Thursday, October 22, 2015

Seward's Folly -- Part II

We dreamed of a large, comfortable house with a bedroom for each kid and spacious common areas to serve for family gatherings and parties. The reality was an all-consuming monster that ate our family.

The first few years were filled with dreams, plans, foundations, and hope. Then, years passed, and little progress was made on the new house, while the old house continued to deteriorate, as did our family.

My mother slowly settled into drinking more and doing less. From time to time, she seemed to bob to the surface and show some signs of life, learning to drive, taking Spanish lessons, joining a garden club, or leading a Bluebird troop for my sister, Valery. But, for the most part she became more reclusive, spending hours in her rocking chair, smoking cigarettes, working crossword puzzles, or playing solitaire, sipping on bourbon and soda, and taking long naps.

She had a set of household tasks she performed religiously. She always made her bed when she got up in the morning, started the coffee, and prepared breakfast for the kids. Each morning she made sure her kids went off to school with a hot breakfast in their tummies, and a  brown paper lunch bag filled with a sandwich, homemade cookies, a piece of fruit, and a paper napkin.

Every night, we ate dinner together in the dining room. Rarely, was anyone missing, and it was just as unusual to have a guest. The table was carefully set for seven people; dinner plates, salad plates, paper napkins, and silverware were laid out in Emily Post-perfect order. The silverware was sterling and we always used salad forks as well as dinner forks. Our mother brought the food to the table in serving dishes which were passed around, so we could each serve ourselves. Ritual was infused in our meal practices, but not until recently did I view them as offerings of love by our mother who was not able to demonstrate love in ways more easily understood by children.

I set the table until Valery was old enough to take over. Then, I was promoted to salad maker. Those were the only two chores that were ever assigned in our household. No one but our mother ever did the dishes. I never understood that, but she didn't want us doing them. And, of course, this was before every kitchen had an automatic dishwasher. We never ate out during those years before frozen meals and takeout. And I don't remember my mother ever being ill or missing a meal, except when she went to the hospital to have a baby.

She seemed almost possessive about meal preparation and dishwashing, unwilling to let the kids do any of it. Laundry was the same. In 1953, we got a brand new automatic Westinghouse front loading washer and a dryer that played the tune to "How Dry I Am" at the end of the cycle. They were installed against the far wall of the back room, their bubble glass doors looking across the room like a gigantic pair of eyes.The washer and dryer were in constant use, but nothing ever got ironed or put away. A mountain of clean clothes was piled on a nearby table. We pulled what we needed out of the pile and ironed it ourselves, if necessary.

The back room was an unfinished room, about 20 feet square, attached to the house by a breezeway. It served as my father's office as well as laundry room. It also had a toilet, but not a full bathroom. His drawing table was positioned under a north-facing window; it couldn't have been for the light, I don't believe that grimy window was washed once in the twenty years I knew of.

The back room was the repository for his not-so secret bottle of wine. He never left the house without a stop in the backroom, ostensibly to use the toilet, but he always left the room drawing the back of his right hand across his mouth and and emitting a breathy mahhhh sound. His left hand would reach into the front pocket of his trousers and withdraw a tube of lifesavers. Removing one peppermint circle from the tube, he would blow tobacco shreds from the center of it before popping it into his mouth. Then he was ready to hit the road.

 I left home to begin married life in 1959 and my brother Mickey joined the Air Force a couple of years later. Neither of us would return to the family home. So, instead of five, there were now three chicks left in the nest.

The house progressed slowly. Beautiful blue-green granite stones were purchased for the large fireplace in the family room and slate for the floor of the entry way. Framing and roof joists began to give the structure a three-dimensional aspect. The fireplaces were installed and the chimneys rose through the roof line. And I remember joining in the family prayer for a dry October as preparations were made for the installation of the roof, a large flat surface of crushed white marble. Windows and siding were added and the house was enclosed.
My father in his weekend uniform, wifebeater shirt and baggy khaki pants, 

Christmas, 1968, still in the old house,

By Christmas 1968,  the oldest two of the Blair children, brother Mickey and I, had produced five members of a new generation. They gathered under the Christmas tree, which was, as usual, placed in front of the door to nowhere. At that time, brother Ken was a sophomore at UC Berkeley, and Valery was finishing high school. Mickey, Ricky, and I were all married and living in our own homes. The marriage and the very lives of my parents were on unstable ground, The new house was at a standstill and all resources of cash and internal fortitude had been tapped out. 

