California Dreaming

My grandmother, Jeanette Shrum Willett, left us a wonderful handwritten manuscript of her life which she wrote in the mid 1980’s. She was born August 4, 1897 in Bloomington, Indiana and died March 3, 1988 in Salem, Massachusetts.  I have been transcribing her manuscript here. You can start from the beginning with Part 1.

When I was 21, I interned in Los Angeles for the summer between my junior and senior year. My grandmother would write to me while I was out there and share little tidbits about places she had eaten or shopped during the time she lived there.  Los Angeles 1987 was quite a bit different than Los Angeles 1920, but I really loved that we had that California connection. No one in my family seemed to understand my love for Cali. But she did.

I laughed out loud when my grandmother wrote here about her lack of cooking skills. I’d like to say that she went on to become an incredible cook, but frankly, she was just horrible at it for the rest of her life. She wasn’t like most grandmothers who had a food specialty that her descendants all remember with love. Honestly, I think we’d all like to forget everything she ever made.

There was rampant racism against Japanese immigrants, especially in California, during the time my grandparents lived out West. You get a taste of it as you read my grandmother’s paranoia. In the incident when she describes fainting at the movie theater, she told me there were rumors that Japanese men resorted to creating prostitution rings when they couldn’t get any legal jobs. The story was that they would drug and kidnap American women and force them into prostitution. The great influx of immigrants from all over the globe during the first part of the 1900’s, unfortunately, caused many white, Anglo-Americans like my grandparents to adopt racist thoughts like this. It certainly isn’t pleasant for me in the present day to read them.

On a lighter note, their ties to Indiana University (I.U.) lasted them a life time. They found fraternity and sorority friends all around the world, and met new ones along the way.

The grammar, punctuation and any spelling errors are left as Jenny Shrum Willett wrote them.

Part 8

“I went back to college and Harold stopped in Akron on his way back from being discharged and got a job with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co and started work in Pittsburg.

I was graduated in June 1920. I was maid of honor at Helen Bloods wedding on a Wed morning.  A couple of days after I got home Harold & I went to City Hall and waived the 5 day law so we could be married on Sat June 19.

Jeanette Shrum Willett July 1920, leaving from Chicago to California to begin her married life to Harold Willett

My trunk didn’t come from college before I was off to Calif. We stopped in Akron and stayed at Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago & before leaving on the Santa Fe Express for Los Angeles. At the Grand Canyon, my jaw began to swell and turn black – By the time we reached L.A. I was sick with a wisdom tooth that was abscessed. I went right to bed in the hotel. Harold found a dental surgeon who lanced the tooth – Then he went out and found and apt & bought a cook book and moved me into the Arlington Grand Apt. We were only there a couple of days when I heard a large explosion and saw the chandelier move and I thought I was dizzy but it was an earthquake. There was another in the night and all the tenants but us went out into the street.

When I recovered from my tooth trouble I began to try and cook. Up to then I had never made anything but fudge and chocolate cake. I got out Fanny Farmer and was so dumb I didn’t realize her recipes were for 6. Once I tried a rice dish that called for a cup of rice (didn’t say cooked) that rice kept swelling and I had enough for a large family. I was ashamed to put it all in the garbage so I put in a little at a time. I learned! Harold was very encouraging and praised my efforts.

Jeanette in 1920 in California

His territory was as far east as Denver and he would be gone a couple of months then home for a month. I didn’t know anyone in L.A but before Harold left on his first trip he brought the wife of another salesman to meet me. She suggested we go to the movies and she would bring a friend of hers who was a Kappa. She was at I.U. when I was but I didn’t know her. I was waiting for them in the lobby when I was jostled by a Jap and the next thing I knew I was inside and the Jap was looking thru the glass doors at me. I had walked up to a woman who was a nurse given a free ticket to be there if anyone was sick. I had just said to her, “I am alone’ and fainted. When I got home I discovered a hole in my thumb. Another time a Jap followed me home from downtown. I realized he was following me and went in a doorway pretending to look in the window. He stopped, too, finally I reached the apt house and ran for the door.

We became good friends with two couples whose friendship remained over the years. After we returned east both of them visited us here. Harold was transferred to San Francisco. We went to a hotel and I began looking for an apartment. Rents were high and small furnished apts scarse. Finally after weeks of searching, I found one and hurried back to the hotel to tell Harold only to be told that he had been transferred to Portland, Oregon. All that time wasted on hunting an apt when I could have been sightseeing.

Jeanette Shrum Willett and Harold Willett 1921. Possibly, Seattle, Washington

So we packed up our few belongings and looked forward to spring in Portland where I heard the roses were as big as dinner plates (I never did see any that size). We found a nice apt in a house where Harold knew a Beta and we enjoyed being with them. Once we rented a car and drove over the Columbus River Highway a unforgettable sight. We weren’t there long when we were transferred to Seattle Wash. Our apt there was built on a hill with street entrance on first, third and sixth floor where we were. Harold was to be away 2 mos so my family sent me money to come home. I came by train and it was good to be home because I had only been home 5 days after graduation and had been at college before that.

When I returned to Seattle Harold had resigned from Goodyear and accepted a job selling shoes. He bought a car and we started the long drive back to L.A. stopping in different cities to sell shoes. Some hotels didn’t charge for salesmen’s wives as long as they brought the same one every time. It was a spectacular drive – Northern Calif quite different from south. Harold had a little larger salary. Food was cheap. I could buy food for $5.00 a week and that included sirloin steaks at .50 each. Our friends the Codmans suggested we take a house together at Hermosa beach. That was a summer resort then and we could get a house for the winter for 50 a month. It was nice for Lucille and me while the boys were traveling. Then I discovered I was pregnant and Harold would be travelling when I had the baby so I decided to go home and have the baby and return when it was a couple of months old. Lucille was pregnant too and she decided to go home before she showed it so we went together to Chicago. I went by N.Y. and visited a few days with the Willetts.”


I have joined an online challenge by Amy Johnson Crow to write about 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. I’m writing about the prompt “Diary.”  I am hopelessly behind on participating, but Amy says there really is no “behind.” Writing at your pace and getting something out on the page is what is most important.   You can join any time and find all the details here: 

Click here to sign up for the 52 Ancestors Challenge 

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