I am now officially a card-carrying member of the Woodland Shakespeare Club, on whose waiting list I have been for about two years. Membership is limited to 50 people, so someone has to drop out...or (given the age of a lot of the members), die, for a new member to get in. My friend Sue's mother, who has been a long time member but who lives a long way away and whose driver's license was not renewed recently, decided to drop active membership, to give me a chance to become a regular member.
Sue, whom I have known casually for many years and who belongs to that awful club too many of us belong to, who have buried children, invited me to come to a meeting of this group years ago. Knowing how much I do not like Shakespeare, it will be no surprise that I was not really interested, but I agreed to come out of curiosity and enjoyed myself. The group meets once a month, 9 months of the year (and attendance is mandatory, unless you have written to the president to explain that you will not be attending). Twice a year, in January and April, members can bring guests, so I have been to, I think, three meetings. They apparently started discussing Shakespeare, when the club was founded, though have branched out in all sorts of other directions since.
There is some prestige in belonging to this club. With the fees I paid to join, I received a very nice binder which gives the history of the club, which was started in 1886, making it the second oldest book club in California (the oldest being a group in Oakland, which was started ten years earlier). I haven't gotten too far into reading the history of the organization yet, but I notice that everybody is referred to as "Mrs. Smith" rather than by their first names and in the case of one woman, who apparently was a physician, she is called "Mrs. Dr. Smith," the marital status apparently being more important in 1886 than the profession.
The club's constitution states that "The object of this club is intellectual and spiritual growth," so the approach to the books is scholarly (sort of) and it's not the sort of place where you flounce around on plush cushions, drink wine and laugh as you have your discussion! (I've been trying to find a group like that to join for 40 years!!! They exist. Many friends have mentioned them and how much bonding goes on and how important those women are to their lives, but I was never invited to join, even when I hinted that I would love to be a part of that group. But then, to quote Groucho Marx, would I want to belong to a group that would have me for a member?)
I arrived at the Lions Club building in Woodland, about 10 miles from here, where meetings take place, yesterday afternoon, checkbook in hand, ready to pay my dues, my membership fees (which pay for the nice book I received [which takes the history up to only 2005] and the badge I will wear next meeting).
It's a big, cavernous room with a high ceiling and there are tables placed in an O configuration, three sides being for members, and the front for the people doing the month's presentation. I seated myself at the end of one table, remembering that "those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themseslves shall be exalted." Not sure I was exalted, but I definitely felt humble there, the newest member of this venerable institution!
Eventually Sue arrived and sat down with me and in due course the meeting began. The main problem with this meeting is that the acoustics in the place are abominable, and the microphone they use is nearly as bad. I really don't know if I'm having hearing problems in my old age. It seems that the criticism I have of most of the shows we attend lately is that I can't understand what is being said on stage, which I blame on the sound system in bigger theaters and the failure of the actors to project in the smaller community theater venues ... but maybe it's me. But I did have to strain to hear much of what was said yesterday. Two women used microphones, which made the sound fuzzy and two spoke without mics and were easier to understand.
The book we were reading was "Ramona," by Helen Hunt Jackson, which was published in 1884. I think I read this book when I was in high school or college, but remembered nothing about it, I discovered as I began to read it. In fact, I really didn't think I was going to finish it on time, but woke up at 4 a.m. yesterday (not by alarm, but because I just couldn't sleep) and ended up finishing the book at 5 a.m. I'm glad I did because it made the discussion more meaningful, of course!
Before the program started, someone suggested we have a sing along to the old song "Ramona." Apparently she had made some copies of the music, but they didn't make it down to our end of the table...still, I remember it from the days when my father was playing songs like that on the piano. So dramatic and schlocky!
...I press you, caress you
For those unfamiliar with the story, Ramona is the daughter of an Indian woman and a white man, who ends up being adopted by the man's barren wife. When the wife is dying, she makes her sister, Senora Moreno promise to raise the girl. Senora Moreno never likes the girl and her #1 priority is her son, Felipe, who is running the ranch at the time the book opens (when Ramona is around 20). Ramona falls in love with an Indian working on the ranch, which sends the Senora into apoplexy at the horror of it, and ends up running away with the Indian, Alessandro, whom she marries. The last part of the book follows the couple as they settle here and there and another place, always being displaced by the government, moving the Indians off of their lands as the American settlers take over. Their first daughter dies when a white doctor refuses to come to an Indian house to treat her. They have another daughter, but Alessandro is killed by a guy who thinks he stole a horse. Ramona ends up back at the ranch, after Senora Moreno's death, and married to Felipe.
After a break for snacks (can't have a women's club meeting with out coffee and goodies!), we went back for a bit more history about the geographical area where the book is set and the effect the book had on American-Native relations (the author hoped this book would have as much of an influence on Indian affairs as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had on slavery), and on the preservation of Old Town San Diego. Some discussion questions were thrown out to the group at large and a very brief discussion ensued.
The book is a real eye-opener about the deplorable treatment and demoralization of the Indians and the destruction of the Indian culture. Whether Jackson achieved her goal of being as influential as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or not, one thing is certain--she is responsible for the preservation of Old Town San Diego, which depicts the way life was around the time Ramona would have lived.
You can even visit the place where Ramona and Alessandro were married, though they are fictional characters and the description of where their marriage supposedly took place was miles from here.
I also learned there is a Ramona festival, which has been presenting a play based on the book every year in the "Ramona Bowl" in Hemet, California since 1923. It's the longest-running outdoor drama in the United States and was named the Official Outdoor Play of the State of California in 1993 (bet you didn't know we had an official outdoor play, didja?). Historian Dydie DeLyser is quoted as saying that "The most important woman in the history of Southern California never lived."