My father had a farm in the fertile and lovely valley for over forty years. There was no better place for boys to grow up. For we had a family heritage that few other children enjoy. Our grandparents and great-grandparents spent their lives in this part of California and we were firmly rooted in the ground we farmed and the society that surrounded us. Kids wandered the hills and valleys unattended by adults other than the occasional wave from a passing pickup window. We lived a life that no city kid ever could.
We had a thousand things to do, a thousand places to explore, forts to be built, forts of bean poles, forts made of the wooden boxes used to ship vegetables, forts dug into the ground, a fort on top of the old tank house behind our home. Vast engineering projects to design and build in the mud of an irrigation ditch. And always our dogs at our heels, helping us to dig and sniff out the elusive gopher, keeping an eye out for us. Beyond the admonition from our mother Barbara “To be careful,” we received no other instruction or advice. Little boys were not considered to be particularly breakable. We played with the knives used to cut cauliflower and lettuce. We learned about Poison Oak in the creek by getting into it, Horse Nettles by touching the leaves in the wrong place, lessons learned the hard way but not likely forgotten. Our parents were mostly content to let us find our own way in life. Best of all, we had a mom and dad who loved us, and each other deeply.
George and Barbara Shannon 1943
After each school day we would ride home in the back of the Branch School bus, a 1949 Chevrolet pickup with a brown canvas top driven by Evelyn Fernamburg, unhooking the chain at the back and jumping to the ground by our mailbox, crossing Branch Mill Rd to be greeted by our dogs galloping from the house, wiggling all over and jumping up and down as dogs do to show their delight. If dad was in the front fields he got a wave and a hello, if he was close enough to the road he got a hug and a kiss too. We took the long walk to the house and went in the screen door to the kitchen where our mom was, for in our family the kitchen was the heart and soul of the home.
There were two things always present in that room, a pot of endlessly perking coffee; and my mother. For if our father was the head of the family, and indeed he was, it was in the kitchen that my mother reigned. It was in that little room that our family’s life was lived.
When I think of her, it always there that I see her, not in the new house built for retirement, but the old house on the ranch, built before electricity or indoor plumbing, a hodgepodge of mismatched cabinets the International Harvester ‘fridge we we had for thirty years and the big “picture” window that looked out on our fields. She would have pots and pans boiling and bubbling on the stove, dishes being washed, clothes on the ironing board, shoes being tied, homework on the table and thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being made for three hungry little boys to eat. In that place, questions were answered, family stories told, broken little hearts mended, bandaids applied and kisses and hugs distributed from an endless supply. Mom always told us that there was enough love in a mothers heart for all of her children and I have found this to be true.
Wedding day, 1943
It may seem strange to consider these seemingly small things as a tribute to her, but it is the countless small acts of loving kindness that made life sweet for those little boys. For us, on that farm, in that small red farmhouse, life was sweet indeed.
My parents wanted more than anything for their boys to grow up to be honorable men. They taught us manners, we had, as all Irish families did, the crocheted formal table cloth, designed to punish the elbows of any child who put his elbows on the table. We learned respect for our elders, integrity and honesty. They taught us, by example, the value of hard work, of thrift, to be gentle, kind, helpful and above all, honorable. Mom told us countless times, “Remember who you are and who you belong to for you have a good family name, a name to be proud of.”
Mom worked for twenty years at Baxter’s Clothing store. In a day when you could conduct all your business in a three block stretch of Branch St, she could keep her fingers on the pulse of the community. If there was anything going on in town, she knew about it. Now, you might call it gossip, but if it was, it was the good kind, for she had a sincere concern for her friends and anyone she met was soon was her friend. People understood that she cared about them.
She dressed a generation of boys and men. There were few that came into that shop she didn’t care about. It didn’t matter if you were high or low born. She didn’t care about the color of your skin or what church you went to. If you needed Levis, a pair of socks, a shirt and tie that matched, you got them. She sewed the AG on your letterman’s sweater, the number on your Boy Scout uniform, fitted you for your prom suit, she could even find a pair of “bachelor buttons” if you needed them. And if you needed a compliment or sympathy, some attention, a hug, you got that too, always served with a smile.
My dad had his own particular style, but knew nothing about women’s clothes and he would take us to Louise Ralph’s dress shop to buy mom her birthday or Christmas present. Louise would fuss over my dad like he was a little boy because of course she remembered him that way. She took him around the store and suggested what to buy for mom and she was always right in her choice. Of course it didn’t really matter to mom what the gift was, it only mattered that dad had given it to her. A scarf carried the same cache as the Hope diamond.
Barbara and George
“Life is but a breath,” the Good Book says, and that is surely true. In the end if you count money, houses and land, then she was poor. But if you count wealth as the love and affection of your family and friends then she was rich beyond counting.
She loved her husband, she loved her sons, she loved her sons wives as the daughters she never had, and her grandchildren were the crown she wore in her old age.
Suddenly one day, she was used up and worn out and just as suddenly gone from our lives. Mom was not born in this valley, but for over fifty years this is where she lived and moved and had her being and here is where she died.
It is not such a sad thing really, to contemplate her laid to rest in our green and peaceful cemetary in the midst of her friends, neighbors and family whom she loved and who loved her. It is not such a sad thing, perhaps, to think of her lying in the shadows of the everlasting hills of this green and golden valley that we love so well.
The first time dad went to see her in the hospital, she was in a coma and was terribly ravaged by that awful disease. When he walked in the room and saw her he said, “No, thats not my wife. Barbara is beautiful. I don’t want to remember her like this. Please take me home son.”
Now dad lies beside her, as one day, her sons will too.
Note: The cover photo is a self portrait she drew when she was 19 years old.