Mrs. Munk: A Story For Thanksgiving

rockwell_thanksgivingby Anniel11/17/15
For Thanksgiving this year why don’t we begin taking back the true history of our great nation and some of the “ordinary” people who paid the price to make it great? The following story is true, which means it is both ugly and beautiful, as with all of life. I and other witnesses can speak of its truth.

Early on the morning of April 18, 1906, 27-year-old Josephine Munk, a resident of San Francisco, was barely awake and nursing her little daughter, Madeline. Her husband, Arthur, was working in the gold fields at Sutter’s Creek, leaving his wife and daughter alone in their tiny apartment.

At 5:12 a.m. a sharp one minute earthquake (today measured at 8.25 on the Richter Scale) struck the Bay Area. Josephine ran to a window to see that many of the mostly wooden buildings had fallen, but, more ominously, fires were already starting to burn around her residence. Quickly throwing on some clothing, she grabbed her purse and what little she could carry. She placed Madeline against her chest and buttoned her jacket around them both. Almost jumping down the stairs, she went outside and began her long journey to safety.

Running and stumbling, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, but always away from the fires and smoke that would devastate much of the Bay Area, she carried her baby, resting only when absolutely necessary. Unable to see clearly because of the thick smoke, she tripped on cobblestones and cracks and witnessed horrible scenes of terror and death. Somewhere between 400 to 750 people died that day from the quake and resultant fires. Hundreds of others were injured and left homeless.

Police and firemen heroically rescued as many people as they could. One eye-witness told of a policeman who desperately attempted to pull a trapped man from a burning building, tearing at the debris with his bare hands. He was unable to free the stoic man. Only when his feet and legs began to burn did the man scream horribly and beg the policeman to shoot him. In mercy, the policeman did.

Josie said she saw terrible things that day, but had to keep moving. After many hours of almost constant walking and running she escaped the smoke and fires, and, along with dozens of other evacuees, took a packed ferry across the bay. She then wandered the streets of less damaged San Rafael, searching for a refuge for herself and Madeline for the night. Filthy and exhausted, she finally sat on the bottom steps of a residence and began to weep. She heard the door open, stood, and prepared to move on when a man said, “Do you have a place to stay?”

“Sir,” she said, “Could you please give me a drink of water?”

Coming down the steps, the man, Bear’s grandfather, took Josie’s arm and escorted her into his home. “My name is Otto, and this is my wife, Leila. You will stay with us as long as you are in need”, he said.

Josie stayed and helped Leila with her little boy and then with the birth of her next child, the second of the five boys she would ultimately bear. When Arthur returned from the gold fields and finally located Josephine, they and Madeline all became part of Otto and Leila’s “family.”

A few years after the earthquake, Josie and Arthur decided to homestead in the Napa Valley, in the town of Napa itself. Together they cleared land, farmed, started an orchard and built a beautiful large home. Arthur’s father and mother in South Dakota died a few months apart and two of Arthur’s younger brothers came to live with him and Josie. They were a big help in running the homestead. Josie and Arthur were unable to have more children of their own.

In 1923 Otto and Leila bought a ranch near Calistoga, also in the Napa Valley and moved there with their five boys: Clarence, Eugene, Arle (silent e), Alexander and Richard. Friendship with the Munks was renewed.

Mrs. Munk grieved with and helped Otto and Leila when their two oldest sons preceded them in death. She again helped Leila as she was dying of cancer and was there when Otto died.

A few years after Josie’s own death, entirely by chance, I sat down next to a woman at the Seattle Center during a crowded worldwide Weaving Convergence, and learned she was Josie’s sister-in-law. We spent several days together and she told me much about Josie’s later life. She also told me of the kindness shown to Josie by Bear’s family members, particularly by Alex, the fourth of Otto and Leila’s sons, and his sweet wife, Andreina. Uncle Alex filled in much information and gave me copies of legal papers concerning the rest of the story that follows.

As was the custom at the time the Munks homesteaded, the papers were in Arthur’s name only, and remained that way until his death in 1944, at the age of 65. When he first became ill, Arthur made the decision not to put Josie’s name on the property. Josie was also 65, so he thought she would be dying soon anyway. Madeline and her husband would care for her.

Madeline had only one child, a daughter named Ann. When Madeline died very young, Mrs. Munk continued to be cared for by her granddaughter, who inherited the homestead. When the granddaughter married, her husband became co-owner of the property. Josephine continued to live with them.

Josie’s next loss was her granddaughter, who also died very young. Probate ended with her granddaughter’s husband being declared the sole owner of the homestead property. One day he informed Josie she needed to get out because he intended to subdivide and sell the property and make some money. Josephine was left penniless. One of her late husband’s younger brothers took her in, but his home was very small and there was little room for Josie.

When Uncle Alex and Aunt Andreina heard of Josephine’s plight they took her to live with them in Walnut Creek. All she owned was a bed, a dresser and a few personal items. Uncle Alex and some of Josie’s relatives went to court about the property and were able to obtain a settlement, a pittance really, for Josephine. She remained in Alex and Andreina’s home and under their loving care for the rest of her life. There is a reason we referred to Alex and Andreina as Saints, it was because they were such charitable and humble people.

I met Mrs. Munk a few years after Bear and I married, when she was 89 years old. I asked her how she had met Bear’s family and she told me of the Earthquake and the experience that took her to Otto and Leila’s doorstep. She would live another seven peaceful years after I met her, dying at the age of 96.

Andreina died in 2002, while Uncle Alex lived another seven years. He was found the morning of December 15, 2009 kneeling peacefully at the side of his bed with his arms folded in prayer. No one knew if he had died the night before or as he knelt to say his morning prayers. His obituary said that a true gentleman died that day.

