My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chapter 5: Coronado Ave. Stockton

            "No.  California would never be the same: not after the federal government had spent more than $35 billion in California between 1940 and 1946 (a sum exceeded only in New York and Michigan), multiplying the manufacturing economy of the state by a factor of 2.5, tripling the average personal income between 1939 and 1945; not after some 1.6 million Americans had moved to California to work in defense-related industries; not after millions of young Americans had been trained in California for the military, with so many of them vowing to return after the war."
                   Kevin Starr.  Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002)

In the fall of 1942, about a year after the move to Third Street, my family moved again, this time to an almost-new, stucco house on Coronado Avenue on the north edge of Stockton just east of Oak Park, a grove of huge, old Valley Oaks. The house had two bedrooms, one bath, good sized living room with a bay window and an eat-in kitchen with an adjacent utility room that opened into an attached garage.  It wasn’t a large house, probably about 800 square feet, average footage for houses in that time.  But it was a well-built little house.  It had hardwood floors, plaster walls and real ceramic tile in the kitchen and bathroom, cheerful pale yellow tile with shiny black trim.  

Dad said he paid $4,000 for it, a real step-up from the $1,100 he paid for the house on Third Street.  Mom and Dad never had a new house before, and I’m sure they were excited about it.  They bought custom-made venetian blinds for all the windows as soon as we moved in, and Mom made pinch-pleated, lined drapes with swag toppers for the bay window in the living room.  As soon as weather allowed, Dad cleared the weeds in the big yard and planted lawn and young walnut trees spaced so they would eventually shade the whole yard.

            It was just the four of us in the new house: Mom, Dad, Nita and me.  My uncles and their buddies were gone, away at the War.  They were present now only as photos in the album on our coffee table and in my parents’ conversation after a letter arrived.  I knew that Uncle Ed was still in Florida, and that Uncle Frank had been drafted into the Army and sent to Hawaii for basic training.  When he got there, Uncle Frank sent me a paper lei and hula skirt, a real grass one—not one of the cheap, bright colored imitations I scorned.  Mom took a snapshot of me wearing the skirt and lei and sent it to Uncle Frank, my hair in freshly combed blond curls, posing in a hula stance with my arms out and my hip to one side. Under the lei and grass skirt I was wearing a silk bra-like top and matching panty that Mom made out of an old silk dressing gown given to her by one of the neighbors on Third Street.  It was too worn to wear, but still had good fabric in the long, full skirt.  The colors—Chinese red with small blue, yellow and white flowers—were still bright, not the least bit faded.  

            Although my uncles and their buddies were gone, my world was not emptied of men.  My dad was never called up, and only one of my mom’s four brothers got drafted.  The man across the street had been called up, but all the rest of the fathers in the neighborhood, like my own dad, were still at home.  In fact, Stockton seemed full of men.  There were the young men at Stockton Field who were training to be pilots, and there was all the activity related to the Port of Stockton, which was connected to San Francisco Bay by a deep water channel.

             Stockton had nine shipbuilding firms making ships for the navy.  The Navy also had a pier at the port, and sailors were a familiar sight in town.  To top it off, the Union Pacific Railroad ran right behind our back yard.  Trains packed with young men rattled by every day.  I would wave to them, and they would wave back at me.  In the summer when the windows of the cars were open, I could hear them whistle and shout at my Aunt Sylvia, Mom’s teen-aged sister, who loved to lay out in her swimsuit on the lawn in our back yard where all the guys in the train could see her.

            This was the war for me, these handsome young men and pretty girls flirting with them.  Energy, sexual energy.  Optimism and people going places, doing things.

Copyright Loretta Willems, October 2011