Caramel Apples and Popcorn Balls

Like many kids in the fifties and sixties, the kids on Rubberneck Avenue enjoyed the Halloween season with school parades, PTA festivals, and bake sales; all culminating with the actual Trick or Treating around our initial neighborhood.

Since a majority of us were raised in the Catholic Church, our families had no problems celebrating Halloween.  None of us were exposed to the actual, historic beginnings that were less than church-like.  Some of us had been Brownies and knew that the Girl Scouts of America’s founder, Juliette Gordon Low, was born on October 31st.  For many of us, that was enough validation to stamp Halloween as an “approved” holiday for participation.

Of course, Daddy always told the story that as a boy in West Oakland, he was invited to a Halloween Party in which the invitation said to bring five cents for admission.  Money was dear to many immigrant families; a nickel could buy something of value in the early nineteen hundreds. I can’t imagine too many parents obliging this request but apparently my grandparents did.  So, Daddy and his buddy decided that in order to get their money’s worth, they would each have to take a bite out of all the apples floating in the water bucket that was readied for the traditional Bobbing for Apples game.  He never mentioned being invited back.

Daddy’s newer tradition was taking inventory of our candy bags when we returned each Halloween evening.  This was for the sole purpose of making sure that he got a piece of the good candy, not “the crap that your mother buys” (to hand out).  I grew to understand that I’d lose at least two to three Snickers or Musketeers on average from each year’s haul.  Not a problem.

No one worried about the safety of unwrapped or homemade goodies.  Neighbors knew neighbors; merchants often lived in the same area as their small shops.  Since our homes were only a few houses above the major boulevard, we kids knew just how far and in how many directions or streets we needed to cover to rake in all the special treats that awaited us.  One of the first stops was to pick up our caramel apples with nuts, made ONLY for the Rubberneck Avenue Block Kids. Once we ventured across the street to 3668, we’d show off our costumes, pose for photos with the entire group, and then return our apples to our respective homes before continuing on.  Thankfully, Daddy didn’t realize that we’d left them unguarded.

Around the corner and up a few houses directly opposite our elementary playground were the homemade popcorn balls ready for pick up.  This house was where one of the five and dime ladies lived; she always made sure to have popcorn balls set aside for us children she knew from frequenting the store.

No Halloween was complete until Mom had trudged down to the boulevard earlier that week and purchased fancy cupcakes with black cat and jack-o-lantern plastic décor on top!  Mom didn’t bake, so she always purchased cupcakes for the school bake sale and saved two for us baby girls at home.  (I guess Daddy wasn’t aware of this; we never had to give up our cupcakes.)  The ladies at the bakery across the boulevard were wonderfully kind.  If we accompanied Mom into the bakery and behaved (not that we had a choice), one of the grandmotherly clerks would pull a butter cookie that had drizzled pink and brown icing on it.  They were a wonderful treat and we thankfully nodded, smiled and stayed as polite as we could, gobbling them up quickly before anyone had a chance to utter Not before Dinner!

We were allowed to trick or treat in specific areas and on only certain streets.  As we got older, the parents would let us go as a group.  Some years, we’d split up, depending on how late a parent was in getting home that evening or, if indeed, someone was in trouble and allowed out with his parent only.

One year we took turns ringing doorbells.  Some of us knew that one mother in particular was especially good at losing count and allowing her child to ring most of the bells.  We learned not to repeat that exercise the following year.  As the kids began to move away and less of the original gang lived on Rubberneck, only my baby sister and I were left to carry on.  But the caramel apples appeared each year on schedule.

I was lucky enough to watch our neighbor put the caramel apples together one year; I used to visit her often just to chat; she liked girls and was appreciative of the company in the kitchen as her boys were normally not interested.  She was another particularly neat cook – not a drop or mess anywhere when she prepared meals or desserts for her family.  The counter space was limited, so she deftly used each inch and fifteen minutes later, one would never know that any ingredients had even been removed from the refrigerator or the adjoining overhead cupboards!  Except for the individual green salads with radish slices that graced the four place settings at her kitchen table most evenings, one would have thought no one was even home or that they didn’t cook!  The kitchen was always pristine.

Each year, Laurel School held its Halloween parade after lunch in the early afternoon.  This was our time to shine, walking up and down the side streets and in front of the five and ten, the soda shop, the theater, then back up toward the school.  The route was always the same, so the ladies at the five and ten and our neighbors knew exactly when to expect to see us passing by.

