La Vie en Rose-Colored Postcards

The SS Majestic – when getting there was luxurious

My Grandpa Jim, who was short, energetic, and as a young man, fabulously charming, emigrated from Five-Mile-Town, County Armagh in 1910. Sometime over the next few years, he fetched up in Southern California. Having been trained as something of a specialist – a professional estate gardener, he took employment with an old-moneyed California family and spent the following five decades as their old family retainer, keeping the grounds of their estate up to par.

The Hotel Vista del Arroyo, Pasadena, California

He was mildly renowned in the neighborhood where he lived, with Granny Jessie and his two children- my mother and her older brother, Jimmy-Junior – for not only having been employed during the Depression, but for having held on to the same employer from one end of it to the other.

A Courtyard at the California Exposition, Balboa Park San Diego

I was rather vaguely aware of this employer’s family, as I grew up: when we drove from Sunland-Tujunga to Pasadena to visit my grandparents’ house, on South Lotus St., Mom was often given to pointing out their old original mansion – a grey neo-Gothic style roof-peak, rising out of the trees lining the edge of the Arroyo Seco, as she drove the old green Plymouth station-wagon over the bridge. That was where the senior B – ‘s had lived throughout the Twenties, the Thirties – and a good way into the Sixties. Grandpa Jim was rather feudally devoted to the senior lady of the house, always referred to as Old Mrs. B , to differentiate from the wife of her oldest son, Young Mrs. B. Old Mrs. B. loved roses, the nurturing of which Grandpa Jim was most particularly skilled.

Roman Forum and Trajan’s Column

Besides the oldest son, there was a sister and another brother, and a much younger boy whose name was Mark, called Markie, who happened to be very close to my mother’s age. She was born in 1930 – but Markie was delicate, an invalid, with health problems so chronic that he died as a teenager. He was never well enough to go to school or to participate very much in life as his parents and sibs lived it; and my mother was frequently imported to be his companion.

The old French Market in New Orleans

I’ve often thought it must have been rather like the children in The Secret Garden – except that Markie was treasured by both his parents, and Mom was not an orphan. Still, there was something rather Old World about it all – the gardener’s daughter being brought to the enormous grey manor-house, to play with the invalid little boy of an afternoon. Old Mrs. B. loved shopping, loved to buy dresses for little girls, and Mom was the beneficiary of this impulse – except that Old Mrs. B never thought to buy practical things, and so Mom had the prettiest and most lavish dresses – but only ragged underwear, to wear underneath.

A view of a redwood forest – one of a set taken from paintings rather than photographs

I was, I think, about nine or ten – which would put this happening in the mid-60s – when the old B. mansion was closed up and sold. Young Mr. B and his family – maybe to include Old Mr. B – went to live in a grand estate on the outskirts of Santa Barbara. I remember our family going to visit them, and I think I recall me being given a bouquet of flowers to present to a very, very elderly man, but to ten-year-old eyes, everyone fit to receive Social Security appears enormously aged …

The view to the west, from the Hotel Cecil, London

Anyway, there was a day when Grandpa Jim took Mom and I, with my brother J.P. and sister Pippy to the old B. mansion, because there was a bunch of excess stuff in one of the outbuildings, and Grandpa had permission to let us have the pick of it. My mother chose a cast-iron lawn-chair, and regretted for decades that she hadn’t also taken the love-seat that went with it. Both were layered with decades of paint, and as heavy as original sin; it was just that the love-seat was so much heavier than the chair. I don’t remember what J.P. and Pippy came away with – if anything at all – but I came away with a shoebox almost full of old postcards.

Scenery in the Rocky Mountains

They were unused, un-postmarked, un-written upon, and there were heaps of duplicates among them – pictures of hotels, of steamship liners, of views of half a hundred of places as far removed as Japan, and Naples.

Crowds in the Luxemburg Gardens, Paris

There was a collection of views of New Orleans, and of Washington DC, with the streets full of antique-looking cars, and the skies tinted peculiar shades of pink and pale blue. There were postcards that were actually paintings of spectacular scenery in the Far American West, of tree-ferns in Hawaii, and stands of azalea-bushes in Florida, colored in not-quite-natural hues. Taken all together, they offered an entrancing view into another world, another time. They exuded – and still do – a faint and evocative smell of old paper. Some of them were even places that I had seen myself, and a few were of local landmarks; sequoia trees in Northern California, like the Devil’s Gate Dam, a nearly-empty reservoir in La Crescenta, and the old Arroyo Seco Hotel, within eyesight practically, of the B’s mansion.

The SS Havana, seen from Moro Castle

The elder B’s and their older children traveled widely, so Grandpa Jim and Mom explained to me, when I showed them the postcards. Mom ventured a guess that perhaps the cards were brought back for Markie, the invalid little boy who was never strong enough to venture much of anywhere. So, his parents, his older brothers and sister, wherever they traveled, by train or steamship, they picked up handfuls of postcards, and brought them home for Markie – although the oldest of them would have predated his birth by a good few years.

