Harriett’s Gift

“You certainly do like yard work,” I called from my seat at the picnic table on Harriett’s screened-in porch as I waited impatiently for her to finish whatever it was she was doing in her yard that day in 1991. Since moving to the isolation of the Tahoe National Forest eight miles above Nevada City, I looked forward to the fiercely competitive rounds of Upwords that she and I played each afternoon, once she’d finished her chores for the day.

“I think of it as gardening,” she shot back, “not yard work.”

Though I’d known them only a few months, I loved our across-the-road neighbors already. Walt and Harriett had retired to their eight forested acres in the mountains after raising four strapping sons on a dairy ranch outside Santa Rosa. I guess you might term them old-fashioned farm folks—no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth people whose door was never locked, whose dining table always had room for unexpected guests, and who would do anything for anyone, once they perceived the need.

Tall and lean, Walt had a full head of silvery waves. Strikingly handsome in his plaid shirts, he could tell a good story and laughed with gusto whenever a new one tickled his funny bone. In addition to his boys, he loved three things in life: Harriett, his bride of nearly fifty years; his 150-pound Lab-Saint Bernard cross named “Hercules,” or “Herky” for short; and his John Deere tractor. Next down the list was his love of professional sports, especially baseball. Then came politics—the conservative Republican kind. He had a well-equipped shop and could build or fix anything, from toys to cars to tractors to washing machines and chainsaws.

Sharp as a tack, Harriett was tiny. Just over five feet tall, she weighed fewer than ten pounds more than she’d weighed at fourteen, when she and Walt first fell in love. Her face was weathered and lined now, the penalty for a lifetime of days spent in the sun. She wore her brownish hair short-cropped, without much plan but easy to care for. Her long nails, strong enough to double as screwdrivers, belied her image as a farm wife. She was inordinately proud of them and kept them polished bright pink. It was her personality I found most fascinating, though. With an acerbic tongue and a dry wit, Harriett never rattled on mindlessly. More often she listened, a sly, barely discernible smile playing around the corners of her mouth, waiting for you to hang yourself. Then, if she had something to say, she said it. Slow to offer an opinion, when she did, there was no point in arguing. Most often, she was right.

“If you’re in a hurry, you could give me a hand hauling this stuff to the burn pile,” Harriett called.

And so began my education, my transformation, my rebirth. In the coming weeks and months, as I trailed after her, helping with the chores, I peppered her with questions: “What are those tall things with the purple flowers?” “Why are you hoeing around those bushes?” “Won’t coffee grounds kill the plants?” “Why are you putting Epsom salts in your watering can?” “Why are you digging up your beautiful iris?” “Why are you burying nails under those bushes?”

Patiently Harriett explained, her incredulity only thinly veiled that the college professor’s wife from Aptos could be so dumb. She taught me how to double-dig; how to gather flower heads in a brown paper sack, secure the top with a rubber band and place it in the sun for days in order to harvest the seeds; how to carefully pinch the spent flowers from rhododendrons to avoid snapping off next year’s blooming shoots; which bushes and trees to prune after their spring flowering and which later on, in the fall; and how to divide rhizomes and bulbs in order to start new clumps or share. She taught me about nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus in the soil and how to enrich it by using what others might term garbage: coffee grounds and tea bags, crushed eggshells, ashes from the woodstove, dog droppings, shredded newspapers, and leaves. She even told me the best garden gloves to buy, not the little winky ones in pretty pastels that are marketed to women in the garden centers, but the more reasonably priced, heavier ones made by Atlas that lasted a whole season even under constant assault by her long nails.

Before long I began gathering boulders and muscling together low retaining walls to create paths and planting beds around our new home across the road. But Harriett rolled her eyes at my frequent trips to the local nurseries. “It isn’t about spending money,” she snorted. “Why spend a fortune on all those commercial soil amendments when all you have to do is go into the forest with a rake, clear off the top layer of pine needles, and gather all the forest mulch you want, for nothing?” She believed in doing it the old-fashioned way: composting, propagating, dividing.

“But that takes so long,” I wailed.

Again Harriett rolled her eyes. “Gardening is about patience,” she said, “and you’ll value the results more if you do it right. Like children. Who’d value kids if you just bought them in batches at the store? It’s the hard work and care and time and love that are important, not instant gratification. It’s about creating something uniquely yours, something beautiful and worthwhile; something that will reward you anew every spring; something that will enrich your life year after year. Your garden doesn’t care how old you are, the size of your bank account, how many teeth you’ve lost, how much you weigh, what you’re wearing—or not wearing—or your position in the local social hierarchy. Let other women have their Valium, their therapists, their retreats, their endless books on meditation and self-improvement; you’ll never need ‘em. Your garden will be all the sustenance you ever need. You’ll never grow too old to cherish an early morning stroll along your paths, coffee cup in hand, visiting your garden family and cheerfully planning your day.”

Now, more than three decades later, Harriett and Walt are both gone. But Harriett’s influence is not. I’ve created three gardens since those long-ago days, each more elaborate than the last, and every morning, as I stroll, coffee cup in hand, I think of her and the precious wisdom she shared. I smile as I tend the descendants of her early generosity—iris and carpet bugle and lamb’s ears and a variety of dianthus I don’t even know the name of but which blooms vivid hot pink every May and June and scatters its seeds widely. “Fingernail-pink,” I call it. I think of Harriett every time I pinch my Vulcan rhododendrons, expertly preserving next spring’s show of brilliant scarlet flowers. I think about her as I pause, warming my back in a patch of early morning sunshine slanting down through the towering Ponderosas. I think of her and of the wealth of knowledge she shared, about gardening and about life. I think of Harriett and her gift and I give thanks.

Where is Ellen Birdsell?

In writing about genealogy, I originally planned to devote a segment to each of the strong women from whom I descend—partly the nuts and bolts of the research itself, but focusing more on their character and personality as I’ve come to know them, who they were as individuals. One or two of them were influential and left an indelible mark, albeit small, in the annals of history. Others were adventurous and markedly independent for the times in which they lived. All seem to have had traits in common—incredible strength, stubbornness, outspokenness, an iron will, and just plain gall—traits I suspect have been passed down to me through inherited DNA. While most of them probably had more enemies than friends, I find these women fascinating, and I looked forward to writing their stories.

Given the news of the past few days, however, the ongoing reports of Hurricane Harvey wreaking massive destruction on the south Texas coast, an obscure, nearly invisible great-great-grandmother on my father’s side has elbowed her way into first place. She was the wife of Lockwood William Birdsell, about whom I have a goodly amount of information, but she wasn’t particularly notable—at least not that I’ve been able to discover—and official census records about her are ambiguous. In most, she’s called Ellen Birdsell, but sometimes she’s called Helen Birdsell. She and her family were actually counted twice in the 1860 census in rural Texas, only days apart, yet one record suggests she was born in 1832 while the other says 1834. Both state she was born in New York. The 1880 census, taken in San Antonio, suggests a birthdate of 1836 in New York, of Irish-born parents. The 1900 census says she was born in Ireland in March 1829 of Irish-born parents and came to America as an eleven-year-old in 1840. Though plausible, I’ve never been successful in locating an immigration record, so I don’t know if she came alone or with family, or if any of this is even true. The death certificates of several of her children give her maiden name variously as Ellen Shener, Ellen Glenn, and Ellen Wren. I have no idea who her parents were despite years of pursuing possible leads that ultimately led nowhere. She remains an enigma, one of those ancestors called, in the language of genealogists, a “brick wall.”

