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The family home in El Cajon turned into a fountain of family history.

The family home in El Cajon turned into a fountain of family history.

My father’s death from cancer last June, at age 71, was a mercy not just because it freed him from the pain of his illness but because he was — always had been — a very unhappy man. A good man, devoted to his family, a conscientious provider, never violent — but insecure, angry, bitter, alcoholic, blown back and forth by every passing mood. For years he’d told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to go on living. Now he didn't have to. It was hard to feel much regret.

It was hard not to go on wondering just why he was so unhappy. But there was so much I didn’t know, so much he never talked about. These few things I did know about him: He grew up on Point Loma and learned to sail at an early age. He had decidedly mixed feelings about his mother Muriel, whom I remember as a sturdy, grey dowager with very definite ideas about everything. His father Arthur committed suicide four years before I was born, although I didn’t know why. Beyond that, I had no clues about his early years that might account for his grown-up misery. Did his troubles begin with Arthur’s suicide? And now that he was dead, I figured my chances of finding out anything I didn’t already know were nonexistent.

The auto trips described here took place on two-lane roads.

The auto trips described here took place on two-lane roads.

What I’d failed to reckon on was that the mundane task of going through his effects — piles of junk, worn-out tools, shriveled papers — would turn up so much information about things he’d never spoken of. As my mother, my sister, my cousin, and I picked through boxes, and crates, and heaps, the family home in El Cajon turned into a fountain of family history: letters, pictures, documents, keepsakes welled up from a subterranean darkness where they’d languished for years.

Here was a photograph from early in the century showing happy people in frocks and muttonchops, taking a merry picnic excursion in shiny, old-fashioned automobiles. Ancestors of ours, no doubt; but on which side of the family? None of us knew. A photo of my father, his father, and friends — many of them with pipes poking lazily from their mouths, as though they were so many Bing Crosby impersonators — taking a sail sometime in the ’30s. (My grandfather had his arm draped around some woman who, my mother assures me, is not my grandmother.) There were baby pictures of people who have grown old and died and photos of crumpled automobiles....

And there were two packets of letters, one from 1936, the other from 1938 — letters written by Arthur and Muriel, from the family home in Point Loma, to my father when he was enrolled at the University of Arizona and, later, at Pomona College. I began to read, hoping to gain insight into my father’s unhappiness — and trembling a bit at the prospect of meeting my grandfather for the first time, nearly a half century after he destroyed himself. Almost immediately I found myself caught up in the daily life of a San Diego family in the years leading up to World War II.

There were two packets of letters, one from 1936, the other from 1938 — letters written by Arthur and Muriel from the family home in Point Loma.

There were two packets of letters, one from 1936, the other from 1938 — letters written by Arthur and Muriel from the family home in Point Loma.

My father, Lloyd Anderson, graduated from Point Loma High School in 1934, enrolled in Pomona College (Claremont, California), and later flunked out. In September 1936, Arthur drove him to Tucson to enroll at the University of Arizona, dropped him off there, took a tour through northern Arizona, and finally arrived back in Point Loma with a bad cold. A letter from Muriel, postmarked September 26:

  • Saturday A.M.
  • Dearest Son —
  • I am so relieved to hear from you and to know you are at last started. You must have had a hectic time but all things come to an end — even hectic times. As soon as you are on a regular schedule I’m sure everything will be O.K.
  • Dad had a nice trip to the Canyon but the last two days on the homeward trek he had a terrible cold. Said his eyes watered so he had to have the garage man read the map for him. But after a bath, a shave and a good night’s sleep he seems O.K.
  • Be sure and write me at least once a week and tell me everything.
  • Even if part of this experience isn’t pleasant the rest of it should be interesting — you aren’t going to stay there forever but take advantage of the time you are there and if you decide to return to Pomona you will have extra credits and can go on with your class. Above all I want you to keep well — physically and mentally — and be happy. Don’t let anything get you down. If you get low, go out for a long brisk walk and when you get back your viewpoint will be changed. Get all you can out of this experience.
  • Dad said you were worn out when you reached Tucson. Hope you are rested now.
  • Love, Mother

Muriel enclosed a letter she had received from my father’s sister Winifred, a 23-year-old graduate of Radcliffe, who was living in Pasadena and working at the Huntington Library.

