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So I get this assignment to teach a parenting class. "O.K., How long is the class?" "You have fifteen." "Classes?" "No, MINUTES!" "Fifteen minutes to teach people how to correctly rear children. I don't think that is possible." "Sure you can do it! Everyone requested you. It should be great, You'll do fine." "Um, I am not concerned at how well I will teach, I am concerned that you think that everything one needs to know about parenting can be contained in fifteen minutes. I have been parenting for 27 years and I still don't know what the heck I am doing."
The house was on the corner and had a Spanish style. It was perfect for the neighborhood. Across the street was a park with a pool. I would envy the kids who got to swim every day. But they were probably more envious of me. I was allowed to run free with my brother and sisters. We would run the neighborhood, down the gully wash and across the highway. Most moms didn't let their kids do that. We didn't have a regular mom. There were 10 of us kids. Only three of them were really my siblings. Mike. Robyn. Cathi.
Mom was divorced and had set up housekeeping with another young mom divorcee, with six kids of her own. They rented a house and set up keeping. Two moms, ten kids. Pretty good deal back then. We all got along fairly well and went through our share of baby sitters. One particular sitter, an older lady, was NOT welcomed by any of the kids. My sister seemed to be the object of her wrath at any given time; soon we all had enough. The two moms brought in a young college student to live in and bring up the slack.
Summer was cool because we were left pretty much on our own. The ten of us would pack a lunch and head for the zoo. We would cross the street, walk through the city park and rec center, down into a gully wash (Paul Bunyan peed in there and made the stream), cross said stream and hike up the "cliff" to the highway. The highway was exactly that, four lanes of fast moving, dare you to even try to get across without killin' yerself road. All ten of us would run like crazy, hoping none of us would be killed.
Back then the zoo was free for anyone under 16. We all qualified. We would never stay together. We would run amuck like loose wildebeests and meet for lunch at specified times. There is a clock that uses the "Westminster Chimes" to ring out the quarter hour, so when we heard it we would just count and know what time is was. We would go to all the animals, and slowly walk through the aviary. My favorite was the sea lions and the daily shows they performed. There was also a carousel on the out side, in the parking lot.
We would meet there a couple of times a week. We would have saved some money we had collected from returning old pop bottles. Steve and Mike were given the money and they would ride for all of us. There was a brass ring, and if you could grab the brass ring, you would ride for free! Steve and Mike would take one ride and turn it into free rides for their assorted siblings. It was exciting to watch. Gasps and moans were for missing the ring, but whoops and cheers would follow each successful attempt. We ride! For FREE!
There were museums to see. The Museum of Natural History was a favorite. The older boys had convinced us that if you looked at the mummy's eyes he would come to life and havoc would ensue. The Museum of Flight was Mike's favorite and he would imagine that he was a pilot, an astronaut, or just one of the Wright Brothers. I liked the Museum of Art and would look at the paintings of flowers, mostly. I can still smell the eucalyptus trees and the salt of the water mixed in the air. I miss the smell of the air.
There was a mini United Nations that invited us to view other people and cultures. I liked to look at the flags and see the costumes. There was a Naval Hospital across the street and we were forbidden to visit there. Mom had threatened us within an inch of our life if we dared to go to the hospital grounds. On a hot summer day the older boys had wandered off to go home by themselves. Mike and Steve dared to do the forbidden and went to see what the ruckus was all about. In the grass, the reason: temptation.
None of us were witness to the swallowing, but swallow they did; one pink pill for each of them. The boys had found them laying in the grass and decided to eat them. Mom found out and the boys were being treated to an unusual punishment. Money was tight and they needed to get the pills out. A trip to the E.R. was not even an option with mom around. We had a sink full of dirty dishes and they both got to drink a nice cold glass of the filthy water. They threw up. Mission accomplished. No sympathy. Done.
There were many things I remember about that house. Standing in line on top of kitchen chairs, oldest to youngest, to receive large doses of cod liver oil in the evening and bright yellow liquid vitamins in the morning. I can smell both of them in my memory. I can also smell the fresh hot taffy spilled onto the tabletop. Buttery hands would pull it into candy and then we would all get a taste. The smell of golden liquid glue that came dribbling out of a bottle with a red rubber tip, chiseled to accommodate the paper. And Latex.
