Whenever the children played in their yard, a large white duck protected them, according to Richard, the oldest child. The bird “would sit in the shade. If any strangers came up to the fence or when the mailman would deliver the mail, he’d get real aggressive and start chasing them.” San Diego’s construction industry provided the family with another form of security, as Dick found steady work. Richard says his father started as a framer but eventually became an accomplished finish carpenter, sought by the builders of expensive custom homes. “He was very meticulous.” Nellie, for her part, continued to provide her maternity wardrobe with almost full-time employment. Cathy, her first girl, was born less than 14 months after Don. Ronnie came 14 months after Cathy.
These older children remember that their parents found time for fun amidst the challenges of providing for their growing clan. Richard says his father at one point built a rocket ship “from scratch out of balsa wood, with no plans or anything. This was when rocket ships were just coming in, back in the ’50s. You’d turn on a switch, and a little red light would come on down at the bottom, so it would look like it was taking off.”
Richard says once in a while, his father would cross the field in front of the house and hunt for squirrels with bow and arrows. “He was heavy into archery.” Nellie, too, learned how to use a bow, her oldest children recall, and the couple joined a Balboa Park archery club. They won trophies.
Larry asks, “Can you imagine this mother with all these kids” going down to Balboa Park to shoot arrows? He remembers those outings as idyllic. “We would sit there and picnic and play.” Later, Dick made bows and arrows for all his oldest children.
In addition to the archery, Nellie and Dick shared a passion for square dancing. Their eldest daughter Cathy recalls that they used to go out on Friday nights, clad in matching outfits created by a friend of Nellie’s. “My mother loved to dance and jitterbug and do all that stuff,” Cathy adds. She says at times when her mother was cleaning the house, “A song would come on and she would stop what she was doing and grab the broom. And all of us girls would come onto the hardwood floors and just start dancing away. She taught us how to do so many dances. It was very fun!”
Other times Nellie was too pregnant to kick up her heels. Her sixth child, Connie, the second girl, arrived less than six and a half years after her wedding day, and three more births ensued over the course of the next five years.
Today Don, the third oldest, remembers resenting the steady influx of additional children. He asked his mother why she had to have so many babies. “I didn’t understand it.” Don says he was an artistic child, more of a loner than any of his siblings. “I used to draw future cities and futuristic trains, spacecraft, and stuff.” When he craved adult attention, he sought the company of his grandfather, who lived in the rear house and drank a lot. “My grandpa was awesome. I’d always go and sit with him and talk.” Cirrhosis finally killed him (in Don’s account), and “I took it the worst of all my brothers and sisters,” he says. He still chokes up at the memory. “It was like I lost my best friend.”
Don’s negative reaction to the ongoing arrival of more brothers and sisters appears to have been the exception, however. “We loved babies!” asserts Connie, who told me she couldn’t remember any sibling ever criticizing their mother for having so many. “I’m not sure if that was because of the Catholicism or the Spanish culture or because we were raised to know it was a blessing,” Connie says. “We just considered ourselves very blessed.”
Terry, who holds the middle position among the siblings, agrees. “They were like live baby dolls. When my mom would come home from the hospital, that was my favorite time!” Jim, one up from Terry, says he was “always in awe of the little fingers,” adding that to this day he will drop everything to interact with an infant. “I’m still enamored with them.”
It nonetheless must have been daunting to think of squeezing any more inhabitants, even small ones, into the family’s crowded quarters. “I remember that house so vividly,” says Connie, who was just short of six in the summer of 1958. She still dreams of the Chula Vista house. “You’d walk in the living room, and to the left was Mom and Dad’s room.” A modest ten-by-ten-foot space, it opened into the sole bathroom, which was also connected to the only other bedroom. Three sets of bunk beds lined the walls of the children’s room, accommodating the four oldest boys and two oldest girls. “I remember that Jimmy, who was four, slept in a playpen in the kitchen,” Connie says. Terry and Tina would have been in a cradle and bassinet in the parents’ bedroom.
The family finally managed to buy a three-bedroom, one-bath stucco house on Grove Street in National City. “When we were growing up, we thought we were kind of poor,” says Connie. But when she thinks back upon that house, she’s struck by how large and comfortable it was. “It was a dual-level property with a double-car garage that accessed the alleyway. And it had what used to be a pigeon coop that we made into a playhouse. It had a grape arbor on the second level and three big fruit trees.” The property covered about three-quarters of an acre, Connie believes.
In time, Dick used his carpentry skills to add a two-story wing that included two more bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a laundry room, and additional storage. “Dad never, never wasted space,” Connie says. Under the stairway and into the walls next to it, “He built cupboards in all different shapes to fill that room. It was really kind of neat, all the nooks and crannies.”