Chapter 2: The Christmas Tree House

"Winter Vineyard" by Paul Buxman

Paul Buxman: “Winter Rain”

My parents lost the little farm in Navelencia, the place where memory began for me. Dad got the place by buying out another man’s interest in the farm and assuming the mortgage, a deal done without the original owner’s permission. When Dad couldn’t make the mortgage payment at the end of the grape harvest, the man who held the mortgage foreclosed. Dad felt cheated; the original owner felt cheated. It was a bitter experience, one that stayed with my father for the rest of his life.

It was time to move out of the Reedley-Dinuba area and get a new start. Mom’s parents, my Grandma and Grandpa Young, had a nice farm about eight miles north of Stockton, a port city on the San Joaquin River with deep water access to San Francisco Bay. The area was bustling with construction in preparation for the nation’s entry into the war that was raging in Europe and the Far East. The economy in the rural areas of the country was still depressed. The Great Depression was not over, but in places like Stockton, men were being hired.

Picking up and moving with no job in sight was something my parents had done over and over during their marriage. Just the rumor of a job, any job, was enough to hit the road. Dad had worked at gas stations, tended bar, been a short-order cook. He and Mom had both worked the California farming season—Dad pruning fruit trees and vines in winter, Mom packing peaches in the summer, both of them cutting grapes in the fall. Both were farm kids and could do just about any task a farmer wanted done. But the job that took my family north was trucking. Dad began driving truck when I was a baby. He picked up jobs here and there, and by the time we moved north he was an experienced and skilled driver. Stockton was a good place to take advantage of that skill.

~ ~ ~

            We moved north right around my third birthday, January 1, 1941. January is a grey month in California’s Central Valley. The mountains that surround that long trough trap the rain clouds that blow in off the Pacific Ocean, and fog, the dreaded tule fog, rises up out of the saturated soil. The fog settles in hard at night, tends to rise a bit during the day to form a featureless grey ceiling. Not infrequently, though, it stays low and dense, so thick visibility is reduced to almost zero, resulting in chaos on the roads and highways. Planning a trip in January was always iffy. Anxiety about the fog was part of getting into the car and heading out onto the highway during the winter. The mood in my parents’ car as they headed north probably matched the grey January sky.

The house that awaited my parents on the move north may have helped their spirits, though. A two story California bungalow out in the farmland east of the town of Lodi, this house was much bigger, much nicer than the one on the farm in Navelencia. Dad called it “the Binger place.” He said he paid $40 a month rent for it, which included a barn and pasture for the cow my mother’s parents loaned us. We lived there less than a year, but I have strong memories of that place. This is the first house my memory can ‘see’, the first of the old two-story houses that captured my imagination—the only one of those houses I would actually live in.

All my memories of the house we moved into are winter memories, all of them grey-toned. Grey sky, flat, bare fields, no trees except for a tall evergreen on the lawn in front of the house. With its swooping branches it looked like a giant Christmas tree. The house was a California bungalow with a wide dormer window in the steep roof that sloped down over the horizontal band of windows that went across the whole front of the house. The driveway, like all farm driveways, was dirt. We entered the house through the back door, never used the front door. I’m sure we passed through the kitchen every time we entered the house, but I have no memory of it. What I see is the room in the center of the house, the empty, linoleum-floored dining room.

This big room is my play room, big enough for me to ride my tricycle round and round. A pair of windows on the outside wall let in light, but the light is as grey as the sky outside. The room has little color—dark woodwork, bare non-color walls and linoleum. The doorways into the kitchen and one of the bedrooms are open, but the rooms they open into are dark. I can’t see into them. The door to my parents’ bedroom is closed. None of those rooms tempt me as I ride my tricycle round and round the room. I do, though, like to stop in front of the French doors that separate my playroom from the living room that stretches across the front of the house. The windows in that room are shaded by the big evergreen tree in the front yard. They let in little light. The room looks cold. I have no desire to open the doors and go in, but I do like looking through the glass panes. Seeing a room as I looked through a window was interesting, more interesting than seeing bare fields. I never stop in front of the dining room windows as I circle the room.

The space that most interested me, though, was the room at the top of the open staircase that went up the wall opposite the French doors. Uncle Frank and Aunt Velma lived up there. They had a big closet with a bench in it. A closet big enough to walk into and sit down fascinated me. I would climb the stairs, knock on the door, and when Aunt Velma opened it, I would ask if I could ‘come visit’. Then, one time when I knocked on the door, Velma told me that I couldn’t come in. She said there was a ghost in the closet. Terrified, I ran to find my mom who reassured me that there were no such things as ghosts. She said that Velma was tired of my going up there so much. I was making a pest of myself and shouldn’t go up there anymore, an admonition I heeded. I was deeply offended that someone would deliberately try to scare me.  I could tell that Mom shared my opinion.

The only other memory I have from the time we lived in the Christmas Tree House is from the time leading up to the birth of my sister Juanita on March 25, 1941. I was still sleeping in my crib, and the new baby was going to need it. It was time for me to move to a big-girl bed, and Mom was making a quilt for it. This quilt was mine. I loved watching Mom work on it. A sky blue border surrounded alternating blocks of blue and white.  In the center of the white squares Mom appliqued flower baskets, the petals of the flowers cut from scraps of fabric her mother had given her. I loved going through the rolls of fabric, helping Mom choose which ones to use, fabrics with tiny or flowers that fit the scale of the flower petals. She would then cut out flower-petal shapes, turn the edges under, and sew them by onto the quilt face. I watched entranced as the quilt came to life, impatient for Mom to finish it so I could put it on my bed. I cherished that blanket, examined over and over the material in each of the petals. The different patterns and textures seemed to pull me into a different world, a world I wanted to enter and play in. That blanket delighted me. I loved it possessively, kept it on my bed clear up through high school, the inexpensive fabric gradually disintegrating until the quilt was nothing more than a rag.

~ ~ ~

We lived in the Christmas Tree House less than a year. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, we were living in Stockton in a little old house on a big lot with a barn and room for Mom’s chickens and garden—but not the cow. The cow went back to Mom’s parents. Dad said he paid $1,100 for the place. The move north had paid off. Dad would have steady work for years to come.

Frank and Velma, however, were not part of the move. They returned to the Reedley area where they were living when Frank was drafted into the Army in October 1942. When the call came, Velma was pregnant with her second child, a son they named Joseph. Also born in Reedley, a daughter Madeline, born December 20, 1941—two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


The evergreen in front of the house was a deodor cedar. They graced the yards of older homes all over California. I loved them as a child, still love them. 


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