The Palace of Justice in Monaco

Perhaps the senior B’s had made a habit of this all throughout their marriage, and travels. Over all those decades, the postcards had gravitated from across the world to the neo-Gothic mansion on the edge of the Arroyo Seco, tucked into a purse or train-case, perhaps a suitcase with hotel-stickers on it. Going from there to a desk, to a box in a closet with a bunch of other oddments – until the day they came to me.

Shijo Street – Kyoto, Japan

I’ve had them ever since; maybe the old box of postcards, with their vivid link to a not-quite-out-of-touch past was what set me off on a love of history and travel. Or maybe I would have come to that anyway.

Devil’s Gate Dam, La Crescenta, California

11 thoughts on “La Vie en Rose-Colored Postcards”

  1. Nice.

    For a moment I thought you were going to describe the owners of the house in South Pasadena that I rented from the widow of such a gardener when I was an intern. It was on Alpha Street just at the edge of South Pasadena. It had a full basement, very unusual in Los Angeles and a huge avocado tree in the front yard which was full of hundreds of avocados in the summer. The neighbors would come to pick them and go away with grocery bags full. It had a nice back yard with another avocado tree. I had two weimariner dogs and they would eat the avocados that fell off the tree. I was always in fear they get a bowel obstruction from the stones of the avocados but they never did. It was in the path of a proposed extension of the Long Beach freeway that never got built, which was why it was rented and not sold.

    He had been the gardener for a wealthy family whose name I can no longer remember and the house was built in the 1920s or even earlier. My good fortune. I lived there until I bought my own house in South Pasadena. It had a nice fenced yard and I had two little kids so it worked well for us.

  2. Beautiful story and pictures. How did this family get their wealth?

    Years ago, when I went to school in Menlo Park – there was an old abandoned mansion above the town of Woodside – the Nylon (?) Estate. It was off the Slyline Drive.

    A friend and I visited it at night and the long winding driveway with its dark emptiness cast an eerie pall.

  3. Mike K, very likely the gardener whom you rented the house from was an acquaintance of my grandfather – according to my mother, it was a very limited circle; professional estate gardeners. The B’s house was on the edge of the Arroyo Seco, not in South Pasadena. From what I remember very dimly, it was a French chateau style place, with a semi-circular drive up to the front and sort of gothic-ish features with a very pitched roof. I do not know how they got their wealth, but they were VERY wealthy, even through the Depression. They were very Old Money (real estate, maybe? Mining or railroad shares?, and quite unpretentious in their lifestyle otherwise. They had not dabbled in the stock market, so did not feel the bite of the crash quite as badly as others. They did drive the same car all the way through the 1930s. Grandpa used to sneak the older children cigarettes and let them smoke in the lath-house. (He was a four-pack-a-day guy, so no one would have noticed the smell of the smoke!)

  4. Wonderful post.
    It’s funny how souvenirs, by virtue of the meanings and connections we ascribe to them, signify more about ourselves then they do about what or where they came from.

  5. Was he an enlightened gardener, giving the owners some slight say in the management of their grounds, or was he more an autocrat of the Wodehousian type? Of course, the latter would typically be fictionalised as a Scot rather than an Ulsterman.

  6. I think he was an Wodehousian autocrat, Dearie – Scots-Irish and fiercely proud of it. Mom says that he had four standard replies when the lady of the house wanted him to do something in the garden that he didn’t want to do: “It’s too early”, “It’s too late”, and “It’s too hot” and “It’s too cold.”

    Years later, we lived in a rental house, which the owner of sent around a yardman every couple of weeks to mow the near to half-acre lawn, and do regular pruning of the trees and hedge. Mom suggested one day to the yardman that he might do something (something plant-related, of course) and he looked at her and growled, “It’s too early.” Mom had to cover her mouth and go into the house and laugh, and laugh and laugh.

  7. We used to have an elderly neighbour to whom we turned for advice when we first took up gardening. We’d point at some inactive specimen and ask “Is there anything to be said for this?” She’d reply “Och, it’ll come away at the back end.”

  8. Sgt Mom – most of the “old rich” are unpretentious in their life style – many – if you did not know them – you would never guess.

    Which I think is a good way to live.

    To me it’s rather vulgar flashing things – and the world is full of vulgarity these days…

  9. One of my favorite novels, one long forgotten, was by John P Marquand and was about a New England family with a large estate that had the factory adjacent. It was a formal estate and the entire family lived off it. The novel was set in the 1920s and was called Sincerely, Willis Wayde. Marquand had a waspish contempt for businessmen that was fashionable at the time (1955) but the picture of the life of that family was delightful. The family had a gardener who was a nice character, He was always complaining about bugs and worms, etc. He would say, “They don’t know what we’re up against here. The people at the Big House, they just don’t know. I just don’t know how it will all turn out.” But it always did.

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