Each class walked together, the younger ones holding onto a rope to stay in line.  It was rare to see a store bought costume, except for the simple masks or princess hats or tiaras.  The costumes were normally homemade; either sewn from a Simplicity pattern or pulled and assembled into the final character from the “dress up” drawers each year.

Dress Up was a popular pastime and fairly cheap; especially if a Big Sis used to sew or had been a bridesmaid several times. There were usually some really good skirts and formals to choose from.  Mom was very creative when it came to costumes.  Unfortunately, her creativity didn’t kick in until the last minute each year…we never knew what we were going “to be” until we “became” a teacher, a ghost, a princess, whatever Mom convinced us we looked like; and believe me, Mom could convince you!

I’d have given my eye teeth to have had the Red Riding Hood costume that a friend’s mother had made for her in the third grade!  She had a red hooded cape with a basket of goodies, including the obligatory napkin covering the contents; just like all the story books!  My friend was a sweet girl to begin with. I could almost believe that she had indeed been Red Riding Hood at one time!

By sixth grade, when our cousins had outgrown some really neat stuff, I was lucky enough to wear a Spanish Senorita black lace dress.  That was particularly special.  With my dark, long hair allowed to hang loose instead of braided that day, I felt very pretty, very Spanish, and very special.  A mantilla over my tresses and this was enough to satisfy this little girl’s fantasy at eleven years old.

I was now in sixth grade, so this would be my swan song. Mom was adamant.  Once I entered junior high, I would be too old to trick or treat.  My role would transition into staying at home, being more “adult” and handing out candy to the little critters from thereafter.


Election Year Interrogation

You’re going to vote for Reagan, aren’t you?

Daddy asked the question fully expecting a resounding yes.

We’d been down this road before; the discussion normally started with the who are you voting for, then the fatherly counsel followed with the whys, hows, whats and whens in every election year for as long as I could remember.

Geesh…(Just what I needed; another father figure telling me what I should be doing and by when and where… did I really need another father image lecturing to me?)  Ronald Reagan was only a few years behind Daddy but they were certainly cut from the same generational cloth; especially when it came to smaller government, American patriotism, the labor movement, and the individual’s rights and responsibilities of good citizenry.

Like many young men who were first born generation Americans, Daddy had originally been a Democrat.  Times were tough.  They lived through the ’29 Crash and the Great Depression, listening to a fatherly FDR’s fireside chats from their floor-size Philco radios.  Regarding the neighborhood and the times, my father described simply that the immigrant families in West Oakland were all “in the same boat”.

Mom likened President Kennedy’s assassination to when the nation lost FDR; both men had communicated so much hope to so many.  Unlike many of our Catholic neighbors, ours was a Republican household, yet we grieved for our president.  1963 was going to be tough on a personal level as well; my brother had suffered a breakdown and our immediate family was overwhelmed with unfamiliar ramifications of therapy and psychotropic meds.

At eighteen, I’d registered as an Independent, but by the mid-seventies and after having run a small business during the Carter administration, I’d not only changed my registry to Republican but had sworn off peanut butter for a few years, too!

My father was a political animal of sorts, passionate but not always articulate about the issues or the candidates.  More often than not, he let his own character-judging gut sort out the wheat from the chaff; sometimes this instinct failed him.

It was another election year interrogation; only this time, Winnie was confronted as well.

You’re going to vote for Reagan, aren’t you?

I was going to be polite but firm, and let Daddy know that I hadn’t as yet made up my mind.  Before I could even respond,   Winnie replied in no uncertain terms:

I’m not listening to you; you told us to vote for Nixon!!!

Daddy about fell off his chair!  I couldn’t stop laughing; his interrogation abruptly ended, Daddy suggested he’d fix us a cocktail before dinner.  For the time being, politics were set aside…

Economic Follies


I’ve never had enough income to avoid reality; after a short-lived stint as an idealist, I became a pragmatist.  And my politics followed.

Yes, I am opinionated…but as a lady, I am politely opinionated.

Also, I have realistically reassessed my career path:  unfortunately, in today’s economy, I would be worth more if I were an antique chair.

Thus, I’ve embarked on a personal voyage: exploring all the possibilities; discovering my inner self, building up my self-esteem, inventorying my talents and expertise; in essence, I am reevaluating some childhood dreams and exploring the free market opportunities that still exist in this good ‘ole USA republic (YES, it is a REPUBLIC, NOT a democracy; don’t argue with me, my history textbooks are older than most of you!)