Winifred’s letter:

  • Sept. 15th
  • Dear Ma:
  • I was glad to hear from you again, and in such a newsy letter. The Air Races were grand. I met Tom at the bus terminal in Los Angeles at 10:30 and we went to lunch, then took a bus out to the airport and got there a little after 12.
  • I had thought we were to go general admission for fifty cents, but Tom had two-dollar reserved seats in the grandstand, as swell as could be. He had ordered them way in advance, and they couldn’t have been much better. We were right in front of the last pylon for the big race, and the target which the bombers tried to hit when they dove, and the newsreel cameras, so everything happened in front of us. It was a long afternoon, and full of all sorts of events, like a three-ring circus. The sun was hot and came directly from the left, so we had lovely sunburns on the half-shell. After we got back to town we had a fine dinner at Rene et Jean’s (Belgian hare this time!).
  • I have had a sudden spell of moviegoing, after having seen practically nothing since I came here, and in one week took in “Mary of Scotland,” “Fury,” and “Green Pastures” with their attendant double features. They were all mighty fine....
  • Winnie

A letter from Arthur to my father (whose middle name was MacFeely):

  • Monday, Sept. 18 (1938)
  • Dear Mac —
  • Got home Friday afternoon about 4:00 P.M. “Aggie” stood the trip better than I did. Changed a spark plug and that was all the whole 1546 miles. My tickets show 59 gal. of gas and 11 qts. of oil used which seems to me quite a record. 26 mi/gal. Allowing another 5 qts of oil for a refill and figuring an ave. of 21 cents for gas and 30 cents/qt for oil the cost for both would be about 1 1/10 cents per mi. Just checked the amounts on slips and find the total cost was $17-13 from Pt Loma to Pt Loma.
  • When I found I couldn’t get into Casa Grande Monday night I decided to keep going. Had dinner in Phoenix quite late and started out again. It was here the Ford started missing but drove on to about 3 mi. this side of Wickenburg where I pulled off near a dip and made camp. Made coffee and fried bacon and egg for breakfast. I found that all one person needs for light cooking is a #2 can, a cup, skillet &. a fork &. a spoon. If you are cooking a heavier meal you simply heat the canned beans or what have you in the larger can with a little water before you open it and make coffee, dump the beans in the cup and dispose of them while the coffee is making, rinse the cup and use it for your coffee.
  • About this time I startled a school girl who came walking out of the sage brush reciting some lesson in a loud voice. She was catching the school bus into Wickenburg. It was here I took the plugs out and found that blunt-nose one had cracked. Had a new one in the kit to take its place.
  • Drove up the gully to point below Remuda Ranch, turned around and headed for Prescott. Got along nicely until I left Jerome and hit the dirt road across the valley. Here I was sure the car would shake to pieces. The noise was deafening. If I tried any speed the wheels would jitter first to one side then to the other.
  • Got part way up Oak Cr. canyon and made camp about 6 o clock at Indian Springs. It was a beautiful spot with big trees and a real stream of rushing water. 1 would liked to have stayed around there for a week or a month. I hope we can go there again some day....
  • From Flagstaff on things were not too good. I put on both sweaters but by the time I reached the Grand Canyon (1 A.M. Thursday) I was nearly paralyzed with cold and cramps. There was no one about but I found the camp grounds. Put the blanket and five layers of tarp over me and was so cold all night that I didn’t seem to sleep at all. Was up before the sun and decided the best way to get warm was to walk to the rim and see the sun rise and then my cold broke out. I walked out to Yarafice Pt. and back along the rim, a good three miles from camp there and back using up two handkerchiefs on the way so I had to wave one around to get it dry enough to blow my nose.
  • The Canyon is beyond words. I would liked to have spent the day there but my eyes were watering and I was thoroughly miserable so I cooked my usual breakfast and decided the only thing I could do was get home if I couldn’t keep warm so left about 9:30 A.M. Thursday and kept going....
  • When I got to Salome I decided to get some sleep and unpacked just beyond the tourist camp but my eyes burned so and a running nose made it impossible. The place is open all night and big trucks thunder by most of the night. Began to wonder about that desert stretch across Calif and whether it wouldn’t be shorter to take that southerly road from Blythe to El Centro. I had to get someone to look at the map, I couldn’t make out the figures. About midnight I started out again and got as far as Rhyolite about 1:30 Friday morning. Couldn’t drive safely any farther so threw down my mattress and with blanket over slept until 4:30. It was nice and warm.
  • I caught the turn at Junct to Mecca and came home by way of Julian. It wasn’t until I came down the grade to Lakeside and I got a good whiff of salt air that my nose finally quit running.
  • Arrived home 4 P.M. feeling better than I had since leaving the Canyon.
  • The first part of the trip was wonderful, the last an ordeal. I hope never to experience again. Have felt all in these last two days. All I have been able to do was take the top off the Ford, mow the lawn and do some watering. Feeling fine today.
  • I hope everything goes smoothly for you. Make up your mind to do your best and bring home a good record. A determination to do just that will carry you through in fine shape.
  • Let us hear from you soon and often.
  • Lots of love from, Dad

