Letter to My Great-Grandchildren (part 1)

[A letter written by Sibyl (Croly) Hanchett, started on January 18, 1931 and finished some time later. At that time she and her family were living in in a house they owned on Oak Street in Saratoga, California.]

How I would have enjoyed a personal letter from my great-grandmother when I was your age, or any age! As I write, I visualize an audience in its teens, but I cannot dwell too much on possible readers, for I am incapable of imagining what the adolescent of fifty or sixty years hence will be like. We often hear that human nature doesn’t change much, but it is just as true that conditions change greatly, and human nature is so adaptable, and our knowledge of its resources so limited, that it is capable of surprising the theorists.

I might as well begin with a description of our house and household as it appears on this Sunday morning, January 18th, 1931. We live in Saratoga, a village in the foothills ten miles west of San Jose, California.

[According to a 1932 City Directory, they resided on Oak St, near 2nd. This map shows the approximate location. The house number references the house at that location now; it is not the house they lived in.]

We have about an acre of ground, with seven large oak trees, and the garden consists largely of wild, or half-wild plants and shrubs of the sorts which thrive on neglect, the result of careless selection. However, it looks very pleasant to the informal eye. Just now, of course, there are few flowers, though the red berries, cotoniaster and toyon, are still fairly good.

Red Berries
Toyon (l.) and Cotoniaster (r.)

I managed to glean a bouquet of purple sage, heather, and a few sprays of broom. It stands on the little wicker table, in a green vase, one of a pair your great-grandfather brought me from one of his trips. The table cover also is a gift. In fact, most of our furniture is either gift or home-made or second-hand. This is not altogether because of poverty, for our income is well above the average, but your g.g.father and I married quite young, “on a shoestring”, as the slang phrase goes, (Look it up if you no longer use that expression.) and we had five babies in nine years so, though the shoestring stretched, it never quite laced up.

The house is two stories high, and, as it almost certainly will not be standing in your day, for we suspect that termites are already chewing away at the foundations, I will describe it inside, and maybe add a photograph or two later to show you how things looked. The living-room is 16 x 25, with three narrow windows in the south end, and three large ones at the front door on the west side. The porch goes half-way around it, and in the summer a grape-vine climbs over the south windows. The room is finished in a redwood wainscoting, just about as high as my head, which is five feet six inches, and above that the walls are covered with tan burlap. The ceiling has ten redwood beams across it, with the burlap in between. Redwood is beautiful, but so soft that every bump leaves a trace, which make our walls perhaps more attractive to the historian that to the aesthete.

In fact, shabbiness-informality-comfort is the keynote of the whole establishment, so when Barbara and I went shopping for a lounge and an easy chair the other day we had to hunt quite a while before we found anything that would harmonize with our peculiar conditions. I had determined that I couldn’t spend more than a hundred dollars on the things, but everything we saw at that price, second-hand, of course, was much too ornate and superior looking. I didn’t want furniture of which I must stand in awe. Finally we found just what we wanted, a soft, comfortable Chesterfield and easy chair, in a mellow, faded, seal-brown, which settled down into our room with a sign of contentment and made itself immediately at home. And I don’t want you to take this as a sample of what furniture cost in our day, but the price was only twenty-five dollars. I don’t claim to have gypped a second-hand dealer — I’m only human — but I do think I got a good bargain.

Our fireplace, of shabby brick, with a brick mantel, stands opposite the west windows. We burn wood, and this fireplace does all the heating for the house, except for an electric oven in the kitchen, and a small portable heater. There is a smaller fireplace on the other side of the same chimney, in the bedroom, but that is chiefly used for burning trash, or for a luxurious lying in bed with the windows all open to watch the firelight flicker on the walls. Our heating arrangements, again, are not typical. Most of our friends have furnaces, and I think the main reason we haven’t is my lack of enthusiasm. Same with radios. Billy (who will be your grandfather or great-uncle William) usually has some sort of radio assembled out of his collection of parts, and if there is anything on that we especially want to hear we all sprawl on his bed to listen to it. The Gilmore circus is rather a favorite. Billy likes jazz, being sixteen and in High School. What do you use for jazz, I wonder? Never mind answering.

