Stella Mae Pierce Childhood
An Autobiographical Account
I was born in Oakland, California on May 12, 1918. My mother was Johanna
(Jennie) Dorathea Pierce (born Schoofs). Mother was 35 years old at the
time of my birth. My father was John Harwood Pierce, Minister of the
Christian Church, Civil War veteran, Indian fighter, poet, lecturer,
inventor, and editor. Father was 70 years old at the time of my birth,
and Jennie was his fifth wife.
My earliest recollection is living with my mother in a rooming house in
Oakland when I was two or three years old. I have described this place
to Mother in detail, and she was amazed at my vivid memory at that early
age. What implanted the picture of the place was the trauma I felt one
day, waking from a nap, to find myself alone. I cried, as any child
would do, but the sense of abandonment was so profound. I felt my mother
had left me never to return, and the imprint of that entire house and,
in particular, that front corner room, is etched in my memory. Of course
Mother had only gone to the corner store and was soon back.
At that time, I believe my brother was living with my father. I'm not
sure, for Mother would never speak of the past. If questioned, she would
become upset and say she did not want to talk about it--so I never
persisted. Shortly thereafter, Mother and I went to Hawaii where, I
believe, my father and brother were already living. I understand we
lived there about two years. But I do not know if we lived together or
not. I have no recollection of the four of us ever living together as a
family at any time.
I have only one recollection of Hawaii. One day I wandered from home
through back yards, where I saw an Hawaiian family standing around a
table in the back yard, eating two-finger poi. They offered me some...I
ate it, and reacted to flavor--something like soured cream of wheat. I
roamed through a Chinese-owned store, and observed--through a curtain of
strings of seed-beads separating the front of the store from the
back--the family eat rice with chopsticks, their deft manipulations as
they held the bowl up to their lips. I walked on to the center of a
large, quiet building, where I found a sandpile which delighted me. I
played quietly for a while. Then pandemonium broke loose: bells rang and
school children poured forth from all sides; one of the teachers took me
My next memory is when I was four years old. My father had me by the
hand and was walking with me around the area adjacent to Sawtelle
Soldiers Home in West Los Angeles, looking for a place for me to stay.
We approached a house (this picture is so vivid!) that was a half-block
from the business district, a grey duplex set back but a few feet from
the street and surrounded by hard-packed earth--not one green plant
growing anyplace. An unsmiling woman of severe countenance in black
widow's weeds invited us in. She was Mrs. Mitchell, and I stayed with
her for a while. Her house was as dark and cheerless as her sorrowing
After staying with Mrs. Mitchell, I remember living with a pleasant
widow, Mrs. Arnold. I also remember living with a couple named Powell,
and others whose names I cannot remember. My father would come to make
payment--that's all. I never remember him staying and talking or playing
with me. I never saw my mother. I understand from later conversations
with Mother that she was boarding with people (most likely she was in a
sanitorium) while my bother Melvin was boarding with the Governor of the
Sawtelle Soldiers Home. Melvin and I never discussed these years because
he wouldn't talk about them. I've always been interested and curious,
but would never press where I felt a sense of reluctance.
I never remember living with other children at this time. I was quite
withdrawn and malnourished. I can remember that the school sent me
someplace for weekly vitamin injections.
When I was six-and-a-half there came a time when my father could not
find a place for me to stay. He was employed at that time by the L.A.
Abassador Hotel as Santa Claus, and they advertised the Ambassador as
the year-round home of Santa Claus. I remember my father's beautiful
bejewled red velvet and real fur suit, which he wore only at Christmas
time. Around the Ambassador, I remember he wore regular suits. He looked
like Buffalo Bill Cody. He also had a buckskin Indian fighter suit and a
complete Union Civil War uniform with saber, muzzle-loader and all. I
stayed there with my father for some days--my father's room was just
above the Coconut Grove and I would stay awake at night as long as
Morpheus would let me, listening to the absolutely marvelous music of
the orchestra. I've always been extremely fond of music.
One day, my father received a notice from the Ambassador management that
his daughter could not spend one more day with Santa Claus! (You can
imagine what it was doing to his image. I believe my father was to make
himself available to the children in the Ambassador park and playground
areas, to amuse them with stories and such. So began, once again, the
repetitiion of the long-accustomed trek from door to door, church to
church, in search of a place for me to stay.
