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.”


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.

Spaulding Avenue Brat

Though I was only five and a half, now that I had a bike, I enjoyed increased respect among the kids on Spaulding Avenue. The older girls like Eleanor played jump rope or hopscotch or jacks on our concrete front walk or our front porch, both painted a deep red and grooved to imitate flagstones. If they weren’t riding their bikes, the boys mostly played marbles. I was learning to play hopscotch and jacks, but I much preferred marbles. For a little girl, I was pretty good at it and could sometimes beat the younger boys, especially after I got a special shooter called a steelie.

I’ve never told a single soul the story of how I got that steelie. Just thinking about it now makes me squirm. But since there’s no longer any chance of my being punished for my childhood misdeeds, I’ll tell it just the way it happened.

The older of two brothers who lived across the street—he was probably around eight or nine, and no, I don’t remember his name—wouldn’t tell if I did—had three steelies. They were the most coveted of marbles, so of course I wanted one too. I really, really wanted one. First, I offered to buy one of his steelies for a dime. When he turned that down, I offered a quarter, but still he refused. Then I offered him three comic books. He wouldn’t go for any it.

Then one Sunday afternoon that boy told me he’d give me one of his steelies if I did a very naughty thing: go with him and his younger brother into their garden shed, take down my pants, and show them my bare bottom. “Why?” I asked, although I already suspected the answer. Because I didn’t have a brother, I’d never seen what a boy looked like under his pants; and since they didn’t have a sister, they were probably curious too. I thought briefly about trying for a reciprocal arrangement, but I was much more interested in getting my hands on one of his steelies.

He ignored my question. “Do you want a steelie or not?”

I thought about it a while longer, weighing the possible consequences. I knew what he was asking me to do was probably wrong. Why else would I have to wear long pants under my dress at school just so I could hang upside down on the monkey bars if it wasn’t to keep boys from seeing even my underpants, let alone my bare bottom? On the other hand, if we were ever caught, he and his brother would get in just as much trouble as I would, maybe even more, so I was pretty sure they’d never tell.

“Okay, but you have to give me the steelie first. And you have to promise not to laugh or anything.”

“Sure, I’ll give you the steelie first, but only after we’re inside the shed.”

I followed the boys across the street and down their driveway to the very back corner of the fenced lot, where leafy trees shaded the rough, unpainted shed. The older boy pushed open the door, and I followed him in, the younger brother bringing up the rear. I looked around. In the dimness, I could barely see the hoe, shovel, and rake hanging from nails on the wall, or the battered, rusty lawnmower shoved into one corner. There was no light other than what filtered in through a single dirty window pane, its top half covered with spider webs. A spider was silhouetted there—at least an inch across—waiting for a fly or a bug.

“Here’s your steelie,” the older boy said, holding out his hand.

I grabbed it and shoved it deep in my pocket, then just stood there.

“Well, go ahead, take down your pants!”

I kept my eyes riveted on the spider. My cheeks felt hot, but my fingers were cold as I pulled the straps of my overalls down over my shoulders and, with one quick motion, pushed everything down to my ankles. The boys circled me and stared. When he was right in front of me, the younger one squatted down for a closer look, then scrunched a few inches closer, like a crab. He clapped his hand over his mouth to suppress his giggles.

That wasn’t part of the bargain! I reached down, yanked up my underpants and my overalls, turned and raced out the door and back toward Spaulding Avenue, pausing just long enough to pull my straps up over my shoulders. Once across the street, I headed straight for our backyard gate, where I knew Rusty would be waiting inside the fence. He wagged his tail and licked my neck as I hugged him tight and buried my face in his fur for a long time before reaching into my pocket to make sure the steelie was still there. I stayed in the backyard all afternoon, until Mommy called us for dinner.

The heavier steelie gave me a big advantage in knocking an opponent’s marble out of the chalk circle on the sidewalk, and then, if we were playing “keepsies,” I got to keep it. Soon I had enough marbles to fill a red leatherette pouch with a drawstring, which I put under my pillow at night, where Rusty couldn’t get at it and chew it to pieces.

I remember one day I was winning and had taken most of a boy’s marbles when he got mad and grabbed my steelie and ran off down the street with it. Knowing perfectly well that crying or complaining wouldn’t get me anywhere, I chased the culprit and caught him and knocked him down and punched him in the face until he gave me back my steelie. I thought that was the end of it, but somehow the story got back to Mommy, not about showing my bottom but about punching the boy who took my steelie. Mommy sat me down at the kitchen table and started in.

“Patricia, that was a very, very bad thing you did. You shouldn’t ever hit anyone, no matter what. How would you feel if someone punched you in the face?”

“But he took my steelie,” I wailed, “and he was never going to give it back.”

“I don’t care if he took your steelie. I don’t care if he took all your marbles. You promise me you’ll never do it again. If you don’t, I’ll take your marbles away and you’ll never get any of them back. Maybe you shouldn’t be playing marbles with the boys anyway.”

“I promise I won’t ever do it again,” I said. But deep down inside, I didn’t really mean it. I knew that if any sorry loser ever again took my steelie or my bike or anything else, whether it was a boy or a girl, I’d run after them and catch them and knock them down and punch them in the face until they gave it back.

Later that evening, while Eleanor and I were doing the dinner dishes in the kitchen, I overheard Mommy telling Daddy what I had done. I froze, certain he was going to get out the pledge paddle and give me a lesson I’d never forget. But he didn’t. Instead, he started to laugh.

“That kid can certainly take care of herself,” he said.

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.