Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m scared, What should I do.”
“Barbara, you have to tell him. This is a small town not like Santa Barbara or Long Beach. People here will not look on a divorce lightly. You have to tell him. If he or anyone else ever found out, well, you can’t just let it go. If this relationship is that important, George has to know.”
The next time the were together she waited until the end of the night and then she found the courage to tell him. She told him all of it.
He didn’t call for a week.
Four years earlier Barbara had a boyfriend in Santa Barbara. She loved her life there. She lived in what was still a pretty small city, a city defined by wealth and privilege. It was like night and day when compared to Taft or Bakersfield, a couple of hardscrabble oil towns where she had lived growing up. She’d met a teaching pro at the Montecito Tennis club where she played when she could. She hung out with a crowd of high school friends who were financially better off than her parents and it was exciting to have a glimpse into theat life. At seventeen it must have seemed the weight of that existence, the constant moving, leaving friends, and then having to repeat the cycle all over again and again and again could be over. She felt she was in a place where she could stay a long time, as her father was fond of saying “We’ve lived in practically every hellhole in the state and I’m tired of it.” She was too.
As if to drive the point home they moved several times in the two years they stayed in Santa Barbara. Houses, apartments and even motels. Bruce was hoping for a promotion and expected to leave Santa Barbara and finally when they were living out in Goleta it happened. He was drilling out at the Elwood lease on the old Dos Pueblos rancho when they called and ordered him down to Long Beach and Signal Hill. The family was headed out again and Barbara didn’t want to go.
Her solution was to marry. Her parents weren’t happy, particularly he father, but she was determined to stay. After all she was eighteen and she could do what she wanted. Her father though that he was a poor choice and he let her know it. He had now spent nearly twenty years in a hard job with hard men to handle and he wasn’t particularly sensitive to her wants. There were some hard words spoken but she went ahead and married anyway. Bruce was hard on her about it. Her mother perhaps less so, her own mother had been divorced, though she was a fiercely independent woman and really didn’t care what anyone thought. She was entirely different than her granddaughter. Nevertheless Barbara was left to fend for herself. Neither Barbara nor her parents backed down.
He was a good looking guy, athletic and personable on the surface. He worked as a tennis pro and as a bellboy and bartender at the Biltmore Hotel. It was a ritzy place in the thirties and catered to the wealthy, movie stars and politicians. A short drive from Los Angeles, its Spanish California revival architecture set in 22 acres of land tucked between Butterfly Beach and the Santa Ynez foothills in Montecito would have been a paradise for a girl raised in the oil patch.
Barbara was a cocktail waitress and they lived in the workers bungalows on the hotel grounds. Barbara’s family saw them occasionally on the holidays. Her parents missed her but these gatherings were often strained by the disapproval they had difficulty hiding. In 1940,she and her husband came up to Arroyo for thanksgiving staying in the old motor court north of town. There is a picture of the family taken in front of it, everyone looking directly at the camera except Barbara. Here husband has his arm around her shoulders, a cigarette dangling from his fingers while she looks to her right. She looks desperately unhappy. She has the look of the thousand yard stare, something seen on the faces of soldiers who have seen combat. It’s prophetic.
Later that year her aunt Martha who lived in Goleta while her husband worked the Elwood Oil Field saw her niece walking down State Street in Santa Barbara. Martha crossed the street to say hello. Barbara looked unhappy and sported a black eye she had unsuccessfully tried to cover with make-up. They spoke just a few words, shed some tears and both continued on their separate ways. When Martha returned home she told Elmer and he said we need to call Bruce and Eileen and tell them, so they did.
Bruce got on the phone and called her in Santa Barbara. It was a rough conversation. She cried over the phone and Bruce was very careful not to tell her “I told you so,” instead letting her talk herself out then telling her that if she wanted to, she could come home. And so she did, arriving the next day, stepping off the Greyhound Stage at the depot in Taft. She was welcomed with open arms.
Bruce and Eileen helped her get a divorce, not a common thing in California at the time. Roughly two divorces per thousand couples were asked for and granted. People saw divorce as a failure both ethically and morally. “You must be attentive to your spirit and you must not be unfaithful,” Says the Bible in Malachi, the 39th and last book in the old testament. The feeling that divorce was a failure was common belief and that women were considered more at fault than men. It wasn’t the Scarlet Letter but it was close. Things like this were kept secret for shame, deserved or not. Barbara divorced him for good reason but the shame would have been entirely hers.
To top it all off she needed twenty-five dollars to legally change her name but didn’t have it and neither did her parents. She had to keep it. She very carefully stowed the marriage license at the bottom of her trunk and never spoke of it. It remained there until her death. Hidden away for fifty-four years, unknown to us.
Then after a week, George did call. It was alright. It was all put right.
Jack and Annie Shannon and brother Jackie adored Barbara as Bruce and Eileen did George. Some common sense and a great deal of love made it alright. Bruce, Eileen and Patsy were to leave for Long Beach and Barbara didn’t want to go, but this time for a good reason. She stayed in the little house on Short Street and her new friends cheered her on for George was quite the catch and they all knew it.
