Rubberneck Avenue description here

A Fork in the Road

I wanted the silverware more than I ever imagined, and they have proven to be magical wands full of memories.  I do not mix a can of tuna or turn a slice of meat in the pan without remembering the mannerism that I watched and absorbed all those years in the kitchen next door.  Our Italian neighbor could cook an entire meal and never have one dirty dish or pot left to show for it!  She was incredibly clever at keeping the counter clear and clean.  Unfortunately, neither her daughter nor I picked up that particular good habit.

But there is not a time that I pick up one of the forks that I don’t recall the tuna and red onion, or the breaded zucchini in the sizzling olive oil; or brains breaded and slowly browned on top of the stove; or anchovy paste, rubbed into the bottom of the salad bowl; or the celery sticks laced with her special cheese spread that decked the holiday table year after year.

Picking up a piece of the old silverware has nurtured my heart and comforted me when money was tight; I could always mix a can of tuna and smile. With a bit of luck and planning,  I can even go out into my own summer garden and cut fresh chard with the well worn, mis-sharpened blade of their old kitchen knife…and once again, transport myself next door…

Keyboard Harmony

Had I been asked back then, I’d have defined my parents’ definition of  “good music” as restricted to songs written before 1959, up to and including all Elvis gospel recordings and the weekly Lawrence Welk Show.  Period.

Beneath Daddy’s fatherly exterior was a former barbershop quartet singer who not only knew all four parts of any barbershop tune by memory, but also had performed at the Orpheum Theater during the thirties.  This was quite an accomplishment for young, first generation Americans.  Their quartet was billed as the Four Loose Leaves from the Book of Harmony. No recordings existed and the four had long since parted ways, but Daddy’s love for music remained.

Mom could sing, too, so as we grew and learned the words, we baby girls joined in.  Singing in the car became the norm, whether it occurred on longer trips to Livermore or shorter ones to visit our cousins.  So, you could imagine the folk’s excitement when at age nine I expressed interest in taking music lessons. I mentioned that my best friend at school was taking accordion lessons from the music store on the boulevard.  My parents agreed to speak with the store and an elderly gentleman wearing a hearing aid came to our home to “test” my musical ability.  He had me hold a guitar and I strummed it however many times.  Yes, their daughter definitely had talent. I expressed interest in the guitar.

Daddy’s response was both immediate and adamant:  a guitar was NOT an instrument. An accordion,   Daddy pursued, now THAT was an instrument. I wasn’t following all the nuances in this conversation, and I’m sure neither was the elder gentleman, so Daddy further explained.  In simple terms, an accordion could carry the entire melody.  The discussion ended.  I should take accordion lessons.  The gentleman left and it was forward march, literally, as I learned to play simplified renditions of John Phillip Sousa.

What was good enough for me was also good enough for my baby sister.  We actually excelled at the accordion, having slowly absorbed the old world musical rhythm, harmony, and appreciation for the more traditional forms of music, i.e. waltzes, polkas and the before mentioned marches.  It wasn’t long before we girls could identify our country’s armed services’ theme songs – all five of them – and knew at least the first verse from each.  One can imagine just how “cool” it was to play an accordion during the Pepsi Generation…and while Coke was teaching the world to sing…  NOT!

By the time performers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins sprang onto the music scene, I once again considered playing guitar.  Secretly, I pictured myself a stage performer or, better yet, the voice of a Disney character in a full length feature film.   Because I normally carried the melody on car trips, the idea seemed feasible.  I braved it and shared my thinking with the folks. No go.  Parents ruled in our household.  I would stay with the accordion, even if it meant Mom still having to help me carry the heavy instrument down to the boulevard… Daddy had discovered another two loose leaves and he was not about to let us drift away on some musical tangent.

“You call that music?” was the rhetorical question during my junior high years, especially when four young Englishmen first invaded our American household.  So, I learned to hedge my bets and glean the best arrangements I could from the current circumstances.  It was Daddy’s musical generation that he shared with us and, if we played it just right, we could get out of doing the evening dishes.  Keep the 1930 top ten melodies coming and Mom would soon join us in harmony, dish towel in hand.

Some children survive parochial school; I survived accordion lessons. Two decades later, we two daughters fully appreciated being the only ones under forty years of age who could share nostalgic moments at a piano bar with AARP octogenarians.

Now THAT was cool.

