Chapter One: The Little Girl
My earliest memories: Mom, sitting at the sparkly canary yellow Formica kitchen table, smoking Pall Mall’s with her friend and next-door neighbor, Marian. I was about three. We had a calico cat named Penny, and a toad who lived in a hole outside the back door. Spreckles Lane in Redondo Beach might has well have been Times Square in New York City as far as I was concerned. We could ride our bikes in the often-flooded street, climb magnolia trees, get treats from the Helms Bakery Truck, scale neighbors’ mason brick back yards, and investigate “suspicious” looking criminals. Mr. DeGraf, for instance, worked at a vet’s office on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. He smoked cigars, wore a grey janitor’s coverall, and was known as the man who put animals in the crematorium. His son, Fred, was a lanky suck-up Eddie Haskell-like, “Oh. Hi, Mrs. Cleaver. Gee Mrs. Cleaver, your hair looks real pretty today,” fake kiss-up to adults, but turn your back on him and he was smoking in the alley. It was a world of adventure and possibilities, including producing musicals synced to our favorite Disney hits, “I’ve Got No Strings” and the score from “South Pacific”. We made the adults listen to what we thought were truly Broadway-worthy performances.
I set up my Sears bronze and white Silvertone record player and, scratches and all, performed to an enrapped neighborhood audience, “Zippety do dah, zippety ah, my oh my what a wonderful day.”
And it was. And it wasn’t.
See, Mom, unbeknownst to me, the little three and four-year-old girl, was deeply unhappy. One day when I was out playing with Johnny from across the street, Mom put her head in the gas stove. Her prized white and silver O’Keefe and Merritt stove, the very same oven she made steak and kidney pies and roast beef dinners in. Mom was profoundly unhappy; no one, but her best friend knew how much she didn’t like being a stuck-at-home, kid-draining homemaker. But Mom being Mom, literally sucked up her despair with a nasty cigarette addiction.
She was skinny and got skinnier as she hunched over the sink, smoking, and coughing those deep smoke-filled coughs that rattled the windows.
She and Dad got into it. Yelling. Pushing and shoving. I thought it was normal. “Isn’t this how all parents behave?” Bully dads were normal in my suburban neighborhood. Tough guys. I adored my dad and had no idea his Ruler of the House stance wasn’t Kosher. Poor Mom. She was trapped in the Donna Reed 50s; what could she do? No job, no money to call her own. He was the breadwinner. He was the boss. His money. His rules about how she could spend it.
I thought they loved each other. I know my dad adored her. He would rush to kiss her with his day-long stubble and sawdust grub from working in the Valley as a carpenter. His face and hairy back were blackened from the sun, which made his beaver-broad teeth stand out all the more. When he smiled at me, I felt like I was the most loved human girl on the planet. But Mom, I saw her struggle; she just wanted to be free.
I know Mom loved me. In her own way. She made sure we had good food, made our beds, tried to get us to take naps and get to bed when it was still light outside. She wanted us to be healthy and happy, I’m sure. But she rarely communicated her heart with me. I can’t ever remember a time she wanted to “just talk” or check in with me. She did chores, kept the house spic and span, like the cleaner. She looked tidy in her crisp waist-cinched pastel dresses. She rarely wore make up and kept curlers in her hair at night. I never remember her reading, much less to me, or talking about herself and things she was interested in. She was working. Cleaning. Preparing. Watching from a distance. She was my mom and I know she was a good, kind woman. But I don’t remember being hugged or kissed or told anything positive. She was a ghost in the family album.
There’s no one alive I can ask. Who was my mom? What did she want for her life? Why was she ignored, forgotten, put-upon, expected to be the house cleaner and keeper of us all? Why did she keep her hands in Ajax scrubbing and scrubbing her whole life? Why didn’t she have confidence in herself? Why didn’t she pursue some kind of dream beyond wife and mother? Why didn’t she talk to me, my sister or brother about her desires? At what point did she get lost? When her farmer-father suddenly died of stomach cancer and her young mother was forced to pack up and work at the concession shop near Bank Quay station in Warrington, England?
What happened to that little girl?