From the mid- to late eighties, my husband Gary and I—along with one baby and then another—made an annual trek to visit friends who had moved from Fresno to Fort Bragg, California. During our stay, we fantasized about how lovely it would be to live a slower paced life in a small town amid pristine coastal beauty.
Every year as we drove back to Fresno, each mile returned us to the reality that we had jobs and lives that could not transfer. Back home we realized we didn’t have the skills to survive in a remote town. We were ill-equipped to face the frightening challenges of living without such amenities as Costco, Target or money.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to make the decision to move to Fort Bragg—a house made it for us.
In the summer of 1989, we were walking around the little town when, across the alley from the mortuary, we saw a For Sale sign in front of a Victorian.
“That’s our house,” I said. For some reason I felt more convinced of this than anything ever in my life. The house was white with black shutters. A black wrought iron fence enclosed a large yard. I envisioned my children playing in that yard.
Gary was silent for a minute and then said, “I think you’re right.” He wrote down the number of the realtor.
When the realtor learned our status—small children, no jobs in the area, just finished building a home in Fresno—he said, “You don’t want that house. It’s too fancy. It’s not a family house.” He took us on tours of smaller, less expensive houses. I think he hoped we’d come to our senses and settle for a vacation home.
We thanked him for his time. The next day, we drove by the Victorian and noticed an open house sign. A tall gray-haired man answered the door. We told him we wanted to buy his house. He chuckled, introduced himself as the owner and let us in.
As we walked through rooms with high ceilings and crown moldings, my feeling that this was our family home grew stronger. Afterward, Gary said he felt the same way.
We made an offer and within a couple of months were owners of the house.
In our lucid moments, we were terrified about what we’d done. We had a second home that we could barely afford and a sketchy plan to uproot our lives. There were so many ways it could have imploded.
It took us three years to manipulate our lives to allow us to move to Fort Bragg. By that time, our son was six, our daughter three and we’d added a golden retriever puppy. (When life is at its peak of crazy, make sure to get a puppy.)
About four months before we moved, I called the Bank of American Investment Services district office in Santa Rosa. I explained that I’d be moving to Fort Bragg and was interested in working as an investment advisor in that branch.
Jim Schuster, the district manager, said that he’d recently hired someone to cover the Mendocino coastal branches. I sent him my resume.
Two months later, Jim called and said the employee had not worked out. After a brief interview, he hired me to cover the three coastal branches: Fort Bragg, Mendocino and Point Arena.
In the meantime, Gary was able to transform his job as a contract and grant writer with Cal State Fresno into one he could perform remotely with brief monthly commutes to Fresno.
We moved to Fort Bragg on June 13, 1992.
As newcomers, the two most common questions we received were, “How long have you lived here?” and “What part of town do you live in?”
About a year into my job, an elderly gentleman entered the branch, leaned on his cane and shouted, “Where’s the gal who lives next door to the mortuary?”
I raised my hand.
He walked to my desk, sat down and told me the history of our home.
The original builders were Robert Bruce Markle and his wife Minnie, whose mother Sarah Foster was a survivor of the Donner Party. The entire family was buried in a plot at Rose Memorial Park, a cemetery about three blocks from our home.
After work that evening, Gary, the kids and I searched for the headstone that the Native Sons of the Golden West had erected in honor of Sarah Foster. When we found it, we got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the family who had built our house. We noticed that a daughter Margarite had died at the age of five.
As a mother, I could imagine Minnie’s heartache over losing her only daughter, her youngest child and precious baby. We picked wildflowers and laid them next to Margarite’s headstone. (I later learned she fell off a swing in the yard and suffered a fatal concussion.)
A year or so later, I was home alone, relaxing in bed. Harrison and Laine had spent the night at the house of some friends and Gary had gotten up early to go fishing. My eyes were closed, the dog asleep next to the bed, when I heard a high-pitched voice from the hallway say, “Mommy?”
“What?” I said.
The dog looked toward the hallway and thumped his tail.
I remembered I was alone in the house.
“It’s okay, Margarite,” I said. “We promise to stay and take care of you.”
And stay we have—for 21 years. When our kids became teenagers, Gary and I spoke of moving to a smaller house after they left. They eventually went onto college and adult lives in San Francisco and Oakland. As we enter into year seven of our empty nest, we can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Over a hundred years ago, Robert Bruce and Minnie Markle built this house for their family—and ultimately for us. Their spirits knew something we did not—that no matter what tribulations came our way, everything would be okay. And believe me, we have had our share of troubles—Gary’s eye condition deteriorated to the point where he was forced into early retirement, which forced me to become the breadwinner; repairs to the property always cost far more than we imagine; and other issues have caused sleepless nights.
I have not heard from Margarite since that morning years ago, but often feel the warmth of the spirits that enticed us to make this our family home. I am grateful they called to us on that sidewalk so many years ago.
Kate loves the quirky aspects of living on the Mendocino Coast so much that she writes a humor blog about it. Check it out at: www.ithappenedatpurity.com. Her posts are funny and poignant, so go ahead and subscribe. While you’re at it, like her page on Facebook. Thanks for being a guest, Kate!