A Family Affair

I remember walking around the corner shoe store repair, heading back up the street on the way home with Mommy that day…she was really excited! Mommy had her carryall filled to the brim with lots of good things.  An aunt and uncle who lived very far away would be coming to visit us in the next few days.  I asked who they were.  My mother told me that I had been too young to remember when they last visited.

You know your little pink rocker, Annette?

Ohhhh…the light bulb was beginning to turn on…  They were the ones who had sent me the small rocking chair with its rattan seat; something especially for me from very far away.  So, I knew of them by the little rocker that was mine.

One thing about listening to my mother – you got a textbook history in any and all topics – and their story was no exception.

Originally from Georgia, my uncle had been stationed in California many years before. This Georgian absolutely loved kids and noticed a little guy in the neighborhood playing all alone.  Apparently, my future uncle asked the little guy’s mother for permission to play ball with him; that’s how my uncle met my aunt, who was my father’s baby sister, a young WWII widow.  Eventually, the two adults fell in love and married.  Years later, my cousin would follow in his new father’s footsteps and also choose a Navy career.

Mommy continued on…Uncle was now a Lieutenant Commander.  Mommy stressed how very important his new position was.  Actually, my mother stressed about almost everything!  Aloud, she hoped she had picked up enough French bread and that the meal she was planning for the night at our home was different than what another sister-in-law would be serving, and that she hoped we had enough cheese and salami on hand…Mommy’s excitement was absolutely infectious!

There were a few times that I “connected” well beyond my four years of age, with the particular significance surrounding our household events.  Hence, I was starting to pick up just how very important their visit would be, so I asked Mommy:

Will we have to salute him?

Naturally, that made the rounds pretty quickly once their visit had begun.

By the time I was growing up, Armistice Day had been renamed Veterans Day; my mother made sure that I knew the historic background of our country’s holiday at a very early age.  I had a cousin who was born on Armistice Day when it was Armistice Day.  I was born on Christmas Eve; thus far, no one had renamed it.

This would be the first of many visits from Uncle Bake and Auntie that I would actually remember.  So, I listened quite intently as Mom explained that because Uncle was still in the Navy, they couldn’t visit us very often – like around the holidays – when most families gathered.

Because their visits with us were always limited, the days took on a holiday feeling when these two returned to the West Coast.  Each visit might be short, but that wouldn’t stop any of the siblings from filling it as full of family good times as the suitcase full of comfort foods returning with Auntie.

One of the things that Auntie missed most was the sourdough French bread; no matter where in or out of the country they had been stationed, she still claimed nothing ever came close to the bread from California.  Over the years, the older siblings would chip in and help fill up one suitcase going back with Auntie and Uncle to their next post; it would be filled to the brim with Larraburu French Bread and enough salami to feed a company!

Each May Americans remember Memorial Day with a quiet moment of reverie for the family members who have passed on; the same ones we used to hug and kiss goodbye, then send off with a suitcase full of Home.  Today, there remain several opportunities for those of us who want to support our living Veterans and current military men and women; they, too, would appreciate receiving “a bit of Home” now and then.   None of us need wait until May or November to remember our military.  Their calendars have twelve months, just like ours do!

So, when a few extra dollars can be found, at any time of year, send them on…the internet makes it easy to find a favorite charity, adopt a soldier, gift a military family, or send a donation to your local VFW or USO.  Then pack that picnic lunch and give thanks for another holiday in this precious land…

Kitchen Hopping

On a regular basis, Winnie eagerly climbed the fence two doors away to spend time with Butch and her poodles.  I had many choices:  I could visit with Alice and her father, Mr. W., and sit in the kitchen learning embroidery under Alice’s tutelage, or cross the street to visit Anastasia while she prepared the evening meal for her family of four.  She liked having me visit because she had boys.

I could also venture up to Marian’s house and visit in the kitchen there, too, if her grandmother were visiting.  Mrs. L would be cooking, and would still talk with us while she did. I never knew my own grandparents, so I often found others’ grandparents truly fascinating; I’d surmise just how my own grandmother might have fit in to the various personalities of the older ones I met. I liked Mrs. L. She had white hair and dressed like a grandmother.

The woman with reddish-tinted hair who rented the upstairs apartment was not my idea of a grandmother, yet she had several grandchildren. For sure, my grandmother would not have worn formals in which she had to stuff herself into them and ask neighbors (like my mother and me) to zip her up so she could attend the next installation at her club events!  I found this wholly vile; of course, I was extremely opinionated at age eight regarding just how a grandmother should conduct herself.  How would she hug her grandchildren if she wore scratchy formals???

