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January 3, 2010


Memories are tricky things. You and I may experience an event together, but our memories of that event, while they may be similar, will not be the same. Each of us will understand and interpret the event through our own lens, our own way of looking at and understanding the world. In addition, our memory today of an event is not the same as the memory the day after the event, or the year after. Again, our understanding and interpretation change over time. Memoirs, too, are tricky things. Capturing a memory on paper is like attempting to describe a movie to a friend: you hope to capture the essence of the movie and make your description interesting, but, of necessity, it’s an interpretation. In addition, I’ve found (and other memoirists have experienced this) that once a memory is committed to paper, that becomes the memory; it no longer changes after that. So now, when I think back to living in Mexico, I mentally refer to my memoir. Kind of weird. Anyway, here’s this week’s installment.

Mom Decides on Mexico

Dad died with no savings and no insurance. He had been making twenty-five thousand a year as a newscaster, excellent money in 1955, but none of it found its way to savings. Dad bought the Cadillac he took his last trip in and he bought Mom a brand new bright red Ford convertible for Christmas, 1954. (I can still see the huge white ribbon wrapped around the car.) They bought a laundromat in Northridge, which Mom managed, and they took regular trips to Las Vegas and San Diego, courtesy of sponsors whose products Dad plugged on the air. (This was before the Payola scandal.) We bought new furniture, carpeted the front room and paneled it in knotty pine and put in a patio at the back of the house. We hired a gardener who came every week. Times were good and the living was easy.

But the living turned hard after Dad died. Mom was forced to take a job in order to pay bills and she sold the house we’d bought just seven years before. Whether it was because she couldn’t make the payments or because she needed the money, I don’t know. Maybe it was because the neighbors turned against us.

SNAPSHOT: A Saturday morning not long after Dad’s suicide. I’m standing at my friend Jeff’s front door, across the street from our house. The bright sunlight behind me contrasts with the dim interior of his house, which I can just make out behind him as he stands in the partially open doorway. His face is expressionless.

“My mother says I can’t play with you,” he said, and closed the door. I turned around, crossed the street and went back home. I didn’t ask why. I didn’t want to hear why. I went to my room and sat on my bed, trying to let random thoughts distract me. Then I cried.

SNAPSHOT: A bottle of Windex in one hand, a cloth in the other, Mom attacks the counter of the pharmacy where she works. Her white lab coat is too big and it hangs loosely around her, like a child playing dress-up. She looks tense, haggard, ready to cry.

Mom took a five-and-a-half-day-a-week job as a pharmacy clerk at a dollar an hour, which supplemented the $256 a month she was getting from Dad’s Social Security. She hated her job, she hated her boss and she hated living in the small, cramped, second floor apartment we’d moved to on Hazeltine Avenue in Van Nuys. We were barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. Mom took to confiding in me, complaining to me, because there was no one else to confide in, no one else to complain to. Sundays, her only day off, were spent cleaning, shopping, washing, ironing. The only future she saw for herself was more of the same – a bleak, unhappy one.

One February day, after visiting with some friends, Mom came home more cheerful than she’d been in a long time, and excited. “We’re going to Mexico!” she announced.

“Do I have to go?” I didn’t see the big deal and I’d rather stay home by myself anyway.

“Silly,” Mom smiled. “Of course you have to go. We’re going to Mexico to live.”

This was so left field I figured she had to be kidding. Mexico? A country with nothing but cactus, burros, sombreros and men with mustaches? The land of Mexican jumping beans and tortillas? But she wasn’t kidding.

The friends she had been visiting had just returned from Mazatlan, where they’d spent a couple of weeks with friends who had made that city their home. As they recounted their two weeks, Mom must have seen possibilities and opportunities that would never come her way in her current situation. She must have envisioned the freedom and the independence she would experience, the adventure and challenges that would come with traveling to a foreign country and making a new life. And, on a more practical level, it would be a lot cheaper to live in Mexico: Dad’s $256 monthly Social Security check, they told her, would be more than enough to live on. The visit ended with her getting the name and address of these friends of friends in Mazatlan. On the way home, she made the decision: We were going.
My grandfather, however, was opposed.

