Wednesday, April 25, 2012

California Dreamin'

My mother was four or five years old when she came out to California on the train from Indiana with her mother and her new step-father. This was in 1916. California's population stood at about 3,000,000 at the time, mostly concentrated in two urban areas: Los Angeles with about 350,000 people and San Francisco with about 450,000.

The rest of California's population was scattered in rural areas and in small towns up and down the Coast and Valley. There were remnant Gold Rush towns in the foothills and mountains of the Sierras in the east and the Cascades in the far north, but most had become ghost towns when the easy gold was got.

My mother's parents settled in Santa Maria, which was at the time quite a fresh little town on the northern edge of Santa Barbara County. It was bordered on the west by newly plowed farm fields that led to the Guadalupe Dunes and the Pacific Ocean some ten or twelve miles away. On the north intermittently flowed (and sometimes flooded until it was dammed) the Santa Maria River. On the east were the Coast Mountains which blocked the Santa Maria Valley from the far more extensive Central Valley. And to the south were more rolling dune fields that seemed to stretch for dozens of miles until they blended into the Santa Ynez Mountains north of Santa Barbara. Oil had recently been discovered under the dunes.

Santa Maria had been founded sometime in the 1870's as Grangeville/Central City by a handful of farmers who saw potential in this windswept and rather chilly little valley that had once been part of the Rancho La Purisima that was headquartered at La Purisima Mission in Lompoc. When the California Missions were secularized in the 1820's, the land was pretty much abandoned except for the Chumash Indians who lived in the hills round about. It wasn't until the 1860's that settlement in the Valley was attempted by (Anglo) families whose names are still very prominent in the Santa Maria area.

The name of the town was changed to Santa Maria in 1885 because they say mail meant for Central City, California was being delivered to Central City, Colorado. Such were the vicissitudes of pioneering.

When my mother's parents settled there in 1916, Santa Maria had a population of between 2,000 and 3,000. It was a small town, but not a tiny town by the standards of the day, and Santa Maria considered itself highly progressive -- which in many ways it still does. Public education, water, sewage, electricity and so on were hallmarks of progressive infrastructure, along with active public health campaigns, scientific farming methods, irrigation systems, public parks and recreation and so on. Tidy little bungalows housed most of the people along wide tidy streets -- the width of Santa Maria's main streets is still impressive -- and the Southern Pacific Railroad ran a line along the Coast that stopped at Guadalupe on the eastern western margin of the farm fields to pick up the abundant produce that was grown then and still is. A spur line, the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, was run from the SP tracks in Guadalupe through the fields and to the produce packing plants in the Valley.

El Camino Real, the Spanish road in the province of Alta California, ran through the middle of town along Broadway. It's path is now followed or paralleled by Highway 101.

Perhaps most astonishing to these immigrants from Indiana were the flowers. The Valley was filled with wildflowers in the spring, and all through the growing season -- which was practically year round -- vast acreage was devoted to growing flowers for seeds and cutting in some of the most remarkable agricultural displays ever devised.

Well, of course, that and the fog and the ocean nearby. The Pacific wasn't visible from town but you could get to it reasonably easily either by going north to Pismo, which was even then a working class beach resort, or east through the dunes to what was essentially a wide deserted beach west of Guadalupe. The only thing about it -- apart from the wind and the cold and the fog -- was the tarballs. Oil leaked from fissures off-shore, and so the Guadalupe beach was often fouled with the smell of oil or the balls of tar that were washed up by the surf.

Oil would become my mother's step-father's key to living the relatively good life in California, for shortly after arriving in Santa Maria he was able to either open or become manager of an Associated Oil filling station. Car travel at the time was still in its infancy, but in California, the motor trip was already a way of life. My mother's step-father also worked as a mechanic at the Dodge Brothers dealership (I have the feeling that the dealership and the filling station were on the same site, though I have no real proof of it). Eventually, he wound up selling the Dodge Brothers cars as well.

Associated Oil became Flying A sometime in the 1920's or '30's, and I remember my mother telling me how proud her step-father was to have the Flying A logo on his station when the change came.

