Saturday, February 4, 2012
A few months ago I was traveling through Long Beach, the town I grew up in, and decided to detour past 1620 Gardenia Avenue to once again take a peek at the house I grew up in. We moved into that house in August of 1945, just before I started 5th grade, and I called that place “home” until I married in 1955. The husband and I then moved into an adjacent triplex, and later a duplex, that my father built on lots that he purchased on that same street, so being that close to my folks seemed like I still belonged to their house. Every important event, and even the unimportant events, of that time period is imprinted with the image of that house. It was 1959, when our third child was on the way, that needing larger accommodations sent my kids’ dad and me to nearby Orange County where we bought our first house.
My father continued to live in Long Beach until about 1996, and often when I came to visit him he’d suggest we drive by the old neighborhood, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen 1620 Gardenia off and on through the years. Early on I was surprised that the front lawn seemed so much smaller than I remembered it, but of course I was just a little kid when we used to play “jump the hedge” off the front porch, sailing over the smallish Eugenia bushes that dad planted along the porch. In fact, even the side yard where we used to put up our badminton set seemed way too small for the game, but when I lived there my dad had not yet built the duplex next door, so we could extend our games out into the vacant lot. In that lot beside the badminton court my dad and uncles drove horseshoe stakes into the ground for their Sunday horseshoe games. The large back yard was reserved for the croquet games that both children and adults played.
A couple of years ago at a high school reunion one of my friends made a remark about how lucky I was to live in such a big house. I was shocked to hear that, because I never considered it a big house…not then, and not now. But in actuality, many of those kids who were my 5th grade friends were from families that had come to California from Oklahoma just before the war and they were basically starting life over again. I remember being in my friend Dokey’s house and it was hardly more than a shack, so I can understand why they thought my house was big. It actually was an 1800 square foot bungalow, only 2 rooms wide but on a deep lot. We had a living room, a dining room, a den, 2 bedrooms, 1 large sewing room with its own outside door used as a bedroom, and 1 narrow added-on room also used as a bedroom and which opened onto the inside back porch. There was 1 bathroom inside the house and 1 fairly rudimentary bathroom (commode and shower only) attached to the outside back porch.
For as long as I lived in that house on Gardenia Avenue, we always had at least one member of our extended family living with us in one of the back bedrooms. For a while it was my mother’s youngest sister after she graduated from high school. Once she left, my father’s maiden cousin lived with us until one of the duplex apartments became available. And from 1946 on, my Uncle Bill lived with us. The house accommodated 6 people nicely.
I loved that old house. I think it was built about 1916 or so. It had a warmth and character that tract housing – the typical cookie-cutter housing that came into prominence after the Second World War – will never have. We had a single telephone, no extensions. In the living room we had a large wooden console containing a radio and a record player; later models came with a small TV. We had a floor furnace that depending on which way you aimed the vent heated either the hallway and bedrooms or the dining room/living room area. In the morning dad, always the first one up, would turn on the heat; my sis and I would get dressed for school standing over the floor furnace.
A gas stove with the oven lit provided warmth for the kitchen. Dishes were washed and dried by hand. Clothes were washed in the machine on the inside back porch and hung out on the clothes line to dry. The inside bathroom only had a tub, so when we came home from the beach in the summer we had to shower in the outside bathroom. Mother didn’t want sand tracked through the house.
Pal, the indoor dog was shut up at night in the large storage closet where the water heater was, and Susie, the outdoor dog who was somewhat handicapped, lived in her dog house in a large pen behind the garage. She had lots of running room, though she ran sideways.
Later dad built an outdoor “rumpus room” in the corner of the backyard, which we girls were to use for entertaining our friends. My parents used it on the weekends for family gatherings. We were lucky to have lots of aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby, and our home was the gathering place for all.
When I drove by that house a few months ago, it seemed that somehow the whole neighborhood had been squashed together. The street seemed narrower, the houses closer together, the yards more compacted and definitely the houses seemed much, much smaller. In thinking about this later, I decided it was because many of the houses had been converted into two dwellings; more people meant cars were parked and packed along both sides of the street, and all the shrubs and trees were old and oversized, dwarfing everything around them. Yes, it was the same house -- a bit modernized, fenced and painted, and it's borne the years well. The neighborhood? Well, a neighborhood is really for those living there now to say how it is.
However, I believe that I couldn’t have grown up at a better time and in a better place than in Long Beach at 1620 Gardenia in the late 1940s and 1950s.