An Autobiography
My Early Memories

by Shirley Smith

This book was created as part of Lifescapes,a project of the University of Nevada Department of English, the Northwest Reno Library, and the Nevada Humanities Committee.

Copyright (c) 2001 by Shirley Smith

Frandsen Humanities Press
Department of English/o98
University of Nevada
Reno, Nevada 89557


Mother, born 1893, Granite City, Illinois which was located across the river from Saint Louis, Missouri. (Like San Francisco and Oakland, California).

A most aristocratic lady, refined, beautiful, well educated, graduate of Slippery Rock Teachers College. Still a very classy lady, when dealing with alzheimers, and died in 1975 at 82 years of age.

Father, born 1894 in Denver, Colorado and moved to San Francisco as an infant. A wonderful, darling Welsh rough of a man who grew up on the wild Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Raised with five siblings by a strong Welsh mother who was abandoned by her husband. He was the most genteel, witty, person I will ever know; self made, went from a delivery boy of 12 on the streets of San Francisco for an electrical supplier's company, to owning it in the late 1940s. Always the immaculate salesman calling on his customers to the end; when he had an instant heart attack while sitting on the key system train going home to Oakland, in 1961 at the age of 68.

My parents, were introduced by mutual family friends at the 1915 San Francisco Worlds Fair. They corresponded for eight years, then my father sent a letter to my grandfather asking for 'permission' to marry my mother. The answer was yes! So he boarded the train at San Francisco and arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, two days before the wedding, on July 16, 1923. They had not seen each other in all that time!

The house I was born in had a huge backyard that sloped downhill to the neighbors' back fence on the street below. My parents were wonderful gardeners especially my dad who grew prize roses which he entered in the Oakland Rose show which was a famous part of the bay area scene in the 1930s and 1940s.

During the war 'victory gardens' were the big thing to do and dad never gave that idea up. I am sure my oldest son, John, has fond memories of helping in that garden with pop-pop because he is a great gardener at his own house, and cultivates and cares for my roses as my 'gardener.'

Birth to Early Childhood

I was born on Friday, February 17, 1928 and weighed in at two pounds, the place was Oakland, California, in a white clapboard house with green shutters; located in a quiet middle to upper class neighborhood. It was near the Lake Merritt and Lakeshore District which is still a landmark area 73 years later. I came into my family who already had my brother, Tommy, who was three years old. I lived in a large dresser drawer, wrapped in blankets and surrounded with rolls of cotton, and hot water bottles. I stayed there for three months when I weighed in at a hearty five pounds. I then graduated to a square wooden crib with wood wheels, that my grandfather had handmade when Tom was born.

I used the same crib for my three children, who were born in 1950, 1953 and 1961. My mother's parents lived with us six months of the year so we had the great good fortune of three generations being together. They would take both of us on all kinds of fun excursions. My grandmother prided herself on doing 'firsts' with us. Ride the new key system trains across the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge - 25th family to cross to the 1939 Worlds Fair on Treasure Island. My father's mother died when I was a few months old. She was called Mungee, which is Welsh for grandmother, my brother has some memories of her.

I went to grammar school at about six blocks from home, and of course walked too and from with my brother and the next door neighbors. Tommy and Don were in charge of myself and his sister, Jean, who was a year older than me. When we went to junior high school, we rode the city street car. When we went to high school the four of us rode the city bus way across town to 'University High' which was an experimental school for U.C. Berkeley.

We had a very good childhood, normal in every aspect for the 1930s and 1940s. The depression hit the country but my dad never lost his job in San Francisco, just kept having his salary cut to almost nothing; so my mother went to work, baking cakes for a neighborhood bakery on Lakeshore Avenue and my grandparents stayed with us permanently.

Photos from left: Grandma Watkins and me at Birth; Gramma Morgan (Munger), Tom, and me birth;
Grampa Watkins; My dad and me.

Left to right: Mom and me and Tom; Jean and me at 17 months; The house where I was born "686."; Me at Bolinis, California; Jean and me at 9 and 10 years.

Fond Glimpses
Lake Merritt

. . . to feed the ducks the popcorn stand; The man with the monkey on his shoulder; The bands playing in the round gazebo, while we sat on the grass with blankets; Watching old men playing bocci ball; Walking through the planted gardens with prize roses, azaleas, rhododendrons; Riding the street car, downtown to piano lessons.

When I was about nine, everyone discovered I had a good singing voice. The Welsh people have sing fests which are called Eisteddfods. We would go around our greater bay area for competitions and I quickly moved up the ladder. I took voice lessons into my teens but then other things intervened, so I probably didn't have the motivation to continue.