My mother complained to me on the telephone that my father never did anything but pace around the unfinished interior of the new house and that she was going crazy living in the tumble-down old house. And, in fact, I believe she was going crazy. At one point, she disappeared for several days and no one knew where she was. She had taken their beloved German Shepherd, Jody, with her, so my father felt reasonably sure she was not suicidal. She loved the dog so much, he felt she would not take the adored animal into a dangerous situation. In retrospect, I believe she was suicidal, but I was so wrapped up in my own life, I took what my father told me at face value and didn't doubt him. She was drinking very heavily on a daily basis and when she was alert, she raged at her youngest daughter, Valery. 

My father complained that he didn't know what to do with my mother. Her drinking was going to be the ruin of him and he just couldn't stand it anymore. I was helpless, caught in the middle, and suggested to each of them that they leave the other. Each reacted the same way, as though I had blasphemed, "I could never leave your mother/father! How dare you even suggest it!"

A last draw on his inheritance, and probably more refinancing, produced a final infusion of cash. At last, in 1971, after all five children had left home, eighteen years after moving into temporary quarters in the tumbledown Victorian, my mother and father moved into the dream/nightmare house. It wasn't entirely finished, bricks still lay in piles around their ultimate destination as a decorative element on the exterior of the lower story. The downstairs pool room and workshop walls were unfinished, and parts of the exterior lacked paint, but a certificate of occupancy was issued, and the old house was emptied and demolished.
Demolition of the old house. The kitchen sink is to the left, my bedroom to the right. The only bathroom, with a tub and no shower, was in between the kitchen and my bedroom.



Preparing to topple the chimney of the old house

The house was torn down, all but the back room, left standing and visible in the picture above, with my father standing in front of it. It still held his drawing table, building material catalogs, architecture textbooks, drafting tools, probably the bug-eyed washer and dryer, a supply of empty wine bottles, and in all likelihood, some unfolded laundry.
My daughter, Colleen standing on the felled chimney, you can look across the debris field to the new house.
Six grandchildren and the first Christmas in the new house, 1971

Just as construction was being completed, my mother's mother (Mimi) died, leaving  a bunch of cash and telephone company stock which was promptly liquidated to provide funds for furnishings. My mother entered a gloriously productive sober period and went into a decorating frenzy. She attended a class on interior decorating, sewed curtains, bought and arranged furniture. The youngest two children, Kenny and Valery, were at that fledgling state in their lives where they bobbed in and out of the nest for a brief while. But, for the most part, the nest was empty and my mother and father had the roost to themselves.

In 1973, my father's mother died and he collected the remnants of his inheritance. For the first time in twenty years, it wasn't necessary to pour all available time and money into the new house. My parents used the money to travel the world. They made friends in the UC Berkeley alumni association, and they entertained. I think the years from 1973 to 1984 may have been the happiest in their lives. The kids were all grown and independent, the soul-eating behemoth was placated, and they were free, free at last.

Of course, the story doesn't end there. My father died on April 1, 1984 of a sudden heart attack after a night of smoking, drinking, and dancing. He was 71 years old, and my mother was a widow at 65. For the first time in her life she was entirely alone.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Seward's Folly - Part I

My father, Seward James Blair, was named after William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State. His paternal grandmother, Amanda Schooley Blair, who worshipped the husband of her older cousin, Frances Seward, insisted. When Amanda's father died in 1850, seeking his fortune in the California gold fields, eight children, all first cousins of Frances Seward, were left fatherless in Ovid, New York. The Sewards lived 31 miles from Ovid, in Auburn, New York, and Mrs. Seward, a very compassionate woman, took eight-year-old Amanda under her wing. Some versions of family lore assert that Amanda was a paid companion to Seward's consumptive daughter, Fanny. In any case, according to letters written by Mrs. Seward and journal entries by Fanny, Amanda spent a good deal of time in the Seward house after the death of her father. In spite of the illustrious and convoluted history of his name, Seward James Blair was known by everyone as Bud.
Seward James Blair

Amanda Schooley Blair

William Henry Seward
Frances Miller Seward

Bud Blair was an architect and a dreamer. So, it was inevitable that he aspire to building his dream house. He also had well-honed carpentry and other construction skills he developed as a teen-ager while working with his father on their farm, constructing outbuildings which were always way over-engineered for their intended purpose. I remember in particular a "shed" about six feet square, with foundations, an eight foot ceiling, a window, wood floor, and shingled pitched roof. The sole purpose of this little cottage-like building was to house old magazines. Other buildings were more utilitarian, a workshop, accommodations for poultry, feed, and farm equipment. Bud was a builder by birth and he intended to demonstrate it on a grand scale.

First, the plans were drawn for a 4,000 square foot ten-room house, intended to accommodate our family of seven.  Features included: a 500 square foot combination kitchen and laundry with three sinks and two refrigerators, abundant cupboard space, and state of the art fluorescent lighting; four fireplaces, one of them an indoor barbecue; a wall of glass thirty feet long and twelve feet high; and roof surface of 1/12th of an acre.

