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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

When Great Uncle Alvin died in 1958, Grandma went to comfort her sister and essentially never came back to live with us. Although still financially dependant, the happiest period of her life was probably the six years spent at 355 Corralitos Road, which is evident from her expression in this photo from a Christmas card I'm certain Great Aunt Jessie had printed for Grandma to send out. The romance of Uncle Alvin's life permeated the house and allowed us a tangible glimpse of his Polynesian expeditions as recorded in "Quest For the Golden Cloak," which Grandma as a former school teacher helped to edit. I was horrified and dismayed when Grandma and Aunt Jessie moved in 1964 to a retirement home, the ranch sold and the contents of Uncle Alvin's study dispersed to the Bishop Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium and Stanford University, his alma mater. I'm sure this house was the origin of my fascination with the lives of other people as reflected in their homes, that and the conviction that some houses must be kept together and lived in as continuing reminders of the kind of people we once were and should strive to emulate. While still standing, Uncle Alvin's meticulously maintained ranch house and grounds are today grotesquely overgrown and fallen sadly into a shamefully negligent state decay, as seen in the above Google map link. His apple orchard also appears to have been replaced by vineyards.

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. For those of you who are reading because they love stories about Neenah, I'm certain you'll find this chapter engaging and an important part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link link us all together.


As much as it may have seemed that Dad's career and our life on the seminary were settled and on track, both in fact were coming apart as quickly as they came together. The first clue came in 1958, just two years after moving onto campus, when Grandma got word that Great Uncle Alvin had died. In short order Grandma packed her bags and went down to Corralitos, where she planned to comfort her now widowed younger sister Jessie. Twelve years her senior, Grandma had essentially raised Jessie, which made Grandma's coming to the rescue a familiar and comforting reminiscence for both women. Very quickly, however, these sisterly roles were reversed, with the grieving Jessie inviting her penniless older sister to come live with her and enjoy the kind of life Grandma had lost forty years earlier in the depression. It was probably one of the easiest decisions she had to make.

Aunt Jessie was well off and ensconced in a handsomely appointed mission style ranch house supported by the profitable apple orchard Uncle Alvin had developed around it.  As a boy I remember there being glass cabinets full of delicate china and memorabilia of world travels, as well as the implicit sound of drums and native voices coming out of Uncle Alvin's untouched study, which was chock-a-block with exotic atlases, aboriginal spears, shrunken heads and an equally frightening assortment of grotesque mounted fish. Outside there were also the rose gardens, fish ponds and fountains Uncle Alvin had tucked into nearly every corner of the manicured grounds around the house, in spring the air scented by apple blossoms and in fall by the musky odor of ripe fruit. More important from Grandma's perspective was the bedroom Aunt Jessie had indulgently decorated for her in pink, swathed in ruffles and satin, and outfitted with the kind of dressing table a lady needed to always look her best - all for Grandma and the farthest thing possible from her days living in a sod house on the prairie, let alone living with us.

One would think Grandma would have been deliriously happy, but the return of comfort and security loosened her snarky tongue even further than before, opening a floodgate of criticism and sniping aimed entirely at Mom. Well, almost entirely. On her first return visit to Bolinas Avenue, I waited at the bottom of the stairs for Grandma to come down for breakfast, and when she did all she said to me was, "My, what a fat little face you have." (Overhearing this, Mom later said she wanted to slap Grandma for the hurt she caused me, but I now think it was more the hurt the remark caused her.)  On yet another occasion Grandma called Mom and detailed the royal treatment she had gotten while visiting Angela, Mom's older sister, concluding her account with, "You never did anything for me." Absurd on the face of it alone (my parents had been Grandma's sole financial support for nearly 20 years), Mom nevertheless proceeded to write down a detailed indictment of Grandma's crimes against her, which she then inexplicably read to me, and which instead of sending to Grandma or destroying, Mom kept securely with her for years (and may still be tucked away somewhere among her papers in the attic).