Muriel Anderson was born Muriel Cattle in Seward, Nebraska, and her family believed she married beneath herself. The Cattles had sprung from an English farmer who, in the 1870s, followed two of his sons to Nebraska and left his imprint on the entire region. He owned many farms and founded the Cattle Bank, one of Seward’s preeminent institutions. The Andersons, on the other hand, were Nebraska dirt farmers who had been living in the country since before the Revolution — at least 100 years longer than the Cattles — but had accomplished nothing much besides getting crop after crop out of the ground and amassing a certain amount of land along the way. The Cattles were none too pleased when Muriel — a gifted pianist for whom a distinguished concert career had been foreseen — said yes to Arthur Anderson’s marriage proposal.

The year 1917 found the young couple living in Burlingame, California, just south of San Francisco, where Arthur worked as a civil engineer. Their daughter Winifred was four years old, her brother (my father) Lloyd was born in May of that year.

Soon after his birth, the family moved to Southern California and bought a house on Point Loma. Arthur retired from civil engineering at the age of 35 to live off proceeds from his family’s holdings and gave the rest of his life over to love of the sea and sailing. When the Depression came along, it wiped out much of his substance; thereafter, they lived mainly on the proceeds from holdings on Muriel’s side of the family.

A letter from Muriel to my father, postmarked October 3, 1936, in which she enclosed a letter from Winifred:

  • Friday
  • Dearest Son —
  • I am just leaving for Pasadena; back tomorrow or Sunday. Hope for a letter from you this morning. Am enclosing Winnie’s last. No news here — my week’s activities went off O.K. but I’ve certainly been rushing. Dad is O.K. again — is now packing a trunk for me to take with Winnie’s winter clothes.
  • Loads of love, Mother

Winifred’s letter:

  • Dear Ma:
  • I’m looking forward to one of your too infrequent visits Friday. You won’t be able to carry up much, but I would like to have the blue suit and the pink sweater that goes with it, my black flannel skirt and the white satin blouse, my brown workaday shoes and, if possible, both heavy coats. I don’t see how you can get any more, if that much, in and still have them comfortable — oh, but 1 do need a blanket. When I make my first million I’m going to have an eiderdown puff covered with silk, but till then I’m willing to sleep under a horse blanket or anything you have handy. Cold nights I’ve used both my coats — and stayed in the middle of the bed.
  • It was nice to hear news of Lloyd, even indirectly, but remember that the source of news he mentions, namely Dad, is none too available to me, so I shall expect third-hand dope on his domestic accommodations. You can understand my interest in such problems as The Landlady, the Latchkey, Sweeping Under the Bureau, etc.
  • I’m forgetting the most important thing. I can’t come down next weekend because I’m saving to fly down Christmas, when I’ll have not more than two days and probably only one. Every possible chance, I consider going to San Diego, reject the idea, and then tell myself I’ve saved another $2.50 — just like Uncle By and the stock market.
  • Love, Winifred

I was beginning to realize that the family in those days was constantly on the move, always taking off on auto trips, figuring expenses, analyzing the mechanics of travel. Arthur’s referring to sign of trouble but as a kind of mechanical horse — to be groomed, watered, and fed.

I was also struck by the sheer largeness of the world I was reading about — that is, by the absence of freeway travel. The auto trips described here took place on two-lane roads, some asphalted, some not, that provided the principal means of communication between Flagstaff and Point Loma, Point Loma and Pasadena, et cetera.

A letter from Muriel, postmarked October 7, 1936:

  • Wednesday
  • Dearest Son —
  • Your letter came yesterday afternoon and we were most happy to hear from you. Hope you soon make some nice friends and begin to enjoy yourself. I’m glad to hear you have the upper hand of his car as "Aggie’’ and his minute breakdown of gas and oil expenditures during his Arizona trip suggests that he thought of the Ford not as a machine but as an animal. I infer, in part, the displaced instincts of a man descended from a long line of Midwestern husbandmen. Also, in 1936 the automotive age had been underway in America for at least a generation, but beasts of burden still played a highly visible role. It makes sense, then, that Arthur should see his car not as a piece of impenetrable machinery to be dispatched to the repair shop at the first your studies. Hope they prove interesting.
  • I had a letter from Aunt Win in which she said she was going to Tucson by train — so I won’t be out just now. Sorry the sheets don’t fit but I supposed you would have single beds.
  • Glad you don’t have to tote a gun but hope you do your exercises faithfully. Whatever happens, keep your chin up and don’t get discouraged. You are much better looking when you smile. As I said before, get all you can out of this experience — remember to give and take.
  • I enclose a check for $50. We feel we can count on you to spend it wisely.
  • After figuring up your indebtedness, forty dollars didn’t seem to leave you enough for food etc. How do you manage the housekeeping.
  • Loads of love from us both. Winnie would like to hear from you — especially on her birthday next Tuesday — 201 N. Euclid, Pasadena. I’m sending her an Indian ring.
  • Yours, Mother

