There is a void between the time that my family left Los Angles and the day when we drove up to our new home in San Jose. The neighborhood was quiet. Nobody rushed over to welcome us. We moved ourselves and our belongings inside without fanfare. If there were children on our street, I never saw them. It felt as though we were all alone in a strange place.
The house itself was fairly nondescript, but it had two features that were somewhat exciting. In the living room there was a fireplace, something I had never before seen in anyone’s home. The kitchen boasted a built in dishwasher, another aspect that was still uncommon in the houses in Houston in 1956. I suspected that Mama would enjoy having a machine take over some of her chores and surely enough she gushed with excitement when she saw the modern appliance. There was little else to boast about other than the oddity of a walnut tree in the front yard. Mama hoped that it would bear fruit and she might be able to gather its treasures for baking and snacking.
The first order of business would be for my father to report to work and then my parents would enroll me in school. It had been a couple of weeks since I had last reported to class and my mother and father were concerned that I might lose the continuity of my learning. Without even allowing me to figure out where I was or learn the lay of the land, Mama, Daddy and I went to the nearby elementary school to get me back into classes. It was not a happy experience.
The principal of the school questioned my age and suggested that I repeat second grade in spite of my good grades. She maintained that Texas schools were often behind those in California and felt that I would be better served if I were to continue my education with students my age. My father was just as adamant as she was that I was more than capable of keeping pace in the third grade. After much haggling the principal agreed to place me with the eight year olds on a probationary basis. Without anymore ado she walked me to a classroom and left me to fend for myself.
California was booming in 1956. So many people were traveling there that the schools were overrun with students. In order to accommodate us all the school day was broken down into half day shifts. I would attend classes from eight in the morning until noon, when another groups of kids would arrive for the afternoon. It meant that I would have to take all of my textbooks home each day and bring them back with me the following day. Since I lived within walking distance of the school I would be toting a rather heavy load of gear back and forth.
I can’t recall what my teacher’s name was or if she had even introduced herself. She was a harried soul who seemed annoyed by the interruption of my arrival. She quickly found a seat for me in the already crowded room and just as quickly went back to cramming as much teaching as possible into the four hours that she would have with us each day. I was relieved to find that I was not behind as the principal had asserted would be. In fact, the work we were doing was all familiar to me. I adapted to the routine quickly and continued to do well.
It was the emotional aspect of school that was difficult. The students had already made friends with one another and since we were only together for four hours a day there was no free time for getting to know each other. I mostly just performed the tasks of learning while pining for all of my friends back in Texas. At one point the teacher finally thought it might be nice to give me an opportunity to tell the rest of the class about my former life in Texas. In a question and answer format I had to defend myself against all of the stereotyping that everyone seemed to have about my hometown. They were annoyed that I had never owned or ridden a horse and that I was almost as unfamiliar with oil wells as they were. My only defense was that my father had indeed worked for oil companies and he had sometimes taken me with him when he went to check pumping stations far from the city. Aside from that I felt like an oddity and wished more than ever that I still lived across the street from my best friend Lynda. Besides, it was so darn foggy there that I had literally walked right past the school more times than I might have wished. If they thought I was weird then I would have to admit that the feeling was mutual.
Ever the adventurer, my father turned every weekend into a mini-vacation in which we would acquaint ourselves to the area. We drove the short distance to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge and to drive on the steep streets. We ate seafood and went to elegant movie theaters. We drove along the coast and walked under the giant sequoias. Once we even went in search of an observatory but somehow we were not able to find it.
I loved those weekends with my parents and my brothers. I had to admit that northern California was incredibly beautiful and interesting. I suppose that if I had found friends there I might have been happy, but my whole life revolved around those four hours of school and the tiny orbit of my family. I suppose I became closer to my brothers during those days because they were the only children that I encountered during my time away from school. The free range wildness of my old neighborhood in Houston was missing in that place in California and I never quite knew why.
When the Christmas season came we went to a big party where my father worked. I never really understood what kind of job he had or what the name of his company was. It must have had something to do with the military because the place made tanks and we were allowed to ride inside them as part of the festivities. That was exciting, even as I realized what a rough and noisy ride it was. I was proud that my father was having fun with his work and doing something that seemed cool even if I was never quite sure of what that was.
I became unbearably homesick when Christmas came. I knew that all of my aunts and uncles and cousins would be gathering on Christmas Eve at Grandma Ulrich’s house. I imagined them sitting on the chairs talking and laughing so loudly that the neighbors probably heard their joyful sounds. I could almost see my grandmother opening her gifts and passing around coffee. I imagined my cousins feasting on oranges and apples and a gigantic Whitman’s Sampler of chocolate candies.
We had a lovely Christmas tree in our house and our walls were festooned with Christmas cards from everyone back home. Santa found us and left magical gifts but they did not make me as happy as I would have been in Houston. My grandparents called us long distance to wish us a Merry Christmas. It was good to hear their voices and know that they were thinking of us. My brothers and I danced and sang on the hearth of the fireplace and we did our best to make it feel merry, but nothing felt quite right. Perhaps in the New Year of 1957, we might finally adjust and find joy in California. In that moment it hardly seemed possible, but I had hope.