My father Rudy

21 Jun

rudyinnursery_torrance_1960s

This picture is how I most vividly remember my father Rudy:  in a greenhouse filled with chrysanthemums, wearing Levi’s, a white t-shirt and (if dressed up) a plaid shirt. This photo was in a newspaper article about the moving of Shinoda Nurseries, where he worked, from Torrance to Santa Barbara in 1964, which must be why he was wearing the plaid shirt. When the nursery moved, so did we, which was fine with us: Santa Barbara was where Rudy grew up, where our beloved grandmother was who we visited every month , and where we had lived until I was 5.

He was born in Los Angeles of immigrant parents, his father from Prussia, his mother Norwegian, on the night Jack Dempsey knocked out Gene Tunney, September 22, 1927. (I know that last fact because my grandmother told my mother that they couldn’t find my grandfather that night, because he was at a bar listening to the fight on the radio.) He had a bit of a rough start in life, as did so many of his generation. Because his parents didn’t speak each other’s language, they spoke what was then referred to as “broken English”, so my father did, too. He was held back one year in kindergarten (!) so that he could learn to speak “proper” English; even as an adult, he still pronounced “under” as a German would. When he was 2, he had meningitis, and almost died; his eyes crossed, and he had to learn to walk all over again when he recovered. That he recovered is a miraculous sign of Teutonic hybrid vigor, I’m sure. He also grew up poor during the Depression, and ashamed of a much older and infirm father who didn’t work, while his mother supported the family at jobs as a housekeeper and cook.

My father’s salvation was that he had an enduring passion from the time he was very young: he loved working in the garden, and always knew that he wanted to do something with plants. We have photos of him still in high school, tending his mother’s yard and proudly showing off his vegetable garden. When he met my mother–on a blind date–he had just come out of the Army; it was at the end of the War, and he spent his 18 months’ service cleaning up in the Aleutians–a California kid who had never seen snow!

They got married in Santa Barbara in September 1948–as the saying goes, they “had to” get married, because I was on the way. They were both so young–Rudy was only 21 when I was born!–but that seems to have been the norm for that generation, along with, often, “having to” get married. And then in quick succession, they had three girls. Before he was 30, he had a houseful of females!  He really didn’t mind, I don’t think–he loved us all, and when he wanted to do boy stuff (he never completely grew up) he rounded up boys in the neighborhood to catch gophers or work on cars. When I was 3, he went back to college on the G.I. Bill; we moved to San Luis Obispo, where my sister Christa was born. He got a degree in Ornamental Horticulture from Cal Poly; I still remember going to his graduation when I was 5. Everyone was so proud of him. His first job out of college, secured through the aid of his favorite teacher Howard Brown, was as superintendent of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens. We actually lived in the gardens, in a little house that is now the Gardens’ Conservation Center. Sounds idyllic to me now, but my father wasn’t happy as an administrator, and my mother hated living in the Gardens because she couldn’t have a TV antenna. Rudy wanted to be, simply, a grower–the term he used throughout his life. He hated pretentiousness and high-falutin’ titles. We stayed in Santa Barbara long enough for my sister Robyn to be born when we lived in Pilgrim Terrace, a housing development built for returning soldiers which, in true 1950s fashion, was swarming with kids. I think my mother was happiest there, because there were so many wives and children.  But my dad soon found another job, as the grower for Shinoda Brothers nursery in Torrance. We moved there in 1954, when Robyn was a brand new baby, and Torrance was growing by 1,000 new people a week. We were quite poor, but so was everyone else in the new neighborhood where we lived. My parents were quite social, but having no money, they had friends over for card games and barbecues.