Arthur, playing — not for the last time — the role of Cupid, enclosed a note:

  • Dear Mac
  • The girl in Dr. Werden’s office wanted to be remembered to you.
  • Find out if it would be practical to connect your cycle battery in line with the car battery in such a manner that it would receive enough current to keep it charged. And in such a way that the starter couldn’t ruin it.

A letter from Muriel, postmarked October 19, 1936:

  • Monday morning
  • Dearest Son —
  • I have looked anxiously for a letter from you but to no avail — hope all is going well with you and that you rec’d the money. I have been very busy lately — had the bridge club last week — helped Mrs. Goodwin at the Point Loma Assembly....
  • We have had a grand rain and I have done a lot of work in the garden. Tomorrow Dad and I are going to Laguna in Merritt’s car to fix the roof on Mrs. Goodwin’s house. She leaves for five weeks in Mexico Wednesday.
  • Now please let me hear from you once a week if only a postal.
  • Loads of love to my boy, Mother

I kept picturing my father as I knew him during my lifetime — a weatherbeaten, mustached man in his middle years — going out to the mailbox in Tucson in 1936 and reading these missives, so filled with scoldings, warnings, and advice. Since it was not only a disturbing picture but an inaccurate one, I used some old photos as an aid in reminding myself that he was at this time only 19 years — a mere boy. Still, his burial under this avalanche of parental concern continued to stick in my craw — maybe because I couldn’t help comparing his case with my own when I was the same age.

The photos from the late ’30s, early ’40s of crumpled automobiles are documentation of accidents my father was involved in — accidents that doubtless were a result of drinking. I was all of 21 when I first crumpled a car under the influence of alcohol, but at 19 I, too, had already made a botch of my first attempt to get a college education; I was living at loose ends, on drugs, and was frequently in trouble with the law.

My mother and father, like my father’s parents before them, tried desperately to coax me back onto a good path — with scoldings, warnings, advice, and few immediate results. The idea of an unbroken chain of anxious parents and unhappy children, of mothers and fathers fretting their sons and daughters to the end of time, was one that no amount of photo documentation could make less depressing.

Muriel changed her mind about visiting my father while her sister Win was in Tucson. A letter postmarked October 27:

  • Dearest Son —
  • Aunt Win and I reached home at 8:30 last night after a most enjoyable trip — took it slowly — tried to hold the speedometer to 40 all the way. Had lunch at Gila Bend and dinner at Jacumba at 5:45 P.S.T. It was beautiful coming up the Mountain Springs grade just after sunset.
  • I was very glad to have made the trip — 1253 miles — and to have seen you. I’ve told Dad everything and he sends you his love and best wishes for continued success. He is as pleased as I was about the A in Geom. This morning we have washed and are already collecting things for the box for Aunt Win to bring you. This P.M. we are going sailing.
  • Have a good time. I don’t want “Jack to be a dull boy.”
  • Loads of love, Mother. PS: Be sure and see if you can get a ride even part way home Thanksgiving. Begin inquiring.

A letter from Muriel, postmarked November 3:

  • Tuesday A.M.
  • Dearest Son —
  • I have been home a week and no line from you. Please write me immediately so that I may have it before Sunday.
  • I will not be able to exist if I have to wait over the weekend for news of you.
  • I’ll take this down to the P.O. so that it may reach you tomorrow.
  • We are well but pretty quiet after all the excitement and rush of the last few weeks.
  • We had a letter from the Dean announcing your failure in Physics. I earnestly hope this is merely a temporary slump and that you are “up and at ’em” by now.
  • Remember we are counting on you.
  • You can’t let us down.
  • Love, Mother

That same day, Alf Landon was defeated in his bid for the presidency by Franklin Roosevelt. The next morning — November 4 — Muriel got a card from my father and wrote an immediate reply:

