Remembering San Jose as It Used to Be

IMG_20180626_150901406[1]Sitting in an over air-conditioned Jack in the Box restaurant at the corner of Branham Lane and Almaden Expressway in San Jose the other day, my father sipped his chocolate milkshake and smiled at the irony. When he was a boy, this was the site of the Five Mile House saloon. Across Almaden was Ed Mullins’ general store. His Grandpa Joe and Grandma Louise Fagalde lived across Branham just west of the Guadalupe River. They had a house, a small orchard, a vineyard, horses, a fish pond, and in later years a service station with a little store.

Joe didn’t know much about cars. When my dad would come to visit as a teenager, he’d urge him to drive, saying, “Hey, kid, let’s go for a ride.” But with the help of his sons and niece Irene, they made it work. For my father, growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, it was a magical place where his grandfather spoke several languages, piloted a horse-driven water truck to wet down the dirt roads, had horses so trained they’d obey him like dogs, and a parrot who would call “Hey Joe!” in exactly the same voice as Grandma Louise, driving him nuts.

There was no bridge over the creek, but a graveled crossing, which Joe rebuilt after it washed out every winter.

The two-story house didn’t have electricity when Dad was young. Later, it just had one light bulb hanging in each room. There were no plugs; there was nothing to plug in. They used an outhouse, cooked on a wood stove, and stored food in an ice box, yet they had wonderful family gatherings where somehow the women produced a feast without any modern conveniences.

Looking across the six busy lanes of Branham Lane now, we could see a two-story retail building which offered manicures, eyelash extensions, computer service, a dentist’s office, and some kind of car repair. The creek was all that remained of the old homestead. The Fagalde property was sold in the 1960s after both grandparents had passed on. Changes were happening all over Santa Clara Valley. The land of orchards and dirt roads on which Dad occasionally road horses between his parents’ place on Dry Creek Road and his grandparents’ home on Branham Lane disappeared. But in his mind, he could still see it.

We had been touring the sites of Dad’s youth. I laughed when I came to the intersection and saw the Jack in the Box. I had been looking for a place to get a burger. Now we could park and really study the place. Afterward, I drove through the parking lot across the street to get a closer look. Dumpsters stood where the outhouse used to be. The creek, where it was not blocked by trees, still had water in it. And the occasional shopping cart.

“You should write a book about it,” my father kept saying. Maybe I will. If not a book, something. When the physical evidence is gone, how can anyone otherwise know what came before, that it wasn’t always a nail salon and a Jack in the Box, that once people ate ice cream at Mullins’ store, stopped for a drink at the Five Mile House, and heard a parrot shout “Hey Joe!” behind the service station?

I’m 30 years younger than my father, but a lot of what I remember in San Jose is gone, too. We have to tell our stories.


Speaking of stories, the launch party for my new novel Up Beaver Creek is next Sunday, July 8 at 2:00 at the Newport, Oregon library. Come hear about the book and help me celebrate its publication. You can buy it now on or order it at your local bookstore.

Am I a Real Oregonian yet?

As of this week, it has been 17 years since my husband Fred and I moved to Oregon. The other day while walking my dog Annie, I saw a U-Haul truck at a nearby house. Looks like somebody is finally moving in. I’ll probably meet the new neighbors soon. I won’t be surprised if they moved up from California like we did.
The moving truck brought back so many memories. While we thought about it for years, our move was sudden—the house in San Jose sold in five days—and difficult—the truck broke down twice, it was over 100 degrees out, and we had to leave a lot of stuff behind for a second trip. (You can read all about it in my book Shoes Full of Sand.) By the time we left, I was beginning to realize what and who we were leaving behind. We both quit jobs we loved and said goodbye to family and lifelong friends. We had moved before but only within the Bay Area. We had no idea that this was a lot more than another change of address; we were embarking on a whole new life.
From the get-go, Fred loved it all, while I wanted to go home. We had never lived anyplace so beautiful or where the people were so friendly, but we had almost never encountered so much wet, cold, windy weather. We had never lived in a small town without shopping malls and lots of places to work. The gynecologist and the music store were 50 miles away in Corvallis. The airport was in Portland, a three-hour drive through snow and curvy roads. That first year, Fred went back to San Jose for two months to continue his income tax business while I was alone in the worst of the winters, missing my family so bad it hurt.
But we adapted. Although we knew only our realtor when we moved in, we made friends at the church, the aquarium, and various singing and writing groups. It got so we couldn’t go anywhere without running into people we knew. We relaxed into life surrounded by trees, rivers and the ocean, with clean air and no traffic. No more lines, no more crowds, no more angry, stressed-out people. With time to dive into our dreams, Fred volunteered at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, worked for the Flying Dutchman winery, and sang with the Coastalaires barbershop chorus. I wrote and published five more books, earned my MFA in creative writing, taught at the community college, sang in several different groups, and got a job playing music at church. Would this have happened in San Jose? Probably not. We’d still be stuck on the freeway.
Life brings sorrow as well as joy. We have suffered many losses in these Oregon years: my mother and both uncles, Fred’s parents, our dog Sadie, many other loved ones, and finally, two years ago, Fred himself, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. I often find his loss unbearable. This house we bought together is too big, and the loneliness can be overwhelming. But my new dog, Annie, already five years old, is a huge comfort, and God has filled our lives with many blessings.
I love Oregon. When I come back from visiting California, I shout and honk my horn as I cross the border back into the Beaver State. When I think about moving back to the Bay Area, I feel as if I have been here too long to go back. After all, 17 years is almost one-third of my life. Of the 26 years Fred and I were married, we spent 15 of them north of the border. If we were plants, by now we would either have died or become firmly established in this sandy Oregon coast soil. How long does it take to become a real Oregonian? It depends on who you ask. To many, I’m an old-timer now.
My family’s roots go way back in California to the 1800s, to the arrival of John Cameron Gilroy, said to be the first English-speaking settler in California. And yes, they did name the town of Gilroy for him. But the Fagalde branch originally settled in Oregon. Jean Fagalde and his wife Maria Refucia Alviso lived in Damascus, southeast of Portland. They had 13 children, one of whom was my great-grandfather Joseph, who moved to California and married Luisa Gilroy. I’m still learning about that Oregon connection, but it makes me feel good to know I’m not the first Fagalde to live here.
Do I have regrets? Some. The biggest is not being close to my 91-year-old father at this time of his life, or to my brother’s family, who live near Yosemite. Fred’s kids and grandchildren have all grown up while we weren’t around. I hate that. But I don’t regret moving here. I just wish I could convince everyone to join us so we could all live here together.
Will I stay here forever? I don’t know. It’s where I am now, and I thank you for taking this journey with me. Keep coming back. We have so much more to explore.