Construction proceeded at a glacial pace. Little progress was visible for years, yet all available time and money was allocated to the "new house". Piles of used bricks accumulated in the yard. Old railroad ties for use in future landscaping gathered in other parts of the property. In the meanwhile, we lived in the old house as it began to fall apart around us. The roof leaked in so many places that elaborate interior systems for handling the runoff were devised. At least 20 buckets were placed in strategic places in the attic and an intricate aqueduct moved rainwater from a gaping hole in the ceiling to the kitchen sink.

One day, while my mother was grocery shopping, my brother, Mickey, decided to show our horse, Nellybelle, the inside of the house. She followed placidly as he led her into the kitchen, through the dining room, across a corner of the living room, down the hallway, and out the front door, where her foot broke through the rotting boards of the front porch. He was able to extricate her without much difficulty and return her to the pasture before Mom returned. No one ever asked about the hole in the porch. New evidence of the house falling apart appeared frequently and was just taken for granted.

But the walls went unpainted, the roof unpatched, as all extra time and money were devoted to the new house. Decorative pillars between the dining room and living room were hollow, having been eaten out by termites; only many layers of paint gave them form. The piano, couches, and chairs ringed the large living room, with a vast open space in the middle because it would not support the weight of heavy furniture. Walking across it felt like preliminary bounces on a trampoline, while glassware clattered in cabinets. A door in the living room opened onto a porch, one story above ground level, but the rotten staircase had been removed years earlier.

For Christmas, my father wanted only a keg of sixteen-penny nails. Vacations were spent chipping mortar from used bricks, or looking at building supply catalogs.

Back view of the old house and yard.


Mom works with enthusiasm at painting the foundations of the new house in 1959.

Repurposed bridge piers delivered, to be used as floor joists.

 Foundations laid, ready for floor joists. Front view of old house in background showing the porch the horse stepped through.
 Valery and Kenny in front of the Christmas tree, 1958.
The door behind the tree leads to the porch without a staircase.

1959 must have been seen an infusion of cash because there was an apparent building spurt.
Foundations and a steep concrete driveway were poured that year. Huge timbers salvaged from the destruction of a bridge across the Oakland-Alameda estuary were laid across the foundations to support the subfloor. My dad secured funding by throwing himself at the mercy of anyone who seemed to have some ready cash. Refinancing and second mortgages were negotiated frequently, his mother was tapped for further advances on his inheritance. Local magnates, Fred May and Louis Lurie were approached. Sometimes it worked, more often it did not. Sometimes the house seemed to be taking form, but more often, it lay fallow.






Tuesday, September 8, 2015

And Then There Were Five


On October 18, 1949, Kenneth Lee Blair was born and I was ten and a half years old. I remember answering the phone (a heavy black bakelite phone with a rotary dial and a springy cloth-covered cord), when my mother called from the hospital to announce, "It's a boy!" and I remember being very disappointed I didn't get the baby sister I wished for. But, I rebounded as soon as I held my sweet new sibling in my arms. I felt as though he was my own real live baby doll. I kissed him and cuddled him, dressed him, took him for walks,and thought he was the cutest, most perfect being on the planet. Changing his diapers and feeding him were duties my mother gladly yielded to me and I considered them a privilege.

I remember pushing him in his Taylor Tot down to the new Lucky's Supermarket where an old lady stopped us to fuss over the baby. She looked up at me and asked, "Is he yours?" 

Her question filled me with pride, but I told her the truth, "No," I said, "How old do you think I am?"

She replied, "Oh, I don't know, they have them so young these days." I wished he were my baby and maybe in a way, he was. I had a maternalistic bond with Ken that endures to this day, even though he died in 1993 and I felt the loss as deeply as the loss of a child. 

The picture below was taken in April of the last year we lived in the Athol Avenue house. That July, when my mother was five months pregnant with her fifth child, we moved to 5501 Leona Street, to a tumble-down Victorian era farmhouse on an acre of land in the Oakland Hills. My parents had visions of living in that house only as long as construction of their dream house was under way. But, that's a story for another day.

Easter 1952

In 1952, my mother finally delivered the baby sister I waited for so long. Valery Joan Blair was born October 25 and again I remember answering the phone call from the hospital. "It's a girl!" announced my mother.

"I knew you could do it!" was my response. 

And like for brother Ken, I had lots of opportunity to practice my child care techniques. From the time I was five years old and told to keep an eye on Mickey, until I left home, I always had a hand in caring for my younger siblings.

