On the morning of June 8, 1950, I met the world. It was in a ramshackle farm house surrounded by a pear orchard, outside the small town of Santa Clara, California. As I first gasped for air and 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 a auspicious spot and buried my placenta and umbilical cord.
The "ranch" as orchards were called, was between Alviso at southern end of San Francisco Bay and Moffet Field Naval Air Station. Its trees were part of a vast carpet which spread in Santa Clara Valley from the Bay to the foothills of the surrounding mountains, snugly surrounding small town like Santa Clara. They shifted from pear to prune to apricot, to cherry as the elevation rose from the Bay to the foothills with bean and tomato or other row crop farms tossed in now and then.
The owner of our pear orchard had moved to a modern house in town. Rent was cheap with Mom doing farm work. My father 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 Eleanor, 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 is but most likely is a parking lot between them, blessed somewhere with my afterbirth.
Soon after I was born we moved and continued to move about to low rent, rural, semi abandoned houses as three siblings were added to my older brother and me, all boys. Even with low rent we were often in arrears and once hastily moved at night due to a stint of penury distress.
In 1963, we finally settled in San Jose, east of Highway 101, in a rented, 4 tiny bedrooms, single bath track house off Story Road. With its 1,100 square feet, concrete slab floor, low pitched tar and gravel roof and stucco sides it was one of 10,000 which sprang up in 1958, a massive instant subdivision known as Tropicana Village.
While each house had a brick fireplace to proclaim status they were mostly unused or burned trash. The vast development became 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 out. Driveways, frontage streets and even front yards were used to repair cars or abandon them.
We were the only Asians, hard to believe now. While It became San Jose's east side slum, to us, it was a giant move up, a home with a garage, piped water even hot, a gas stove, a gas furnace and a fenced backyard. Mom grew vegetables there to supplement our dinner table with my watering and weeding assistance.
We fought for occupancy in the single bathroom. Dad and my siblings often used the back yard to pee with Mom scolding to stay away from her garden. Until my older brother was drafted only I had my own bedroom. Once a month there was, the rent is due crisis which often required my babysitting and odd job money contribution.
I was glad to be able to help.
Dad Who Doesn’t Provide
Dad was great at siring kids, womanizing and cooking. He was Chinese, 6 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, 4 feet 9 inches short, strong 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 4 known siblings and was the 2nd 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 5 feet 7 inches I was between Mom and Dad but like many things, closer to Dad.
Dad worked off and on but usually preferred off. What he earned he mostly spent on himself. He dressed well. He wore a suit and tie when leaving the house with starched white shirt ironed by Mom, silk tie, wing tip shoes, and a hat, all brown/tan shades except the shirt and tie. He had a knack with knots. He could knot his tie many ways but preferred a Windsor or Hanover depending on the occasion and thickness of the tie. I loved watching him knot his tie. Superstitious, his tie was carefully selected based on omens he perceived for the day to give him “luck.”
Once 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 into and out of the car. I in error assumed these were early signs of arthritis. Once satisfied with the mirror’s reflection he strode to the garage.
The click open, flint scratch and cluck close sounds of his Zippo lighter with Chinese dragon character were heard as he lit a cigarette on the way out. As he drove off from the garage a whiff of smoke trailed from the cigarette held out the car window marking his driveway departure.
He loved to gamble at the Bay Meadows race track in Belmont and at Val's, an Italian restaurant in Alviso which had an illegal card club upstairs.
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 asking for him. Once a girl at school confronted me saying my father was a womanizer. I walked away humiliated while she and another laughed. I seethed over this insult and the next day walked up to her and slapped her face.
It was the only time I was disciplined in school. I never told the principal why but then learned her parents were divorcing and my father was suspect cause. While Dad womanized, and failed to provide, he eventually always returned home and we remained a family.
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.
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 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.
Dad's happy go lucky personality gave him many friends but only good time ones. 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. 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, the treasured times we were close.
He never talked about his past. We knew nothing of his parents, immigration status or how he came to marry my mother 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 little red lucky money envelope after wishing him good luck with a "Kung Hei Fat Choi!" greeting.
Inside our red packet 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 tie selection in such things as a dead bird in the backyard or the number 4which meant trouble. A stray cat meant good luck as did the number 7 and the color red.
With Chinatown connections Dad bought my brothers firecrackers for the 4th of July. They paid him 5 cents a pack and re-sold them to neighborhood boys for 25 cents creating a temporary family influx of contraband cash flow. The pack labels had a picture of a Camel with sand background on colorful red, green and yellow wrapping paper with, "Made In Macau" written on it.
Our family’s prestige and disposal income jumped up with the bang retorts 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 ignorant 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.
When he was home he filled the house with personality if not wealth. We all tried to please him. I thrived on the little attention he gave such as cooking together and attempted to sing with him in Chinese while not understanding the words.
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. While 4 feet, 9 inches Mom appeared even shorter, especially if standing next to Dad and his erect 6 feet. She stood hunched down as if carrying a great weight on her shoulders which is way she was. Despite being drooped and 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.
Mom was born in Hawaii on, the Island of Maui and like Dad we knew little of her past. She didn't tell 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 after 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. With her maid income, we rented a house in Tropicana Village which became our permanent home of sorts.
There we bathed with guest's left over little soap bars and half empty, sample sized, shampoo bottles. We dried off with hotel discarded towels you could almost see through unless marred by a guest using them for shoe shining or nail polish removal which bleach could not hide. On the toilet, we wiped using stub paper rolls with too little left for motel guests. All were perks of Mom’s employment. She never stole anything, not even a toilet paper roll.
Guests don't see hotel maids but the maids see all. Mom shared guest gossip with me, her only daughter. As her confident 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 himself and her confession when leaving the hotel. Hearing of 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 one and 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 eventual 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 reflecting a 10-cent purchase. The only way to divert Mom’s shop loyalty was for another 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 with President Kennedy a martyred saint, Mom attended Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, week days Catholics were also required to attend Mass. Her faith centered on holy water, candles and saint's statutes. She kept a bottle of holy water on her bedroom night stand to sprinkle on our cuts and bruises. 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 although U could not. Inserting a dime in the metal candle box, she lite a candle in a red glass, her favorite color, knelt before the statute, crossed herself and with bowed head whispered her request. When finished she re-crossed herself and checked to ensure her candle was burning bright.
To find something lost it was before Saint Anthony but for most things it was before the Blessed Virgin Mary. The statues, like Dad's luck deity mostly ignored her prayers such 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 heaven she’s on an upper tier.
I remember the first food stamps. Up until then the only crab we ate were ones caught off the Santa Cruz pier on a rare family outing which also served as a food gathering trip. It was before Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley. I and my siblings picked fruit and vegetables during the summer and brought some home to eat. My brothers worked at a cannery as soon as they were old enough and collected unemployment the rest of the year. We ate better during harvest season.
The day we got food stamps we ate crab without a coast trip. I was fourteen, the age one learns their societal place. I was helping Mom shop 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. She put four fresh crabs in our little cart. I was amazed we could afford them and assumed Dad had a big win.
At the cash register, om took 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 as she handed him the stamps. Humiliated as he counted them, I walked alone to the car.
We ate better after that but I never accompanied Mom to the market again.
Author Notes: Sets background for life story.