Where everybody knows your name

Everybody seems to know me around here. If they don’t know me from church, they know me from various writer events or they’ve seen me singing at the annual garden tours or the Toledo street market. They know me from yoga class or the Alzheimer’s support group or the dog park or the grocery store. Maybe I interviewed them for some article for some newspaper, or maybe they took a class I taught at the community college.  They’ve certainly seen my name and picture in the local newspaper. It’s not hard to make that happen. They publish pretty much everything people send in, unlike the papers I used to work for that were more stingy with their ink.
Take yesterday, when I hosted a talk about my new book Childless by Marriage at the South Beach Community Center. Attendance was disappointing, even though the Beavers and Ducks games were over. But this one woman came in, and I exclaimed, “I know you. What’s your name?”
It turns out we know a lot of the same people involved in local music. I have heard her sing and watched her play bells. I’ve read about the antique business she runs with her husband. She knows me from Sacred Heart, from the garden tour, and from the newspaper.
If you want to be anonymous, go live in a big city. In a small town, it’s impossible unless you hide in your house and never do anything. Many of the most active people I know moved to Oregon from California and immediately got involved. We Bay Area transplants just love the way people connect in and around the towns on the Oregon coast.
It’s the way it was when my father was growing up in San Jose. Living on a ranch on Dry Creek Road along the edges of Campbell and Almaden, his family knew everyone around them, and everybody knew the Fagaldes. It’s hard for him now to accept the way things have changed. When he goes out, he’s usually surrounded by strangers, many of them speaking languages other than English. The old-timers are dying off, their ranches turned into housing tracts. It’s a lonely place, even with nearly a million residents. People stand so close together sometimes that they touch and yet they don’t speak or acknowledge each other’s presence. Not here. Thank God.
We’re short on stores and long on rain, but after a while, everybody knows who you are.

Tracing Oregon roots

There was snow on the road to town yesterday. Is it not April, officially spring? Weather here has been bizarre, a few minutes of sun, then hard rain, then hail, more sun. Just when you start to get warm, black clouds darken the sky, and it rains again. That’s life on the Oregon coast.

Oregon Stories is out now from Ooligan Books. I’ve got a piece in there. The book is based on stories submitted to the Oregon 150 website last year in honor of the state’s sesquicentennial (150 years). Start bugging your local bookstores for copies, especially if you have any connection to Oregon.

I wrote about finding my great-great grandparents’ unmarked graves in the Damascus, Oregon pioneer cemetery. They settled in Damascus in the 1800s. Jean came from France, where his family made chocolate candy, and Refucia Maria came from Baja California. I don’t know how they got together or how they communicated, but they had lots of kids, including my great-grandfather Joe Fagalde, who ended up in San Jose California.

Joe married Luisa Gilroy, of Spanish and Scottish descent. They had three sons, the eldest of whom was Clarence, who married Clara Riffe, who was German. Their oldest son was Clarence, Jr., aka Ed, who married Elaine Avina(Portuguese) and had me and my brother Mike. So we have connections in both Oregon and California. I like to think that when Fred and I moved north, we connected the family back to our American roots. One of these days, I plan to do more digging for the whole story of the Fagalde clan.

Meanwhile, check out Oregon Stories. It’s a good read.

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