Musings at First Light

It’s only five o’clock, but already I’m wide awake. What is it about this time of the day that I love so? Later on, the sun will arc high overhead, forcing the lizards and frogs to shelter from the blistering rays of another hot August afternoon. I’ll shelter too. But now, in the very early morning, the air is exquisite. It beckons. As soon as it’s ready, I pour my first mug of coffee and head outside. A slight breeze is cool and bracing and tingles on my arms and legs and the back of my neck. I breathe deeply, again and again, taking in this miracle of a fresh new day.

The first bird awakens and chirps its song of greeting. Two more join in. I feel a kinship with them. We’re all early birds.

I walk to the garden shed and turn on the pump so that once more a thin trickle of water gurgles over the brick edging of the upper pool into the lower, a soothing alto to the winged, chirping sopranos that now number a dozen. Soon, it’ll be an entire chorus.

Many years ago I planted water lilies in pots in the lower pool and stocked it with a dozen feeder fish I bought for practically nothing from a young kid working part-time at the pet store. But the kid couldn’t tell carp from koi—at that time I couldn’t either—and I ended up with as many koi as carp. They all grew quickly, were very tame, and would wriggle right up onto my palm for food. My favorite was a white butterfly koi. I named her Princess. She was beautiful—flowing, gossamer, four-inch fins and a small pinkish spot on her snout. Then one day she disappeared. I never knew what got her, but I felt terrible because she was so trusting, and that trust probably had cost her her life.

The rest of the fish multiplied rapidly, and soon the filter couldn’t keep up. The water turned to thick, smelly pea soup. Finally, I called a company that specialized in ornamental water features, and their crew came out and drained the pool and pulled all the plants and fish out and took them away in big barrels. They didn’t charge me a dime. In fact, they refurbished the filter, resealed the inside walls of the pool, and paid me several hundred dollars. I guess good-sized koi and water lilies bring good-sized prices.

I place my now empty cup on the bricks atop the wall of the lower pool and bend at the waist to pull a couple of weeds that have sprouted in the woolly thyme that eventually filled the spaces between the flagstones. It’s not a very ladylike posture, but my knees no longer bend effortlessly. Besides, no one else is up at this hour. I tell myself it is exercise and that it’s a good thing. At least I can still touch my toes.

An Anna’s humming bird comes streaking from nowhere and hovers at eye level a few feet in front of me, its wings a blur and its brilliant magenta throat flashing, signaling that the feeder tucked up under the clematis vine on the trellis above the back terrace is empty. I used to think these actions were random, but now I know they’re not. It’s a silent pact between the humming birds and me. I get the stool from the kitchen so I can reach the feeder, fill it with a four-to-one water-sugar mix, and return it to its hook. Within moments three or four of the Anna’s are vying for the first taste. Dipping and swooping, they will provide entertainment throughout the day, sometimes hovering a few moments just outside the open window above my desk and my computer, just to say thank you.

One thing in the garden inevitably leads to another. I’m reminded to refill the suet feeders hidden in the branches of the Japanese maples, out of reach of those pesky voles that have created a labyrinthine web of tunnels beneath my garden. There was a time when I battled them. I tried flooding them out with a hose and blocked their access by stuffing rocks into their adits. Neither worked. At the hardware store I bought gas bombs in a package; the label claimed they were “guaranteed to eradicate voles.” Hah! Hidden in the shadows, the critters watched and cackled among themselves. I gave up the fight. Unlike gophers, at least the voles don’t leave raw, ugly mounds behind as they drill. I have no idea what they do with the excess soil. They must eat clover seeds, though, because, industrious little farmers that they are, they poop the seeds out inside their tunnels, and the seeds then sprout and spread so that the voles have well-stocked pantries spaced conveniently all along their hallways. There was a time I zealously tackled the clover trails with my hand-weeder, but no more. With voles, you can’t win, unless you get a few cats at the shelter and keep them half-starved so they’re motivated. But the birds, especially baby California quail, are much easier prey than voles, so I no longer keep cats.

