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The Family 1947
Every couple of months during the years my family lived in Stockton, Dad would decide it was time to go to Dinuba to see his family. On the appointed day, the four of us—Mom, Dad, my sister Nita and I—would climb into our big roomy Buick, back out of the drive and head out to Wilson Way. Turning south, we would drive through the nondescript, stop-light punctuated commercial strip to the south edge of town where Wilson Way turned into Highway 99. Commercial buildings gave way to farmland. The ugliness of Wilson Way was behind us. We were truly on our way, on the road that would take us to Dinuba. Up ahead was The Family—aunts, uncles, cousins, my Grandma and Grandpa Willems. We would be guests, special people. We would sleep at other people’s houses. Grandma would make zwieback and chicken soup with homemade noodles. There would be laughter and stories and singing. Dinuba, my favorite place in the whole world, the place I longed to live. Dinuba.
“Going to Dinuba. Going to Dinuba,” a silent happy song that accompanied me as we drove through farmland and towns. One hundred and thirty miles, four hours of driving in those pre-freeway days—longer if we had to wait for trains, much longer than four hours during WWII when we got stuck behind a military convoy traveling the regulation twenty-five miles an hour. Manteca, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno—each town was a name on a list I learned while standing on the floor of the backseat looking out the window, names learned by asking over and over, “Where are we now? What town is next? How far is Dinuba now?”
Finally we would reach Fresno. Almost there. Watch for Roeding Park where the highway curved before heading through downtown into the commercial and business heart of Fresno, a long, slow drive through heavy traffic with signal lights at each intersection that eventually degenerated into the light-industry area on the south side of the city, an ugly jumble of signs, warehouses and asphalt lots—visual chaos I tried to ignore, reminding myself that we would soon be out into farmland again, beautiful farmland—vineyards and orchards, my favorite kind of farmland.
It was only a short distance now till Selma and the sign, “Dinuba 11 miles.” Here we turned left onto Mountain View Avenue heading straight east toward the Sierras. Everything outside the car windows now satisfied my eyes—vineyards with their neat, horizontal lines; the vertical lines of mature palms and tall old blue-green eucalyptus; the soft looking, dark green deodar cedars with their sweeping branches and tender, drooping tops—and half-hidden among the trees, old farmhouses shaded by wide porches and deep eaves, houses that drew my eyes and called to my imagination.
I longed to live in one of those of houses, one with two-stories. I would have my own upstairs bedroom, play under the trees and in the vineyard, make a play house somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the farm buildings. But not just any nook or cranny, I wanted a tank house like those that sat among the cluster of tall trees and farm buildings on the older farms—a two-story tank house, two rooms stacked one on top the other, a water tank in the top room, the room below having real windows and doors. This bottom room was the ultimate playhouse. I would make this room my own, put curtains on the windows, find old furniture to put into it, make a room where I could play or read, have friends in or be alone with my books and daydreams.
This lovely farmland spread out as far as I could see, orchards and vineyards, almond and orange groves, peaches, apricots and nectarines growing up to the every edge of the road, a corridor of green that took us all the way from Selma to the very edge Dinuba. Drive over the railroad tracks and we were there. Dinuba, we were there.
The House on Milsap
“Souvenir War Album”: Special Extra Edition of the Dinuba Sentinel” (Nov. 11, 1943):
“Edwin Jacob Willems, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob C. Willems, 147 Milsap Ave., Dinuba, entered the navy February 13, 1942, and was sent to San Diego for indoctrination before being transferred to Jacksonville, Fla. He was assigned to aircraft mechanic of the naval air unit, and is rated as Aviation Machinist Mate second class. In October 1943, he was stationed at Pensacola, Florida.”
“Frank J. Willems, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob C. Willems, of 147 Milsap Ave., Dinuba, entered the army in November 1942. He first went to Pittsburg, Calif. From there he was transferred to the Hawaiian Islands where he has been stationed with an anti-tank company as a private first class.”
