatown which was also more densely packed with working class immigrants.  Thousands of those names were deliberately not recorded in order to downplay the magnitude of the event as the city chased money for rebuilding.  I believe my great-grandma Josephine’s thirteen year old daughter, Margaret, was one of them.  I can find records of all the other children after 1906, but nothing on Margaret.


Knowing what I now know of what happened in that part of town, of fire and smoke inhalation, ash and tragedy, my great-grandmother’s death, a year and a half later of a “cancer of the throat,” makes painful sense.


Her South of Market neighborhood continued to hold the scars and pain for decades.  It was a toxic site recovering from San Francisco’s collective grief.  But the Earth Herself, over the last 100 years has been doing what She does:  taking that pain and ash and composting it so that it can be broken down and transformed.  As I walk around the neighborhood in 2015 there are signs that new life has risen from the ashes.  I talk with a man whose family also included some Romeros, like my Grandma Josephine.  He came here in the 1950s to live with his grandmother, and slowly more folk moved in and began to build community.  I thought about my own experience in the 1980s dancing at the bar, The Stud, which at the time, was in that neighborhood on Folsom Street.  I am sure the ecstasy of dancers soaked in sweat and disco ball light, and the gay leather community in clubs all over the neighborhood, helped heal and transform the energy as well.  Struggling artists moved in and channeled the pain into sculpture and experimental theater pieces.  At the spot where my Grandma Josephine had lived with her first husband Alex and their children, I found a new apartment complex, which opened just six months ago.  They are tiny little places, not unlike what was there one hundred years ago, packed with immigrants and an over abundance of single men, now from the tech industry.  Two young men were sitting on one of the stoops right there were my great-grandma lived.  They were having lunch in the sunshine.  I told them a bit of the story of the people who lived right there over a century ago.  We talked and laughed.  My great-grandma Josephine, like the neighborhood, risen from the ashes,  was present as well in the sunshine and laughter.


As I continue this journey of digging and researching , listening and remembering the past, my great-grandma Josephine, and the generations that came from her, will continue to rise from the ashes.  It is the work we do to heal the past.  Blessings on all our rising.


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Lizann Bassham was both an active Reclaiming Witch and an Ordained Christian Minister in the United Church of Christ. She served as Campus Pastor at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley working with a multi-faith student community. She was a columnist for SageWoman magazine, a novelist, playwright, and musician. Once, quite by accident, she won a salsa dance contest in East L.A. Lizann died on May 27, 2018.


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