A Daughter Still description here

HAPPIER TRAILS….

Internet emails continue to circulate long after they first debut; so, I was recently reminded of a vacation highlight that we had visited during 1980; this was on the same trip in which my parents and my daughter would share their first Disneyland experience together.

Victorville was one of our stops.  We purposely deviated from the main highways toward Apple Valley to see the recently relocated Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum. From the moment we entered, we were in a place that was very un-museum like in its displays and its life size exhibits.  I have never again experienced the same feeling in any other historic collection.

I’ll never forget watching my mother “take in” a glass memorial case at the beginning of the self tour.  For some reason, I only remember two of the three children honored in that case: the military-clad elder son that the Rogers had lost and one other (also adopted) little Korean daughter who had died in a church-sponsored bus trip crash.  The third child was their little daughter with Down’s syndrome.  A sign of the times, medical technology was limited and she had lived only until age two.

As mothers, there was nothing more heartbreaking in our minds than the death of a child.  Mom and I let the men walk on ahead to keep My Only occupied; but we both knew what the other was thinking.  It had been a year of medical challenges for Only Bro, so we’d planned this vacation to temporarily remove our folks apart from the day-to-day concerns that were quickly wearing them down.

We had no idea what was in store that coming holiday season; for now, it was enough that we could step away from a glass encased memorial and move on to the next chapter.

With each turn, there were both recognizable artifacts and the family’s real lifestyle possessions, replicated in a respectful and welcoming manner.  We were not intruders; rather, we were guests invited in to observe and linger where we wished for as long as we cared to, in what I can only describe as the closest thing to walking inside the pages of a 3D family photo album that I’d ever experienced.

Signs helped narrate their home style.  George Montgomery had purposely designed the lovely wooden dining set with a spinning center lazy susan to accommodate a family with nine children. I was old enough to have remembered George Montgomery in his own movies; that he was a master wood crafter was not well known beyond the immediate movie industry.  So, the table setting was there, surrounded with the quintessential dining room wallpaper and décor one would have expected to find in an American family’s 50’s home. Roy and Dale were no different than their fans, it seemed.

I’ve never been good with fur; alive or dead.  So, to see Trigger still in the flesh and the family pet Bullet sitting there to greet us was a bit alarming for me!  I tried hard to hide my discomfort; but as children can be extremely perceptive, my daughter soon picked up that Mommy wasn’t really smiling very much as we discussed the two animals.  I’d never make a taxidermist, nor would I ever want to live in any room with glass eyes staring at me!

Thankfully, we passed the fury critters and came upon an old friend. This next object I gratefully admired; it was the very inanimate but precocious Nellie Belle.  Now, this was a hoot!  I could just picture ‘ole Gabby having left the parked vehicle right there!  The Sons of the Pioneers history wasn’t too far from this main arena; also adjacent were some of the lovely costumes that both Dale Evans and Roy had worn.  We adults even recognized the movie titles that they came from; only now we saw their actual lovely detailing in living color.  Once again, we were reminded of what it felt like to visit old family friends and gleefully await for the host and hostess to join us.

The day we visited, the greeters shared that Roy still came down to the museum to chat with his fans. This was not one of those days, but we were okay with that and thanked the greeters for their warm hospitality. The entire ambience of the museum was engaging enough for us, as the inside décor reflected honor and good taste; both personal and movie collectables had been preserved for the public to enjoy.   And enjoy them thoroughly we did.

Sadly, the two year old email that colored my memory of the Victorville attraction was the Christies Auction House summation of the demise of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson.  Per Roy’s wishes, his children had promised that the exhibits would be sold off and the museum closed once the attraction could no longer pay its own upkeep.  Seems that not enough lil’ pardners even knew who Roy and Dale were;  not even in a tourist town like Branson, a place known for its traditions and reverence for all things Americana.

While few of us understand our personal stewardships will one day end, Roy had realistically foreseen that his earthly fame would eventually be replaced.  Like any good steward, he had prepared his children, lovingly giving them permission to make the difficult decisions when the times changed.

How fortunate we were to have shared some of the happier trails of yesteryear…

The Green Easter Egg

The year was 1979.  Thank God for my dear aunt by marriage; she invited me to make sugar eggs with her.  My childlike delight escaped from my normal responsible confines imposed upon myself; I agreed to join her in that Easter’s endeavor.

