Through Any Given Door

1.02 104 Green Street

1943 • Sonora, California ~ My father first took a job as manager of the Sprouse-Reitz on Washington Street. Mom came in and helped out. She was ten years younger than Dad. Her hair was jet black like her mother’s and grandmother’s, and she wore red lipstick and a wide smile. He was the boss, quiet spoken, good to his employees, pleasant with his customers. She was courteous and friendly, chatty with the regulars. Dad was detailed, particular how the merchandise was displayed and fastidious about keeping the store clean. No half-empty bins, no messy shelves, no litter on the floor. Under his management the store doubled in size, taking over the business space next door, expanding the sales crew to ten. Returning from his daily trek to the post office, he stopped in at Elsbree’s Cigar Store. He sat at the long mahogany bar and visited for ten minutes with Mr. Elsbree, watching reflections in the French imported plate glass mirror and sipping a room temperature orange Nehi. Dad thought if you drank cold drinks on a hot day you just got hotter. My brother and sisters spent lots of time in Elsbree’s, mostly reading the comic books on the shelves, especially winter days when it was too wet to play outside and summer days when it was too hot to be alive. Some Sonora summers got so hot that Claudia got nosebleeds and passed out in the bin. Mr. Elsbree would call Dad and Dad would leave work and come drag her out of the cigar store. She always got in trouble for it. First, she wasn’t supposed to be in there, second, she wasn’t supposed to be reading the store’s comic books, and third, for bleeding all over the place.

My dad ran his register six days a week, walking the block to work in his brimmed felt hat, three-piece suit, and blue tie, his muscles hidden under long-sleeved starched white shirts. Muscles from working on the family farm, from construction and work on the highways, from years of delivering ice. A businessman now, he was finished breaking his back as a laborer outside in freezing snow and blistering sun. He hated that kind of work, hated that kind of weather… that’s why he left home in the first place. That, and his mother constantly telling him what to do.

Our family lived at 104 Green Street in the old Lepape house now owned by the Segerstrom family (who also owned the historic Sonora Inn and Kelley’s Central Motors and Garage), a white two-story residence right in the center of town that rented for $35 a month, and where I would be born in five years.

The house was behind the Inn and Kelley’s. The upstairs had four bedrooms: Mom’s and Dad’s room faced the front, along with a bathroom with a claw-foot tub. The kids’ rooms were toward the back, the smallest was the only upper room with heat. It was so cold during the winter that the girls dressed by the downstairs oil heater so they wouldn’t freeze to death.

Small furry brown bats nested in the walls of my sisters’ bedroom. Dad cut holes in the wall to get at them, then chased them around the room with a stick until he killed them (the bats, not my sisters), throwing their bodies out the window and plugging the holes. With their high-pitched chi, chi, chi, the bats looked big and scary flying around the bedroom, but when they were dead on the ground below they looked like poor small mice.

A long linoleum hall led to the staircase and wooden banister that the kids rode halfway to the bottom when our parents weren’t in sight. I got down the stairs by falling. In the living room, white antimacassars and arm protectors rested on the maroon chesterfield and overstuffed flowered armchair. In the corner stood the upright RCA radio/record cabinet. It was the center of evening family activity, everyone sitting around the radio listening to Fibber McGee and Molly, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Amos ‘N Andy. Mom loved Jack Benny and Bob Hope. Dad loved Edgar Bergen. The kids’ favorites were the knocking of The Shadow, the creaking door of Inner Sanctum, and the The Lone Ranger galloping away with his Indian sidekick Tonto. In the winter you smelled the oil from the heater, in the summer you smelled the heat of the day. This was all before I came along.

The dining room, like many other dining rooms in the 1940s, had pictures of Pinkie and Blue Boy and The End of the Trail, a lithograph of James Earle Fraser’s lone Indian warrior on his weary horse, their defeated profile frozen in time. There was a large mahogany dining room table and Mom’s old-fashioned highboy where she stored her white Irish table linens, her unfinished sewing projects, my white flannel diapers, and her foil-wrapped U-NO candy bars she hid behind the velvet-lined silverware chest. I don’t know why she bothered hiding them. They tasted like chocolate covered chalk.

The wide porch ran on three sides. The back portion was enclosed, and stored the mangle where Carleen ironed sheets and pillowcases and where Mom had one of the first electric washers and dryers in town. Dad put up pantry shelves with doors where Mom kept her canning: fruits from the trees in the yard, vegetables from her garden, field mushrooms (she and the kids hunted for them behind the hill at the grammar school), and homemade spaghetti sauce and chili.

The giant elm tree out front was a hundred years old with a canopy so thick that even when it poured you stayed dry under it. To the left flowed Sonora Creek, a small tributary of Wood’s Creek where the first big nuggets of gold were discovered in Sonora’s veins. It was filled with huge leopard frogs, rainbow trout, and wild blackberries until the early fifties, when that section of pristine waters was polluted and slick with oil and car fluids dumped directly into it through a waste pipe by mechanics from the Central Garage.

Alongside the house were fruit trees: cherry, plum, a pear, apple, peach, and a huge black fig. On the side grew Mom’s victory garden overflowing with the Swiss chard, spinach, beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, big red tomatoes, and green onions she planted every year. She loved the smell of the soil when she worked at her planting.

Out back, Mom raised chickens, the family’s source of meat during the war. She sold the eggs or traded them for flour and sugar. When Mom butchered the hens, Betty collected the chopped off heads while the headless Leghorns chased Claudia who ran screaming around the yard. Mom put the bodies in a big pan of boiling water to soften the feathers and Larry and Carleen had to pluck and clean them. It was Larry’s job to clean the metal chicken house. He hated it. Between the chicken shit and the musty feathers he could barely breath.

You weren’t supposed to keep chickens if you lived inside the city limits. When the rooster crowed before daybreak, Dad got the hatchet and whacked off its head. Each Thanksgiving we bought a live turkey, and Mom raised ducks too, but they flew away every year.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

Note: I took the above photo of our house in the early 1970s where it had been moved up the hill behind Vicko’s Station on Highway 108, Sonora. The two following photos are of the house being transported along Washington Street to Vicko’s, circa December, 1953, just after the time our family left town. They were posted on Facebook; I do not know who the original photographer was. (click on photos to enlarge)

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  1. What a great house! I sent your book, Queen Bee, to my daughter, Spring in Florida… she really enjoyed it, too. I am going to retrieve it at the end of the month when I visit her.
    BTW: Did you ever get a chance to read Magenta, by Linda Reed? No hurry, if you haven’t.
    Enjoyed Saturday evening entertainment. Your stories of your grandchildren are endearing and funny!

  2. I love reading your story. I too am reminded of the “good old days”. Life was hard, but really it was a wonderful, simpler life. You are a wonderful writer. I so enjoy reading your articles. Keep writing.

  3. James Chatfield says:

    You are an excellent storyteller and your descriptions bring back many memories of life back in the 30s and 40s which I remember well. It tells how many families lived back then. Thanks for the memories.

  4. It all sounds so idyllic, pure Americana… fun to read! I’m sure we’ll find out what happened to your mother to turn it all upside down. I remember parts of that.

  5. Another dreamy read

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