But most of the time, I simply walked across the driveway to our Italian neighbors back door.  They were like my second family, and I could sit on the kitchen stool, pour my heart out on all the serious issues facing me at so young an age while she finished preparing that night’s dinner, and wait until the mechanic came home from work; when he came through the kitchen door, I always got a big hug and kiss! He was always happy to have me around.  I could even sit at the kitchen table and have a bite of dinner with them.  I couldn’t eat so much that I wouldn’t be able to eat dinner when I returned home.

Hah! Like that was a problem for this food-loving little girl…

Rejoicing on Rubberneck Avenue

Fifty years ago, in my small little world of Rubberneck Avenue, I understood that families with German heritage “were Lutheran only” and the remaining European descent around the block were customarily of the Roman Catholic faith.  Obviously, I’d lost something in the finer details about the Reformation.

Not to worry…on our block, one of our families had Native American blood; this was particularly significant to a few of us! Wow…imagine having bloodlines to the Old West!  At that time, a term like indigenous didn’t describe people, only landscapes.  This particular favorite family hailed from the Midwest and were of the Protestant faith; Presbyterian actually.  They shared their church and fellowship with me at an early age.  I was frightened a bit on my first visit; hearing one give a testimony regarding his born-again experience during a church service was almost foreign in concept from my familiar milieu, the Mass; no one spoke out in Mass unless the priest spoke first!  But I was intrigued, none the less.

I have old Kodak photos in my childhood album from earlier Easter times.  Big Sis would dress me up in my Easter finery, complete with bonnet and lace-trimmed little white socks to accessorize the requisite party dress for a toddler.  We would then walk up the street to the local elementary school for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.  Memories of well-meaning adults pointing toward the evergreen hedges and whispering,

What do I see there???

helped toddlers like me and my “big” friend on the block, Marion, find enough eggs to return home smiling from our cloud nine experiences!  There are photos of Marion and me, proudly standing together on Rubberneck, still clutching our baskets and comparing our precious findings.  Marion was a beautiful little girl, with thick bangs and perfectly formed curls.  She too was dressed in her Easter finest; only her braced leg is a reminder of the very real polio epidemic that persisted still among children of our generation.

Another favorite photo of mine is of a later Easter with my cousins. The boys are in suits and the girls all with bonnets and bows, standing near the fishpond in my neighbor’s backyard, smiling for the camera.  I am at my happiest, standing among my most beloved cousins.  (The Brat was obviously too little so is not included in this shot; yes, my smile is wide…no sad feelings about my little sister missing from the moment)

As Winnie and I grew older, we would plan our own Easter egg hunts for our first little nieces and nephews.  John and Big Sis would come by early that Sunday morning so we could run our hunt, then they’d leave to enjoy Easter at their own dinner table.  When the kids were too old for egg hunts, they sometimes joined us in the evening for an Easter visit and dessert.

I think back on the many Easter tables filled with wonderful food and drink.  Traditional dishes graced our table; there was barbequed leg of lamb and a ham, with the requisite side dishes that Mom insisted must be included to complete a proper, holiday dinner.  One or two might not eat lamb, but they’d work around it.  Hospitality in our Rubberneck home was plentiful though not very flexible; food allergies aside, any recently announced vegetarians could really throw Mom’s balance off …

Are you sure that the potatoes, cheeses and the green salad are going to be enough for you?

Aunts and uncles arrived each year, early and with wines and sometimes a dream cake for dessert!  Only Bro and his family would also be there for dinner, (normally running late but Daddy had learned to expect the phone call from Only Bro telling us that his all girl family were still getting ready) so our two littlest nieces were the next generation to experience a homemade egg hunt!  They walked in the front door dressed like little dolls, much credit to their mother who not only sewed beautifully, but also baked the absolutely best homemade pies for dessert!  Being a reasonable man, Daddy eyed the pies and immediately forgave the late arrival; no penance was necessary!  Only Bro often brought a bottle of his favorite white, Wente Brothers Grey Riesling, chilled and ready to enjoy during the first course.

Ours was a home to drop by; Might be slightly nerve-wracking, but the loving intentions easily obscured the initial shock waves from the daily Punch and Judy reruns, compliments of my parents.  Cousins originally in bonnets, bows and suits were now old enough to drive; they’d stop by to wish Auntie and Uncle a Happy Easter; this was not a have-to visit despite the family dictates…being around my folks was a want-to, if only for the cheap entertainment!

