Noe Valley Voice November 2006

Florence's Family Album

Autumn Memories

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving has always been for us an extra-strength, family-sized celebration. That's because my mother- and father-in-law were married on Nov. 25, 1915. One year later to the day, their first son (my man Leo Holub) was born. Twenty-six years later to the day, their first grandchild, our son Michael, came into the world. Michael was the first grandchild in both of our families and the apple of everyone's eye.

Consequently, Thanksgiving in our family has long served as an inspiration for overindulgence of every form and fancy.

We occasionally gathered at our Noe Valley home to celebrate, but more often we congregated in the senior Holubs' house 150 miles away in the Sierra Foothills. The white colonial abode they built in the 1940s stood atop a hill overlooking the picturesque early gold-mining town of Grass Valley. Fronting the house grew the orchard that Leo's mother, "Gram," had planted herself.

Some years, there were red apples and pomegranates hanging from the bare branches when we arrived. Other years, the distant panoramic landscape was dotted with beautiful red and orange explosions of color--maple trees touched by the frost. Often the ground was frozen and made crunching sounds under our feet. Outside it was nippy, but inside it was comfortable and warm.

For days preceding the feast, Gram kept the oven busy, baking apple, pumpkin, and mince pies, plus a variety of cookies and three cakes! There was always one lavishly decorated birthday cake with Michael's name on it, another with Leo's, and a third honoring Gram and Gramp's wedding anniversary--usually a tall angel-food cake. But they were all reduced to crumbs before we traveled back to the city, where the boys attended Fairmount Elementary School.

When Michael was 8 years old, his teacher called me in for a conference, saying that the staff had been alerted to look out for children who were especially quiet, or who did not participate or make friends easily--traits she had noticed in our son. While such children posed no danger to those around them, she said, in later life they could conceivably be a danger to themselves.

Naturally, I went to a therapist she recommended, who listened while I related the family history. I told her that Michael had been a happy, healthy child with high spirits, until he came down with an illness at about 2 years of age--a traumatic period that I thought was especially relevant.

That was in 1945, when I went into the hospital to produce a playmate for Michael. Gram came to the city to watch her grandson while I was gone. Three days later when I came home from the hospital, eager to see how my son had managed without me, I was astounded to learn that Gram had inexplicably taken him to Grass Valley, away from everything familiar to him.

I was told by everyone not to worry, that Michael was enjoying the country sunshine and that there was not enough gas for the long trip home (because of fuel rationing for the war effort in Europe and Japan).

Nevertheless, I did worry, although I was kept busy with our fine new son, Jan. It was months before Gram returned with Michael. Only then did I learn the full truth, which had been kept from me in order to prevent any distress that might have inhibited my flow of milk while nursing Jan.

Michael had fallen from our living room couch and broken his collarbone shortly after I'd left for the hospital. At the same time, he'd come down with a terrible cold. Gram tried to get a doctor, but most physicians were overseas tending the troops. The few left behind were overbooked. In desperation, she bundled up our sick little boy and drove 150 miles to her personal physician, Dr. Hirsh, in Grass Valley.

The good doctor immobilized Michael's shoulder and arm, then diagnosed the "cold" as lobar pneumonia, which was usually fatal in those days. Fortunately, he prescribed sulfa, a brand new antibiotic drug that Gram administered with tender loving care and which probably saved Michael's life.

By the time Michael returned, however, he had developed an asthmatic condition that prompted us to move to a drier climate in Walnut Creek for a year. But the wheezing worsened, so we moved to Grass Valley because Gram was convinced that he was unaffected there. She was mistaken.

The asthma continued, so we called Dr. Hirsh, who suggested a series of allergy "scratch" tests, although he could promise no certain results. One of the scratches turned an angry red, revealing the troublemaker to be goose feathers! The offending source was the soft eiderdown pillow that Gram had given to her grandchild. He loved the pillow, and had it with him wherever we lived.

We moved back to San Francisco after dispatching the pillow to eiderdown heaven, and Michael outgrew his ailment. But he never regained the happy nature he'd had as a toddler.

At Fairmount, his grades were only mediocre for a child as bright as he was. I went back to the therapist, who listened to me for three months. She finally said she could see nothing out of the ordinary, and so suggested setting up a few sessions with Leo.

