Noe Valley Voice July-August 1997

Florence's Family Album: Victoria's Secret

By Florence Holub

Last May it was my job to make small drawings of the beautiful ceramic objects in the de Young Museum exhibition "The Spirit of Ancient Peru: Treasures from the Museo Arqueologico Rafael Larco Herrera." The exhibit features 3,000-year-old artifacts unearthed on the Larco family estate in northern Peru in the early part of this century. My drawings were meant to accompany the text notes that the de Young docents must master before giving tours.

Because I had not yet seen the collection, I first had to find a visual record of it. So I approached the behind-the-scenes office of the specialists who were frantically putting the exhibition together. One of the young ladies there had the familiar name of Victoria Alba.

She turned out to be the same Victoria Alba with whom our son Eric had attended Edison Elementary School in the early '60s. As she helped me with my research, I found her to be a delightful grownup, with fond memories of her youthful years in Noe Valley.

When Victoria was 5 years old, she moved with her Filipino-American grandparents into the large Victorian building on the southeast corner of Chattanooga and 23rd streets, where they opened a grocery called Dona Nati. Their living quarters were on the second floor and had four bedrooms -- two with fireplaces.

Victoria recalled the beautiful, hand-painted Spanish tiles set around her hearth. She also recollected her grandmother slipping into her room on cold mornings to light a fire so that the room would be warm when Victoria dressed for school. Victoria's mother had died very young, and her father was a seaman who had to be away for long intervals. So her grandparents had assumed the role of parents, and, judging from their delightful granddaughter, they were a caring, loving couple.

At Edison, Victoria was a model student in the classroom, but out on the playground, like all kids, she was a bundle of unspent energy. We laughed as she described the spirited exchanges that erupted during recess and lunch hour. The yard was divided by a painted line that was supposed to separate the boys from the girls. This line was violated regularly by both sides, Victoria said, in order to land a playful punch on a member of the opposite sex.

Of course, there was gleeful retaliation, accompanied by laughing, screeching, and general jubilation. The blows, Victoria assured me, were light taps, not really forceful enough to make a dent.

Then Victoria let me in on a secret: many of the girls had developed a crush on Eric, which was why he was on the receiving end of so many enthusiastic shoves. When I related this to our son, he laughed, saying that he saw things a little differently. "That was simply the way fourth- and fifth-graders behaved toward one another," he said, noting that the next year they reached a more dignified level of civility.

True enough. And as they grew and matured, many of the children, Victoria among them, were directed into a program for gifted children, which included field trips to laboratories, geological digs, and other unusual activities. (Victoria recalled one trip to the deYoung Museum when the docent who led them on a tour of early American paintings happened to be Eric's mother.)

Victoria continued to live in the house on 23rd Street until her aging grandparents began to find the upkeep and the stairs too difficult to manage. They reluctantly sold the building and moved to a smaller home in Daly City. Victoria, 21, was attending San Francisco State University and supporting herself by working at Macy's and the Emporium.

It took her longer than most students to complete her studies, because her grandmother often needed, and received, her care and attention. When she did graduate, however, she took advantage of an accelerated summer journalism program for minority students. Then she accepted a job as a reporter in New Mexico to gain some practical experience.

With that accomplished, she returned to the city and went to work for the San Francisco Examiner. Three years ago, she joined the Media Relations Department at the de Young, where I found her in charge of supplying the Bay Area with publicity for upcoming exhibitions.

As a writer for the Noe Valley Voice, I was able to extract an invitation to the press preview for both me and Eric. Unfortunately, Eric had to work, but I brought along my man Leo. When I introduced him to Victoria, he immediately gave her a punch (nothing forceful enough to make a dent!).

Leo reported to Eric afterward that Victoria had blossomed into a striking woman. Our son quickly replied, "She always was. I remember her striking me quite a few times!"

To illustrate this month's column, I walked down the hill to sketch Victoria's childhood home. This attracted the attention of Michael Markowitz, who runs an art gallery where the Dona Nati grocery used to be. Michael invited me to join the drawing class that was about to begin at the gallery. Although I couldn't accept his offer, I was delighted to find an art gallery flourishing in Victoria's old home, after having so recently found a bit of Noe Valley (Victoria herself) in our city's oldest fine arts museum.

Speaking of the de Young Museum, I urge everyone to see the Peruvian exhibit, which runs until Oct. 10. It features 175 of the most prized artifacts in the Rafael Larco Herrera collection. The objects range from an elegant "chicha" bottle (for fermented maize beer) dating from 1200 B.C., to painted and burnished "portrait vessels" shaped like the heads of important figures in Peruvian society, to a dazzling display of gold metallurgy, featuring the embossed crown, necklace, and chest ornaments of a Chimu nobleman in 1350 A.D.

The craftsmanship is superb, and these treasures, although buried with the dead for thousands of years, remain beautifully preserved, telling us a great deal about the pre-Hispanic civilization that created them.