I believe Lockwood and Ellen probably married in New York in 1848, though I have no proof.

The Republic of Texas was annexed as the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845, and I have found Lockwood on an Agricultural Census Schedule dated July 8, 1850. By the 1860 census, the couple had five children, all allegedly born in Texas, although one obscure record claims the oldest, daughter Mary, was born “at sea” in 1842, an unlikely date. They were living in Karnes County, fifty miles south of San Antonio, where Lockwood had purchased 160 acres of land and was raising cattle and horses. I surmise Ellen was a typical hard-working frontier wife and mother, but I cannot know this for certain. In the early 1860s, Lockwood no longer owned the land but was still raising stock.

When the Civil War broke out, Lockwood—a New York Yankee, by all accounts—was conscripted into the Confederate Army and saw action for six months as a private assigned to Company G, 8th Texas Infantry, also known as Colonel (Alfred M.) Hobby’s Regiment, which distinguished itself in the battles of Corpus Christie and Galveston. By early 1864, Lockwood was “sick in Goliad Hospital,” according to official military records, and finally in August of 1864 he is listed as having “deserted in Karnes County.” A family legend fleshes out the story: “Lockwood was drafted into the Confederate Army, but never received any pay. With a wife and a houseful of children depending upon him for support, when he became ill and was confined to the hospital in Goliad, he simply got up from his sickbed and walked home. He was captured once and was going to be shot, but he escaped and was not captured again.”

The defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 did not bring peace to Texas. Indian depredations were once again on the rise, and there was widespread unrest. Lynching of freed slaves was not uncommon and often went unpunished. In an effort to gain control—of the Indians and of the many still-defiant Texans—the United States government created a string of military posts to protect rural settlers. One of these was Fort Mason in Gillespie County, north of San Antonio, where a Frontier Battalion (Companies A and B) was established in 1870 under the command of Captain Franklin Jones. Lockwood served two and a half months as a lieutenant in Company A and was discharged on November 11 of that year. This Frontier Battalion was disbanded a few months later, replaced by the newly formed Texas State Police; Lockwood served for a number of months with the 1st Brigade at Galveston, earning $60 per month.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Lockwood’s name appeared in San Antonio city directories, working as a teamster or express man. In 1883 he purchased residential property in the “Maverick Addition,” and then in November of 1891 sold it to his wife Ellen for one dollar. On that deed he is described as “of Garland Co., Arkansas,” suggesting that Ellen and Lockwood had separated. Ellen remained in San Antonio and was twice listed in city directories as “widow of Lockwood,” a more respectable status at that time than being separated or divorced.

Another surviving deed dated March 1894 reveals that Lockwood Birdsell “from Hot Springs, Arkansas” purchased for $200 a property in Rockport, Aransas County, Texas. He soon returned to Texas to occupy this house because in August of 1899 he applied for and was granted a pension based on his Civil War service, stating in the application that he had lived in Rockport for five years and owned a small home, but was otherwise indigent. The application does not mention Ellen, but at some point prior to the 1900 census, Ellen rejoined him there.

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane slammed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico. There was little warning and no defense. In the early morning, high tides were evident, then heavy swells began to appear, but the blue sky prompted a confidence that nothing out of the ordinary was about to occur. Most residents had seen these storms before and weren’t worried. By mid-morning, rain clouds took over the sky and the wind began to pick up. By mid-afternoon, the hurricane hit with an intensity and fury that only increased through the night. By the next morning, the storm had passed and the sun shone brightly, but the devastation was complete.

This hurricane remains, in terms of human life, the worst natural disaster in America’s history. The primary force of the hurricane struck Galveston (a port built on an island a few miles northeast of Rockport), completely wiping out that city and killing 8,000 of its 38,000 residents, but the force of the storm spread death and destruction up and down the Texas coast. No record has been found of Lockwood selling the little house in Rockport. I suspect it was destroyed.

At some point Lockwood returned to San Antonio to live with a married daughter until his death in December 1908, at the age of 92. He was buried in City Cemetery No. 3. His death certificate indicates he was a widower.

But what happened to Ellen? Death certificates were not required in Texas until 1906, and even then compliance with the new law was sporadic and slow in coming. Repeated inquiries by mail to Aransas and Bexar county officials turned up no information at all.

Finally, in 2015, under the auspices of Find-A-Grave, I found an answer. The Rockport City Cemetery had recently been surveyed and the results posted on-line. In that cemetery, the surveyors located a small metal marker inscribed only “Mrs. Birdsell, February 1903.” Despite knowing so little about this great-great-grandmother, at least I finally knew when and where she died and where her remains were laid to rest. In March of 2016, on the 113th anniversary of her death, I ordered red roses placed on her grave. That act brought peace and closure. Or did it?

According to yesterday’s news reports, the town of Rockport has been completely destroyed by Hurricane Harvey’s 170-mile-an-hour winds. All residents have been evacuated, and further catastrophic flooding is anticipated. Will Ellen’s grave marker survive, or will her bones be washed up and scattered in a sea of mud, once again disappearing without a trace?

Religion as Background for My Spunky Grandmothers

Among my earliest English ancestors in America, the Buffums, Southwicks, Birdsalls, Allens, Calvins, Popes, Buxtons, Osborns, and others were Puritans who became Quakers, members of “The Religious Society of Friends.” The earliest Gisweins were Lutherans in Germany, probably Reformed Lutherans in Russia, and later became Seventh Day Adventists in Kansas. The early Murphys were Scots-Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland who later became evangelical, or “primitive,” Baptists in Virginia, then Tennessee and Missouri. In each case, their religious beliefs subjected them to persecution and were at least partly responsible for uprooting families and seeking new homes. To understand their motivations, it’s helpful to know something of the history of religion in the Western World and the part religion played in their lives.

In the 16th century, when most nations had official religions and tolerated no others, the Roman Catholic Church dominated all of western and northern Europe and most of the Christian world. It was a tight but increasingly corrupt and vulnerable world, centered in Rome under the leadership of the Pope, filled with conflict and seething with social, economic, and national unrest, a festering condition that was bound to erupt into open conflict at some point.

In 1517, a German monk, Martin Luther, became the first to openly voice opposition to the Pope and the Catholic Church when he nailed to the church door at the University of Wittenberg a list of 95 questions or challenges to the Church, which he intended only as subjects for debate. But so ripe were the times and so widespread the discontent that within months all of Europe was inflamed and in arms, the beginning of more than a century of bloody wars between the Catholic Church and its numerous opponents. Central to Luther’s challenges—and to the entire Protestant Reformation—was the idea that every man was his own priest, a belief that, if followed to its logical conclusion, would render unnecessary priests, bishops, the papacy, and the entire church hierarchy. Key also for Luther was the idea that men should be justified before God by an inner faith, not by good works or any outward show of virtue.

