Moskatels

Another place I must revisit.  What I would really like to find is Moskatels’ booklet “How to Arrange Christmas Flowers,” from the 1970’s.  Mom and Grandma frequented Moskatels when I was small.   Buckets filled with brightly colored plastic flowers extended endlessly down the aisle in front of me.  Nature’s own polymers within reach, yet the glorious display remained slightly above my line of vision.  If I walked on tip toe and raised my eyebrows high enough, I could witness from my maximum height.

“Don’t touch anything,” Mom would always preface entering a store with that instruction.

“I won’t,”  I promised, half listening, as I pulled a flower out of a shiny, mottled grey bucket, “Oooh, Mom, look at how pretty!”

Moskatels had a distinct smell.  As much as I loved the flowers, the synthetic smell was overpowering.  A sticky, sweet emanation permeated the store.  The odor gave no pause to Mom or Grandma, who seemed to not notice.  Beckoned by seasonal flowers, leaves, cattales, and glittery accoutrements, they became absorbed in a world of creative possibilities.  Back and forth they would compare, remark, and consider, selecting just what was needed for the perfect display.

Pre-silk: in 1970, artificial flowers were made from plastics.

The sizable store had something for everyone.  They even sold synthetic greenery for the easiest-to-care-for house plants.  Mom had a respectable and moderate two such plastic plants.  One was a large palm on the landing of our stairs, the second a broad-leafed plant just inside the front door to the right, with shining white stones at its base.  The individual stems would be pushed into one another as modules, secured with wire, and then wound with green floral tape.  I know this because I would carefully dust both plastic plants weekly, if not more often.

Dusting, by the way, was more frequent in weather which required the windows to be opened.  Nice weather meant Mom would vacuum off the screens so little dust blew in.  Then, on days when the windows were opened and there were breezes to enjoy, Mom would make certain we dusted more often, sometimes daily.  Mom would remove long, thin, wooden sticks from the windowsills on those clement mornings.  As she did so, she would tap me on the head, “I crown you, Queen for a day…”  I loved that.  I just waited for it!  The window sticks, these divining rods, Dad had made so there was an extra slot which fit in below the opposing window.  That way, the window was secure, and a burglar could not dislodge the stick to open the window.  This was high-tech security in the 1970’s, with everything slightly home-brewed.

Mom and Grandma continued to shop Moskatels through the Westlake years.  Grandma A would sit on the black chairs in the family room, with her floral supplies stretched across the large, round table.  No doubt we had enjoyed a lunch of cottage cheese and fruit salad, decorative lettuce leaf beneath to set off the colors, English muffin and butter, jelly service with mini spoon, and (naturally) hot tea dissolving two sugar cubes for Grandma and (naturally) coffee for Mom with a little half and half (later powdered Cremora).   Grandma and Mom might chat as they made holiday arrangements.  Sometimes centerpieces were created for church functions.   The finished pieces were always classy and beautiful.  Mom would compliment Grandma, remarking what a wonderful talent she had.

Years later, that gene passed on to Maya.  She would arrange my silk flowers for holiday vases, and even at a very young age, did a much nicer job than I could.  At five years old, she could mix color, composition, and texture to create the most lovely floral pieces, a talent inherited from her Grandma Mary and Great Grandma.

Mom’s Dream Car: Model A with a Rumble Seat

Ford’s Model A cars were heavily marketed towards women, as seen in this 1929 ad featuring a classy lady driver.

What woman wouldn’t feel more secure and confident knowing her automobile sported a “silent, fully enclosed six-brake system.”

This ad shows the rumble seat.  It was said to be “deeply upholstered” with “artificial leather.”

Someday, I’m going to find a place to rent a Model A and just for a day,  just for Mom, drive around in style.

 

Unrest in Christmas Village

Each holiday season, several weeks before Christmas, State Farm would send home a catalogue for employees to choose a Christmas gift.  The catalogue was sectioned by years of service.  For instance, an employee of one year may choose from section one.  In that section, they may have a few fancy holiday ornaments, a nice cookie press, candle holders, boxes of nice stationary, etc.  Employees of two to five years service could choose from section one or the next, section two, which may have items slightly more expensive: faux silver serving tray, potpourri dispenser boxed with lovely holiday scents, and so on.  Progressing up the price point were employees of five, ten, fifteen, and twenty or more years.

Each year Mom would ask me to help her chose her Christmas gift.  She would always begin by saying that I should choose something for myself.  “I don’t know.  They look like they’re being kind of cheap this year,” Mom would say, rolling her eyes.  I would tell her that she was the one working hard, that she should have the gift.  Back and forth we’d go with that.  The first several years Mom caved and ordered a little gift for herself.

By 1997, Mom had worked at State Farm more than fifteen years, so the gifts got really good.  That year, Conor was almost two years old, and Mom was really encouraging me to pick out something for myself.  We sat at my condo on the couch as Conor was napping, and Mom brought the catalogue out of her purse.  She sniffled, as she sat down.  Mom always was fighting allergies.

“Come on, let’s pick something, shall we?” She smiled.

“Oh, honey, look.  This is so nice.  And look here, you could find something for your kitchen.”  Mom wanted me to choose.

We combed through the catalogue and got to the section for fifteen years.

“Oh, Mom, look!”  I pointed.  We both loved Christmas Villages.  We would always go into Joy’s at the mall and look at all the different houses.  Some were lit up from within now.  I remember when we first saw those.  We were so impressed!  The lights gave the little houses an extra special something.

That year State Farm had something so special to offer the long-term employees.  In celebration of their 75th Anniversary, the company had commissioned “State  Farm Main Street Memories Office.”  Dept 56 was chosen for its production.  This one was gorgeous!

“Oh, Mom, you have to get that!” I beamed.

“Okay!  And we can share it,” Mom smiled, putting her arm around me.

“No, no..” I insisted, “You have to have this at your place.  It’s State Farm!”

When Mom unwrapped it, it was just as beautiful as anticipated.  We finally had begun our own Christmas village!  I suggested Mom get more pieces, but she prefered to keep things simple.

“I don’t want a ton of things out that I’ll be putting away by myself after the holidays,” Mom said.

“I’d help?”  I suggested.

“No, honey, thank you.  All that decorating is something your father and I would do together.  In Westlake, he’d take a whole day off work from when you were in kindergarten.  We’d spend the whole day fixing the house all up, so when you kids came home from school, it would be a surprise.  And then when it was time to take it down, it was a repeat of the same thing, backwards.  We so much enjoyed decorating together.  You father never had any of that when he was growing up as a boy.  His mother and father didn’t make a big deal over Christmas.  He didn’t even get presents.  They said he was a good boy each day, and shouldn’t have to wait until Christmas to enjoy toys he might want.  It took me years to convince your father how much fun it all way.  Finally, when he saw the surprise from you kids, and how happy you were, then he understood.  Then, no one loved the whole business as much as he did.  He loved the decorating, the wrapping of gifts, all of it.”

