Interviewed by Mari Martinez
Interview Date: March 23, 2014
MM: My name is Mari Martinez. I am Spanish Services Associate at the St. Helena Public Library and today is March 23, in the Oral History Project, and I am interviewing…
CL: Chouvarii Lyman
MM: Chouvarii, tell us a little bit about your story.
CL: My husband’s family, at the beginning, they came from San Francisco and then they decided they wanted to invest the money in vineyards and wineries. So he researched all the areas and he likes to be in St. Helena because it’s a good piece of land. Because what happened was next door to us is that old Bale Mill, and then a large piece of property that he can make a vineyard out of it. So he bought about a thousand acres and started the vineyards and then built the winery right next door to our house, which is now the El Molino Winery. And then after that, for about eight years later, the vineyard was eaten by this phylloxera or something.
MM: You mean like a pest?
CL: A pest, yes. It ate up all the vines, so he decided he doesn’t want to replant it, those vines anymore. So he became a banker. He became a banker, and then I think he was a… the president of the St. Helena Bank, in St. Helena here. He was doing that and later he just liked to invest it in some other things, so the property became an apple ranch, an apple orchard, olive orchard, prune orchards. Those things and they have cattle, but he was so busy of being a bishop so he let his son, which is my father-in-law’s father. He wanted him to run the business. So my father-in-law’s father, he ran the business. He did everything, you know, like do the vineyard again, all those things. I don’t know for how many years, and then he got married. He married to this lady from San Francisco, and so they both live at the ranch here, Lyman Ranch in St. Helena here. At that time, when my father-in-law inherited the property and everything, he decided he didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to be a scholar. This family, everyone is highly educated. So he taught at UC Berkeley, and UCLA, and on the side he wrote poems. My father-in-law also married to a lady named Helen Hoyt, she’s a poet. And all together their life is just like in a people’s dream world, you know. Every day they would walk in the woods, hold hands, look at the flowers. When we look at the flowers, it’s like, “ yeah, they’re flowers.” But for her, she can translate into a beautiful poem. She had written quite a few books about poems. She wrote a book about her sons, from birth to growing up. It’s beautiful. Then, they were married for many years, and then later my husband, he was an anthropologist, but he decided to study cultures instead of archeology. He liked to travel, and he spoke about six languages fluently, including my language, which is Thai. He knows more Thai than I am. My husband, he volunteered in the front line, in the Korean War, you know. He volunteered to be in the front line. His parents thought that he would never come home. He was injured by shrapnel a little bit. Then in World War II, he volunteered to be in the army, but not in the war. He was translate the Japanese language to the Army. He taught Japanese to the army. After that, he decided, well, he wanted to go to the northern part of Thailand where the tribes live up there. In those days, Thai people don’t even know there’s tribes. Nobody paid attention to them. But my husband was hiking up in the woods, you know, he’s just a world traveler.
MM: And that’s where you met?
CL: No, what happened is that he went up there and then lived with them; he decided to live with them. The way they live is the housing with the roof is maybe palm leaves and the floor is the dirt. That’s how they lived in the hill tribe. And they raised pigs, chickens; they were running around, and he just loved that kind of life, you know. He was very interested, so he studied the language for quite a few years. And then he decided, well, he wanted to write the dictionary in that language into English, and English into that language. And this hill tribe, we called them Hmong. Now what happened is those Hmong have come to… lots of them emigrate to Fresno. That’s the majority of them here. And his dictionary be able to use at the college to teach these people, that’s what he likes. And I asked him, I said, “You have such a good life, why do you like to have a life.” But that’s his passion.
MM: Was this ever done before, a dictionary like that, for that language to be translated?
CL: No, no. That’s the first time. And he’s so friendly to those people and they just love him.
MM: And your husband is from here. He was born here?
CL: He was born in America here.
MM: In St. Helena?
CL: His home is in St. Helena, but his parents, at that time gave birth, were in Massachusetts because the parents were there for teaching or something.
MM: What happened to the ranch when his dad inherited the ranch and then decided not to be a farmer? What happened to that ranch?
