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

Chaapter 3. Growing Up Poor Girl

CobraElizabeth Lin Johnson

On the morning of June 8, 1950, I met the world in a ramshackle farmhouse, surrounded by a pear orchard. As I 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 lattice carpet of fruit orchards that spread from the Bay to the surrounding foothills of Santa Clara Valley. The fruit grown shifted from pear, to prune, to apricot, to cherry as the elevation rose with patches of dairy, bean, tomato or other farms sprinkled in.

The orchard’s owner had moved into a modern home with my family occupying their dilapidated, old house providing farm work in lieu of rent. Dad interpreted my birth in the orchard a favorable omen for our surname, Lin, 林, which means forest in Chinese. He named me, Zhen zhu, meaning pearl, which he made me learn to write as 珍珠. Mom and a priest christened me Elizabeth. At home, I was tagged Shu by Dad meaning virtuous, Liezel by Mom, a Tagalog diminutive of Elizabeth meaning God’s abundance and simply Sis by siblings.

None then could imagine the tech tsunami coming to change the area into Silicon Valley. I tried to locate my provenance birth ranch recently and concluded it’s either within the San Francisco 49's Football Stadium, next door at the Great America Theme Park or in the parking lot in-between. Among the throngs who visit, there is a small spot blessed with my afterbirth.

Soon after my birth, the house was demolished, we moved and continued to relocate to low rent, rural, semi-abandoned houses as three siblings were added to my older brother and me, all boys. Once in rent arrears, due to penury distress, we hastily packed our few belongings and moved at night.

In 1963, when I was thirteen, we finally settled in San Jose, off Story Road, east of Highway 101, in a vast, low-cost subdivision, known as Tropicana Village. Our eleven hundred square foot, concrete slab floor, low pitched tar and gravel roof and stucco sides rented house enclosed a small kitchen, single bath, and four tiny bedrooms, one of 10,000 hastily constructed in 1958.

The houses 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 to a home with a garage, piped hot and cold water, gas kitchen stove and a living room natural gas floor heater where we huddled around on cold winter mornings. Only I had my own bedroom. We fought for occupancy in the single bathroom.

The development was becoming a lower to lower middle-income, working-class, white area, peppered with Hispanics and a few blacks when we moved in 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.

Mom grew vegetables to supplement our dinner table in the small, fenced backyard with my watering and weeding assistance. Dad and my siblings often urinated in the back due to bathroom congestion. Mom 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 money contribution. I was glad to be able to help.

Dad was Chinese, six-foot-plus tall and of trim and athletic stature. He had a light, tan complexion and a stern face which easily broke into a happy smile. Gravitas 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. He was handsome, charming and able to sing but a poor provider. He was good at cooking, siring kids and womanizing.

Mom, in contrast, was Filipina, four-foot nine inches short, strong too but of squat build with a dark complexion. She was good at raising kids; putting up with Dad and making her not enough paycheck on payday meet the next. We lived on the financial edge.

I never saw physical contact between my parents but with five kids, knew something was physical between them in the past. It was a mixed marriage of sorts. I had four known siblings, was the second oldest and the only girl. My brothers, except the older, 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 mostly off. What he earned, he tended to spend on himself. He dressed well and wore a suit and tie when he left the house. His white shirt was starched stiff and ironed by Mom, then me when I was older. His ties were silk, his shoes, wingtips and he always wore a hat outside. 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, typically with a Windsor or Hanover knot. Superstitious, the day’s tie selected was dependent on perceived omens to give him luck.

Dressed, he stood before the mirror, swept his straight black hair back with a comb, then set his fedora atop at a slight downward slant to the right. 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, he flipped open his Zippo lighter with a Chinese dragon character, spun the flint wheel with his thumb, the spark ignited the wick and the flame lit his morning cigarette. When the door closed behind him, you heard the metallic cluck of the lighter close as he dropped it back into his coat pocket. Ensconced in the car, he cranked the engine alive and backed quickly from the garage to the curb, a whiff of smoke trailing his hand out the car window to mark his departure.

He loved to gamble and was a regular 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, I think it was a 1953. Us kids moved the windows up and down in amazement. 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 him 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 culinary fare. I learned cooking from him, 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 though 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 I was older.

