It was 1956 in the town of Corbin, Kentucky. Three small girls, ages 11, 9, and 8 got into the car of their World War II Veteran, Uncle Charles Heathcott, accompanied by their 34 year old mother, Frances Heathcott Gallagher. They were headed west to San Jose, California. Their father, George W. Gallagher, joined his family later after he took care of closing out their affairs. The Gallagher family left their history of origin because of pressing economic issues. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president this year and overall the economy was doing well. After World War II, George Gallagher was convinced by his mother, Ella, to move from Pennsylvania, where he had an offer of an administrative position, to return to his hometown to assist his father with the Gallagher Dry Cleaning business. He ironed the family’s clothing his entire life! My mother told me that she thought we would starve to death if the family had remained in Kentucky. This was the primary push factor.
The pull factor was mother’s sister, Jeannette, who had migrated from Dyersburg, Tennessee, to marry her World War II hero, Salvador Sunzeri. Aunt Jeanette letters persuaded my mother of the tremendous opportunity in the booming Western town of San Jose. In order to move, my parents sold a piece of property they had purchased, for $700.00. With that sum, they moved over 3,000 miles. What is significant and scary is my father had no guarantee of employment, shelter, or support, other than Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Sam.
For most of my life, I totally admired my mother for uprooting her family to move to the land of opportunity. For example, when my father joined us several months later, he was able to find gainful employment at the start-up company, The IBM Corporation. He told me that his first job was moving furniture. Thirty-five years later, he was earning over $100,000 a year, without a college education. He held the title of Facilities Engineer and he moved people into new buildings and plant relocations. In addition, three of his four daughters, myself included, opted for a career with IBM! Daddy also worked a second job at Sear Roebuck Company, a thriving company at the time, in the credit department. The additional income provided his daughters the opportunity to attend private Catholic schools where we received a top notch education.
When we arrived in San Jose, we lived with Aunt Jeannette and Uncle Sam for three months. I still remember the night we arrived after the horrific road trip and they had beds ready for us. I felt safe that night for the first time since we left Kentucky. Since my father was able to find employment so quickly, we were able to rent an apartment on North First Street. After my mother, who learned to drive after moving to California, was in a non-injury accident, and won the judgment, we were able to purchase our first home on San Joaquin Avenue. Aunt Jeannette and Uncle Sam bought one in the same track housing three doors down. Uncle Sam, now 95, stills owns that tiny house that is valued at $700,000 plus! We moved several times and that is a migrating story for another time and class!
One of the more interesting and incredibly painful experiences of my young life was picking prunes. San Jose’s geography consisted of orchards, canning facilities, and factory workers. When my sisters and I saw a sign that read: $.50/bucket to pick prunes, we were exhilarated! After all we were making the same amount babysitting and this had to be easier and more profitable. Alas, it was the most difficult work that we ever performed. In two hours, between the three of us, we picked one bucket…$.50 was split three ways…I totally emphasize with the migrant workers who are forced to do this for a living. At the same time, I am very grateful for the experience.
Sadly, being a child in a new school with a Southern Dialect caused me pain. I was ridiculed for pronouncing short vowel sounds especially with words like my, mine, five, nine, etc. My feeling was the other children talked phony and I hated “you guys” preferring “ya’ll”. Even today, people ask me if I am from the East because of the way I pronounce wash. Until the day he passed, my father refused to lose his Southern accent; he was proud of his family history to the end!
In conclusion, I am not sure that this was the best move for our family. I did not have a relationship with my grandparents or the many cousins I have who all live very far away. The last time I saw anyone was at a Gallagher Family Reunion, in 1995, in beautiful Cumberland Falls, Kentucky. When we left Kentucky, I did not think about class or financial status. After I arrived in California and met the natives, I began to feel that my family was not up to their standards. Every summer, we drove for days to spend time with relatives in Kentucky and Tennessee. The trips were exhausting, expensive, and very unpleasant. Most of the time was spent on the road with little left for visiting.
Sadly, since both of my parents have passed on, so I could not ask them to tell me more about the reasons for our migration. The move was very traumatic and if I had been older, I would not have wanted to leave the South. My experience of the first nine years of my life remain with me as positive. I love the food, the landscape, the changing seasons, and I will always miss my favorite Aunt Neda, now 97 years old, who loved me unconditionally. I know one thing, if I had a family, I would endeavor to stay in one location and one house. Thank you for the opportunity to re-visit my childhood experience!