Phoenix was not our first choice for a home, but we built a good life for ourselves there. We had good friends and neighbors we liked very much. We enjoyed working on our house and fixing it up; we enjoyed taking drives out into the desert and up to Flagstaff to visit Ben’s folks. And I loved living close to my mom. We sewed together, shopped for fabrics and patterns together, cooked together. And Beni and Renee loved being with her. When Ben and I needed a break, she was always there to take the girls for an afternoon or evening, even a week while Ben and I went to California after he got so frustrated and angry at work that his boss told him to take a week off and cool down.
Ben was making a decent wage for the time. Through my dad’s connections, Ben was able to get a job as an apprentice aircraft electrician at Litchfield Naval Air Facility. Starting pay was $1.85 an hour—even then that was very little money. We literally had to watch every penny, use a lot of creativity, do a lot of scrounging. But it wasn’t too long before Ben was able to make journeyman, bringing home a bit over a $100 a week. May 1959 we bought a new four-bedroom house for $12,000. The job at Litchfield was steady, dependable work, but Ben was not happy with his job. The heat in the moth-balled aircraft in which he worked was terrible in the summer, and I think the work was basically boring. He always resented having bosses telling him what to do, hated being bound by regulations he thought were stupid. He was restless and frustrated, felt trapped.
I, too, felt an underlying unease. I had learned to love the Arizona landscape, but it never felt like it should be a place to try to build a home. Towns and cities in that harsh environment felt artificial and basically false. Trying to tame it for human habitation, planting lawns and trees, seemed like trying to domesticate a tiger. This was wild land that needed to be left wild, a place to visit and admire and then leave. It was not a place to live. It not only felt artificial and false, it felt wrong, precarious and stupid as well as morally wrong. Even back in the late 1950s I’d read about the depletion of the aquifer underneath Phoenix, water that was not being replenished, wells having to go down to over 1,100 feet to reach it. The term sustainability had not yet come into general use, but I already felt what it was referring to. Phoenix was basically unsustainable, a place that would become a ghost town once it had blindly exhausted the limited resources on which it depended. This was also the time when war with Russia was a real national concern. I didn’t actively fear it, but I could see that if war should come and the dams on the Salt River were bombed and electrical and gas power disrupted, hundreds of thousands of people would be trapped in the desert with no water. I didn’t like that vision, and I hated the blasting heat of summer. I wanted to live where water was abundant. I wanted to live where nature was gentle, willing to accommodate itself to human survival. If war with Russia should come, the Northwest felt like the best possible place to survive.
Ben, too, still wanted to live in the Northwest. He still wanted to build his own house, wanted some land with trees to cut for winter heat, wanted us to be as self-sufficient as we could get. So in early spring 1960, when his folks said they were going to move back to Washington, we decided to join them. When they changed their minds a couple of weeks later, we did not. We contacted a Phoenix real estate agent and put our house up for sale. The first person who looked at it bought it. We wrote to Ben’s Uncle Walt and Aunt Laura, who had a farm near Granite Falls, a small town about forty miles northeast of Seattle, asking if we could stay with them while Ben looked for a job. They replied right away with a Yes. We loaded all of our stuff on a big stake-side trailer built on an old car frame and covered it with carpet covers Ben’s brother Dave got from the flooring company where he worked We hooked up the trailer to our 1954 Ford sedan, said goodbye to our family and friends, our neighbors joking about setting up a betting pool on how far our rig would get before it broke down. –That was a semi-joke. That trailer was big and heavy, carried all our furniture and appliances including an 18 cubic-foot freezer. There were high mountain passes we had to cross, and though Ben had wired up tail lights for the trailer, the trailer had no brakes. I doubt that we were legal.
We set out on the road with only the vaguest idea of where Ben might get a job. To us, job-hunting was something you did in person, face-to-face. We knew Boeing was in the Seattle area, so that seemed a possibility. But we wouldn’t know what else there might be until we got up there and Ben had a chance to look around. We were taking a big risk, but we didn’t really see it then. I don’t remember being at all worried about it. I simply assumed Ben would get something. He had his electrical and mechanical skills, and he was a hard worker. Both of us were confident we could make a go of it. We had $2,000 from the sale of the house—a lot of money to us, and we knew from the Richardson’s that land was cheap. That the cheap land also meant low wages and scarce jobs never entered our minds.