My second cup of coffee sustains me as I prowl the rest of the garden. This year, for some unexplained reason, the native oaks have been dropping leaves ever since June. Green ones, not brown. And dropping acorns too. You’d think, with last winter’s record rainfall, that the oaks would stay thick and lush well into fall. Maybe later I’ll call the agricultural extension office and ask about it. Or maybe I’ll just wait and let someone else do it. And I’m not going to rake the leaves, either, not yet. Let them swirl and play in the breeze. I’m not the perfectionist I used to be. And it’s a good thing, because I’m not as young as I once was. I’m more tolerant now—of others’ shortcomings as well as my own.

Cynthia Ellerby

Cynthia Ellerby, who had tormented me for sucking my thumb at the child-care center, was now in my kindergarten class at Washington Elementary. Although we were both a year older, she hadn’t changed one bit. As soon as she saw me on the playground on our first day, she sidled up and asked with a smirk: “Still sucking your thumb, you baby?” I didn’t even have a chance to answer before she stuck her nose in the air and flounced over to the swings.

Cynthia still wore pretty ruffled princess dresses every day, and she still waved around her little gold ring with the amethyst birthstone for all to admire. But something had changed. We had a new teacher, Miss Bacon, a middle-aged, no-nonsense woman who wore round, metal-rimmed glasses and wore her iron-gray hair pulled back into a tight bun just above her neck. She always wore navy blue or black suits and sensible oxford shoes.

From the first day, Miss Bacon had her eye on Cynthia Ellerby. Twice since school began, she had called Cynthia up to her desk and had talked with her about acting prissy and having such a high opinion of herself. Everyone in the class could hear. But Cynthia paid no attention and went right on acting prissy.

Then one morning Cynthia came to school wearing a brand new dress her grandmother had just made. It was sewn of white polished cotton sprinkled all over with bright green shamrocks. White lace and narrow green velvet ribbons decorated the neckline and the puffed sleeves. I’d never seen a prettier dress. Her grandmother had even tied tiny green velvet bows onto the barrettes she wore in her hair.

As Cynthia strutted up and down the aisles between our desks, giving everyone a chance to admire her new dress, Miss Bacon had had enough. With eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin line, she jumped up from her desk, approached Cynthia from behind, grabbed her shoulder, and pushed her toward the cloakroom at the back of our classroom, slamming the door shut behind them. Though we couldn’t understand the words, we could hear Miss Bacon talking sternly. Then Cynthia began to cry.

Sitting silently at our desks, the rest of us looked at each other with our mouths hanging open, and then began giggling as Cynthia’s wails grew louder and louder.

After several minutes, the noise died down, the cloakroom door opened, and Cynthia came out, holding the back of her shamrock-sprigged dress with both hands. Her eyes were red from crying, and greenish snot from her nose oozed down onto her upper lip. I’d never seen such a lovely sight. Cynthia went straight to her seat, and Miss Bacon returned to her desk. “Please, children, turn your readers to page nine.”

A few days later, during morning recess, I saw Cynthia sitting all by herself on a bench by the wall. She looked like a broken doll, all slouched down and sad. Even her princess dress looked limp and ordinary. Ever since the spanking, nobody wanted to play with her. At first I relished the sight of her, sitting all alone over there. She was a brat and had  had the spanking coming for a long time! After a while, though, I began to feel sorry for her. I knew how it felt to be left out. Sometimes it hurt so much you could hardly stand it. I walked over and sat down next to her on the bench.

“I don’t suck my thumb anymore,” I said.

She didn’t reply. She didn’t even look up.

“And my big sister is teaching me how to skip on both feet.”

Still not a word, but Cynthia turned her head a bit, just until she could see me out of the corner of her eye.

“If you want, I won’t be your emeny anymore,” I offered.

Cynthia couldn’t resist. She turned to me and, in her best singsong voice, said, “It’s not emeny, silly. It’s enemy.”

I bit my tongue to stop the first words that came into my head. Instead of calling her a know-it-all or a snot, I said sweetly, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Enemy. Maybe we could not be enemies anymore?”