Latex was what mom used to keep things from giggling. She was a nurse and, evidently, nurses were not allowed to giggle. So every morning she would bathe and powder; splash herself with Avon White Gardenia and squeeze herself into a girdle that smelled strongly of bleached latex. White hose would be clipped front and back to her girdle and a nice pointy bra would "top" it all off. Slippery slip and she would be ready for her uniform. White shoes were polished every day as were laces. Pink and black velvet ribbon on her cap and pins on lapel.
She would leave the house everyday and I would miss her. I don't think she ever understood the need I had for her. I don't think she ever realized that a little kid could understand love, neglect, and loneliness. I knew about bills and food and cars breaking down, those things were talked about everyday and there was a sense of guilt on my part for being a huge cause for her HAVING to work. In my mind, she still loved to work, still needed to work to feel validated. She never needed me or my siblings to feel validated.
Off she would go everyday to work in the ER this year or Neo Natal Unit the next. She was intelligent and very much in demand. By the time her career ended she had worked every position a R.N. could work. She was a charge nurse, administrator, and even taught nursing for a while. She did it all. She should have forgotten all about the whole kids thing and just become a doctor; but women didn't do that in her era. So we went with her through failed marriages, failed romances, from house to house constantly searching for that home.
Eventually we moved from the house on the corner. We moved a lot! One house was on a hill with a white split rail fence. We would walk the split rail fence and see who could get the farthest before falling off. The front yard sloped towards the street and it had a steep driveway. One day my mom left us in the car and someone let the brake go and we went rapidly down the driveway, across the street and through a fence that surrounded the farm across the street. Mom was less than pleased and we felt it.
Another activity we enjoyed at that house was playing in the back yard of the neighbors next door. They were, in our eyes, rich. They had a swing set and a record player. We would put on Roy Rogers and swing like nobody's business. Other favorite records were the Superman song, with the chorus that sang out "Suuuuuuperman!" with a terrific crescendo, and the lady who sang about a party. "Let's rock and roll and do the stroll, let's have a party! Whooo Let's have a party!" There was a lyric about fried chicken somewhere but I forget that now.
We also had a house with standing floor heater. One winter day there would be a decision to play a game to see who could leap frog over the heater. Unfortunately I lost. I still have a slight scar from the burn on my left hand. I remember that day with Johnny Mathis singing in the background. He always made me feel better, I would love it when he sang. Even with the skritch skritch of the old 45 he still "sent me" as mom would say. Years later when I danced at my wedding it was to Johnny Mathis.
Clear memories are from the house that was really a storage shed. It belonged to the hospital my mom worked for and it was across the E.R. driveway. There was a 6 foot hedge that divided our rive way from the Ambulance drive way. On rainy days we would look for the "white car". We didn't know that car had a special name, we just knew that it came more often on rainy days and take away dead people. Mom said the black bags were supposed to hide the bodies so people didn't know what was inside, but we knew.
There were all kinds of creepy things that happen when you live next to an E.R. There was a witch who lived in the Victorian house around the corner. It was run down. Paint peeling, shingles missing and drooping. Pieces of the "gingerbread" were completely gone, and a weather vane that twisted in the wind and creaked scarily. The yard was knee high in yellow weeds and dead rose bushes. There was a sidewalk in there somewhere, and a black cat. The broken windows revealed the witch walking by –if you looked close enough. If she saw you, you died.
That house was also very close to a shopping center. Mom would give us a few dollars and we would walk down to the Thrifty's and buy her pack of Marlboro's and get a 10 cent orange sherbet. Gramma and Grampa lived down the street in a really cool apartment. It was upstairs and in the corner. They had sprinklers and they would pop up and then stay up after watering. I would have the most fun going around stepping on the sprinkler heads and popping them back into place. There was a sense of mischief in this "forbidden" exercise.
They also had a laundry room with a door and everything! It was a scary place to go because Gramma would always caution us by retelling the story of a child who had died in the dryer. They had four sets of stairs in the complex and we loved to climb and race around them. This would get us in trouble and we would be banished from the upstairs completely. We were used to banishment. We would be placed outside while she cleaned her immaculate apartment "so well a fly would land on the table, slip and break its neck!"
Gramma and Grampa would take us places to eat like Denny's, and Sambo's. This was craziness! At home we never went out to eat. We would usually get a cheese burger, fries and a chocolate malt. Back then it was served in a tall fluted glass with the stainless steel mixer it was blended in, with whipped cream, a cherry, and a sprinkle of nutmeg. My kids probably don't even know what nutmeg on a malt tastes like. Lunch at the counter of Sprouse-Ritz or Rexal Drug Store would be a hot dog on a grilled bun, and a malt.