Since Dad wasn’t there any more to be a part of things, Mom prefered to keep decorations to a minimum.  She’d have a tree, which John, Grandma, and I would help her decorate- mostly Grandma B and I.  John may hang one or two things before heading back upstairs to his room.  A couple of years, Ron came over to help decorate.  Mostly there was no one to help bring home the tree.  John may not be feeling the Christmas spirit, and Mom would say to forget the whole tree business.  She would suggest getting a little, tabletop tree.

“It would be okay, just to have a little Charlie Brown tree.  Your father and I used to have a small tree when Steven was a baby, at that little Jeep House.  We’d set it up high, out of reach.  That house was so small, your father couldn’t even fit his feet under the bathroom sink.  He had to point his feet sideways just to wash his hands,” Mom would laugh.  When there was something particularly sad, like Dad not being with us to bring home the tree, Mom would often bring up a lighthearted story.  It might barely relate to the situation, but she would want to see me laughing.  Sometimes I would look at her, and nothing needed to be said.  She knew.

“Honey, you can either laugh or cry,” she’d say, putting her arm around me.

Somehow, each year, we got a tree.  Mom would bribe John, or ask Uncle Bob, or she and I would make it a team effort.  Then, after I aquired my car, I would get the tree myself.  The first year, it was such a surprise.  Off to the Christmas tree lot I went, picked out a tree, and tied it down.  Then, once home, I hoisted it off the car and into the house.  I felt triumphant! Grandma B remarked, “Oh my! That you’re so strong!” and help me steady it.  I screwed it into the tree stand, getting my hands all sappy, which I didn’t like.  Mom came home from State Farm, and her face lit up.

“How did you get that home?!”  Mom stood back, looking at me with delight and pride. “Wait a minute,” she reached across, pushing up my shirtsleeves, “Let me see those muscles!”  It was the best feeling.  Maybe Dad was not here, but his heart still beat within my own, and by God, he’d want Mom to have a Christmas tree.

One year, a fellow I was dating, named Paul, helped us to get the tree.  Paul was a tall, silly, Lake Sherwood recluse.  He kept handing Mom and me Life Savors, the tropical kind.  The more Paul went on and on with his stupid Life Savors, the more Mom and I saw the humor in it all.  It was not always easy carving out this life without Dad.

But in 1997, Mom got her State Farm Christmas village piece.  It sat on her end table, right next to peek-a-boo Mary.

That same year, Mom told me she wanted to help me start my own Christmas village.  We went to Joy’s in The Oaks Mall to have a look.  Mom said each year she would buy me an addition to my village.  Before long, I’d have a beautiful little scene.  Mom got me the nicest, blue house.  It lit up from inside and had a snow-capped front yard and roof.  There were skaters outside.

By 1999, Mom had given me three houses.  I cushioned them in cotton snow atop a small bookcase in the dining room.  We added an ice skating rink, Christmas extras like trees, mailboxes, and animals, and also a fill-in piece I found at a drug store, a toy store piece the kids had liked.  It looked really cozy.  We were off to a good start.

Maya was a newborn, and Conor was three and a half.  He had watched the Christmas village going up, and he offered to help out.  The next day, Conor decided it looked a little boring.  The figures were collecting mail and packages, gazing off bridges, ice skating, and walking side by side.  Before long, there was trouble in Christmas Village we didn’t see coming.

For months now Conor had been diligently collecting monsters from McFarlane’s “Spawn” series.  At some point, a variety of these creatures from hell descended upon Christmas Village.  Some carolers were joined in song by someone who’s mouth resembled a gaping wound.  An ice skater had slipped on the ice and was being eaten by the undead.  And from the “hellspawned” corner  “a savage brute with no soul, whose pleasure comes from the pain and terror of others” descended the snowy Christmas hill, promising a challenge bigger than the Grinch come the holiday.  Tendoned creatures peeked from windows and hid behind trees.  One joined the merriment, hanging an ornament on the town tree.

“No, no, honey,”  I heard Mom telling Conor in semi-panic, “Honey, this isn’t a toy.  This is about good cheer.  Oh, no, we can’t do that!”

“It’s okay, Mom, I want Conor to help decorate the town.  It should be his vision, too,”  I explained.

“But honey, no!  There are….. creatures here… they don’t belong in a Christmas town!”

“It’s okay, really… really, it is…”  I explained.

Back and forth we went and finally, Mom relented.  It took some time, but eventually Mom’s remarks grew to amusement.  Conor was so pleased with the way he’d dressed up the town in real little boy fashion.  His amusement won his Grandma over.

“You rascal you!” Mom exclaimed.  “I’ve never seen the like of it!”

Do Not Pass

There was a great little restaurant on PCH back in the late 1970’s called The Wine Cellar.  On the mountain side of the highway, nestled to the left of its small lot, it had a beach-chic feel with obligatory ’70’s low lighting.  Steve and Cher found it while they were living on Reading Ave, and frequently enjoyed the brunch on Sundays.  Those days Steve might drop by and mention how he didn’t need Catholic church anymore, that his Sunday connection with God was met in his garden or walking a sunlit beach.  Steve had mentioned the Wine Cellar, and apart from Mom asking if he and Cher enjoyed the brunch before or after mass on Sundays, she granted that it seemed like a nice place.  The family decided to meet there for brunch to celebrate Mother’s day.

That Mother’s day became significant because it remains the only time I ever saw Mom tipsy.  She was tipsy, not drunk.  As always, Mom fully maintained her dignity, albeit a little giggling.  We had a great time, and I was even allowed to try a sip of the complementary champagne which was offered to the Mothers.

Mom drove home that day.  Though not a drinker, maybe Dad had consumed a bit more champagne.  In any case, Mom drove, and the car flowed a bit more freely than it usually did.   The change was barely perceptible, but I did notice.  All was well, until we came upon the sign: Do Not Pass.  Mom began to laugh.  The laughter cascaded into itself, accelerating as it went.  Mom’s laughter sounded as she wiped tears away.

“Just don’t try to say it…”  Dad’s regalement took a teasing tone.  I had no clue what they were laughing about.

Mom explained, “We were coming home from Joe’s cabin, and I read the sign to your father,”  Mom’s story was interrupted with bursts of delight.  “And each time I tried to say the “Do Not…”

Dad interjected, “No! Don’t say it!”

