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Interviews add life to history Susan Walter | Tue, Aug 30 2011 12:00 PM

Conducting oral interviews is a delight.  It's like time traveling, to hear the past through someone whose memories can put personal details into a story. Recently I had the marvelous experience of meeting lovely Bernita Cecilia Offerman Sipan.

Bernita was 5 when they moved to Chula Vista in 1921.  When queried about her earliest memory in Chula Vista, she recalled "the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen," a painting of the Blessed Virgin that hung in St. Rose of Lima, near the family’s pew.  She said the borders of Chula Vista then were "L Street on the south, C street on the north, Hilltop on the east, and the bay on the west," and it was "green and very beautiful."

They came here because her dad wanted to grow oranges in California.  Instead of oranges, though, Chula Vista specialized in lemons.  Their 10 acre lemon ranch was located between F and G and Bay Boulevard and included a small house.  Other landmarks nearby she recalled were a railroad that “wasn’t used very often” and the Tycrete plant, “that was never used.”

Bernita’s life here was intimately tied to the Women’s Club.  Mary, her mother, had immediately become a member, and the child was soon introduced to the ladies in a formal receiving line.  The line consisted of the president, vice president, chairman of the day, and “complimentaries.”  She was expected to shake each hand, and respond politely to greetings.  Tea was served, but Bernita got punch.  Her mother told her she could have one cookie, but if they were passed around later, she could take another.  Dressing for these meetings included a hat and gloves.  Good manners and courtesy were what Bernita learned from these events.

When she was 7, they moved into their new, big home.  It was the first house on (then) Highland as you entered Chula Vista from National City.  This lovely two story structure was the scene of her happy childhood, and Bernita cherishes a painting of the beautiful place.  The main road to Tijuana ran right in front of their home.  “People were always going or coming from there.”  One day her brother heard what he thought was a child crying; it turned out to be a small white dog.  It had a broken leg; they speculated that the dog had probably fallen off of the running board of a car.  At the time, this was where many people transported their dogs.  They advertised to find the owner, but no one claimed him.  They named him Fluffy.

Another interesting story she told was about the motorcycle cops who hid behind a billboard waiting for speeders.  One time the cop ticketed a speeder “who worked on the maps of California.”  Bernita related, “That man was so irritated that he had been stopped, that he left Chula Vista off the map.”  For years the map of California “didn’t contain any Chula Vista.”  Much later another map was drawn and Chula Vista “got back on the map.”

The Women’s Club’s first meeting house was outgrown, and a larger one needed.  The Fiesta de la Luna, described last month, was begun as a money raiser.  The Living Pictures was another way the members raised funds to pay off the new building.  The plan was to recreate a painting, using real people to portray the subjects.  This was a year long project.  Photographs of famous paintings were selected.  The Pictures were each sponsored, and that person was responsible for “doing the backdrop and arranging the furniture, decorating the furniture if it needed decorating, and fixing it just exactly as it was in the painting.”  Appropriate costumes were gathered or made.  Large frames were constructed, and various levels built to hold the scenery.  These were heavy and awkward; after several years of the women moving them around, a few husky high school boys were recruited for the task.  On the dates of the events, wigs were donned, and makeup applied.  During the shows, a commentator would give a brief description of the painting and its artist.  Music was introduced that played during the Living Picture’s display, and between Pictures, singers and a pianist would perform. 

Bernita and her sister were usually in the Women’s Club productions, and her mom always was.  Bernita was married in 1942, and the couple had 5 children, including a set of twins; and these children also participated in the Women’s Club events. 

One Picture that Bernita particularly enjoyed reenacting was “The Sistine Madonna.” It was reported about in a Union Tribune clipping prior to the show on December 15, 1951.  The show’s theme was the “World’s Greatest Madonnas.”  Identified by her married name, Mrs. Frank Sipan, Bernita, a devout Catholic, portrayed Mary; the Christ child was one of her babies.  She said “That baby was one of my twins and I brought both twins with me…and…if one was too squirmy, I took the other one.”  The other two women in the Picture – one in a beard – were Mrs. Kenneth McIntosh and Mrs. Joseph Pflimin.  Cherubs in the foreground were portrayed by little Ricky Hazard and youngster Anson Amos.  The caption about the bare skinned boys explained “If they look a little tired, it is because they had to have their wings put back on numberless times with scotch tape.”

Bernita’s stories about the Living Pictures included anecdotes about several of the shows.  She said the final Picture always was Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  The photographs of what were attractive women, decked out in wigs, beards, and the appropriate garments are rather disconcerting.  Bernita’s role?  She was James.

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