  • Wednesday
  • Dearest Son
  • Just rec’d your card and am relieved to hear of your continued march onward. It would be sad indeed if one of your ability would relax for one minute his hold on success. Life holds a great deal for you —
  • I feel sure — if you lay a good foundation at this time. Enough of sermonizing, but I am counting on so much from you.
  • A note from Aunt Win said you were out with a new girl. Why not tell me about her. You said nothing about the Physics. Will you drop that or keep on and pass the next exam with flying colors. If you drop it, what will you take instead of it? Twelve units is a small enough program. I hope you take more next semester.
  • Tell me of your plans for Thanksgiving — is there a chance for a ride?
  • Did you send Winnie a record? I hope you did — your money seems to be skipping along quite fast. Are you being as careful as you can?
  • We are having grand weather — but very cold nights. Fred is here today and they are trimming the eugenias and will take down the awning. Winter is here.
  • We had an election party last night....
  • Be sure and write me about everything. Winifred is writing to Peggy Tatum. Her husband is in charge of the radio station there and you would probably be interested in seeing it. Loads of love.
  • Yours, Mother

A letter from Muriel, postmarked November 26, 1936:

  • Dearest Son —
  • Glad to get your card but wish it had been longer. Enclosed find cheque but we will certainly have to talk this over —
  • $50 should last longer than two weeks.
  • You will be sorry to hear poor old Laddie died last night. I gave him his supper but he wouldn’t eat it and when I went out to see if he had gone to bed he was lying there by the back door dead.
  • If you write immediately and tell us the address of the person who will bring you home we can take the car there and leave it so you will have a way of getting out here. If you start Wed. P.M. and arrive here before 6 A.M. you would have no way of getting out here. Of course if you come with someone from La Jolla it wouldn’t be so far out of their way to bring you. But someone in S.D. would have to come about 12 miles farther. Do as you think best.
  • Bring that old suit case with your clothes in it and you can take your good one back if you want to. We can hardly wait to see you. Bring us some good marks.
  • Love, Mother

After Thanksgiving 1936, there are no more letters to Tucson. Most likely, my father failed to bring home “some good marks" and never returned to the University of Arizona. In fall 1937, he did manage to re-enroll at Pomona College.

In early December, Muriel paid Winifred a visit in Pasadena; as she was leaving to return to Point Loma,

Winifred told her there would be a letter waiting for her at home.

  • December 8th
  • Dearest Mother:
  • I am trying to think how you will feel when you read this, and how I can best tell you. 1 have taken a step so grave that you would have every reason to fear the consequences, were it not for the fact that it was taken so long ago and has already brought me such happiness.
  • Ernest and I have been married ever since last New Year’s Day! On my anniversary I am going to make my home with him permanently, and toward the end of July you are to have a grandchild. So far it has been kept a secret from everyone except the trained nurse I consulted before the wedding and Dr. Campbell, whom I have seen since. On the first of the year I shall announce it to the Library, and to our friends at the ranch perhaps a little before, as we were thinking of having a paper-anniversary party, and serving them doughnuts and cider and apples and popcorn at the studio — provided the fireplace is in by then, as we hope it will be. You see Ernest planned, when business was booming last year, to have the studio all fixed over for me to move into, though we were going to try, even then, to keep it dark from the Library at large because I had been in my job only six months and the married women were holding theirs with trepidation. But when it became apparent that it couldn’t be done just then, I said I would marry him anyway (and he didn't urge me against my will) so 1 could help him and work with him and be with him as much of the time as possible, and when he could afford the redecoration, I could announce it and then go over. Now we think it much more fun to do it ourselves, and next Saturday we are going to start by tearing down the wall between the two 14x14 rooms to make a big living-room. Then I am going to paint everything in sight and he is going to build a beautiful big fireplace with a wrought iron screen and a plaster panel in bas-relief of a monk studying to go above.
  • Can’t you see, Mother, why I kept it from you so long? Now all the suspense and worrying-time is over, and all the fun is ahead. It’s just like when 1 had that discombobulation last spring and didn’t tell you about it till it was all straightened out. Now you can help us house-plan, if you want — and we would love to have you — and get ready for the baby (which is coming through the courtesy of Ross-Loos and will cost sixty-five dollars) and you can tell everyone quite truthfully that you have known for some time, but that I didn’t want it told till I was surer of my job.
  • I have given you hardly time to draw breath — but remember, Mother, it has worked out beautifully so far, and Ernest has been a whole family to me except that he could never substitute for my own. You said yourself I hadn’t changed except my health, and that was all this commuting and double-life and deception, and will be different now.
  • Now I shall take walks around the hills every morning, and drink Ovaltine and cod-liver oil, and sleep in the country quiet and have a Perfect Baby with high arches and a marvelous waistline and an I.Q. of 150 inherited from both his remarkable parents. Do write me back right away.
  • As ever, Winnie

Ernest Freeze was a recently divorced architect nearly 20 years older than Winifred. Their marriage license shows the date of December 7, 1937, the day before that letter was written.