When I was very little Grandma and Grandpa Willems lived in a house on Milsap Avenue on the eastern edge of Dinuba, the last street before reaching the vineyards that stretched out to the foothills at the base of the high Sierras. I was only five or six when the family moved from that house, but it was here that my relationship with Dinuba began. It was here that my love affair with Dinuba and the Willems family began. There are only a few memories from that house, but they are potent ones:
–A big chinaberry tree, big that is for a chinaberry, trees whose branches were cut back to the trunk each year or two. My folks considered chinaberries junk trees because of the stinky, messy beige berries they produced—and they definitely were not my idea of a real tree. But to me, not only was any tree better than no tree, that chinaberry tree spoke “Dinuba.” It was homely, but it was green. It cast welcome shade in the hot summer—plus those stinky berries were fun to squish under toes when I rolled them with my bare feet.
–A screened porch that extended across the whole back of the house, a porch with splintery steps and a rusted screened door that squeaked when we opened it. The porch was deep, full of things that I cannot see when I try to look into its recesses. I know, though, that somewhere in there, off to the left as we head for the kitchen, is a toy electric stove that got hot enough to actually cook something and a toy electric iron that got hot enough to actually iron something. I desperately wanted that stove and iron. They belonged to my dad’s youngest sisters, Anna Jane and Clara, who were only seven and nine years older than me. I never did get them, though. I think my cousin Joanne got them, but I’m not sure. I do know that was what I was afraid of, that she not me would get them.
–The living room full of people and laughter. My folks have brought a lug box of Bing cherries with us from Stockton, and my dad’s sisters are throwing cherries up in the air, trying to catch them in their mouths. They seem to be having so much fun. I want to be big enough to catch cherries in my mouth, too.
—Christmas. It is dark outside. The only lights in the room are Christmas lights. There are colored lights and shiny ornaments on the Christmas tree. One of the ornaments is a funny Santa made of cloth, a skinny Santa with a long coat, who hangs from the tree by a string at the end of his pointed hat. A Christmas tableau is on a table by the front windows—a glittery pasteboard village with lights that shine through colored cellophane windows in the little houses and church. It is a snow scene with little buildings and little evergreen trees set on cotton wool. Enchanted, I kneel down, try to enter into that little world with my eyes, pretending that I am tiny enough to live in the village, enter those houses, that steeple topped church. I tell myself that when I grow up I will have my own little Christmas village.
Ten people lived in that three bedroom house during the three or four years the family lived on Milsap Avenue—Grandma and Grandpa Willems; Grandpa’s mother as well as all seven of my dad’s sisters. I have no distinct memory of any of my aunts. They were simply “the girls”—a hazy collective. The only time I “see” any of them is one time when I was in the back yard looking down the driveway toward a black car stopped beside the house. Several of my aunts are standing around it, and one of them has her foot on the passenger side running board. She is bending over talking to the people inside. As little as I am, I can tell she is flirting. There are boys in that car.
The House on Academy Way
“Helen and I bought the place on Academy Way. John helped make the down payment, and Martha, too. We paid John back, and Helen and I made the payments. Then when Mom had to have her surgery I had to release myself because Helen wanted to make a loan to pay for the surgery. I was married, and Les and I just let Helen have the house—she did so much for Mom.”
“We worked at Sequoia Field[i]. Helen worked there first. She worked in the office, and then she got me on. I worked in Supplies. I had a job as Issue Clerk. It was a school, an Army school. The school would do their transactions through the Army. They would bring in either a repairable part of the airplane or a condemned one, and we would do paperwork on it.” Mary Willems Davis (1994)
Sometime during the latter part of World War II, Grandma, Grandpa and six of my seven aunts left the rented house on Milsap Avenue and moved into one on Academy Way, a street a few blocks south of Dinuba’s downtown area. That whole neighborhood looks sad now. The houses are run down, paint peeling, bars on the windows, the trees gone. It looks nothing like it did when the family lived there. It was a pleasant neighborhood back then, an older neighborhood of modest, white-painted wood bungalows with deep front porches, large shrubs and mature trees, a quiet neighborhood of old homes and old people at peace with life and age.