Rudy was really a big kid in many ways, and kids loved him. He would fly a kite on a 5-mile string, and let it fly until we couldn’t see it anymore; when he lost it, we would get in the car to find where it had ended up. On the Fourth of July, he would make firecracker rockets, then hurry into the house when the cops came so that only the kids were scolded. He loved to barter for services: he would landscape someone’s house, and they would put down a floor for us. He sang “Ramona” in the shower every night, and even let us have a pet gopher, his sworn enemy, as a pet for a little while, then let us release him into the wild, despite his endless battles with the creatures in his greenhouses. He worried constantly about money, and the only time I really saw him depressed was when he wanted to give us something that he couldn’t afford to give. He wasn’t into sports at all–my mother and I were the baseball fans–but he liked to go deep-sea fishing (even though he wouldn’t eat fish!), and occasionally went hunting with friends. He loved the Indy 500, and would take me to the movie house with him in the days when the races were shown live at the Arlington Theater in downtown Santa Barbara. He always worked very hard, and we had one of the most beautiful yards in the neighborhood.

Now comes the hard part. Let me just put up again what I wrote about my own battle with alcoholism:

One of my earliest memories–not THE earliest, but the earliest scary memory–is of being in the car with my little sisters while my mother is trying to get the car keys from my drunken father so she can take us all away. My youngest sister was just a baby, so I must have been about 6. I have no memory of returning home, but I think my father came to the friend’s house the next day, remorseful, and we all came back. She never did that again, but we spent many insecure days and nights dealing with my father’s alcoholism. He was never violent–he was a gentle, sweet man, and everyone loved him–and up until the end of his drinking, he always had a job, but there were arrests and some dangerous behaviors. Meanwhile, my mother was hysterical a lot of the time, and we all just figured out ways to get away from home as soon as we could.

My mother said that when she first met him, he only drank occasionally. But by the time I was 6 or so, he was on an alcoholic path. He was a classic alcoholic, hiding bottles all over the place, passing out in his truck, and in the end, losing jobs after the employer had given him chance after chance to come clean. We just felt helpless to do anything. I was gone away at college when the fights with my mother got really bad; my sisters bore the brunt of these battles. Finally, my mother kicked him out of the house, and he tried to begin his own business, while still drinking.  This situation lasted until my mother divorced him and he hit his moral bottom, doing things that appalled him when he sobered up. And so he did stop drinking completely. He lived in a trailer on his little nursery patch in Ventura, he took care of his mother, and he and my mother took vacations together. My sister Robyn, who was always his favorite, worked for him, and all seemed to be going fairly well. He was thrilled to have a grandson, our son Max, and was delighted to visit and see him. He visited us in New Orleans, where we were living in the early 80s, and helped us put in a garden in our nearly-underwater back yard.

These are the last photos I took of him, with Max at Audubon Park in New Orleans, and in his classic pose of watering a garden. It had been such a nice visit.

Whenever I remember my father, I hear his voice on the phone the last time I spoke to him. We were coming out to California for a visit, and he called to let us know he would pick us up at the airport.  A few days after that phone call, my mother rang with the devastating news that he had died of a massive heart attack. He was 57. We–my sisters and I–have never quite accepted the fact that this happened. This happened in 1985, and I still hear his voice.

While this little memoir doesn’t do justice to this good man, I did want to introduce him to all the people I love who never got to meet him. This Esau line died out with him. That’s why we gave Max the middle name of Esau.  Rudy, you were a sweet father, and I never let you know that.

 

4 Responses to “My father Rudy”

  1. esauboeck June 21, 2017 at 3:26 am #

    George here,
    Even as a relative outsider, I can say that Rudy knew his daughters loved him. I knew him before his alcoholism was more than a social faux pas (he once offered me a pint at an outdoor classical guitar concert). To my experience, he was gentle, physical, and accepting. One of my enduring tsorris is not to have known him as I grew into his age.

  2. Georgia Pope June 24, 2017 at 5:31 pm #

    What a wonderful tribute to your Dad! We as parents most times don’t realize how important we are to our children. Money and possessions aren’t nearly as important as experiences which create memories that last a life time. Thanks for sharing this. I so enjoyed the photos.

  3. Amanda Pelch June 25, 2017 at 6:57 am #

    Dear Erica.
    A most touching and intimate story. Thank you for sharing your love and insight.
    Hugs & kisses,
    Amanda

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: