Mom’s parents, Grannie Jessie and Grandpa Jim lived in a tiny white house, crouching under an immense live oak tree on South Lotus, a block or two below Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard. The yard was narrow but immensely deep, and their house sat so far back on it that their front porch overlooked the neighbors’ back porches. A long, narrow driveway led to a free-standing garage, built at the very back of the lot, behind the house and to the left. Close to the garage, between the driveway and the fence line, there was a trash incinerator opposite the kitchen door. Up until the early 1960ies residents were allowed to burn trash regularly; after that, Grannie Jessie let ivy grow over it. There was just enough room at the back for a tiny square of lawn with a nectarine tree in it, a lean-to shed built against the garage wall, and a chicken-wire enclosure where Grannie Jessie had kept chickens and ducks all throughout the Depression.
The chicken enclosure was long empty and decrepit when I was a child, but some of the neighbors still kept assorted livestock. Someone close by kept a donkey, occasionally we heard it braying. A hedge of oleanders, lemon trees, eugenia bushes and plumbago paralleled the driveway, along the fence line. Large camellia bushes grew under the live oak at the front of the house. There was a lattice arbor, a sort of summer house up against the property line on the right, well buried in the cool shade of the camellias and a huge, sprawling avocado tree. Grannie Jessie’s lawn swing was shaded by the leading edge of this tree. You could swing in the shade, on a mild winter day, the scent of the lemon and orange trees hanging in the warm air, and look up at Mt. Wilson deep in snow.
Grandma Jessie and Grandpa Jim had lived there since the early twenties. Their house was supposed to have been built by a carpenter for himself on his days off. He must have been punishing the hooch when he was working on his house. Dad helped Grandpa Jim build new screens for the windows and discovered that not only were all the windows irregularly sized but none was quite square. Dad also made the disconcerting discovery that the electrification of the house was based on bare copper wires run between ceramic posts, within the wall spaces.
South Lotus was unpaved, when my mother was growing up, and sidewalks were installed at about the time I was in grade school. The other houses were small, eccentric bungalows, mostly of the same vintage, but my grandparents’ was distinguished by two eccentrically upscale touches. First, there was a turquoise peacock with a magnificent spreading tail, which flew the coop from some grand estate, preferring to roost in their oak tree and strut flamboyantly around on the lawn. Then, there was Grandpa Jim’s rose garden.
The house and the yard was neatly divided between them; the backyard, and the part of the front with the swing, the avocado tree and the dichondra lawn were Grannie Jessies’, but the rose garden was his. I only realized when I began to read about the classical, formal European gardens that Grandpa Jim had built one of those in miniature for himself, at the very front of the lot, next to the street. It was laid out perfectly square, fenced all around, the beds edged neatly in cast concrete borders, about three inches wide. Two paths crossed exactly in the middle, where there was a birdbath, and each quadrant divided geometrically and precisely into separate beds for the roses. Grandpa Jim’s rosebushes were groomed and pruned, fertilized and pampered, and watered lovingly, the ground between bushes weeded by hand, and kept bare of anything else; it was all for roses, nothing wasted on anything else. He had worked all of his life in other people’s gardens, but this one was every inch his own.
I rather sensed as a child that Grannie Jessie and Grandpa Jim were not like Mom and Dad, or Grannie Dodie and Grandpa Al, who washed and dried the dishes together after dinner, and laughed and bickered happily. Courteous and civil to each other, and affectionate towards JP and Pippy and I, they held separate bedrooms and separate lives, orbiting around separate interests, and the orbits only intersected at meals. Grannie Jessie washed the dishes alone after dinner, and watched TV in the living room, while Grandpa Jim sat in the old front porch, smoking and listening to baseball games. He was always there, when we visited, for a week at Christmas, the same or more during the summer vacation, but he never took much part in overseeing our activities; that was left to Grannie Jessie. Mom observed once it was the case when she was growing up; his constant refrain was, “Ask your mother.”
Grannie Jessie was tiny, and practical, with a wry and sardonic sense of humor. She didn’t fuss over us the way Grandma Dodie did, which was quite restful, in a way. Her family was originally Quaker and had settled in Pennsylvania since time and memory began. She was raised on their farm, outside Lionville, Chester County, and retained the ability to take one look at a field and know instantly what was growing there and how far along it was. She played killer canasta, poker, Chinese Checkers and every other sort of board and card game, giving no quarter on account of youth. She didn’t drive, and according to the policeman who ticketed Grandpa Jim for an illegal turn one day and discovered his license was five years expired, he shouldn’t have been, either. She lived as comfortably as we are all supposed to live in our new utopian neighborhood, walking to Don’s Market, around the corner on Rosemead every couple of days, with a wire basket on wheels for the necessities, or walking up to Colorado to catch a bus into downtown Pasadena. She had an account at Hertels, but no objections to window shopping at Bullocks, or any of the other fancy stores along Colorado, which at that time still retained much of their art deco, 1930ies and 40ies glory… glory which has since faded but bloomed again. Beadles Cafeteria was the epicenter of “downtown”, with its splendid dining room, and heavy silverware wrapped in cloth napkins. We loved Beadles, because you could look at the real food before making a choice, instead of guessing from the pictures in the menu.
Our big treat during those visits, aside from almost unlimited TV watching – Grannie Jessie firmly booted us out of doors when her soap operas came on – was going to see a movie. We would consult the newspaper schedule, for what was showing, and what she thought was suitable. The movie theaters in Pasadena were the splendid plush picture palaces with names like the Rialto, the Egyptian, and the Academy. It is in my mind that there was an Alhambra or maybe Granada as well, the names evoking a general picture of an ornate marquee out front, the name of the movie spelled out in heavy letters, deep-piled carpets leading into the holy of holies. Inside, the old theaters were splendid, with layers of heavy curtains, miles of gilt, great chandeliers and sconces. Dimness was probably kind to the interiors of the old theaters. JP and I bounced with anticipation on the plush seats, impatient for the magical moment when the lights slowly began to dim, and the grand swoops and folds of curtain drew up and aside, for two hours of Technicolor enchantment. A lot of pomp and circumstance for what was usually a pretty cookie-cutter Disney production, but we only saw movies a couple of times a year, and therefore loved every minute. Grannie Jessie was glad when we outgrew Disney, though, and voted for slightly more grown-up fare, like The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. (She chuckled for days over Ben Blue fruitlessly chasing his horse; to a farm girl it must have seemed especially comic.) When the lights came up again, we emerged blinking into the afternoon, to recapitulate the whole movie again as we rode the bus back towards Rosemead, recalling every funny bit, and twist of the plot.
You can argue whether the movies these days are better or worse, and the cineplex is a great box of multiple choices for a matinee, but a movie at the Rialto or the Academy certainly offered that indefinable something more, and with Grannie Jessie at the movies, we could extract every bit of excitement from the experience.
(Pictured – Mom with pet, in front of Grannie Jessie’s House, 1943) This and other essays about my family were incorporated into my first book, “Our Grandpa Was an Alien”, which is now out of print, and in an e-book collection “Happy Families: The Best of Sgt. Mom”