I’m thinking of going into a ministry as a second career…evangelizing in redneck bars and grills instead of walking the countryside (since I’m not really very outdoor-sy).  Currently, I’m composing a medley of show tunes and old gospel favorites especially for the hangover crowd, entitled How Great Thou Smarts

This could be the niche I’ve been looking for, if I can just patch the bellows on my old squeezebox…


Written to the tune of Cockeyed Optimist from South Pacific, with my apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein.   I couldn’t help but toss a melting pot of ingredients into the crock pot during this political season, especially after listening to one endearing “movie tradesman” remind us of our roles…





















YES….. IT’S……….. TIME…




The Man from Valentine, Nebraska

I’d been in the workplace for better than a decade, and had already worked for some very difficult employers; I’d become one myself, co-running the small vac shop at the south edge of town.  But when I left to work part-time elsewhere, I eventually landed downtown on Broadway in another family-owned business.  What had once been a newsstand and smoke shop had long since evolved into a combination card shop and office supply; it was one of the mainstays in the heart of this college community.  Two generations worked the store, but it was the older one with his accompanying “old school charm” that nurtured us younger, part-time housewives.  In our eyes, Douglas J. was an employee’s employer.

His respect for our well-being and deep regard for our working hours’ needs exceeded that of the other employers I’d known.  His morning greeting, query about our health and home, and his supporting input and positive reinforcement about our work there on the daily shift were all spoken with a consistent, respectful undertone for the listener.  He had hired the clerk but related to each personality and was genuinely concerned about our personal family needs on and off the job. 

No day’s contact with Doug was ever complete without a verbal compliment or sharing of a business aside; the latter, too, evoked his respectful manner.  His giggle was infectious, whether he was responding to one of our dry-humored remarks or laughing at his own (often corny) jokes.

The small courtesies were always there: he told us when he was leaving; he made sure we knew when we could expect his return; he called us over and extended a special courtesy when introducing us to his old friends and long-time customers.  Daily, he made several trips downstairs to check on our cash flow, never wishing to leave us unprepared for the closing hours.  One could remark that his routines were necessary to transact the business day, but Doug’s charm and manner enveloped a higher sense in all of his actions.  Over 30 years have passed, yet his smile and giggles are still very vivid…

Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly,

knowing that you also

have a Master in Heaven – Colossians 4:1

Pomegranates and a Traveling Washer

Unfortunately, a little sister was the last thing that my thirteen year Only Bro wanted “from Santa”.  My arrival changed things considerably; I didn’t score any points arriving on Christmas Eve. Mom had to stay in the hospital; this meant that my fifteen-year-old Big Sis was nominated to cook the turkey for Daddy and Only Bro.  I never stopped hearing him describe how my arrival ruined a perfectly good holiday dinner that year!

Not to worry.  Big Sis loved having a real, live baby doll in the house!  Photos are plentiful and tell enough of a story to assure me that at least one of my older siblings was happy to have me around. To Mom’s dismay, Big Sis spent a good portion of her earnings on very expensive sun suits, tricycles, dressy outfits, and assorted items; all meant for me.  When I was old enough to walk, she took me to neighborhood Easter egg hunts, to Sunday Mass (here was an underlying plan in action; she could watch the boys while using me as a handy decoy), and she even fashioned costumes and applied my makeup for my first few Halloweens.  No doubt about it; except for the weekly decoy stints, I was treated like a princess.  I absolutely adored my Big Sis!

My older brother did his best to get on with life in the house as it now unfolded, cloth diapers included.  I have two photos of his holding me as a toddler.  In either pose he didn’t look too thrilled, but I’m smiling in both, so from all appearances he was slowly assimilating to the “new” baby.  And not a moment too soon, as another baby sister followed two years later.  The men in the house were indeed outnumbered.

It wasn’t long before Big Sis was to marry and move away.  I was now four and old enough to understand that away meant out of the house.  I knew just who to blame, too!  So, I followed the romantic couple out the back door one afternoon and, from the porch, I threw my prized jack in the box right at “Him”.  The toy hit “Him” smack in the back of the head!  There are no photos for reference; I just remember running…

Over the next few years, trips to Sacramento to visit Big Sis and “Him” were fairly routine. I missed her terribly, so each trip was always something to look forward to.  They lived in a small rental in the country, on property with large fruit trees and a chicken coop.  Inside, the walls were wrapped in feathered wallpaper.  I don’t remember all the rooms, but in the kitchen stood a wringer washing machine that came with the rental.  If we were lucky, she’d start a load of wash, and we’d watch its shaking and moving from one side of the very uneven kitchen floor to the opposite end of the room. Fully relocated, the washing cycle was then complete!  Not everyone’s Big Sis had a traveling washer.