Before we could make plans for that, however, I just happened to visit a friend on the other side of town who was plagued by a constantly barking dog belonging to her next-door neighbor. Our friend commented that the neighbor was a psychiatrist who told other people how to raise their children and yet was unable to discipline her own dog properly!

That was all I needed to hear. I abandoned the idea of further therapy, especially since our son had begun to make great progress under the guidance of two gifted teachers at school.

Upon graduation from the eighth grade, Michael was named valedictorian, as well as the recipient of the Student Achievement Award. We happily assumed his troubles were over, and he went on to graduate from Lowell High School, as did his brothers.

All our sons did well, bringing their parents and grandparents great joy as they changed and grew.

But one thing remained unchanged over the years--our Thanksgiving. On that day, Gram and I arose at daybreak and busied ourselves in the kitchen--plucking, cleaning, and stuffing the enormous bird. When it was finally placed in the hot oven, we attended to the peeling of many potatoes and the chopping of all the vegetables.

As the turkey approached readiness, everyone pitched in. Michael mashed the potatoes, Leo carved the turkey, and I made the gravy, while Jan kept his little brother Eric amused by feeding logs into the living room fireplace. Gramp took charge of the beverages, keeping everyone's glass full, especially his own!

Gram set a fine table with her best linens, china, and silverware, and after we took our seats, Gramp offered a toast to our continued health and happiness. It was always a warm and congenial occasion that left us with bulging tummies and full hearts.

Toward the end of one Thanksgiving in the '60s, as we sat around the center counter in the kitchen feeling warm and well fed, I made a sketch to capture the pleasant sight. In the foreground sat Michael, Eric, Leo, Gram, and Gramp, conversing. In the background through the window, Jan could be seen walking in the orchard with his little red-haired girlfriend, Marsha, who had accompanied us.

We were completely happy. Life had been good to us.

Then the conflict in Vietnam escalated, and a new anxiety took hold. As 8-year-old Eric "demonstrated" against the war--following the lead of the legions of pacifists in San Francisco--his older brothers left for duty overseas.

First Michael joined the Navy and was assigned to a floating dry dock off the island of Guam, which was devastated by a typhoon while he was there. His was a dismal, lonely duty, with nothing to do but drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.

Then Jan was inducted into the Army. He was bound for Vietnam, but thankfully, his orders were reversed as the war began to wind down. His outfit was sent to Germany instead, to a base where the Alps were within hiking distance and the joyful Oktoberfests were even closer.

Both our sons came home unharmed.

Upon his return, Michael moved into an apartment with two school friends we knew and liked. He entered San Francisco State, but the teachers went on strike, and he was unwilling to cross the picket line. When the strike ended and he finally got to class, Michael had fallen far behind, so he dropped out. Unfortunately, jobs were scarce. Then he went through an unhappy romance. Things were not going well for him.

We could see that he was having trouble, but we never dreamed how serious--not until the sad night in 1968 when we received a phone call from a police officer who had to inform us that our son had taken his own life. Michael was only 25 years of age.

There was no note.

We were all devastated, but managed to comfort and never to blame one another. We had done our best.

We continued to observe our Thanksgiving holiday for as long as Gram and Gramp were alive, but more solemnly. Today their big house still stands on the hilltop, but our son Jan lives there now. We make the trip as often as we can.

In my April 1996 column, I mentioned a proposal to install a bench on the hill at Sanchez and 21st streets in honor of the late Audrey Rogers, a neighborhood activist. Later that year, Audrey's daughter, Janice Bracken, spoke before the Dolores Heights Improvement Club. She asked club members to give their approval for the bench memorial, to be located in a small landscaped area off the sidewalk on Sanchez Street.

There are a few hurdles to overcome, but if the bench is deemed acceptable (as Janice thinks it will be), Leo and I would like to dedicate a tree in our son's memory.

I would like to think of Michael sitting on an eiderdown cloud, watching the growth of the evergreen tree that was planted just for him. And to complete my vision, I imagine Gram and Gramp floating by with an enormous angel-food cake.

Editor's Note: An Australian lilly-pilly tree was planted in the landscaped area surrounding the Audrey Rodgers Memorial Bench in the spring of 1999.