We were elbow deep in sugar and decorator frosting for several weeks, commandeering the dining room table, her cookie sheets and oven, and the back sun room for most of the Lenten season.  It was messy but absolutely wonderful!  She was as delighted to show me the hidden magic “tricks” as I was delighted to discover the mysteries of these small egg panoramas!

I’d be taking some of my sugar art down to the Bay Area for the family, so I began thinking of one for my mother. For Mom, I would have to keep it strictly traditional in its splendor.  That was easy enough, as we both appreciated the beauty of tradition and Easter in all its spring freshness.   I mentally ticked off all the eggs I would need to make for my loved ones.

Like Rome’s architects, my aunt and I began with good intentions.  Of course, my aunt’s hand was seasoned enough that she had little “wasted” frosting.  The eggs and the frosting tips I soon managed well enough. However, after weeks of working with the colored sugar molds and frosting tubes, we began to tire of this project; the newness was starting to wear off; we were fast becoming “Eastered-out”.  Our former disciplines gave way to creative, off the cuff, non-traditional panoramic works of sugar art.

We decided to personalize each person’s egg where at all possible. My aunt’s two little grandsons were playmates of My Only’s; we would use the three little plastic skunks and make a special trio of eggs for our “little stinkers”!!!  The possibilities were endless and we soon succumbed to fits of giggles as we playfully continued to craft each egg.  The more we tired during each day’s session, the more my Easter egg masterpieces evolved into original, silly subject centers, with only the leaves and flowers on the outside reminiscent of a traditional Easter palette.

It was time to create an egg for Daddy.  I had one miniature ceramic horse figurine set aside just for him.  With the addition of some small straw flowers, I placed a horseshoe shape of little red blossoms around the neck in a true winner’s circle fashion.  A bit of frosting glue and VOILA!  A Winner’s Circle Quarter Horse for all seasons!  I could hardly wait for the car trip down for Easter dinner.

We arrived home for Easter weekend and discovered my father had been placed into the French Hospital in San Francisco for observation.  I don’t even remember the actual medical concern. I was too upset to reasonably deal with the moment, and I sat in the kitchen on the Cosco Stool, crying and explaining to Mom that Easter just wasn’t going to seem like Easter without Daddy at the table.  True to form, Mom was the strong one.  She believed deeply that Daddy was receiving the best of care and that he would return home soon.  She reminded me that we could go visit him at any time.  As a young married mother of a three year old, I attempted to shape up somewhat so as not to alarm My Only.  We soon left for the hospital with magazines and his green Easter egg carefully wrapped in hand.

To my relief, Daddy looked good, was in high spirits, and content with his treatment thus far.  The French Hospital still had a good reputation at that time for keeping the older Frenchmen “happy”.  Times were changing, but the dietician still allowed a small glass of red wine as part of a dinner tray if the patient’s health permitted it.

I presented my sugar green egg to Daddy.  He donned his eyeglasses and peered inside…the little racehorse was obviously a pleasant surprise!

Boy, do you have my number!  Think you’re pretty smart, huh Annette?

Extremely pleased with his response, I sat it on the side table with the get well cards for him to enjoy.  While Daddy was filling Mom in on the details of his stay thus far, including his having “gone to confession” compliments of the resident French-speaking priest, the same priest appeared through the door, introducing himself to all of us, then began speaking to my mother who greeted him en francais.  Mom was enjoying the opportunity to converse in her native French (Mom’s command of the language was that of the old country, despite her having been born in Livermore) so she didn’t notice my father beckoning me to the side table, nor did she hear his frantic directions in Pig Latin:  Ix-nay the egg-ay! Ix-nay the egg-ay!

It took me a minute to understand…the egg was too fragile to nix per se, so I quickly turned the green egg around to face the wall.  Only the frosted leaves and iced trim of its backside were still in clear view.  The visit was no more than a few minutes at the most before the priest excused himself to continue making his rounds.  Once the priest left, Daddy explained what this was all about.  During confession, he’d told the priest

You can throw the book at me, Father

Daddy had taken communion for the first time in many years.  He wasn’t so sure if his thrown book confession completely covered all his human flaws, especially his love for horseracing and gambling.  The last thing he needed was for the priest to see that Easter egg.  Obediently, I wrapped it back up and carried it back to Rubberneck Avenue for safe keeping.  Daddy was going to be just fine…

Innocent Bystander

For the most part, my father was a very unassuming man in attitude and countenance.  It didn’t help him at the age of ten to have been compared to his older, more handsome siblings.  All nine were lined up in front of some old French woman who had decided it was her position in the small community to rate the physical attractiveness of each child.  She began with the girls, remarking how tres jolie each one was, and similarly with the young beaus of the family, when she came to my father.  This was the English translation:

“This one’s homely, but he’ll improve”.