On February 22, 1938, Arthur wrote to my father. One sentence — “The Ameek just went by” — suggests that he wrote the letter while aboard his yacht, the Helga, wishing there were someone around to help him take her out for a sail.

  • Tuesday, Feb. 22, 38
  • Dear Mac —
  • We were relieved to get your letter with grades and can imagine how you feel to have biology off the list.
  • As to chemistry — if it is one of the subjects that you should have cleaned up this semester in order to get your record straightened out I am a bit disappointed that you didn’t take it. But that is the only reason. If a subject is really distasteful, is hard to understand and takes too much of your time you are not apt to get any lasting good out of it and it hampers your efforts along other lines.
  • One more thing about your studies. If you feel that you can write you should start in now finding out. Try spending your spare time writing up some current event or subject. Anything that interests you. Send something in to your college paper. Try for some of these prizes offered on the radio. Try to develop a style. To elucidate that last — I have been reading Waldo Frank’s “Vagabonding Down the Andes" for the second time. It is slow reading and I am a slow reader (which is something you will have to try and overcome) so I plodded along every foot of the way with Waldo. 1 think one of the reasons I was able to keep pace with him to the end was the manner he had of comparing everything he saw or saw being done with something else. “It was like so and so" or “like doing this or that.”
  • Try making such comparisons and see if you can make it “click.” It might be a good method to increase your space where you have to turn in a lot of words on a small subject.
  • Begin forming opinions on everything and then writing them down.
  • Encourage criticism and then take it in a humble spirit knowing that it is for your own good. Winifred would be a good one to edit any major endeavors.
  • But try and get something into print. Anything! It will be a proud day when you do.
  • I offer all this in humbleness knowing my own ineptness in such matters but hoping nevertheless that I may have said some one little thing that will help you get started.
  • One other thing — you must learn to put yourself forward, unobtrusively if possible but forward at all cost. At least a reporter is no shrinking violet.
  • Your composition must be O.K. from the grade you got. How is your vocabulary. You have to be able to throw the words around, perhaps coin one now and then.
  • It is a beautiful day and there is a grand breeze blowing now at one o clock. But there is no one to go with. Have seen only three boats out so far today. Sunday we took Didama and another girl friend of hers for a sail. Of course the Helga is quite dirty. We went over to town and coming back it did blow.
  • Instead of coming about and getting under way she would lay right down and once Di sitting on the lee hatch cover got her seat wet. Took the top down and finally the jib and miz.
  • The Ameek just went by.
  • Was at the harbor office the other day and was told the dredger would start down by the reservation fence in a couple of weeks. They will leave a narrow channel there building a fill over to the flats and then connect up with Shelter Isl. The dredging will be to within a hundred feet of mean high tide which will be about half way back on Bowman’s dock.
  • The last time over at La Mesa there was a man running tests on different oils to show how much better McMillan Ring Free is. The McMillan and Conoco tested the limit as to friction, the bearings becoming scored when a weight of 20 lbs. was added to the machine.
  • This on the end of a lever that increased the pressure to 16,000 lbs per sq. in.
  • Pennzoil took 15 lbs. and Western oil 11 lbs.
  • In the matter of carbon the eastern oils or parafine base oils left a black hard residue. McMillan left none at all. And when burned on top of a disk on which one of the other oils had left a hard black residue the McMillan caused it to disintegrate. Wonderful yes!
  • I think may be they have something there we ought to try.
  • I neglected to ask you just what the last $66.50 covered. Was it board and room.
  • In regard to the tuition, the longer we can put off paying the bulk of it the better. I hope. Some stocks or bonds will have to be sold and I think prices will start climbing back soon. If so the longer we can defer payment on the balance the better it will be. Would prefer to pay the total balance as late in the semester as possible. Would you like me to stop in and see the treasurer next time I am in Claremont.
  • Am enclosing blank check for first installment.
  • Love and Best Wishes, Dad
  • PS: Better cash it at once so I will get the canceled check with this month's statement.