We almost never parked on Academy Way when we drove up from Stockton. Dad would turn instead into the paved alley that ran behind the houses in that block. I loved that alley. I thought all towns should have paved alleys, thought all garages should open onto alleys instead of cluttering up the front sides of houses the way they did in Stockton. And this alley was particularly nice. Trees and old bushes draped over the fences making green, shady walls that offered glimpses of the back side of people’s houses, the private side with vegetable gardens and laundry hanging on clothes lines and unpainted old garages and sheds. It was a place to explore and find treasures in the discards of people’s lives.
Grandma and Grandpa had the best garage on the alley, a two-story garage with a one-bedroom apartment over the parking bay and storage area. Set perpendicular to the alley, the garage doors opened onto the packed dirt parking area in the back yard rather than opening into the alley itself. The stairs to the apartment were on the side of the building that faced the main house. A low fence separated the garage-apartment area from the rest of the back yard that was almost filled by an old citrus tree. I say “citrus tree” because the tree had been grafted and bore grapefruit, oranges and enormous lemons all on the one tree. I think the tree itself might have been a grapefruit. One of its lemons was enough to make a whole pitcher of lemonade all by itself.
The gate in the back fence opened onto a narrow, concrete sidewalk that extended down the west side of the house to the front yard. The house was a bit different than the standard bungalow. Instead of a plain rectangle, the front bedroom jutted out creating a deeply recessed area in front of the living room on the front porch. That big porch, which helped shade the south-facing walls from the full blast of the summer sun, looked like a great place to play, but it wasn’t. The sun shone under the porch roof, heating up the floor boards, making the porch a heat trap. The only piece of furniture was an old, dusty chaise lounge covered with cracked and peeling “leatherette,” too scratchy to be comfortable. I would go out there with the idea of reading or playing, but I never stayed. My favorite place outside the house was the school playground across the street. I would go over and pump myself up high on one of the swings, or climb the ladder of the slide hopping that it would be slick and fast, not dull as it usually was during vacations.
The family almost never entered the house through the front door. They came up to the house from the alley and used the back door, which faced a vacant lot filled with a small forest of trees that offered welcome shade to the west side of the house. The back door opened into what I think was originally a porch that was now the eating area of the kitchen. A shed-style roof slated down to a horizontal band of windows that went clear across the back of the kitchen and wrapped around the corner to meet the back door. The kitchen table sat in front of the band of windows. This was my favorite place to sit, in the chair at the end of the table facing the back door, the dark green of the citrus tree just outside the windows beside me.
The kitchen was where Grandma spent her days. Usually when I came in she would be sitting in her rocking chair that was placed next to the swinging door to the dining room. People who came in the back door tended to stay in the kitchen, visiting with Grandma and whoever else was in there. They would sit at the table or lean against the doorway into the back bedroom, talking and laughing. The kitchen wasn’t just a place to visit, eat and cook. The kitchen was where hair was washed, permanents given. It was where people ironed their clothes, where Grandma sewed and crocheted.
The kitchen was old and worn, the enamel of the sink scrubbed down to the black cast iron base. Counters and backsplash were covered in linoleum, not ceramic tile like our house in Stockton. But I loved that room. It was roomy and comfortable, cheerful when filled with people, peaceful when it was just Grandma and me and the birds murmuring and talking to each other in the trees outside the windows.
