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 15, 2011

Chapter 4: Third Street Stockton

      “In the months preceding World War II, the U.S. Army entered into the first of many lease agreements with the City of Stockton (on 15 August 1940) to construct and operate an Army training facility at Stockton Municipal Airport.”                      []
     “When Lowell and I quit Junior College we went to Lodi and lived with your parents until the war.  We enlisted shortly after.  Your parents made several moves before they lived on 21 West Third Street in Stockton.  While on Third Street your dad and I got jobs driving dump trucks at the Stockton Airport.”                                                             [Ed Willems, e-mail: 2-18-2008]     
      When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, my family was living in a small house at 21 West Third Street about a mile south of Stockton’s downtown area.  Stockton Field, where Dad and my Uncle Ed had jobs driving dump trucks, was already under construction when Pearl Harbor was attacked, part of a national push to get the country ready for the war most people knew was inevitable. 

          It must have been in the summer or fall before Pearl Harbor that my family moved to Third Street.  I remember driving to the house in a farm truck loaded with Mom’s chickens.  She was driving, and I was in the cab with her.  She was worried about the chickens.  It was a hot day, and she was afraid the chickens wouldn’t survive the long drive from the place in Lockford.

      The house was in an older part of town, our little house perhaps even older than the others on the tree shaded street.  A long sidewalk went down the east side of the yard to the big, covered front porch.  Ice plant and calendulas filled in the space between the walk and the low fence on the east side of the property.  On the other side of the walk was a large expanse of not very green Bermuda grass that extended to the west edge of our lot where the neighbor’s two story house was partially visible through the shade of trees and bushes.  There was no driveway, so we must have driven across the tough Bermuda lawn to the barn and chicken coop in the back yard.  The lot was deep with plenty of space for Mom’s chickens as well as a big garden, probably not the cow, though.  That went back to Mom’s parents.  A barn-like building was back there, too.  That must have been where Uncle Ed and Lowell slept.  There certainly was no room for them in the house.
        It was a little old house, built very low to the ground, the wood siding painted a nondescript, faded gold.  A linoleum-floored living room faced the street.  A big kitchen and a small bedroom were behind the living room.  The bedroom, which opened onto the kitchen, was where Nita and I slept.  It was the only bedroom, so Dad made a sleeping space at one end of the back porch, putting up a wall that separated that area from the utility and bathroom area at the other end of the enclosed porch.  This was where he and Mom slept.  My dad was no carpenter, and the bedroom was a makeshift affair, but then the whole house was poorly built, the floors uneven—even spongy, worn linoleum on the floors, cheaply built cupboards and only a curtain to separate Nita’s and my bedroom from the kitchen.

        A linoleum covered counter ran along the outside kitchen wall.  There was a sink in the middle of it that looked out into the side yard, the shady east side, where Nita and I had a swing tied in a tree.  I remember Mom standing in front of that sink, working at the counter.  I am sitting on one of the wood chairs placed at the big, round wood table in the center of the room.  I say, “Mama.”  She replies, “What?”  I answer, “I love you.”  After a bit I repeat that, “Mama.”  She answers again, “What?”  Again I answer, “I love you.”  Finally, after a few more rounds of that, Mom grows impatient, says, “That’s enough.”

      So many memories set in the house and yard on Third Street—not the small collection of disconnected snapshots that I carry from Navelencia and Lockford.  These are like rolls of film that allow me to move through the rooms of the house, out onto the front porch and over to the neighbor’s house next door where some cute high school boys live who make a big fuss over me, boys I find deeply attractive and exciting.

      People are starting to become interesting, not just the neighbor boys and their mother who gives me slices of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar when I visit her house, but my mother, too.  Mom is no longer an invisible presence I know is there but do not see.  I still cannot see her face, but I can see her standing at the kitchen sink.  I see her lying on the couch in the dim living room reading a book and eating chocolates from a Whitman’s Sampler—perhaps my first glimpse that being a grown-up might be fun.  I, too, would like to have my own Whitman’s Sampler, lie on a couch reading and taking pieces of candy freely out of the box, eating as much as I want.  I tell myself that when I grow up I am going to do that, too.  I still do not see Mom as clearly as the yellow box of chocolates or the free-standing heating stove with its isinglass window sitting at the end of the living room near the kitchen doorway, but she is definitely there now.  I see her outline, her general form.

      It is as though it was just Mom and me in that house.  Nita was a baby and toddler during the time we lived there, but my only memory of her is from the yard.  I remember jumping with her on some old bare springs on a metal cot under the kitchen window, and I remember that she has learned how to pump the swing.  She is just a toddler; I am four years old—but she can pump the swing, and I can’t.  I still needed someone to push me.  I am embarrassed.

      Dad, too, is absent from memories of life inside the house.  My main memory of him during our time on Third Street is of hearing about his train trip to Florida to visit my Uncle Ed, who was a naval aircraft mechanic stationed in either Jacksonville or Pensacola.  That trip included a stop in Chicago where Dad went to see an uncle who Dad said was “rich,” an Uncle Boldt.  A few photos taken on that trip went into the album on our coffee table.  One was of Uncle Ed in his summer whites looking jaunty and handsome walking down a city street with my dad.  It was not a good likeness of Dad.  “Is that Uncle Ed’s boss?” I asked when I first saw it.

      We lived on Third Street during the winter, spring and summer of 1942.  Even though I was only four years old, I felt the energy and excitement of the adults around me during those first months of the war.  They were geared, mobilized, on the move.   And they were young—my mom, dad, uncles and their buddies were all in their twenties.  Dad’s sisters were in their teens and twenties.  It seemed like they all came to visit us at Third Street.  Uncle Frank came with his best buddy, Leo Richert, with whom I was in love—I told him to promise to wait for me to grow up so I could marry him.  It seemed like there was a whole crowd of young uncles and their buddies at the place, exciting young men who would throw me up in the air, catch me, toss me from one to the other. 

            Dad’s sisters, too, visited us at Third Street.  Helen came on the train by herself, bringing me a present and thereby becoming my favorite aunt.  Elizabeth and Martha, who were in their late teens, came down sometime during the summer.  A funny picture of them with my dad and Mom’s younger sister Sylvia still bears witness to their presence.  All of them are in bathing suits.  Sylvia sits on top of Liz and Martha’s shoulders, and my dad kneels between his sisters holding the right leg of one and the left leg of the other which are draped over his shoulders.


Copyright: Loretta Willems, October 2011