With Mickey, I felt an intense sense of displacement and sibling rivalry. I didn't have the same issues with my second brother. When Ricky was born, I was nearly five. My job was to keep Mickey safe and out of the way while our mother took care of Ricky. Ricky had a few health struggles when he was young: asthma and a milk allergy as an infant, and a severe case of whooping cough when he was about five. I was too young to be directly involved in his care, but I felt he was very special and needed to be protected.

Because I was involved in the hands-on care of both Kenny and Valery, I felt very maternalistic toward them. At the same time, they grew to be very close to each other with frequent escapes into a fantasy world created by the beautiful and creative mind of Ken. 

As they grew closer, I grew more distant, moving into my own world filled with girlfriends, boyfriends, and plans for a future formed by my past.


Christmas, 1954

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mother Loved Him Best

Mickey was always in trouble, from his youngest years until his death. Although I was only one year, five months, and five days older, I was charged with keeping an eye on him when we were turned out to play. This responsibility was laid on me before I started kindergarten and I know I failed miserably. For starters, he chose bad company. Our next door neighbor was one of his partners in crime. That kid actually ended up a career criminal and in prison. Early capers included raiding the cookie jar and kidnapping my dolls. From there, they progressed to stealing candy and comic books from the corner store. When they had been banned from that store, they branched out, walking several blocks down to Park Boulevard where three drug stores and two five and ten cent stores tempted them with things they could easily pilfer whether or not they needed them. Mickey liked to give presents to his girlfriends. From his earliest years, he always had a lot of girlfriends.

He didn't always get away with it, sometimes he got caught, usually when he had to explain where his purloined goods had come from. Punishment was generally a spanking and he got walloped with either a hair brush or a wooden coat hanger. I remember hearing him scream, "Help! Murder! She's killing me!" Spankings usually occurred in the bedroom he shared with brother Rick and he would be put to bed after. While he was screaming, I sat on the edge of my bed in my room next door with my hands tucked between my knees, rocking back and forth, tears running down my face. When our mother went back downstairs, I would go to his room and comfort him. I always felt it was my failure to keep on eye on him that caused him to get in trouble.

He loved animals and collected them without scruples. I was unclear on where they came from. Looking back, I suspect he just took them as casually as he stole comic books. He would come home with a critter and a story. He claimed he found a dozen baby quail in an abandoned nest and saved them. The shovel-nosed Mexican skunk (de-scented) he told us had belonged to a friend who could no longer keep it. He re-homed rabbits, turtles, fish and snakes. Dogs and cats were off limits after our ringworm experience.

As teen-agers, we had a horse, an old mare named Nellybelle. He learned to ride very well and before long was allowed to exercise the neighbor's horse, a beautiful, nearly unmanageable, Arabian gelding. He rode in horse shows and won ribbons. He had the ability to excel in whatever appealed to him. And he failed miserably when something did not.
Nellybelle is in the foreground, Rofan, the Arabian, is looking over the fence.

He was always seeking attention, love, and approval in self-destructive ways. His behavior swung from charming and polite to rebellious and nearly violent. He ran away when he was a teen and was picked up by the police in Fresno. I don't know if he had done anything illegal, but he was gone for several days. And everyone rejoiced when he came home. He quit high school soon after and went to work making blueprints for an architectural firm, but six months later decided to return to school. He went from receiving failing grades to straight A's overnight; from juvenile delinquent to president of the school choir. I was afraid of him during his teen years. I now think he was mentally ill.


Mickey joined the Air Force shortly after high school. He met and married Mary Ann while stationed at Luke Air Force base near Phoenix around 1962. He was assigned to the K9 Corps, a perfect fit for him with his love of animals and skill in handling them. On one occasion, he was marching in a parade with his dog. For some reason, he fell and was down on the ground in need of medical attention. His dog stood guard and wouldn't let the medics near him until he ordered her off. He loved telling that story, the excitement in his voice told you he enjoyed the drama of it

When discharged from the Air Force,  he, his wife, and newborn daughter moved to Fallon, Nevada. There they lived in a little house on the property belonging to our grandmother. Mickey trained to take over operation of the Spudnut Shop, the restaurant started by our grandmother and later run by Aunt Helen and Uncle Bill. At some point, after a big fight with Uncle Bill, Mickey walked off the job and abruptly moved his family back to Oakland.

When back in Oakland, he fell ill. He could not keep anything in his stomach and vomited whenever he ate. This went on for weeks and he rapidly lost weight as the doctors tried to diagnose the problem. Eventually, he was hospitalized, fed intravenously, and in desperation, an exploratory operation was performed. Nothing was found, but he spontaneously recovered and never had a recurrence.

