The View from 98: Audrey Sweat

By Joy Conklin September 15, 2013 01:00
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It’s 1923 and picture perfect. Two little girls in ruffles and bows pose with a handsome young man in a starched, striped shirt. It’s Audrey Payne and her sister, Claudine, smiling for the camera with their dad.

In real life, things weren’t so perfect. Audrey was raised in Los Angeles by her dad’s mom. Claudine was raised in Compton by their other grandmother. Their dad, Otis, got the sisters together from time to time to play.

On one visit with Claudine, 7-year-old Audrey met a stranger. “This is your mother,” she was told. Audrey was confused. This woman? My mom? “I wondered if they cared about me,” Audrey says. “I had lots of friends who lived with their moms and dads, but I lived with my grandmother.”

Her living situation became even less settled as she got older. She wanted to get to know her parents and she tried. She left school in the ninth grade to find her father, working at the time as a roofer in Chicago. She didn’t get far, but later he sent money and Audrey was able to visit – staying long enough to be featured in a Chicago newspaper as a bathing beauty, photographed with a friend.

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Audrey, age 3

Some time later, Audrey learned that her mother, Maude Barton, lived in Tuolumne County and worked as a fancy presser at Greenlaw’s, a Sonora laundry. Audrey lived with her for a while, but says they never connected.

At 17, Audrey decided to head back to Los Angeles, which meant leaving her boyfriend, Claude Sweat. Claude volunteered to drive. They borrowed a car and soon found themselves in Carson City, where they decided to get married. “It was a spontaneous kind of decision,” Audrey says, a case of “no sooner said than done.” They tied the knot and returned to Sonora. “I guess I was tired of being here and then being there,” Audrey recounts. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll start a life of my own.’ ”

Sonora welcomed the 17-year-old bride, and she indeed made the town her own. Eight decades later, she can still recall how the community grew and changed, and what was in place at almost every Washington Street address when she moved here. An auto dealer was doing business at the site of today’s Coffill Park. Highway 49 was lined by orchards and trees. Diagonally parked cars surrounded a fountain in the middle of Washington Street, the heart of downtown. There were mines all over town – by the Red Church, under Sonora High and below the shops on Washington Street, which had side doors miners used to come and go.

This was the place where Audrey quit wandering, built a strong marriage and raised a family. Early in their marriage Claude worked at Jacob Brothers, a downtown Sonora grocery store, and he later became a carpenter.

The couple started out in a small house on Columbia Way, near today’s Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency office and what was then the Columbia Way Hospital. There Claude and Audrey’s two children were born.

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Columbia photo with Audrey and Claud, Audrey’s sister and husband, and friends, circa 1931

Their son, Gerald, was born in 1934, and daughter Carol Ann arrived three years later. She was born early, had heart problems and needed a great deal of care through her young life; she died in her 20s. Money was tight, so Audrey worked at various jobs over the years, including at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime downtown and at the Gunn House nearby. There were some especially hard times, like when 17-year-old Gerald was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1951. But there was a silver lining: Dr. Ben Boice, a kindly man who cared for the family, invited Audrey to work at Sonora Hospital. She accepted and worked in its kitchen for seven years. Later in the 1950s, Claude and Audrey had a significant turn of good luck. Claude worked on Punter’s turkey ranch, and Audrey helped out on occasion, preparing turkeys for sale at the holidays. The owners thought so highly of Claude and Audrey that they gave the couple five acres off Campo Seco Road. Back then it was a dirt road, Audrey recalls, over which ranchers drove cattle to the mountains each summer.

Claude built a house there for their family. Like his parents before him, Gerald ran away to Nevada to get married. He settled in Livermore with Mary, his high school sweetheart, and raised four children.

Today Audrey has seven great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. Even after retiring, Audrey kept busy. In 1984, at age 69, she began volunteering at the downtown Sonora Senior Lounge. For more than 26 years she did so, coming to the lounge five days a week to help out, even cleaning bathrooms and washing windows well into her 90s. In 2011, Audrey was named Senior Volunteer of the Year by the Tuolumne County Commission on Aging. “I didn’t even know it had been 26 years,” she says, modestly.

Today everything has changed. Audrey still goes to the Senior Lounge on Thursdays to hear live music, but for the most part she’s been sidelined, increasingly confined by old age. She reads the newspaper, plays bingo, enjoys visits with friends, and watches as the community around her continues to shift. “Claude wouldn’t have liked the changes,” she says. “There are just too many people in town today, too many strangers, too many drugs and too many cars.” Would she change anything about her life? “I’d finish school,” Audrey says. “I’d have gotten a better job.”

After 62 years of marriage and 85 years of life, Claude passed away in 1994. Five years ago, son Gerald died. Audrey herself is surprised to have reached 98. “I never really give it a lot of thought,” she says, “except to wonder why I’m still here.”

As a young wife and mother, Audrey had to fashion family life from scant experience. She learned by doing. She worked hard for her family and then spent 26 years in service to her community. “I love Audrey because she’s a good person,” says devoted friend Shirley Combs. Young Audrey had to raise herself, for the most part. Nearly a century later, her many friends would likely agree that she got it right.

Audrey Sweat passed away shortly after this story was published in the Autumn 2013 issue of FAN.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Joy Conklin September 15, 2013 01:00
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