Dad's happy go lucky personality gave him many friends but only good time ones. He attracted women, white ones with his looks and charm, when it was a cultural racial taboo. 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 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 were a shiny new copper penny and a crisp twenty-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, he set off a long string of firecrackers early in the morning from the porch eave 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 eight 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 peddled them to neighborhood boys for twenty-five cents. The lucrative markup created a temporary, family influx of contraband cash flow and made the Fourth of July our second biggest day of the year after Chinese New Year. The labels had a picture of a Camel, with sand dunes background, emblazoned on colorful red, green and yellow wrapping paper with, "Made In Macau" written on it.

Our family’s patriotism, prestige, and disposable income were enhanced with the retort of firecrackers in the neighborhood, evidence of our sudden popularity and wealth. Occasionally the fire marshal attempted to hunt down the source of the noise. Mom provided a good cover of pidgin English innocence at the front door. Once, serving as a courier to brothers with firecrackers in my purse, I was stopped and grilled by the Fire Marshal. I tried to lie but, in my fright,, he saw through me. After my tearful confession, he let me off by confiscating the ten packs I was carrying with the comment I was the first girl he'd ever caught with firecrackers. After my run-in with the law, Dad advised me.

“Shu, in life sometimes it’s best to lie. When necessary, look directly at the person, never look away. Keep the lie simple and something they’ll believe. Say something they know is true for a diversion. Don’t forget your lie.”

One day, he demonstrated this technique when stopped for speeding while I as in the car with him. With his advice and example, I became a good liar, so convincing. even Dad believed my lies or at least let them lay once said.

Dad’s superstitious luck deity 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.

Mom appeared shorter than her four-foot, nine-inch, diminutive height, standing next to Dad's erect six-plus feet. Her hunched posture, as if carrying a great weight, was because she was. Despite drooped shoulders and squat stature, you could tell she once was pretty, perhaps even delicate pretty. It was time and hardships that had robbed her of beauty. Despite her weathered appearance and streaks of gray hair, she retained a dignified look when viewed closely. She broke into a broad smile over just a little good fortune, accepted everyone as is and was a worker bee.

Our house, while modest, was clean and the yard tidy while many neighbor’s homes were unkempt and their yards allowed to return to nature. She made clothes for us on her pedal sewing machine and cooked when Dad was absent but her cooking skills didn’t match his.

We knew Mom was born in Hawaii, on the Island of Maui, but like Dad, we knew little more 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 afterward 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 that allowed us to rent our house in Tropicana Village, our permanent home of sorts.

The Saint Clare also provided 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, because a guest used them for shoe shining, or nail polish removal, were our luxury towels. On the toilet, we used stub paper rolls with too little left for motel guests. Mom was the inherent honest type. She took home only what was permitted, never stole and ensured whatever of value a guest left behind in the room was turned in to lost and found.

As her only daughter, we were close. Guests don't see hotel maids but they see all and Mom shared guest gossip with me. I learned the married, white mayor, had a Japanese mistress, a married city councilman was 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 afterward in the hotel room.

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 Mom’s Kennedy half dollars separate in his cash drawer for her eventual retrieval. While the box was heavy, it never filled due to one financial crisis or another.

Mom’s other savings stash was trading 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 redeemed for our household luxury items, toaster, steam iron, coffee maker, etc.

A devout Catholic, President Kennedy a martyred saint, Mom attended Mass every Sunday. Her faith centered on Christ crucified on the cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, saint's statutes, candles, the rosary, and holy water. She kept a bottle of holy water on her bedroom nightstand to sprinkle on our cuts after the bathroom’s red Mercurochrome and Band-Aid treatment.

At church, she prayed fervently, mouthing her prayers in a complex mix of Hawaiian Pidgin, English, and Philippine dialects that even God would have difficulty to understand. Before each saint statue was a rack of candles. Mom would select one to plea bargain with after, insert a dime in the black metal box, light a candle, cross herself and whispered her request as she knelt with bowed head. When finished, she re-crossed herself got up, 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, our family picked fruit and vegetables during the summer and brought some home to eat. If we made a rare outing to the coast, it was also a food gathering trip. We fished off a pier and dropped crab nets.

I remember the first time Mom used food stamps. We ate crab without a coast trip. I was fourteen, the age one learns their societal place. We were at our local market, the neighborhood store, 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 her purchases up. I was embarrassed and looked away in shame. Humiliated as he counted them, I walked alone to the car.

We ate better afterward but I never accompanied Mom into the market again.

Author Notes: Sets background for woman's life story as she looks back on her life

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About The Author
Elizabeth Lin Johnson
About This Story
20 May, 2017
Read Time
15 mins
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