My childhood did not contain just one storyline. There was the story of our family unit, steered and dominated by the adults. And there was the story of us four kids. In isolation from elders and authority figures, we had a dynamic all our own. We played, explored and fought. We solved some problems and created others. There were politics and deals. Sometimes we united against a hostile world. Other times we divided along age lines. Like the time Bobby and Teri (the oldest) put boxing gloves on me and Ross (the youngest) and convinced us to fight. Ross and I punched each other until tears streamed down our red, puffy faces. It was miserable. Painful. Humiliating. But, spurred by stubbornness and our siblings’ frenzied screams, neither of us was willing to back down. Of course, none of us ever told Mom. We knew it was stupid and wrong. What were we thinking? Beating each other up in some bizarre infantile fight club? It made no sense.
But a lot of things didn’t make sense back then. Frankly, we were all winging it. Mom was learning to be a single mom. Grandma was learning to be a widowed grandma. We kids were learning how to grow up, often on our own as the real grown-ups tried to scrape together a living. Contrary to popular opinion, none of it came naturally. And none of it was easy. Nor was it dull.
Ours was a nomadic family—always on the move, looking for a better life—and we had no time to set down roots. We were tumbleweeds blown every which way by fickle winds of change. From Carson we blew to Burbank; from Burbank to Vegas; from Vegas to Carson; from Carson to North Hollywood; from North Hollywood to Utah; and then back to Burbank where we’d finally settle. During this maelstrom, the boys banded together and the girls banded together. And, of course, Mom and Grandma were around to run the ship … should it ever come in.
When not in school, we four kids explored whatever place we happened to inhabit at the time. In Carson, we roamed fields sprinkled with oil pumping “grasshoppers” that bobbed their green metal heads all day long. There were mounds of dirt to climb; stagnant ponds filled with pollywogs; cattail reeds and brilliant blue dragonflies that would hover curiously near our faces, then zip away on whirring wings. North Las Vegas was vast and desolate. What on first glance appeared lifeless was crawling with creatures both beautiful and frightening: roadrunners, horny toads, coyotes, rattlesnakes, scorpions, lizards and jack rabbits that thundered noisily through the scrub. With t-shirts tied around our heads and swords of broomsticks or curtain rods in our hands, we’d set out to discover the mysteries of the desert. Utah was as different from Vegas as two places could be. It was a mountainous wonderland the like of which I’d never seen. Our rented house sat on the edge of an abandoned golf course that was transformed into a wintry playground once the snow began to fall in earnest. Together with our two dogs, Taffy the toy collie and Chico the short stout mutt, we carved our way through snowdrifts and shoe skated on a frozen pond. These adventures formed the glowing happy memories of childhood. Memories that coexisted with darker happenings that would also leave their mark: rejection by other kids; sleeping in a huddle with no furniture; not having money for food or clothing; having to beg just to make it until the next check came in. Through all of it, we had each other. Mom and Grandma played games with us. Watched movies with us. Told us story after story after story. They talked to us about life’s comedies and tragedies in equal measure. There were no secrets. We were exposed to every financial pitfall and drama. But Mom and Grandma always let us know we were loved.
This closeness was a security blanket in a life fraught with turmoil and instability. But it also made bonding with other kids difficult and uncomfortable. Being the shyest of the four, I rarely made friends outside our little nucleus. Because we moved so often, my siblings and I were always the new kids. The weird kids. The kids with funny clothes and awkward mannerisms. Mom would often get our school clothes from thrift stores or even donated by the Catholic Church. “Vintage” wasn’t a thing yet. Old threads didn’t have an iota of hipness. They just meant you were poor. And poor wasn’t cool at any of the half dozen or so elementary schools we attended. As a result, we were picked on, name-called, ostracized from many of the activities that made school fun. What choice did we have but to stick together?
Each of us had our ticks and eccentricities developed to cope with this haphazard lifestyle. Bobby was bossy. Ross had a temper. Teri rocked back and forth while swinging one leg. And I was a bedwetter, thumbsucker and thief. I’d steal quarters from Bobby’s precious coin collection and spend them on the ice cream man. I’d sneak change out of my mother’s purse to buy candy. Once, when I was six, I stole a bag of doggy treats from the Handy Market in Burbank while tagging along on a candy run with my big brother. Either the store employees saw me stick the bag in my underwear or the bulge in the front of my dress was ridiculously obvious. I don’t know which. But I got caught. The cashier told me I’d better run and tell my mother what I’d done or she’d come over and do it herself. I cried all the way home. Hiccupping and miserable, I made my confession—positive the store clerk would appear at our door any minute and tell. (She never did.) Mom sternly reprimanded me for my transgression. “Don’t you ever steal again, Lorraine Elizabeth. It’s a mortal sin. Now come here.” My honesty, albeit under duress, had bought me points. She wrapped me in her arms and held me to her soft, comforting bosom. “I, I, wo-won’t,” I promised. At that moment, I really meant it.