To hear Daddy tell this story many years later, he said he immediately hung his head down in shame.  A remark like that stuck.  He could laugh about it now, and for the better part of his life he adapted a self-deprecating nature.  He could be competitive, however! He excelled in sports and was a great ball room dancer, so he made his own mark in the pool of available young men in West Oakland.

Daddy was still a rather bashful young man, often turning down a drink with the requisite Non, Merci (en francais), rarely accepting anything unless he was completely comfortable in the situation.  Years later,  he shared how he had learned his lesson the hard way, having passed up lots of good port and sherry over the years at Mom’s aunt’s house, wherein a guest would only hear an offer once per visit (and visits could be as long as two or three hours).  Daddy smartened up after a few times and quickly accepted whatever cocktail was first offered! My guess is that his desperate Yes, please was more than likely uttered in English; his French was very poor (as Mom reminded him and constantly corrected his pronunciation).

Clothes figured in there somewhere, but the young man who had once cut a slender form in the required barbershop jacket and straw hat had succumbed to the more comfortable striped overalls and gunmetal work pants that so expressed his tradesman persona.  This was the man I knew; the one who was lovingly cared for by Mom.

Overalls saved the knees from linoleum laying wear and tear. Daddy in overalls saved Mom a lot of fussing; for one thing, she didn’t have to constantly remind him to Pull up your pants! Also, as Mom continually emphasized to him, the stripes made him look thinner. Seriously, for a man standing at five foot four and one hundred eighty, this was somewhat of a stretch in my view.

But dear Mom wasn’t through with my father yet!  She already scolded him when he didn’t part his hair just perfectly.   As Daddy once retorted:

I could be lying in the box and you’d still be complaining my hair wasn’t combed just right!

For Daddy, Mom’s corrections became a game.  Regarding his French accent; he’d repeat her corrected sentence and dramatically extend the last syllable, emphasizing the rolling r’s and the lingering a’s just to irk Mom… This worked; Mom might be shaking her head in dismay, but she was laughing as we, at his irreverent, playful responses!

Daddy had never been a scholar, but his wood working and cabinetry were among the best of his class. He was not exactly a Jesus the Carpenter type as depicted by European artisans, but he was a man whose skilled hands, work ethic, and compassionate demeanor were evident in his countenance. My father was without pretense and very unassuming, even when he had reason to be extremely proud of his accomplishments as a son, a husband, a father, and not the least of these, a first generation born American.

Thus, I always found it comical that, no matter the occasion or the opportunity,  most of our family pictures with Daddy included his sitting or standing among us, looking as though he ‘d accidentally walked into the wrong group photo… as though he were an innocent bystander who just happened to get caught in that particular Kodak moment…

Postponing the Inevitable

Mom, do you want me to call them?

No, that’s okay.  Let them enjoy their Thanksgiving.  Call them tomorrow if you want to.

That was how my mother and I decided to handle the news that Thursday morning.  I waited until the day after Thanksgiving, and then called my godparents to let them know that my brother had died.  I write this some thirty years later, and it is still difficult to piece together the emotions and the timeline.  There is no right or wrong way to share the news of a loved one’s passing; under any circumstances it is difficult; but when it is from suicide, one is dumbfounded and finds little comfort in what appears to forever remain unexplainable.

I grew up around first generation born Americans; the old country’s manner was still very much the watermark for who, what, when, where and why they thought and lived as they did.   Having little more than traditions to fall back on, some made the changes more easily; others never adapted.  Still others didn’t care or subconsciously decided nothing was that important to stop them from their immediate week’s business schedule.  Sometimes one was lucky and received an explanation or, at the very least, a mantra of sorts to help understand the world around us:

Life is for the living, Annette.

