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, December 31, 2011

The Apartment on Academy Way

I am not the only one who remembers the house on Academy Way and the apartment over the garage.  My cousin Sunny (Madeline), Uncle Frank's oldest daughter, lived in that apartment with her mom and her little brother, Joe, during WWII while their dad was overseas.  Even though she was very little, she has vivid memories from that time and wrote them up at my request.

The Apartment on Academy Way 

 I remember the apartment that was next to Grandma and Grandpa Willems on Academy Way in Dinuba.                                    

I remember the ice box on the front porch and the splintery wooden flight of stairs that seemed to go on forever. 

I remember the wire fence between us and the Willems grandparents.  I can still hear Grandpa whistling as he puttered in his garden.

Joe and I were very small, and we forgot from one day to the next that we were not allowed on the other side of the fence.  Grandpa’s yard was so much more interesting than the driveway at the apartment.  Inevitably, even knowing the punishment to follow we would turn on the tap in his garden.  I remember trying to wash my doll’s dirty face at the tap when grandpa crept up behind us.  He boxed Joe’s ears so hard Joe went flying.  I could see that retreat would be the best idea and ran for the gate.  I tried to look behind me to see if he was gaining on me and tripped, hitting my head on a wooden post at the gate.  That occasion was the first I remembered seeing the inside of a hospital.  I had to wear a bandage around my head for the longest time.  I believe I was 3 ½ and Joe was 2. 

We never figured out if Grandpa didn’t like the two of us, or children in general.  Joe has always had problems in school with partial hearing loss, and there is no doubt in my mind that this was caused by the numerous ear boxing he received until we moved from there.   I can’t remember ever talking to Grandpa after that occasion.  He never acknowledged me even to say hello.

When we discovered the house across the way was owned by a Chinese family, Joe and I would try to get a look at the children.  The father was a dentist and the house, as I remember was quite nice.  One time Joe and I were standing on a log spying on the house when the boys, a bit older than us, came out at a run and pushed us off the log.  As usual I ran, leaving Joe to his fate. Joe came screaming home with his nose bloodied.  When I was about 12, my mom took me to that dentist to have a tooth pulled, and I remember him charging $2.00 for this.

I remember Liz and my mom sitting on the stairs to the apartment.  Their skirts were pulled up to get some sun, and they were comparing the size of their thighs. They had been talking about their weight and compared their thighs to see who had the worst problem in that regard.  I remember I tore a hole in my overalls.  Mom teased me about being able to see my butt.  I was embarrassed and sat with them instead of playing.


We experienced the first Christmas I can remember at that apartment.  Joe got a tricycle which he promptly rode out the door and down the stairs.  I still remember the commotion, the blood and the tears.  It’s strange to me that we (Joe and I) do not remember the preparations for Christmas, or even the Christmas tree in the living room until Christmas morning.  We were up before Mom and Dad as usual and walked into the living room.  We took one look at all those toys and ran back to bed.  We gathered our courage and went to Mom and Dad to tell them about this phenomenon.  One of my gifts, a doll, terrified me.  Something about that doll scared me so bad that when we were invited to Grandma’s house I took it with me and hid it so I would never have to see it again.  Somebody found it and kindly returned it.  After that I just made sure the doll was face down and out of sight.  I had nightmares about that doll’s face for years.

I remember watching my lovely aunts coming out of Grandma’s house, always dressed beautifully.  They were always kind to us.

I remember mom hanging the wet laundry on the clothesline, singing as she worked.  Mom was always singing as she her daily chores.  One song in particular was the song she and dad had chosen as their own, “Red Sails In The Sunset.”[1]  One day I took advantage of this to climb on top of the counter and get the sugar bowl.  I was eating sugar as fast as I could and dropped the sugar bowl on the floor.  I was caught red-handed and earned a swat for my effort.