CL: To the ranch? Well, he sold them. He wanted to have a good neighbor, so he was very selective, and sold to whom he wanted to have as a neighbor. So he sold it and when I came to America, I wish it was 1970. I came and he have about 400 acres left, up in the canyon right behind our house. 400 acres because he’s the type that, you know, he’s not a greedy person. He doesn’t want to build houses; he wants to preserve, to be like a state park which it is now. It’s a state park behind our house, that whole property.
MM: So how did you meet your husband?
CL: Well, what happened was that my husband, after he was finished with his research, he was typing his dictionaries and it just happened that he rented a house right next to my mom. I always went to visit my mom on the weekends, you know. I lived in Bangkok. He saw me and he asked my mom, hey, maybe he needed a secretary to type, you know. So I said, “I can do it because I want to learn English.” I helped him type his dictionary, which is very hard because of the vowels, the way you pronounce, you know he had to have his typewriter special-made, just for that. And he’s very meticulous about typing, you know. His book is his life. You cannot make his book dirty or … it has to be perfect. I was thinking, “I kinda like a man like that.”
MM: Wow. How long did it take to prepare the book?
CL: Well, you know, it had been quite a few years. Ya, he did that for many years, because he had to study, and you know, just to write a dictionary. We met about a year and a half, then we decided to get married. Then I never asked him much about America, you know. He said, “We live in a … My house is in the country.” In those days, I thought, the only country house that I ever… In Thailand we only ever know is that, “Little House on the Prairie”.
MM: Oh, no! Wow!
CL: I was thinking, “I have to cook in the fireplace? I cannot be!”
MM: Wow! And then you got married in Thailand?
CL: In Thailand. And then I have a first child, and her name is Becky. And she was six months old when we came here.
MM: And you came directly to St. Helena.
CL: I came to St. Helena. In those days it was very nice; wherever you go, everybody knows everybody. People are so nice, and small town.
MM: What year was this, when you moved with Becky and your husband.
CL: I came here September, 1970. Becky was born in March, and I came here in September.
MM: So it was very different than what you expected.
CL: Very different. I came from Bangkok, where it is a big city, you don’t have trees, all houses in the big city. But when I came to this place, it’s such a huge piece of property, and nobody around, surrounded by lots of trees. I was very scared, scared of the trees. But, it was scary to me.
MM: A different environment. So what did you do when you came to St. Helena? What did you do for a living?
CL: Okay. With Becky, when I first came, I took care of her, and then we had a second child. I didn’t work at that time because, you know, take care of his parents, and my husband and the two kids and the household. So I waited until they entered Kindergarten, and then I decided I really want to work. I need to go out and make a friend. In those days, when I didn’t work, all my father-in-law’s friends are my friends. I was thinking, “Man, this is an old-town-people.” (laughter)
And I feel kinda lonely, but I’m so busy. So I don’t do any feel that lonely, but I need to find something for myself.
So every day, my kids ready to go to school, I look in the newspaper. Every single day, “What kind of job should I do?” you know. My English wasn’t that great then. And then I saw in the newspaper for a nurse’s aide. And I didn’t want to work in St. Helena because everyone knew me, even if I don’t know them, they say, “Oh, Mrs. Lyman, Mrs. Lyman…” And I don’t feel, um, that comfortable. So anyhow, I saw the nurse’s aide. So I asked my husband, what does a nurse’s aide do. He said, “They take care of the old people.” I said, “Well, I can do that.” So anyhow, I went to Calistoga, where nobody knows me at that time. I applied for the job, and I got training to be a nurse’s aide. I worked there, and the hours were good, because I could get off early to pick up the children. I worked there about four years, and then I think I want to look for something else. So I look in the newspaper again. And then one day, I went to my dentist. And the girl that sat right next to my dentist, she’s a dental assistant. And I thought to myself, “Man, I really like her job!” (laughter) I’d really like to do her job.
So one day I looked in the newspaper, and this dentist, my dentist, he put the ad that said, “Need a dental assistant, but if you want to learn, we will train.” So I went to apply for it, and in those days you only get $3.50 an hour, you know three dollars and 50 cents. You know, to be trained, this is fine, but the language was kinda different in the dental field. I came home every single day with a headache, so I tried to study, and raise kids, and all this stuff, you know. But I wanted to do it, this job. And since then, I became a registered dental assistant ever since, and I still do it now. And I love my job!