At about the same time, in Zurich, Switzerland, a reformer named Zwingli preached much the same reforms, and for the same reasons, until he was killed in one of the earliest bloody battles fought between Protestants and Catholics. In Geneva, a third reformer, John Calvin, preached another form of Protestantism, which then swept through Germany, France, and the Lowlands, and across the channel into England.

In England, the Reformation, fused with all these elements, took a very peculiar turn. The then English king, Henry VIII, formally broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 over the matter of divorce—he wanted to be able to get rid of his wives when he tired of them, and the Catholic Church forbade divorce—and formed the Church of England (or Anglican Church) with himself as head. The Anglican Church, however, continued to adhere closely to many Catholic rituals, and Henry’s break with Rome was more a break from the Pope than from religious belief. It did nothing to free his people from religious domination and tyranny.

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving behind three children by three different wives. His third child and only son was Edward VI, who briefly became king. He was but a boy and ruled by way of a Regency Council. Sickly and weak, Edward died in 1553 at the age of 15, and upon his death, his oldest sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, who was Spanish and very Catholic, assumed the throne. She hated Protestants and committed unspeakable crimes against them, earning for herself the historic title of “Bloody Mary.” She especially hated her half-sister, Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by his second wife, Ann Boleyn, and for years Mary kept Elizabeth locked away in the Tower of London. Upon Mary’s death at age 42, however, Elizabeth, then 25, became queen. She was an avid Protestant, primarily because under Catholic law—the Catholic Church, of course, recognized only Henry’s first marriage—she was an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, and therefore could not sit on the throne.

During the long reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England enjoyed a half century of prosperity. There were no major wars. The first footholds were established in North America, the English Navy gained world dominance, world trade grew, and there was great advancement in the arts. She, of course, favored a Protestant nobility, many of them from East Anglica. This part of England was heavily Anglo-Saxon as opposed to Celtic. It became a hotbed of Protestantism and was culturally more like parts of Holland than England. Both Yorkshire and Norfolkshire, birthplaces of a number of my ancestors, are part of East Anglica, and although some of them favored the Anglican Church while others sought greater religious reform, life must have been pretty good for all under Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, and the next in line to the throne was her cousin, James Stuart, King of Scotland. Because James was Catholic, all of England feared turmoil when he took the throne. However, James was a realist and established Protestantism as the official state religion. He also commissioned the King James version of the Bible, which became the most widely owned, read, and studied book in England, now with a population of several million. His oldest son was Charles, and when James I died in 1625, Charles assumed the throne.

Charles I, although graceful and handsome, was headstrong, foolish, and totally influenced by Catholics in England and on the Continent, taking the position that he as king could do no wrong. He instituted religious wars in France and Spain, nearly bankrupting his country in the process, and finally dissolved Parliament. He taxed his people unmercifully, abolished courts, and was a real tyrant. The Protestants of East Anglica began to fear their king.

Meanwhile, there was great division within the Protestant religion itself. The Anglican (Church of England) Protestants continued to adhere to many Catholic rituals, and this upset those who wanted greater reform. During Elizabeth’s reign, various new strains of Protestantism or “reformed” churches had emerged: reformed Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others. The followers of these “reformed” churches were inevitably also classified as “dissidents,” rebels against the established churches, their unorthodox beliefs subjecting them to vigorous persecution. There were “turf wars” of the most bitter and bloody sort.

Out of this mix came the Puritans, one of a number of groups preaching reformation and opposing certain practices and beliefs of the Anglican Church, mainly that priests should be the official presenters and only interpreters of scripture. The Puritans, following Martin Luther, felt that individuals could have a relationship with God based upon their own faith, independent of clergy. The English government forcibly attempted to smother the newly formed and strangely dressed sect. The Puritans, striving to be “pure” and pristine in their daily lives, became true social oddities. But even the Puritans were not united. One branch became known as Separatists because they wanted to sever all ties to the established Anglican Church. Another branch of Puritans was comprised of non-Separatists who wanted to reform the Anglican Church, not form a new sect. Members of these two branches of Puritans and other dissident religious groups who rebelled against the official state religion were treated as outlaws in England, were often imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. To practice a religion other than Anglicanism was to defy the king of England, the official head of the church. Puritans were not allowed to congregate freely; their ministers were often prohibited from preaching and were imprisoned for disobedience; and members were sometimes subject to arrest if they were found even to be reading scripture.

In 1620, the English monarchy, as eager to be rid of the Puritans as the Puritans were to be rid of the king, granted a group of Puritan Separatists a charter to make a settlement in the English colonies in the area that is now New York. There were economic incentives for the Puritan move to the New World, including economic upheaval in Europe and the prospect of making a profit in America, but their chief incentive was religious: they would be able to practice their religion without impediment. In the late fall of 1620, some 103 colonists, making a clean break with the Church of England, sailed on the Mayflower, missed their mark in New York by several hundred miles, and arrived in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The group was somewhat underfunded by their sponsoring corporation back home in England, and although the colony at Plymouth did survive, by the end of the first year, the harsh conditions had taken the lives of more than half of their people.

Another group of East Anglican Puritans, largely non-Separatist, founded the Massachusetts Bay Company and took a different tack. They were dissatisfied, if not disgusted, with Charles I, and they had a notion of founding a new Puritan Commonwealth in America, so relocated the entire corporation from London to Massachusetts, giving it greater independence from the English crown. By 1630, a thousand English settlers, largely Puritan and non-Separatist, had immigrated to the Boston area north of Plymouth, and many of those moved further north to Salem.  By 1643, there were some 20,000 immigrants in the general area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, making Boston the largest and most prosperous town in America.

For close to 80 years, these Puritans held absolute power in New England. On the plus side, they contributed positively to the eventual breaking away completely from English control, the development of education, and the development of sea trade, urban business, farming and, eventually, manufacturing. America’s modern political system derives from the legislative model they set up, with fixed dates for regular elections by the voting populace, completely disregarding inherited titles. On the negative side, the Puritan government was hardly democratic. Only males who owned land and were members of the established church could vote. In addition, religious doctrine became civil law, and the rule of the leaders was absolute. They were cruel and intolerant, and disobedience brought punishment ranging from fines to imprisonment to banishment, on pain of death, from the colony. In a few cases, dissidents were put to death. Failure to attend the regular worship services of the established church, or failure to tithe a sizeable portion of one’s income for its support, were deemed disobedience, as were many other seemingly innocuous behaviors. In short, conditions under the Puritans were little improved over what they had been under Charles I back in England.

During and after the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Religious Society of Friends, known more commonly as Quakers, emerged in England as an offshoot of Puritanism and spread rapidly to the New World. In England, George Fox, the most prominent Quaker leader, taught that every person had the seed of Christ or a true “light” within, and that if one listened to and respected this “inward light,” he or she would go to heaven, contradicting the Puritan idea that only a few select people, chosen before the creation of the world, could achieve eternal salvation. Fox believed scripture was not the only or even the principal way of knowing God, that inner revelation could be truer than the Bible. Further, Quakers opposed war, believed in the equality of all people—including women and people of color, a unique characteristic within Christianity at the time—tolerance, and fairness toward all others, and were encouraged to live a simple, spartan, disciplined existence. Clearly, there was the potential for a clash between Puritans and Quakers in the New World. In fact, given the strong beliefs of both, it was inevitable.

