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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Muriel Ellis

I met with Muriel at the Redwood Drive-In a week or so ago and we sat and drank coffee as she shared her story with me. For those who don’t know, she is Terry Ryder’s mother and a part-time Valley resident who I know as a result of her regular attendance, and quite frequent victories, at the General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz held every Thursday at Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville.

Muriel was born in 1924 in El Paso, Texas, the only child of Ernfred Herman Berg (‘Bill’) and Ruth Dewey. The Berg’s were originally from Sweden, Muriel’s grandparents coming to the States in the late 1800’s and settling in Chicago before moving down to El Paso for her grandmother’s health — she ended up living in to her mid-nineties. On the Dewey side the family was originally from Wales and in the mid 1800’s came to the U.S. and settled in Pittston, in northeastern Pennsylvania, Muriel’s maternal grandmother was a 15-year-old dressmaker who eventually married the son of the family who employed her as their dressmaker. They raised a family in this mining community and at one point, in 1903, Muriel’s grandfather, Isaac Thompson ‘Tom’ Dewey, a free-spirited character and adventurer, left to work in mines in Mexico for several years, before Pancho Villa literally chased him back to the States in 1910 during the Mexican Revolution, and he settled down across the border in El Paso with his family from Pennsylvania.

Muriel’s parents met, and were married in El Paso in 1923. Muriel’s mother’s sister had died in childbirth and Muriel’s parents adopted the baby. Muriel was born less than a year later so a big ‘sister’ was already there — her cousin Mary. “For a few years, with my sister calling my parents Uncle Bill and Aunt Ruth, I did too. That was confusing to people I’m sure... Eventually, when I was about four and my cousin six, her father re-married and took my cousin with him to California — that was very hard on my parents, particularly my mother, who obviously thought of Mary as their own.”

“My father had left school with just six weeks of high school education and worked several jobs by the time he started at the Federal Reserve Bank at 18. He was to stay there until he was 65, getting a self-taught master’s degree in banking at the age of 60. He read constantly and ended up being one of the most educated men I have ever known.”

In 1933, when Muriel was just nine years-old, her mother died of pneumonia at the age of 32. A year later her father remarried a woman from Louisiana, Lucille Soniat. “She and I developed a wonderful relationship. She was like a big sister to me, a great friend, and a good mother too. I was very fortunate. In 1936 my half brother was born, Robert K. Berg, who was to later join the navy and ended up as a full Commander. He now lives in Cheshire, Connecticut where he just celebrated his Golden Wedding anniversary.”

In El Paso, Muriel attended seven years of grade school and then four of high school, graduating at 16 in 1940. “I moved in with my grandmother for my final couple of years at school. She was lonely, it was easier for school and worked out better for everyone. Plus I had begun dating and father’s can be strange about that. I was a good student, a member of the National Honor Society, and editor of the school newspaper. I loved English, journalism, and history. I have always wanted to write. On the other hand, math and the sciences were not things I cared about. I did not play sports, although I sometimes went bowling I guess, but I did love to roller-skate. I was brought up in a Presbyterian household and attended Sunday school every week. I then went to a Methodist church that was really to watch and laugh at the minister scream, holler, and cry as much as anything. I am not an atheist but I don’t believe in a bunch of that stuff. I sang in the choir at the church and at college. I am not a follower of organized religion but at college I wrote a paper on Buddhism which I found fascinating, and the idea of reincarnation certainly appeals to me.”

“When I graduated high school I remember it was at the same time as the World War II Dunkirk evacuations out of France. We had a farewell high school dance and I went with my girlfriend’s date because she was out of town. He called and asked me. His name was Bob Broyles and after that we were together every day that summer until the fall of 1940 when I entered the University of Texas in Austin while he remained in El Paso to resume college there. He was a year ahead of me. My friends said I’d forget all about him. I didn’t. I’d rather be a widow than an old maid! He transferred to join me in Austin a year later. However, just a few months later in December 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor took place and he immediately tried to sign up for the Air Force, or Army Air Corps as it was at that time. He was turned down because he had broken his collarbone previously and they thought this might cause him problems when parachuting. Instead he signed up for the Air Corps Engineers. We were married in August 1942 and in March 1943 he was called up. He had been upset it had not been earlier because with El Paso being an Army town he had got some abuse for being an able-bodied young man not at war.”

Bob was still not sent overseas at that time, instead he was sent to New Haven, Connecticut where Muriel found work as part of the war effort making rubber life rafts for 54 hours a week. Bob was sent on from there to Seattle, Denver, and for final training in Salina, Kansas; each time Muriel going with him. He was assigned as a B29 pilot but the planes were not ready so eventually he was assigned to the B-17s. He went through all this training with three men, Ned, Larry, and Benny, who all became very close friends, along with their wives, getting together for drinks, dinner, and games of Bridge. Finally by November 1944 they were all overseas and flew several missions together. Meanwhile Muriel returned to El Paso where she worked in a photo studio.