George was a man of good character, he never lied, he would wave at you on the street even if you weren’t looking and I was once told by a man who knew him well that he was the “Finest man he ever knew.” A child can never know his parents as young but I saw the way men, and particularly the generation of women who watched him grow up treated him. Those old girls were indicators of the esteem in which they held him. I used to go with my dad to buy birthday presents for my mother. I Can’t remember anything he ever bought her, but in Louise Ralph’s dress shop, Louise and Florence fussed over him like a couple of mother hens, gently nudging him toward the perfect gift. I certainly remember that. The way they treated him said a lot, even to a kid. My mother was the recipient of a running commentary of hints and nudges, for a married woman can no more see a single man stay single than she can stop her own breath.
Things got serious in ’42. George was growing tomatoes for the army at Camp San Luis and Barbara was working steadily downtown and for the both of them the future looked bright. No need to worry about the war, he was deferred as essential industry and it seemed to both of them like it was inevitable. It was and he asked her if she would marry him. She said yes.
For those of you who have lived in small towns you will know what newspapers were like eighty plus years ago. Each and every event in town was chronicled, births, deaths, who was visiting out of town and where the boys in the service were. They printed addresses and phone numbers too. Marriages were a pretty big deal. The weekly Herald-Recorder made a science out of them. First the betrothal, then the bridal shower and finally the nuptials.
In the wedding announcement above Barbara is listed as Barbara Hall which was her maiden name. When she signed the wedding register she would have to use her married, legal name and the paper would surely pick up on that.This presented a problem. Barbara’s divorce was not to be divulged, ever. It would open the door to sniping and moral judgements that neither family wanted to see. The question was, what to do? Run away, elope?
Elope it was. Georges mother Annie and family friend Billie Records would stand up for the couple so it was decided to motor up to Salinas and get married. They took dad’s little gray Plymouth coupe and my grandparents Chevrolet sedan and made the drive. My grandmother made the arrangements with the minister through the First Presbyterian church in Arroyo Grande of which she had been a member for over fifty years.
Marriage by a minister with only two people in attendance doesn’t take long and they were soon taking pictures and even made a short film celebrating the event. Eighty eight years later you can still view the little film. There are hugs for the new mother-in-law and Billie. A kiss by the newlyweds after which Barbara turns away from the camera in embarrassment and George takes his pocket handkerchief and grinning with absolute delight wipes off his wife’s lipstick, another big squeeze, a handshake with the minister who appears equally delighted. They say their final goodbyes and were off headed for San Francisco on their honeymoon.*
They avoided judgement and there the secret lay, hidden from view for over half a century.
They stayed together for 54 years until my mother passed away in 1997. Cancer is cruel but they hung in it together. Barbara’s friends came to say goodbye, some of the same girls who celebrated her marriage those many long years ago.
Barbara was 79 when she died, young enough that many of her friends outlived her. Her funeral was a big one. The kind where people come to celebrate the life of friend, a well known community member, some one who spent her life working downtown in a very small town like ours. She knew everyone and they knew her.
Her only surviving sibling, little sister Patsy came down from Shingle Springs to say goodbye. If you’ve forgotten who she is, she’s the little girl Barbara took for a walk so it wouldn’t seem as if she was trolling Traffic Way for George. She didn’t fool anybody especially George. Who hitchhikes just a block from home. The rules of romance are immutable though and lovers must do what they must do. George used to tell us that story at the dinner table, he with a twinkle in his eye and she with a blush. We loved her the more for it.
A lingering death, a funeral, a wake are exhausting things. After Barbara was laid to rest aunt Patsy and her children had to leave for home and it was decided to meet at the Apple Farm for breakfast before they went on their separate ways. After eating we all sat around enjoying coffee and a little catch up when Aunt Pat turned to me and said, “Did you know your mother was divorced?” I was absolutely stunned. I was fifty two. My brothers and I kept wondering how did we not know this? They kept a secret for fifty three years, fifty three years and never told anyone.
Barbara’s family knew of course and Billie Records, my grandmother Shannon too but no one else. As far as we know not a single soul in Arroyo Grande knew of it and if the did they never spoke where we could hear them.
When I was a baby I lay in a crib with my life long friend Dwight as our mothers drank coffee and chatted in the kitchen. His mother was always a special friend of my mother and as I grew up, mine too. She was a kind and generous person and raised her son to be the same. Years after my mother passed he and I spent some time together and I told him the story and then he told me that his mother had been divorced too and he never knew until after she died and he found the divorce decree in her private papers.
In todays world where no one can or cares to keep secrets it seems to me that something has been lost. Mom and dad weren’t afraid of it. What they were afraid of was the effect it might have on their children and families. They weren’t the only ones either. So have we lost something? Tell me if you can.
Notes: The honeymoon letter my mother wrote is in the index under “Letters.”