He retired in 1940 or 41 and bought a motor court up in Willits in the Redwood Country. Unfortunately for both him and his wife (my mother's mother) died within eighteen months or so and never had much enjoyment out of their retirement.

I'm surprised I remember as much of this story as I do. My mother was rarely inclined to talk about her childhood, and she harbored an intense resentment against her step-father (and her natural father, for that matter, whom she barely remembered.) From everything she said about him, her resentment was difficult for me to understand because she described her step-father as a very kind and generous man, strict but fair, and always willing to help a friend or a colleague in need.

She said he was never cruel to her, but she was always aware that she was not his natural daughter, and that seemed to make all the difference to her. She saw her mother as a saintly figure, but so far as I can recall, she never really had much to say about her.

I have often wondered what it must have been like for them to move from the gritty and hard-scrabble life of Indianapolis in the 'teens of the last century to the relatively easy life and lifestyle of pre-WWI California, and what they thought about it -- if they thought about it.

Picking up and moving to California was something that Americans did in those days, lured by the railroads and the real estate developers to low-cost land and homes and to pioneer communities where fresh starts were always under way. People were lured by the brochures, by Sunset Magazine, by incessant stories in the weeklies, and by a psychology of westward movement that almost assured that every year more and more people would depart from Back East -- which was anywhere east of the Mississippi -- and head out to California, or perhaps to Washington or Oregon if they could stand the constant rain.

California was a Promised Land like no other, and at least for some of the immigrants from Back East, it proved to be almost exactly as advertised. They came and prospered, living an adventure, and living well at lower financial cost than they knew where they came from, and with a far better sense of security than they had ever known before. It was possible -- back then, anyway -- to live modestly but well in California on a good deal less money than it cost to live poorly in any city Back East. It was possible to grow your own fruits and vegetables in your own yard or, if you wanted, to buy a few acres in the not-so-distant country and set out orange trees or any other crop you chose, and make a go of it as a small farmer or rancher. Many did and decided the rural life was not for them, but many others found they could take up residence in cities and towns in California and surprisingly fit right in almost immediately -- because nearly everybody was from somewhere else for one thing, and for another, because the early settlers tended to be friendly and welcoming.

Of course they were. They needed newcomers in order to prosper themselves.

The whole point of the California Dream was endless growth, after all, and without newcomers constantly arriving, there could be no economic growth, and without economic growth, there could be no Dream.

The Dream was built on the pocket-books of those who kept coming, and come they did for generation after generation.

While Santa Maria doesn't seem to be an obvious destination -- and it certainly wasn't in 1916 -- I can easily understand how my mother's parents would find it an almost ideal place to settle once they found it. I was never sure how they got there to begin with -- there was no direct passenger rail service, for example, and I don't know when they got a car, but driving continued to be something of a challenge for many years due to poor roads and unreliable vehicles. My mother never said what exactly brought them to Santa Maria rather than keeping them in -- say -- Los Angeles.

But I've lived in Santa Maria and I know it as one of the friendliest and most charming towns -- now a city -- in California, with a very "at ease" way of life. It is entirely unpretentious. Well, let me modify that a bit. The pretentious people tend to be known for what they are, and their pretensions tend to be the subject of friendly ridicule. This characteristic is said to go back to the earliest ranching days in the Valley, and I tend to believe it. A style was set back in the Old Days, and it's been carried on from then till now, and it shows no sign whatever of changing any time soon. Despite the fact that Santa Maria has grown substantially in the last 50 years (the span of time I've known the town), it still shows very much the same way of life and personality characteristics among the people as ever.

For me, it's not the place to be. I'm not very well suited to it, but I have no problem understanding why others -- especially newcomers from Back East -- find it delightful.

My mother's parents fit right in, and soon enough, they prospered modestly. They lived in a succession of tidy bungalows on the broad and tidy streets of the town, traveling extensively around California when they had the chance. My mother said she had been "practically everywhere" in the state by the time she was out of high school, going on road trips with her parents as often as possible. She was always happy to return to Santa Maria and said she didn't have any urge to live anywhere else until... well, after she was married the first time.