Mom roared with laughter.

“I tried to say…. I tried to say…. hahaha…”

Mom skipped in her story, “Do Not …..” Mom concentrated, “PASS …. but it came out P-I-S-S..”   Mom spelled the last part instead of saying it.

I was already cracking up, partly from how much the two of them were enjoying the joke and partly from the joke itself.   After that, when we saw those signs I was complicitous.  “Moooom….” I’d sing-song and point.

“I’m not even trying!” She would respond, smiling.

Powder Puff Girls

Mom didn’t use a lot of make up, but she would powder her nose before leaving the house with Coty Airspun Face Powder.  I spent an hour today tracking down Mom’s little powder puff set, and here it is.  I only knew it by sight, so it took some detective work.  It’s a loose powder and is sold with the flat, orangish, disc-shaped puff inside.  She also carried a compact, with a solid powder.  Her compact had a beautiful Edwardian woman on it.

Mom would tell me she was ready to go, but just needed to powder her nose.  Of course, I’d have to make a nose joke, saying that we’d be leaving next year if she planned on powdering her whole nose.  Mom would anticipate this, and sometimes she would start the joke herself.  “I’m just going to powder my nose,” she’s say, raising her eyebrows, daring the forthcoming joke.

Mom’s face was so smooth and soft.  She had beautiful skin.  Our dermatologist, Dr Bastien, always asked about how Mom was doing.  He never forgot her.  “She’s really a neat lady,” he’d remark, “And she has such nice skin.”  She did.  The face powder  smelled so nice, like talc.  I remember the smell from if I kissed her cheek or whispered something in close.  It had a smooth satiny feeling.  Mom let me try it when I got a little older.

Other than powder, Mom didn’t wear a lot of make up.  If she and Dad were going out to dinner she might apply a light bit of mascara, so light it was barely noticeable.  Mom didn’t wear eye shadow or brow pencil or rouge.  She wore lipstick though.  Powder and lipstick.  She wouldn’t leave the house without those two.  She had mostly frosted, light pink lipsticks and maybe one or two of the clear or rose red 1940’s variety.  None of her lipsticks were bright or gaudy.

While Mom applied makeup with delicate subtlety, hair care was another matter.  Having curly hair was one of Mom’s least favorite things.  Forever attempting to straighten it, Mom would wash with Breck and set with Dipity-Do.  Pulling sections taut as can be with her pink comb, she’d wind gelled hair around large, brush-style rollers. Tighter than a spring, each was secured with an army of hair pins.  In the morning, dry hair would be released and deliberately combed through with the square, brown hairbrush we’d bought from the Fullerbrush man.  Finally, ten gallons of Adorn provided enough aerosol to bring down several rainforests (though we didn’t know this at the time). Mom fixed her hair each Saturday night so it would be nice for church on Sunday.  She’d wear a plastic cap to shower, a soft blue flannel nightcap to bed, and a fashion scarf out in any damp or windy weather.

It wasn’t until after Dad passed that Mom began going weekly to see Ginger at the beauty parlor.  She blow dried Mom’s hair with a large, round brush, which worked a charm.  As weeks passed, Ginger’s right bicep grew and grew.

“Look, this is from doing your Mom’s hair!” she would show me.

Ginger gave Mom hangars under her ears.  A hangar was a stiff, immobile undercurl.  John coined the term.

“Mom, those look like hangars,” John pointed.  “You could land a plane in those.”  He’d fly an index finger into Mom’s hanger.

They were fun to play with, and we all had to try it out.

“Now, kids, leave my hangars alone,” Mom would pat them down, her expression relayed that she was actually enjoying the attention.

After Ginger renewed Mom’s hangars each Saturday, Mom would come home and spray them down with the same ten gallons of Adorn.  She would re-spray with each outing, and in the mornings.

“You could bounce a brick off those,” John would tease, smiling.

When Mom was spraying her hair in the downstairs bathroom, I couldn’t breathe.  I would have to leave the room, even if we were talking.  I would try covering my mouth with my shirt, but it was still too much.  Sometimes I’d open the louvered doors across the entry and sit on the drier.

“You shouldn’t sit on the drier,” Mom would say.

Adorn and powder gave Mom a fresh, together scent I loved.  The two together seemed so dignified, so pulled together and classy.

As for perfume, Mom didn’t wear a lot of perfume.  She sampled Elizabeth Taylor’s signature scent, “Passion” when it premiered in 1988.  “White Shoulders” had a softness she appreciated.  Mom tucked away the fragrance cards from magazines, which she would give me to put as sachets in my bureau drawer.  The most time Mom spent at the perfume counters was when I was a baby.  She would drive the nuns to the department stores where Sister Virginia Mary and a few others would spend time smelling the different perfumes.  Mom remarked later how she would be looking at her watch, nervous she would be late in making Dad’s dinner.

There was one perfume Mom loved.  Mom’s all time favorite scent was the Wicked Wahini Dad brought from Hawaii.  He would always deplane with a beautiful bouquet of anthuriums.  From his “E.B.” initialed suitcase he would pull out a few bottles of Wicked Wahini.

“For my Beautiful, blue-eyed bunny,” Dad would be so happy handing Mom her perfume.

“Oh, Edmund!”  Mom would beam.

They had fun teasing about that perfume.  The formula was considered a love potion, mixing exotic floral scents of the Islands.  The mixture had even been used in romantic tribal rituals by Kahuna.  It is said to consist of “orange flower, island rose, pikake (Hawaiian jasmine), a bit of white musk, sandalwood and fascinating energy of graceful Aloha spirit.”

“We have to find Wicked Wahini for my Mom,” I confided my mission to Eric.  As he and I planned our trip to Maui, I wondered how we could find it.

Mom had not worn it since Dad passed away.  She saved that last bottle, and sometimes she would open the bottle, close her eyes, and inhale.  Smiling, Mom would recall Hawaii with the anthuriums.  She would remind me that Kauai was Dad’s favorite island, and how many times he had asked her to accompany him on his trips.  Mom would refuse, reasoning that if the plane crashed, we kids would be orphans.

“Mary, you can take the next plane then,” Dad would suggest.

“No, Edmund, I don’t want to take any unnecessary chances when the kids are small and need me.  I promise to go with you when they are grown,” Mom would offer lovingly.

These memories were in my mind as I planned to find Wicked Wahini for Mom on our trip. Sometimes perfume that sits too long loses its exact scent.  Eric and I kept our intentions a secret.  Maybe they didn’t even make it anymore.  It had been over a decade.