I remember when my mom received a letter from the war department, informing her that our dad was missing in action.  For some reason the allotment we were living on stopped, and left us quite destitute until this matter was cleared up.  I still have the letter.  Thankfully our dad was located, having been injured by shrapnel in his back. 

I left a permanent remembrance of myself in that apartment.  I knocked the ironing board over and the flat iron burned quite a dark impression in the linoleum.

Grandma’s front porch was like an oasis.  As long as I was a child it was one of my favorite places to be.  Mom and Grandma often stood and talked, both of them wearing aprons, while we were euphoric at the freedom to be at Grandma’s house on the front porch.

I recently saw the apartment on Academy Way and was struck by how small and shabby it is, and that the stairway is not as long as I remember it.  Grandma’s house had deteriorated to a great extent and brought to mind how neat and clean everything once was.  I always have fond memories of living there, because Joe and I had our mother to ourselves.  She was dear and loving and she was ours.  

Sunny Christensen,
Marion, Kansas, April 19, 2011        

[1] Red Sails in the Sunset” was written by Hugh Williams (1935).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"The Girls"

“We had a ball.  I remember when all of us girls worked. I worked at Safeway, Liz at Purity.  Clara worked at Justison’s.  All three of us worked in grocery stores in just one block, and Rosie worked for an insurance company, all in this one block.  This was when all the boys were gone.  We would sit around the table in the evening, and each one would tell something that happened during the day and laugh and cut up, and then—this is where we made a mistake—instead of going in and washing dishes before everything dried on, we’d go in the living room and Martha would play the piano and we would sing—almost every night.  Oh, that was just a lot of fun, and then,—you remember that big school, that big brick school across the street?  They had swings out, and we would go out and swing and talk   We had such a lot of fun.  In fact, I didn’t care whether I ever got married.”                                           Aunt Mary (1994)

Academy Way was a house of women during the War.  Six of the sisters moved into the house when the family moved from Milsap Avenue.  Aunt Velma joined them, moving into the apartment over the garage with Madeline and Joe, her little ones.  Then, when Marlan was drafted into the Army, Liz moved into the garage apartment as well.  There were now twelve people living on the property, ten of them female.  The only males in residence were Grandpa and little Joe.  Twelve people—four people in the one bedroom apartment over the garage and eight people in the three bedroom house.  No wonder my early memories of Academy Way are of a house filled with people!

  The house didn’t feel crowded, though.  It just felt like a big party.  People laughed, kidded each other, told jokes and funny stories.  They would sit around the kitchen table and lean against the doorway into the back bedroom.  Grandma would sit in her rocking chair, smiling and watching everyone.  Someone new would walk into the kitchen from the back door, be greeted and hugged.  When the kitchen got too full, some of the people would move into the living room taking their laughter with them.

                And there was singing.  Everyone in that family sang, I think.  My aunts sang close harmony like the Andrew Sisters.  They would gather around the piano, sing popular wartime songs like “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola.”  Dad sang with Ed and Frank—Frank singing a deep, rich bass, Ed and Dad singing tenor and lead.  Their songs were funny ones like “Bill Grogan’s Goat” and “The bullfrog on the bank, little Moses in the pool.” Grandma sang, too—but hymns, not secular music.  She had a high, very distinctive voice and sang in a trio with Mary and Helen in churches and on a Visalia radio station.
All the sisters have said how much fun they had when they lived together in the house on Academy Way.  Rosie, like Mary, talked about how they would gather around the piano after dinner and sing and cut up, adding that the neighbors used to sit out on their porch and listen to them.  And Liz, when she told me about sharing the apartment with Velma, exclaimed, “We had so much fun!”   The sisters were young and vibrant, full of life.  They had pretty clothes and dressed with flair, their small waists, full bust, slim hips and beautiful legs perfectly fitting the tight bodices and short skirts that defined war-time fashion.  To me my young aunts were as glamorous as movie stars. 
Six sisters sharing two bedrooms, however, meant a definite lack of privacy.   The two oldest sisters, Helen and Mary, shared a double bed in the front bedroom.  The rest of the sisters all slept in the knotty-pine paneled bedroom at the back of the house.  In the years before marriage began to thin their ranks, that meant four sisters in one room—Martha, Rosie, Clara and Anna Jane.  Talking with Rosie recently about how many beds were in that room, she could no longer remember.  She just remembered wishing that they’d all get married and move out so she could have a bedroom to herself.

