It all started with an empty tin of cat food.
My 13- and 9-year-old sons were enjoying the benefits of having their uncle as our contractor. When the crawlspace under our home was accessible from the living room and deemed safe, Tío Frankie gave the boys permission to grab flashlights and explore.
“Mom, look at this old cat food!” my older son yelled after his second trip to the pretend caverns. He held up an empty can of Nine Lives, complete with the image of the infamous “Morris the Cat.” A quick online search helped us determine the can was from the 1978. But why was it tucked away under a corner of the house? Always the storyteller, I knew that previous owners once had a cat so I wove a tall tale about the food serving as an offering to the cat’s ghost. We intended to toss the old tin but after hearing my story, we all decided to return it to its original spot. We didn’t want to move back in only to be awoken at midnight by the ghost cat meowing for the missing food.
With each step in demolishing old pieces of our Menlo Park home, I found myself wondering about its former life. The previous owner birthed sons in our master bedroom. The owners prior had remodeled the kitchen and bathroom. At one time, a family of raccoons got cozy in our crawlspace. Beyond these scant details, I was desperate to learn about the building’s past.
The city building department confirmed that the property was built in 1946. No plans or permits were on record because at that time, my neighborhood was part of Palo Alto. It was the Menlo Park Historical Association that added some color to my home’s story. I visited their office, which sits on the bottom floor of the Menlo Park Library, and flipped through the pages of Palo Alto/Menlo Park reverse phone directories. I traced the names of every homeowner dating back to 1954. Older students, electricians, and doctors spent short periods of time occupying the building. Searches on Newspaper.com and Ancestry.com told me the first resident was a 64-year-old widow and former schoolteacher, and she lived in there until she died seven years later.
The best nuggets of our home’s history have come from the building itself, like the square nails that secured our subfloors, the porcelain knobs that held tube electrical wiring, the hardened, amber sap stuck to old roof beams, and more trinkets left under the house. One morning, a member of the electrical crew was in the crawlspace when he discovered an old bottle. It was from Acme Brewing Company, which was owned by Olympia Beer Co. and opened in 1907 after the great earthquake created a beer shortage in San Francisco. Another search online told him the bottle was from 1941; it was left in the dirt years before our home was built.
As we traded information about our findings, he asked if I had seen a carving in another part of the house. My brother, another electrician and I followed him through to the kitchen. Insulation had covered the walls until earlier in the week, when it was ripped out to prep for the electricians. Etched into the inside of one wood panel were the words: “Jimmy Wiess loves Ruth Zimmer.”
I ran my fingers over the letters, carried away in wistful thoughts about Jimmy and Ruth. And then I remembered that my brother is a shameless prankster who also knew I was researching my home’s history. Suddenly this carving seemed too good to be true. “Did one of you do this? Are you messing with me?” I said. Once they swore on all things vital to their lives that this carving was legitimate, a new research project was born.
I found Ruth listed in a 1948 phone book; she was married but not to Jimmy. The 1940 U.S. Census showed she was a school teacher and notes on Ancestry.com indicated she married her cousin, Hy. In 1950, they also owned a local television repair shop. As for Jimmy, I finally found who I think to be him –– the last name was spelled “Weiss” –– listed in the 1940 U.S. Census, when he was 6 years old and lived just a few blocks away. He would have been 12 years old when our house was built. Zimmer was 34-years-old at the time, lived nearby and likely taught in the area. Perhaps she was Jimmy’s teacher and he had schoolboy crush. As to why he decided to declare his feelings on our wall, that will remain a mystery, or at least a future story created by my overactive imagination.
The carving was covered, this time by drywall instead of plaster and chicken wire. We left a time capsule in between a wall for future homeowners to discover should they ever decide to remodel. My husband, my son, my brother, and our subcontractors have left new timestamps somewhere in the building. And all have strict instructions to leave the empty cat tin alone.
And while the old beams and lumber are no longer exposed, you’ll still find me still searching for more clues to the past.