We shared our casa croute (translated loosely as the house bread) with whoever honored us with a visit on Easter Sunday. Daddy would set up the bar in the kitchen and stay out of Mom’s cooking territory.  Neighbors walked in and out, enjoying a cocktail before having to drive over the hill to be with their daughter’s family, or walk back across the street to prepare for guests of their own.

We passed along traditions, not hatred, on Rubberneck.  We were several different families, celebrating our common heritage in our homes, unencumbered by protocols, politically correct admonishments, or charlatan’s accusations…our credo was simply: Live and let live.

The static photos in my album are black and white; but the shared good times and humble simplicity of expectations still play vividly in full Technicolor brilliance in this writer’s reverie…

He is Risen!

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.

 

Loaves and Stripes

Having been raised by older parents who lived through the Great Depression and WWII,  I was keenly aware what America and its values and opportunities had afforded them and their immigrant parents.  Lessons were repeated year-round, during big and small occasions, on everything from soup to nuts or, in the case of our home, from bread to uniforms.

I was very young and had helped Mommy carry home some of the groceries that day.  I was tall enough now to help unload the items, so she instructed me to put the fresh loaf of French bread on top of the washer, a surface that was often used for spillover storage in our kitchen.  So, I pulled out the long loaf and plopped it down.  Mommy immediately picked up the loaf and, turning the label and bread right-side up, gently replaced it back onto the washer’s surface, explaining to me as she did:

We never put a loaf of bread upside down or treat it roughly, Annette.  You should always lay it down with its top crust facing up; this is a matter of showing the proper respect and thanks for the food we have on our table. We need to appreciate all we have, Honey…

That made quite an impression on me; but the story wasn’t finished.  Mommy shared how when my grandfather had first come to America, he tasted the soft white bread and thought it was cake.  Throughout my growing years, Mom’s grocery lists always differentiated between French bread and American Bread, i.e. normally either Roman Meal or Wonder Bread.

Testimonials from Hollywood stars were in full swing; commercials first appeared in black and white on families’ original round screen televisions; those families who didn’t yet have their own TV could congregate down on the boulevard and watch the exciting new technology through Uncle Al’s TV Sales and Repair shop window.   Even Annie Oakley solemnly stood there and, with conviction, promised the parents just how good Wonder Bread could be for their children; it helped build strong bodies in eight ways!  What parent could dispute that?

Many years later, I married a man eight years older than I; one of my more enjoyable one-liners was reminding him in front of others that by the time I was born, food science had advanced so much that Wonder Bread now promised to build strong bodies twelve ways!   The line was simple but effective.

Then of course there were the men who wore uniforms – police, military, didn’t matter.  We were to address them with absolute respect.    Regarding the veterans around us, I was instructed by both parents not to ask any questions about their war years.  Daddy would later clarify:

The ones that seem to talk a lot are usually the ones that saw the least; don’t believe everything you hear.  Learn to watch who the quiet ones are, Annette; they are most likely the men who experienced the horrors of war and saw the most hell.  You’ll never hear them admit how bad it was, or even talk about their experiences, not even after years have passed…

Most of Daddy’s peers had either served in the war or had worn a uniform in some capacity.  Daddy was too old to enlist, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t serve in some capacity, so he left his pattern-making job and helped build semis for the war effort.  I grew up hearing stories of how my family and others learned to live with rationing of such things as sugar, meat, fuel,  ladies hosiery…nothing that I would ever really comprehend well, since Mommy and I just walked down the boulevard to pick up sugar when we needed it.

The war may have ended, but the life style habits were deeply rooted and affected our upbringing.  We wasted little in our home, and we were grateful for everything, no matter how minor the item might be in the greater scheme of things.  Whether in private or in public view, we children were expected to behave at all times, which included please, thank you, and responding when spoken to.  We celebrated Thanksgiving and all American holidays, flying the flag on each day that the local merchant’s calendar instructed us to do so!

Our American Flag even flew from our front window sill on July 20th, 1969, when man first walked on the moon.  Mom and Dad insisted and I obliged, as it was easier now for me to reach the holder fastened above shoulder level.  Among that summer’s snapshots is a photo of our flag on display in front of our home; there are no markings on the back, but I know it was taken on that same day because it meant so much for our family to share in our country’s pride and greatness.