Cooking in our house established Mom as the daily center of attention, even in the Bolinas Avenue kitchen where she shared counter space with Bob's aquariums of exotic fish (with the squirming brine to feed some of them being refrigerated in one of her Pyrex casseroles). At breakfast there was always a crowd of family and sometimes company sitting around that little table while she fixed pancakes or French toast or "meat eggs," her own fulsome mixture of ground beef and scrambled eggs. Cooking was also the  principal antidote Mom had at her disposal for treating any problem that entered her sphere of influence. Her repertoire of palliative care included such hearty fare as Texas hash, tagliarini, enchilada pie, chop suey, meatloaf (with twice baked potatoes), and literally cauldrons of spaghetti, the pasta and sauce tossed together and cooked on the stove top until  deliciously though unauthentically caramelized. Branching out as we grew older, she trolled magazines and newspapers and the kitchens of friends, always in search of that new and enticing dish that would draw praise and generate contented healing. That was for Mom the holy grail of cooking, fuflilled only when the was table set and decorated for some gathering, the kitchen redolent of enticing deliciousness. It was also a way of distinguishing herself from Grandma, whose repertoire was pretty much limited to such haute cuisine as beans on toast, boiled dinner and creamed chipped beef.

In all fairness to Grandma, her departure was undoubtedly hastened by living under the same roof with a household comprised almost entirely of teenage boys, whose relationships with their father - and therefore each other - were at the very least complicated. On the top of the pile was Bob (by this point a student at the University of California - Berkeley), whose intensity when mixed with Dad's turned minor differences into open warfare, most often with one or the other opening fire over some trivial provocation at dinner time.  Mom, never a calming influence or one to handle discord with any personal detachment, took Bob aside one day and made him write out three checks to her for $100 each, nearly emptying his account, explaining that from then on every time he started a fight with Dad she was going to cash one check. When the last one was spent, Bob would be kicked out. She then sat Dad down, had him write out three checks for $1,000 each, and gave him the same ultimatum, three fights and he'd be sent packing. With Dad she adding her personal guarantee that each $1,000 would be spent frivolusly, a threat aimed directly at Dad's was most vulnerable body part - his wallet. From that day forward, continuing well into their later years, Bob and Dad remained guarded when together in Mom's company, wary of any renewal of these threats - or perhaps fearful that the checks were extant and still valid.

In Bob's defense, not all the conflicts at home involved him. For although they found a near legendary companionship in their mutual enjoyment of the out of doors, Dad's relationships with Bill and Dave were complicated by an intense rivalry for Dad's attention and approval. When least expected the underlying jealousies would erupt in retaliatory strikes - like the time Bill took the vacuum cleaner outside and blew unripe plums through Dave's open bedroom windows, staining the wallpaper and smashing the model airplanes Dave had made and carefully hung from the ceiling. Frequently caught in the line of fire, my brother Steve implemented his own military strategy of full disengagement, remaining hopeful that another family would eventually take him in. 
Even as a child he seemed to be on the look out for an opening, on one occasion disappearing at the beach, where after a frantic search he was found sitting happily with strangers. When asked by Mom why he had run off, Steve replied very simply, "They have a better umbrella." A more promising opportunity came later in the form of our Uncle Gene Reiner, who was married to Dad's sister Mary, was the father of four girls, and had long wished for a son. After a week of male bonding at their home in Santa Maria, Steve returned to San Anselmo disillusioned.  A houseful of girls, it turned out, could be just as contentious as a houseful of boys

During his visit to Neenah in 1960, Dad asked about the painting he fondly remembered as a boy hanging over the fireplace in Uncle Harry's library on Wisconsin Avenue. Learning of his interest in it, Aunt Fan got it down out of the attic and sent it to us.  When Dad hung it over to the fireplace in our living room my brothers were shocked. "You aren't going to put that naked man up there, are you?" Dave asked. That fall Bob announced his  plans to marry Marilyn Patterson, his high school sweetheart, and to mark this turning point Dad arranged for a photographer to take a family picture of us all in front of the painting which was his link to the one man who was like a father to him. The body language and expressions this picture records speaks volumes. From the left, standing, are Bob (21), Dad (44), Dave (15) and Bill  (18). Seated in front are Mom (44), me (6) and Steve (11). As for the painting, it was created in 1913 and entitled "Beaded Bag," one of a series by western artist E. Irving Couse. Dad loved this painting for it associations, and it followed us back to Neenah where eventually Dad sold it in 1983 to help fund the preservation of his grandfather's house - which Dad loved even more. All the same, it is an odd sensation for me to see prints of a painting I grew up with - and admired for its use of light, rich colors and composition - being marketed by art shops on line.