SNAPSHOT: This photo captures my grandfather in mid-stride as he paces back and forth in the too-small living room of our too-small apartment. Through his wispy gray hair I can see beads of perspiration on his scalp. His face is stern and disapproving. From the side he looks like a large capital “B”.

Mom had given considerable thought to moving us out of the country before she decided on Mexico. Her first choice had actually been Switzerland. She had taken French lessons the year before Dad died and became enamored with Europe in general. She thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for Valerie and me to learn three languages: French, Italian and German. My grandfather, however was adamant. “Absolutely not!” he fumed. “It’s half a world away and I’ll never see you or the children again.”

“I’m a survivor, Dad, and so is David. We’re going to go somewhere.” Even at the age of twelve I knew what she meant. Life treats everyone harshly at times but survivors find the will and the wherewithal to withstand adversity, to weather the storms. Survivors are determined. Mom was a survivor and she thought I was too. It made me feel stronger.

“We’re going to go somewhere,” she repeated. And we did: Mexico.

* * * * *

It’s June, 1956, three months past my thirteenth birthday and Valerie’s sixth. We’d been out of school for a week but we’re not headed into the kind of summer vacation of years past. There’ll be no running through the sprinklers or trips to the Sherman Oaks War Memorial Pool this summer; no roller-skate races or bike rides, no sitting on the front porch playing Cootie or Go to the Head of the Class or arguing over our trading cards. We’re headed to Mexico.

Mom wasted no time. She purchased a two-year old Ford station wagon, light blue, and we loaded it with anything and everything she thought we might reasonably need in Mexico. Much of it, particularly bedding, towels, small appliances and other things we wouldn’t be needing right away, was packed into a beautiful and intricately carved camphor chest Dad had brought back from Hong Kong when he was in the Merchant Marine. It was a large chest and held a lot, so much so that after it was packed and closed we discovered it was too heavy to lift into the car. We spent another thirty minutes unloading everything, placing the camphor chest in the car up behind the second seat and putting everything back in. The last thing we loaded was Felice, our seven-year-old cat, who staked out the lid of the chest as her perch during the two weeks or so it took us to reach our destination. Mom commented for years afterward that to her dying day she’d remember Felice panting and glaring at her every time she looked in the rear view mirror. Felice took it personally that she was forced to endure this miserable trip and she wasn’t going to let Mom forget it.

Everything was finally in place in the car and we were ready to leave, leave our home, school, work, friends and family, leave a known and ordinary life for . . . for what?

That’s what none of us knew. Mom made the decision, she was in charge, she knows what she’s doing. Val and I were simply unquestioning participants in her plan. I didn’t ask why we had to go or if we were coming back or what we were going to do in Mexico, possibly because, like Mom, I had nothing to stay for, nothing to hold me here. (Well, maybe Bob’s Big Boy. I knew I’d miss their hamburgers and fries, a weekly Friday night treat.) Anything beyond the immediate boundaries of my life, beyond school and home, was terra incognita. Maybe not quite on the level of “Here be monsters,” but unimaginable nonetheless. Mexico was simply an amorphous lavender area on the map just south of San Diego.
We took our seats in the car. I sat next to Mom. Val was behind her in the second seat. Valerie and I had been arguing over who was going to sit in front.

“I’m older, so I get first choice.” I couldn’t help being smug.

Valerie’s rebuttal was quick: “That’s not fair!”

Mom’s solution was, take turns. So we did and we each savored a little bit of victory.

The car had been thoroughly inspected and tuned up and Mom had bought new tires. Everything was packed and the cat was in place. Glaring, but in place. Mom turned the ignition key and three things happened: the engine came to life, the door to our old life closed and the door to a new life opened. The car moved forward and we crossed the threshold.