A letter from Muriel, postmarked March 16, 1938:

  • Dearest Son:
  • Glad to get your letter and want to say that we are satisfied with your grades of the first semester. It took a little time for you to get adjusted to studying again. Just do your best and we will be behind you a hundred percent.
  • Hope you had a good time at the dance and that now you are well started on the second semester. We had a nice little note from the dean with your grades saying you were doing satisfactory work etc etc and thought there would be nothing but progress from now on or words to that effect.
  • I’m ashamed of this writing but Mrs. Moms is very low and I’m just off to National City. Dad is on the boat. He has to haul his mooring for they are going to dredge there —
  • Loads of love. Ma

A letter from Muriel, postmarked March 20:

  • Dearest Son —
  • This is a beautiful day and I wonder what you are doing. We went to Pasadena Thursday afternoon late, stayed at Winnie’s and had a nice visit. They have several flowering trees that are beautiful and dozens of iris. She is happy and well but the house was very untidy.
  • When is your vacation and shall I come after you — maybe we can bring a couple down and make our gasoline money. However Dad claims he got 32 miles to the gallon coming home so it won’t break the bank if we have to buy our own. Just let me know. I’ll be glad to come. Dad is going on the waves this week — they are dredging down here and he wants to get the boat out of the way.
  • Uncle By is still very low.
  • Dearest love, Mother

A letter from Arthur, with an interesting enclosure:

  • Tuesday Nite, April 12th
  • Dear Mac —
  • Guess there isn’t really any news. Had to go sailing alone Sunday....
  • I see you left Mrs. Smith’s letter on my desk and am enclosing it. Have you no curiosity. You can use it for an introduction may be. Look em all over son. Be choosey! You can’t judge intelligently without sampling you know.
  • Keep plugging along.
  • Lots of love from, Dad

The enclosed letter from Mrs. Smith:

  • Monday
  • Dear Muriel —
  • I do hope the rains have not damaged you in the least. We all here at the beach are quite safe.
  • John keeps wishing Lloyd would come down again and I wish that he would too. Did he have any trouble at school. I know such a charming girl there that I wish he would look up. She comes from a fine and delightful family in Oakland and her name is Lucille Dickson. It was at their house I visited this Xmastime when he was up there. Jackie McBride took me there. Jackie is a little quarter pint size gym teacher down here at the high school and she is such a funny little Irisher.

A letter from Muriel, postmarked April 22, 1938:

  • Wednesday A.M.
  • Dearest Son —
  • We were very glad to get your good letter yesterday and to know all was well with you. The remark "last week was a fairly happy one for me" was a little puzzling — here’s hoping this week will be a very happy one.
  • Glad the short story is finished and off your mind and hope it made a hit with the prof.
  • We have been doing quite a bit of sailing — Didama and Doris were out a couple of times last week....
  • Sunday I went to Church and when I got home Dad and I put on our bathing suits and went over to Mission Beach — he practiced standing on his head — we played ball and cavorted around in grand style. Tuesday we went to Ocean Beach. Yesterday and today we are having a little fog, which I greatly enjoy.
  • Haven’t had a line from Winnie for nearly two weeks — but wrote her yesterday.
  • Last night Dad and I saw “Hurricane’’ at the Broadway and we were both exhausted with the storm — it’s a wonderful picture. Glad you are studying the national situation. It is a serious one but I believe a little cooperation and optimism would do a lot toward solving it.
  • Loads of love — Ma

A letter from Muriel, postmarked April 27, 1938:

  • Dearest Son —
  • Glad to get your card yesterday and to hear you had the trip to Palm Springs. I am very proud to think Mr. Munger esteems you so highly. However I must correct your grammar. “Mr. Munger lent Corinne &. me his car: — not “Corinne & I"
  • Dad &. I are coming up on the 4th of May. See you during the afternoon
  • Had the Davises here for lunch Saturday — went to the Omaha Club at the Casa Monday and to the bridge club at the Embassy yesterday. Dad and 1 went to Mission Beach Sunday. Fred is here today and we are all busy. They presented me with another gardenia corsage at the Omaha Club. It was my last meeting as pres. Goody!!
  • Must stop now. Write Sunday if only a card.
  • Love, Mother

A letter from Arthur:

  • Wed Nite, April 27 38
  • Dear Mac —
  • Glad to hear that you are in such excellent spirits most of the rime. Hope it holds to the end of the semester.
  • Perhaps you had better tear up that check. It might get lost and I can send you another when needed. The market has not improved so will hold off as much longer as possible.
  • The dredger is approaching our mooring so I will have a job trying to move it in the morning. Wish you were here to help.
  • We’ll be seeing you soon.
  • Love from, Dad

Muriel and Arthur’s visit to Claremont was in observance of my father’s 21st birthday, on May 4, 1938. A letter from Muriel, postmarked May 6:

  • Dearest Son —
  • Dad and I left Claremont at nine and reached home at three. Both agreed it was a grand trip. We went to Corona-Elsinore then over the Ortega Highway to Capistrano — that is certainly a marvelous road. We picnicked at noon on the crest overlooking Elsinore. Had coffee at Capistrano and strolled around a bit.
  • Had cube steaks for dinner — heard the March of Time at 9:15 and then to bed. We both slept fine and are busy as usual this morning. Expect to go sailing tomorrow with Di and Doris.
  • Dad has to make over the awning for the terrace and it is puzzling him — he wants a cord that will last longer. We need it up right now.
  • You certainly looked fine on Wednesday and we were glad you liked the watch. I’m afraid Aunt Win won’t remember you this time for you are so remiss with your thank you letters.
  • Want you to get this Saturday so must close. Hope you and Corinne don’t quarrel. If you don’t want to go with her just let her slide but don’t be disagreeable about it. The next few weeks are very important ones and you can’t afford to be distracted from your work.
  • Dearest love, Ma

A letter from Arthur:

  • Wednesday, May 25, 1938
  • Dear Mac —
  • Thanks for holding back on the tuition payment. The money is in the bank now and I am enclosing a check. You might as well pay it at once now so the check will get back and be included in the next bank statement on the first of next month.
  • We are having some fog and lots of wind. Been doing quite a bit of weekend sailing. Saturday we had Di and the Kimball girls and Sunday I took out another crowd of young ones....
  • Hope you will be real nice to Di when you get home. Big brother stuff you know? Think I am to have a daughter that likes to sail. Any way she is part of the boat now. So please be as nice to her as you can. She thinks you are swell of course.
  • The dredger has chased me up as far as the shoe shop.
  • You can choose your own crowd to take out....
  • Lots of Love, Dad

Two final letters from Arthur:

  • Thursday, June 2 1938
  • Dear Mac —
  • Your license came this morning. 1 see they have you finger printed.
  • Sorry to hear you are having such a time with your tooth. I know how that kind of an ache can get you down. So if there is no chance of having a mate for it to contact you might as well have it out before exams.
  • Wishing you the best of luck
  • As Ever, Dad
  • Tuesday, June 7, 38
  • Dear Mac —
  • Your letter didn’t sound too cheerful. However if the tooth lets up before exams the relief alone should be enough to make you feel like a million.
  • Don’t let down! Here is wishing you the best of luck
  • As Ever, Dad

Winifred and Ernest’s son Bill was born in July. My father never returned to college, never got a degree, never became a published writer. He enlisted in the Navy and served on a supply ship in the South Pacific during World War II. In the early ’40s, Muriel — who a few years before had “cavorted around in grand style” with Arthur on Mission Beach — announced to my father that she would no longer share her husband’s bed. Whether the mysterious Didama — or anyone else — played a role in Muriel and Arthur's estrangement. I’ll probably never know. For the next few years Muriel lived most of the time in Nebraska. During one of her absences, Arthur actually divided the house in two and moved the two halves some distance from each other.

In November 1945, Muriel returned to Point Loma after a stay in Seward. My father was living in an apartment in Hillcrest with my mother, Verena Cronburg; they’d met during the war and got married earlier that year. My mother invited Muriel and Arthur for dinner on an evening between Christmas and New-Year's, but at the last minute Muriel called from Point Loma to say she and Arthur couldn’t make it. A few evenings later — on January 2, 1946 — she arrived in Hillcrest to tell my father that Arthur had killed himself with a shotgun.

Unable at first to believe the news, my father drove with Muriel to the Point Loma house and found that it was true.

Muriel returned to Seward and lived there till her death, in 1965. Ernest Freese died in 1957; Winifred returned to work as editor of the Huntington Library’s learned journal and died in 1982. Today, her son Bill lives in the house “with several flowering trees.” In 1947 my sister Vanessa was born; in 1949 the family moved into a house in El Cajon, and I was born in December of that year. My father found work as a surveyor, a job he retired from in 1976.

As I put the last letter back in its envelope and placed both packets on a shelf, I took stock of what I had learned and decided it didn’t amount to very much. I’d learned nothing conclusive about why my father was such an unhappy man or why Arthur had killed himself. One thing I had learned: my father’s troubles didn’t begin when Arthur committed suicide. Plainly the trouble had started years before the letters were written — when my father was a child, or when Arthur was a child, or when Muriel was a child, or when their mothers and fathers were children.

One other thing I’d learned. Arthur — from his wish that his son in some mysterious way “overcome” his own slowness as a reader to his all-too-ready empathy for how a toothache “can get you down” — over many years had bled his own unhappiness into the youth who would be my father. When he committed suicide, the full force of his unhappiness crashed on that youth like heavy surf. I can still feel the waves.

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