“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t call me Cindy. Cyntha is okay, but not Cindy. It’s a common name, you know. My mother says so.”

“I promise.”

We got up from the bench and walked together over to the swings. Cyntha let me have the first turn.

Meeting the Kinfolk

Sometimes Eleanor and I got to spend a day or two with Grammy. Although Grammy Buffum was the only grandparent we knew, she more than made up for the other three. She lived in a second floor apartment across the street from Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, and she worked not far away, in the yardage department on the third floor of Capwell’s Department Store. Our stays with Grammy always included a stop at Capwell’s to show us off to her coworkers—bragging rights, she said—and perhaps buy us a pair of socks or a hanky or an undershirt, using her twenty-percent employee discount. From Capwell’s we always walked down the street to the Paramount Theater for a matinee and then to Edy’s for ice cream afterward.

One evening at her apartment, after our movie and ice cream, after she put fresh white sheets and a warm quilt on the fold-out bed in her living room, after we were scrubbed clean and snug in our pajamas and slippers, Grammy opened her treasure trunk. It was a big trunk—a steamer trunk, she called it—made of thick wood slats bound together with black leather straps. It had metal thingies on the corners to protect them from scuffing, and inside a shallow tray extended all the way across and rested on sticks glued to the sides. The trunk was filled with Grammy’s photographs and souvenirs. One by one, she took them out, carefully unwrapped them, and told us their stories.

The first packet Grammy brought out was a framed photograph of a man with the funniest little beard you ever saw, so funny that both Eleanor and I laughed out loud. Grammy gave us a stern look and said the beard was quite fashionable for its time and that we shouldn’t ever laugh at our ancestors because if it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t be alive.

“James Monroe Buffum was your great-grandfather,” she said, “and he rode a horse all the way from Illinois to California in the Gold Rush of 1849.”

“Why?” I wanted to know.

“Well, to look for gold, of course. Some men had discovered gold nuggets at a mill near Sacramento, and as soon as the word spread, thousands and thousands of men from all over the world raced to California to get rich. And some women too.”

“Did Great-Grandfather Buffum get rich?” asked Eleanor.

“He started in Calaveras County and had good luck at first and found a number of nuggets and lots of gold flakes. But then one night another miner snuck into his camp in the middle of the night and hit him over the head and stole everything. He kept on mining for a while, but it was such hard, dirty work that eventually he got discouraged and decided to raise cattle and horses instead. He did that in the San Joaquin Valley for a year or two, but then there was a drought and—”

“What’s a drought? I wanted to know.

“It’s when not enough rain falls and everything starts to die,” Grammy said.

“The drought was very bad, and pretty soon all the grass began dying and the horses and cows didn’t have enough to eat. Great-Grandfather Buffum was afraid his animals were going to die just like the grass, so he and another man, Jerry Johnson, drove the herd west over the Santa Lucia Mountains toward the ocean. There’s always more rain when you move closer to the ocean. He settled down near Cambria, in San Luis Obispo County. When he was about forty-five, he met and married a lady from Nova Scotia and had a large family.”

Next she brought out a framed picture of her beloved husband, our grandfather, Cecil Oliver Buffum. He was the youngest of seven children and was born on his father’s sixtieth birthday. Grammy told us what beautiful blue eyes he had, like pale blue topaz; how he’d grown up on the ranch near Cambria; how he’d been the first in his family to advance beyond high school; and how he’d gone to Pasadena to attend Throop Academy to become a civil engineer. From the treasure trunk, she retrieved two of his old mathematics books and a notebook full of handwritten essays for an English class.

Next she showed us the first gift he’d ever given her: a ring made from a moonstone he’d found as a boy on the beach at Cambria.

She told us how, after their marriage in Pasadena in 1912, Cecil took her to live in a storage-shed-turned-honeymoon-cottage on Morrow Island in the middle of Pierce Farms, a huge operation near Suisun in Solano County, where workers were converting marshland to wheat production. Wheat was a scarce commodity the world over in those years, she said, and it brought sky-high prices.

“What’s a ca-ma-di-ty?” I asked.