A Special Kind of Person

SNAPSHOT: We’ve just pulled in to a non-descript motel in Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexico border. It’s late in the afternoon and very hot. Waves of shimmering heat undulate up from the blacktop and swirl into eddies behind Mom as she walks into the office to register. Val and I are in the car, which is pulled far enough forward that the clerk can’t see Felice, still perched on top of the camphor chest, still glaring.

If I’d been older or armed with a better knowledge of geography I might have been surprised, or at least noticed, that after leaving Los Angeles we headed east, not south. For reasons known only to Mom, she chose to cross into Mexico at Nogales, in Arizona, instead of Tijuana or Mexicali, both of which were much closer to where we lived. Perhaps she thought these routes too dangerous. Maybe there were no reliable roads from Tijuana to our first stop, Guaymas. In any case, here we were in the border town of Nogales, the jumping-off point. Nogales was the end of our metaphorical diving board; all that was left was to take the plunge.

Looking back, from the vantage point of many years later, I can understand, as Mom must have understood then (and as I could not possibly have understood at thirteen), just what it meant to pull up stakes and move to Mexico. We would be leaving behind the language, the culture, the customs, the laws and everything else so familiar and comfortable, predictable and safe. We were going to a country where we couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know the culture; where the customs and the laws were completely unknown to us; where nothing was familiar and where Mom could make no guarantees, or even predictions, about our safety. A country where we were considered wealthy and, by extension, potential targets. If anything happened, there was no way we could summon help. If any of us became ill, where was there a doctor or a hospital? What kind of medical care could we find? If it were expensive, how would we pay for it? What if car trouble prevented us from continuing? We’d be at the mercy of the first person to come along, a “wealthy,” attractive, blond, American woman, traveling accompanied only by two young children. And add to that the fact that Mom had only a vague idea of our destination. True, she knew where we were going, Mazatlan, but the concept of “destination” should include some idea of what you are going to do when you get there. Our destination included no such knowledge. We were simply going to be in the hands of some friends of friends, strangers, people we’d never met, never talked to, never had any contact with.

It wasn’t too late to turn back. Mom still had a choice: the devil you know or the devil you don’t. The security, misery and monotony of an unrewarding life back home? Or the hope, promise and risks of Mexico? Mom opted for the unknown devil.

Not just anybody can do what Mom did; it takes a special kind of person and I try out many words and descriptors to help me understand her and the decision she made. Adventurous, brave, unconventional? Certainly. Foolhardy, naïve and desperate? Probably. But Mom was also tough, resilient and adaptable. She had to be to leave behind a life that was safe, known and predictable, then to chuck it all for a new start in a country she knew no more about than what she had experienced on the occasional weekend jaunt to Tijuana or Ensenada. She had to be all that and a lot more to stake the next several years of our lives on being able to overcome the challenges and hardships of a new life that was chancy and unknown and unpredictable.

SNAPSHOT: Mom at the age of eight, sitting in a homemade wooden child’s wagon, bundled up against the chill, gray day, and gazing out over the stubble of a recently harvested field. One small girl against an immensity of open land and sky. Even knowing that someone else was there taking the photo doesn’t dispel the feeling of bleakness and loneliness. This is from our album.

Mom’s life was not a particularly easy or happy one. She was an only child, born in Oakland, California, not long after the end of the Great War. She grew up on her parents’ farm near Ripon, California, a town too small to be included even today in my atlas of the United States.

As a child she was “sickly,” as she put it, prone to asthma attacks, spending more time at home as a child invalid than in school. The snapshot above is real and it was a lonely time for her. Rarely were there other children to play with. Her most frequent companions were the farm cats. She loved to dress them up in doll clothes.

Her mother, Muriel Faye Barrows Gardner, was everything to Mom: friend, storyteller, confidante and teacher. She was a tiny woman, not quite five feet tall, pretty and artistic, a poet and a painter. I have a beautiful, oval lavaliere she hand-painted, a floral motif on each side. One side is roses, done in warm yellows, reds and oranges, accented by green leaves nestling among the blossoms. The other side is of pale lavender flowers with yellow centers delicately set among green leaves against a pale blue background tinged with yellow. She also wrote poetry for a local radio station.

