It had been six years since I last visited Lynda Brewer at her Fifth Street home - the house she lived in, on and off, since she was seven years old. In 2010 I was here for a story about Lynda spearheading an Order of Eastern Star effort to collect and ship boxes of sundries for U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moments after she welcomed me in, I suddenly remembered her outspoken, sometimes caustic wit and orneriness. It surfaced quickly after I began delving into the beginning of her story - which she insists she didn't have. Nonsense, I say, everyone has a story. Lynda's started before her birth in 1941, not exactly the "dinosaur days" as she suggests. Entering the world in Sacramento, baby Lynda was given up for adoption and three days later was traveling down Highway 99 to Ceres where Carl Miner and his bride of four years, Margaret Anderson Miner, were eagerly awaiting to become her parents.
"I packed my diapers and moved to Ceres," she laughs.
There was no finer set of parents in the Miners. Carl was a well-respected, hard-working downtown Ceres merchant who owned and operated Miner's Department Store, at 3030 Fourth Street, with Margaret, an unassuming church-going lady who was the salt of the earth and a stranger to no one. Carl was destined to enter the retail business since he grew up working in a store owned by his dad, Columbus Sylvester Miner, who came to Ceres from Missouri in 1924. Columbus bought the Tidd Grocery Store in downtown and walked home the short distance to the Daniel Whitmore Home, one block over, which he was renting for his family. Columbus retired, and Carl and his brother inherited the business and turned it into a clothing and dry goods store. Columbus passed away in 1951 at the age of 89.
Carl was community minded, serving on the Board of Trade, Ceres City Council and as a Ceres Fire Commissioner in the days when it was an all-volunteer department. Mr. Miner also served as president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce and sat on the Stanislaus County Planning Commission for 15 years.
In 1937 he married Margaret, an attractive beautician who was drafted into the family store. Her family came to Ceres in 1910 and her dad, W.A. Anderson, became the town baker. He sold the bakery in 1927 to a Mr. Marchand and moved out of town.
Hub of activity
The Miner's store was a hub of great activity in downtown where people like JoRene Lasiter today remember buying Levis. The low roof afforded some occasional juvenile mischief, like the night Gene Raymond and Jim Miner climbed up to lob water balloons at cars parked on Fourth Street, one of them a direct hit on a convertible with an open top. The Miners kind-heartedly bartered with local farmers, taking eggs and produce in exchange for clothing items. During the Depression, they also carried credit for working families for months and sometimes up to a year to help out, hoping they would ultimately get paid. They had mouths to feed, too.
At the time Lynda entered the family, the Miners lived in a rented house at Second and Park streets for 11 months until they purchased the 1912 two-story former farmhouse which still stands on Moffet Road opposite Virginia Parks Elementary School. She dislikes going by and seeing how the spacious land that once surrounded the house - which Lynda frolicked on - filled with tiny lots and more houses.
In 1948 when she was seven, the Miners moved to Lynda's present home. The house, built by contractor Hans Sorenson in 1932, cost just $15,000. At the time, well-known Ceres school bus driver Charles Baldridge and wife Lucy were next-door neighbors.
Carl and Margaret were good parents.
"They were very mild-mannered people. They never cussed. I never saw them drinking or, of course in those days we didn't have drugs, never wild parties. When they had get-togethers it was family reunions. My Dad was all into the store. He worked 10 hours a day down there. He opened at 8 and closed at 6. He was involved in the Masonry."
Mom attended the Methodist Church and "never missed a Sunday that I know of," said Lynda. She also faithfully stocked the sanctuary in flowers. Margaret was also a charter member of the Persephone Guild and had a bridge club.
Those were the days when people weren't planted in front of a computer screen keeping in touch with friends through Facebook. Contact was intentional and rewarding.
"They had a group of six couples who were a potluck crowd. The McKnights were in it. They would travel from house to house. Every month they would take their turn being the hostess. To have that many together, with all of the wives and all of the husbands, they were so accepting of one another. I don't even know my next-door neighbor. I know he doesn't speak English. I know who on the block deals drugs."
She remembers Ceres as small and intimate in the 1940s and 1950s.
"You could walk down the street - like I'd go from my dad's store down to the post office, which is right next to where Fricke's used to be - and you could say, ‘Hi, Mr. Jones,' or ‘Hi, Eleanor' or ‘Hi Mrs. So-and-So.' You can walk downtown now and you don't see anybody you know. You're lucky if they speak English."