As for myself, I flew under everyone else's radar, for as a whole my family had no concept of the old adage, "Little pitchers have big ears."  I heard and observed a great many things that were wrongly assumed to be beyond my understanding, as is the case with most children. I had, for example, a very clear picture of the increasing number of professional problems that were confronting Dad. From what I now know these began not long after Grandma moved out, when Mom and Dad attended an evening faculty gathering to introduce the seminary's new president, Theodore Gill, the successor to Dad's long time mentor, Jesse Baird.  Returning home much earlier than expected, they were both dumbstruck by the radical changes the occasion foretold. Instead of the Presbyterian staples of tea or coffee, cocktails were served while the 38-year-old guest of honor worked the room wearing joke glasses with bulging eyeballs dangling on springs, providing a dubious faculty with numerous examples of his off-color sense of humor.  As was even recorded years later in a privately published seminary history, when asked on this occasion who had influenced him to enter the ministry, Gill told those assembled, "God, I hope! God or gonads, I've never been sure which. Actually, I've heard that the church was a dying institution and I wanted to be in on the kill."

This was only the beginning. 

Up until to that point alcohol and tobacco had been more or less prohibited on campus, at one point to the extent that the discovery of a beer can in the seminary incinerator resulted in a formal campus investigation into the matter. Now all that and more was being swept away. During our summer pot lucks on the back porch, Mom and Dad freely discussed the state of the seminary with the Duncans, who had their own horror stories to report. On one of these occasions Stu recounted the number of men found spending the night - and using the showers - in Susanna Baird Hall, the women's dormitory, adding how the maintenance crew would not work at the house of one of the new professors if his wife was home, given how whatever the time of day, the bathrobe she invariably appeared in always fell open in their presence. To this  Mom noted that the milkman took a half hour between that house and ours, with Dad adding that the professor in question was having an ongoing affair with his secretary. On yet another evening Dad also passed along how the new president, the married father of two, only traveled first class and with a young male secretary who had limited typing skills. How factual these and other statements were I can't assess beyond that my parents and the Duncans believed every word to be true. What I do know is that at one point I was able to secretly climb up inside the bell tower of Montgomery Hall (where the faculty offices were located) and there on the roof I found a mattress, chair, some clothing, and half a dozen empty bottles. Whoever it was who brought them up there I never found out. I can only say is that it would have taken significant determination to get a mattress of that size up the hill unnoticed, let alone up the twisting spiral staircase.

And yet while seminary morale was rapidly deteriorating, in 1961 Dad was offered a great opportunity - to be the director of the newly organized office of Advanced Pastoral Studies, a doctorate program for ministers wanting to earn an advanced degree and improve their professional standing on a part time basis. Dad knew the position had been presented to him because none of the new order of academics wanted to risk their professional reputations on anything that they thought certain to fail - but their disinterest was challenge enough for Dad to accept. So like with the broadcasting program he had spearheaded nearly a decade before, Dad was soon developing the course of study, rounding up his teaching staff, and promoting this great new educational innovation at gatherings of church leaders and clergy around the country. Our own driving trip back to Neenah in 1962 was part of one such circuit, with stops in Toronto, New York and Virginia. And while Bob was by then married and living down in Los Angeles (and Bill and Dave wanting no part of being cooped up with the rest of us for any period of time), the four weeks on the road passed without mishap or melt down and produced many fond memories of the places we saw together as a family. For Dad it also opened his eyes to what it was to be relaxed, to realize that life did not have to be the constant battle it had become, and to the discovery that in spite of all the complications and conflicts, his children were in fact good company - all this just at the point when we were beginning to leave the nest and the family itself was coming undone. 

And that, I suspect, must have been when the light bulb first went off in his head.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.

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