The Mexican Virgin

Grandma Winnie was a magical thinker and a devout Catholic, the kind who loved to drink, dance and gamble, and wipe the slate clean in Confession on Sunday. She believed in ghosts, devils and divine intervention. The saints were Grandma’s deities. Guardians who could be relied upon to get one out of a jam, provide protection or stick it to an evil-doer who needed to be taught a lesson. Floating above this pantheon of immortals, even above Jesus himself, was Guadalupe—the Mexican Virgin. She became Grandma’s patron saint and a permanent fixture in our family’s mythology after the miracle occurred.

As a child, I heard the story many times. A story that seemed to grow more fascinating with each retelling.

It happened at a time when Grandma Winnie’s life was crumbling around her. Aunt Shirley had run away and was living a wild and dangerous life. Uncle Cliff returned from the Army a devoted alcoholic, hell bent on self-destruction. Grandpa Herb was cheating with some floozie who was always hanging around the auto body shop, flaunting her mistress status like a badge of honor. And Mom had given birth to an illegitimate child and given her up for adoption. As soon as one crack in Grandma’s heart began to mend, another would tear the wound open until it seemed the bleeding would never stop.

Winnie tried to remain strong. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” she’d say. But with each blow she did weaken. Her natural optimism gave way to despair—dark, heavy, saturating despair that left her exhausted and empty.

Sadness enveloped Winnie like a funeral shroud.

One day, alone in her and Grandpa’s second-floor apartment on Figueroa and 37th  in Los Angeles, Winnie reached her limit. It was all too much to bear. For the first time in her 40 years, she considered the unthinkable.

“I turned on the oven and stuck my head in. But I couldn’t do it. Suicide’s a mortal sin. And I figured I’d had enough hell on Earth without burning for eternity in the next stage of the game.”

Unable to think her way clear, Winnie walked heavily up to her bedroom and lay down on the bed. She fell into a troubled sleep. Soon she awoke with a start. Right off she knew that something was not as it should be.

“I noticed a glow coming in the window. I wondered for a moment if there was a fire, but I didn’t smell smoke. So I walked over to look. And there she was as big as life.”

The Mexican Virgin hovered in front of the window two stories off the ground. Winnie was shocked. She dropped to her knees and genuflected once, twice, three times. Though the Virgin didn’t speak, Winnie heard her voice clear as day: “Winifred,  you’ve had a hard time lately. Through it all I’ve been here, watching over you. I feel your sorrow. And though your life will always be hard, there’s nothing you can’t handle. You are strong. Just have faith and everything will be okay.”

When it seemed the Virgin was done, Winnie genuflected a few more times. She didn’t remember laying down.  When she woke up, the Mexican Virgin was gone along with the heaviness in Winnie’s heart. In its place was a bright curiosity about what had transpired. Was it a dream? It had felt so real.  The light, the voice in her head, that beautiful face so full of love.

“Of course I didn’t tell a soul,” Grandma would say. “They’d think I’d lost my last marble. But that same night, I walked down the street to the Mexican church and lit a candle. I prayed that Guadalupe would send me a sign so I’d know I wasn’t crazy.”

Days passed and nothing. No miraculous spring bubbled up from the side of the house where Guadalupe had appeared. No strange inexplicable image burned into a tree. Winnie went to her typesetting job, worked nine hours and came home. She ate canned food, listened to the radio, and went to bed. Grandpa kept cheating. Clifford kept drinking. Shirley stayed gone. Nothing changed. The world turned and the image of Guadalupe began to fade. Then came a knock on Winnie’s door.

“A drinking buddy of Herb’s stood on the landing. I told him Herb wasn’t home. But the fellow said he was there to see me. He was holding a soiled, brown paper bag and fidgeting.”

“I, um, found this,” the man said holding the bag out. “I passed a dumpster and something told me to look inside. So I did, I looked in, and I found this here bag with a picture in it. Like new. When I set eyes on it, I got this sudden knowledge it was for you. Sounds crazy, I know, but go ahead and keep it if you want.”

He shoved the bag into Winnie’s hands and left. She pried the greasy paper open. And there she was—Guadalupe—framed in gold and even more beautiful than the image over the altar at the Mexican church. Her skin and hair were dark. She was draped in a sky-blue satin robe adorned with glittering gold stars. The Mexican Virgin perched on a crescent moon that balanced on the wings of an angel. Rays of light formed a saintly aura around her.

“I knew then that what happened to me was real. It was a miracle,” Grandma would say, pointing to the picture.

Later, Uncle Cliff tried to destroy the picture in a drunken rage. He hated that image of Guadalupe because her eyes followed him. Accusing him. Reminding him of his sins. Something about her triggered his shame and guilt. So, while Winnie was at work one day, he smashed the frame and tore the cursed thing to shreds. When she came home, he was crying like a little boy.

Stunned, Winnie began cleaning up the remains of her precious miracle.  Just as the last scraps of paper and shards of glass went into the trash, she spied a glint of gold sticking out from under the couch. With two gentle fingers, she grasped the last bit of paper and pulled it out. A second later she was looking into the face of her dark Virgin friend. The picture had survived! Somehow, in his frenzy, Uncle Cliff had only broken the frame and torn up the cardboard backing.  The actual image had floated away like an autumn leaf and landed safely out of his sight.

“Who would believe that such a thing could happen?” Grandma would say with eyebrows arched and hands wide. “But it did, I swear my life on it. And that’s why, to this day, I have faith that she’s watching over me–and you too by extension.”

