By Winifred Davidson
Historical gossip of and in pioneer San Diego, entitled It May Have
Been Halloween, this is a continuation of Mrs. Davidson’s sketches in
earlier issues of the Quarterly.
It would be October 31, the day for my weekly three or four hours of Spanish lessons out of old Mantilla’s First Reader. From Mrs. Lucy Brown Wentworth, born Old San Diegan, for twenty-five cents the session. Of an importance!
“Fiesta dressed,” John Davidson and I left Point Loma about nine o’clock. In front of Lucy’s frail gate I backed out of the Chevvy red heels foremost, cumbersome long black skirts just clearing the door space. It was an awkward scramble over the dirt curb.
“You’ll come down for the celebration? The Plaza at noon?”
“Maybe,” shouted J. D. unencouragingly. “Serra Museum has to be kept open. Remember? And don’t call it a celebration. The Day of the Dead was never a California fun feast. Remember?”
He disappeared in rich dust over toward Presidio Park. I hesitated to lift the latch and approach the little stoop. There was no sign of Lucy nor of Laddie Chihuahua at door or window. I shrank from anticipated instructions:
“No, no, no! The tip of the tongue made very thin and fluttered fast behind the front top teeth and more to the roof of the mouth like.”
Suppose I were to miss the lesson – postpone complete conquest of the sweet lingo of Cervantes? Through paths that led around the restored (rebuilt) adobe chapel of romantic controversy; into restored (immensely beautified) Campo Santo; and out again to rough San Diego Avenue sidewalk I wandered until I stood at the front door of shockingly neglected (unrestored) Whaley House, red brick mansion landmark.
“And all Old Town, all southern California once considered it the loveliest home in the land!” I told myself.
In the fashion of early pueblo days I stood uninvited, uttering my best grito, “Miss Lily, are you at home?”
“Black is right today and will be right tomorrow.”
“Then I’ll do. Will I?”
I wore a full silk skirt, as stiff as sheet iron and very wide sweeping. Black lace basque. Embroidered Chinese shawl – black, green and pink with fringe. Very antique black reboso set off with so red, so droopy a velvet rose.
“Is it authentic – a little authentic?”
“Come in. Why, yes. I like the high comb effect you’ve managed. But here is someone to tell you…”
Far back in this dim room that we used to call the Court sat my teacher.
“Doña Luz! I didn’t see … You didn’t expect me today? I did stop at the house.”
“If I did. If I did not. And if you did not once look to see Laddie at the window showing sadly that you were not calling to him hello.”
“Forgive me, Laddie, old fellow! Mrs. Wentworth, Lucy, don’t you like my Spanish things?”
She turned a mournful glance to the high ceiling.
“And just what do you think you are supposed to represent?”
“Why, a genteel person of wealth speaking Spanish natively in the long ago.”
“Miss Lily,” complained Lucy. “Does she remind you of Crysostoma?”
“Don’t mind me,” said I. “Who was Crysostoma?”
“She was a comic”, she explained. “A comic Indian woman well known to all, washing for everyone and ironing, passing around among families as she had time and felt like earning two bits.”
“Mama often had her. She kept us Whaleys in tears – we laughed so hard at her rigs and her remarks.”
“Mother Hubbard calico and black Prince Albert coat!”
Closely inspecting my silk skirts, Lucy and Laddie had been circling me. Suddenly my shawl was yanked off flung wide, jerked back and gently, expertly, gracefully adjusted. The red rose flew out the open door.
“Old Town is not yet Hollywood! You now look a little like someone we could have spoken to in the neighborhood. We carry ourselves proudly of Spanish extraction, sitting and standing straight, two feet straight together.”
“Public observance of special days was always dignified. We learned behavior from our Spanish-speaking pioneers.”
“As you say, Miss Lily. With the eyes down-cast like and hands joined. If it was a holy day custom of the place.”
“We Whaleys, living so close to the chapel and churchyard, naturally took part in prescribed ways of observing the last of October and first of November. Mama, coming to this little community a young French girl from Brooklyn, quickly adopted this and the other Old Town customs.”
Now we were three Old Towners recalling romantic events: two warmly describing, eager Laddie and I listening.
“Late afternoon. All dressed in black walking slowly keeping silence. But happy to be doing so,” said Lucy.
Miss Whaley said something like: “All entering the chapel quietly and coming out single file with lighted candies, muttering piously and with tears sometimes for the people whose presence had during long periods of life seemed too fixed ever to go away from our midst. Tia Pilar de Arguello, beautiful in life, blessed in death by the prayers of hundreds of friends and of all her twenty-two children and many distant relatives. The Machado families and the Smiths, staying as long as candles burned, praying beside the graves of their own, like Corporal Manuel and Maria Serafina his wife. And kneeling each beside his own all the Estudillos, the Rodriguezes, the Serranos, the children of John Minter…”
The Court waited some moments for Miss Whaley to resume.
“We Whaleys used to say the chapel on All Souls was like a lighted ship at sea with the little candles burning around its foundation cobblestones, making it seem actually to be in motion.”
“And weren’t there certain ones moving about on their knees among the uneven graves, saying one last prayer for dear Old Town people who lived and died lonely?” I asked.
We spoke of newcomers who are most enthusiastic about reviving the past, persons with not a drop of Spanish blood eloquent with suggestions that cost much money and superhuman endeavor, to put on a show to attract other newcomers. (Something that can be done annually to remind San Diego and the world how truly golden were Old Town’s beginnings.)
“Mama used to say it was impossible to bring back the past. Only in music, in songs, she said, do we save a little of what we once had.”
“She was truly musical, Mrs. Whaley, and will not soon be forgotten with her songs and memories of songs and the way we all sang them,” Lucy whispered.
“Everyone who sang or played came to this house. I remember when we learned the Spanish words of ‘The Ship That Never Returned.’ Mama at the piano, Dick Kerren improvising an accompaniment on his old violin.”
“Listen, Miss Lily!” I interrupted. “Do I hear the band?”
“The comical fiesta has begun,” sniffed Lucy. “Now you can see how this day was never before celebrated on this earth.”
“Will you walk over to the Plaza with me, Mrs. Wentworth? You and Laddie to give me courage?”
“Thank you. We will not. You pass ahead. And walk high with even small steps and not half running like you’ll be missed if you didn’t arrive.”
“You will not accompany me?”
“I do not wish my friends to laugh as if I approved the way you have dressed up today.”
I hurried to a telephone to warn J. D. to remain at his desk where his funny vaquero pants would be inconspicuous. I tried to walk toward the Plaza stepping proudly. New Town club acquaintances greeted me enthusiastically.
“How appropriate!” some said. “Exactly what a Spanish seenyoreena would wear on such a beautiful occasion. To the last classic fold of that lace thing. My dear, a moment. Let me fasten this rose in your veil. It had fallen in the street but is fresh as fresh.”
“Celebration a success?” J. D. asked on the way home.
“As much like a traditional observance of el Dia de los Muertos as Chevvy is like an oxcart.”
“Everyone seemed pleased. Hundreds streaked through the Museum.
I kept my big hat on all day and was much photographed.”
“You’re in show business. I’m glad Lucy missed you.”
“She didn’t. She told me with a sly laugh that she liked my costume better than yours.”
(From memories of interviews during a period of several years with Miss Lily Whaley and Mrs. Lucy Brown Wentworth in Old San Diego)