Through Any Given Door

1.28 Nothing but the Best

1st day of school

1946 • Sonora ~ Mom decided life would be easier if Claudia, the youngest at the time and the only one still at home, went to school. Dressed in her netted hat to set off her pinned-up hair, a pastel polka-dotted shoulder-padded two-piece outfit, pearls, silk stockings and white open-toed wedge heels, she trundled Claudia up steep Barretta Street, across the school’s double flight of concrete stairs, through the six white pillars, and into Mr. Bird’s office at Sonora Elementary. The domed three-story school, built at the top of Barretta in 1909, went from kindergarten through eighth grade, each grade consisting of one class.

photo courtesy of Tuolumne Co. Historical Society

Mr. Theodore Bird

Mr. Theodore Bird, the new principal, looked through his spectacles and shook his head.

“Your daughter is too young to start school,” he informed Mom from across his desk. Mothers were often in his office trying to enroll their babies.

Mom pulled out a book and had Claudia read aloud to Mr. Bird. When Claudia finished, Mom rebutted, “She can read, and the law says if she can read, she can go to school.”

My sister knew her ABCs and 1,2,3s, plus she minded her Ps and Qs and her don’ts and do’s. Mr. Bird unwillingly conceded and escorted my four-and-a-half year-old sister through his office door, past the dreaded detention bench where the troublemakers and truants sat nervously awaiting the principal’s paddle, and down the flight of stairs to Mrs. Dawson’s kindergarten class in the basement. Claudia was enrolled that morning. She was excited; she wanted to go to school. Everybody she knew went to school. Mrs. Dawson also became her second grade teacher, and taught my sister cursive. Handwriting was difficult for Claudia; she was always dissatisfied with how it looked. It never measured up to what was on the board.

Mrs. Dawson’s kindergarten class (Claudia is the blonde, left in center w/head down facing camera)

Esther Albertson

It was nothing but the best for my mother. She dressed to the nines for any occasion: hats and gloves, fashionable and in style, very forties in the 40s, very fifties in the 50s. It was embarrassing for Claudia; she wished Mother would wear regular housedresses like other mothers. Mom didn’t buy cheap clothes and or wear chintzy jewelry, and wouldn’t be caught dead buying anything except linens and the kids’ things in JC Penney. Esther Albertson, Carleen’s future mother-in-law, worked for years at Penneys in the women’s clothing department. From the time Claudia was four, she loved going there to watch the inner workings of the store. She was fascinated by how they made change at the register from one floor to another, pulling the cord to fly the money in pneumatic tubes upstairs to the accounts department on the mezzanine, the change and receipt in the canister whooshing back down for the customer. Penneys was in the Marengo building on lower Washington Street, and the only store in Sonora that had such a thing.

photo courtesy of the Tuloumne Co. Historical Society

Mom bought her clothes at Sanford’s Dress Shop or the Orchid Shoppe: A Shop for Discriminating Ladies, or in the stores in Stockton and San Francisco. A few years later, when I lived with her in San Jose, she seldom dressed up or ventured out. Not that my mother wore crumpled skirts or wrinkled shirts; there were days she simply didn’t dress at all. Unless she went to work or to the library, her black slip is what I remember her in.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Jim Chatfield says:

    Cathy, you are always a joy to read and you tell your stories so well.

  2. I’m wondering what your mom did with herself, all dressed up, while the kids were in school. Your stories are so well illustrated with these great photos! Reminds me of the ’40’s and ’50’s when my parents left their upper-class life in SF after my dad lost everything (poor investing) and moved us to the “sticks”… Knightsen (2-rm. schoolhouse), then Brentwood, then Antioch. I went to school with mostly farmworkers’ kids, and it felt like a totally different planet. A very surreal experience! Thanks for stirring up the waters, Catherine!

  3. Susan Lee Price-Jang says:

    I remember the pneumatic tubes at J. C. Penny – probably in Whittier. I was fascinated by them. Did they carry money? Were there no cash registers at the time?

  4. Thanks again for letting us tag along on your family adventures. Just out of curiosity, about how long does it take to write a piece? Do the words flow or does it take a lot of time? It is certainly a joy to read and I so admire your skill to weave a story.

    • I probably have an hour or three into a first draft, then it takes me about an hour or two to scan and Photoshop pictures and then a final edit and upload. I’ve already had it professionally edited, though I keep rearranging and moving things around. I wrote nearly all of this over a five year period in a writing class, so essentially the whole book is done (without pictures). I’d write a story, take it to class, work on the style and voice, and then move on to the next story. The problem is I didn’t write it in chronological order, so I spend more time trying to figure out what the heck goes where. I realized yesterday I posted “Brusha, brusha, brusha” two years too early in the story. Arrgghhh. Half the time my siblings didn’t know what year a story may have taken place, so I’ve used some poetic license. Plus there are large gaps of time that we have no story, so it was challenging to string together. People go, “Wait, what happened here?’ and I go, “I have no idea, I wasn’t even born yet,” so it is a bit choppy in places. My parents were both gone by the time I wrote this so I didn’t have them as a resource, so depended on other relatives and those who knew the family. I take fast notes!

  5. I am 4th generation Sonoran, and love reading your stories, went to the dome in 1957 and Mr. Bird was our Principle as well and lived right up the street, I have many old photos of Old town Sonora if you need something maybe I can help you 🙂

    • Thanks for your offer Denny. As I go through the stories and I come up with a something I wish I had, I’ll connect with you. Or, if you think you have something that might work, pop it over to me. I can use them on my blog or the pieces I’m posting on Facebook, but I won’t need them for the full memoir. Too expensive to publish. If you have a good one of the Sonora Inn, Central Garage, Clemens’ Store, or any of storefronts I write about, I’d love to use them. I can’t though if they are copyrighted unless I can get permission. Actually, do you have a good one of the grammar school or the high school from the 1940s or ’50s?

  6. You write so well, Catherine! You lay out everything so that one get’s a good picture of what’s going on in the moment and you make it engrossing at the same time. Also, your detailed memory is very impressive! It was fun remembering those pneumatic tubes in the department stores: they seemed fascinating to little me : )

  7. Catherine I truly love reading your stories. Can’t get into kindergarten with that criteria anymore. Oh and my goodness neither the paddle from the principle.

    • Thank you. I graduated from high school in 1966, and that old paddle thing may still have been going on, for the boys anyway. I don’t think they ever used them on the girls. The nuns rapped students on the head or knuckles with a ruler. By the time my kids came along, I just chased them around the house with a wooden spoon.

  8. Maggie Bafalon says:

    Catherine, I too would/will not shop in JC Penney’s (though my husband loved it) so your mom and I are connected in some odd way! My mom would have done exactly the same thing you describe, but I would not have been superior enough to be rushed off to someone’s classroom. I love reading your remembrances of childhood! You speak for many of us enjoying the recollections of such an enduring childhood. I miss my mom everyday. Maggie

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