Lella Doherty operated a large farm near the small town in the Sacramento Valley where I grew up. She was an independent woman, lived alone, and had an intimidating demeanor. I worked at the local grocery store. One of my jobs was to deliver her orders. She did a fair amount of entertaining and ordered several boxes of supplies at a time. No one else would make the deliveries. They were afraid of her.
I remember once while at my job as a box boy she came in and took the butcher to task, screaming at him about some discrepancy that “destroyed one of her parties” and “embarrassed her in front of her friends” and if he couldn’t “get things straight for someone who spent a fortune in his store” she would take her business elsewhere. I couldn’t imagine where that might be. We were the only grocery store in town. He stood there shaking, red in the face, and apologized. No one dared to cross Lella.
For some reason she liked me. I would deliver her groceries and help her store them away. She always gave me a big tip, bigger than any I ever received from anyone else. To me she was not intimidating at all. She lived alone and worked hard. I respected her. I felt sorry for her in a way. She was rich but I wondered if she was happy.
Years later I became the owner of the Sea Gull Restaurant and Cellar Bar on the Mendocino Coast. Lella owned a lot of property in Little River. She owned a couple of houses that are adjacent to the Mallory House. We used to go rock picking for abalone there at Buckhorn Cove. She also owned the property that is now the Victorian Farmhouse B&B. She would come to her coastal properties during the summer months when it was hot in the valley.
Once during a time when I was single, she invited me over to share some lingcod. A fisherman she knew had given her a fish. It was too big for her to eat alone. We cleaned the fish and roasted it over sage leaves. Her kitchen was in the beautiful front building on the property. We ate the fish accompanied by fresh steamed vegetables from her garden and white wine and enjoyed the gorgeous view of the ocean and sunset from her front deck.
A few months later, she invited me over for Thanksgiving. I’d already made up my mind to keep the bar open and tend bar alone that day. The restaurant was closed. I lived upstairs in a storage room above the restaurant. I wanted to stay open to see what happened. She insisted I close the bar and come to join her and her friends. She was having a big party. That was the last thing I wanted to do.
“I can’t. I have to work the bar. There’s no one else to do it.”
“For God’s sake close it! It’s Thanksgiving for Christsake.”
“No, I’m working. Thanks Lella. I really appreciate the invite but I have to work.”
“Bull shit you do! I know you’re closing the restaurant. You’re not supposed to have the bar open when the restaurant is closed. How in the hell are you going to do it all by yourself? What if the drinkers get hungry?”
She had me there. I knew it was illegal to open the bar when the restaurant was closed but I thought the authorities would have more important things to do than to hassle me.
“I’ve got everything under control, and I’ve already done the advertising.”
She was angry. She shook her head and ran off in a huff. I knew there would be hell to pay the next time I saw her. I wanted a day alone in the bar with whoever might show up. I was looking forward to it even if I had to face an angry Lella later.
Thanksgiving Day arrived and I was in the bar setting up by 10 a.m. I opened around 11 and no one came in for the first half hour. Then, one by one, a few people walked down the stairs into the Cellar and nosed around like they were lost. I made a few drinks. Things seemed to be going well.
Hugh Flowers sat at the bar and ordered a drink.
“How about a Fleet Deck Landing?”
I had no idea what that was but it sounded deadly.
“Dark rum, light rum and buttermilk.”
Whoa, it definitely was deadly. I went upstairs to the refrigerator to get the buttermilk. When I returned, Lella came charging in through the front door with three young men. They brought a fully roasted turkey with stuffing on a platter, a carving knife, several side plates of vegetables and potatoes and salads, bread, and a fresh bouquet of cut flowers. She left a bottle of Apricot Brandy and a couple of home made pies for dessert.
“Happy Thanksgiving you stubborn son of a bitch,” she said as she walked out as quickly as she had come in. The three boys ran behind her trying to keep up.
I was flabbergasted. The few patrons in the bar were all eyes. I carved the turkey, got some silverware, plates, and napkins from upstairs and told everyone in the bar to dig in. They did. By this time the bar was getting busy, a surprise to me. Hugh Flowers smiled as he sipped his Fleet Deck Landing.
A short while later the Greyhound bus arrived. They let off passengers at the corner of Lansing and Ukiah streets just beside the restaurant. A young Asian man made his way into the dark den downstairs. He walked slowly toward the bar rubbing his eyes as if he couldn’t see. He was disoriented while his eyes adjusted. He seemed confused about where he was.
I thought he said soup.
“Sorry, no soup. But, we have turkey and all the trimmings.”
He looked at the food hungrily.
I assumed he was looking for the restrooms.
“Restrooms upstairs,” I said. I opened the back door of the bar and showed him where they were.
When he returned he looked at the food. He put his hands into his pockets. I could tell he was trying to see if he had enough money to buy a meal.
“Hey, no worries, man. This is Thanksgiving! Get yourself a plate and fill it up. No charge. This is how we do things in America.”
He looked at me in amazement. Then he broke out in a big smile.
“O, see, Thankgive, O.”
He took a plate, filled it up and sat at a table and didn’t say a word while he was eating. He must have been famished. I took him over a beer.
“On the house, buddy, okay?”
“O, see. O … kay.”
When he finished he came up to the bar and put his hands in his pockets again.
“Hey, like I said, no charge. Thanksgiving, remember. This is how we do things in America.”
He was baffled by this strange place that passed out free food and beer. He took his hands out of his pockets. He put them together and made a little bow to me.
“O, see. Sank you, sank you bery much.”
He started to walk out of the bar. He turned and bowed again.
“Sank you. O, see. Sis America! America! Ohhhh.”
And he left.
The next day I told Lella and we both had a good laugh.
“My God, David. You ruined him. Imagine what’s going to happen the next time he walks into a bar.”
Lella’s gone now and so is the Sea Gull. Before she died, she visited my wife and me at our house in Little River. She brought some flowers in pots for our deck and a white Camellia bush that we planted next to the front door. The Camellia loves it there and blooms every year. At the first blooms, I always picture how Lella laughed at my story of the young man who marveled at our American customs. She wasn’t laughing at him. They were laughing together. I like to think he is still laughing somewhere, that he thinks back to that day sometimes like I do, and that when he laughs, Lella laughs with him.