Photo courtesy of Connie Kale Johnson
"There are just two memories that stand out clearer than all the rest.The last time Joan and I were with Daddy was in the spring or early summer of 1916, the year he died. Daddy had written that on a certain day he would be down from the Ranch and call for us around five o'clock. He had tickets to see Henry Miller in The Great Divide, and of course, we would have dinner first. That meant we were going to San Francisco.
|That night Daddy called for us promptly. Joan and I were "all dressed up". She appeared to be at least 25 and she was only 16. I had just started high school but looked just my age - 14. A short taxi to the station and a short ride on the Key train took us to the ferry. As we climbed the stairs to the upper deck of the boat, Daddy noticed our empty hands.
"No bags of bread for the gulls? Did you forget to bring them?" he asked.
"Oh Daddy," answered Joan impatiently and to me a little haughtily, "We don't do that any more. We're too old for such childish things."
Daddy looked at her, and I can understand the expressions on his face now as I couldn't then. In turn he was surprised, disappointed, sad, and then he smiled a crooked smile and seemed very proud. For the very first time he realized we were no longer his little girls. We had grown up to be his daughters.
It had always been a great thrill to walk up Market Street with Daddy and this time was no exception. It had always been a part of our day with him to stroll up that most important street from the Ferry Building to the neighborhood of the big stores, theaters and restaurants because Daddy seemed to know almost everyone we passed. This day was no different.
A young boy about 12, carrying a foot rest, a box of rags and some polish and brushes stopped in front of us. "Mr. London, it's glad that I am to see you. Got time for a shine? It's not too late." "Not tonight, son," answered Daddy "I have my daughters with me and can't stop." He handed the boy a coin, and we went on a few steps. A very dirty, unshaven man of about 45 or 50 hailed Daddy. "Sailor Jack, as I live and breathe. You're looking great - and in the money too. Not me, I'm dead broke." "Too bad, old pal," said Daddy as he handed him a gold piece. "Here, take this. Hope it will change your luck."
We took a few more steps, each holding one of Daddy's arms.
A couple of business men, dressed in frock coats and striped trousers, each carrying gloves and swinging a cane, came by on their way to the Ferry Building and stopped to talk with Daddy. And so it went. Old men, young men, college youths, some well dressed, some dirty and ragged; delivery men hailed him from their wagons and motormen clanged their bells at him as they went by; once in a while a lady [there were "ladies" in those days] would tell their coachman to stop as they drove past and would bow and speak to him.
Our progress up the street was not fast. If they knew him, Daddy knew them and always stopped and spoke. If they were respectable looking, Daddy always proudly introduced his daughters. I am sure now that then I just knew and felt that Daddy was the most important man in San Francisco. Why, he knew everyone.
By this time all the stores were all closed so we went on to the restuarant Daddy had chosen. [I do wish I could remember the name of the place. Like so many restuarants, it did not survive Prohibition.] We entered and I caught my breath. It was a very big and very bright room with maybe eight or ten glittering and glowing chandeliers, suspended from the ceiling. Since this was before 1919 [the start of the Prohibition Era, in case you don't know], there was no stumbling in a dim interior or trying to read a menu by the light of a flickering candle.
San Francisco was, and is today, one of the "eatingest out" cities I know, and that night the place was crowded. Every table seemed to be occupied. Yet, it was not noisy. The waiters went about their work almost silently. The subdued hum and buzz of many voices mingled with the soft music from a string ensemble at the far end of the room behind some small potted palms.
After we had seated ourselves, I looked around and stared and stared. This was the first time I had ever been in a big restuarant at night. [And it was the last time as well. Such places and such people are never seen today.]
Everyone, men and women, were in full evening dress, except at our table. Joan and I were the only children in the room and, of course, not "dressed," and Daddy hated formal clothes and never wore them. He never cared what others thought about him.
The scene was black and white as I looked at the men (including the waiters). But when I looked at the women! They were a shining, glittering rainbow, which was made up of more colors than any rainbow ever had. I felt sure my eyes would pop out I stared so hard. If the gowns were not silk they were made of stiff satin, seemingly every one a different color. The ladies (I must call them so, because that is what they were) were practically laden with jewels which sparkled on de'collete' gowns, necks, arms, fingers, and even in their hair, for if they didn't wear tiaras, it was colored plumes in a jewled holder. I have never forgotten that sight. I just close my eyes, and I can see it again, every detail sharp and clear.
As the evening wore on, many men left their tables and came to ours and spoke with Daddy. It was just like walking again up Market Street, only the men were so much better dressed. As he had done then, Daddy introduced Joan and me every time and seemed very proud to say, "I want you to meet my daughters, my two grown - up girls." Strange how one can recall the exact words after so many years. I noticed that whenever one of the women could catch his eye, she would bow and smile at him and Daddy would bow and smile in return.
I suppose I ate something, but I can't remember what it was. But I can hear Daddy telling the waiter, "I want a steak this thick." Here he held up two fingers well apart. "It is to be burned on the outside and bloody in the center." I had never heard such a description before.