When in season, one or two large crates of pomegranates filled the back of our station wagon for the trip back home.  Before we could eat them, Mom would make us change into our play clothes and sit outside on our front porch, so we didn’t stain anything important. We sat on the top step, carefully peeling back the creamy membrane of the fruit to discover all the tiny, plump, juicy seeds.  Pomegranates were a favorite of ours; they kept us busy and happy; we didn’t mind the mess one little bit, and Big Sis didn’t seem so far away.

3671 Rubberneck Avenue

Our living and dining rooms were quite lovely for the time.  The walls were “lumiere green” which is the French term for subtle chartreuse.  The carpeting was green-gold in color; its correct name was Grecian gold; again, more marketing than definitive of the actual shade. The fireplace bricks were painted a dulled red-brown to simulate what we had come to accept as natural for a brick fireplace; that was definitely some good public relations work by the painter (yours truly).

Against this colored backdrop hung several pieces of art, some inherited but all sentimental for one reason or another.  Oil originals of two angels hung on either side of the front picture window.  Two larger, but not original pictures (the actual ones we were once told belong to the Louvre) resided above the sofa in the living room and the buffet in the dining room. Two mirrors, one etched with a flower design and the other a simple oval shape, hung over the fireplace and the piano respectively.

Our mother loved photographs and plants. A small corner shelf and the mantle held the majority of them.  Unfortunately, my mother loved all photographs, even the not-so-flattering ones…she insisted they were cute.  Naturally, I had to daily walk by the one in which I’d had a cold and was sitting next to my cute-as-a-button little sister who was perfectly well that day; both of us wore braids at the time.  Yep.  That one was a real gem and always evoked in me the time-worn adage, “only a mother could love” each time I caught sight of it.

The furniture was scratch-proof.  Any further attempts to wear it out were futile; the collection seemed to wear indefinitely. Two antique chairs, one Victorian slipper chair and the other a Louis- the- something occasional chair sat apart, recently reupholstered.  We had convinced Mom at the upholsterer’s that day that she should go with the more expensive, crushed red velvet.  As garish as that now sounds, they were actually very striking when finished.  The seat on the Victorian didn’t hurt anymore either; the upholsterer had kindly removed all the original horse hair stuffing from that one. Other main accent furniture pieces included a French Provincial table in one corner,  a small, spindle legged table side table, and a taller plant stand with three perched eagles atop its tri-corner legs; the latter two were Early American but had been naturalized French several years earlier.

For recalling those fireside chats from the war era, the family’s Philco floor radio still stood in a little side nook.  Mom had repurposed it into an aquarium stand; the top was the perfect height from which to enjoy the Siamese Fighter’s battles with the less than angelic Angel fish.  Like most possessions in our house, it had long ceased to perform its initial role; but it was old and matched everything else.

Scattered on any available surfaces were a few of the family artifacts: my great-aunt’s vases, an antique candy jar, the grandchildren’s pictures, an orange compote, artificial flowers when real ones refused to bloom, wedding pictures, and on the far end of the dining buffet sat an amber carnival glass pitcher. The pitcher cracked in two from the hot Jell-O Mom was mixing one day; that was the last time the pitcher held any liquid.  It remained standing upright and convincingly in one piece, thanks to the sugar that sealed the cracks!

Add our music books from childhood accordion lessons, one old antique clock that sat atop the piano; it chimed when you knocked into the piano or the washer was on “spin dry”, and, finally, my graduation picture in which, I’m happy to report, I had neither a cold nor braids…you get the picture.

Maturity has helped some; I no longer apologize for the ugly, half-naked angels; in fact, now they hang in my own home…hindsight and some appreciation for the artist’s hand no longer compels me to emphasize how “original” they are.

Gladly, I did not choose to live any longer with the two Louvre prints; once the folks were gone and our family home emptied, the two prints left my life for good.  One had portrayed the French Court; the other, the Spanish Court.  Didn’t matter; when the television repairman who came to adjust our 1964 RCA round screen color console asked if those people in the picture were my relatives, THAT was the last straw!  Absolutely NO more creepy, historic, prints for me!

Been there, done that.