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3. Growing Up Poor Girl
3. Growing Up Poor Girl

3. Growing Up Poor Girl


On the morning of June 8, 1950, I met the world in a ramshackle farm house surrounded by a pear orchard. As I first gasped for air, then screamed to announce the importance of my arrival, the Mexican midwife carried me outside and bathed me in cool water from a hand pump. Properly bathed and blessed in her Mayan dialect, she carried me back to be soothed with the milk of my mother's breasts. My father selected an auspicious spot and buried my placenta and umbilical cord.

The "ranch", as orchards were called, was between Alviso at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, Moffet Field Naval Air Station and the little town of Santa Clara. Its trees were part of a vast carpet which spread from the Bay to the surrounding foothills of Santa Clara Valley. The orchards shifted from pear, to prune, to apricot, to cherry as the elevation rose from the Bay with patches of dairy, bean and tomato or other row crop farms sprinkled in.

The owner of our pear orchard had moved to a modern house in town. Mom and Dad did farm work in lieu of rent to live in semi-abandoned house. Dad interpreted the orchard as my being born in a forest, a good omen for our Chinese surname, Lin, 林. He named me, Zhenzhu, meaning pearl which he made me learn to write in Chinese as 珍珠. Mom and a priest christened me Elizabeth, my official name. At home, I was tagged Shu by Dad meaning virtuous, Liezel by Mom and simply Sis by siblings.

None then could imagine the tsunami change coming to the area. I tried to locate my birth "ranch" recently and concluded it is now either where the San Francisco 49's Football Stadium is or perhaps next door where the Great America Theme Park. Perhaps it’s the parking lot between them, blessed with my afterbirth.

Soon after my birth, we moved and continued to jump about to low rent, rural, semi-abandoned houses as three siblings were added to my older brother and me, all boys. We were often in rent arrears and once hastily moved at night due to penury distress.

In 1963, when I was thirteen, we finally settled in San Jose off Story Road, east of Highway 101, in a vast subdivision known as Tropicana Village. Its eleven square feet, concrete slab floor, low pitched tar and gravel roof and stucco sides enclosing a small kitchen, single bath and four tiny bedrooms was one of 10,000 which sprang up in 1958.

Each had a brick fireplace to proclaim status but they were mostly unused or burned trash. While It became San Jose's east side slum, to us, it was a giant move up, a home with a garage, piped hot and cold tap water, a gas stove and a living room floor heater we huddled around on cold winter mornings. Until my older brother was drafted only I had my own bedroom. We fought for occupancy in the single bathroom.

Mom grew vegetables to supplement our dinner table in the fenced backyard with my watering and weeding assistance. Dad and my siblings often used the back yard to urinate to avoid bathroom congestion. Mom always scolded them to stay away from her garden as they exited the backdoor.

Once a month there was, the hundred- dollar, rent is due, crisis which often required my babysitting and odd job money contribution. I was glad to be able to help.

The development had become a lower income, working class, white area peppered with Hispanics and a few blacks when we moved in as a step up while middle class whites fled. We were the only Asians, hard to believe now. Driveways, frontage streets and even front yards were used to repair cars or abandon them.

Dad Who Doesn’t Provide

Dad was great at siring kids, womanizing and cooking. He was Chinese, six feet plus tall, of trim and strong build, had a light tan complexion and a stern face which easily broke into a sincere smile. In appearance, he looked like a military officer out of uniform. His voice was resonant as if in command but he had trouble pronouncing “L” sounds. Although good looking, charming and able to sing he never provided.

Mom in contrast was Filipina, four feet nine inches short, strong too but of squat stature with dark complexion. She was good at having kids; putting up with Dad and making her not enough pay check on pay day meet the next. We lived on the financial edge.

It was a mixed marriage of sorts. I had four known siblings and was the second oldest, the only girl. My brothers, except the eldest, took after Dad in responsibility but lacked his charm and looks. Some said I was the only one to get these. At five feet seven inches I was between Mom and Dad but like many things, closer to Dad.

Dad worked off and on but preferred off. What he earned he mostly spent on himself. He dressed well and wore a suit and tie when leaving the house. His white shirt was starched stiff and ironed by Mom and later me when older. His ties were silk, his shoes wing tips and he always wore a hat. All except the ties and shirts were of a brown hue, darker than his tan complexion which made him appear lighter in color. He had a knack with knots. I loved to watch him knot his ties different ways. He preferred a Windsor or Hanover. Superstitious, the day’s tie selected was dependent on perceived omens to give him luck.