My grandfather died at our house you remember things. Quickly we were sent down around the corner to a neighbor's house all very hush, hush. Death in our house was never discussed with children. My mother and grandmother took the body, by train to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they had family plots. So my dad was in charge, he was a good cook, and together we all figured out how the washing machine worked and learned to hang clothes out the basement window! Then everyone came home and life went back to normal.

Grampa Glimpses:

Sitting on the kitchen floor in a corner, cleaning my mothers pots and pans with her own formula (salt, a drop of oil tied in a piece of cheese cloth with string tied at the top rubbing, rubbing inside, outside and bottoms til they literally shone; Making horehound candy at the kitchen table; Washing the fresh vegetables that were delivered into a bin that had an outside door which opened into the kitchen with screened shelves; How Tom and I, along with our friends, loved to run to the street when that wagon came with potatoes, fresh farm eggs and milk; Going to the Whallens Drug Store with both grandparents to sit on the stools at the soda fountain and have a root beer float.

Also, one of my father's famous expressions (which he may have learned from her), "Remember kid, there is no such thing as a free lunch!" which translated into, "you need to learn to take care of yourself and be responsible"; The beautiful blue lace dress with a taffeta petticoat and rhinestone buttons from the waist up to a high neck which she wore only to the most special events.

My grandmother died in September 1941 when I was 13. Tom and I were sent down to what was called a rumpus room in the basement so the hearst could come. No discussions about death that time either. Mom went east to my uncle's. Dad was in charge but of course Tom and I were older and could handle some of the responsibilities. My maiden aunt Lee came to stay with us for a month. began to change. Tom and Don graduated January 1943, off to war, activities cut way back, not much social activities. The bay area was so strategically located; doubt, fear, shipyards sprung up in Alameda; people came from all parts of the country to build the huge war ships.

Gramma Glimpses:

At Christmas, making froce, a Welsh delicacy which is like a French crepe only had currents and spices in them; Coming home from the beauty parlor, with a rinse that made her hair look purple to a preteen! Little sausage curls covering her head; All dressed up, hat and gloves, when we went to the 'city' (San Francisco); Her quaint expressions i.e. ? "please 'read' the table", which meant carry the dishes to the kitchen, and "don't do that, it makes you look common!"

Teen Years

I also fell in love twice around nine or ten. Their names were Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio. I've always been proud to say, "I'm a Sinatra original, owning every album, tape, CD, listing to him endlessly, Oh, Oh, 'THE VOICE' and I would have to say it carried me through my teens, into college, first loves, into marriage, births, deaths, grievances." I remember my father asking my mother "can't you do something about that girl" during those Sinatra swooning, screaming years that my girlfriends and I went through. Fortunately for me I was able to see Sinatra live, four times. I had started going to baseball games with my dad and brother a few years earlier in San Francisco and Oakland, they were the San Francisco Seals and the Oakland Oaks. Joe DiMaggio, the greatest baseball player ever. The local San Francisco Boy, a true legend. I was lucky enough to see him play once, before he went up to the majors and world wide fame. I used to listen on my radio, the covers over my head. I cried when the pitcher was sent to 'the showers.' I thought everyone was mad at him but my father assured me that wasn't so. Sixty five years later one of my life long dreams came true, when I met him here in Reno for a celebration for his eightieth birthday and he signed my invitation card. My love affair with baseball has never wavered as my family room will attest! I feel very lucky that I had heros that would let me lose myself in any fantasy because of their great talents. Now that they are both gone I realize what a wonderful part of my life both of them were.

Left: Mom, me, and a cousin.
Right: The family in Yosemite.

Life Moves On

When my mother returned home life seemed to be idealistic. I was in my last year of junior high, active in girl scouts (we even sold cookies way back then), singing in a group, having sleep overs. High school started, Jean and I as freshmen, my brother Tom and Don were seniors. My childhood next door neighbors, all of us being born at home, are still the dearest of friends, all in our 70's. Shirley and Tom; Don and Jean.

Our high school was extremely ethnic, due to its location and college curriculum. Blacks, whites, Chinese, Japanese, some whose fathers became very famous. Nationally known names from the growing state in the west, California.

Then Pearl Harbor, every thing began to change. Tom and Don graduated January 1943, off to war, activities cut way back, not much social activities. The bay area was so strategically located; doubt, fear, shipyards sprung up in Alameda; people came from all parts of the country to build the huge war ships.

Suddenly I was a senior, and the war was over in Europe, then the Pacific. I was to begin the last half of my senior year in September of 1945 and did some of it by correspondence. My mother and I went to Fitzsimmons Army General Hospital outside of Denver, Colorado where my brother was recuperating from his experiences