He went to school and gained some skills in the emerging IT arena. One day while at work, he slipped on a lettuce leaf that had fallen in the stairway. His back was injured and he went on workers' comp. His inaugural back surgery was performed, the first of more than thirty surgeries. Medical emergencies became his career. He accumulated a number of other diagnoses from several of the doctors he saw and took many different drugs prescribed by physicians who were ignorant of the web of medical practitioners he used. One diagnosed lupus, another a heart disorder and prescribed blood thinners, a third thought he kidney disease.

While going through all this medical drama and trauma, his marriage ended with the realization he was gay. Quite likely, the stress of trying to live a "normal" straight life by the definition of the time contributed to his craziness. I am so sad he had to live with that conflict and inflict confusion and suffering on the family he created.

By this time, his pattern of crisis and medical intervention had become routine. It was woven in with a pattern of alienation and reconciliation with his birth family. Some storm would brew and Mickey would be incommunicado for a year or so. Then suddenly, he would reappear and there would be great joy and celebration. My parents were continually manipulated by this roller coaster relationship. We siblings grew weary of his machinations  and were a bit more callous about his comings and goings.

And we learned to predict his "stunts." You could be sure if Mickey was present at a family event and was not the center of attention, he would construct something to draw attention to himself. When we went to scatter the ashes of our father on a desert hillside, Mickey took a tumble and slid down the ravine. I said, "oh, for heaven's sake, get up." And he did.

In September 1985, four of the five siblings took a wonderful fishing trip with Aunt Helen and Uncle Bill (Mickey had reconciled with them). We went by sea plane to an island fishing resort off the coast of British Columbia, There were no other facilities on the little island. Late in the evening, brother Rick came to get me and brought me to the room he shared with Mickey. Mickey was sprawled across the bed, a bottle of pills appeared to have fallen out of his hand, some pills were scattered on the floor and he seemed to be unconscious. "What'll we do?" asked Rick.

Said I, within earshot of my prone brother, "It's just another stunt, leave him be. If he dies, blame me."

Mickey was on time for breakfast and the next day's fishing, Not a word was said about the night before.

On one occasion in 1984, he underwent a back surgery without advising the surgeon he was taking blood thinners. He very nearly bled to death and had to have many transfusions. This was in the days AIDS was rampant and the blood supply was tainted. And, although he was not promiscuous, he was sexually active in a series of gay relationships.

Shortly after that, he declared he had cancer and was seeking alternate therapies in Mexico. He moved to Puerto Vallarta at that time and established himself in the ex-pat community where he made many friends. He was charming and easily made new friends, although he wasn't very good at sustaining relationships.

He died in Puerto Vallarta, wasted down to a skeleton. The death certificate says cancer of the stomach. I think otherwise.

My mother always said, "A mother loves most the kid who most needs her." And boy, did she love Mickey.


Monday, August 10, 2015

In Sickness and in Health

These are real events as I recall them. After August 20, 2015, when Logan goes off to college, I will again veer off into my fantasy road trip.

Much of my adult life I've been harshly critical of my mother because of her alcoholism. I'm sad and angry that it removed her from active participation as a grandmother in the lives of my children. Today I put that aside and remember the selfless, tireless, beautiful young mother I had as a child.
She was  just twenty when I was born, two years after her high school graduation from Oakland High School in 1937. She and a group of her girlfriends had formed a sorority they called the Maddi Kappi; they hung out together and met a bunch of architectural students from Cal (UC Berkeley) and that's how I came to be.

She was a student at Heald's Business College, but she didn't finish the program. She worked one Christmas season wrapping gifts at Hale's Department Store in Oakland, the only job she ever held. According to Social Security, her lifetime earnings were just over $200. And then, she became a mom.

I always thought she looked kind of like Lauren Bacall. She was fun, flirty, loved to dance, and loved to sing, always humming under her breath as she went about the housework. I was proud of the way my young mother looked and felt sorry for the kids with fat frumpy older moms.

My father was a student when my parents married and he worked part time for Standard Oil as a draftsman. He graduated from Cal a year after I was born. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for Owens-Illinois as a draftsman and then later as an architectural engineer. He remained in that position until his retirement. His salary was always just a little short of what we needed to get by, so he supplemented it by spending hours at the drafting table he set up in our dining room, drawing house plans for all the executives at the glass factory. He designed several homes which are still standing in Piedmont, the Montclair district, Orinda, and Oakland. He further supplemented his income with a series of loans from his mother, drawing down on any future inheritance.

In those days, the only inoculations available for kids were DPT and they weren't mandatory, so we didn't get them. These were also the days before health insurance, so any doctor's visit was an unplanned expense and our household had no room in the budget for unplanned expenses. Only maternity care was allowed in our household. 

I don't remember my mother ever being sick, or even slowed down by her pregnancies -- five of them (although today I'm writing about a time before the youngest two were born). I have vivid memories of the times we were sick and the wonderful loving care she bestowed on us.