This expression was often recited to me from our silver-haired, next door neighbor, who was like a father to all of us.  He had watched our family go through an emotional roller coaster from the time my brother first became ill.  Many years before, I had run next door crying,  telling him Daddy needed help; Only Bro didn’t want to go back to the hospital and was running away!  Our fatherly neighbor chased my brother down the street, managing to catch him fairly quickly, though it seemed a much longer drama at the time.  Our neighbor talked him into walking back to the house, and then rode with him and Daddy on the return trip to the state hospital.

Daddy was also more aware than Mom just how great a toll the past seventeen years had taken on their only son.  Near or far, we had all felt my brother’s ups and downs this past year.  Even a trip to Disneyland earlier that summer had given the folks only a very brief respite from their son’s recurring illness. Daddy remained passionate; for the most part, he trusted his own instincts, but didn’t hesitate to listen for guidance from the professionals.  Neither of the folks was prepared for anything like their son’s mental breakdown or its long-term ramifications.  Much of what Dad heard and observed over the initial months and early years he kept from Mom;  he managed to hide certain details for long periods of time.  Ultimately, he couldn’t protect her or any of us siblings.  Nor could we as a family ease my brother’s anguish, no matter how much we remained involved over the ensuing years.

I was one hundred and eighty miles away from the home base; I might as well have been on another planet.  I had just finished setting up the buffet table for my in-laws and our cousins.  We would be about sixteen tomorrow, give or take a few little critters. I had picked up the paper and just read about a plane crash that had killed over one hundred people.  I remember thinking what a sad Thanksgiving holiday it would be for all the families affected by that crash; then the phone rang.

Once Big Sis and I finished talking, there was nothing for me to do but to maintain my end of the family unit. The youngest sister was on her way down for the holiday.  She had yet to hear, so would walk in Wednesday evening and learn then that our brother was gone.  Big Sis would stay until the youngest arrived; then leave to return home to her own family and her own kitchen.

Mom was cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my brother’s widow and their two beautiful daughters would still be there, just as they always were each Thanksgiving with Mom and Daddy.  This would be as nice a family dinner as anyone could hope for under the circumstances.

As my mother had chosen to do that Thanksgiving Day, I too chose the familiar; I cooked my planned meal, made sure everyone at my home had enough to eat, and continued any familiar rituals available to me for Thanksgiving’s sake…there would be plenty of time to grieve later.  Neither Mom nor I could afford to fall apart; we had loved ones to serve and leftovers to put away.

We Were Americans

Mom and Dad brought a common heritage to their first and only new home on Rubberneck Avenue.  Our table had the same four food groups from “down the house” like our grandparents‘ home: wine, French bread, salami, and cheese.  The traditional hospitality of offering a casa croute (sharing of the house bread) continued on Rubberneck as well.

While our table often identified us as French descent, herein lay the distinction:  we were Americans first.  We joined the melting pot of other first and second generation families whereby respect and love for country were inherently as important as the November celebrated reason for gathering.   Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving; the main course, however, was followed by the required bit of French bread and blue cheese to enjoy with the last sips of wine, while we listened to the stories that our uncles with accents had to tell.

 

Author’s Note: plate pictured was always used for salami on holidays!

The Census Takers

Contrary to today’s penchant for overdoing all things, Halloween was pretty much a one day dress-up event years ago.  Beyond the costumes, trick or treating and the two-dimensional pumpkins and black cats hanging in the windows, the holiday itself was no big deal.

We didn’t jump in vans, didn’t hop from one area of the city to another, didn’t Trick or Treat until we were high school age; nope, Halloween Trick or Treating was for kids only.  We loved running from porch to porch, up the stairs where the lights were on to welcome us, quickly spitting out an audible thank you before running back down to the next walkway.  Our Trick or Treat bags were small, often plastic pumpkins or small paper bags we’d decorated, but they were adequate size for the amount of candy collected.

People knew people and neighbors didn’t move very often; generations watched second generations often grow up on the same block.  Cookies wrapped in wax paper or foil, home-made candies…one didn’t need to go through the bag to sort “safe” from “unsafe” treats.  Kids normally didn’t roam very far beyond the initial home front (about a three block area); if we even thought about going up another street or extending our route, believe me it had to be done with more than one parent’s blessings.  Neighborhood parents were just as watchful as your own.  It was a good time to be a kid as someone was always looking after your safety and holiday fun.