The Quakers were hardly unobtrusive. John Higginson (1616-1708), Salem’s minister, had put into the covenant of the Puritan Church that the “Quaker Light” was “a stinking vapour from hell.” Quakers believed that “one did not need the preachings of a learned, salaried ministry to cultivate the Light and be saved.” But in “cultivating the Light,” they employed methods that horrified the Puritans. The Salem Quaker group was never large. It met in secret in the woods on the west side of town, where visiting missionaries were brought in to preach. Avowed Quakers were repeatedly fined for not attending the established church meetings, and some were banished. Four Quaker visitors from England were hanged in Boston. Finally, when Charles II ascended the English throne in 1689, he was so offended by the reports of persecution of Quakers in New England, the Act of Toleration was issued and an order given forbidding the killing of Quakers. Yet the sect continued to outrage many colonists, and crippling fines, beatings, and imprisonment of its most outspoken proponents resulted.

This was the world in which my early ancestors lived. The Buffums, Southwicks, Birdsalls, Murphys, Gisweins (and probably others) nearly always found themselves in opposition to the establishment, and this opposition prompted them to leave their homes and seek opportunity and freedom from persecution elsewhere. Perhaps the only exceptions were my Crawford/Peers ancestors, who did not suffer religious persecution, remained loyal to the English Crown, but, after the American Revolution, were forced to flee to Nova Scotia as the penalty for being on the losing side.

Meeting Daddy

I was never an orphan, not even a half-orphan, but until I was five, I remember only Mommy and a photograph she called Daddy. That silver-framed photograph sat on a nightstand in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, Eleanor, in a small, stucco-clad bungalow on Spaulding Avenue in Berkeley, California. Sometimes Mommy told us stories about Daddy, about how he was in the Army and was far away across the ocean doing a very important job in the war in the Philippines. I asked a million questions about where is the Philippines and how did Daddy get there and what is a war and what were its jobs and why did Daddy have to have a job so far away and why didn’t he send me a bike for Christmas. Sometimes Mommy tried, but after three or four answers, she usually ended up by saying, “I don’t know, Trish. I just don’t know.” Other times, she just turned away and blew her nose in her Kleenex.

I had stared at that photograph of Daddy so long and so hard that I didn’t really have to look at it anymore, I knew it in my head. But knowing it and having a real daddy weren’t the same thing. The Bradley kids next door had a real daddy who came home from his job every afternoon and played with them and kissed them and told them to eat their spinach and bought bicycles for them. My daddy was different. In my head, I tried talking to him, but he would only smile his same little smile from the photograph and wouldn’t say a word, not even my name. I didn’t know if his voice was high and squeaky or deep and scary or soft and sweet. Sometimes in my head I tried to get on his lap and snuggle up close to see what he smelled like or if his chin was scratchy like Mr. Bradley’s was on Sundays. I tried really hard, but I just couldn’t feel him and I couldn’t smell him and I couldn’t hear him. In some ways, I felt like an orphan, or at least a half orphan.

Most nights, before she tucked us into our beds, Mommy listened as we recited a little prayer that always ended with: “Please, God, bless our daddy and bring him home safely to us.” I had memorized all the words perfectly, but they meant little to me, no more than “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are….” I’d never heard the term “missing in action, presumed dead.” Even if I had, it’s doubtful I would have fully understood its meaning.

In 1943 and 1944, during the middle years of World War II, our lives on Spaulding Avenue were predictable. Before dawn, every morning except Sunday, Mommy turned on the light in our room and shook us awake. We had to dress ourselves and we were always in a hurry. Eleanor knew what she was doing, but I often put things on backwards, and sometimes my colors clashed. My favorite outfit was a pair of red-striped seersucker overalls under a bright yellow dress, with a pink cardigan sweater on top to keep warm.

“That doesn’t match,” Eleanor said, her voice snotty and condescending.

“Does, too!”

“Does not! Red doesn’t match with pink. Mommy said so.”

“Does, too,” I replied, raising my voice half an octave.

“If you don’t change that sweater, I won’t tie your shoes!”

“I don’t care. I can do it myself.”

But I couldn’t and she knew it. I had one pair of shoes, white high-tops with laces all the way up. I was trying to learn. I knew how to shape one lace into a loop and hold it between my right thumb and pointing finger, but the next step stumped me. My left hand kept forgetting which way to wrap the other lace around, and pretty soon my right hand would drop the loop and I’d be right back where I started.

“You girls hurry up and get out here,” Mommy called from the kitchen. “Your oatmeal is getting cold.”

Eleanor tossed her curly hair and flounced toward the kitchen. I stuck my tongue out at her back, shoved my stocking feet into my shoes, and shuffled to the kitchen, laces dragging.

“Eleanor, honey, would you be a good girl and help Trisha tie her shoes?”

“Yes, Mommy,” Eleanor replied in her best mommy’s-little-helper voice. Then, with a big smirk on her face, she knelt down and tied my shoes. She was a big girl, and I was nothing but a baby who couldn’t figure out how to tie a bow.

Not content with one win, Eleanor added, “Trisha has on her pink sweater with her red-striped overalls. I told her not to, but she wouldn’t—”

“Stop it, you two! We don’t have time for that nonsense! Finish your breakfast and get your teeth brushed or we’ll be late again.”

If it was spring or summer, we had Cheerios or Rice Krispies with sliced banana on top, but in the wintertime we always had oatmeal with raisins. As we ate, Mommy brushed Eleanor’s curly hair and twisted her top hair into a knot. Sometimes she braided the sides into pigtails. I didn’t have enough hair for pigtails. Mine was blonde and very fine, and Mommy said it had a mind of its own because it mostly stuck straight out. Even with water, it wouldn’t stay smoothed down for long, so Mommy kept it cut short all around—a Dutch bob, she called it—with bangs trimmed straight across my forehead.

The reason I only had one pair of shoes was because they were rationed. I liked that word ration, the way it whooshed out between my top and bottom teeth. I’d repeat it over and over: ration, ration, ration. But I didn’t really understand why Mommy had to stop at the post office every week to sign for a little paper book that had rows of coupons in it that were torn out whenever you bought anything at the store. Well, a lot of things, anyway. Kids’ shoes were rationed. You only got enough coupons to buy one new pair for each kid every six months. Even if you wore holes in the toes, you weren’t allowed to get a new pair ahead of time. Mommy said our government needed all the leather it could get to make combat boots for the soldiers away in the Philippines fighting the war.

“Why don’t they just make more leather?” I wanted to know.

“It’s complicated, honey. Leather is made from cow skins, but our milk also comes from cows, so they can’t go around killing all the cows to get their skins or we wouldn’t have any milk.”

I didn’t like hearing about killing cows to get their skins. “Maybe I’ll just go barefoot when my shoes wear out.”

“You can’t do that. You’d freeze your feet off in winter.”

“Would not!”

“Would so!” Eleanor nearly always got the last word.

Around seven-thirty, Mommy dropped us off at a child-care center just over a mile away. Dozens of other kids got dropped off too, from babies all the way up to six-year-olds, because just about everyone’s mommy had a job. The kids were divided into three groups: the babies; the two-, three-, and four-year-olds; and then the older ones. Each group had its own room and its own uniformed ladies in charge.