“It’s a thing, like corn or gasoline or coal or—something like that.”

Grammy went on: “I was only twenty-one, but I was a good cook, so they put me to work cooking for two dozen ranch hands who lived in a long bunkhouse on the property. Those men put in fourteen-hour days on the big dredges, which made them as hungry as bears just coming out of hibernation—”

“What’s a dredge, Grammy?”

“It’s a great big machine that scrapes mud and muck and—well, first they had to use a bulldozer to build dikes to hold back the water from the bay, and then they dug ditches to drain the water—”

“What’s a bull-do-zer, Grammy?”

“Well, it’s a machine that—”

I know what a bulldozer is,” Eleanor piped up. “It’s a big machine that pushes dirt all around and digs holes and makes roads. We learned about bulldozers in first grade. There was a picture of one in a book our teacher got from the library, and she read it to us and—”

“Whose story is this, anyway?” said Grammy. “You girls ask too many questions. Now sit still and listen. If you don’t want to hear my stories, you can just go to bed right now.”

“Oh, no, no, no, no, Grammy. We want to hear the stories. We want to hear all about it.”

She told us how excited and happy she and Cecil had been when their children came. Our mommy was the first, in 1914.

Then Grammy took out a soft package wrapped in pink tissue paper and showed us a piece of delicate white lace about ten inches long that had been part of her wedding petticoat. That piece of lace was all she had left of her petticoat because she had cut up the rest to make baby dresses for our mommy.

A boy came next, and they named him Cecil Jr. Then two more daughters, Charlotte and Lucille.

What Grammy didn’t tell us then was that Grandfather Buffum lost his job in the wheat-market collapse of 1924, a serious worldwide financial calamity. In order to find work, the family returned to Southern California, where Grandfather Buffum was reduced to taking a job as a welder at the Texas Oil Company in Wilmington (later Texaco), near Long Beach. She didn’t tell us he was involved in an explosion at the refinery in October 1930. He and his crew had been assigned to repair a leaking pipe. Normally, the pipe would have been bled the day before and ventilated thoroughly before the repair crew arrived, but someone made a terrible mistake. When Grandfather Buffum cut into the line, the spark from his welding torch ignited the gas, and a horrific fireball engulfed the crew. Grandfather didn’t die instantly, but he suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. A newspaper headline the following day described him as “burned to a crisp.”

He died in the hospital several hours later, leaving Grammy a thirty-nine-year-old widow with four young children and no way to feed them. She was forced to apply for welfare from the County of Los Angeles, an act she considered shameful and refused to talk about as long as she lived.

Though he was only thirteen, Cecil Jr. quit school and to went to work sweeping and stocking vegetable bins at a local grocery, for which he received a few dollars and permission to take home the bruised and overripe fruits and vegetables he culled from the bins. Our mommy, Lillian Jr., stayed in school but babysat at every opportunity and turned her earnings over to support the family.

Meeting More Kinfolk

The next time we spent the night with Grammy, Eleanor and I begged for more stories, which made Grammy very happy. As we gathered around the treasure trunk, she brought out a fringed scarf—a babushka, she called it—that had belonged to her own mother, Anna Elisabeth Haas. I thought the babushka was beautiful with its red and green and pink and yellow flowers all squashed together.

Grammy tied the babushka around her head as she began: “Both my parents were of German ancestry, but both were born in small villages near the Volga River in Russia, and both came to America as immigrants. Volga Deutsch, they were called.” She said it again, slowly, so we’d remember: ‘Vol-ga Dough-each.’

“The Volga Deutsch introduced American farmers to Turkey Red, a special kind of wheat that grew in the winter and didn’t require any water other than natural winter rainfall. Farmers could plow their fields and sow Turkey Red seeds in the fall and then simply wait for the rains to come. By the next summer, the wheat would be all grown up and ready for cutting and threshing.”

I wanted to ask what threshing meant, but I remembered, at least for a while, that Grammy didn’t like it when her stories were interrupted with too many questions.

