Noe Valley Voice February 2007

Florence's Family Album

How I Almost Became a Nun at the Age of 21

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

Editor's Note: Here's another gem from our Florence Holub archives, originally published in the February 1994 issue of the Voice.

Upon reaching my 75th birthday in January [1994], I couldn't help but remember another landmark day in 1940, the year I came of age. At the time, I was attending classes at the California School of Fine Arts, later renamed the San Francisco Art Institute.

Several girlfriends at school shared the same birthday, January 25, so we met in the lunchroom at noon to honor the occasion. Each of us had brought a special edible creation to share. I had baked and assembled a strawberry shortcake loaded with berries and whipped cream, which attracted a number of hungry, uninvited students for as long as the cake held out.

It was such fun that we were put in the mood for another party, and since Valentine's Day was coming up, we scheduled the event for then.

Over the next couple of weeks, everyone joined in to ensure a gala affair, contributing records and a player to dance to, planning creative refreshments, and constructing artful decorations to enhance the school library where the party would be held.

But then suddenly for me, "the party was over," as they say. Less than a week before February 14, my father declared in a most forceful manner that he had decided to send his youngest son (my brother Warde) off to reform school, and his daughter (me) off to a nunnery!

My father's wrath stemmed from a letter from my brother's school, Balboa High School, stating that Warde had been absent for 17 consecutive days. This bit of information coincided with the recent disappearance of gasoline from the tank of my father's Nash sedan, used only on weekends.

When confronted, my brother confessed that he had not only been cutting class, but also taking his friends out joyriding while the family was away.

My father was furious, and he didn't mince words when making the announcement about my brother's impending banishment. And since I too had been continually disregarding the household curfew--keeping my father awake night after night, he said--I would also receive drastic punishment.

We the accused were instantly filled with apprehension and stricken into obedience, with Warde hurrying off to school like a good boy, and me rushing home after school to tend to my chores as the family cook and housekeeper. In this social void, the two of us had time to reflect upon our misdeeds, as well as our father's difficult position.

Since our mother's untimely death from cancer when she was only 43, our father had been left with three teenagers on his hands. He had assumed the role of both mother and father, and he had performed it nobly. Usually he was good-natured and undemanding, but he could be strict and unyielding when the occasion called for it.

An added annoyance at the time came in the form of a summons from the principal of Balboa, requesting a meeting to talk about Warde. Since my father had no desire to take time off from his job, he sent me in his stead.

The principal, Mr. Schmaelzle, remembered me as a former student, and when he learned of the devastating loss of our mother, he was so understanding that he offered to keep his eye on Warde to see that he graduated the following year.

Despite this reassurance, fear and anxiety continued to permeate my thoughts, even invading my artwork! In printmaking class I drew the specter of a nun dressed in voluminous black, reading the good book as she slowly walked within the cloisters under a dark and foreboding sky.

Meanwhile, the valentine spirit among my friends had escalated to a joyful level, while I, knowing full well I could not attend the party, walked around gloomily, as though carrying the weight of a large wooden crucifix upon my shoulders.

At school, there was much joking and laughter at my predicament, except for one young man who--either because he had respect for my shortcake or else felt a bit sorry for me--unexpectedly presented me with a gift.

It was a valentine, a large red heart filled with chocolates and a note. The note said, "Little girls aged 21 have no cause to be so glum."

This thoughtful gesture helped me through the distressing weeks that followed, and gradually my father relaxed his stern demeanor and rescinded his order, and the household regained its former harmony.

In addition, that young man who had given me the valentine, named Leo Holub, began showing up at our house regularly. Within a year and a half, we were married.

For the next three years on Valentine's Day, Leo gave me a heart filled with chocolates, accompanied by the rhyming words that I had come to eagerly anticipate: "Little girl, 22...." "Little girl, 23...." "Little girl, 24...."

But when the next year's valentine came, it was without the usual verse. Could he find no suitable rhyme for 25? Perhaps his poetic license had been revoked! Nevertheless, the chocolates continued.

As for my valentines to Leo, well, they were pretty sporadic. But occasionally I'd devise a memorable present--like the year I sewed a Japanese-style robe of brown-and-black-striped fabric, and for an added touch made a cut-out badge. It was a Purple Heart medal, which bore the inscription, "For Pretty Good Behavior." He thought it was funny, fortunately.

Another year I made a batch of cupcakes for our sons, and one for Leo that I embellished lavishly using a cake decorating tool. The boys gobbled theirs up quickly, but Leo took his to work where he placed it on his desk. There it stayed until it got as dry and hard as a stone. (He still has it tucked away somewhere in the attic.)

Through all the years, I have had more than my share of birthdays and valentines, but the valentine that is nearest to my heart is the first one, the big red heart. I still have the box, empty except for a small slip of paper now yellow with age.

If my man Leo had managed to keep his verses going, the 1994 rhyme might have gone something like this: "Little old lady, 75, we're still together, and we're still alive!" n

Leo celebrated his 90th in November and Florence her 88th birthday in January. Last month was especially busy for the couple because they were preparing for a major exhibition of Leo's photography at a gallery in downtown San Francisco. "Leo Holub: 70 Years of Photography," a retrospective of more than 180 works, will run February through March at the Himmelberger Gallery, 445A Sutter Street (open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.). It's a show that shouldn't be missed. --Ed.