“Mom… this is for you.  Close your eyes and put out your hand.”  I placed the perfume in her outstretched hands.  “Okay, open your eyes,”  I smiled.

“Oh, Lorraine!”  Mom teared up.  She was so happy.  “Thank you, thank both of you kids.”

I had brought Mom several bottles.  “Now you can wear it and not worry about running out,”  I explained.

Ten years later, when I first experienced the internet, looking for Wicked Wahini was one of the first things I did.  I found it, available to order, and bought some for Mom for her birthday.  I never wanted her to run out again.

The Theater

Grandma A always had a tough time saying the word “Hoover.”  An unmistakable Irish brogue pulled that first syllable into the air with thick reservation.

“So do you remember how we go?”  Grandma questioned, even though Mom well knew how to navigate the path.  “Right at the corner onto Hoover.  It’s less than five minutes then to Florence.  That’s where the U Line ends.  You can catch it there.  It’ll turn and go back down Florence, right, and up Vermont.”

“Yes, Mother,” Mom replied.  She always addressed Grandma as Mother.  The one time she and Joe tried to address her as “Mom” they were told in no short terms not to do so.

“You have your .25 cents?”

“I do.”

“Here, have two more for a candy,” Grandma dug into her purse and handed over the coins.  Two cents would buy Mom two licorice sticks.  There was a big jar full of licorice on the candy counter at the movies.  Chocolate would be even better, but that was a full nickel.

“Thanks!” smiled Mom, slipping it into her sock.  That’s what the girls at school did sometimes.  Mom didn’t want to take her Sunday purse with her.  It was too fancy, and kids didn’t wear fancy clothes to the movies.  This outing was a first, and a bit of a test.  Mom was a big girl now, ten full years old.  If she could find her way around the neighborhood, board the streetcar, give her money at the movies, and find her way back home – maybe next time Mom could bring Eleanor with her.

Mom loved going to the movies.  Her favorite movie as a child was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Just before Mom’s sixth Christmas, the newspaper’s front page told of Snow White’s star-studded premiere.  All the names in show business were there – Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, Fred MacMurray, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, John Barrymore, and Marlene Dietrich.  Clearly, Snow White was a big deal.  It was the first full length, cel-animated motion picture in history.  Walt Disney had promoted Snow White during the popular Saturday kids matinées.  In February, 1938, Grandma took the kids to see it. Mom entered the theater with anticipation and watched with wide, amazed eyes.  “Oh, I loved that movie,” she repeatedly recounted.  She loved how beautiful Snow White was.  She loved the music.  (I suspect she loved the tidy work ethic of the dwarves.)  That movie became a part of her.  She always appeared wistful when speaking of it, and I loved finding Snow White related items to show her through the years. *

This day, though, Mom was not six anymore.  She was ten years old and eager to join her school friends at the matinée.  That’s what the kids mostly did on Saturdays.  An afternoon at the theater might be five or six hours long.  They would screen cartoons, popular series films, each about 15 to 20 mins, and often a short Western.  There was almost always a double feature.  Pre-adolescent children pushed their way into packed theater houses.  Often the kids were rowdy and noisy, booing or hissing when a villan would arrive.  If the film reel broke, they’d stomp their feet and yell or scream at the management.  Sometimes fistfights broke out.  At school on Monday there would be talk in the schoolyard about the whole ta-doo.  Sometimes when the kids would meet one another, they would greet with “Duuh”… to which the recipient would respond in kind, “Duuuh.”  (Recounting this brought Mom and I to tears in laughter!)

Strolling down Florence, Mom barely had time to whistle one song before arriving at the streetcar.  The U Line connected neighborhoods all the way North to USC.   It traveled straight down the center of wide ol’ Vermont Street.

South end of the line, at Florence and Vermont

Florence Blvd, heading south on Vermont     (from  http://www.pacificelectric.org/los-angeles-railway/u-line/303-on-the-u-line/ )

Money in hand, Mom boarded, and the streetcar scooted up Vermont.  Smiling, she held her head high, chin up, and assumed the casual air of a proper ten year old.  She was, after all, a big girl now.

Independent theaters lined Vermont.  Within two miles from home, Mom had access to six or more movie houses: the Congress, Madrid, Temple Theater, the Rio, Astor, and Vermont.  By the mid 1930’s, Los Angeles had  more movie theaters than we have Starbucks.  Each of these had one screen and between 350 to 900 seats.  Some were conversions from as early as 1914 with fancy organs and architecture.  And even though it was the Depression and few luxuries were afforded, somehow families found money to enjoy these movie theaters.  By 1934, the majority of families saw at least one movie per week.  Nothing was quite like going to the movies.

Mom loved all kinds of movies, but especially she loved Shirley Temple movies.  Shirley Temple was a few years older than Mom, just the right difference to look up to.  Mom found her adorable.  Shirley was sweet, talented, and beautiful.  She had nice clothes, and a positive message of hope wove its way through her films.  Grandma started to curl Mom’s hair like Shirley Temple for occasions.  The love for Shirley Temple extended through Mom’s whole life.  It was Mom’s love for Shirley which landed me in tap dance lessons – and ballet for good measure.  Mom’s face beamed as I learned the dance routine to “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”  My hair was also curled like Shirley Temple for occasions, and I suspect some of the fashions Mom sewed for me had Shirley in mind.  Mom loved to watch her movies, even as a grown up, and keep up with news about her in the celebrity magazines.  Later in life, when Mom decided to treat herself to something she would enjoy, she chose to expand her doll collection with the Official Shirley Temple dolls.  Each doll portrayed Shirley from a particular movie role.  Mom would excitedly unwrap the doll to show me.  After careful, almost surgical level re-wrapping and re-boxing the doll, it was off to Suncoast video or Video Depot to find the movie.  Mom wanted to own each movie which she had the doll for.  Sometimes she would special order them, if the video stores didn’t carry the title.

Mom, with her hair curled like Shirley Temple.

“You can just get lost in movies,” Mom would say.  “Gone With the Wind” was another favorite Mom enjoyed in those early movie houses.  Years later, Mom took me to see “Gone With the Wind” as a teen.  She had told me for years that I reminded her of Scarlett O’Hara.  I couldn’t believe what a wonderful movie it was!  We saw it at the Baronet in Woodland Hills.  It was the first movie I had attended with an intermission.  “He’s so handsome!” I squealed as we refreshed our popcorn and soda.  “I know,” Mom smiled, raising an eyebrow.  Mom said Scarlett’s final moment reminded her of my indomitable spirit in life, and from then on, we refered to the Westlake house as Tara. When she spoke about Clark Gable, Mom’s eyes would shine with a mischievous smile.  She frequently blamed Marilyn Monroe for his death, saying he was overtaxed in the heat of the desert during a movie they were filming.  Fred Astaire was another favorite (for different reasons), and Ginger Rodgers.  Mom loved Jimmy Stewart and what a nice guy he seemed to be. Sometimes Mom would tell me I looked like a heroine from a B movie.  “Honey, you’re so thin, with a piece of hair going here and one there.  You look like the heroine of a B movie.”