On occasion, Mom would let us help pick out the candy to give away.  Some years we’d have to remind Mom that raisins, no matter how cute they were in the small little boxes, were not really what we kids wanted in our bags.  She tended to go after the familiar:  Tootsie Pops, hard candies, peppermint sticks, bubble gum, things that were familiar to her when she was a kid.  We had a shallow wooden bowl that Mom used for the candy every Halloween.  She’d place it on the desk with a small notebook and pen; she liked to keep count of how many kids came to the door each year.  So did our next door neighbor.

It didn’t help that Daddy had already checked out the next door’s bowl of goodies; he’d return home, reporting how great the candy assortment was next door; none of his remarks improved either our home atmosphere or our bowl assortment.  Mom could be oblivious when she chose to be; just what was wrong with our candy selection?

At the end of the evening, when the porch lights had been turned off, Mom and the neighbor conversed via their respective kitchen windows (across the driveway) and compared their totals.  The variance was the same most of the time: for some peculiar reason, our neighbor always logged a higher number of Trick or Treaters.

These census counts became somewhat of a contest for the women, though none of us understood what the big deal was.  Certainly, the men were not interested in any of this nor were we kids.

Mom, always the one with the investigator mind, couldn’t figure out how any kids would have stopped next door to ring the bell without then following up our porch steps; both houses were in the middle of the block.  Likely, their methods differed; one ticked off numbers, the other counted the small number of candy bars left in her bowl.

Also very likely, Daddy had eaten more than one candy bar on his earlier visit…

 

 

Everything is Relative

Mom’s maternal instincts were just that; instinctive. Her own mother had died while Mom was still a toddler; her father died several years later.  At five years of age, she was standing on a box to reach the ironing board and taking care of her dad and a brother one year younger than she.  She adored her father and, from all reports, he was one of the kinder hearted men of his generation.

The nuns in “Sister School” (Mom always used this term) were the closest to maternal role models for Mom.  Mom obeyed more easily than her brother, who spent lots of time on the wrong side of the ruler.  Mom needed consoling when her brother was punished; she inevitably cried for him and ended up on the nun’s lap, hearing the nun explain that the punishment was for his own good; no doubt, some highlights of Hell were tossed in for good measure.

Mom understood she couldn’t save her brother from the nun’s wrath, so she reasoned that by being really good, she might at least save his soul; after all, she herself was especially disciplined; God might allow some of her good graces to be credited on her brother’s behalf, saving him from Eternal Doom.

Mom could occasionally fall under bad influences, as did any little girl who was easily influenced by an older family member.  She thought her older cousin knew everything, so she followed his orders, painstakingly smearing Limburger cheese on the neighborhood’s door knobs one Halloween.  While never caught, she both shuddered and giggled when she retold this story; her embarrassment at having done such a deed was still fresh each time she repeated it.

Basically, Mom was a good student who could be as creative and as successful and as trusting as the next little girl in her age group.  Mom entertained us when she admitted to not being very bright, and laughingly shared how – as a little girl – she sincerely believed that the mailman wrote all the letters!   My first reaction was one of embarrassment myself.  How could my mother have been so dumb???

Childlike naiveté and trust permeated well into maturity.  She committed herself to her husband and family with all her heart.  Throughout her adulthood, her never-ending faith belied the role she played in loved ones’ well-being.  Saving souls and protecting children from themselves seemed to be a strong, overriding motivator that compelled her to never give up on any child or loved one in spite of the reality or prevailing circumstances. Mom was consistent, if not always successful.

For us babies in the family, Mom was a particularly overly-protective, older mother.  Her style might have been rather suffocating if it hadn’t already been restrictive.  When we did get out of line, there was never a “Wait until your father gets home.”  Mom was perfectly capable of retaining order and she did so with enough conviction in both her tone and her hand to communicate any message quite clearly.

I remember chatting in the library before the Christmas holiday; we were comparing family traditions and tales, when one of my friends happened to bring up her mother, a delightful lady with a very playful personality.  Evidently, her mother had grown up near the town’s train tracks.  As the cars passed by, she yearly observed that in the first group of cars were sheep; in the next group of cars were the season’s harvest of cantaloupes.  Ergo, her mother reasoned that sheep lay cantaloupes.

Everything is relative. I was much relieved upon hearing that story.