It seemed to me we had not been there any time at all when Daddy said we'd better leave so we wouldn't "miss the curtain." The play, The Great Divide was about the Grand Canyon and Henry Miller was magnificent. But I won't say anything about either. The theater, plays and actors of that far away time would seem strange and unreal to you today.
After the final curtain, there was a taxi ride to the Ferry Building - and, of course, Daddy and the taxi driver knew one another - followed by the ferry ride, a short ride on the Key train, another taxi ride to Piedmont and it was time to say goodbye. We kissed Daddy goodnight, talked about what we would do next time, and said goodbye. But there never was a "next time."
The memory that means the most to me happened on my seventh birthday.
It was the only time I was with my father alone, just the two of us. My sister wasn't there.
At that time Joan was very sick with typhoid fever. It seemed to me that she had been in bed for a very long time away in the front bedroom with a strange nurse and mother in constant attendance. I had been isolated to the rear of the house. I thought of it as exiled. My Aunty Min had come to look after me because mother was so busy with my sister.
The morning of my birthday I woke up all excited and expectant. I was seven years old, almost grown up I thought. It was going to be a wonderful day. But it didn't start out that way and grew worse. Aunty Min didn't wish me Happy Birthday or even say a word as she gave me breakfast and fixed my lunch bag. Nor did mother say anything when she came in for a cup of coffee except to say good morning and did I feel well. Of course I know and realize now that they both were very worried about Joan. At school no one said anything, possibly because I hadn't told anyone it was going to be my birthday. (I didn't talk much when I was young. I'm different now.) After school I walked home slowly, and you may be sure I felt very sorry for myself. I went into my room and just sat there. I was too miserable and as I thought [sic] forgotten to read or play with my dolls or toys. I must have sat there for a long time because it was dark (this was October) when my aunt came into the room, saw me sitting there and said excitedly, "Aren't you ready yet? Your father will be here any minute." (Now I knew Daddy had been down from the Ranch for weeks, staying with Grandma London and coming to the house many times every day and night. Always after he had visited Joan he would spend some time with me, but I had never had "to get ready" before.)
"Ready for what?" I asked not very curiously.
"Didn't your mother tell you this morning?"
"She didn't say anything except good morning and how are you feeling. She never says anything else now." I answered.
"Of course not. She is worried about Joan you know. But hurry up, Jack is going to take you to dinner and the Orpheum for a birthday treat. Hurry now, you have to wash and change clothes."
It was a different world suddenly. Someone had remembered and that someone was Daddy!
Somehow I got myself ready but how I don't know. I was so happy and excited I was shaking inside and out. However, when Daddy came I was dressed, coated, hatted and gloved – waiting for him. He made it a gala occasion with a taxi ride to the restaurant and another to the theater (how I loved vaudeville and I do wish it would return) and usually I could remember for weeks all the different acts, but that night, though I enjoyed every minute I was thinking all the time – Daddy remembered, and, here I was alone with Daddy. I sat as close to him as I dared and looked up at him as often as I dared. Frankly I never could remember anything of what I had seen on the stage that night.
After the show Daddy took me to an ice cream parlor and we each had a soda - it was just like being a real grown-up. Then there was another taxi back to the house and Daddy told the man to stop several houses away, just as he had done when he called me, so that the stopping and starting wouldn't disturb Joan. We tip toed past the room where Joan was, walked around the house and in the back door.
Daddy said "It's pretty late for a perfectly new seven year old so bed time for you. I'll help you, but you will have to tell me what to do."
In my room he untied by shoes and took them off, unbuttoned my dress and lifted it over my head. He held out my nightie and I slipped it on. He pulled me close to him and held me there for a minute. Then he lifted me up, put me on the bed and tucked the covers around me. He bent over and kissed me and said, "Good night, my little daughter."
He straightened up, put out the light and walked toward the door. There he stopped, turned and came back to my bed, bent over again and lifted me up and held me close for a long time. He kissed me many times, said, "I hope you had a happy birthday, my little girl." He kissed me one more time, put me back under the covers, turned and walked out of the room without looking back. How many times I have lived over that night!
Dear Reader, as Daddy was so fond of writing, you can't imagine how happy I was as I lay there and I was never so happy again. You, whom your father has doubtless many times tucked in bed and kissed goodnight, you can't perhaps understand why I should have felt that way. You see it had never happened to me before and sad to say it never happened again.
I have shared with you gladly this handful of memories because that is all I have. I saw Daddy very seldom, but perhaps that made every visit stand out from the rest of my uneventful life. I don't live in the past, I just love to recall anything and everything about Daddy, especially the times we were together.
For years after she recovered Joan didn't forgive me for that birthday night alone with Daddy. Whenever she was "mad at me" she would bring it up, as though I had had anything to do with it. "You went out alone with him. It isn't fair." She doubtless said much more, but I never heard a word. I stopped listening the minute she said – "you were alone with him" – and began to live over again that wonderful, unforgettable night. I would never hear again Daddy saying "Good night, my little daughter." END
Part III Jack London Echoes originally published October 1981
Click here to read a mini-biography of Becky, written by Russ Kingman, which originally appeared in the Jack London Echoes January 1982 special issue: A TRIBUTE TO BECKY
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