By Rachael Rifkin
In California Heights, there is a women’s group that has been active for more than 60 years, with members from all age groups and all walks of life. But you won’t find this club advertised in any local newsletter or posted on any bulletin board. In fact, originally you couldn’t even belong to the Neighborhood Group unless you owned a home in the Jotham Place cul-de-sac, or “the circle” as locals call it.
During WWII, the women of Jotham Place began meeting to wrap bandages for the soldiers. Jotham Place was still new then; the first homes in the circle were built in 1939, with most of the other homes following within the next few years. The women enjoyed their get-togethers so much that they continued to meet even after the war was over.
Charlene Hughes was invited into the group through her cousin, who lived in the circle. Locals will remember her husband Larry, a WWII submarine veteran, as the “waving man,” a name he earned by sitting outside their house and waving at people who passed by.
“It’s just hung together through the years. It’s once a month except during the summer. It’s a nice group to belong to. The original members were really close. They lived each other’s lives. They were a close-knit group for a lot of reasons. People were home then. The wives took care of the children. Everybody knew everybody. But all of the original people are gone now,” said Charlene Hughes.
Today’s members were either invited in by other members or live in the circle.
“The group started on Jotham Place and branched out through friends and relatives in the neighborhood. I think I’m the only one who still lives on Jotham Place, so it’s more of a neighborhood group now,” said Joanna Williams. “We get together at each other’s homes and talk and visit. It’s a chance to catch up and compare notes on what’s going on in the neighborhood. I don’t know if this is common in other places, but it’s sort of neat that there is some history here. We’ve all known each other for quite a while. Today we have 12 members, although for the longest time there were just six of us.”
Bob Seymour is the son of Gertrude Seymour, one of the original members of the group. He also married Joan Seymour, the daughter of original member Marjorie Reese, who lived on Walnut Avenue.
“There were about 18 women when the group started. The Neighborhood Group would collect 25 cents a meeting. If there was a birth or a death in the family, they would send flowers, and they still do that today,” said Bob. “They also saved up and went out to dinner once or twice a year. They used to go to Welch’s Restaurant, which was on the corner of Atlantic and San Antonio.”
Several other traditions came out of the camaraderie the Neighborhood Group created. During Christmas, everyone in the circle puts up decorations, some of which have been passed down from former owners.
“When we moved in, we inherited reindeers and Santa’s sleigh, and that was what our house was supposed to do. Our next door neighbor has snowmen. The people who don’t have a set can do anything they want, but almost everybody decorates,” said Joanna.
Another neighborhood favorite is the Fourth of July pancake breakfast.
“When I was about nine years old, my parents built a barbeque in their backyard. My folks started having a neighborhood Fourth of July breakfast, which we still continue today. When they sold the house, we asked the kids that moved in if we could continue to have the pancake breakfast. And they’ve been kind enough to allow us to do that ever since. We had 38 people attend this year. And it all started because of the neighborhood group,” said Bob.
94-year-old Leta Donkle is the oldest active member. Although she doesn’t attend every meeting anymore, she makes sure to go to the Fourth of July pancake breakfast.
“I moved into my house in 1968 and my next-door neighbor invited me to go. My husband and the other fellows would shoot pool when we had meetings. I enjoy the sense of community. I like the people. After my husband died, I was here by myself, so I was always glad to go and see them,” said Leta.
Neighborhood Group member Jan Deggendorf looks forward to the monthly meetings as well.
“I had never been friendly with my neighbors before. It’s a great way to know what’s going on in the neighborhood. The neatest part for me is getting to know all these women from different age groups,” said Jan.
Rachael Rifkin is a memoirist with a background in journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com or (310) 612-4183.