In February 1945, Bob and two of these close friends were reported missing close to Guam in the Pacific. Benny had made it back to base. A few days later Ned, who had been in a different plane to Bob and Larry, was found dead in a life raft, but Bob and Larry remained missing. Exactly a week after they went missing, February 21st, 1945, they were declared MIA. It was Bob’s 23rd birthday. In February 1946, he was classified as missing, presumed dead. His body has never been found nor has the plane.

“It was the hardest thing. I have thought about what happened many, many times. I still think about it. I’m sure he went down with the plane and was killed. His father told me that Bob had told him that the crew had agreed to do that rather than parachute out and die in some other way. At the time, what was I to do other than just pick up the pieces and carry on? My cousin Mary was in Los Angeles so in October 1945 I decided to move there and moved in with her and her husband. There was a photo studio for sale for $1000 in Inglewood so I bought it with cash I had saved.”

This business fizzled out but she got some money back on the sale. Then another opportunity came along when Muriel spoke to a local builder/landlord by the name of William Ellis who was working on two storefronts and she opened her photo shop in one of these and lived in the very small space behind the shop. “I lived there for years and in that time the landlord’s son, William Ellis Jr., and I started dating. I eventually sold the photo shop but continued trying to sell my short stories and during our courtship he encouraged me by saying if I had a story written and in the mail to a possible customer by Friday evening we could go out on Saturday. I had dreams of taking my portable typewriter and a camera on a trip to Mexico and on to Central America, taking pictures and writing about my travels. It was a pipe dream but Bill said he would support me so I thought ‘this guy’s a keeper’ and we were married in 1948. At that point I pretty much quit sending off my stories and got a job at an advertising agency as a bookkeeper/publicist, etc.”

Muriel voted for the first time in the 1948 election at the age of twenty-four. “We stopped off at the Beverly Hills City Hall on the way to our honeymoon so I could register to vote. It was Truman against Dewey, a distant cousin, but unfortunately he lost. That was fine. I thought Truman was President was terrific in the end, one of the best we’ve had I’d say. He was very honest and he had to fill some awful big shoes coming after FDR. It was a very tough decision but he made the right one to drop the bomb. It was an amazing time. We kept hearing that the Japanese were going to surrender but they didn’t for a few days until finally they did and it was over. It was a great feeling. My Dad ran into the street rejoicing with his co-workers at the bank.”

Muriel’s daughter Terry (Ryder) was born in 1950 and within a few years Bill’s sisters also had babies. “It was our own baby boom!” Over the next several years, during which time Muriel was a homemaker, she became increasingly involved with the Parent Teachers Association and even more so when a second child, son Dirk, was born. They bought a house in west LA and were generally homebodies. “I became President of the PTA and that was very satisfying, as was starting the gift shop at the school and a craft fair for the kids. However, Bill was a loner and for him a social life was his family and that is who we spent time with when I was not involved with the school. As for my own family back in Texas I neglected to see much of them and I regret that now.”

After a time in the aircraft industry, both preceding and following the war, Bill had been a house builder, selling the homes he constructed, but by the mid-fifties he was working as a Housing Inspector for the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), checking the new tract homes being built everywhere. He moved away from this for a time, working for different contractors, before returning to the FHA and working there until retirement. “In 1969, Bill got an itch to travel and we made a trip to Prescott, Arizona. While we were there we decided to buy a couple of acres in a place called Wilhoit, Arizona, sixteen miles south of Prescott. There was nothing there, in fact the sign said ‘Population 2’ but our plot was on the other side of the road where new buildings would soon be going up. Terry had moved out of the family home and was married in 1972, but Dirk was still in school so we stayed in California until he graduated in 1976.

In 1972, Muriel had attended a group counseling for women, “to decide what we would do with the rest of our lives! That gave me some ideas and I followed up by taking a course at UCLA in student counseling which led to a part-time volunteer position at the UCLA Extension as a career counselor for the students — one of them was Lorenzo Lamas, who later became a relatively famous television actor, the son of Fernando. Bill and I celebrated his retirement on July 3rd, 1976 and the next day the country celebrated its bicentennial! Dirk had just graduated and so we sold our house in California and moved to Arizona. We were to be there for 28 years.”

By this time the town had grown much bigger and although Muriel and Bill had a very good well on their land, others did not. “The community needed more water or it would not survive A co-op was formed to oversee this process of getting water in and I was the vice-president of this group, writing letters to everyone from President Reagan on down, eventually getting a government grant for a water system so that over time everyone there had water. Other than that, in those years I loved to garden and started to work on stained glass, as well as getting back into the creative writing by taking classes. Eventually I ran out of classes to take so I began to give them myself at the Senior Center and ran that workshop for 15 years there.”