Dressed, standing before the mirror, he swept his straight black hair back with a comb then set his fedora atop at a slight right side downward slant. The only wrinkle detracting from his military bearing was a tendency to clutch his left shoulder and left leg stiffness getting in and out of the car, assumed signs of arthritis. Once satisfied with the mirror’s reflection he strode to the garage.

On his way out the door, the clicked open, flint scratched and clucked close his Zippo lighter with Chinese dragon character as he lit his morning cigarette. As he drove from the garage to the curb, a whiff of smoke trailed his hand out the car window to mark his departure.

He loved to gamble at the Bay Meadows race track in Belmont and at Vahl's, an Italian restaurant in Alviso which had an illegal card club upstairs.

He drove Buicks, each about ten years old when purchased, then sold after a couple years for another. Once we had a convertible.

Putting the top down on a sunny day we drove around as if rich Californians, if a bit out of date. I remember the first one with power windows which we kids moved up and down in amazement. I think it was a 1953. He parked his car in our single car garage, took it to a car wash on Fridays and bought gas by ordering five gallons, not by dollar amount, which in those days was still under $2.00.

He could play the piano and sing, mostly Chinese songs he sang to himself. While I didn’t understand the words, like Latin Church music I loved listening to the sound of his singing. I remember one song he preferred, The Girl With Her First Love which he translated for me. He would also sing in English and liked the ditty Yankee Doodle Dandy which always caused me mirth as he struggled with the “L” sound in Doodle.

When he was home he filled the house with personality if not wealth. He was a good cook, worked occasionally as a chef and made not only Chinese but American and ethnic dishes. I learned cooking from him. I tried to please him and thrived on his attention. I treasured the times we cooked together or when he let me sing a Chinese song for him even when I didn’t understand the words. He never disciplined us or helped around the house except for cooking. He left the operation of the household to Mom and me when older.

Dad's happy go lucky personality gave him many friends but only good time ones. He attracted women, white ones, when it was a cultural racial taboo with his looks and charm. Some were so bold they phoned the house to ask for him. Most Friday evenings he backed out of the driveway without a word and returned either Sunday night or Monday morning. We, kids pretended nothing was happening but Mom often cried silently before the kitchen window as she watched him drive away. He never talked about his past. We knew nothing of his parents, immigration status or how he came to marry Mom or, if they, in fact were legally married. We did know he was born in northern China’s Shandong province, was not Cantonese like most Chinese in the area, could speak Mandarin and read and write Chinese, all of which he was proud of.

We knew when Chinese New Year came. He announced what animal the year was, what it meant and then disappeared for three days or more when it arrived. Us kids got our, tao hongbao, our lucky red money envelope after wishing him good luck with a "Kung Hei Fat Choi!" greeting.

Inside was a shiny new copper penny and crisp 20-dollar bill. It was the only time he gave us money. The amount was carefully squandered making Chinese New Year a holiday bigger than Christmas where the gifts from Mom were modest. Before leaving on his New Year escapade, Dad set off a long string of firecrackers early in the morning from the eve of the house front porch to protect the house and us from devils descending from the sky. Superstitious he saw odd omens as part of his day’s routine in such things as animals or numbers. A dead bird or the number four meant trouble. A stray cat or the number seven meant good luck as did the color red.

With his Chinatown connections Dad bought my brothers firecrackers for the Fourth of July. They paid him five cents a pack and re-sold them to neighborhood boys for twenty-five cents creating a temporary family influx of contraband cash flow. The labels had a picture of a Camel with sand dunes background on colorful red, green and yellow wrapping paper with, "Made In Macau" written on it.

Our family’s prestige and disposal income jumped with the retort of firecrackers in the neighborhood, evidence of our sudden wealth. Occasionally the fire marshal attempted to hunt down the source of the noise but I served as a safe courier and Mom provided a good cover of pidgin English innocence at the front door.

While Dad was superstitious, he was not religious. His deity, luck, mostly ignored his pleas despite his careful observation of perceived omens. Occasionally he did win big. Then we would be rich for a day or two and eat out.

While leaving us on the financial edge I still looked up to him but vowed never to marry one like him.