The entire contents of “A Letter to My Great Grandchildren” can be seen in these posts:

3 Comments on “Letter to My Great-Grandchildren (part 1)”

  1. Many moons ago, my mother, Hilda, one of Sibyl’s children, took sister Suki and me to this very house. We were not able to go inside as no one was home but mom described her memories of the interior to us, as well as happy memories of being a youngster there. It was quite lovely in just the way I love older houses! The oak trees were stunning in their hugeness, and had been nicely kept and pruned. Redwood trees and, as I recall, a little bit of creek too. My parents said that, when grandma moved to Marin County the decision was made to sell that house. What a pity, but, who knew?!

  2. What a delightful memory this letter brings to me! I lived in that house on Oak Avenue during World War 2 and a little beyond. It was a perfect place to live. Next door on the left (facing the street) were the Bertelsons, referred to in some earlier pieces of this narrative. On the right was a boarding house where I was given a job helping clean up after the dinners. I was paid 10 cents per hour and usually came home with about 1cents. They were very nice, older people. Next past them was the Saratoga Grammar School. I think I was there 3rd through 5th grades – short walk to school. Hilda also went to that grammar school. In the front yard was a circular driveway surrounding a huge valley oak and on one side were toyon berries. Cedar waxwing birds would flock to them each year and eat to the point that they would get drunk and stagger around the driveway. We loved watching that. On the other side next to some other shrubs beyond which was a straight driveway to the back of the property, was a thicket of bamboo with the center hollowed out making a wonderful play area for us.

    One of my lasting memories was watching step- grampa Mark burning some brush cuttings which turned out to be poison oak the smoke of which landed on my body and gave me such a case of it that I wound up in hospital and then at home in bed covered with sheets soaked in some kind of medication. THAT I’ve never forgotten!

    I got my first bicycle there, a 2nd hand klunker that was my pride and joy.

    There were several of us living there during WW2, Gramma Sibyl lived upstairs with her grand piano and offered piano lessons to any of us kids who wanted them. Downstairs were Barbara (my mom),Gerry and me, Marion (Uncle Bill’s wife) and her daughter Joan , my age, Adam, just a little guy but his mom, Hilda, lived in SF and worked in the shipyards, I think. She came down on weekends. I don’t recall if Clara (Ned’s wife and daughter Susanne, a baby) lived there, but there were always guests of one sort or another. Having 2 Joanies there, similar ages, similar looks, similar dispositions, was how I got my name changed to Jonellen. Mom and Marion got tired of calling one of us and getting two responses so Mom combined my two names, dropped the a and there I was, Jonellen.

    If I recall any more memories, I’ll try to add to this brief narrative as I have realized that I am the only grandchild left who lived in that wonderful house.

  3. My mom, Clara, never lived there. But we visited regularly during my childhood, when we lived in San Francisco. It was a large, wonderful house. When she got older, Grandma moved to a cottage in the back. In the summer of 1951 (I think), when I was 10, Grandma Sibyl organized a “Camp Cousins” for five of us: Adam, Bill, Marc (my brother), a second cousin Martha (daughter of Honey), and me. I think Martha was the oldest, maybe 12. She gave us all piano lessons, took us on field trips, and told great family stories in the evenings. The older cousins (Jonellen, Germaine maybe) and aunts took turns helping out. It may have gone on for a month or six weeks. At the end, we staged a performance in the Big House for some neighbors. Each had a piano piece to play. And we sang as a group. The only song I remember was our group’s: “Put Your Shoes on, Lucy.” We sang that when we met for the rest of our lives! It had a nice, syncopated beat. For the record here are the words: Put your shoes on, Lucy/Don’t you know you’re in the city/Put your shoes on, Lucy/It really is a pity/That Lucy can’t go barefoot wherever she goes/’Cause she loves to feel the wiggle of her toes!
    Thanks again, Marie, for doing this.

    P.S. My dad (Ned) was very proud to tell us that Olivia deHaviland and Joan Fontaine, famous movie stars of the 1950s and sisters, also had grown up a little further down Oak Street.

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