This time we ended up in an office. I waited in an anteroom for my
father. Shortly, a friendly woman took me into an office. The bumpy
glass on the door that I could not see through fascinated me. Inside,
she told me of a place she was going to take me where I would have lots
of children to play with and swings, slides, etc. I questioned: did it
have a green lawn I could play on? Yes, it had! I was ecstatic! I
remember the ride in her Model T. It was joyful and animated. I was
overwhelmed and perplexed when we arrived to find a huge brick building
which, sure enough, had a beautiful green front lawn. Soon I was being
ushered from one officious person to the next, bathed, inspected,
checked, then ushered into a dormitory. At the first opportunity, I
searched out the swings and slides. I had to wade through a crust of
dust about three inches thick to get to them--nothing green in slight,
only a tall, solid, unpainted, weathered fence surrounding huge dry dirt
plots. A wire fence separated our play area from another clear dirt
area. I looked over into this yard and up to voices I heard above. They
were from young boys in their teens--behind bars. I learned I was in
There was a pleasant lady that came each Sunday with a portable organ,
and we sang songs that I came to love, and what's more, she brought
cookies. At night, I remember the matron, Mrs. Radigan, hard as nails,
and the song the girls used to sing:
- "At ten o'clock in the morning,
- Miss Radigan comes along,
- With a piece of bread and butter,
- That tastes like alcohol.
- The cocoa tastes like turpentine,
- The bread is mighty stale,
- But that's the way they treat you
- At Juvenile County Jail."
One day, we were all given intelligence tests. That was exciting fun. I
enjoyed that. And I remember the buzzing of conversation at the
breakfast table the next morning among a few of the older girls who had
helped and bits of conversation I overheard which made me think I must
have done quite well.
Then I was placed in a home in the 1900 block of 54th Street in L.A.
with a rather cruel, strict woman named Mrs. Arnt. She had other
children from "The Hall" in her care. I was so timid and
withdrawn at that time that I was afraid to tell Mrs. Arnt that I
couldn't stand the taste of the daily sandwich she made me of rye bread
and peanut butter. I would just throw it in the trash when I got to
school and sit by myself at noon time. One day, I was sent by the
teacher to a school doctor to remove a fingernail from my infected right
index finger. My third grade teacher (I was placed in the first grade at
age five), Mrs. Wisebard, was sufficiently concerned to ask Mrs. Arnt if
I could spend a few days with her so that her sister, a nurse, could
take care of my finger. I learned of this when I gave Mrs. Arnt an
envelope my teacher had asked me to give her. What a tongue-lashing I
got! Why hadn't I told her about my finger...she could have pulled the
nail out, etc.
Mrs. Arnt allowed me to stay a few days with Mrs. Wisebard. For the
first time in my life, I was in a home with someone who really cared.
She lived alone with her sister in a large clean white house. There were
no children there, but there where many educational toys. I loved
putting together the jig-saw puzzle of the United States. She had linen
napkins and silver napkin rings. I'll never forget her kindness as long
as I live!
One day, I was seated on the front steps at Mr. Arnt's; we were never
allowed out of the yard. A neighbor boy came by on his bicycle. I
remember thinking how handsome he was except for his crossed eyes. He
stopped just long enough to say: "I heard your father died." I
went into the house and asked Mrs. Arnt if this was true. It was! I was
seven years and four months old.
During this period with Mrs. Arnt, I recall a short trip I made alone by
streetcar to visit my mother, who was in a sanitarium. She had, I
recall, two-and-a-half quarts of milk on a table by her bed. She
explained that she was on a milk diet. We sat in the visiting room and
played Nelly Bly and Parcheesi. I remember, too, that Mother visited me
once while I was in Juvenile Hall. She brought me a bag of hard candies
and we sat on a flight of stairs and talked.
I also remember that my brother Melvin, then 14 years old, came to visit
me once at Mr. Arnt's. It was a happy day. He helped me to wash dishes.
While washing the milk bottles, the suds came to the top and he shook
the bottle and sang out: "Milk for sale! Milk for sale!" Mrs.
Arnt came in and slapped him across the face for being so noisy. He
indignantly talked back to her; he wasn't used to such treatment. I
remembered being horrified by this all.
