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Joe Mathews

Life's Many Challenges Only Make These 'Modesto Girls' Stronger



Photo of five sisters from Modesto who have presevered
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California changes so fast you can’t count on anything here anymore.
But you can count on the Modesto Girls.
These five sisters — my first cousins, once removed—never had glamorous jobs. They didn’t get fancy educations. Little came easy to them.
But they are always there when you need them.
They are the people who come over to an elderly relative’s house — and before you know it they’ve cleaned the place and cooked you a meal.

Portrait of Connecting California columnist Joe Mathews
Joe Mathews
This is the era of California out-migration, when more people leave the state than enter it. Much of my big extended California family has melted away — to Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona. My Uncle Jerry even returned to Okemah, Oklahoma, from which his grandparents fled during the Dust Bowl era.
But the Modesto Girls stay in Modesto.
As a matter of age, the Modesto Girls aren’t girls anymore. Indeed, they are the pillars of an improbably strong California family. And they remind me that for all of California’s progressivism, the conservative clichés about faith and family remain at the heart of life here.

Meet the Modesto Girls

Because their names are so similar, I often get them confused, so let me see if I finally can keep them straight, at least for this column.

“Is there any other town that would take us?” — Cathy
Cathy, 69, built a family of four boys, 10 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, while working at flower shops and the Frito-Lay plant.
Carol, 66, who works as a caregiver, has four children and six grandchildren.
Corina, 63, a caregiver and bus driver, has three children and 19 grandchildren.
Carla, 61, a school bus driver for 25 years, has two daughters and two granddaughters.
Colleen, the baby at 57, has three kids and seven grandchildren, and works in the health club business.
All told, that’s 16 children, 44 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
And that doesn’t count their five brothers (more on them later).

The Modesto Girls Prevail Despite Obstacles

The endurance of Modesto Girls might be a miracle. Their upbringing was rough. Their parents, my Great Uncle Shelby and my Great Aunt Doris, married when he was 17 and she was 15, and started a family of 10 children. But life with Shelby, an alcoholic, was never stable. The family first relocated from the Inland Empire to Modesto supposedly because Shelby liked fishing on the Tuolumne River. The real reason was to keep Shelby out of trouble.
Modesto couldn’t cure Shelby. He moved the family 17 times, mostly around Modesto’s west side. He had run-ins with the law. Shelby’s demons fell hardest on the five brothers. Two, the twins Larry and Gary, died before middle age.

The storytelling can feel competitive, as if this were an Olympics for who can tell the most “white trash” tale.
But the family persevered. In Modesto, Aunt Doris supported the family with jobs in the area’s canneries and as a City Hospital housekeeper. The three surviving brothers have built strong lives. Wes, a cabinetmaker, has seven children and 11 grandchildren. Mike and Keith have a tree service business together.

The Gravitational Pull of the Valley

A few of the siblings left Modesto for short stretches but always returned to the northern San Joaquin Valley.
“I guess we are pretty unusual,” Carla says. “We’re all in Modesto. We talk to each other every day. We tease each other, and we’re always fighting with each other.”
They also celebrate with each other, play dominoes together, and take care of each other, quite literally moving into each other’s houses to care for elderly or infirm relatives.

Worship Is Their Secret Sauce

They also worship together.
This is their secret sauce. The Modesto Girls will tell you that they wouldn’t have gotten through the difficulties of their family and life if they hadn’t become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their church has connected them to the Bible and even more deeply to each other.

The Modesto Girls will tell you that they wouldn’t have gotten through the difficulties of their family and life if they hadn’t become Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They knock on doors weekly, and are struck by the poverty and isolation of families, and especially children. They also bring their carts, with Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, to public places, like the county courthouse downtown. They often travel together to church events in the Bay Area, Sacramento, or elsewhere.
The Modesto Girls, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, don’t celebrate national holidays or birthdays, so if we want to see them — and we always do — we hold family reunions. Then, they are the life of the party, offering reports on Modesto (the Gallo Center for the Arts just keeps getting better, they say) and lots of tales (most recently from an in-law who long ago cleaned the Modesto home of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’s parents).
The only thing better than a family reunion with the Modesto Girls is going to Modesto to see them. All you have to do is show up at one of the girls’ homes and before long their siblings and other relatives appear, with stories to share.
When some recent reporting took me to Modesto, I ended up staying the night at Carla’s house, and by breakfast time, two brothers and three of the sisters had assembled at the table, along with big piles of pancakes and bacon. They talked humorously about recent events, listened to Keith’s idea that you can cure diabetes through sprinting, and recounted various stories about growing up in Modesto.
Photo of the Modesto Boys

The Modesto Girls’ brothers: Keith (front left), Wes (in cowboy hat), and Mike. (Joe Mathews Photo)

On this morning, they were talking about Uncle Shelby’s penchant for keeping large packs of animals. He once had a flock of turkeys, and later a collection of pigs, who were kept in line by a very mean boar named Big Red. My cousins have strong stomachs—they could eat the bacon even while talking about the time Shelby ordered the pigs slaughtered. The storytelling can feel competitive, as if this were an Olympics for who can tell the most “white trash” tale.
I asked my usual question: Why do you all stay here in California and Modesto? Economically, it’s a choice that doesn’t make sense: Modesto, despite its geographic proximity to the Bay Area, has been getting poorer; housing prices have yet to return to their pre-recession levels.
The answer, of course, is always the same: The Modesto Girls stay in Modesto because that is where their family is. And is anything more important than that?
Also, quipped Cathy, “Is there any other town that would take us?”
About the Author
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.