“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.