Grammy continued: “My mother, Anna Elisabeth Haas, was only fourteen when she came to America on a ship with her parents and seven brothers and sisters in 1876. Her baby sister, Mollie, was born on the ship right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After they docked in New York at the end of August, a large group of the new immigrants rode a train to Marion County, Kansas, where they had to stay in a big warehouse at the edge of town, all the families crowded together, until they could find other places to live. But the people of the town weren’t very nice and called them Rooshians and said they were dirty and smelled like rotten cabbage.

“My grandfather, Philipp Haas, had enough money from selling his farm in Russia to buy a section of land, 160 acres. But it was already September, and there wasn’t enough time to build a regular house before winter. Instead, the whole family—well, the older children, anyway—dug a deep hole into the side of a hill on the property and built a low roof over it, the same type of dwelling their German ancestors had built for themselves on the Russian Steppes when they first arrived there in the 1760s. The Haas family moved into the cave house, just like gophers. It was barely big enough to hold all of them, and water from the winter rains seeped in, often soaking them to the bone. But they didn’t complain.

“When spring came, Grandfather Haas built a sturdy stone house, and the cave became the root cellar for storing the cabbages, carrots, peas, cucumbers, and onions my grandmother planted in her new garden. Grandfather bought a team of oxen and a plow and prepared a big field. That fall he sowed the Turkey Red seeds they’d brought from Russia, and simply waited for the winter rains to come. The next year he plowed up another big field and planted more Turkey Red. At harvest time, every member of the family pitched in, even the children as young as eight or nine. After the harvest, the women did the threshing.”

There was that word again! Threshing, I whispered to myself, threshing. I liked the word because it whooshed out between my teeth, just like ration.

“Hush up and listen,” Grammy said. “Before long Grandfather Haas had plenty of wheat to make all the bread the family needed, and some left over to sell. He and dozens of other Volga Deutsch immigrant farmers hauled their extra wheat in burlap sacks to the town of Marion, where they sold it to a broker who shipped it by rail all over the country. Kansas became known as the Breadbasket of America, and it was all because the Volga Deutsch were so industrious—”

“What does in-dus-tree-us mean?” I asked.

Grammy gave me a patient little smile. “It means hard-working.

“My father’s name was Henry Giswein. He was of German heritage, too, but his ancestors  had also lived in Russia for a hundred years before he came to America”

“Did your father come to America with his family on the same ship as your mother?”

“No, he didn’t, but they did arrive in the same year, and they both settled in Marion County, Kansas. I think my father came as a stowaway on a ship, but I never knew for sure. He was only twenty-one, an orphan without any money who had never been to school a day in his life and couldn’t read and write. But he was a good Christian and went to the Lutheran church every Sunday. That’s where he met my mother, Anna Elisabeth Haas. Although they liked each other right away and wanted to get married, her parents objected because he was illiterate and had no prospects. But Henry and Elizabeth ran away and got married anyway.”

“What does il-li-ter-ate mean?” I asked.

“It’s when you don’t know how to read and write, which are both very important skills because you can’t ever get a good job if you don’t go to school and learn how.”

“Didn’t Grandfather Giswein ever get an education, even after he came to America?” I said ed-jew-cay-shun very slowly and savored the last part as it whooshed out between my teeth. Shhhhhhhun.

“My father learned to speak English quickly,” Grammy continued, “but he had a thick accent and often mixed German and Russian words in with the English. He never did learn to read and write, so he was never able to become a citizen. You had to be able to read and write English in order to take the test to become an American citizen. Father was always curious, though, and kept up on the news. They would sit on their front porch every afternoon and Mother would read the newspaper out loud to him so he’d know what was going on in the world.

“So he never got a job?”

“Oh, yes, he did. He’d grown up among industrious wheat farmers in Russia”—she sounded out the word in-dus-tree-us slowly so we’d remember it—“but he also knew how to grow all kinds of plants and trees. At first he worked for his father-in-law, Philipp Haas, on the farm near Marion, Kansas. The two men didn’t always get along, though, so in the l880s Father moved his family to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where other Volga Deutsch immigrants were raising apples. The weather was very cold and wet, and that winter their two little girls died of croup. Fearing for their three sons, they returned to Dickinson County, Kansas, and Father went to work for another wheat farmer. I was born in 1891, while they lived in Dickinson County.