Measles, we called them the red measles, the two-week kind, were epidemic among kids from about five to eight years old. And we caught them serially, so for six weeks a fevered child lay in my mother's bed. The shades were drawn because of the risk of eye damage, I don't know if darkness really did anything to prevent damage, but we also weren't allowed to read for the same reason. I remember running a fever of 105 degrees and my mother getting almost. but not quite, worried enough to call the doctor. In lieu of a doctor's house call, my father called Dr. Bensinger, the plant doctor. He became our de facto family physician.

When we were sick we slept in our beds by night, but in the daytime, we rested in our parents downstairs bed and we were treated royally. Mom read to us, sang to us, brought meals in on a tray, and bought treats like comic books or ice cream bars. When she left to walk down to the corner store, we got out from under the covers and jumped on the bed. Being sick had lots of perks. 

In addition to the measles, chickenpox and mumps won us time in our mother's bed. For some reason, we never caught rubella, known to us as the German measles, the black measles or the three-day measles.

Brother Rick (the little guy in the pictures), and I had the whooping cough. I had what was probably the world's lightest case, I barely coughed with a slight whoop for six weeks and felt fine most of the time, but I had to stay out of school. They said whooping cough was two weeks coming, two weeks there, and two weeks leaving, comprising the six week quarantine period. Rick had a terrible case. Every time he coughed, he vomited. He coughed until the blood vessels in his eyes broke. He became very thin and we were all very worried about him. He was given special drinks to keep him hydrated and fed lots of Popsicles. I think Popsicles were a universal cure, at least in our household. 

But the worst, the very worst, was the ringworm. My father had taken in a stray kitten. We loved it and cuddled it and fought over who would get to hold it next. And then I began to itch on my chest, right where I snuggled the kitten. Soon both my brothers were itching in the same spot. This time my parents took us to the doctor. The first diagnosis was impetigo. When we returned to the doctor in even worse shape with the condition spreading to our arms and legs, the diagnosis became scabies. Finally when the eruptions settled into the characteristic round shape of ringworm, the accurate diagnosis was made, and the kitten was identified as the source of our malady. Sadly, by that time our other household pets, my beloved cat, Dingle, and our sweet cocker spaniel, Duchess, had to be put down. 

Not only did we lose our household pets, but all our stuffed animals were burned. By this time our entire bodies were covered including the scalps of my brothers. Their heads were shaved, but my scalp was spared and I had to wear my hair tightly braided and pinned to the top of my head. Ours were the worst cases of ringworm the doctor had ever seen. He referred us to the dermatology clinic at the University of California Medical School. There, a half dozen dermatologists peered at us and photographed us for medical journals. 

The outbreak began in June just as school was letting out for the summer. The treatment called for rigorous cleanliness and isolation from any other kids. Our parents were absolute saints during this time. I'm sure they felt enormous guilt for bringing this plague into the house, but the effort they put forth in caring for us and entertaining us was superhuman.

 Like every household in 1949, we had only a wringer washer, Our mother washed and line-dried our bed sheets every day. We bathed morning and night and had a salve called Salinadol smeared over all our lesions. My hair was shampooed daily, greased with the gooey salve, braided, and pinned up out of contact with the eruptions on my neck and forehead. Gallons of Hexol were used in cleaning every surface of the house. My mother worked to keep the bugs at bay from dawn till she fell in bed at night.

The picture below was taken two months before ringworm turned our beautiful skin into a repulsive mass of sores. It sat on my mother's dresser where she would look at it and weep, wondering if her children would ever be beautiful again.
Our parents went to great lengths to entertain us and compensate for our cloistered summer. My father built wonderful toys, using cardboard and wood liberated from the stock piles of the glass factory. He built a 5/8 scale stage coach with doors that opened and shut, seats inside, a seat outside for the driver and a side kick. Horses heads also made from cardboard fit over our heads and rested on our shoulders. My grandfather (Bobo) gave us a regular full-sized pinball machine that we operated using slugs instead of coins. Both the stage coach and pin ball machine were in a garage we used as a rumpus room. Mimi bought us books; we couldn't contaminate library books. We had homemade stilts and a constant supply of new comic books.

Our mother sang to us and our father told us stories. He made up a stories about the Whiffenpoofs, a family who had ringworm, but were able to put them to good use. They would scrape them off and use them as tires on their cars and take wonderful trips. And we did take wonderful day trips. We explored the entire bay area, took the ferry to San Francisco, or had picnics in many of the wonderful East Bay Regional Parks, and went for walks in the woods.