She married an oil jobber who worked for Associated and then for Standard Oil of California (now Chevron.) He had been coming by her step-father's station for some time, and they first met while she was still in high school. Her step-father did not approve of the young and somewhat flashy Texan who was making eyes at his step-daughter. He much preferred her to see the rancher's son that she had gone on dates with a few times.

As it happened, the rancher's son's family -- one of the First Families of the Valley -- did not approve of my mother, largely as far, as I can tell, as a matter of class. My mother's people were obviously working class, and her step-father was an actual mechanic. The ranchers of the Valley still consider themselves to be a kind of nobility (derived, I think, from the Spanish rancheros). They do not marry mechanic's daughters. They marry in their own class or above -- or they become monks and nuns.

As friendly as the Valley people are, there are certain lines and certain taboos that one does not cross or violate. Class lines being chief among them.

So my mother wound up marrying the Texas oil jobber who set her up quite nicely. I remember asking her how the Depression had affected her -- she married in 1932 -- and she said "it didn't." She showed me some pictures (I wish I had them now) taken of her outside her home in Santa Maria next to her car (she said it was a Dodge roadster purchased from her step-father). She was dressed stylishly for the time, looking very smart indeed. She said they lived very well and she never lacked for anything.

Except... the marriage was a failure. Her husband, it seems, had to travel a lot in his job, often staying overnight or longer at some of his destinations, and he was -- everyone agreed -- a charmer. One thing led to another... and another... and another... and so on. The fact that he was having affairs was well known to those in the business, but he was always devoted to his family -- which included his daughter, my (half)sister, and so it was a shock when my mother sued him for divorce after ten years of marriage.

It was apparently quite rancorous. My mother and sister moved in with her parents in Willits for a time, then my mother decided to strike out on her own, which wasn't a success, at least not initially. The story of her life from 1942 to 1949 was pretty chaotic, at least as I understand it, for even with the expanded opportunities for women in wartime, she still struggled mightily to maintain equilibrium and independence.

She said it was especially hard for her after her mother died in 1943, "so young" -- she was 54 -- as my mother put it. She never really talked about her mother with me, though, so I have only the sketchiest image of her, some coming from my sister -- who was very fond of her grandmother -- and some coming from friends of my mother's who were also friends of her mother. They said she was a strong and very sweet woman, and very fun to be around, and a damn good bridge player. She taught elementary school for a while, but as soon as her husband was making enough money to take care of the family well, she left the classroom and never went back. I've never seen a picture of my mother's parents, so I have no idea what they looked like. I can imagine, but beyond that, nothing.

It would have been so much easier for my mother simply to stay with her first husband (easy for a man to say!) since he had no wish for their marriage to end... I met him when I was a teen ager, and at that time he was a vice president for sales with Chevron; he was indeed a very charming man, married to a delightful woman he met soon after his divorce from my mother; they'd been married 25 years or so when I met them. They lived up on a hillside above Walnut Creek, in a sprawling ranch house with a spectacular view of Mt. Diablo. "California Dream" indeed.

I can't say that my mother ever looked back. Her reasons were complicated and tied in with other things in her life that caused her heartache and trouble till her dying day. Her relationship with my father was no less stormy.

But that's a story for another day.

The California Dream went well for my mother's parents, not quite so well for her. Subsequent generations -- my own, the two or three that have come after -- have a very different view of California. There's much about it I like, much about it that I question, and some -- not much -- that I despise, but I find I'm much happier in New Mexico -- "so far from God, so close to Texas." And I realize that a lot of my happiness in New Mexico is due to the fact that in many ways it is like the California I knew as a child, and indeed, it's not that different from the California my mother knew when she was a child. In some surprising ways, New Mexico is almost like California was 50 or 100 years ago.

Well. But the weather is different! And it's so close to Texas but so far from the sea!

[I may be on this tack for a while, I'm not sure. Biographical material is always interesting to me, though I'm sure it can induce catatonia in others. I beg readers' indulgence...]

No comments:

Post a Comment