“Still, Father longed for something better. In the early 1890s the family moved again, this time to Pasadena, California. Because he knew so much about plants, Father landed a job as head gardener at Brookside Park, where the Rose Bowl is now. You know, the Rose Bowl is where they play football every New Year’s Day.

“Because my father was illiterate, he never got a driver’s license. Instead, he bought himself a bicycle that he called his “wheel,” and he rode it back and forth to Brookside Park every day for thirty-five years.”

“The same bicycle?” I couldn’t imagine a bicycle that old.

“Yes, the same bicycle. Father kept it in tiptop mechanical shape and polished it to a high shine every afternoon after work, while Grandmother read to him from the newspaper. After he died, the same shop where he’d originally gotten it bought it back from my mother and mounted it as a display in the front window of their store so their customers would know what good quality bicycles they carried.”

Next Grammy unwrapped something she called a concertina.

“What’s that?” Eleanor wanted to know. We’d never seen anything like it.

“It’s a musical instrument, sort of like an accordion, only smaller,” Grammy said, pulling on the handles a bit so it made a noise like a harmonica. We knew what a harmonica was because Mommy’s brother, Cecil Jr., carried one in his pocket and would play it if you asked him nicely.

“It belonged to my father,” Grammy went on. He had a wonderful deep voice, and he would sit outside on the front porch in Pasadena and play this concertina and sing Russian folk songs. People walking by would stop and stand in groups or sit on the curb to listen. His favorite was a song called “The Volga Boatman.”

Next Grammy unwrapped a necklace her mother, Anna Elisabeth, had made when she was a young girl in Russia, before her family came to America.

Volga Deutsch girls had a tradition of making beads from rolled-up paper. They cut brightly colored magazine pages into long skinny pennant shapes about an inch wide and six inches long. Beginning with the wide end, they rolled the pennant shape up tightly around a wire, all the way to the tiny point, ending up with a multi-colored bead that was skinny on each end and fatter in the middle. After the beads were varnished—to preserve them and give them a high shine—the girls carefully removed the wire and strung them into necklaces, placing tiny black jet beads in between the paper ones to make a nice pattern.”

Eleanor and I tried on the necklace. It was so long we could loop it around our necks three times.

Then Grammy showed us a glass-beaded purse. “This was made for me by my Aunt Eva Haas, one of my mother’s sisters. I’ve always loved it because of its pale green color, the same color as the sea before a storm.”

“That’s so pretty,” Eleanor marveled. I wish I had a purse like that.

“Aunt Eva was always artistic, and she loved to do beadwork. She ordered this part from a catalog,” indicating the silver-colored top part of the purse, the part that snapped open and shut and had a silver chain so the purse could hang from a lady’s wrist. Grammy showed us that the snapping-shut part had small holes all around. “Aunt Eva tied lengths of heavy thread through these holes, and then, starting at the top, strung the tiny glass beads onto the threads and tied the threaded beads into patterns to make the rest of the purse. When the purse was as long as she wanted, usually seven or eight inches, Aunt Eva ended it by making a fringe of glass beads across the bottom. Then she sewed a lining into the purse, pale green to match.

“I wish I could have a purse like that,” I said.

“If your mommy hadn’t been so careless, maybe you’d have one,” Grammy sniffed. “Aunt Eva made a glass-beaded Sunday school purse for your mommy when she was little. It was red, white, and blue, just like the American flag. But your mommy didn’t take very good care of it, and pretty soon the threads broke and the purse fell apart.”

I couldn’t imagine our mommy being careless, even when she was a young girl. She could do just about anything and always took the time to do it just right.

“Aunt Eva was the prettiest of all the Haas girls,” Grammy went on, “but one of her legs was shorter than the other and she walked with a limp, with her head bobbing up and down. After the family had been in Kansas a while, a local shoemaker made her a pair of shoes with the right sole built up three inches. After that she didn’t limp anymore. The only trouble was the built-up shoe was so heavy and Aunt Eva was so small that she would be exhausted after walking only a quarter of a mile.”