By the time summer was over and school was ready to start, we were cured. We didn't miss a day of school and our exhausted mother had a chance to rest.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

School Days

Another installment of reminiscing prompted by my trip to Oakland. These too, are true so far as memory allows.  

I started kindergarten at Cleveland School in January, 1944. At that time, kids could start mid-year because of a semester system that divided each grade into "high" and "low." I think it is a good system; a child who wasn't quite ready for school in September could start in January and not have to wait a whole year to begin. And my mother loved it. She still had two more little kids at home; the nest was getting a little crowded.

I was a mid-year kid until I skipped the high third grade, going directly from low third to low fourth grade. My mother cautioned me, "Don't go thinking it's because you're so smart, it's just because your class was too crowded." But, I was immediately placed in the top groups in reading and arithmetic (we didn't call it math until the fifth grade).


The desks we sat at like those in the picture were mounted on wooden runners. I remember running the edge of the sole of my shoe along the runners and along the grooves in the pine floors. The smell of the oiled floors mixed with that of chalk dust and the ink in our ink wells created a particular school room perfume which is lodged in olfactory memory. Third grade had a special rite of passage. When we had satisfied Mrs. McNary we had mastered the Palmer method of cursive handwriting, we were issued pens and blotters and our inkwells would be filled. We dipped our pens in the blue-black liquid and carefully scratched out the final copies of our compositions. 

Mrs. McNary's classroom was in one of the portables. Being assigned to a portable was a special honor because they were heated by coal-burning stoves. Not only did we have blackboard monitors, some lucky boy was chosen for the highly esteemed position of coal monitor, charged with keeping the coal bucket filled, and stoking the fire as needed. Girls could be blackboard monitors, but only boys were allowed to be coal monitors.

When I was in about fifth grade, a boy just a grade behind me died by hanging in the basement of his home. We were told it was a an accident and I never doubted it. Even though these were the years polio was rampant and several friends had been crippled, it had never occurred to me that a child could die. Another tragic event was the murder of the mother of a classmate. His brother had bludgeoned their mother with a hatchet in a ferocious rage in the basement of their home. My classmate continued at school, but I could never bring myself to talk to him after that. Even looking at him was difficult and made me wonder if my brother were capable of such a thing. I couldn't bear the possibility of losing my mother. And I feared tragedy was contagious. 

Clayton Wright was my first boyfriend. One day our fifth grade substitute teacher caught us passing love notes in class. She called both of us to the front of the classroom and while holding me in a hammerlock, squished against her ample bosom, she forced me to read the note aloud to the class. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much, everyone had opened and read the note as it made its way across the classroom, there was no secret within. But, I still remember the mortification and the smell of that woman: a mixture of Vick's Vap-O-Rub and gardenia perfume. However, my love for Clayton was undiminished by public shaming. 

Clayton gave me a chocolate-covered marshmallow heart for Valentine's Day. The tinfoil wrapping was all wrinkled because he had unwrapped it to enclose two dimes so I could meet him for the Saturday matinee at the Parkway theater.

I was more excited about having two dimes than the prospect of going to the movies with Clayton, so I rounded up a couple of girl friends and we headed for the school store. The school store, located  just behind the school on Brooklyn Avenue was in the downstairs corner of the house pictured below with an entry right on the corner. Inside, was a fabulous assortment of penny candy, Mary Janes, sugar dots on paper, wax lips, wax bottles of sweet syrup, several kinds of licorice, lollipops, and both Fleers and Bazooka bubble gum. I bought a little of everything and shared it with my friends. Fortunately, I was able to beg 20 cents from my father to keep my date with Clayton, In fact, the entire fifth grade class kept our date. They sat in a solid line in the row behind us. I was so annoyed that I got up and moved to a seat by myself. As near as I can recall, that was our last date.




The map above illustrated the approximate boundaries of our free range territory. It is about a three mile square area, with Lake Merritt as it's main attraction. The red X marks the location of our house. I know as young as nine years old, I borrowed a friend's bicycle and rode all around Lake Merritt, a distance of 3-1/4 miles. My mother never knew about it. When I was ten, I got a beautiful Schwinn bicycle for my birthday and frequently rode around the lake. So long as we appeared for meals, we never accounted for our whereabouts.


The year I was in fifth grade, I got a violin for Christmas. It was a wretched piece of equipment, the tuning pegs would never hold and it was constantly slipping out of tune. The fact that I was a terrible musician compounded the horror. Even worse, I loved playing the violin and practiced relentlessly while my mother would beg me to please, please, please, use the mute. You can probably tell by my awkward pose that I simply had no feel for the instrument. 

