Painting the Chinaberry Trees

Near the end of the three weeks, Aunt Grace got a phone call from Aunt Opal, the oldest of the sisters. Aunt Opal lived in Brawley, California a town almost as much like Casa Grande as Cleveland is like Chicago, which is to say, quite a lot and not at all.

Both desert cities had mixed populations of blacks, white Anglos and at least two flavors of Mexicans with a few Indians in Casa Grande and a few Asians in Brawley. Both had cattle ranches and farms surrounding them. Both grew a lot of cotton though Brawley’s picking season was in mid-winter rather than early fall and farms around Brawley did more truck farming, like Wenatchee. Both did a lot of irrigation, Brawley from canals, Casa Grande from a convenient river and lots of wells.

Other than those economic facts, they weren’t much alike, somehow. Despite being located in one of the deadliest, hottest, driest deserts in the world, Brawley seemed to be twenty times as green as Casa Grande. To anyone from a truly green city like St. Joseph, Missouri or Portland, Oregon, Brawley looked dry and drab and tan and gray. Compared to Casa Grande, though, Brawley could have been the Emerald City of Oz. After all, it was surrounded by a deadly desert.

By the way, the Mexicans pronounced “Casa Grande” as Spanish, “CAHsa GRANday” sort of. The Anglos said (and still do) “CAAsuh GRAAuhn”. “BRAWlee” for the Anglos and “BRAHlee” for the Mexicans is not so much different.

Aunt Opal had moved to Brawley with her husband, Ray, and three children, Helen, Jane and John, a few years earlier. Ray had a habit of disappearing, sometimes for years at a time. According to Mom, he only showed up every two or three years to get Aunt Opal pregnant then he was gone again.

This time, Ray had left Aunt Opal with no money for food or rent and with three small children. She couldn’t afford to hire someone to look after them and the oldest, Helen, was only twelve so she couldn’t leave them at home while she went out to look for work. Helen and Jane went to school but John was just five and there was no kindergarten in town.

The only thing Aunt Opel had bringing any money in was doing other people’s ironing and mending. In the heat of a Mohave desert summer, in an un-airconditioned cottage, she did as much ironing and mending as she could find to do. What money she earned went for food, she couldn’t afford rent and if she had not been staying in Hanks’ Court, owned by my Uncle Herman’s brothers and sister, she would have been out on the street.

Uncle Herman was her brother-in-law, of course, and for Arkies and Okies back then, that relationship mattered. Herbert and Lloyd and Marie would not kick her out because of family but they sent a letter to Uncle Herman to see if he could get her some help. Then they let her make a long distance phone call to Aunt Grace in Arizona.

And there we were. We hadn’t gone to Arkansas, first because of my tantrum about the Big Rock Candy Mountain and then because of the cotton harvest in Casa Grande and so we were available to travel the hundred fifty miles from Casa Grande to Brawley to Aunt Opal’s rescue.

I got all excited because it meant seeing more cousins. John and Jane and Helen were all older than me and I only vaguely remembered them from back in Missouri but cousins meant fun. It would be my first visit to Brawley, a town where I eventually spent many of my growing up years.

We made the trip in Dad’s typical style, leaving Casa Grande at first light in the morning and arriving in Brawley before some people had had time to eat breakfast. After the burning deserts and sand dunes, Brawley seemed cool and soft and green. On the northwest corner of the town sat Hanks’ Court, a collection of small cottages surrounded by chinaberry trees.

And all of the chinaberry trees were painted white as high up as a tall man could reach. I never did know why, except perhaps that Herbert, Uncle Herman’s older brother, liked things to look neat and clean. Every tree also had a thick rubber boot made from an old inner tube just above the paint to keep cats and kids from climbing the trees. In the summer, the leafy green tops hid the boots but in the winter when chinaberry trees lose their leaves, the white trunks, black rubber boots and the pruned-back bare limbs made the trees look very odd. There were clotheslines strung from tree to tree, too, one on each side of each tree and two rows of trees.

We moved into one of the little cottages with Aunt Opal in one across the courtyard of chinaberry trees and clotheslines. These cabins came in two sizes; small and tiny. The bigger cabins were about twelve by twenty-five feet and were three rooms, shotgun-style; if you stood at the front door, you could shoot your shotgun through the house at something outside the back door. Full choke, I suppose.

The smaller cabins measured about ten by twenty and had only two rooms, though both sizes managed to squeeze in cramped bathrooms. When I say cramped, I mean a three-year-old thought they were too small.

The cottages had originally been built in the early 1920s to house people who worked on city constructions; streets, water, sewer, gas, power and municipal buildings. The court covered about half a city block with thirty or more of the tiny cabins. A single, larger house on the corner was home and office for the Hanks’s; Herbert, his wife and his younger siblings.

At the back of the court, a long building with screen windows that could be closed in the winter with plywood panels held a laundry room. Modern for the time, because the washers were electric but there were no dryers. The two rows of clotheslines nailed to trees were usually full of clothes. In the desert air, even the wettest of clothes would dry in an hour or so, the danger being the dirty winds blowing off the farm fields north and west of the town.

Busy streets on three sides of the court meant that we little kids were not allowed outside to play without a parent or at least a bigger kid to act as babysitter.

Helen, who for some reason everyone called Vonzell at this time, was ruled not quite old enough to babysit. I was in high school before I found out her name was Helen. She had more freedom while at the same time getting assigned more chores, like helping with the ironing and running errands. Probably Marie, who must have been only about fifteen then, helped Aunt Opal with the babysitting.

Lloyd and Herbert did repairs and I think worked as painters and drywallers on construction around town with a crew of Mexican immigrants. Dad worked for a time with them but he never was much of a painter and Herbert and he did not get along well when together for very long.

More than fifty years passed and Lloyd and Marie attended my Mom’s funeral but they still remembered me best as the littlest kid who would run and run to keep up with the bigger kids and then suddenly be found sleeping in some unlikely place like a laundry basket or under the porch with a litter of puppies.

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