“Did other kids make fun of her?” I wanted to know. I knew a little something about kids making fun of other kids.

“When she was a girl back in Russia, they did. Mean boys would walk along behind her and mimic her limp and call her bad names. She told me she cried at first, but then she got tough and didn’t pay any attention to them and just limped on home.”

“After she got to Kansas and got her new shoes with the built-up sole, I bet they didn’t make fun of her anymore,” I said hopefully.

“Sometimes they did, but in those days all the women still wore long dresses with very full skirts, so you couldn’t see that Aunt Eva’s right shoe had a built-up sole. Besides, when she was in her twenties, a handsome young man—Jacob Riffel was his name—fell in love with her and married her, and after that nobody ever made fun of her again. In fact, the other women were jealous because Eva’s new husband treated her like a queen, much better than their husbands treated them.”

“Good,” I said. “She deserved to live happily ever after, just like a queen in a castle.”

“I’m sorry to say that’s not the way it turned out. Aunt Eva and Uncle Jake didn’t have any babies for a long time, and that made them very sad. Finally they had a baby boy, Clarence, and Aunt Eva was the happiest woman on earth. Her baby had blond curls and was the sweetest baby anybody had ever seen. She read to him all the time he was growing up and saw to it that he never missed a day of school. She and Uncle Jake saved every penny they could because they wanted to send him to Throop Academy in Pasadena to get a good education. Then World War I came along and Clarence had to go into the army and was sent overseas to Europe to fight against the Germans. Only a month before he was ready to come home, Clarence was in a battle and got sprayed with chlorine gas by the Germans. He was never the same again. His speech was all garbled and he couldn’t learn anything anymore and he walked with a limp. It broke Aunt Eva’s heart.”

“That’s so sad, I said, putting my hand over my mouth to stifle a yawn.

“That’s enough for tonight,” Grammy said. “I can tell you many more stories, but it’s getting late and we’ve all had a big day. We’ll save the rest for another visit.”

After Grammy tucked us in and turned off the light, I lay awake for a long time, thinking and thinking and thinking about coming to America all the way from Russia and threshing Turkey Red to make bread for your family and having people make fun of you when you were little because one of your legs was shorter than the other and about the Germans spraying chlorine gas in Clarence’s face. I wanted to suck my thumb, but instead I wrapped it inside its fingers to make a fist and shoved my fist under the pillow. Eventually, I fell asleep.

On the Road (Part 1)

Even after their long honeymoon trip to Mexico and Central America, Daddy wasn’t satisfied to stay at home on weekends. I guess he was restless or bored because he was always planning and scheming to try something new or go somewhere he’d never been before or revisit places he especially liked.

Daddy had lived at Yosemite National Park, high in the Sierra Nevada, for a couple of years when he was a boy. He and Mommy met there in 1937, right after they graduated from college. But it had been more than six years since they’d been to the park, and he was anxious to see it again. Sitting at the breakfast table only a few weeks after Christmas, he announced: “What say we head up to Yosemite for a few days?”

“But we just—”

“We can take Mike Bradley along too. That way, maybe the Bradleys will take care of the mutt while we’re gone.”

Mommy and Daddy had taken Eleanor to the snow at Big Bear before I was born, but I had never even seen snow except in picture books or on Christmas cards. I was so excited that I didn’t mind leaving Rusty with the Bradleys or leaving my new bike hidden under a towel behind the boxes piled in the garage.

A few days later, we all bundled up—jackets, boots, plaid woolen scarves and knitted mittens—piled into our Plymouth four-door sedan, and headed for the mountains. The car was equipped with a heater but no radio, so, as Daddy drove along, he began singing, our newest family tradition. Eleanor and I already knew all the verses to “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain,” “My Darling Clementine,” and dozens of others, but our hands-down favorite was now “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” the first Army song Daddy taught us after he came home from the Philippines. Before long Mike Bradley got over his shyness and joined in, too, and people in other cars on the highway smiled and waved because we were having so much fun.