Eleanor was five, so she crossed the playground with the other five-year-olds for morning kindergarten from nine until noon at Washington Elementary before returning to the child-care to eat lunch and spend the afternoon in the big kids’ room. They had real schoolwork in the afternoons, like practicing their numbers or reciting the alphabet or singing songs like “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle.” They had jars of paint and brushes and a big easel and could paint anything they wanted.

How I wished I could be in that room! I already knew my numbers all the way to a hundred, and could say most of the alphabet too, as long as I sang it: Aye-bee-cee-dee-e-eff-gee, aitch-eye-jay-kay-ellemeno-pee…. But I had to stay in the room with the little kids. I spent ten hours there every day except Sunday. My group had wooden alphabet blocks in a wagon, a bunch of hard-cover picture books, and coloring books and crayons, but most of our stuff was just dumb baby toys.

The best part of the day was recess. The child-care had its own playground, with swings, a slide, monkey bars not as high as the ones on the regular playground, and a merry-go-round. The merry-go-round was just a flat, round, wooden platform with a circle bar in the center for the riders to hold onto and another circle bar on the outside for the pushers to grab and run alongside and push as hard as they could to make it go fast. I liked the merry-go-round, but I never rode it when we first got there in the morning because it made me dizzy and my oatmeal would try to come back up.

I liked the monkey bars best. The girls who just wore dresses wouldn’t go on the monkey bars at all because they were afraid a boy might see their underpants. You know, boys were always trying to look under girls’ dresses and see their underpants. A few girls who wore overalls under their dresses climbed up and swung from the bars by their hands, but they were afraid to hang by their knees. Not me. I always wore overalls under my dress at the child-care, and I had big blisters on my palms from swinging from one end of the bars to the other just as fast as I could. And I could hang by my knees too, just as well as any of the boys. Mommy said she thought I must be half monkey.

The charge ladies in the little kids’ room made us take naps on the floor after lunch every day. We each had a cubby to keep our nap rugs in. Mine was a red-and-pink-and-yellow rag rug that Mommy let me pick out at the dime store on University Avenue. It had some black in it too. I thought the colors were perfect all woven together, not clashing at all. At naptime, I always spread my rug in the corner where I could face the wall. You see, I had a problem.

Sucking my thumb was a big problem. I always sucked my right thumb and twirled a lock of hair on the top of my head with my left hand. I was ashamed of doing it because it was such a baby thing, but I just couldn’t stop. Mommy nagged me, Eleanor nagged me, and even Grammy nagged me: “If you don’t stop that, your front teeth will stick out like a gopher’s!” Mommy tried painting awful-tasting stuff on my thumb just before bedtime, but that didn’t help much. The bad taste in my mouth only lasted a few minutes. I tried wearing a mitten to bed, but that didn’t help either. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d just pull it off. Sometimes Mommy even put a Band-Aid around my thumb. In the morning, my thumb was right back in my mouth and the Band-Aid was on the floor. I just couldn’t go to sleep without my thumb.

The child-care center was the worst. If Cynthia Ellerby caught me with my thumb in my mouth, she’d yell, “Patricia is sucking her thumb!” and in a flash every other kid would chime in and make fun of me too: “Patricia is a baby, baby, baby, thumb-sucking baby!”

The lady in charge was just as bad. “Now, Patricia, you take thumb out of your mouth. Don’t you know your thumb is covered with germs and it’s going to make you sick?” Once when I was taking my nap on my rag rug in the corner, she snuck up on me, bent down, and yanked my thumb right out of my mouth and held onto it tight while she told me again what a nasty habit it was. I got so mad that I grabbed her other hand with my left one and bit her middle finger as hard as I could. That got me a spanking, one at school and a harder one with a coat hanger from Mommy after I got home. The spankings made me cry, but they didn’t break my habit.

I have to tell you about Cynthia Ellerby. She was two months older than me, and I hated her. She was my emeny. On her first day at the child-care, when the lady in charge introduced her to us as Cindy, she stamped her foot and announced, “My name is Cynthia, not Cindy. You can call me Cyntha, but not Cindy. My mother says Cindy is a common name and you’re not to call me that!” I don’t remember exactly when I started hating her, but probably it was that very first day. She was one of those girls you knew right away you weren’t going to like.

Cynthia was an only child. She lived with a real daddy and her mommy and a grandmother who sewed all her dresses, the prettiest dresses you ever saw, with ruffles and lace or rickrack trim on the skirts and collars and sleeves, just like princess dresses. Cynthia never, ever wore overalls. She also had pink cheeks, creamy  white skin, and shiny, dark curly hair down to her shoulders. She wore it pulled back and up on the sides, held in place by pairs of barrettes to match each dress.

And Cynthia didn’t chew her fingernails right down to the quick like I did. Hers were always nice and smooth and painted pale, pale pink. She had a dainty gold ring with a tiny pink stone that she’d gotten for her birthday in June. She was always stretching out her fingers to show it off. “It’s my birthstone, a real amethyst,” she’d say. “That’s nice, Cindy,” I’d mutter under my breath. I always called her “Cindy” in a voice she could barely hear because it was a common name and I knew she hated it and she was my emeny.

At recess Cynthia never went on the monkey bars or the merry-go-round but instead went straight for the swings. If she wasn’t on the swings, she played hopscotch or a skipping game called “Duck, Duck, Goose” with the big girls. I loved that game, but I never played it at the child-care because I could only skip on one foot, not like Cynthia and the others, who could skip on both feet.

The worst thing about Cynthia, though, was that she watched me like a hawk, just waiting to catch me with my thumb in my mouth. Then she’d march up to the charge lady and tell: “Patricia is sucking her thumb again just like a baby.”

Mommy worked six days a week as a clerk in the Intelligence and Public Relations Division at Oakland Army Base, and she didn’t pick us up until five-thirty. Twice each week, Mondays and Thursdays, she had to work until ten at night. On those days Aunt Lucille, Mommy’s youngest sister, picked us up at child-care after her last class at University High. Aunt Lucille was sixteen, I think. She walked from her school to the child-care and then walked us home to Spaulding Avenue, where she’s play with us, feed us dinner, supervise our baths, and get us ready for bed. Because she didn’t have to do any washing or ironing or housecleaning after dinner—Mommy always did all that stuff at night—Aunt Lucille read us at least six stories before turning out the lights. On those nights, we didn’t have to say any prayers.

Our lives were busy and had schedules, but we weren’t sad or bored. We had Rusty, a mischievous cocker spaniel whose favorite pastime was chasing cars or cats. We also had a black-and-white cat named Mittens that sometimes got kittens in her tummy and squeezed them out in the middle of the night under the stacked boxes in the musty garage at the back of our lot.

Rusty had to stay alone in the backyard every day except Sunday, but he came in the house at night. If we didn’t let him in, he’d howl and wouldn’t stop. He wasn’t allowed to sleep on our beds because sometimes he had a few fleas. But just like my thumb found its way into my mouth when no one was awake to see, Rusty found his way up onto my bed every night after everyone was asleep. He’d jump up at the bottom, then wriggle forward until he had his head right on my pillow, where I could burrow my face in his fur. He felt warm and soft and smelled s-o-o-o-o good—kind of like the insides of my shoes. He didn’t give a fig if I sucked my thumb, and I didn’t care one bit about a few fleabites. I loved him with my whole heart.