One movie Mom spoke ill of was 1941’s “Tobacco Road.”  While most Depression-era movies shared tales of hope, “Tobacco Road” was a story of poverty and despair.   The movie had been filmed on closed sets so it would not meet with religious opposition and be banned before its release.  For the same reason, there was little to no promotion in advance.  Mom was taken aback by what she saw.  It was the one movie she repeatedly denounced.  In fact, I believe it was the only movie she walked out on.  “It was terrible… horrible.  People unwashed and hungry – living in intense poverty with no hope at all.”  Mom would recount, “They were living like hillbillies.  It was awful.  The Catholic Church condemned it.  It was so filled with despair, and despair is a sin.”  Later, when it came on tv, Mom caught a glimpse.  “Oh, turn that… that’s that ‘Tobacco Road’ – it was condemned by the church.”  The images of the film left such an impression on Mom, that it became a simile she drew from.  If I looked hungry, tired, or my clothes were too old, Mom would say, “Honey, you look like a ragpicker.  This isn’t ‘Tobacco Road,’ you know.”  Similarly, if a neighborhood or house was unkempt, Mom could barely stand it.  She could not bear clutter or chaos.  A house with a dilapidated yard, trash blowing around – Mom would remark, “It’s like Tobacco Road.”  And years later, when Dad found a woman he helped living in abject poverty, Mom recounted the story, “She is up there living like ‘Tobacco Road.’ ”

While movies like “Tobacco Road” seemed determined to bust morale, other films and stars seemed able to lift everyone’s spirits.  One star, Carmen Miranda, arrived on the scene in 1939, when Mom was eight years old.  Immediately, Mom loved her.  For her American movie debut, Carmen teamed with Betty Grable and Don Ameche in “Down Argentine Way.”  It was so lively and musical, Mom loved it.  Not to mention, Carmen Miranda was even Catholic!  Carmen became the 1930’s version of the pop star Madonna.  Just as girls and teens wanted to look like Madonna in the 1980’s, the little girls and teens in 1939 and into the 1940’s wanted to look like Carmen Miranda.  Department stores rushed to market jewelry donned with fruit. She was fabulously successful and considered quite a sex symbol.  The United States Government had even extended a hand to Carmen, encouraging her movies and performances.  President Roosevelt received her days after her arrival into the country from Latin America.  He was establishing his “Good Neighbor policy” and putting a face onto Latin America via Carmen served his political interests.  Americans loved her, and Mom was no exception.  In fact, Mom’s love of Carmen Miranda extended into her adult life.  She frequently mentioned her.  I loved looking for Carmen related gifts to show Mom.  When, in 1985, Betty Boop was portrayed as Ms. Miranda in cookie jar form, we had to buy it.  Mom kept it with her, and it was in her room even in her last years. 

Living in Los Angeles those early years truly brought a focus on the life of movie stars like Carmen Miranda.  One day you’d see a star on the big screen, and next you’d hear news of their local meanderings.  It wasn’t unusual to hear the scuttlebutt about how so n so was seen at the Brown Derby last Thursday.  Movie stars were surrounded with mystique.  Little girls shared this extra excitement of being close to the glamour of stardom.  Mom would pile Eleanor’s hair up on top of her head, dress up, and play movie stars.  They’d play out the imagined life of the fabulous and glamorous heroine’s of Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the 1920’s had transformed LA from a little overgrown town into America’s fifth largest city.  Palms were planted down Vermont as real estate agents promoted the area as a tropical paradise.  The movie industry fed into this image and took root.  The presence of movie stars grew LA’s idyllic mythology.  There was still a bit of old Hollywood around in the 1970’s, when Mom and Eleanor were able to witness a second generation, with Maryann and myself, being starstruck by the likes of the Bionic Woman or Sonny and Cher.  Just as Mom hoped to spot Carmen Miranda or Elizabeth Taylor, I’d be on full alert for sightings of Cher.  The theater, Los Angeles, and movie stars became a part of us all.

a newspaper listing a fragment of the independent movie theaters in LA in the 1930’s

*footnote:  In Mom’s last year at Sunrise, the showed Snow White to the folks in the Reminiscence floor.  I tried with effort to show Mom the movie.  When she did not notice it, I thought maybe the music would bring it back to her.  But she began dozing off.  I pointed out the music, longing for connection, knowing how very much she loved the movie.  It was heartbreaking,  being on the precipice of nostalgia, and falling into it alone, devoured by the yawning monster which is time.

Grape Soda Wins

Bob Cole’s dancers in parade in Inglewood

“See that ‘T’ word?  T-o-panga?  See that off ramp?  When you see that, you know we’re almost home.  About twenty more minutes.”

Driving from Westlake to Inglewood every Wednesday after school was a chore.  The dance lessons were enjoyable; those I didn’t mind.  I minded the drive.  It was hard not to squirm all over the car, which made Mom nervous.  I would lay down in the back seat for a while, looking at the ceiling of the car, feeling the road bumping below us.  I’d wait and wait an eternity before popping back up and asking Mom how much longer.  But each eternity was measured in four or five-minute snatches.

“Can I change the radio?”  I threw my leg over the top of the seat and slid down into the front.  Mom drew a muffled gasp over closed teeth, putting her arm out across me.  The demonstration conveyed that I was making her nervous.

“I don’t mind, honey,” Mom’s brow was furrowed in distraction.  She turned her attention back to the freeway.

Mom always let me switch the radio stations.  She didn’t care if I spent the whole ride flipping channels.  She was just glad that I was keeping busy.  I’d sit up front, criss-cross applesauce on the front seat.

It’s always been enormously difficult for me to sit still when good music plays.   A catchy beat filters through my ears and straight into my soul.  If I try to remain still, my mind gets all jumbley.  I can’t do it.  Well, I can but it takes every bit of my concentration.  My body wills synchronicity, sometimes all over the front seat.

“I wonder where you get that sense of rhythm?” Mom smiled, casting a sideways impish glance.

