Sometimes Eleanor and I got to spend a day or two with Grammy. Although Grammy Buffum was the only grandparent we knew, she more than made up for the other three. She lived in a second floor apartment across the street from Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland, and she worked not far away, in the yardage department on the third floor of Capwell’s Department Store. Our stays with Grammy always included a stop at Capwell’s to show us off to her coworkers—bragging rights, she said—and perhaps buy us a pair of socks or a hanky or an undershirt, using her twenty-percent employee discount. From Capwell’s we always walked down the street to the Paramount Theater for a matinee and then to Edy’s for ice cream afterward.
One evening at her apartment, after our movie and ice cream, after she put fresh white sheets and a warm quilt on the fold-out bed in her living room, after we were scrubbed clean and snug in our pajamas and slippers, Grammy opened her treasure trunk. It was a big trunk—a steamer trunk, she called it—made of thick wood slats bound together with black leather straps. It had metal thingies on the corners to protect them from scuffing, and inside a shallow tray extended all the way across and rested on sticks glued to the sides. The trunk was filled with Grammy’s photographs and souvenirs. One by one, she took them out, carefully unwrapped them, and told us their stories.
The first packet Grammy brought out was a framed photograph of a man with the funniest little beard you ever saw, so funny that both Eleanor and I laughed out loud. Grammy gave us a stern look and said the beard was quite fashionable for its time and that we shouldn’t ever laugh at our ancestors because if it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t be alive.
“James Monroe Buffum was your great-grandfather,” she said, “and he rode a horse all the way from Illinois to California in the Gold Rush of 1849.”
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“Well, to look for gold, of course. Some men had discovered gold nuggets at a mill near Sacramento, and as soon as the word spread, thousands and thousands of men from all over the world raced to California to get rich. And some women too.”
“Did Great-Grandfather Buffum get rich?” asked Eleanor.
“He started in Calaveras County and had good luck at first and found a number of nuggets and lots of gold flakes. But then one night another miner snuck into his camp in the middle of the night and hit him over the head and stole everything. He kept on mining for a while, but it was such hard, dirty work that eventually he got discouraged and decided to raise cattle and horses instead. He did that in the San Joaquin Valley for a year or two, but then there was a drought and—”
“What’s a drought? I wanted to know.
“It’s when not enough rain falls and everything starts to die,” Grammy said.
“The drought was very bad, and pretty soon all the grass began dying and the horses and cows didn’t have enough to eat. Great-Grandfather Buffum was afraid his animals were going to die just like the grass, so he and another man, Jerry Johnson, drove the herd west over the Santa Lucia Mountains toward the ocean. There’s always more rain when you move closer to the ocean. He settled down near Cambria, in San Luis Obispo County. When he was about forty-five, he met and married a lady from Nova Scotia and had a large family.”
Next she brought out a framed picture of her beloved husband, our grandfather, Cecil Oliver Buffum. He was the youngest of seven children and was born on his father’s sixtieth birthday. Grammy told us what beautiful blue eyes he had, like pale blue topaz; how he’d grown up on the ranch near Cambria; how he’d been the first in his family to advance beyond high school; and how he’d gone to Pasadena to attend Throop Academy to become a civil engineer. From the treasure trunk, she retrieved two of his old mathematics books and a notebook full of handwritten essays for an English class.
Next she showed us the first gift he’d ever given her: a ring made from a moonstone he’d found as a boy on the beach at Cambria.
She told us how, after their marriage in Pasadena in 1912, Cecil took her to live in a storage-shed-turned-honeymoon-cottage on Morrow Island in the middle of Pierce Farms, a huge operation near Suisun in Solano County, where workers were converting marshland to wheat production. Wheat was a scarce commodity the world over in those years, she said, and it brought sky-high prices.
“What’s a ca-ma-di-ty?” I asked.
“It’s a thing, like corn or gasoline or coal or—something like that.”
Grammy went on: “I was only twenty-one, but I was a good cook, so they put me to work cooking for two dozen ranch hands who lived in a long bunkhouse on the property. Those men put in fourteen-hour days on the big dredges, which made them as hungry as bears just coming out of hibernation—”
“What’s a dredge, Grammy?”
“It’s a great big machine that scrapes mud and muck and—well, first they had to use a bulldozer to build dikes to hold back the water from the bay, and then they dug ditches to drain the water—”
“What’s a bull-do-zer, Grammy?”
“Well, it’s a machine that—”
I know what a bulldozer is,” Eleanor piped up. “It’s a big machine that pushes dirt all around and digs holes and makes roads. We learned about bulldozers in first grade. There was a picture of one in a book our teacher got from the library, and she read it to us and—”
“Whose story is this, anyway?” said Grammy. “You girls ask too many questions. Now sit still and listen. If you don’t want to hear my stories, you can just go to bed right now.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, Grammy. We want to hear the stories. We want to hear all about it.”
She told us how excited and happy she and Cecil had been when their children came. Our mommy was the first, in 1914.
Then Grammy took out a soft package wrapped in pink tissue paper and showed us a piece of delicate white lace about ten inches long that had been part of her wedding petticoat. That piece of lace was all she had left of her petticoat because she had cut up the rest to make baby dresses for our mommy.
A boy came next, and they named him Cecil Jr. Then two more daughters, Charlotte and Lucille.
What Grammy didn’t tell us then was that Grandfather Buffum lost his job in the wheat-market collapse of 1924, a serious worldwide financial calamity. In order to find work, the family returned to Southern California, where Grandfather Buffum was reduced to taking a job as a welder at the Texas Oil Company in Wilmington (later Texaco), near Long Beach. She didn’t tell us he was involved in an explosion at the refinery in October 1930. He and his crew had been assigned to repair a leaking pipe. Normally, the pipe would have been bled the day before and ventilated thoroughly before the repair crew arrived, but someone made a terrible mistake. When Grandfather Buffum cut into the line, the spark from his welding torch ignited the gas, and a horrific fireball engulfed the crew. Grandfather didn’t die instantly, but he suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. A newspaper headline the following day described him as “burned to a crisp.”
He died in the hospital several hours later, leaving Grammy a thirty-nine-year-old widow with four young children and no way to feed them. She was forced to apply for welfare from the County of Los Angeles, an act she considered shameful and refused to talk about as long as she lived.
Though he was only thirteen, Cecil Jr. quit school and to went to work sweeping and stocking vegetable bins at a local grocery, for which he received a few dollars and permission to take home the bruised and overripe fruits and vegetables he culled from the bins. Our mommy, Lillian Jr., stayed in school but babysat at every opportunity and turned her earnings over to support the family.