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My Family Farm
By Suzanne Girot
"You were the fourth generation born here," my dad tells me as he points to the Victorian house behind him. Too bad I don't still live here, I think. Nestled halfway down the 23rd Street hill between Church and Chattanooga, my ancestral home is the oldest house in Noe Valley.*
I pan my video camera from my dad up to the northwest wing of the house. My room. Tall windows look out from 13-foot-high ceilings; a new paint job in hues of putty and sage sparkles in the noonday sun; magenta bougainvillea climbs up the front of the house. Our old family farm looks like several million dollars.
As part of my family history project, I'm filming my 85-year-old dad in front of all the San Francisco houses that were built and inhabited by our ancestors. When I interviewed him at his dad's birthplace, a house at 1117 Church Street that was built by my great-grandfather Stephen Girot, we discovered a brass plaque above the doorbell, The Girot House, 1888. People want to know the history of their homes, even if it's someone else's history. My family no longer lives there, but their stories will live on in videotape.
Most people document their genealogy in writing; my medium is video. I shout questions at my dad and film his responses. Not only do I get my dad's voice, I record his facial expressions, his gestures. His face brightens as he recalls his childhood:
"I remember being awakened every day at 5:30 by the paperboy. He had a wagon with metal wheels; it chattered all the way down the hill on the corrugated sidewalk." My dad points to the ridged concrete under our feet. It's still here, the same sidewalk he walked on.
Out in front of Uncle Lex and Aunt Virginia's house on Sanchez Street, I film my dad's remembrances four times.
"I'm standing in front of my great uncle and aunt's house," Dad begins. A fire siren grows louder as it roars up Sanchez Street.
"Cut," I yell.
We start again. "Aunt Virginia and Uncle Lex lived here -- they weren't actually my aunt and uncle."
The front door of Aunt Virginia and Uncle Lex's house opens and a woman emerges with a broom and starts sweeping the front stairs. We wait until she finishes.
"Start again," I bark at my dad.
We film the scene twice more.
Back at the family farm on 23rd Street, my dad continues his living history. "This house was built by my great-grandfather, George Pracy. He acquired the property and several more acres in the Noe Valley in the 1860s."
He holds up an old photo to the camera.
"You can see that this part of San Francisco was completely undeveloped. In this photo from 1868, the house is standing alone in open fields. It was a farm with a stable for horses. Pracy was quite a horseman. He retired at 40 from his job as a machinist and lived another 40 years riding horses with his old cronies."
My camera scans the photograph -- the barn, silo, water tank, windmill, the big house.
"George Pracy's daughter, my grandmother, was widowed with five small children, one of whom was my mother. They moved into this house and my mother grew up here. She went to Mission High School in the late 1890s. When she married my father, they settled here. I was born up in that room." He points to another upstairs bedroom.
"We had a great life back then. So civilized compared with today. I can remember my mother doing her shopping by telephone. She'd call Mike the produce guy on 24th Street and ask him what was good that day. 'Send me some green beans and potatoes,' she'd say. Then she'd call the butcher and have the meat delivered. And she called the little grocery store on 22nd and Chattanooga and they'd deliver. It was better than Webvan."
"There's the parlor where Aunt Meila called the family together during the 1906 earthquake." He points to a downstairs room that faces on 23rd Street. In a sweeping gesture with his arms, Dad puts on his falsetto voice: "'Come, everyone, we'll all die together. It's the end of the world.' Of course, that was before my time. The house wasn't damaged; it didn't even lose a fireplace. Old Man Pracy built it right."
"Let's take a walk down the alley," I suggest, pulling the camera off its tripod and continuing to shoot hand-held. Following my dad, I am overcome by the sight of him, his white hair blowing in the breeze, his cautious steps. He's an old man now. The best memories of his life reside in this house, in this backyard, lush with the foliage of banana trees, wild rosemary, and redwoods.
"I planted that redwood tree in 1932," he points to a tall, straight tree.
My dad's the last one. The ghosts of his ancestors are all here.
My own memories of living in this house are different from my dad's. For me, the house was a spooky place.
We had seven fireplaces, originally the only source of heat. Imagine my confusion at Christmas -- I never knew which fireplace to hang my stocking -- which chimney Santa would come down.
The house was so big that we occupied only half of it -- my brother, parents, and I lived upstairs, and my grandfather lived downstairs. The downstairs had several vacant rooms full of bulky, dark furniture. Everything was old. The light fixture in my bedroom, suspended from the high ceiling, had gone from candles in the 1860s to gas to electricity. Many of the rooms were paneled in dark mahogany, furthering the illusion of creepiness.
We moved away when I was 7, my dad 35. I couldn't wait to leave the old place, the site of my wolf nightmares. My wolf visited me often in that room with the sandy-brick fireplace and swinging chandelier. She ascended the curved staircase from the murky depths below, striking terror in my childhood heart. I left her behind with the other ghosts.
But today in the lush backyard where I played as a child, I feel connected to the generations of my ancestors who were here before me -- the Pracys, Schneiders, Girots. It's all right that we no longer own the house. I can walk down this alley any time and listen to the echoes of my family. One day I'll visit my dad here too.
Suzanne Girot is a video producer and freelance writer, living in Greenbrae, California.
*In "On the Trail of Noe Valley's Oldest House" and "Oldest House II," published in the May and June 1983 issues, Noe Valley Voice writer and historian Larry Beresford theorized that the oldest surviving house in Noe Valley was the former Girot home at 3780 23rd Street.