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Bigelow’s Babble On by the Bay: Coming Back — And Saying Goodbye

By Catherine Bigelow

Miss Bigelow’s Babble On by the Bay
Miss Bigelow’s Babble On by the Bay

Emerging from darkness, the concept of leaving the light on — to illuminate a portal that opens to home, cherished tribes, succor — blazed to life last month at the San Francisco Mint. Porchlight, the eclectic storytelling series, got its live audience groove back. “So how’d that pandemic work out?” cracked Arline Klatte drolly, while onstage with her Porchlight co-founder, author Beth Lisick. The bandleader, pianist Marc Capelle, expertly coaxed his canon of wacky AM rock from the ivories to greet the sold-out scene. With the theme The Bitch Is Back: Stories of Resurgence, true 10-minute tales — ranging from tear-inducing and tender to triumphant, laugh-out-loud and inspirational — were fantastically told by business executive Karla Martin, artist- filmmaker Christy Chan, writer-publican Alan Black, spoken word performer Jyairrah Martin (a recent Ruth Asawa School of the Arts grad), artist-lawyer and former vice presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez, and author Matthew Clark Davison, an SF State creative writing professor and founder of The Lab. Posting a crowd photo on Instagram, Davison captioned the image: “omg, you guys: people.” Yup: 2020 was a lonely, lost year for most. And though it dazzles brightest with a live audience, thanks to its 2013 foray into podcasts, the 20-year-old Porchlight persisted. So the June theme was more than apt: Beneath evening skies over the Old Mint’s open-air courtyard, amid a crowd of EssEff creatives and bohemians sharing hugs, belly laughs and cocktails — reveling in that age-old ritual of camaraderie — we are back.

Author Matthew Clark Davison tells a personal tale in the courtyard of the Old Mint during last month’s Porchlight series: The Bitch Is Back: Tales of Resurgence.
Author Matthew Clark Davison tells a personal tale in the courtyard of the Old Mint during last month’s Porchlight series: The Bitch Is Back: Tales of Resurgence.

Out of the blue: Another OMG surprise dropped from the sky last month in San Pablo when Los Cenzontles — the band and cultural arts academy — received an unexpected windfall. Philanthropist-author MacKenzie Scott gifted this Latin-led nonprofit with a cool million. Theirs was but one of 286 checks, totaling $2.73 billion, cut by Scott in June to support an array of high-impact national organizations devoted to the arts, science, social justice, academics and health care. Some Cenzontles supporters scratched their heads, wondering when Scott had experienced their grassroots efforts creating cultural events and student education programs in traditional arts ranging from Mayan embroidery to Jalisco dance. “We’re thrilled by this incredible act of generosity and faith!” enthuses Los Cenzontles musician-founder Eugene Rodriguez.

Scott, the world’s third-wealthiest woman — and an EssEff native who grew up in Pacific Heights on Buchanan Street — is now happily remarried to Dan Jewett, a Seattle science teacher. And as her cardboard- box-magnate ex, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, preps to rocket into space on July 20 for an 11-minute round trip, Scott, a Giving Pledge signee who last year gave away $6 billion, is already en route to a stellar philanthropic orbit.

Dr. Ansu Hull joins his husband, Matthew Clark Davison, and Matthew DeCoster for in-person camaraderie at Porchlight’s storytelling gathering.
Dr. Ansu Hull joins his husband, Matthew Clark Davison, and Matthew DeCoster for in-person camaraderie at Porchlight’s storytelling gathering.

Fare thee well: Some were surprised when the death last month of Sister Mary Joseph, a 92-year-old nun of the Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Des Plaines, Illinois, generated international news. The devout, wimple- wearing senior had taken a vow of silence and slept in a small cell atop a thin mat beginning in 1989, at the age of 61, following the death of her beloved husband. But she had a fascinating backstory, one that even the BBC saw fit to print.

In her secular life, she was Ann Russell Miller, a Sacramento native and the daughter of a Southern Pacific Railroad board chairman. She spent her teen years in Atherton and was educated at Sacred Heart Schools in Menlo Park. In 1948, at age 20, she met and, soon after, married Richard “Dick” Miller, whose father founded the utility company that became Pacific Gas & Electric. Both were scions of pioneering California families and devout, pre-Vatican II Catholics. Establishing their life in a Gold Coast manse, the newlyweds launched at the dawn of the 1950s Mad Men era. Mrs. Miller never worked, instead focusing on her 10 children — five girls, five boys — and numerous charitable works. Hence, the global death notice fascination when this late-in-life nun was pegged a socialite who willingly cast off her life of luxury. The former Ann Miller was a staple of black-tie galas, yet she was no mere lady who lunched. She was a lioness — of society, her faith and her family.

Robert Mailer Anderson, singer Linda Ronstadt and Los Cenzontles founder-musician Eugene Rodriguez at a 2017 fundraiser
Robert Mailer Anderson, singer Linda Ronstadt and Los Cenzontles founder-musician Eugene Rodriguez at a 2017 fundraiser

“People have a curiosity about the deep spirituality that Mother lived all her life,” shares her eldest daughter, Donna Miller Casey. “When Dad died, she was a dowager empress … but they’d promised each other whoever died first, the other would join a religious order. She made the right choice for herself and her faith.”

Pre-monastery, Miller was a caviar connoisseur and skilled scuba diver, traveling the world by yacht with friends such as Nancy Reagan, Bob Hope or a favorite priest who conducted daily Mass.

Casey admits her mother was controlling and often disappointed by her children — especially if they didn’t marry in the church. Yet they were well-mannered kids, typical of their own San Francisco era: a shifting landscape that rocketed from Leave It to Beaver into the Age of Aquarius. But not all of her children accepted or forgave their mother’s decision to sequester herself from them and, eventually, 28 grandchildren. Visits to the cloistered monastery were few and hugs were thwarted by a grille, so Sister Mary Joseph became a prolific letter writer. In the end, Casey was afforded some final in-person visits. Yet her maternal loss was water under the bridge. “I said my goodbyes 30 years ago,” Casey notes wistfully. “But she was always my mom.”

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