Ghosts of my Verde Street home
"If you are a student of Jerome AZ's history, as I am, you study ghosts, the people that came before you, that grew up in the house you live in, planted the crab apple and apricot trees you eat from, plundered the mountain where you now walk your dog and try to figure out what they created or destroyed has to do with the present and future." (From the prologue to Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona's Richest Copper Mining City.)
Sometimes you get to meet the ghosts that built the house you lived in; who whispered to you when you buried Whiskers the cat near the apricot tree, "Thanks for giving us a cat to be our companion. We've been wishing for one for a long time."
I was visiting Jerome in May and received a phone call from Barbara Beneitone, one of the children that lived in our home at the end of Verde Street before the mines closed. "My Mom and sister and brother are going to be in Jerome. We'd love to take you to lunch." I had been corresponding with Barbara through Facebook: she was one my loyal blog readers.
At Grapes Restaurant on Jerome's Main Street, I met Barbara's 91-year old mother, Doris and her first-born son Don Schumacher and his wife Mary, Barbara and her sister Suzy and her partner Roy Harbin. Missing were Louis and Debbie, two other children. Doris was a sturdy, lovely woman with a lot of energy and a big heart, much like her children.
After lunch, we went over to their old house, unlived in since we sold it three years ago, full of foxtails, neglect, and a lot of memories. My husband Walt and I, children Max and Michael, Amanda the dog and Whiskers the cat lived there for 35 years. The house sits sentinel over Deception Gulch.
"The house was built in 1926 by Marguerite and Nikolai Domjanovich, my parents, Doris told me. "They were Croats from Delnice, Yugoslavia. I was 3-months old when we moved to the house. Mr. Lopez, Sr. helped. He lived in the house below you. Sometimes the kids threw stones to see if they could hit his tin roof."
Doris and her husband and four kids lived on the bottom floor of that old house. Suzy slept in the closet in the bedroom Louis, Don and Barbara slept in the hallway in bunk beds. Upstairs lived Mitzi Bobbitt, Doris' sister and her husband. "We were one big happy family in a little house," Barbara said.
The first house that Marguerite and Nikolai lived in was near the baseball field (now a big, open flat spot near the Gold King Mine). Nicolai's brother George was accidentally killed by a baseball hitting his chest. The family built the home at the end of Verde Street because they did not want to confront the ghosts of that memory every day.
The family and I walked back to the patio where Walt built his last wall, the one with the drill press embedded in it, and stood under the mesquite tree. It was a particularly tranquil, private spot. The men admired the walls. I told them Walt built ten massive walls to protect the house from tumbling down the mountain. Don showed me the remnants of the walls his father built. I showed him the one Mr. Bobbitt built.
The apricot tree their family had planted just below the patio was still there, barely alive through a few winters of drought and disregard. They made jam from the fruit, Don told me. Just below was the garden his parents kept, full of beets, turnips, cabbage and carrots. Doris made sauerkraut from the cabbages in barrels located in the old shed. She'd serve it with 'pigs in the blankets.' The spot was protected from the smoke of copper smelters in Cottonwood and Clarkdale.
"On special occasions, we'd go up to Walnut Springs for a picnic and a swim with pails full of sauerkraut and potato salad," Don said. The remains of the concrete swimming pool are still up there.
Their father and grandfather were miners, such a different life than the one we led in Jerome. What seemed like plundering the mountain to me was a better job for their grandfather and his brother than ones in the mines in Michigan, where it was brutally cold, and those in the low-ceilinged coal mines of New Mexico, where her grandfather to had to work stooped. He was six feet, nine inches tall and had to work stooped.
Most of the family moved away in 1950. The men helped tear down the interiors of the electrical plumbing and woodworking buildings on the 500-level and recycle tools and materials for mining elsewhere. Doris' widowed mother stayed behind. She did not want to leave Jerome.
I stood with Doris at the top of the steps. "My grandfather made the copper railings and set them in iron pipes." It gave us something to hang on to when we went down the two sets of steps. By now they were tipping toward the patio ten feet below the wall. Where my peace roses still bloomed was the location of an old bin for storing coal for the stove her mom and she cooked on."
I didn't have much desire to go down those steps with Don, Barbara and Suzy. Neither did Doris. We hadn't back since we left and we felt sad. We both had tears. Lifetimes had passed, not to be measured in years.
What we had in common is our love of Jerome, the home that meant so much to all of us in our lives, the children that grew up there and scrambled over those craggy cliffs like goats. We understood without words what it was to feel the tug back as we left Jerome for another life in another city, another set of people and circumstances. They had always hoped to move back to that house. For them, as for me, Jerome was a favored place on earth and we shared an almost supernatural attachment to it. For us this crazy, patchwork town will always be home sweet Jerome.
Diane Sward Rapaport is the author of Home Sweet Jerome: Death and Rebirth of Arizona's Richest Copper Mining City. The book is widely available in the Verde Valley and Jerome.