The Post-War Marriage Boom
 On the second day of September 1945, Japanese officials formally surrendered to the United States officials aboard the USS Missouri.  The Second World War was over.  The men started coming home, and when they did, the crowd of women at 135 Academy Way started to thin.  Uncle Frank and Marlan, Liz’s husband, were discharged as soon as the war ended.  Before long, Liz and Velma moved out of the apartment over the garage. On January 1, 1946, Aunt Mary married Les Davis, a widower, and suddenly becoming the mother of his two little children—seven year old Leslie and four year old Marilyn. 
Clara was next.  She married Alan Weaver sometime during 1946.  The next to leave the house was Martha.   On 10 January 1947, she married Lowell Long, Uncle Ed’s best buddy.  That was three marriages in slightly more than a year.  There were now only three sisters at home, Helen in the front bedroom, Rosie and Anna Jane in the back one. 
Then, sometime around 1950, Anna Jane married Jack Pattison.  Rosie finally had a bedroom to herself.  She and Helen were the only sisters left at home.  That situation ended on the third of July 1953, when Rosie married Russ Noble.  Around that same time, Helen married Arnold Thiessen.  All the girls were now gone.  Grandma and Grandpa had the house on Academy Way all to themselves.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Chapter 9: Dinuba, the House on Academy Way