“We had a ball. I remember when all of us girls worked. I worked at Safeway, Liz at Purity. Clara worked at Justison’s. All three of us worked in grocery stores in just one block, and Rosie worked for an insurance company, all in this one block. This was when all the boys were gone. We would sit around the table in the evening, and each one would tell something that happened during the day and laugh and cut up, and then—this where we made a mistake—instead of going in and washing dishes before everything dried on, we’d go in the living room and Martha would play the piano and we would sing—almost every night. Oh, that was just a lot of fun, and then,—you remember that big school, that big brick school across the street? They had swings out, and we would go out and swing and talk We had such a lot of fun. In fact, I didn’t care whether I ever got married.” Mary Willems Davis (1994)
Academy Way was a house of women during the War. Liz got married while the family lived on Milsap Avenue so six of the sisters made the move to the new house. Then Uncle Frank’s wife, Velma, joined them, moving into the apartment over the garage with Madeline and Joe, her little ones. When Liz’s husband, Marlin, was drafted into the Army, Liz also moved onto the property, joining Velma and her two children in the garage apartment. There were now twelve people living on the property, ten of them female. The only males in residence were Grandpa and little Joe. Twelve people—four people in the one bedroom apartment over the garage and eight people in the three bedroom house. A crowd!
The house didn’t feel crowded, though. It just felt like a big party. People kidded each other, told jokes and funny stories. They laughed, and they sang. Everyone in that family except Grandpa sang. My dad and his brothers sang in bars and taverns for drinks and food in the years before they married. My aunts sang close harmony like the Andrew Sisters. They would gather around the piano, sing popular wartime songs like “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola.” Grandma sang, too—but hymns, not secular music. She had a high, very distinctive voice that was much appreciated in the Mennonite Brethren churches. With her oldest daughters, Mary and Helen, she had toured MB churches on the West Coast all the way up into British Columbia in Canada, singing and giving her testimony. The trio had also sung on a local radio station as part of a regular program of religious song and words by the Reedley MB minister.
All the sisters I’ve talked to, Mary, Rosie and Liz, have said how much fun they had when they lived together in the house on Academy Way. They would gather around the piano after dinner and sing and cut up, adding that the neighbors used to sit out on their porch and listen to them. The sisters were young and vibrant, full of life. They had pretty clothes and dressed with flair, their small waists, full busts, slim hips and beautiful legs perfect for the fitted bodices and short skirts that defined war-time fashion. To me my young aunts were as glamorous as movie stars.
Six sisters sharing two bedrooms, however, meant a definite lack of privacy. The two oldest sisters, Helen and Mary, shared a double bed in the front bedroom. The rest of the sisters all slept in the knotty-pine paneled bedroom at the back of the house. In the years before marriage began to thin their ranks, that meant four sisters in the back bedroom—Martha, Rosie, Clara and Anna Jane. When I asked Rosie about the number of beds in that room, she could no longer remember. She just remembered wishing that her sisters would all get married and move out so she could have the bedroom to herself.
The Post-War Marriage Boom
On the second day of September 1945, Japanese officials formally surrendered to the United States officials aboard the USS Missouri. The Second World War was over. The men started coming home, and when they did, the crowd of women at 135 Academy Way started to thin. Uncle Frank and Liz’s husband, Marlin, were discharged as soon as the war ended. Liz and Velma moved out of the apartment over the garage. The following January, Aunt Mary married Les Davis, a widower with two little children—seven year old Leslie and four year old Marilyn.
Clara was next. She married Alan Weaver sometime during 1946. The next to leave the house was Martha, who married Uncle Ed’s buddy, Lowell Long, in January 1947. That was three marriages in slightly more than a year. There were now only three sisters at home, Helen in the front bedroom, Rosie and Anna Jane in the back one. Then, sometime around 1950, Anna Jane married Jack Pattison.
Rosie finally had the back bedroom to herself. She and Helen were the only sisters girls left at home. That situation ended on the third of July 1953, when Rosie married Russ Noble. Around that same time, Helen married Arnold Thiessen. All the girls were now gone. Grandma and Grandpa had the house on Academy Way all to themselves.
[i] Wikipedia: “Sequoia Field”: “Activated 4 October 1941. Original airfield 2,300’ turf runway. “Visalia-Dinuba School of Aeronautics conducted basic flying training for the United States Army Air Forces West Coast Training Center … under contract until inactivated in October 1944. Primary use was basic flying training of flight cadets. … Transferred to Army Corp of Engineers 5 May 1945.”
Copyright: Loretta Willems, February 1, 2015
Note: Chapter 4 will be posted March 1.