In those days in sleepy Ceres, she remembered ducking into Jack Haynes' Five & Dime variety store (in the IOOF Hall), to buy a handful of Red-Hots for a dime.
"I don't remember of ever hearing about a carjacking or killing or shooting or a robbery. Everybody got along. Us kids would play baseball in the street. There were no sidewalks and out here was a dirt road."
The store did not make the Miners rich but "he made a living." Lynda remembers her dad saying if he didn't make $100 in sales each day, "he didn't make a penny because of the overhead." The Miners "never had everything in the world - we had everything we needed."
Specific dates have escaped her memory. Lynda knows the store started in the 1920s but is not sure when Carl and his brother went into business together to run it.
"I don't remember which uncle was in there with him. But anyway, my Dad bought the uncle out."
In Mildred Lucas' 1976 book, "From Amber Grain ... To Fruited Plain: A History of Ceres, California and its Surroundings," the uncle was identified as Bruce Miner who opened another store in Winton.
Carl was 65 in 1964 and decided to retire and close the store. One of the last independent clothing retailers in Ceres was gone although Landon's comes to mind as the last. Ceres residents were forced to do business in places like Penney's in downtown Modesto.
Carl Miner died in 1970 at age 71. Lynda said her father was on his deathbed when Jim Delhart came along to sign documents to buy the building.
Lynda doesn't remember any eventful incidences while attending Ceres Grammar School, now the site of the reconstructed Ceres Unified School District offices on Lawrence Street.
‘Bad to the bone'
Did she have any regrets in life, I asked. Without hesitation her brother came up. She still carries some unresolved pain caused by her younger brother who was also adopted by the Miners as a baby. It's the one regret of her life, she bluntly said. The harshness of the statement is easier to understand when she goes into detail about he caused Carl and Margaret and Lynda "nothing but grief."
"He didn't know right from wrong. Everything he did was bad."
Lynda explains that her brother stole money, tried inappropriate things with her, molested a local girl, robbed his parents' store, severely beat a girlfriend, ripped off their mother as she was dying and ended up in jail for failing to pay child support and possession of marijuana.
"I remember he tore up my dolls, and my clothes and broke my glasses. He was just bad to the bone and we were raised by the same parents. My mom was such a gracious lady with a capital ‘L' and never met a stranger."
She had hoped for an opportunity to ask why he hated her but he died in 2008.
Lynda wrestled with her own demons, if you can call them that. Painfully shy, she says she was terrified of people and having to talk to them at church and other settings. She admits being afflicted with a negative attitude all her life since young. She lived in a shell and led an uneventful experience as a "wall flower" at Ceres High School, which she attended from 1955 until graduation in 1959.
After high school, then what?
"Got stupider," she replied. In the language of her sarcastic nature, I know precisely that it is her code for "get married."
In 1961 she married career Air Force man Roland Maxfield and his job took them around the world - to Idaho, Spain, Louisiana, Washington, Wyoming and California - and produced two sons. Roland III came along in 1963 and Barry in Spain in 1966. Both live in Idaho today. She enjoyed the different locations and liked how her boys were always surrounded by friends wherever they went.
"It was a very short marriage; it was 18 years. I didn't believe in divorces. I was an old Sears Die-Hard. You know, you made your bed, you lie in it, make the best of it."
The divorce was probably long overdue when it happened. She remarried, but the short-lived union with husband Jim Brewer proved she got - her word - "stupider."
Lynda returned to Ceres to help care for her ailing mother. Margaret died in 1991 after a fight with cancer. During that time Lynda found a job as a secretary for the Ceres center of Heifer Project International, which has since closed. Five years with them allowed her to collect a meager Social Security.
"I was basically a wife, mother and homemaker all my life. People say, ‘How do you live on what you have?' and I say ‘I don't have to pay rent.' And by helping at the food program, I get all the fruits and vegetables and bread and yogurt, whatever, I want. I would probably go help over there if I didn't get food because I just love it."
After 12 years of being single, Lynda thought she would try another stab at marriage. The third time was not the charm.
"I didn't get any smarter. Married a guy in Modesto named Heenan - and we don't even mention him in the newspaper. He wasn't a bad guy, just emotionally bankrupt. I didn't like his name so I decided to change the name (back to Brewer). Everybody knows how to spell Brewer."