When we were in polite company, Mom would never make such a joke.  When others were around, she would refer to her paternal ethnicity as French and Indian.  But Mom was in fact French Creole from her father’s side, and when she spoke to me she would sometimes joke about the possible origins of her curly hair, or mention that my Grandfather loved Creole cooking and culture.  She’d listen to fellow Missourian Scott Joplin’s ragtime and recount how her dad loved to eat pigs feet.  That was “real Creole cooking.”  Once in Los Angeles, Grandpa would buy them in a jar.

According to Israeli researchers, two variant genes account for the inclination to experience dance compulsively and transcendently.  However it was mapped and for whatever reason, Mom was right about my inheriting the dance gene.  We had it all over the place.  My Irish grandma stayed up until “wee hours” dancing jigs and reels at Hibernian Hall in Saint Louis, simultaneously tipping a glass.  And on Dad’s side, he could match polka for jig any day.  All that dancing energy funneled straight past my three brothers and poured into me.  This is still true today.  I can’t even sit still during mass.  Put the slightest beat to a hymn, and I feel that beat tickling up my sides, over my ribs, and liquefying my shoulders.  Once the shoulders get going, my backbone slips to jelly.  Sitting still becomes hopeless.  Mom recognized early on that I needed some kind of channel for all this energy.  As soon as I was steady on my feet, she signed me up for dancing lessons at Bob Cole’s Dance Studio.

Bob Cole’s was in Inglewood, about a two-mile scoot from our house in Westchester.  I remember the great, old building on Arbor Vitae Street and Hawthorne Blvd.  There’s no trace of it now.  But back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was just above Ketcham’s Sporting Goods.  Dancers entered the building on the Arbor Vitae side and took a narrow, wooden, creaky staircase up to the second floor.  The studio was directly above Ketcham’s.  The staircase had once been an orangeish wood but was stained dark from years of use. Half way up the stairs a soda dispenser promised cold sodas for a quarter, cold as can be.  After class, Mom would stop long enough to comb through her coin purse, put in a quarter, and buy me a grape soda. It dispensed in a glass bottle.  All those little glass bottles were in the right window.  The machine had a bottle opener built into its side.  Slide the soda top in and pull the cap off.  That was half the fun.

Up we’d thump, up those stairs and into the studio.  Bob Cole was big news.  His studio participated in all the local parades, including the Santa Claus Lane Parade.  If children worked hard enough, they could march in the actual Santa Claus Lane Parade, in Hollywood.   Mr. Cole not only had dancers in the parades, but also marching baton twirlers, pom-pom girls, and “tumblers.”  My cousin Maryann was great at tumbling.  I wasn’t allowed to do too much of that.  Mom always said Bob Cole was an older man, and what if he had me in the air and suddenly got a heart attack, mid twirl.  No aerial work for me.

Mr. Cole was talented and had been in the business a long time.  He had an important aire about him. Like a cartoon of success, the chrome on his Rolls Royce would gleam in the Southern California sunshine as he drove behind us in parades, waving, the marching music pouring across Los Angeles. He knew celebrities like Soupy Sales. Signed pictures hung inside his studio, famous people he knew, including pictures of Russ Tamblyn.  Russ had been Mr. Cole’s student.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdAvEOt-l_I

Siblings and parents filed in and would wait on hard wooden benches just inside the studio door.  Kids slipped off their toe, tap, and soft shoes and warmed up on a huge trampoline and on soft tumbling mats.  Mom didn’t want me using the trampoline unless Mr. Cole was right there.  Trampolines were neck-breakers.

Basic Position. Arabesque. Saut de Chat. Tour Jete.  Pirouette.  Plie`.  Heel and toe.  Heel and toe. Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.  By the time I was three years old, Mr. Cole took Mom aside and told her he felt I had some talent.  He wanted me in toe shoes so I could learn more advanced routines.

“My little dancer!”  Mom was so proud.

I got brand new, hard-toe ballet shoes, which barely came in my size.  They had beautiful, long, satiny black laces which tied half way up my leg, nearly at my knee.

“Here, sit down,” Mom patted the bench next to her.  She helped me lace my new shoes just perfectly.  I never was allowed to wear my dance shoes in play- only at Bob Cole’s studio or at home if I was practicing on our clean floor.  When I finished dancing, Mom taught me to flatten out the satin laces, so they wouldn’t get “rumpley.”  I should wind them, and not too tightly, around my shoes and place them in the hard compartment of my purple dance case.  The lower section was just for shoes and had a black snap.  My tap shoes also went into that compartment.  By separating the shoes, it kept the upper portion clean.  That section held my leotards and pink tutu.  It also held 45 records for the ride home, on days Mr. Cole handed out new records.  But that was rare.  I only had a total of about seven or eight.  Mom said since my soft shoes didn’t fit in the lower snap place with the new shoes, I should place them at the bottom of the top compartment, soles down.  All my official costumes – with sequences and feathers- were at home, in my closet on the far left, dry-cleaned, and wrapped in plastic.  I would wear costumes when we paraded or if we visited the old folks homes.

I felt nervous when we visited old folks homes.  I didn’t know where to place my gaze.  I’d look at my feet and feel rude, look in their faces and feel scared and panicked, and look around the room and run out of room to look at very quickly.  To get through my nerves, I’d look at Mom.  She’d smile.  If I forgot to smile she would tip her head up and smile, lifting her chin east to west, as if to suggest I smile at the audience.  I couldn’t.

“You were the best little dancer in the whole room!” Mom would assert. “You made their day.”  Older people seemed to especially enjoy our noisy tap routines.  Or maybe they clapped loudly because we’d deafened them.

Mom loved tap because it reminded her of Shirley Temple.  We danced “I’m a Little Teapot” and were given the 45 record to practice at home.  I would practice, but flush with embarrassment because the words were silly.  Sometimes it made me want to disappear, but Mom was so proud of me, I did the routine anyway.  We also learned “Tea for Two,” and were given that record.  Mom would talk about the great dancers to me.  She would love to tell me about Shirley Temple, but also Ginger Rodgers, Fred Astaire, and others.

I didn’t have friends in dance class, but there were two girls whose mothers would talk to Mom.  One was an Asian girl, very petite and pretty.  Another was a blonde little girl who looked like a beauty pageant.  Her Mom had her wear make up, even though she was only four years old.  Her hair was fluffed out really big. The girl’s Mother said her daughter would be discovered, that she already had an agent.  She seemed so glamorous.  On the other hand, kids at my school were teasing me about my looks.  I confided to Mom.

“You are so pretty,” Mom told me, sitting on the hard bench.  She had been helping me on with my shoes.  She slipped her arm around my shoulder and brought her face near mine.  Mom did that when she was trying to convince me of something. “You know you are ten times- a hundred times- prettier than that little girl.  Honey, you have classic beauty.  Do you know that? You have that little pointed chin.”

