Chapter 3: The House on Highway 99

The photo below was taken November 1941. I was two months shy of my fourth birthday. My father was twenty-seven. In less than a month, Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor, and the United States would enter World War II.

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Jacob & Loretta Willems, November 1941

I have a dim memory of this photo being taken, a memory I probably owe to the photo album that sat on my family’s coffee table. My parents did not own a camera, and the photos in the album were taken by others—snap shots taken by friends and family as well as a few professional photos like this one. I loved looking through this album when I was a child. I would open it, look at the people and the background behind them, try to make the people come alive in my mind. This photo of Dad and me was particularly interesting. It showed a younger me, and it showed a bit of the house my Grandpa and Grandma Young once lived in. I was only around five or six when they moved from the house, but I remembered being in it. Even now when I look at the photo my mind pulls up those old memories. I enter the house and walk around in it just as I did when I was a child.

 The house in the photo was part of a farm on the east side of Highway 99 about five miles north of Stockton, California, and four miles south of the town of Lodi, a stretch of road I knew intimately. The land between Stockton and Lodi is rich farmland, a land of orchards and vineyards—mile after mile of mature cherry trees, groves of heavy-branched English walnuts, thousands of acres of Tokay grapevines, stands of gnarled old Valley Oaks rising above the vineyards. That landscape now is bisected by freeway, a roaring river of traffic racing over a bed bulldozed through the farms and fields, a raised, multi-lane concrete barrier buttressed by access roads and cloverleaf intersections. It was a very different type of highway when this picture was taken.

Back in the early 1940s Highway 99 was a friendly road, a narrow concrete ribbon lying flat on the earth, serving the needs of the people who lived near it. Traffic was light. The speed limit was just 50 miles an hour, slow enough that people could easily stop at the fruit and vegetable stands set under big trees, or turn into the driveways of farms and houses that lined the roadway. Farm kids walked or rode their bikes to school along the highway’s edge. Farm families walked out to the road to collect their mail from red-flagged metal boxes set on posts beside the highway. Farmers collected empty milk cans left on the roadside by trucks from the creamery, loaded them on handcarts, then pushed them down dirt drives to barns barely visible behind tall trees, cans that would be returned to the roadside filled with milk and the end of the day.

My Grandpa Young was one of the farmers hauling milk cans. The farm in the photo was a dairy farm. The house, though, did not look like it belonged on a dairy. It was a big brown-shingle, built in the Craftsman-style that dominated the work of California architects in the early 1900s. Two stories high with attic above, the house had diamond-shaped lead-paned windows flanking a recessed front entry. Large, flat-roofed porches on the north and south sides of the house provided shade and softened the profile. Even when a young girl I could see that money and care had gone into its construction.

When I call up memories of the interior of the house, I am either in the central entry hall at the foot of open staircase leading up to the landing on the second floor, or at the back of the entry hall standing in the doorway to the kitchen and looking at the front stairs. There is a door under the stairs. Behind it is a half-bathroom. That a staircase would have a toilet and sink under it intrigued me. Also very interesting was the fact that the staircase with the toilet under it was not the only one in the house. There was a second staircase, a narrow one behind a door in the kitchen, a feature that offered great possibilities for playing hide-and-seek.

When I stand by the front door, I am looking at the bare oak front staircase. I can go either right or left. To the left, behind closed pocket doors, is the room with diamond-paned windows seen in the photograph of me and my dad. A large room with French doors that open onto the north side porch, it has oak wainscoting and a built-in china closet. A swinging door leads into a butler’s closet behind the china cabinet. A 9 x 12 rug is centered in the middle of the room with a sofa, easy chairs, reading lamps and end tables arranged around it. It is a pleasant room, a room with an abundance of warm wood tones, wood darkened by time. It was built to be a dining room, but my grandparents use as their living room.

The real living room is to the right of the front door. This room, too, has pocket doors that are usually kept closed. I have looked behind those doors, though, and the room is huge.  About thirty feet long, my mother said, it was completely empty—no furniture, no rugs, no drapes. But it was beautiful. Diamond-paned windows that match those in the front wall of the dining room line the front wall. On the long wall opposite the hall entry, French doors open onto a porch that leads into an orchard. Hardwood floors reflect the light from the windows. A fireplace is at the far end.

This beautiful room was empty, Mom said, because it was too big. It was the emptiness, I think, that etched it so deeply on my memory. Without furniture, without people, I could see the room itself, the room as designed by the architect. The room was elegant. I didn’t have that word when I saw it, but I can remember the sense of satisfaction it gave me. This was a room that held my eyes. This may have been the first time I had seen a room that was truly beautiful.

But there was something else that captured me. This room hinted at another time than the one I lived in, spoke of a way of life different from my grandparents’ lives. Even as a small child I could tell that this house had been built for people who were very different from my Grandma and Grandpa Young. It had been built for people who would have used this room as a living room. I couldn’t go beyond that when I was little, but that difference between the way the house had been designed and the way my Grandparents lived in it, raised unspoken questions. What would it be life to live in this house the way it looked like it should be lived in? My imagination was caught, held.

As I grew older I came to realize that this house had been designed for people who entertained formally, probably had servants as well as expensive furniture and oriental carpets to place on the hardwood floors. The architect had probably envisioned the house filled with beautiful objects, a house built for gracious living. This house was in the country, on a farm, but it was really an upper middle-class house. It spoke of the city, not the farm. Was it built for a “gentleman farmer” perhaps? One who lived in the country, but left the physical labor to people he hired? There was much wealth in this part of California even then.

My Grandpa and Grandma Young were not poor. But they had never known the kind of world for which this house was designed. Their lives focused on the farmyard—the animals, the fields, the garden, the kitchen. They did their own work with the help of their children. The production and processing of food shaped their lives, filled their days. For my grandmother and her daughters that meant tending chickens and rabbits, gathering and candling eggs, making butter and cottage cheese, growing a garden and harvesting it, picking fruit, canning it, making jams and pickles. It meant baking all the bread the family ate plus cakes, cookies, pies. It meant big meals cooked three times a day plus all the cleaning and laundry and sewing. For my grandpa and the boys it meant cows to be milked early every morning and late afternoon, milk cans to be cleaned and sterilized. It meant cows that had to be fed, bred, delivered of calves, doctored and eventually sold or butchered when no longer productive. It meant manure to be shoveled, hauled, spread on pastures, garden and orchard. It meant that hay had to be cut, hauled, and stacked in the barn.

For all the family except the babies, that farm meant continuous hard work. It meant muddy farm boots, dirt and the smell of manure—“shit’ as farm people call it. Cow shit, pig shit, chicken shit, rabbit shit, horse shit. The formal meals and gracious entertaining the front of the house was designed for had no place in the lives of my mother’s family so they ate in the kitchen, put their sofa and easy chair and reading lamps in the room intended to be a dining room and left empty the big room designed to be a living room, kept its doors closed to conserve heat.

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