On Spaulding Avenue there were plenty of kids to play with, including our cousins, Margie and Brycie, who lived with their mommy, Aunt Charlotte—Mommy’s other younger sister—in a tiny house behind the Bradleys’, next to the garage at the end of the driveway. Their daddy, our Uncle Bryce, was away in the Army in the Philippines too.

The Bradleys and their kids—Mike, Kate, and Jay—lived next door, on the other side of our shared driveway. Mr. Bradley owned a drugstore, so he didn’t have to be in the war. That was just fine with me because sometimes, as a special treat, we got to drive to the drugstore for milkshakes or sundaes. Bradley’s Claremont Pharmacy was on Domingo Avenue, right across the street from the fancy white Claremont Hotel and Tennis Club in the Berkeley hills. I’d never set foot inside the Claremont—and I certainly didn’t know how to play tennis—but I remember hearing Mommy and Grammy talk about it. Mommy had played tennis there sometimes when she was a student at the University of California, long before her marriage, before her babies, before the Japs became our emenies, and before our daddy had to go across the Pacific Ocean to do a very important job in World War II in the Philippines.

Inside Bradley’s Pharmacy, right next to the cash register, a row of clear glass jars held red and black licorice ropes, yellow lemon drops, chocolate-covered raisins, cinnamon red hots, and just about every other good thing you could think of. If you had a penny, you could buy a handful. If you had a nickel, you could buy a whole bag. At the soda fountain, we sat on silver stools, their seats upholstered in navy blue, mottled plastic. The stools weren’t really silver, but I had a hard time with the word a-loo-mi-num. If you pushed off from the edge of the counter, the stools would spin. Once I got my stool to go around four times before it stopped. At Bradley’s, I always ordered a chocolate sundae with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Sometimes Mr. Bradley even gave me two cherries. He never made us pay for anything. The Bradleys were our best friends.

Pictured left to right: Our cousin Margie Brooks, me, our cousin Brycie Brooks, Eleanor (minus her two front teeth), and Kate Bradley.

Most of the kids on our block helped in the war. Eleanor took a dime to school every week to buy a red stamp to paste in our War Bond book. When the book was full—it took 187 stamps to fill all the pages; then you added a nickel in a slot at the back to make a total of $18.75—Mommy exchanged it for a $25 War Bond. I had no idea how a paper book full of red stamps or even a War Bond would help win the war, but Mommy always let me lick the stamp and stick it on the page, so it must have been important.

An older boy at the other end of our block had a red Radio Flyer wagon, the biggest model you could buy, and every once in a while a pack of us would go door to door up and down Spaulding Avenue, collecting paper or anything made of metal: tin cans, wire coat hangers, broken tools, rusty muffin tins, strainers, anything at all made of metal. When we collected enough to fill up his daddy’s pickup truck, his daddy would take all that junk somewhere to help win the war. Just like the stamps, I never could figure it out. His daddy said our boys needed tanks and airplanes, but I didn’t see how they could make a tank or an airplane from a coat hanger or an empty tin can. Anyway, I cared less about winning the war than about being part of the gang on Spaulding Avenue.

One weekday morning in early December 1944, when I was four, a catastrophe happened at our house. Across the end wall in the breakfast room—really just an extension of the kitchen—a built-in wood cabinet filled the space between the floor and the sill of the window that faced the Bradleys’ kitchen window on the other side of the driveway. Our new dial telephone sat on top of the cabinet, not far from a dime store glass bowl, home to two fish named Goldie and Fin.

That particular morning, Eleanor and I were eating our oatmeal-with-raisins at the table when the phone rang. Mommy, exasperated because we were in a hurry, picked up the receiver, put it to her ear, and snapped, “Hello?” She didn’t say another word, but after several moments, she collapsed on the floor in a heap, the phone cord upsetting the fish bowl as she went down. The bowl remained on its side on top of the cabinet and didn’t break, but gunky water, pink aquarium gravel, and greenish water plants sloshed all over the floor, where Goldie and Fin flipped and flopped about in the mess.

Eleanor sprang into action. She raced out the kitchen door, down the back steps, and across the driveway to the Bradleys’, screaming all the way, “The fish are dying! The fish are dying! The fish are dying!” Jayne Bradley didn’t ask questions. She hurried after Eleanor back across the driveway, up the steps, and into our kitchen, where she discovered that not only were the fish gasping for air, but her close friend and neighbor, Lillian, was lying on the floor, just regaining consciousness. The receiver dangled by its cord, emitting the piercing beep-beep-beep-beep that meant an interrupted conversation.

Jayne grabbed the fish bowl, added a few inches of water, then scooped Goldie and Fin back in, putting an end to Eleanor’s and my wailing. Next she dipped a dish towel in cold water and knelt down beside Mommy, who by now had pulled herself up to a sitting position and was slumped against the wall. As Jayne held the wet towel to Mommy’s forehead and cheeks, she asked, “What is it? What’s happened, Lil? Is it your mother?”

Still dazed and disoriented, Mommy blurted, “Art is alive!”

“What? He’s alive? How? Where is he?”

“That was Western Union. They read a telegram from the War Department. Art is alive in the Philippines. They’re sending a letter.”

Jayne burst into tears, threw her arms around Mommy, and the two of them wept together as Eleanor and I stared, bewildered about the need for all this crying now that Goldie and Fin were saved.

Finally Mommy turned to us and held out her arms. Wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of one hand, she gathered us close and said softly, “My darlings, our prayers have been answered. Your daddy is alive, and soon he’ll be coming back to us.”

“Tomorrow?” I asked. “Is he coming tomorrow?”

“No, honey, not tomorrow, but soon.”

But it wasn’t soon. It didn’t happen for another nine months. In the meantime, Mommy and Daddy wrote letters to each other to tell about what they’d been doing during all those years while Daddy was missing in action and presumed dead. Mommy sent him pictures of us, taken at different ages, but for a long time he couldn’t send any back because he didn’t have a camera.

Once Mommy read part of a letter to us so we’d know what was going on with the guerrillas in the war in the Philippines. Eleanor listened intently, but I started to laugh and kept laughing until tears came out of my eyes. I could just picture in my head a whole bunch of huge black gorillas carrying guns and chasing the Japs up and down mountains and my daddy being the leader and riding in a tank and yelling for the gorillas to hurry up and shoot all the Japs.

“What’s so funny?” Mommy asked.

“Gorillas,” I said.

“What’s so funny about guerrillas?”

“I know about gorillas ’cause they’re in a book we have at school about Africa—”

“Oh, no, no, no, sweetie. Not gorillas. Guerrillas. It sounds almost the same, but they’re two different words. Daddy doesn’t mean gorillas like the ones in Africa. He’s talking about the thousands of native Filipinos who formed a big army up in the mountains of North Luzon and fought as hard as they could against the Japanese who had invaded their country and were trying to turn all the Filipinos into their slaves. But for a long time the guerrillas didn’t have enough guns or bullets, and the Japanese killed them by the thousands.”

“Are all the guerrillas dead now?”

“No, not all of them. But many thousands have been killed. General Douglas MacArthur and our American Army arrived just in time to help them defeat the Japanese. And now the job is almost done.”