When life was really good we would get treated to Sir George's Smorgasbord or IHOP. That was like eating in both heaven and hell. You could eat anything your heart desired, BUT DON'T TAKE SOMETHING AND LEAVE IT ON YOUR PLATE!!! There were signs all over the place that warned you to enjoy your meal but not to waste food. I was petrified at taking something and having it taste terrible and then getting kicked out for "wasting". I could hear the grown up talk about the horrible signs a lot. IHOP wasn't great, I had learned to hate pancakes.
There was a time when money was very tight and all we had to eat for an entire month was pancakes. Buttermilk pancakes. Bisquick pancakes. Flour and water pancakes. Pancakes with syrup and butter. Pancakes with syrup alone. Pancakes with jam. Pancakes with peanut butter. Pancakes with bananas. Pancakes with peaches. Pancakes with canned fruit cocktail. Pancakes with SPAM. Pancakes with powdered sugar. Pancakes with KARO syrup. Pancakes with brown sugar. Pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes for lunch. Pancakes for dinner. Pancakes for 31 days and nights. Pancakes without argument or discussion. Pancakes to stave off the hunger. Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes.
It was Grampa's birthday and we went to the "Flying Bridge" for dinner. It was 40 years ago and I can still remember that night and the taste of the food that was prepared for us. The table was set with heavy silverware and had been dressed in real linen clothes as were the napkins. The room had windows all around one side with a view of the harbour and boats on the sea. The sun had already begun to set and soon it was dark and candle lit via a tiny red bowl covered with a black plastic netting.
The waiter turned over clear glass goblets and took a large silver pitcher and poured each of us iced water. He gave us large leather menus which mom took from us as soon as he left. When he returned he set two dishes full of baby corn, small carrots and celery cuts, radishes, gerkins, and green onions. We were each given a hot roll and real butter pats that were made to look like sea shells. He came back after a few minutes with an enormous wood bowl and made a green salad right there at the table. Holy Hannah!
I was very impressed at his ability to throw lettuce in the air. He tossed and then proceeded to deliver servings onto each little plate. He made dressings. Blue cheese anyone? Perhaps madam would prefer French? I had "Thousand Island" because Grampa did. It was the best thing I had ever tasted and I search for that taste today. The waiter presented a wooden pepper mill the size of my brother. Holding it aloft, he asked all at the table if they would care of fresh cracked pepper. The look on mom's face told us "no, thank you, we don't".
I also remember the time the grandparents took us kids to Denny's for lunch. My sister was hip and gramma gave her music to put in the juke box. Two or three songs played and then we heard it: "This diamond ring does shine like it did before…" We were fairly proud of ourselves. It was as if we were playing the songs ourselves. The song ended and we were very surprised when it began to play all over again. And again. And again. We were embarrassed. It was playing when we left, and I think it is playing still.
28. We liked music in our house. We didn't have a t.v. so the record player was "cool". We would make up dance routines and karaoke before its time. We knew the songs to everyone of mom's records and if it was on the radio we were singing along to it. Sister was all over the Herman's Hermits. We drove a very stodgy British grampa absolutely nuts with "Henry the Eighth" but gramma loved Bobby Vinton's "Red Roses For a Blue Lady." Later, we would charge the neighborhood parents to watch our garage shows. One favorite was "Little Red Riding Hood."
I took those shows with me into my own marriage. When my kids got bored we would dance and sing and make up routines. They loved it when they were little. After a while they grew out of it, but before that happened they surprised us. It was an anniversary for my husband and I. After dinner that night the kids all left and came back all dressed up. They had a stand "mic" and the oldest had his back up singers as he belted out, "A White Sport Coat, and a Pink Carnation" for dad and mom. Very cool.
Later my kids would become famous as the family that was required to sing and dance for ten minutes each day after school. Their friends would come over and the music would already be blarin'. Mom, dad, and anyone in the house was required to join in until we sang and danced away the school blues and stress from work. Friends would always have the first shocked reaction, but after a few visits they knew what to expect and they would jump around, sing at the top of their lungs, openly exercising their own school day demons. It was freeing.
I wonder about the other kids in our house. The original 10. Where are they now, what kind of people did they grow up to become? I see my siblings from time to time and keep in touch regularly. It's amazing what we have done with our lives. All of us are married with kids of our own. No divorces. Our kids are now growing up and getting married and starting careers. Who knew back then that we would survive the lack of stability? Who could see that our kids have become the parents we always wanted for ourselves?
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