Some time after my father's death, Mother, Melvin and I began living in
a tiny three-home house my father had bought some years back, and in
which I had lived with a few of the people who had cared for me over the
I am not clear on the status of Mother's marriage. I know that she was
unable to claim a pension as a Civil War veteran's widow. I know that my
father had been married at least twice before according to documents in
his handwriting. Also, I had heard talk among the neighbors about my
mother not having been legally married. At least a few of them deigned
to speak to her. And she was such a kindly, gentle, and quiet soul who
would never cause anyone harm or speak ill of anyone. All her life, she
left scraps out for the birds and stray animals. She was even loath to
kill spiders, and often carried daddy-long-legs out of doors on a
We lived on a meager allotment the County sent us. Mother was unable to
work. She considered herself a semiinvalid. Mother spend most of her
time sitting in a chair looking out the window. She was interested in
occult religions, extraterrestrials, and other such strange things.
Once a month or so, she would go to Los Angeles for the day to attend a
lecture. Melvin didn't always live at home. He left two or three times,
I believe, to live with friends. I'm not clear on this in my memory, but
I do know that we never developed a close relationship as brother and
sister. Melvin and I never went anyplace together or ever played
together as children. Of course, he was 14 years old before I ever
really knew him, and I was only seven.
Melvin had learned banjo while in Hawaii, and in his late teens, he
found a job in a Saturday night dance band. He was a caddie at the golf
links, and managed to earn necessary speding money for himself. Surely,
the County check barely covered minimum necessities. These were
Depression years. Melvin did little more than caddy for years.
Melvin married at 23, when he finally found a full-time job as an
elevator boy. After that, he worked in a camera shop, were he learned
enough about the business to eventually set up his own shop.
Both Melvin and I finished high school.
I married at 17, and began working at Kress five-and-dime; my husband
was working on the WPA. Our goal was to save enough money to return to
the Philippine Islands where his family lived. I looked forward with
such eagerness to becoming a part of a real family. My mother took a job
sewing on WPA the month I was married. However, that lasted but a few
months. Mother wasn't strong enough, and she went back to the County
When Charlie and I had been married 14 months, we had saved enough money
to go to Manila. We left Mother and Melvin in Los Angeles and went off
to the Philippines. The Second World War began shortly thereafter, and
we were trapped in the Phillippines for the duration of the War, out of
contact with everything and everyone for almost five years.
The chapter of my life in the Phillipines was full of vivid memories.
Many of my most beautiful memories are from this period; but it was also
a period of shock and pain, for war is always horrible! I had three
children while I was in the Phillipines. I learned a new language, and
adapted to a new culture. I was accepted and loved by my new family. Our
small family survived the Japanese invasion, although my husband's
father died at the hands of the Japanese. We were present when America
took charge once again. I will let my husband tell this chapter of our
lives. It is enough that I have brought you though my childhood, up to
When we returned from the Phillipines after the close of the War, we
found my mother in the same situation that we had left her in--a bit
thinner and older--but with the same furnishings, the same pastime of
gazing out the window for hours on end. The neighbors, who had rarely
spoken to her over the years, had managed to help her repair her floor
when it had rotted through. Mother was still interested in
extraterrestrials and occult religions. She had few friends and seldom
We bought a house in Walteria, and a few years later we managed to find
a house across the street from our own which Mother could buy. I made
all the arrangements to sell Mother's house on Darlington Ave. and move
her into the new house next to ours.
Thus began a new period for Mother, a new environment entirely, new
friends and interests. She was still quiet and never spoke of the past.
But she did become vitally interested in living in our family and was
always happy to sew a hem or darn socks or hear of the children's many
successes. She renewed her respect and regard for her family religion,
As long as she was living across the street from us in Walteria, I
always prepared her evening meal and one of the children or I took it to
her on a tray. Mother learned what the children loved to eat, things
like applesauce, lemon custard, and navy bean soup; often she'd manage
to send back these treats with the evening messenger.
I always checked with Mother whenever I went shopping, and often she
would go with me. Mother often said that these years with us in Walteria
where the happiest in her life.
Mother died of pneumonia at home with all her loved ones. At the time
she was undergoing radiation treatments for terminal cancer. The
pneumonia was a blessing. She passed quickly, from health to death, in
matter of a few months; she was 83 years old. Mother is buried in Green
Hills Memorial Park in San Pedro. Her grave is on the arm of a cross of
trees. The trees look out over green hills with the Los Angeles harbor
and Pacific Ocean in the background.
Click the Back button
to return to the page you were reading, or
Click Part 1
here, or below, to go to the beginning of this biography.