Blanche had one older sister, Marge (Margaret), who was four years older than she was, and Blanche looked up to her a lot. When Blanche was born, her parents had wanted a boy. In fact, her mother had gone to a fortune teller who said she would have a boy. On Blanche’s birth announcement her dad wrote: “Damn fortune teller lied. Blanche and her mom are fine.” Later, however, Blanche’s mother did say: “Boys are with you till they marry. Girls stick to you for life.”
As a child, Blanche Gelders hung out with her dad. He taught her to be handy. They had a Model T Ford pick-up and a fire started in it. He tried to fix it and got frustrated, saying to Blanche, “If you can fix it, you can have it.” She did fix it and drove it, but things kept going wrong with it and it needed lots of upkeep. There was a rumble seat, and gas for the car was under the front seat. Eventually Blanche traded it for a 1939 Chevy.
When she was young, Blanche was a tomboy and enjoyed spending time in her father’s workshop. Her mother didn’t mind—she was feminine enough for two and was very beautiful. Blanche was allowed to take shop in school, but also had to take sewing. They were supposed to make a wool skirt or shirt, but wool was very expensive (this was during the Depression). Blanche’s sewing teacher didn’t want to waste the wool on Blanche, so she let Blanche take care of the sewing machines instead.
Blanche always loved to sing, which might have started when she was in the Girl Scout chorus as a child.
They lived in Alabama (her mother and father were from Alabama) until Blanche was 10, when they moved to New York for a brief time—her dad was there for civil rights work. They returned to live in the Birmingham area. During World War II, he was in the Army Signal Corps and stationed in Davis.
Blanche’s sister often didn’t want her younger sister tagging around. Marge was very intelligent—she graduated from high school at 16 and got a full scholarship to Radcliffe. She taught in the first Women’s Studies Department at Santa Cruz. Blanche came to feel better towards Marge after she found a copy of her sister’s autobiography. In it, Marge spoke very fondly about her younger sister.
Early adulthood and meeting Lou:
Blanche went to college at UC Davis, which was then much smaller that it is now. She went to Berkeley for summer courses—things she couldn’t get at Davis. Her idol was Lou Hartman, who did a radio show based in Berkeley. He would sing: I Will Love You Till the End of Time. So she always managed to be near him (“in his face”, she said), but he didn’t notice.
At that time Lou was writing a play about the Spanish Civil War and needed someone to play a Spanish girl. Blanche looked the part and so she was drafted. There was also a veteran of the Spanish Civil War involved with the production as an advisor, and all the girls had a crush on the idea of him (a veteran of that conflict was a very stylish thing to be in communist circles in the forties). Blanche was confused, and thought that Lou was the veteran, so she developed a crush on him. Later, she found out she was wrong, but she stood by her crush . The veteran wasn’t actually attractive, she said.
A friend, Sue Williams, said to Lou, “Blanche Gelders has a crush on you.” Blanche was then 18. So the first time they were alone Lou asked Blanche, “Sue Williams says you have a crush on me. Is that true?”
Lou was 30 and had been married before to Marjorie, who wanted children. Their first child, Landis, was developmentally disabled and needed to be institutionalized, and the second died at birth. This was found to be due to a rare chromosomal abnormality passed through the mother, but Lou didn’t know that at the time and was concerned about having children. Lou and Marjorie were no longer married at the time Lou met Blanche. Not long after he told Blanche about his past, he sent her a letter of proposal. The next time he saw her he asked her what she thought of his letter. She said that it was kind of sudden. She went to ask her father what to do and he said, “Whatever you decide is right. If you decide to get married, you can make it work.” And she decided to marry Lou.
Blanche left UC Davis after she married Lou. Her father died of a heart attack when he was 50—and when Blanche was pregnant with her eldest son. They named him Joseph Gelders, after her father.
When they had children, Lou would help at their co-op pre-school. He came home exhausted because so many boys who didn’t have their fathers wanted to play very vigorously with him. He had been a restaurant cook and liked to cook for both of them and for guests. A barbecued leg of lamb was a favorite of his.
Blanche became a chemist and originally worked for a company that made ink. When she found out that the men were being paid more than the women there for doing the same job, she quit and went back to UC Berkeley to finish her degree. She graduated when her daughter, Trudy, was 10. She then became a bio-statistician, which was a very new field. At a certain point she went into civil service. There, she analyzed levels of lead in the blood of people who lived near freeways, to see if it might be greater than the norm. But she discovered that men were also paid more than women for doing the same job in civil service.
Life at Tassajara:
Blanche was a bit older than the other students when she was at Tassajara. She wanted to be liked by them and would make them ice cream. That was in the days when dry ice was used and one time it was too hard and students and staff were upset. Blanche then wanted to be Tenzo (head cook) to get over her “needing to be liked”—it was impossible to serve food that everybody liked, and it was a practice in not taking criticism personally. She found herself putting out coffee and tea on a tray to make it easier for the students. She noticed students ordering peanut butter and so made sure there was peanut butter at the back of the kitchen snack area. She also helped with getting students access to hard-boiled eggs.