“Oh.”

Mommy resigned from her job at Oakland Army Base on July 15, 1945, telling the Army she needed to get ready for her husband’s homecoming in late September.

She and Aunt Charlotte repainted the whole inside of our house on Spaulding Avenue. I remember that because Eleanor and I got to choose the color for our bedroom—pink, of course—and then we were allowed to paint the inside of the closet all by ourselves, up as far as we could reach.

Mommy pulled the weeds in our yard and planted bright red geraniums in the bed below the front window and in flowerpots on the porch. Those geraniums were the brightest red you could imagine, and I wished right away I had a dress that very same color, or at least some seersucker overalls. I remember a flurry of clothes shopping, but we couldn’t find a red dress, so I had to settle for a blue one.

Mommy made a trip to the beauty shop and got a permanent wave, but she went back to an older hairstyle because, she said, it had always been Daddy’s favorite.

Finally, the news came. Daddy sent a telegram saying the work of the war was nearly finished, and he was ready to come home. After a stopover in Hawaii, he would land at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco at 10 a.m. on Monday, September 17.

By Sunday evening, everything was ready. The house was spick and span, we were all bathed, and our new clothes were laid out. Mommy tucked us in at our usual bedtime, around seven-thirty, and Eleanor fell into a deep sleep. I slept for a while but then woke up again. Seeing a light on in the living room, I went to investigate.

Mommy was sitting on the couch, her legs curled up beneath a brightly colored afghan, her white chenille bathrobe pulled snug around her shoulders. Her pin curls were covered with a yellow string hairnet that kept the bobby pins from falling out. In her lap lay an open magazine, but she wasn’t reading, only picking at a freshly manicured nail, deep in thought. She looked up. “What’s the matter, honey?” she asked.

“I woke up, Mommy.  What are you doing out here?”

“I couldn’t sleep either. I guess I’m just too excited.”

She lifted up the corner of the afghan and patted the couch beside her. Relieved at not being sent back to bed, I snuggled up close as she described again our itinerary for the next morning. We would get up early, just like on a school day, dress in our new clothes, have a quick breakfast, and then drive up to Travis in plenty of time to be there before nine.

“Can Rusty go? Please, Mommy, please?”

“No, not this time. I don’t know how much luggage Daddy will have. It might not fit in the trunk, and some might have to go in the back seat with you girls. Daddy can meet Rusty after we get home.”

“What does Daddy look like?”

“Well, honey, he used to look like the picture on the nightstand next to your bed. I thought he was the handsomest man in the world. I’m not sure how he looks now, but I’m sure he’s still very handsome. Remember, he’s been away in the Philippines for nearly five years, ever since you were a little baby.”

“Did he kill all the Japs and so now he can come home?”

“I don’t know about killing all the Japs, Trish, but the war is finally over, so now he can come home.”

I guess I must have fallen back to sleep there on the couch—I don’t remember—but sometime after midnight, I was startled awake by a loud banging on the front door. Mommy jumped too.

“Who is it?” she asked, frozen in place, her voice quivering.

“Colonel Arthur Philip Murphy!”

Still Mommy didn’t move. She just sat there, uncomprehending.

The big, booming voice continued: “I got an earlier flight out of Hawaii and then caught a cab. Let me in!

With that, Mommy jumped up and rushed to unlock the door. In barged a tall Army man dressed in a rumpled khaki uniform and big black boots. He dropped his duffel bag on the floor, and Mommy threw herself into his arms. There was a bunch of hugging and kissing, and some crying too.

After a bit, Mommy turned and led him over to the couch, where I still huddled under the afghan, my thumb in my mouth, my eyes as big as a lemur’s. “Trish, honey, this is your daddy. Can you say hello?”

I took my thumb out of my mouth and wiped it on my pajamas. “Hello, Daddy,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.” Very polite, just as I’d been taught.

At first he took my hand and gave it a gentle shake. Then he broke into a big grin. He reached down, swept me up into his arms, and planted a big kiss right on my face. “I’m pleased to meet you too,” he said.

Living with the Colonel

Right after he came home, Daddy had to go into an Army hospital across the bay in San Francisco for a bunch of tests to make sure he was healthy, both in his body and in his head. “Debriefing,” Mommy called it, the same procedures every returning prisoner of war had to go through. I guess they couldn’t figure out how any man could survive living for nearly four years among primitive headhunters in the mountains of North Luzon and still come home in one piece. After several weeks, when they couldn’t find anything serious wrong with him, Daddy was allowed to move back into our house on Spaulding Avenue.

Maybe the Army didn’t find anything wrong with him, but Mommy found him quite changed from the dashing young man she’d married eight years earlier, and from the doting husband and father who’d sailed away to the Philippines in early 1941. Now he was The Colonel, accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed instantly, no questions asked. He took over the reins of our family and set out to turn us into a model military unit. He made new rules for nearly everything, and assigned specific punishments for each infraction.

The first thing Daddy did was banish Rusty from the house at night. Using some of the old packing crates in the garage, he nailed together a doghouse in the backyard. The doghouse was nice enough, but Rusty didn’t like it and didn’t willingly accept this change in his routine. He howled to come in. He howled so loudly that Mr. Bradley came outside to see what was wrong. Daddy spanked Rusty with a rolled-up newspaper and used our garbage can to barricade him inside the doghouse. Still he howled. Mommy was very quiet while all this was going on. She didn’t say a word, but the muscles in her jaw kept moving, like her teeth were having a wrestling match inside her mouth.

Rusty’s howling was so loud that first night that I put my pillow over my head. Even though I pushed the sides of the pillow up against my ears with both hands, it didn’t shut out the awful sounds. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I got up from my bed and went out to the living room and stood right in front of The Colonel, tears rolling down my cheeks: “Please, Daddy, please can I sleep outside with Rusty? He’s been sleeping on my bed ever since he was a puppy. He’s afraid to be all alone outside in the dark.”

There was no yelling. The Colonel just said in a very even voice: “No, Patricia. Dogs have fleas and should live outside. He’s not afraid, he’s just spoiled. He’ll get used to it. Now go back to bed.”

But he didn’t. Rusty howled every night for a week. The Bradleys began giving us dirty looks, and Mrs. Agabashion, Eleanor’s piano teacher next door, came over to complain. Mommy didn’t argue openly with The Colonel, but she clamped her mouth into a thin line to show her displeasure.

I tried a different tack. Every chance I got, I crawled up on The Colonel‘s lap, put my arms around his neck, and looked him straight in the eye. “Please, Daddy, please, please, p-u-l-e-e-e-e-s-e. I won’t even ask Santa for a bike this Christmas if you’ll just let Rusty back in. And I promise I’ll stop sucking my thumb. Please, please, p-u-l-e-e-e-e-s-e.” I repeated this procedure two or three times in the coming days. But The Colonel didn’t budge. And still Rusty howled.

I needed a different approach. First, I planned and practiced my speech. Sitting on the couch next to The Colonel one evening, I talked to him in my very best grownup voice: “Daddy, when you were away fighting the Japs in the Philippines, we cried all the time because we thought you were dead. Then we got Rusty and we didn’t cry so much. Rusty took care of us, just like a daddy would. And now he has to stay outside at night like he doesn’t matter anymore. It isn’t fair.”