“Helen and I bought the place on Academy Way.  John helped make the down payment, and Martha, too.  We paid John back, and Helen and I made the payments.  Then when Mom had to have her surgery I had to release myself because Helen wanted to make a loan to pay for the surgery.  I was married, and Les and I just let Helen have the house—she did so much for Mom.”                                                                                           Aunt Mary (1994)
                Sometime during the latter part of World War II, Grandma, Grandpa and six of my seven aunts left the rented house on Milsap Avenue and moved into one on Academy Way, a street a few blocks south of Dinuba’s downtown area.  That whole neighborhood looks sad now.  The houses are run down, paint peeling, bars on the windows, the trees gone.  It looks nothing like it did when the Willlems family lived there. It was a pleasant neighborhood back then with an abundance of tall trees that cast pools of shade.  Large shrubs softened the edges of modest white-painted wood bungalows.  Deep porches sheltered front doors and windows.  It looked relaxed and comfortable, a quiet neighborhood of older people at peace with life and old age. 
There was a big brick elementary school across the street from Grandma and Grandpa’s house with a tree-shaded playground that I’m sure brought plenty of child noise to the neighborhood when school was in session.  But I never heard that.  My family came down to Dinuba on weekends and during the summers.  The playground was empty when I was there, its swings and slide lonely, waiting for someone to come and swing or climb the slide and shoot to the bottom. 
                We almost never parked on Academy Way when we drove up from Stockton.  We parked just off the paved alley that ran behind all the houses in that block.  The first house we passed when we turned into the alley faced College Avenue and was almost invisible amongst the trees and bushes that almost filled the huge double lot.  Grandma and Grandpa’s house was next to that mini-forest, and Dad would park the car on the hard-packed dirt beside a weeping mulberry tree that was right on the property line.
I loved that alley.  I thought all towns should have them, thought all garages should open onto alleys instead of cluttering up the front sides of houses the way they did in Stockton.  And this alley was particularly nice.  Trees and old bushes draped over the fences that lined it, making green, shady walls that offered glimpses of the back side of people’s houses, the private side with vegetable gardens and laundry hanging on clothes lines and unpainted old garages and sheds.  It was a place to explore and find treasures in the discards of people’s lives.
                Grandma and Grandpa had the best garage on the alley, a two-story garage with a one-bedroom apartment over the parking bay and storage area.  It was set perpendicular to the alley, the garage doors opening onto the packed dirt parking area in the back yard rather than opening into the alley itself.  The stairs to the apartment were on the side of the building that faced the main house.  A low fence separated the garage-apartment area from the rest of the back yard.  An old citrus tree filled the space between the fence and the back of the house.  I say “citrus tree” because the tree had been grafted and bore grapefruit, oranges and enormous lemons all on the one tree.  I think the tree itself might have been a grapefruit.  One of its lemons was enough to make a whole pitcher of lemonade all by itself.
                We always entered the house through door into the kitchen.  The door was on the west side of house facing the lot with all the trees, and it opened into what I think was originally a porch that had been opened up into the kitchen, creating one large room.  A shed-style roof came down to a horizontal band of windows that went clear across the back of the kitchen then wrapped around the northwest corner to meet the back door which had a window in the upper half.  The kitchen table was set in the alcove in front of the band of windows.  This was my favorite place to sit, in the chair at the end of the table facing the back door, the dark green of the citrus tree just outside the windows beside me.
                The kitchen was where Grandma spent her days.  Usually when I came in she would be sitting in her rocking chair that was placed next to the swinging door to the dining room.  People who came in the back door tended to stay in the kitchen, visiting with Grandma and whoever else was in there.  They would join me at the table or lean against the doorway into the back bedroom, talking and laughing.
                But the kitchen wasn’t just a place to visit, eat and cook.  The kitchen was where hair was washed, permanents given.  It was where people ironed clothes, where Grandma sewed and crocheted.  The room was old and worn, the enamel of the sink scrubbed down to the black cast iron base; counters and backsplash were covered in linoleum, not ceramic tile like our house in Stockton.  But I loved that room anyway.  It was roomy and comfortable, cheerful when filled with people, peaceful when it was just Grandma and me with the birds murmuring and talking to each other in the trees outside the windows.
                The rest of the house seems dimmer, darker than the kitchen.  Part of the reason is that I spent much less time in the other rooms, but the main reason is that the rest of the house truly was darker and dimmer.  Blinds were kept half-down in the dining and living rooms, fully down in the bedrooms.  A swamp cooler filled the front window of the living room; citrus trees shaded the other windows. 
                The rooms in the house looked much like those in 1940s movies, either actual old films or faithful reproductions like the PBS Masterpiece Theater production of “Foley’s War.”  Walls were papered in muted patterns of light grey, ivory or beige.  Touches of burgundy on dining room chair seats added a bit of contrast.  There may also have been some burgundy or maroon in the pattern of the 9’x12’ rug under the massive old dining room table in the dining room.  The living room had a room-sized rug as well, but I don’t remember the color of it or of the couch and easy chairs—brown, or grey, perhaps?   I’m quite sure, though, that here was a new console phonograph-radio sitting on the floor under the side window in the living room.  What I remember most definitely is lounging on the couch in the summer, letting the cool, moist, excelsior-scented air from the swamp cooler in the window above blow over me.
                The twilight of living and dining rooms was pleasant, particularly on hot summer days.  The darkness of two of the bedrooms was not.  Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom on the side of the house, and the back bedroom where most of the girls slept, felt like forbidding dark caves.  I had no desire to explore those rooms.  I remember very little about them. 
One of the bedrooms, however, was filled with light.  This was the front bedroom which was on the southwest corner of the house.  The shades here were also always fully drawn, but the intense light outside made the blinds as luminous as lampshades.  This was Aunt Helen’s bedroom.  Even though small, it was an inviting room with nice furniture—a double bed, chest of drawers and a dressing table with a big mirror where Aunt Helen could sit, do her hair and put on her make-up.  Since the only bathroom in the house was between the front and middle bedrooms, I had plenty of opportunity to sit at the dresser and explore Aunt Helen’s make-up and jewelry.