Sunday, April 22, 2012

History in a Top Drawer

My father in the lot amidst the apricot orchard in Los Altos, California, on which he produced the house he had dreamed about.

During the mud and rain and kamikaze attacks and bombardment of the Battle of Okinawa, my father kept his sanity by building a house in his head. Whether stuck in a shelter, or batting bugs away from the light in his tent--he was sketching out plans for the little house he hoped to build, with my mother, "when the war is over."

He was a lucky man. He survived to fulfill that dream. And I've been lucky too: sorting through his memories here, I've grown to understand more about his, and my own, emotional ties to the land where he was able to find peace after the war.

The log my father kept of the hours he spent building his first house.

When Dad died, I found an old, battered green notebook in the top drawer of his dresser. It was a log of the hours he spent building his first Los Altos home. I had never seen the notebook before. He never showed it to me. I never knew it existed. But it must have meant a lot to him, since he kept it near him for sixty-two years.

Dad's construction log on his first house.

He built that house on weekends while he worked full-time at an engineering job during the week. It took him almost two years to get a house that way. But he never minded hard work. And thrift was a way of life for him.

I love this photo of the house Dad built. You can see the house is of redwood--designed to resist termites and last a long, long time.  At lower left, my father's shadow--which could not be more appropriate.

I realize that the people who move to this region today, in this land of the perfect climate between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific, are almost all very well off . They have difficulty relating to me when I talk about my father and his self-built house. How can they know how lucky a man felt--just to be alive after what he had seen in the war? How much luckier, still, he felt, to have this chance to own his own home? How little he cared for the sore muscles and the weekends of work?

My father even notes when my mother helped and her father helped out on the project.

The history of the region, the beauties of its agriculture, the hard-working men and women who arrived here after World War II--these are not part of the context for most of the current residents of what is now known as Silicon Valley. Its attractions, today, are its excellent schools and its desirable zip codes.

That's me in my father's arms with Sis holding onto my gown as we all pose in front of one of the apricot trees Dad didn't cut down when he landscaped our front yard. Cut it down? Why, then there would have been no pies!

I understand all this. Just as I also understand that my own family's history will always be part of the context for me. We lived here as the region was transforming itself--from orchards to towns, and from towns to the high tech world of Silicon Valley. 

Perhaps by writing about its recent past, I can help others to see it as I do.

For, as I learned from my father's little green notebook, what we preserve says everything about who we are. A notebook. A heritage orchard. Open space. Mountain views. 

These are all important legacies. All worth preserving. All worth sharing with generations yet to come.

That's 369 total hours of work that built a house. Since Dad saved the log the rest of his life, it must have meant, to him, many hours of happy memories.

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Kathy said...

Touching post and well said about what our little bedroom community on the San Francisco peninsula means to those of us who grew up here and to our parents who could see what a great place it would be to bring up their families. The schools hadn't developed a reputation back then; they were still being built! So it must have been something other than school districts and status that our parents found attractive about setting up house in this little outpost on the peninsula.


Robin Chapman said...

Some people could see the beauty of this remarkable place and found it most beautiful when it was unadorned. Weren't we lucky to be related to those folks!