In the picture of the three little musicians, you can barely make out built-in cabinets on either side  of the fake fireplace. The one on the left housed my Story Book Doll collection. Although I never played with dolls, I loved getting new Story Book Dolls to add to my collection every birthday and Christmas. My parents, grandmother (Mimi), and Aunt Helen all helped my collection grow until I had around thirty dolls. When I grew a bit older, they were boxed up and stored in my closet. I noticed one day they were missing and later learned my brother had given them away to his girlfriend. My parents did nothing to help me get them back and he was never held accountable for taking them. I've worked really hard over the years to let go of resentment toward my brother, but this one surfaces from time to time and I'm still mad.





Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The War Years

This is more reverie stirred up by my visit last week to my childhood haunts. Again, so far as memory serves, this is true.

World War II is a backdrop to all my earliest memories. I'm told my brother and I were at Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco with my parents, Bud and Ruthanne Blair, and my aunt and uncle, Helen and Bill Millward, on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, while the Japanese were dropping bombs on Hawaii.  I see no traces of war worries in our Christmas photo. I see my beautiful mother who hung tinfoil icicles on the tree one strand at a time so that they would hang gracefully. My talented father had graduated from UC Berkeley a year and a half previously with a degree in architecture and was working as a draftsman for Owens-Illinois Glass Company. My brother, Mickey was fifteen months old.


Christmas 1941, just 18 days after Pearl Harbor.




 Our 1944 Victory Garden

Among his many talents, my father was a wonderful gardener. He mixed sand into the adobe soil, fertilized with compost he carefully tended, and watered religiously when he got home from work. Several of our neighbors benefited from his green thumb.  
Summer of 1944. My Grandmother, Minnie Blair, holds Ricky while I stick out my tongue and Mickey prepares to spit.


Grandma visited to see her new grandson, Ricky, and to say good-bye to her youngest son as he went off to war. I cannot begin to grasp the agony of her conflicted feelings as she sits with new life in her lap and contemplates the dangers and possibility of the death of her own dear son, but I think it is written on her face. That year marks the beginning of the time she seemed like an old woman to me. 

My father, me, and my father's brother, Bill Blair, Summer 1944


Uncle Bill came to visit just before leaving for his assignment in the South Pacific as an Army Air Corps B-24 co-pilot. He returned safely after flying 49 missions in the "Red-Headed Woman." As of this writing, he is still living in Pasadena, California and now enjoys WWII memories with many of his fellow WWII vets who meet together regularly. 

In the picture above, my father patriotically smoked a Lucky Strike from a package adorned with a red circle instead of the older-style pack with a green circle, because, according to the slogan, "Lucky green has gone to war." In front of the fence grew asters, zinnias, and cosmos, while behind the fence were dahlias, more products of my father's prodigious gardening skills. 

My father never went to war for reasons that remain vague to me. I remember hearing something about "flat feet" and "too many kids," His contribution was serving as the neighborhood Air Raid Warden, which as nearly as I can recall, meant when the sirens sounded and there was a blackout, he patrolled the neighborhood, wearing a special vest and a helmet, pulling a canister of water mounted on wheels while checking to make sure everyone had drawn their blackout curtains. It was never clear to me what he was supposed to do with the water, but I knew it was important.

My parents made another contribution by hanging out in bars (Oscar's down on Park Boulevard), drinking with war wounded, and bringing maimed service men home for a meal. They all seemed to be missing a limb. I remember one with a black glove over a useless rigid prosthetic hand, another had a claw he could hold a cigarette with. One who was missing a leg walked with crutches while his pinned-up empty pant leg swung back and forth. Some of the intact service men were mess cooks stationed at Camp Shoemaker. They were a convenient source of scarce and rationed food. Butter, sugar, and eggs were available in our home while the corner grocery shelves were empty.

Ice skating is all mixed up in my memories of the war years. I know my parents were both good skaters and enjoyed ice dancing. My mother was particularly fond of a sailor named Matt who was a wonderful skater. In later years, my father, perhaps after having had too much to drink, told me more about Matt. Apparently, he and my mother intended to run away together, taking my brother Mickey and leaving me behind. The rent money was missing around that time, I don't know if it was part of the runaway scheme, or if any one our guests had stolen it. My mother also revealed a dark secret years later while under the influence. She told me she had an abortion after the birth of Mickey and before Ricky. That would have placed it around 1942-1943, the same time she was planning to run away. I don't know how to connect the dots in these scant pieces of information, but I do know they cast a long shadow over their marriage.

Knowledge of these secrets reinforced feelings that had been developing all my life. I saw my mother as flawed, weak, and flighty: my father as a long-suffering noble hero. And I felt unloved by my mother, thought she saw me as competition and perhaps, I was. My father understood me at a level she could not. I held these feelings for most of my adult life and have only recently come to challenge and change them. In my later years my mother emerges in my mind as something of a martyred heroine.