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.

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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 Amazon.com or order it at your local bookstore.

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My father offers stories for dessert

img_20160914_1740485941Meals with my dad, Ed Fagalde, are a slow process. It takes him forever to get ready to sit down, and if I’m not careful I’m halfway through eating before he’s finished adding condiments. Slow down, mustn’t rush, I tell myself. We’re going to be sitting here for a while. While I’m itching to check my phone or read a book, now it’s time to listen. Even at breakfast, when I’m still waking up, he stirs Sweet n Low into his coffee, clears his throat, and begins to talk. He’s still talking 12 hours later over ice cream at The Country Inn restaurant and a few hours after that, standing in my doorway while I’m getting ready for bed.

I believe part of the reason I’m a writer is the fact that my father and his father before him were storytellers. While the stories go on, you don’t take notes; the teller would become self-conscious. No, you listen. You nod and react and ask the occasional question while the words flow like a waterfall that never runs out.

Some stories are of modern times, tales of a frustrating visit to the bank or a friend dropping by. With these, Dad gets times and places mixed up, forgets names, and does not understand the computer-based modern world, but the stories of the past are unmarred by his 94 years. Usually, I’ve heard them before, but there are always new details. For example, the ranch house where Dad grew up was not always on the spot where I remember it. The house was moved from another location, with a new room and a porch added. I had no idea.

He’s surprised that I remember that house. I was 9 in 1961 when  Grandpa retired as foreman of the Dorrance ranch and moved to Seacliff Beach. I’m amazed to realize I’m now almost the age that he was then.

I remember the  barn, the house, the patio, the fish pond, the chickens, the smell of prunes in the dehydrator. I feel as if I remember so much more because of Dad’s stories: the rabbit pens, the blackberries, the acres of prune, cherry and apricot trees, the multi-national crews who worked in the trees and the packing sheds, the horses that waited for Dad to come home from school and feed them the peelings from his mom’s apple pies.

I can’t remember all that. I was just a little girl in mary janes and ruffled socks sitting politely in the living room while the grownups talked. I remember a wood stove, an upright piano, lots of clocks, Dad’s stepmother Rachel’s dachshund Gretchen. I don’t remember my dad’s mother, Clara, at all, but her spirit was still in that house. Last week while visiting Dad, I learned that she never had a washing machine. She washed everything by hand with a scrub board until she got sick and started sending the clothes out to be laundered. Imagine how dirty those work clothes must have been.

I learned that my grandfather, Clarence, decided to retire because the ranch owners had started selling off chunks of land to housing developers and he could see the whole thing disappearing soon, like so many ranches in what was to become Silicon Valley. When my brother came to visit last weekend, we took a drive down Dry Creek Road past where the house used to be. Now there’s a million-dollar house on the site next to many other million-dollar houses, all beige and decorator-furnished. Dad still recognizes the winding road between Bascom and Meridian roads and the giant Sycamore that marks the site of the old driveway. In his mind, he can still see the orchards, the irrigation ditches, the tractors and the packing shed, but I just see these houses and a tree that sparks my imagination more than my memory.

Dad tells about the boxes piled up on the dry ground that became infested with bees. When Grandpa tried to move them, he suddenly ran to the water trough where they dipped the prunes and dove in, covered with bee stings. He swelled up all over, but healed without going to a doctor.

There were so many other stories: going to the “fights” with his dad, riding the water wagon with his grandfather in the days when men sprinkled the dirt roads to keep the dust down, riding his grandfather’s horses bareback down what became Meridian Road, dancing at the Balconades ballroom to the music of the Tony Passarelli Band.

He tells of signing up for the Army Air Corps, of training to be an airplane mechanic, of preparing to go overseas but not knowing where they’d be landing, of making an airstrip out of a road in Manila, of crashing at Leyte, of the guys he kept in touch with after the war. He tells the whole story of his career as an electrician, the different shops for which he worked, the jobs that stick in his mind, his long friendships with co-workers, his decision to retire.

He talks about his Fagalde grandparents, who owned a gas station and store at their home on Almaden Road near Branham Lane, along Almaden Creek. Grandma Lou, handy with a gun, always wanting to go shooting, Uncle Louie starting a business hauling gravel from the creek, Uncle Lloyd getting drunk and beat up, Grandpa Joe training his horses to come when he called their names.

My father talks and talks, as if he has to get it all out, has to tell me everything while he still has time. After he goes to bed, I make notes, trying to remember the details.

The stories go on and on. I feel like a bobble-head doll nodding as I listen. My eyes grow heavy with sleep and sometimes I nod off. When my brain screams stop, I push back my chair and start clearing the dishes. The talk temporarily peters out, but as soon as I sit down again, it continues. I fear the day when it stops for good. Meanwhile I do my best to soak it all in. I know what an important gift it is.

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Sorry I missed posting the last two weeks. No Wi-Fi at Dad’s house. But I had some adventures while I was gone and will share them in upcoming posts.

Do or did your parents share their stories with you? If they’re still around, ask questions. See what happens.

 

Dad’s 94th birthday full of surprises

Dad42911People can be rude, annoying and selfish, but sometimes they can be so very, very good.

Yesterday was my father Ed Fagalde’s 94th birthday. I couldn’t be in San Jose to help him celebrate. I worried that he’d be spending the day alone, that even though he says, “It’s just another day,” he would be sad. But people stepped up, people you wouldn’t even expect.

Yes, Dad’s cousin called from Texas, my aunt took him to lunch on Saturday, and my brother’s family took him to lunch on Sunday (Thank you!). Yes, I sent a gift, which arrived on his doorstep on time. But nobody expected a neighbor he barely knew to call to wish him happy birthday and invite him to come over. And nobody expected what happened when he went to dinner alone at his favorite restaurant, the Country Inn on Saratoga Avenue.

Eating dinner alone at a restaurant can be daunting. You find yourself surrounded by couples and families while you have no one to talk to. I always bring a book, but Dad just eats in silence since Mom died in 2002.

Not this time. The manager joined him at the table, saying the staff could run the place without him. They talked like old friends. Indeed they have been seeing each other at the restaurant for many years. At dessert time, seven workers sang to him and brought him a candlelit slice of cake that was so big he brought most of it home to enjoy later. And when he asked about his check, he was told the meal was “on the house.”

It wasn’t over. At church yesterday morning, even though it was First Communion Day and the place was packed with little girls in white dresses and little boys in suits, the congregation honored my father. He didn’t expect it. He’s not active in church activities. He sits in the second to last row with a young family with three kids who have claimed him as an extra grandfather. They’re the only ones who know his name. He had just come back from the restroom when a woman up front told him not to sit down. She announced that it was his birthday, and over 500 people applauded him. He was thrilled. The priest asked how old he was—94—and how long he had been coming to St. Martin’s—65 years. San Jose is a big city. It’s easy to be anonymous in the crowd. But not this time. People recognized and honored him. That was the best gift anyone could have given him.

Last night on the phone, Dad said someone asked him how he kept going so long. Eating and sleeping, he said. When you stop doing that, you’re done.

Dad still lives on his own in the house where I grew up. Since he broke his hip in 2014, he can’t move like he used to, but he’s an independent cuss and he has good genes. His father lived to 98. His cousin made it to 96. We all know that things could change at any minute—or not. Meanwhile, I am blessed to have him, and I am so grateful that people paid attention this year. It matters.

Look up and notice the people sitting alone. Say hello. They might be great people like my my father.

Happy birthday, Dad.