Walt and Laura had never seen us before, yet they welcomed us warmly and completely. We stayed with them about three weeks, sleeping in the unheated upstairs attic and sharing the warm living spaces downstairs during the day. Ben helped Walt around the place, and I helped Laura. Walt had a herd of sixty registered Black Angus cattle on their 120 acres as well as a full-time job at Scott Paper in Everett. Laura had three acres of strawberries she sold commercially as well as a kennel of pedigreed Norwegian elk hounds. They were up by 5:00 each morning and out the door before Ben and I even woke up. Ben, too, was soon out of the house and, it would just be me and the girls inside the quiet house. I would sweep up the dirt that got tracked in from outside, wash any dishes left on the counter. In the evening I helped Laura with supper. But my main contribution was laundry. Laura had a wringer washer in the mud room, and I knew how to use it. I volunteered to do Walt and Laura’s laundry along with my own. It was an all-day job, but I enjoyed it. I liked taking dirty, smelly clothes and making them clean. I enjoyed hanging clothes on the clothesline outside and taking them in again smelling of the fresh air.
Such a typical Northwest farmhouse that place was. Plain, cheaply built, grey asbestos shingle siding and unpainted wood trim outside; inlaid linoleum floors throughout the whole house; linoleum countertop in the kitchen; the entire house heated by a free-standing wood stove in the dining room. This was not the old farmhouse I’d envisioned in my daydreams, but I liked it anyway. Woodwork inside the house was painted white enamel; crisp, white Priscilla curtains graced windows that were regularly washed; modest floral print wallpaper added a bit of color and pattern to the living and dining rooms walls; clean throw rugs warmed the living room linoleum; healthy African violets that always seemed in bloom filled the west window ledge in the dining room. The house was warm and truly cozy.
The dining room was the heart of that house, the place where everyone gravitated. People would come in the back door through the service/mud porch, stop in the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee from the always-hot electric percolator then step into the dining-room and take one of the chairs around the Formica-topped table. I usually took a chair that allowed me to look out onto the misty fields and the stands of trees behind them. I would sit there sipping my coffee, absorbing this new Northwest world, a world of constantly wet grass and dripping foliage so different from the sunny, arid and irrigated landscape I was used to.
The girls were so little then—Beni just two, Renee three and a half. Did this new place feel cold and strange to them? They had been wearing shorts and brief little tops in Phoenix when we left, and now they were back in corduroy overalls and woolly zip-up sleepers at night. When they went outside their shoes and the bottom half of their pants legs would get soaking wet. I remember how excited they were when they discovered the outhouse back by the farm sheds. What a great idea—a place to go to the bathroom outside! Of course, Walt and Laura’s outhouse wasn’t stinky. It was only used during strawberry harvest, and they were very careful about its maintenance.
Granite Falls was like stepping back in time, back to the 1930s perhaps, a time close to pioneer days. The farms here were not big, prosperous farms like those in California’s Central Valley where I grew up, farms with well-tended orchards and vineyards, substantial farm houses and barns. This was subsistence farming, stump land with huge old cedar stumps covered with blackberries, small fields with a few cows grazing on them surrounded by alder and second growth firs, hemlocks and cedars; cheaply built old farmhouses with large vegetable gardens, a few fruit trees, an acre or two of berries as a cash crop.
I learned the term stump land from Laura who said this land had once been covered with enormous trees that had been clear-cut earlier in the century leaving land covered in slash and tall stumps. Settlers looking for cheap land cleared slash and built farms around those stumps. The rest of the land was left to grow back into second growth forest. That second growth forest in the surrounding hills and mountains was now being logged again. Most of her neighbors depended on logging for income, income supplemented by growing and picking strawberries as well as any other work they could find. Before May was out we would have our own piece of stump land.
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© Loretta Willems,
August 21, 2020. Bellingham, Washington.