“But I’m fat,” I felt out-of-place next to my would-be-movie-star classmate.

“No, no….oh gosh…”  Mom rolled her eyes and went on, pointing, “In fact, you have dancers’ legs.”

“But Mom, dancers have fat legs!”  I offered as proof.

Mom laughed, “Since when?!  They do not.  They have legs that are shaped nicely, because they spend so long dancing.  They just don’t look like they belong in a concentration camp.”

“But I want to look skinny, like Cher,”  I went on.

“Cher doesn’t have nice legs. She is all bow-legged,” Mom explained.

“But being bow-legged makes her look even skinner.  I want to be bow-legged.  How can I get bow-legged?”

“You can’t.  You don’t want to be bow-legged!”

“Yes, I do.  It looks skinny,” I had my mind set.

“Well, you can’t.  I think some people get bow-legged from riding a horse too long,” Mom conjectured.

“Can I have horse riding lessons instead?” I begged.

“No,”  Mom was smiling.  “No, honey, people break their necks on horses every day.”

“But people break their necks on trampolines, too.  And you would save me from that if I switched to horse riding.”

“Honey, listen, no, you can’t have horse lessons.  And you don’t want bowed legs.  God gave you dancers legs.  In fact, you have your father’s legs, not mine.  Talk about bad legs.  You should be down on your knees thanking God for giving you your father’s legs instead of mine.  Do you think your father has fat legs?”

“No.”

“Well then you can’t think you do either.  Now, go on, Mr. Cole will be waiting.”

I can’t remember if I got my grape soda that night or if Mom got me a chocolate dipped Foster’s Freeze, which was my alternate after dance treat.  But either way, I had set aside my worries, if only temporarily.  It’s hard to worry about weight too much when you have a choice between grape soda or ice cream.

Sometimes My Name Is Eleanor

Mom and her sister Eleanor were five years apart in age.  Even as a small child, this observation troubled me.  I worried about when Mom might die.  Both of my parents seemed part of a social climate more reflective of the 1950’s than the blossoming, technicolor 1960’s.  In fact, my parents were older than most of my peers’ parents.  Laying awake at night, I’d consider being the youngest of my entire extended family.  The book John was reading, Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” or “And Then There Were None” spelled out my eventuality.  When John shared the plot with me, I knew I would someday be Vera, the last one standing.  Like Vera, I would hang myself in a trance.  Until that day, mortality pressed upon my chest, making my heart heavy and serious.

“How lucky you are,” I’d consider my cousin, Maryann.  Eleanor was five years younger than Mom.  Five whole years. Mom would likely go to heaven five times 365 days before Eleanor.  I wondered if they realized how lucky they were to have such young parents.  I was seen as morose and weird.

As fate had it, Eleanor passed away years before Mom.  I wish she had lived much longer than she did.  I loved Eleanor.  This proved to be a good thing because half the time I was called Eleanor.  “Eleanor…” or “Eleanor!” or “Eleanor…?”  Mom always used to mistake my name.  Not always, but often.  I stopped protesting after a short time and just went with it.  “Yeah?” I’d answer.  Then Mom would backtrack, “Oh, honey… I’m sorry… I always am calling you Eleanor.”

I didn’t mind.  The reason Mom would confuse us is due to the fact that she nearly raised Eleanor as her own child.  Grandma A was a working Mom, years before it was fashionable.  She would head off to be a kitchen girl, service girl, or sometimes a cleaning woman for the wealthy Taggard family.  Mr and Mrs Taggard employed Grandma and adored her.  When Grandpa A was home sleeping during the day, after working nights on the railroad, Mom was in charge of housekeeping and in charge of Eleanor.

“I’d get so scared sometimes,” Mom would tell me, “Eleanor would want something.  If she didn’t get it, she would hold her breath!  She would hold her breath until she would pass out.  Oh, I would be so scared.  But she would get what she wanted, just because your Grandmother wouldn’t want her passing out at stores.  Your Grandmother told the doctor, and he said to let her pass out.  He said she’ll wake up again and understand that’s no way to get her way in things.  But she would start to turn blue.  It was a fright.”

“But you know, Eleanor was always sort of sickly as a child.  When she was about three, she went on a diet.  She was a tiny girl.  She couldn’t have been more than about three or so years old, but she decided to lose weight.  She stopped eating.  All her beautiful hair fell out.  The bone in her chest came out, too;  it protruded.  That’s why you still see that bone today.  It wasn’t there before, but it showed up when she took the notion for this diet.  She got so weak, she couldn’t walk.  She wasn’t able to.  And your Grandparents would each take her, one on each side, and they would walk with her, teaching her to walk again.”

Mom said Eleanor didn’t need to lose weight, that she was always thin.  “She has those thin little arms and legs,” Mom would say.  Then she would add, “Not like me.  Eleanor could always- even as a teen – she could shop in these cute little shops.  They sold cheap clothes, but they were the fashions.  Eleanor could get dozens of things, because they were inexpensive, and they would look so cute on her.  But for me, your Grandmother would have to shop at the department stores.  I had broad shoulders and was just… bigger.  Bigger bones.  I couldn’t wear the cheap clothes, so I could only get a few things.  We couldn’t often afford those department store clothes.”

I know how Mom felt, because I was the same way.

Sometimes Mom and I, and Eleanor and my cousin Maryann, would tease.  We would say Maryann and I got switched at birth.  Maryann is three years my senior, therefore it would need be a prolonged labor! Maryann loved ice cream like Mom, and I loved vegetables like Eleanor.  I loved to shop and buy clothes on a whim, and Maryann was able to be more serious and save her money.  Sometimes Eleanor would tell Mom that Maryann had bought a couple of new dresses, kept them in the bag, and had finally returned them.  She could pinch pennies.  I, on the other hand, would rip the tags off and change into a new dress in the car.  I cried easily just like Eleanor.  Maryann worked several jobs and was conscientious.  I found it hard to settled down and be serious.  I quit jobs easily. But just like Mom, I had those big bones, and Maryann has Eleanor’s tiny frame.

Eleanor loved to buy Maryann clothes.  I remember going to their house after school.  It was just a couple blocks from ours.  Sometimes Eleanor would have a clothes bag from one of those cute teen shops hanging on Maryann’s bedroom doorknob.  It would be packed to the brim with new clothes.  I felt like Maryann was so lucky.  I wanted to come home and find bags of clothes someday, too.  Well, that wasn’t Mom’s way.  But as the years passed, and after Dad died, Mom would often say to me, “Come on, let’s go to the mall and get you a new little outfit.”  I loved that.  I just totally loved that.