Two other storylines were prominent in my early life: the one that was mine alone and the one I shared with my sister, Theresa Ann (Teri). She was my constant companion, bedmate and best friend. For many years, she was my only friend.
Though she was just a year older than me, I looked up to Teri. She had golden blond hair that did not tangle into a rat’s nest at the back of her head like mine always did. She was good at drawing and music. Teri sang, wrote songs and even taught herself to play the ukulele. I benefitted from her gifts. We’d sing her songs together and create dance routines to perform for Mom and Grandma. We’d put costumes on the dogs and make them participate in our skits. Of all Teri’s virtues, the ones that inspired the most awe in me were her natural strength and courage. While I was a shy and introverted bookworm, my sister was a bad ass. Teri’s fierceness grew after the abuse she suffered at the hands of our Grandpa Herb. From that time on, a flame smoldered inside her. One that ignited whenever she saw anyone picking on someone smaller or weaker. Someone like me.
When Teri was ten and I was nine, she developed an ongoing “fight” with a girl named Edris—the baddest girl in the fifth grade at Annalee Avenue Elementary School in Carson. Edris and Teri had been friends. But when Teri did something to piss Edris off, everything changed. It may have been because Edris was black and Teri was white. It was, after all, the late 1960s when racial tension in Los Angeles was peaking. Much of what happened on the streets and on TV also played out in the schoolyard. So, life at school became Hell. Edris and her friends ganged up on my sister every chance they got. Teri sprinted home from school every day to avoid them. I wasn’t so fast. I was a shy, ratty-haired white girl with downcast eyes. A geek. Sensing my weakness, Edris’s little sister, Deedra, decided to extend the fight to me. She and her friends got me alone on my way home from school. They called me a White Paddy and a Honky. Deedra grabbed my hair and punched me in the face. She and her friends laughed as I ran in a panic for home. They weren’t discouraged when I recruited a teenage baby sitter to walk to school with me. They charged us in a swarm. The babysitter looked stunned as I fled screeching for the safety of school. Being included in this conflict was a terrifying development for me. I couldn’t look those other kids in the eyes much less defend myself physically. Mom knew things were escalating out of control. The next day, she sat Teri down for a talk.
“You’re going to have to fight this girl or she’ll never leave you alone.”
Teri looked at Mom with disbelief. Grown-ups did not encourage fighting.
“Tell her you’ll meet her at 3:30 at the junior high school. Have it out and it’ll be over once and for all.”
“But, Mom, she’ll be there with all her friends. They’ll kick my butt.”
“Not if I’m there they won’t. Lori and I are going with you.”
The next day, the three of us walked the half-mile to the junior high school. Sure enough, Edris was there waiting with Deedra and six other kids on the playground. When they saw Mom, their mouths dropped open. It was not what they expected.
“Alright, Mom said in a loud clear voice. Teri and Edris are going to fight and no one steps in or they deal with me.”
It was surreal. Like a weird dream. Was my mother really going to let them fight? The other kids looked just as confused, but they complied. We formed a circle around Teri and Edris. Mom gave the signal and they started punching. Two strong and healthy 10-year-old girls—one black, one white—pummeled each other for the next ten minutes. Hair was pulled. Nails clawed at tender skin. Several times they went down to the ground and wrestled. What should have been a loud and raucous event, was strangely silent except for the grunting and panting of the fighters. It was hard to watch. I kept looking at Mom. Waiting for her to step in. She never did. Finally, when both girls were exhausted and dripping with sweat, the school principal ran over.
“What the heck is going on here? Break it up. NOW!”
The girls looked relieved. Still, they stood facing each other, chests heaving and fists clenched.
“It’s okay,” Mom said to the man. “It’s over.” And it was.
Teri and Edris never fought again. Nor did they become friends. But every time they passed in the hall, their eyes met and Edris would say, “Hey, Teri.” My sister had earned her respect. I too was left in peace all because my brave sister had faced our fear—and conquered it.
As for my mother, my admiration for her grew a hundredfold. How did she know what to do? How was she strong enough to do it? It was brilliant. Legendary. Inspiring. Teri and I talked incessantly about it for days. And the scene was branded into our memories forever. When I later asked Teri what the whole thing was like for her, she didn’t hesitate. “Edris made me fast,” she said. “If it wasn’t for running from her every day, I wouldn’t have won the sixth grade Olympics. Yep. She sure made me fast.”