In December 2003, Bill had a heart failure. “He had been fighting it for years. The doctor told me he would not be coming home but Bill fooled them. He did come home and was even driving again but in November 2004 his heart failed again and he died in his sleep. He did not want to go back into hospital and fortunately he didn’t have to. The kids came out and dealt with all the ‘stuff’ that has to be done and in December I packed up and left, going to stay with Terry in Anderson Valley. I did not know where I was going to live and looked all over this area. I loved the Valley but felt I needed to be less isolated so I got an apartment in Santa Rosa in February 2005. I did go back to Arizona that summer, to get things and sell the house, but that was it. After all those years, I was moving on. With Terry living in the Valley I feel I have one foot here. It is a lovely place and I ask myself ‘How did I get to be this lucky?’ I am so grateful to have her here, where I get to spend some time, and yet also ‘do my thing’ down in Santa Rosa.”

Since September 2005, Muriel has made a wide circle of new friends through a couple of writing groups and she has resumed her writing once again in earnest. “On top of that, I had always wanted to travel but Bill, who was a wonderful guy in so many ways, and whom I loved dearly, did not want to, and when he did I’d have rather traveled with Godzilla! So, in recent years I have proceeded to travel. In the spring of 2006 I took a cruise down the Rhine in Germany and then visited London; in the fall of 2006 I went to London again and on to Wales, using a bus pass to get around. I saw Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in southern England — it was fantastic. Then in 2007, UC Berkeley offered a three-week course at Merton College at Oxford University in England called ‘The art of lying — creative writing.’ That was great, living on the campus. I went with my friend, Pat from the writing group, and together with another women there, a judge in San Francisco, we talked about going to Paris the following year, meeting for breakfast every day and then going off on our separate ways all day before meeting up in the evening. It did not happen but I went anyway, alone. I spent the month of May 2008 in Paris, writing a lot about my trip as it happened. I loved sitting in the parks, observing and writing. I love traveling alone too. You can do whatever, whenever you want. I went back in October of 2010 for another couple of weeks but I think that will be my last time. It is a little too much for me now, despite the benefits of been whisked through the airports on a golf cart because of my gray hair and cane.”

In 2010, Muriel was having some trouble with her legs so she went into the hospital for a check-up. They decided to give her a chest x-ray and found some cancerous cells that were removed. She was not going to go through chemotherapy but the cancer was caught in time. “I seem to have had a guardian angel taking care of lots of things in my life. Many of the sad and bad things have turned out to not be as sad and bad as I thought and now I’ve ended up where I want to be. I love the writing classes, one of which is called the ‘Feisty Five’ and I continue to read a lot, fiction and non-fiction; and do crossword puzzles. I have done the one in the NY Times for years and that has given me lots of miscellaneous information, very useful for the General Knowledge and Trivia Quiz at Lauren’s Restaurant every Thursday night which I rarely miss. It’s lots of fun.”

I asked Muriel for her thoughts of her father. “The most intelligent man I have ever met. Very loving and gentle too, although he did have an unpredictable temper.” And her favorite memory of her mother? “Very sweet and quiet. I have her diary from the last four years of her life. Health-wise she was very fragile.”

As Muriel does not live in the Valley and has only been a regular visitor over the last several years I decided to forego the usual Valley questions and go straight to the final questionnaire.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Being with all the friends I have made in recent times.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Negativity. Current politics; Sarah Palin.”

Sound or noise you love? “Classical music, new age music... A babbling brook, water over rocks.”

Sound or noise you hate? “New music, or the noise of a plane.”

Favorite food or meal? “Steak.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Mark Twain.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “Pen and paper, an encyclopedia, and family photographs.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go any-where in the world? “Sweden — the family connections on my father’s side.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “For books that would be ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘Gone with the Wind’, and Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ series set in San Francisco. The film would be ‘Gone with the Wind,’ and may be ‘ET’ or perhaps ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ from a couple of years ago. A song would be anything by Glenn Miller, or may be some of the Broadway show tunes, and Bob and I always liked ‘The Breeze and I’ by Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra in the forties.”

Favorite hobby? “Many years ago it was sewing but now I guess it is writing.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “Newspaper reporter or photo journalist. Oh, boy, yes!”

Profession would you not like to do? “Nursing or being a maid.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I would have given my children more access to my side of the family. And I wished I hadn’t stopped writing for such a long time.”

Tell me about a memorable moment in your life; a time you will never forget. “The war years, not just in this country from 1941 but the whole war, from 1939 to 1945. I was very aware of it all and I knew that what was happening would change the world forever.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? “Well, the birth of my children and also raising them, but also now.”

What was the saddest day or period of your life? “The death of my mother.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “Well. Yes, I’m going to say it — that I’m a damn good writer of short stories and essays.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Seeing all those people I’ve known and trying to cope with that scares the hell out of me. I guess if He said, ‘You did the best you could, Muriel’ that would be good.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Maple Creek Winery’s Tom Rodrigues.

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