Emptyness and Schlub

I awoke this morning crying.  In my dream, there was a terrible void, a marked feeling of immanent distress and turmoil.  I knew, in the dream, that Mom could “fix things.”  I looked in the car, but couldn’t find her.  Instead, in the trunk, was her empty sweater.  It was her off white, thick, winter sweater with the lines running down it.  I grabbed it up and hugged it, empty.  Tears poured down my cheeks.

I remember my dream the night before.  I found Mom’s grey coat under a pile of clutter.  I said to E, “I found my Mom’s grey coat.”  “That was the one she fell down the stairs in,” he responded.  “Yes,” I said, “but there is no blood on the collar.  Would it all have come off?  I know she took it to the dry cleaners.”  “Maybe so,” E responded.  I looked and looked at that coat.  I remembered all the times Mom grabbed it, rushing out the door to State Farm.  And now it was empty.  Again, I woke crying.

Are the lines down sweaters called something?  Mom and I were told the pile on drapery is called “schlub.”  We were out getting drapes for her new place.  She wanted so badly to match her bedroom drapes to her bedspread.  It was the bedspread she’d had all those years in Westlake.  It’s great condition reflected the care it had been treated with. Mom never considered buying a whole new matching set of bedspread and drapes.  I’m sure it also reminded her of Dad.

Of course it was in great condition.  Mom treated such things with respect. A nice bedspread was like a chunk of gold to her. Each morning Mom would ask my help in making her bed.  We’d lift the carefully folded bedspread off her highboy dresser and set it down at the end of the bed.  One of us on each side, we’d unroll it, tucking the pillows in just so at the top.  We never, ever sat on it.  And when we wanted to watch a movie or if Mom was going to sleep, it would again be neatly folded, and set atop the highboy.

Mom and I scoured the city looking to match drapes.  We went to the fabric shop on T.O. Blvd – the very shop Mom and Dad ordered the drapes for Westlake from fifteen years before.  The shop wasn’t the same, though, and Mom was disappointed.

“They seem very highfalutin these days,” Mom remarked.  The woman in the shop seemed to treat us in a condescending manner, likely because we weren’t dressed like typical Westlake women.

“The texture on this sample.. I don’t know,” Mom hesitated, wondering if it was too formal for her country theme house.

“That is called the drapery’s schlub,” the snooty woman corrected us.

“Oh, I see,” replied Mom, “Okay…”

I was offended!  I began whispering to Mom frantically as the lady busied herself elsewhere.  “What a snot!” I was mad.  “The schlub…. oh, that’s the schlub…” I imitated slightly too loudly.

“Shhh, honey,” Mom suppressed a smile.  “She’s right, it’s important to know the proper name for things.”

As mad as I was, Mom seemed more amused than angry!  I quieted down, eyeing the woman’s backside with disdain.  Mom continued to comb through the drapery samples, and in time decided they didn’t have what we needed.  The woman approached us as we stood to leave.

“Didn’t find anything?” She patronized, likely thinking our taste was somehow too unsophisticated for her fancy shop.

“Well, we rubes typically like to use last years bed sheets on our windows,” I wanted to blurt out.  Mom, knowing me too well, quickly interjected, “No, thank you.  We may think about it and be back.”

The shop’s belled door clanged shut behind us.  I kicked cement parking stop outside and twirled around, fists clenched.  “Uhhh!” I exclaimed, “How could you be nice to her?!”  I questioned.

Mom smiled, almost laughing.  “Honey, I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction.”

“What do you mean?” I was baffled.  In my estimation, that woman’s elitist behavior called for a good, swift, verbal kick in the groin.

“She would have been delighted if we were upset.  There was no way I was giving her that.  Besides, she has to go home and live with herself.  That’s punishment enough. Thank God you don’t have to bring her home at night.”

That thought has often brought me comfort when dealing with life’s idiots.  Sometimes it’s just best to thank God you don’t have to bring them home at night.

Mom and I continued to have such fun at that woman’s expense.  That schlub brought us a thousand laughs.  In the weeks following, as we traversed the city looking for drapes, one of us would don an aristocratic air, “Oh that schlub is clearly inferior,” “Are you suggesting that pithy schlub?” “That schlub would be a travesty with my decor.”  On and on.  Mom never did find those drapes, but she refused to replace the bedspread either.  A mismatched room with heart is better than all the schlub in the world.

Dr. Mom

“As God made them, the devil matched them.” Mom’s idiom for misbehaving compatriots described how I felt about coughs and cough syrup.  Just when a cough had convinced a child that death had arrived with its sickle, cough syrup came along to hasten the violence.  Cough syrup should be avoided at all costs.  Nothing tastes worse. Suppressing a cough became an art form. I’d breathe through my shirt, or take small sips of water, or try a slow prolonged inhale.  Still, no matter how sly my concealments, Mom would notice.  Then, she’d reach for the cough syrup.

Thick and deep red, it clung to the spoon, promising to coat your throat with a taste too evil to exorcise, even after a spoon of sugar.  In the cupboard to the right of the kitchen sink, third shelf up, on the far right, it laughed, mockingly.  How did Mom procure this pesky threat?  I hadn’t been to a doctor since we’d moved. I had no physician from age four to age eleven.  I suspect Mom frequented some maternal black market where mid-century Moms slid into back alleys, curlers peeking from beneath flowered scarves, dollar bills in hand, ready to make an exchange.

“This is da shit,” a cloaked man would mutter.

“Don’t swear at me, young man.  I’m old enough to be your mother.  I could wash your mouth out with soap.”

“Sorry, Ma’am.  Here’s the cough medicine for your kid.”

“Thank you.  Keep the change.  Use it to buy a lesson in manners.”

Somehow, we never ran out of cough syrup.  I would take it as quickly as possible, but Mom would make me finish even the sheen left on the spoon.  After all, that thick remanent may have the exact micro-ounce I’d otherwise be missing.  Mom was a perfectionist.  Then came my spoon of sugar.

Today, I realized no one had noticed my coughs for years.  I could be birthing Beelzebub from my lungs, and Eric would only remark how he also populates Hades with every cold. “It’s nothing.”  Mom always worried about me.  Before her dementia set in, Mom would look at me with each cough.  If I coughed 2,973 times in a day, Mom looked up at me with concern all 2,973 times, pausing to furrow her brow.  Even after the dementia, on good days, Mom showed the same loving concern. Today, I cried over this.  I used to tell Mom I’d rather chance death than take that medicine.  Now, here I am longing for the love which insisted upon my taking it.