by Frank Dunnigan
Just over a year ago, I wrote a Streetwise column called The Last Mom, to mark the passing of one of the long-time residents on the block of 18th Avenue where I grew up. At that time, I noted there was only one mom left from the 1950s era who was still living there. Sadly, she, too, has now joined all those other moms and dads who have raised one large generational hand to wave a fond and final farewell to all of us.
Although I learned of her passing at age 90+ a few months ago, it was still a bit of a shock on a recent visit to the neighborhood to see a "For Sale" sign on the place that first became home to Mr. & Mrs. V and their two daughters back in 1957. As I gazed upon the house, it stood empty, with furnishings distributed among relatives and a lifetime of memories scattered to the winds.
Later, I went online and looked at the real estate listing. There were dozens of clear, high-resolution color images that took me in and out of every corner of the empty home. Built at the same time as the house where I grew up just three doors away, it was remarkably similar, and those images brought back a flood of warm memories of how things used to be in homes throughout many parts of the western neighborhoods of San Francisco.
Starting from the arched entryway (over which Mrs. V had steadfastly refused to install an iron security gate, even in recent years, much to the dismay of her adult children), I was reminded of how the slight set-back behind that archway was always a favorite spot during games of hide-and-go-seek in the late 1950s.
The photos showed an entryway, hallway, and that center patio that was so popular in homes located in the foggy parts of San Francisco. Like my mom, Mrs. V was once an avid gardener, and a variety of colorful blooms used to cascade from hanging baskets in that cool, shaded space. As kids, we loved popping fuchsia blossoms, then peeling them apart and pelting one another with the remains—much to our mothers’ dismay.
The real estate advertisement showed the large living room and its 80-year-old corner fireplace—a rainy-day gathering spot for generations. I knew right where the family’s Christmas tree stood every year, and how it was always a tall, skinny one, decorated with multi-color medium-sized bulbs and hundreds of individual strands of old-fashioned heavy silver-color lead tinsel. From there, the view was into the dining room, and I could still see where each of them would sit for holiday dinners—Mrs. V closest to the kitchen, Mr. V opposite her, and the kids on each side.
From there, the camera moved on to the kitchen—updated with new cabinets in the 1980s and with some even newer appliances in this millennium, but still true to its original layout. Mrs. V was one of the few moms who enjoyed the luxury of a stove with double ovens even back in the 1950s. How could it be otherwise, since she was the premier neighborhood baker? I don’t think that a store-bought pie, cake, or cookie ever entered her home, because Mrs. V was a stay-at-home mom who thoroughly enjoyed the domestic routine that she and her husband had established for their family.
Even with the empty countertops in the online images, I could still envision where the tall cookie jar used to be, along with the variety of baked goods that it might contain—snickerdoodles, lemon bars, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, plus Christmas tree, snowman, and candy cane cut-outs decorated with colored sugar—and how quickly Mrs. V would sit a visitor down at the table in the sunny breakfast room with a plate of fresh-baked treats and a tall glass of ice-cold milk. This was also the spot we gathered on that cold snowy day in January of 1962, when Mrs. V served a crowd of excited children hot chocolate and muffins after we had been playing outside on that Sunday morning following a rare San Francisco snowstorm.
Following the old childhood adage—“even if you don’t like to eat something at home, when you are a guest, just hold your breath and swallow it”—this house was the first place, at about age six, that I ever tried mustard on a bologna sandwich, as well as eating tuna fish sandwiches made with pickle relish, since that was how they were always served in this house. I ended up overcoming my one-time aversion to both these condiments. Mustard is a particular favorite of mine today, with at least five different types currently in my refrigerator. Thanks, Mrs. V!
There was also a space in the corner of the breakfast room where I remembered the small two-compartment bowl that contained food and water for the family’s cat, and I knew just which cabinet contained the kitty treats that we were allowed to dole out.
Their bathroom was very similar to ours, with pink art-deco tiles and black accent trim. There was the very same layout of two bedrooms with gorgeous hardwood floors (covered by carpeting in the past) overlooking the big back yard. The once-verdant rectangular lawn was definitely showing the impact of the long-standing drought, though the trees were still full and much taller than I remembered, offering both privacy and protection from the wind.
