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Two Grandmothers, Two Memories of Easter Sundays
By Diane Flynn
Easter always brings back memories of going to visit my two grandmothers. One lived in Noe Valley and the other in Eureka Valley. But they were separated by more than the Castro Street hill.
It was the late '50s, and we were a young modern family who had bought a new ranch house on a denuded landscape in the suburb of San Bruno. Easter was the holiday my family assigned to the grandmothers -- as a major holiday, it didn't entail too much work.
After Sunday school, my parents, two brothers, and I would head for Grandma's in Eureka Valley. "Grandma" was my mother's mother, Ethel Stober. Her rented flat, on Douglass at Caselli, was next door to the 45-room Nobby Clarke mansion (which still stands today as an apartment building). We always called it the Castle.
Going to Grandma's was a kind of time travel. She had lived in the flat on Douglass Street since the early '30s. These were the rooms and furniture of my mother's childhood. We were transported into an atmosphere of faded Victoriana. I remember that everything was brown: wallpaper, wainscoting, carpet, floorboards, doors, paneling, window shades, fireplace, and the thick ornate trim around the windows and doorways. It was a sepia-toned interior.
Grandma had a stereoscopic viewer and a piano in the parlor. She had a trash-burning Wedgwood stove in the kitchen. Even the plumbing was ancient. The kitchen sink was in a separate pantry with a wooden surround and two separate spigots. The toilet had a wooden tank up at the ceiling and was flushed by pulling a long-handled chain. My brothers and I pretended we were pulling the chain of a cable-car bell.
The week before Easter, Grandma would boil, color, and hide eggs throughout the flat. She'd also assemble elaborate baskets for her grandchildren.
After finding the Easter eggs, we would have a light lunch in the dining room. A plate rail encircled the dark-brown room, and I would study each item on display. There were commemorative souvenirs of San Francisco's two world's fairs, beer steins from Germany, and many pieces of delicate, hand-painted china. Grandma, who was a widow, said the dining room adjacent to the kitchen was warmer than the bedroom, so she had her bed there too, now that she was alone.
As the adults visited, my brothers and I, energized by our feast of Easter candy, would go out to the yard to play. We'd run back and forth through the alley under the flat that led to the sidewalk. Soon we'd become emboldened and run up the stairs to the Castle door. That's as far as we dared go. In all those years we never saw a soul.
Finally, it was time to move on to my other grandmother's house, perched on a hill in Noe Valley.
My father's mother was named Mata Paulsen. The family name for her was "Grandmate." Grandmate's life was far different from Grandma's. Grandmate had bought her Edwardian-style house on 24th Street near Fountain for $10,500 in 1955. As a single woman, she was able to do this courtesy of my G.I. uncle, who co-signed the loan. Grandmate was eccentric, definitely a woman ahead of her time.
She was born and raised in Nebraska. As a young woman, she had two sons -- out of wedlock. I learned the concept of "skeletons in the closet" as I watched our family discern, over time, that Grandmate had not actually been married. The common wisdom was that she was a "divorcee."
Grandmate migrated to San Francisco in the early '30s since this was a good place to start anew. It was also a good place for a wild and crazy gal. In the '40s she actually lived with a married man. (Years later, my mother confided the scandalous news. "This was simply NOT done," she said.) Eventually, my father and uncle followed her west.
Grandmate had a typical Noe Valley house: the living room, dining room, and kitchen were downstairs, and the two bedrooms were upstairs. Originally, the living room had a fireplace and built-in bookcases under the stained-glass windows. In a misguided modernization, Grandmate had the fireplace and bookcases removed. When as a child I asked her, "What happened to the fireplace?" she replied, "I needed the space for a sofa."
Arriving at Grandmate's, we never knew who or what to expect. She hosted a revolving door of brothers, cousins, and friends who were passing through the city. It seems she was never prepared for Easter or our visit and would hastily dole out her change to each of us grandkids. With the sudden presence of three children, the noise level ratcheted up quickly. Grandmate's chihuahua would become stressed and bark continuously, between snarls. Her parrot would fly around the house screaming its jungle call. Inevitably, the parrot would land on one of our heads. Its grasp included long talons, and the owner of the landing-field noggin would shriek in terror. (To this day I detest parrots.)
The scene played out quickly. Mom would announce that we were all tired and it was time to go home. As the 4 o'clock fog poured over Twin Peaks, we'd pile into the car for our drive south on the Junipero Serra Highway, back to our rancher in pastoral San Bruno.
Diane Flynn, a retired phone installer for Pacific Bell, has resided in Noe Valley off and on for 25 years. Her "Easter egg" grandmother, Ethel Stober, died in 1970 at the age of 79. "Grandmate" Paulsen died 10 years later at the age of 82. In 1984, Flynn bought Grandmate's house on 24th Street. "I lived there until my daughter was ready for high school. At that time, I returned to San Bruno. But I still miss Noe Valley."