Noe Valley Voice June 2006

Florence's Family Album: A Sober But Lively Summer

By Florence Holub

Twenty-first Street resident Florence Holub, 87, remembers her afternoon as a teenage abolitionist in this column reprinted from June 1994.

Here it is almost summer, and I am still carrying around the deposit of cellulite (a polite word for fat) that I acquired this winter during our high-calorie celebrations. I always know that I am in trouble when I can no longer reach down and tie my shoelaces. That's when I begin a more vigorous exercise regimen, in addition to reducing my intake of food.

This year, I added a daily walk to my routine, which produced little success in my battle against the bulge, but a great deal of nostalgia. The portion of my route that goes up Jersey Street is especially loaded with memories. As a child, I spent many hours at the Noe Valley Library, discovering new adventures in reading while my parents were visiting their friends, the Andersons, who lived a few houses up the hill.

Whenever I pass the Andersons' home, I remember the summer of 1933, just before the Prohibition Act of 1920 was repealed, when it was still illegal to manufacture or sell intoxicating beverages.

A few families, including our good Italian neighbors, defied the ban and brewed their own wine for personal use. I remember smelling the telltale aroma of fermenting grapes as I walked by their houses.

But among us Scandinavians, drinking was frowned upon, and no self-respecting individual would dare become inebriated. Sobriety was the order of the day, and liquor was unavailable except through bootleggers.

Even on June 21, when Swede-Finns from all over the Bay Area celebrated the summer solstice at our annual picnic, we abstained.

The picnic gathering of the Star of Finland Lodge was usually held down on the Peninsula, in a privately owned wooded park, equipped with rustic picnic tables and a hardwood deck constructed to withstand vigorous dancing.

Early in the day, automobiles, filled to overflowing with family members, began arriving at the gate, where they paid $1 per car to enter. The day was well planned, with games and races for the children, followed by competitions for the adults. My mother won first prize in the nail-hammering contest when she pounded the most spikes into a block of wood, greatly impressing my carpenter father!

At midday, we sat down to eat the cold lunch that Mother had prepared: pickled herring, sliced ham, potato salad, pickled beets, bread, and for dessert, strawberry shortcake.

Our family shared a table with the Andersons, and all thoroughly enjoyed the feast--all of us, that is, except my older brother Clarence and his friend Sven, the Andersons' son.

Sven was a blue-eyed, blond-haired, angelic-looking lad, who often misbehaved in order to sully his squeaky-clean image. On this occasion, he and Clarence (who rarely missed a meal) had disappeared into the woods without so much as a nibble at our repast.

After a while, both my mother and Sven's mother became concerned, and sent me to find the missing boys.

Unable to locate them at any of their usual haunts, I decided to venture away from the crowd and follow a path along a narrow stream edged with bushes. There I stumbled upon the young men, as well as the reason for their absence.

Clarie (my nickname for my brother), Sven, and another friend, Robie, were sitting in a circle around a flat rock, upon which rested a large jug of red wine. Judging from the boys' woozy appearance, I knew they had sampled more than a little from the vessel. The thought of the serious trouble my brother would be in with our strict father--as well as the shame my mother would suffer should she find out--spurred me to act quickly. I grabbed the jug, lifted it high in the air, and let it go. It crashed on the rock sending little rivers of red into the stream.

Then, leaving the mess for them to clean up, I beat a hasty retreat as an irate Sven yelled after me, "Why did you do that!?"

Back at the picnic table, I found our parents happily chatting over their Swedish coffee cake. Although I was angry with my brother, I had no intention of informing on him, however, so I kept quiet about what the boys had been up to.

Later that afternoon, as the band tuned up for dancing, the encounter faded as I got caught up in the excitement. Our families had hired a six-piece band that played all the popular tunes of the day--the schottische, the hambo, and the polka--as well as jazz and soft melodies for "smooth" dancing.

At dusk, not long after the gatekeeper of the park left his station, hordes of young "gate-crashers" began climbing over the fence to join the festivities. They were all accomplished dancers, and small wonder, for all summer they'd attended every picnic in the park, using the same free-of-charge method of entry.

These lads made for a bountiful selection of ballroom partners, and every young lady luxuriated in a sudden and overwhelming popularity.

When my brother and Robie had recovered enough to ask me to dance, they each expressed gratitude for my interference. They realized I had saved them from disgrace in the eyes of the law-abiding Swede-Finn colony.

But Sven, the procurer of the wine, refused to speak to me, even after the band began its rendition of Good Night, Ladies, our signal that the celebration was coming to an end.

Over the ensuing decades, the picnics continued, but with each passing year, fewer families attended. One by one, the lodge members moved out of town or passed away.

Then in the 1950s and '60s, most of the picnic grounds were sold and transformed into residential housing, to accommodate the Peninsula's booming population. This year [1994], as we've done for the past few summers, we will have our celebration at the Finnish Center in Sonoma. The gathering that once drew hundreds will probably muster around 30 people. And there will be no strenuous physical activities because we are all too arthritic. Thankfully, however, we are not yet ready to start a wheelchair competition!

Nevertheless, it will be a heartwarming pleasure to see our lifelong friends. Over lunch, we will reminisce and discuss such weighty matters as weight and how to lose it (short of starvation). We'll even indulge in a glass of beer or two.

As for Sven, I think he finally forgave me for spoiling his drinking party. About 30 years after the incident, at another family gathering, he thrilled my little son, Eric, by handing him a quarter. I chose to see this as a forgiving gesture!

With regard to my unreachable shoelaces, you might be interested to know that one of my friends has come up with a simple solution. She suggests I switch to slip-on shoes without laces.

It's bending the rules a bit, but if it keeps me from having to bend over, why not?