I guess the emenies in the Philippines had never tried this plan during the war. They should have because it worked! The Colonel began to soften. By the end of the second week, he gave in. Rusty could come in the house at night. Sleeping on my bed wasn’t even discussed. It wasn’t a complete surrender, but Daddy recognized when he was outgunned and it was time to retreat.

In the meantime, The Colonel made another set of rules regarding the bathroom. Because I was the youngest, I was to begin getting ready for bed promptly at seven o’clock. I was allotted fifteen minutes to get in and out of the bathtub, brush my teeth, put my pajamas on, and present myself to Mommy and Daddy in the living room to say a formal good night. Eleanor began the same routine at seven-fifteen and had to be finished by seven-thirty. If we went over the time limit, we earned one swat for each minute over fifteen. The Colonel pulled out his old pledge paddle from his days in a fraternity at UCLA in the mid-1930s. If either of us accumulated a swat or two, we had to present ourselves to The Colonel in the living room, bend over with our hands on our knees, and take our punishment. Then we had to say, “Thank you, Daddy. Good night,” and go to bed.

Within three days, both Eleanor and I accumulated swats. They weren’t really hard swats, not enough to make us cry, but they did sting. Again, Mommy’s mouth formed a tight line. She didn’t interfere openly, but her pretty blue eyes looked like ice cubes, and it was plain these new rules weren’t to her liking. As I remember, the bathroom rules lasted about three months before they, too, disappeared in favor of a more flexible schedule.

Other rules were easier to swallow. At the dinner table, we had to sit up straight, our backs not touching the chair back, napkins in our laps. No slouching. No elbows on the table. Absolutely no talking with food in our mouths, and no interrupting the adults if they were speaking. Mommy had already taught us most of these rules, but now they were strictly enforced. If we broke a rule, we had to leave the table without finishing our meal and go to bed. Period.

Each morning Eleanor and I made our own beds. We’d always done that anyway, more or less, but now Daddy demonstrated how the sheets and blankets were to be tucked in securely, with squared-off hospital corners, so that a quarter dropped from two feet up would bounce.

The Colonel said, in order for an outfit to run smoothly and efficiently, everyone had to do their part.

The new command wasn’t all negative. Daddy decided Eleanor and I should have a regular allowance, a nickel a week for each year of our age. Eleanor got thirty-five cents every Saturday morning because she was seven, and I got a quarter. Daddy cut slots in the lids of two empty peanut butter jars and printed our names in block letters on labels on the sides. No one else was allowed to touch our jars. Eleanor kept hers under her bed, but I kept mine under the socks in my underwear drawer. Although we were encouraged to save a little every week, we didn’t have to. We could do anything we wanted with our allowance, even spend every last penny.

In addition to allowances, Eleanor and I were given more freedom. Just a block away, on the corner of Addison Avenue and California Street, was The Corner Store, a lot like Bradley’s Pharmacy, except it didn’t have a soda fountain. Big glass jars held candy on the counter next to the cash register. The Corner Store didn’t carry toys, but it did have comic books you could buy for a dime. I already knew how to read a few words—yes, no, dog, cat or Dick, Jane, Sally, Fluff and Spot from Eleanor’s first-grade reader—and I loved comics. My favorites were “Little Lulu” and “Our Gang,” about Tom and Jerry and Barney Bear and Benny Burro. Those didn’t have many words, and sometimes they didn’t have any words at all, just pictures. For fifteen cents, I could buy one comic book and enough candy to last all day Saturday, with maybe even some left over for Sunday.

We had another option too. The University Theater was only two blocks down and one block over. On Saturday afternoons, for a quarter you could watch two serial features, more than a dozen cartoons and a full-length movie—usually cowboys and Indians, but sometimes scary movies like “Frankenstein’s Monster.” Some Saturdays, right after lunch, a pack of kids from Spaulding Avenue walked to the University Theater and spent the whole afternoon inside. The problem was, if I spent my whole quarter on the movie, I couldn’t buy popcorn. Eleanor could, and sometimes she shared. Mike Bradley, who was only eighteen months older than me, always shared. He was the nicest boy on Spaulding Avenue.

Because of getting an allowance, we learned about money from an early age. Daddy called it being savvy or knowing the value of a dollar. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to trade comic books or use candy instead of money to buy one at a reduced price from another kid who didn’t want it anymore. Some kids would even give one away for free when they finished reading it. I thought that was pretty dumb when they could trade the comic book for candy or a nickel. I never, ever turned down a free one, even if I’d already read it myself, even if it was one of those detective comics that had big words I couldn’t read and didn’t care about anyway. I knew I could trade again for something better.

As for my thumb-sucking, I finally asked Daddy for help. I don’t know why, but I only sucked my right thumb, never the left. My left thumb just didn’t taste good, and, besides, I needed my left hand to twirl a piece of my top hair around and around whenever I sucked my thumb. Anyway, Daddy came up with a strategy. He moved my bedtime to eight o’clock so that I’d be very sleepy. Just before eight, Mommy poured me a small glass of warm milk. Then I wrapped the fingers of my right hand around its thumb to make a fist, and Daddy secured my fist with sticky gray tape. When I got in bed, I tucked that fist under my pillow, closed my eyes, and began whispering to myself: “I’m not a baby, I’m not a baby, I’m not a baby.” I repeated it about a hundred times. That first night, it took a long time to fall asleep, but within a week I was cured. I was so thrilled that I forgave Daddy for all the new rules. I even forgave him for the pledge paddle.

As soon as Daddy’s debriefing was complete, he became eligible for six weeks’ leave, and a great deal of back pay. He put together an elaborate plan, and in early November he and Mommy left on a trip to Mexico and Central America, the long-delayed honeymoon they hadn’t been able to afford when they got married in 1937. Aunt Lucille, now graduated from high school, came to stay with Eleanor and me.

In the second week of December, after they returned from Mexico, Mommy took us to downtown Oakland to see the Christmas displays in the department store windows. Capwell’s always had the best windows: snowy winter scenes with reindeer, animated elves making toys in Santa’s workshop, and red and green and blue and gold blinking lights outlining the windows all around. If I squeezed my eyes almost closed, until everything got blurry, I could imagine it was all real and I was right in the middle, like magic.

Then we went inside to visit Santa Claus in the toy department. When it was my turn to go up and sit on his lap, I really wanted to ask for a bike, but I remembered my promise to Daddy and asked for roller skates instead. Having Rusty sleep on my bed was far more important than a bike. After Santa, Mommy took us to The Terrace Room in the basement for hot chocolate with marshmallows on top.

A week later we helped Mommy decorate the Christmas tree and hung our stockings on the fireplace mantel.

Christmas morning came. Eleanor and I were up early, but I don’t remember what I got in my stocking. The only thing I remember of the whole day was the bike! Right there in the living room was the most beautiful bike in the world! It said “Patricia” on the tag. It was a blue twenty-four-inch two-wheeler with a white stripe like a lightning bolt on each side and a shiny blue seat and a little white basket attached to the handlebars. I don’t remember how long it took me to learn to ride it, or even who taught me—I suspect it was Daddy—but it was the best Christmas present I’d ever gotten in my whole life.