Grandma Barrows died of cancer when Mom was nine. It was a devastating blow, made worse when my grandfather remarried some time later to a woman Mom came to hate. She expressed her hostility towards her stepmother frequently over the years but without ever explicitly saying why. And I never asked. Now I’m left to simply wonder. I know the relationship wasn’t helped after the death of my grandfather in 1959. He owned considerable land in California’s San Joaquin valley, as well as a store and a gas station. He was, if not rich, certainly well off and he died without a will. My step-grandmother inherited everything, refusing to give anything to Mom or to my sister and me.

And more tribulations, more pain, lay in wait. At seventeen Mom was raped. She never told me this until I was well into my forties and she didn’t go into details. Nor did I press her.

* * * * *

Wedding Bells
April 20, 1941
St. Mary’s
Stockton, Calif.

Dad wrote this in our family album, again in white ink on the black page, including two wedding bells with little bows beneath the words.

SNAPSHOT: Mom and Dad, just after they were married. He stands to her left, his arm around her waist. Her right arm extends across her body, her hand resting gently on Dad’s suit jacket. He’s wearing a dark, double-breasted pin-stripe suit, handkerchief arranged just so, boutonnière just above the handkerchief. Mom’s wearing a knee-length skirt with matching jacket and a hat that resembles a large upside-down bowl. Both are relaxed, smiling.

They wed in April of 1941, when she was twenty-one and he was twenty-five. The next dozen or so years were relatively uneventful, although burdened with Dad’s bouts of tuberculosis. One exception occurred in 1951, the year after Valerie was born.

SNAPSHOT: I’m in the back seat of our dark green 1949 dodge, Valerie in my lap. Dad drives, trying hard to keep up with the ambulance ahead of us. In spite of the chill night air, I can see that he’s sweating.

Mom had had a hysterectomy and the doctor botched the job. Not long after she returned home from the hospital she began to hemorrhage. I watched with increasing fear, not understanding as Dad raced to the phone, called an ambulance and raced back to the bedroom, picking up an armful of towels from the linen closet to stanch the flow of blood.

The ambulance screamed into our driveway, they loaded Mom into it and it screamed off into the dark. Dad put me in the back seat of our car with Valerie in my lap and took off after the ambulance. Fear had invaded my whole being, convincing me that Mom was going to die, and I added my wails to those coming from the ambulance.

After that, I only remember being awakened somewhere, probably at the hospital, by Dad. “You’re mother’s okay, David. Everything’s fine now.”

But it wasn’t. There were other things that took their toll on Mom. Dad had had an affair with Mom’s best friend. Dad and the woman’s husband were also good friends and had worked together in radio in the San Francisco in the thirties and forties.

Mom was also to experience a ruinous Mexican love affair. It started out so beautifully, so wonderfully, and ended so disastrously, casting a shadow of despair over her life, a shadow that, as the years wore on, would change from despair to gloom, suspicion and bitterness. This, too, is part of the story and the story is both dichotomous and symmetrical: Dad’s life ends with a car trip, Mom’s new life begins with one. Dad turned inward, Mom turned outward. Dad was crushed by the world, Mom defied it. Dad suffered from physiological constraints, Mom anticipated psychological freedom. Two parents, two worlds and for me, growing up in two cultures: double exposure.

Next: On the Threshold & Bandits? Really?
One Comment leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 5:43 am

    >I didn't know your mom until you were all older, and perhaps mellower, but I do fondly remember meeting her when I first went to work at the FtB library. She was an interesting person who still had an outspokeness and energy that remains memorable to me. And then she introduced me to you, and Val, and you sort of became my adopted family back there in Virginia all those many years ago. I have heard some of her (and your) background from all of you before, but these little historical stories are certainly adding much to the layers of experienced knowledge I've gained. She was a unique and independent woman in a time when there weren't too many, and I still have pleasant memories of those times with you all. I suppose I lived in the more pleasant time of your mom's life, and only rarely saw what I guess you could call the dark side of her personality. Thanks for the memories.NRJ

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