Images of the garage showed a wide-open space—amazingly, still with the original dark green 1936 Atlas gravity gas furnace (those things remain functional, if not energy-efficient, forever), and the ubiquitous twin concrete wash tubs against one wall, even though they had long-ago been supplanted by modern laundry appliances. Like all moms in the foggy western neighborhoods, Mrs. V still maintained a small clothesline in the garage near the furnace and the water heater. And although Mr. V drove a variety of cars over the years, Mrs. V was the proud owner for decades of a grayish-tan 1960 Studebaker Lark, which looked somewhat like a flatter version of the classic boxy Volvo, though all the vehicles were now long-gone.
Like thousands of other houses throughout San Francisco, there was the knotty-pine room and bath at the back of the garage, along with a built-in bar. (See Streetwise - FDR & the Knotty Pine Room.) This was every household’s rainy-day play area, the setting for countless birthday parties involving an entire neighborhood of small children, site for marathon games of Monopoly among pre-teens, and ultimately the storage space for empty gift boxes and household items that were “too good to throw away.”
The final shots in the real estate ad were of the big, empty, high-ceilinged garage. The ad did not mention it, but the implication was clear that this area could easily be converted into even more living space, perhaps combined with the knotty-pine room to form one large or two smaller apartments (which is what happened to my grandmother’s old house on 21st Avenue near Rivera Street—two separate studio apartments on the ground level, with a total of four residents living in what was once a garage—plus a family of five adults upstairs—with a whopping NINE automobiles among them!) Realtors have to push a lot of amenities nowadays in order to justify a price tag of $1.3 million for just 1,200 square feet of house.
And then I spotted something in one of the final real estate photos hanging from hooks on the ceiling of the garage: an old wooden frame, hand-made to fit the unique shape of the house’s front windows and outfitted with faded Christmas lights. The 18th Avenue and Vicente Street neighborhood holiday lighting ritual began in 1936, when the homes were new, and each time a house sold, the old frames of lights were passed on to the new owners.
The block’s Christmas celebrations were legendary for decades. On the night of the kickoff, our family generally went out dinner at The Hot House at Playland so that mom’s kitchen would remain organized for the evening’s festivities. Walking into the steamy, aromatic atmosphere, amid Christmas lights, the salty nighttime fog and the happy sounds of Playland ringing in my ears remains a permanent part of my childhood Christmas experiences.
Back at home later that evening, Santa would arrive by fire engine from the station located a few blocks up the hill on 18th Avenue near Rivera, as the outdoor lighted frames around every front window blinked on at the same time. Santa then took his place on a throne at the entrance to the garage of the “Mayor” and his family. Christmas carols blared from speakers, and kids would line up to tell him their wishes, before receiving a handful of peppermint candy canes.
In 1959, Mr. & Mrs. V served as “Mayor and First Lady” and mom’s handsome brother John (he really did look a lot like Clark Gable) volunteered to play the role of Santa Claus. In addition to dozens of kids, more than a few moms also climbed up into Santa’s lap for some whispered conversations that night. Some of our moms were just a bit on the hefty side, and Uncle John complained about his aching knees for days.
Every house on the block would then hold an open house for the rest of the evening, with families inviting many friends and relatives, plus all the neighbors. Adults and kids visited from house to house, as everyone became acquainted with all of the neighbors and their guests. Hundreds of visitors from across the city leisurely walked the neighborhood, admiring the outdoor lights and lighted Christmas trees until late in the evening. It was a time not to be forgotten.
Even now, more than 45 years after the block-wide celebration of “Christmas lighting” dimmed for the last time, I’m willing to bet that most homes still have those framed lights suspended from the garage ceiling—awaiting, perhaps, a day in some distant future time when a new group of residents will discover what a wonderful spirit of neighborliness and friendship can come from a few pieces of wood and a handful of colored lights.
Perhaps by this time next year, the house will have a new group of people settled in and gathered around some blazing logs in that corner fireplace. They will surely be standing amidst the ghosts of the past, all of them toasting their good fortune to be in a house and a neighborhood with so many wonderful shared memories.
As 2016 comes to a close, all the best to everyone for the holiday season!
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Page launched 30 November 2016.