She traded the companionship of men for two cats, which is proof, she insists, that she "finally got smarter." Men are not an option at this late date, she said. There's not enough room in the house for two people, she says, an odd statement given that her living room is spacious and she's living in a two-bedroom house. That is, until she explains she's a "hoarder - so you'll see me on one of those television shows."
When Lynda gets out of her house it's to attend church at Hughson Methodist Church on Sundays or during the week to volunteer at the "Loaves of Love" food distribution program at Valley Christian Center. On Tuesdays she is found helping with the Ceres Seventh-day Adventist Church food program.
Helping others was modeled by her parents. She once saw a young couple come into her Dad's store. They were busy clothes on their way to get married in Reno. Carl had a few silver dollars in the till, pulled them out and gave them to them, saying, "That's a wedding present.'" Carl also was known for giving out free pickles at his store.
Fifth Street hazard
Brewer enjoys living across the street from the eastern edge of the Ceres High School campus, where the ball fields are, because it's better than facing another house. But it was a hassle for a while, with a steady stream of wayward fly balls from the baseball diamonds hitting her roof or landing in her yard. That changed when she called up Assistant Supt. Jack Rudd after gathering up seven balls. Rudd swooped by to pick them and got an earful about possible window breakage. Rudd decided that a row of trees could stop their trajectory once they filled out. But Lynda had to drag a hose across the street to keep them watered because nobody thought about installing an irrigation line. The district later planted more trees to catch balls landing in her neighbors' yards.
"I was still getting balls. Then I got 17 balls. I put them on eBay and sold them to someone in Canada. Then I got 26 balls. Carl Nielsen was the coach over here. He came over and picked up the balls when I called. Then I had 12 more balls and called the school and (Bret) Durossette was involved over there. ‘Oh yeah, we'll come and get them.' I said I'd leave them on the front porch.
They never came. They're still in the garage."
One of the highlights of her life - besides the 2010 care packages for soldiers - was taking a cruise to Alaska with good friend Sara Cuddy who died in 2013 at Samaritan Village in Hughson.
"She was my best friend. She knew me even longer than my mother. Sarah was a hard person to understand. I loved her dearly. She said what she thought."
That's right, outspoken like Lynda.
Lynda admits that, at age 74, she's scared because of a recent diagnosis of congestive heart failure. As of our Sept. 26 visit she is awaiting word the findings of an ultrasound. She speaks in a matter-of-fact way about difficulty breathing, chest pains, times when she can barely walk across the room because of dizziness, and times she nearly topples over. But she is stubborn about a trip to the emergency room.
"I've been told a couple of times to go to emergency. The very first time I was having problems breathing and everything I called the doctor and before they even saw me (they said) ‘Go to Emergency.' I'm not going to Emergency and sitting in Emergency and sitting for four hours."
Did Lynda ever get to meet her biological mom? Yes, thanks to her adoptive mom's graciousness. Violet Wilson, who was living in Rancho Cordova, contacted the Miners to see about her daughter, who was then living in Idaho. Margaret facilitated their reunion after Lynda and Vi talked on the phone first. The first question centered on where Lynda got her height. Mom was short, so it had to have come from her 6-foot-tall father. Vi had little information on Lynda's father, saying they only knew each other long enough to engage in the romp that led to their unwanted pregnancy.
For decades Lynda held the misconception that her mother was a scared teenager who didn't want a baby messing up her life. However, Vi was 33 when she gave birth and not doing a good job of carrying for an older sibling. Lynda was nearly aborted when Vi was given $100 and sent to San Francisco to terminate the pregnancy. Vi paid the money at an office and was directed to a frightful, seedy back alley abortion mill. Frightened to go through with it, Vi scurried off with the prospects of carrying the pregnancy to full term.
"Tada, here I am," said Lynda.
She struggles, like many of us do, to come to terms with her existence.
"I mean, I haven't had a real good grown-up life. It wasn't a good marriage. I was abused and life hasn't always been easy. What is my purpose here? That's what I don't know. What am I supposed to be doing? Why am I here?"
Answers pop up in my mind which I don't voice. Maybe her purpose is finding enjoyment in serving others in need. Maybe she's here because of the color her character adds to the world of Ceres. Maybe because she can demonstrate how to triumph over bad experiences and show others how they can prevent similar experiences of robbing them of laughter.
Maybe, by being herself, she is bringing glory to God, which the prophet Isaiah said was the chief purpose of man.