My mother had a beautiful flower garden full of sweet peas, geraniums, lilies, hyacinths, poppies and anything else that existed in the neighborhood.
She and my father, Harry Rae Boys, were married in 1915, a couple of years before the United States became involved in the Great War, WW1. While supply shortages took place on the east coast, supporting the war effort through frugality and giving was important in California. Mother learned to make due and ran the household on a strict budget. Like me, she had a need for beauty. I imagine this was even more important in the difficult times she faced, raising a family during the Great Depression.
My sisters, Sydney and Helen, and I would go on walks with mother around the neighborhood. She would neatly tuck scissors and a little bag into her clothing before we left. Any new and interesting flowers close to the path were game for the scissors. The cuttings were taken home where she would trim off the leaves, stick them into the ground, and keep them watered. I remember asking her once if we should knock on the door and ask permission. She said, “Oh, I take such a little bit dear, no one will pay any attention.” And, snip, snip. When the flowers began to bloom we teased mother that her sins had prospered.
As a small child I loved the ocean more than I liked the garden. I would escape from the yard when my mother wasn’t watching and run down the dangerous path to the beach below. She would come after me, scolding me on the way back up. When I was about four she had a fence put up and I was no longer able to go to the ocean on my own. Now I look at the pictures of me from that time (above) and I can see I wasn’t happy about it. I was made a prisoner in the garden.
With the Great Depression, my mother’s frugality and resourcefulness were helpful. I remember not getting enough food and being hungry. Our family foraged the southern California landscape for nasturtiums, wild spinach, crucifers, other edible plants, and mushrooms. The ocean provided seafood. We always had shoes but I remember many children who did not. They went to school in their bare feet. (Pictured above l to r: ocean foraging; my siblings and I – Sydney, Helen, me, and Henry; and, my sister, Helen, and I clamming. All were taken in the 1930s.)
My father worked as an engineer in silver mines. When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Silver Purchase Act of 1934, it devalued silver and the mine was closed. My father came home and bought an old fishing boat to make a living and feed our family. I worked right along side him during my teenage years, earning my nickname of Albacore Annie. We would stay out sometimes as long as 3 or 4 days until we had a catch large enough to make the trip worth the effort.
I took other jobs too. Every one did. You just didn’t turn down an opportunity to work. I occasionally took care of children when my sisters were too busy, but I preferred to work on or near the ocean. My experience with boats and curiosity about the natural world led me to collect biological specimens for Ed Ricketts, known later as the model for “Doc” in Cannery Row and other Steinbeck novels. Of course, I had no idea or interest in the celebrity of the lab. My focus was on learning about the ecology of the coastal environment and getting paid to do so. This exposure was formative in my later work as a biologist, developing the observation skills necessary to identify closely related aquatic plants and even discovering a new species of red alga.
There is so much beauty in this world. In my memories the vivid colors of my mother’s garden and California coast from my father’s fishing boat invite me back to breathe in the fragrance of the flowers mixed with the salty air of the ocean; hear my father tell me to pull up anchor as we prepared to leave shore or my sisters’ laughter as we rode our bikes through the neighborhood; and feel the security of my mother’s hand as she pulled me to safety. It was a difficult time in the world, but the moments of beauty is what I remember.
(Pictured above l to r: My mother Ileene Henderson Boys in 1914; lifting anchor on my father’s fishing boat; my sister Helen and I on my bicycle in 1931)