Several hours later, not long after we passed through Merced, small patches of snow began appearing on both sides of the road. As soon as he came to a turnout, Daddy pulled over so I could touch it and taste it for myself. It tasted kind of yucky, like dirt, but I didn’t care. I wanted to have a snowball fight; the rest wanted to hurry up and get there. Every mile we drove, the snow grew deeper and the mountains bigger and more beautiful, sparkling in the sunshine.

“I wish I could live in Yosemite,” I said.

“Maybe someday you will.”

“Maybe someday I will.”

When we entered the park, Daddy drove straight to Camp Curry at the base of Glacier Peak—the same place he’d lived when he was twelve—disappeared into the office for a few minutes, and then came bounding out again, grinning from ear to ear, his hand high in the air, waving a key. “It pays to have friends in high places,” he crowed.

Our tent cabin had a wooden floor and wooden walls that went up six feet; from there up, it was canvas, just like a regular tent. Inside, wooden bunks and some chairs and a table lined the walls, and a black kerosene stove provided heat. “It’s not exactly the Ahwahnee Hotel,” Daddy said with a wink, “but if I lived all winter long in one of these things, I guess we’ll survive for a couple of nights.”

Mike and Eleanor and I wasted no time. The snowplow had pushed up a huge mountain of snow at the edge of the parking lot, and already other kids had smoothed out a sled run. At first we just stood and watched, but pretty soon they gave us a turn. In between runs down the snow hill, we threw snowballs and made a snowman and had a fine time.

Later in the day, we all piled in the car again and went for a drive to see some of the biggest trees in the world. “Sequoias,” Daddy called them. One, called the “Wawona Tree,” was so big we could drive our car right through it, like a tunnel.

Then Daddy asked, “Wanna go on a bear hunt?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we all chimed in, all except Mommy, who was trying not to laugh.

Daddy drove a few miles to a place where all the hotels and campgrounds in Yosemite dumped their trash and food scraps. He parked as close as he could. Sure enough, a dozen bears were pawing through piles of garbage about fifty yards away. We begged to get closer, but Daddy wouldn’t let us get out of the car. That was a good thing because two of the biggest bears got in a fight and stood up on their back legs and snarled and bit at each other’s faces.

Cooking wasn’t allowed inside the tent cabins at Camp Curry, so we ate all our meals at the Lodge. As we gobbled hamburgers and potato chips, Daddy told us what it had been like when he was young.

“Each afternoon in the summertime, outside the hotel up on top of Glacier Peak, employees built a huge bonfire, and each evening, down here at Camp Curry, the park rangers put on a wonderful program of songs and stories for the guests. As the finale of the program, when it was completely dark—usually around nine—one of the rangers used a bull horn to holler up to the men far above: ‘Let the F-i-i-i-e-r F-a-a-l-l-l!’ In response, the men on top pushed the rest of the fire right over the side of the mountain, creating a trail of fiery red coals and sparks all the way down. Everyone sat mesmerized, the only sound the plaintive recorded voices of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy singing ‘Indian Love Call.’ When I was a kid, I never missed the Fire Fall. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world.”

“How did they think that one up?” Mike wanted to know.

“Glacier Peak was too far away to haul their garbage down to the dump every day, so in the beginning they did it just to get rid of the coals and ashes left after burning the hotel’s debris. But people down here in the valley could see it and began to look forward to the spectacle. Eventually the rangers built their entire story program around it. It became a tradition. The word spread, and people now come from all over the world to see Yosemite’s beautiful mountains and waterfalls, but they also come for the Fire Fall,” Daddy said. “They’ve been doing it now for more than fifty years.”

The Fire Fall at Camp Curry

“Can we see it tonight, Daddy? Can we? P-u-l-e-e-e-s-e?”

Not this trip, Trish. They don’t have the Fire Fall in the winter, but I promise someday I’ll bring you girls back in the summertime so you can see it for yourselves.”

“Can I come too,” Mike pleaded.

“Of course you can. Maybe our two families can come up together.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”