MM: Wow. So when did you start being a dental assistant? Maybe a year that I could track? Do you remember?
CL: Probably in… you know my children were in like second grade, and then I just start training over there. I think it was 1982 or something like that.
MM: 1982, approximately?
MM: And what did your husband do while you were doing all this endeavors?
CL: He helped his dad. You know his dad was writing his memoirs, and he’s partially blind. Ya, his eyesight is not very good, so he wrote all the memory he knew about Napa Valley, and he wrote it and had it published to be a memoir. And he has about four volumes, which is now in the St. Helena Library.
MM: This is your husband?
CL: My father-in-law. My husband… what do you call that?…My father-in-law dictated to my husband. So my husband helped him, helped his father to write his memoirs
MM: Do you remember his name, your father-in-law? What’s his name?
CL: Jack Lyman. Most days they call him Jack Lyman.
MM: Jack Lyman.
CL: Ya. Jack Lyman. He’s the one who donated the Lyman Park to St. Helena you know, because he thought, well, you know, in St. Helena there’s no park for people to sit. So he donated the land to be a Lyman Park in St. Helena. And then my husband helped him writing his memoirs. And then he taught at Napa College for a while. He taught adventures. He taught anthropologists’ adventures, his adventures. And people just loved it.
MM: Does he write his own memoirs as well?
CL: No, he didn’t write his.
MM: And your children nowadays, do they live in the valley?
CL: The oldest one, right now she’s in France. She majored in music, and she loves to… she loves classical music. I started her with piano when she was five, and she loves it ever since. She graduated from Mills College. She always used to live in Berkeley area because it has more choices for her, people and music there. But now she’s in France. She likes to travel a little bit, just like my husband.
MM: It’s in the blood.
CL: It’s in the blood.
MM: And your other child?
CL: And the other child, she’s a… she’s doing her business. What she did is she designs her own handbags and scarves and has it made in Asia and brings it here. And hopefully she wants to have her own brand name someday. I told her, maybe your purse, if you can sell it to the Hollywood, you’ll be famous.
MM: And she lives here.
CL: She lives here, ya, and none of them is married.
MM: Okay. How old are they?
Miriam Hanson: Hello Chavarii.
CL: Oh hi, How are you, Miriam? (to Miriam, passing by)
Miriam: Saying hi to Luli. She recognized me. I never would have recognized her.
CL: Ya. Isn’t that something? Nice to meet you.
MM: It’s definitely a very friendly community.
CL: Oh yeah. And I know lots of people from Co-op Nursery School, and lots of them… you know, we all still live here, and we know those people a lot, and I work in a dentist office, and I also work in Chinese restaurant in Calistoga. I just keep myself busy, interactive with people. I just… that’s my thing. That’s what I like, you know.
MM: A little story… well you’ve been here since 1970, something particular that you can remember about St. Helena… something that pops up more than all your memories. If we can think about something.
CL: I think… people are very nice. Everyone was just very nice and friendly. I would never want to leave St. Helena. For the first, when I came, I don’t really like to live here because it’s so lonely. It’s quiet, you know and all. But the people are very nice and everybody was very supportive. Even right now, I just love it and would not go anywhere else, you know.
MM: Right. Wow. Beautiful story. All this traveling. Well, thank you very much for sharing. We’ll have to have you back and tell us what you’ve been doing so far. There’s a lot of stuff.
CL: It’s mostly work right now, you know, since my husband passed away eight years. So I just working and take care of the property.
MM: And the property is..?
CL: It’s the Lyman Ranch, where we live right now, north of St. Helena.
MM: So you got it back, that ranch. I thought…
CL: No, we never lose it, for anybody.
MM: You never lost it. You always kept it. From your father-in law…
CL: We always kept it, like 2 ½ acres, starting from 400 acres. The rest of it, we sold it to the state, to keep it for… to be like a state park. This is old Bale Mill and the property joined together.
MM: What is the ranch doing right now?
CL: Oh, we just live in it. We don’t, it’s just… no, we don’t do anything else.
MM: Just for residential?
CL: Yes, just for residential.
MM: Okay. Thank you so much!
CL: Thank you.
MM: So we’ll have you soon. We’ll have you back.