I do not know what ultimately became of Josie’s grandson-in-law, but he had to know the disgust people had for him. Poor man, he sowed not well and I suspect he was never happy again.

Why did I call this a Thanksgiving story? Because the Josie I met was a happy woman. Uncle Alex’s two daughters loved her so much. When they were small she played cards with them, read to them and told them stories.
Alex thought of her as his second mother after his own mom died.

Josie overcame her hardships and losses, and she comforted Leila and Otto when their two oldest sons preceded them in the mortal death that is a part of life, and was there when they began their own next journeys. In Josie’s life that comfort was returned by Leila and Otto’s children and grandchildren, especially by Alex and his family.

The way Josie conducted her life has been an inspiration to me and I am grateful beyond words to have known her.

The help that flowed freely back and forth between the Munks and Bear’s family was a beautiful part of their lives, made possible in a climate of faith
in God that belongs to an honest and free society of law-abiding citizens.

Please, love your families and neighbors. None of us know when we will stand in need of their help, and they of ours. Remember your own “ordinary” people. Think and write about them. Tell their stories to your children and grandchildren to aid them on their own journeys.

The bread that we cast in goodness upon the waters of life returns to us in manifold blessings. Let us give gracious Thanks to God this year for our opportunities to serve our fellowmen.

Also give Thanks for our glorious land, which, while troubled, we CAN make free again, by the Grace of God. • (740 views)

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13 Responses to Mrs. Munk: A Story For Thanksgiving

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Interesting story, Annie. It reminds me of the stories I used to listen/not-listen-to from my own grandparents. Being young, such stories didn’t hold much interest. But those were the days when neighbor helped neighbor and people were connected by long threads — threads that particularly had nothing to do with government.

    Contrast that with today where many kids grow up and they have no idea who their father is. Such are the times. People ball up their fists in anger because their “neighbor” isn’t providing them with “free” health care or “free” this or “free” that. We’re being reduced to Vandals.

    Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And your message of remembering ordinary people, and helping such people, is a good one.

    • Anniel says:

      Bear and I have decided that we need to tell our stories of kith and kin for the sake of our children and grandchildren. We have been in contact with cousins and friends, trying to piece together our family’s American experience. We so need to pass on the legacy of our culture. Taking it back from the Vandals is a responsibility we all have.

      I remember when I met Josie and she began talking about the SF earthquake. I thought, “Wow, I can reach out and touch living history.” Now it’s my turn to be living history. And yours. That’s part of what we come here to ST for.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Now it’s my turn to be living history. And yours. That’s part of what we come here to ST for.

        The nice thing is — and I don’t think too many people believed this when I said it because they’re so used to little small-minded Napoleons running sites on the internet — is that you have made this one of the purposes.

        Oh, I certainly had, and have, every intention of glorifying and passing on the best of what we call Western Civilization. But how we did that was still up for grabs. Dammit. Write something and make the site your own. And you did. Bravo. Too many shrinking violets out there, if you ask me.

        People suppose they have to talk politics all the time. And anyone who has read Jonah Goldberg’s (before he went all squishy) “Liberal Fascism” knows that it is the end and method of the Left to politicize everything.

        So mirroring the end of the movie, “War Games”: The only way to win is not to play.

        Sort of. We have to play that game too. But too easily politics can hollow a person out. Goodness gracious, look at the otherwise good men and women who go to DC (or your state capitol) and become robo-talking-heads. It’s sad. Politics is necessary but ultimately hollow as a way of being.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Yes. I once read that this was the problem with totalitarianism (such as East Germany, which I believe was the specific country at issue). Every personal decision was political to the government. There are no doubt some people who really live their lives that way, but most people — even liberals — don’t. This is why, even though liberalism is totally pernicious, most individual liberals can be nice enough people when politics is not at issue.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    This was certainly a very nice story, and does pack a bit of a lesson. But I will admit that it’s hard to think of much to say about it other than that. I will mention it to Elizabeth, who will undoubtedly appreciate it.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    One lesson here is that there is much over which we have no control, but we do have control in a certain number of important areas in our lives.

  4. Tom Riehl Tom Riehl says:

    A delightful tale. One can only move forward and care for others.

  5. I love getting to peek into the lives — the everyday lives — of people out of the past, and getting to see their places in the intricate patterns formed by our very existence. I used to have my sophomore English students go home and get someone, a parent, an aunt, someone in their family to tell them a story like this one and write it up as an essay. The stories were wonderful and parents often expressed gratitude for the opportunity to tell their stories. So I heartily agree — the stories need to be told; it’s part of what makes us a country. Thanks for writing such an interesting piece.

    • Anniel says:

      My grown children are getting as caught up in this as Bear and I are. One of the cousins just e-mailed me and said that Otto actually proposed to Josie some time after Leila died. Josie refused but they stayed good friends. Always twists and turns in our stories. I never would have guessed such a thing.

  6. Rosalys says:

    A beautiful story, Annie, and totally appropriate for Thanksgiving. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Kyra Nielsen says:

    Thank you. Kindness, generosity, integrity, honesty, and love are what matter. If these live in our hearts, our path of life can be joyful. The thorns of others words and deeds, may pull at us, but we will remain whole. The rocks, the twists and turns in the path of our lives, will not distract us from our goal if we live by the LIGHT. We choose. In our hearts, in our minds, we choose each day. If we allow others actions and words to make us resentful or angry, then they are in control of our minds. I choose to DANCE the path of my life in joy. Mrs. Munk seems to have done so as well.

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