California was a magic place for my grandparents, and the desire to be there, in spite of anything and everything, shaped their lives for many years…it also shaped, to some extent, my relationship with both of them.
They were both from the Albany area in upstate New York and hated the winters there. The move to Seattle happened during the war. My grandmother’s father moved here to work in the Bremerton shipyard. As a young woman with a baby and a husband fighting overseas, she came with them. And so it was here that Grandpa came home after the war. It wasn’t a choice that they made.
California was their chosen home.
The Magic Kingdom was discovered
I do not know when my grandparents first visited California. My first visit was when I was 7 or 8 years old, instigated by my grandparents. It may have also been their first visit to Southern California.
My grandparents had gone down either to visit friends who had worked with grandpa or for grandpa’s work, he worked at Boeing at the time, right before the big layoffs in the early 1970’s. Grandpa discovered Disneyland. After he saw it he was bound and determined that my sister and I had to see it. They paid for plane tickets and sent for us.
That trip was a very, very big deal! We flew down alone, it was our first airplane trip, and stayed in a hotel (my parents never traveled so this was also huge).
Then there was the magic kingdom itself. My grandfather loved the “It’s a Small World” ride and we went on it more than once. He also loved Main Street. I was young enough that the Pirates of the Caribbean was scary. It was a magical trip, and I have always treasured it in my heart…and I have always loved the song “It’s a small, small world.” I never fly without remembering that trip.
Although I am not 100% sure, I think this trip may have been when my grandparents love affair with California started.
We subsequently made many, many trips to Disneyland with my grandparents, I have never been there without them. My last visit was my son’s first: he was seven, about the same age I was on my first visit. It was Grandma and Gramps birthday present to him.
Real life was a little less magical
Since I was young the timing is a bit fuzzy for the next stage of this story. My grandfather after the war got a Bachelor’s in Business. He then worked for US Plywood. As was the standard practice in those days, the company didn’t vest anyone in retirement until they had worked for the company for 15 years. They mostly ditched people at about 14 1/2 years to take on younger, cheaper labor and not have to provide pensions. Grandpa was not an exception.
After working at US Plywood he worked for Boeing (there may have been one other between, but if so they never mentioned it and I was too young to remember. In the early 1970s Boeing was decimated. There was the famous “Will the last person leaving Seattle–Turn out the lights” billboard at that time.
Again, grandpa wasn’t an exception. He worked in human resources and they needed way fewer of those folks as the number of employees dropped from over 100,000 to less than 40,000. Since he had already spent 14 plus years at US Plywood he didn’t have much seniority.
After Gramps was laid off they lost their house. They found a rental nearby and employment managing the local golf and country club as a team. Grandpa also worked odd jobs as a handyman. They scraped along.
A break in the gloom
Eventually they answered an ad to go to California and work for an elderly gentleman who needed a property manager for a mobile home compound and a housekeeper. For them it was heaven, to be in the sunshine. They had housing provided, even though it wasn’t glamorous. Grandpa loved going around keeping an eye on things, fixing this and that and chewing the fat with the leaseholders. There were orange trees all around the property and Grandma could swim in the pool.
Our second trip to California was to visit them for Christmas in 1971. That was the only long trip we ever took with my parents while they were married. I remember it as being fun, except that our car got hit in a snow storm at Mount Shasta. Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage wasn’t too bad, so we continued on. We had fun in the snow and fun in the sun on that trip. I ate so many oranges straight off the trees that I got a rash.
The house was a genuine old adobe home, fantastic from a historical standpoint…we spent one summer there when the old man was away. That was the summer my youngest sister was conceived, 1972.
It was also about the time they discovered that I am allergic to the sun (I turn red quickly and get a bumpy rash.) So I was smeared at regular intervals with cortisone cream and, during the day, had to stay in or wear a hat, which made me even hotter, 1000 Palms was often the hottest recorded temperature in the country during July.
When the old man passed away Grandma and Gramps were at loose ends and went to visit old friends in Eugene Oregon. While there they got a gig managing an apartment complex. But the winter came, and after a couple of years in the California desert it bit hard, even though Eugene Oregon isn’t bad compared to upstate New York. Grandpa started to save money in an old Galliano bottle to go back to California (he hated being cold). He poured all of his spare change into the bottle as well as going around picking up bottles and cans to return for the deposits, and sorting through trash to find them, and anything else that might yield a nickel for the Galliano bottle.
His magic bottle filled up, they headed south
They did save up enough and went back down, I do not know if they had jobs lined up before they left or not, but, if not, they were employed soon. Grandpa worked at Palm Springs mall, managing the janitorial staff and grandma did books and answered phones for various businesses. We visited a few times for parts of school holidays but during that period most of our contact was by letter and infrequent, very costly, phone calls. Nobody had much money for travel.
Hot, hot summers
My parents got divorced in 1976. Things changed in our relationship with my grandparents in several ways. First they were really, really angry at mom and she resented that, while at the same time she needed them, because she couldn’t take care of us in the summer when school was out. Every summer we were sent down to stay in the desert.
During most of that time they were working as a team to manage Casa Dorado, a posh condominium complex in Indian Wells. Grandma was working in the office several hours a day, so we were kind of on our own, but she was nearby and Grandpa was in and out, so it wasn’t 100% unsupervised either. It did put rather a lot of responsibility on me. And I was often miserable because of my sun allergy.
Also,there weren’t many folks around because of the heat of summer and no kids to hang out with. I used to read a whole lot, even riding a bike to the library to get books, but, even though it was only a few miles, in 110 degree heat it wasn’t particularly pleasant and in those days they didn’t have the great sun protection fabrics available today so I either really cooked or had a bad skin reaction.
We did, however, get a trip in to Disneyland most years. Uncle Sonny, Grandma’s brother lived in Garden Grove, near Anaheim.
The summer after my junior year in high school I rebelled, if you can call it that. I went and spent the summer at my Dad’s. Dad lived on Vashon, where we had lived before the divorce, and since I had gone to school there through eighth grade I still had friends I could visit. I worked with him on the house he was building on evenings and weekends. I think my sisters saw it as a near treasonous act.
Lessons from this time
My grandparents were hard workers, life didn’t treat them well and they felt trapped. When Life pulled the carpet out from under them in the form of the Boeing layoffs they finally got to make a choice. That choice was the Coachella valley desert, near Palm Springs. For them the place itself represented freedom and warmth. In a way it was a reward for sticking through the tough stuff.
My sister and I lost something precious when they moved and we always felt a sort of homecoming to wherever Grandma was. This was magnified after my parent’s divorce. Life was crazy, uncertain and unstable. I was thrust into caring for my younger sisters, when we were at Grandma’s I could relax more.
There is always going to be a tension between living for yourself and being there for others when they need you. I talked about this some in the post “the waiting is the hardest part”. I really respect that my grandparents moved to California and followed their happiness. That move helped to show me it is okay to leave. You can still have relationships. My grandparents supported my decision to leave home and go to college on the east coast. They even helped me to pay for expenses. That was a tremendous gift. I felt very trapped in Corvallis.
My grandmother’s dread of moving back to Seattle was, I believe, in large measure a fear of being trapped again. The jaunt we took to California a year after she moved up was very important to her, I talked about this in Carpe Diem.
I sometimes wish I had found that Galliano bottle, I would have kept it as a symbol: that hope combined with perseverance can move you to where you need to be.