Hotel Maid Mother

I never saw physical contact between my parents but with 5 kids, knew something was physical between them even if in the past. Mom appeared even shorter than her four feet nine inches height, especially if standing next to Dad and his erect six feet. Her posture was hunched down, as if carrying a great weight on her shoulders, which she was. Despite being drooped stature and being a little squat, you could tell she once was pretty, perhaps even delicate pretty. It was time and hardships which had robbed her of beauty. Despite her weathered appearance with streaks of gray hair she retained a dignified look when viewed closely. She would break into a broad smile over just a little good fortune and accepted everyone as is and was a worker bee.

Our house while modest was clean and the yard kept while some neighbors allowed theirs to return to nature. She cooked when Dad was absent and made out clothes for us on her pedal sewing machine.

We knew Mom was born in Hawaii, on the Island of Maui but like Dad we knew little other of her past. She never told us how she left there or met Dad. She rode the bus and never had a driver's license. She was a farmworker when I was born and afterwards when we occupied run down rural houses. With a priest’s help she secured work as a housekeeper at the Sainte Claire Hotel, San Jose's downtown grand dame back then. It was her steady maid income which allowed us to rent our house in Tropicana Village, our permanent home of sorts.

The Saint Clare also provided her employment perks. We bathed with guest's little remnant soap bars, half empty sample size shampoo bottles and dried with hotel logo discarded towels worn thin. The few discarded due to because of unbleachable marring because guests used them for shoe shining or nail polish removal were luxuries. On the toilet we used stub paper rolls with too little left for motel guests. Mom only took home what was permitted and never stole.

Guests don't see hotel maids but the they see all. Mom shared guest gossip with me. As her confident and only daughter, we were close. I learned the married white mayor had a Japanese mistress; a city councilman was married but gay and which big wigs brought prostitutes or had one-night stands at the hotel. I even learned there was a priest who met there with a married woman from his parish. I wondered if he gave her confession afterwards in the hotel room. His sins eased the guilt of mine.

Occasionally a hotel guest left a small housekeeper tip. Mom converted these into Kennedy silver half dollars and saved them in a cigar box. It was our monetary reserve. Dad, however, often raided the box and sent me to the market with a note authorizing my purchase of two packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The shop keeper kept these separate in his cash drawer for Mom's retrieval. While the box was heavy it never filled.

Mom’s other savings stash was stamps, S &H Green and Blue Chip, licked and pasted in little books. Each stamp reflected a 10-cent purchase. The only way to divert Mom’s shop loyalty was for another store to offer double stamps. Books were carefully saved with their wrinkled pasted pages to be redeemed for our household luxury items, the toaster, iron, coffee maker.

A devout Catholic, President Kennedy a martyred saint, Mom attended Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. Her faith centered on Christ crucified on the cross, saint's statutes, candles, the rosery and holy water. She kept a bottle of holy water on her bedroom night stand to sprinkle on our cuts after the bathroom’s Mercurochrome and Band-Aid treatment. At church, she prayed fervently before religious statues mouthing the prayer's words in a complex mix of Hawaiian Pidgin English and Philippine dialect. I hoped God understood what I couldn’t. Inserting a dime in the locked black metal box, she lite a candle in a red glass, her favorite color, knelt before the statute, crossed herself and with bowed head and whispered her request. When finished she re-crossed herself and checked to ensure her candle remained lit.

To find something lost it was before Saint Anthony but usually it was before the Blessed Virgin Mary. The statues, like Dad's luck deity mostly ignored her prayers including her pleas to protect her first-born Rickie after he was drafted. She took what siblings she could collar to Mass but I went willingly. If there’s a Catholic heaven, she’s on an upper tier.

Before Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley, I and my siblings picked fruit and vegetables during the summer and brought some home to eat. If we made a rare family outing to the coast it was also a food gathering trip with fishing off a pier and dropping crab nets.

I remember the first day Mom used food stamps. We ate crab without a coast trip. I was fourteen, the age one learns their societal place. I was with Mom at our local market, the neighborhood kind, before they were snuffed out by supermarkets. The owner, employees and customers knew one another and their families. Mom put four crabs in our little cart. I was amazed and assumed Dad had made a big win.

At the cash register, Mom pulled a food stamp booklet out of her purse and tore out dollar stamps to pay. The store owner looked askance while ringing our purchases up. I was embarrassed and looked away in shame as she handed over the stamps. Humiliated as he counted them, I walked alone to the car.

We ate better afterwards but I never accompanied Mom to the market again.

Author Notes: Sets background for life story.

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20 May, 2017
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