Whenever I heard the story told, I could feel the warmth of the Mexican Virgin’s presence fill my body. I’d look at her image, the image, and wonder: was She really watching over me? The thought led to questions about the troubles that constantly plagued my family, but I didn’t dwell on them. None of our petty problems seemed significant when held up against the magical possibility that the Mother of God was hovering nearby. Testing our mettle. Making us stronger. And, occasionally, granting a wish so we’d have the courage to carry on.

As a child being tossed about by events over which I had no control, believing in Grandma’s miracle was much better than not believing in anything. Besides, she had proof. Rock solid, undeniable proof that Guadalupe was real.

Today, of course, I’m much more skeptical than the child I was. Yet, oddly, I still believe in Grandma Winnie’s miracle. Because she believed. And that’s all I need.

After Grandma died, her few possessions were doled out to those of us who remained behind. Some photos. A few odd trinkets. A rosary or two. And Guadalupe? She went to Uncle Cliff—clean and sober some 20 years. The eyes that once drove him mad are now a comforting reminder of his indomitable mother. Full of humor. Full of grace and mischief. A magical being in her own right who, I believe, in some inexplicable way, is watching over us still.

Sweet sweet Taffy

I have an old family photo album that’s been plundered mercilessly over the years—mostly for funeral memorial boards as one after another of our clan has died off. Today, there’s not much left of the album but yellowed construction paper, my mother’s perfect calligraphy, and a scattered collection of fading Polaroids held in by photo corners that have lost much of their stick. One of these photos is of Halloween 1965. My siblings and I are posed in front of the fireplace in the living room of our track home in Carson, California. All four of us are dressed in store-bought synthetic costumes that look like they would go up in flames at the merest contact with a spark. Our faces are covered by cheap plastic masks—a pirate, Batman, a princess (me) and a Gypsy. Lying regally in front of us—donning a cape and small eye mask–is the family dog, Taffy.

My very first dog, Taffy was a collie who looked like a smaller version of Lassie. Her entrance onto the chaotic stage of our family life predates my earliest memory. And I’m not sure who named her, but it turned out to be appropriate. From puppyhood onward, this docile and patient animal was pulled and prodded unmercifully by my siblings and me. We’d lie on her, blow into her sensitive nose, drag her around by the collar, ride her like a pony, yank her fluffy tail, and dress her in humiliating get-ups.

Taffy tolerated this abuse and never lost her sweetness. She herded and protected us like we were her own pups. And she did have pups. Twenty-one in two separate litters. One by one, they were taken away from her never to be seen again. We always hated to see the puppies go. (They were so cute!) And Mom felt guilty giving Taffy’s babies away—knowing that a human mom would be shattered with grief over such a cruel loss. But dogs live in the moment. They forgive. Besides, nothing, not even her own offspring, meant as much to Taffy as her two-legged children.

Until I was grown up, I never stopped to consider the vital role this loving animal played in my formative years. Like television, grandmothers, and meals around the table, I took my good dog for granted. She’d always been a part of the world I knew. She was a source of amusement. And she was something of a doormat. Or more appropriately, a rug. Taffy was always lying close to a pair of small feet near the couch, under the dining room table, by a bed. I’d often run my toes through her soft, long fur. Feeling her heartbeat and the warmth of her body gave me comfort—and comfort was a priceless commodity back then.

My parents were six years into a marriage that might have never been had my mother not wound up pregnant. To deal with their discontent, Dad drank and Mom slept—the only way she could escape the despair that was suffocating her. Alcoholism and depression do not make the best parents. For me, an undercurrent of fear marked those early years. Fear of my father. For the anger simmering inside him would occasionally flare up and explode, leaving all of us scarred.

Back then, Dad would travel often for his work as an electronics salesman for the aerospace industry. I liked when he was gone. Our house seemed lighter, friendlier, and Mom was more relaxed. Then he would return. When he was home tension hung over us like a storm cloud. My parents continued to fight and we were privy to every ugly detail—name calling, yelling and throwing of objects. Sometimes, Dad hit Mom. As he said, it was her own damn fault. And she almost never hit back. But one day was different.

Mom had taken all four of us kids to the grocery store. As she cruised the aisles with her cart, we bombarded her with requests for one sweet treat after another. Too weak to resist us, she returned home with more items than the grocery list had called for. Upon seeing the receipt, my father blew up. His face got red and veins throbbed in his temples. He slammed one fist down on the dining room table.

“I’ll be a rat’s ass if I’m gonna let you spend all our money on goddamn crap,” he shouted. “Get your ass back in that car and take some of this shit back.”

I cowered in the background with Teri, Bob and Ross, afraid to move lest his sights hone in on me. His anger was tangible and scarier than any monster I’d ever seen at the movies. This time my mother stood up to him.

“I’m NOT going back to that store. I’ve had it with your temper. And don’t you talk to me like that in front of the kids or I swear to God I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” Dad countered as he raised a menacing hand.

Mom ran to the front door, clutching her purse. Dad lunged after her. Mom made it through the front door as he slammed a fist through a floor to ceiling window made of thick bottle-bottom yellow glass that reminded me of Shakey’s pizza parlour. Then he was through the door and onto the porch. His bloodied hand grabbed at Mom’s bleached blonde, teased-into-a-beehive, hair. With a loud, “No”, she spun around and slammed her purse into his face with all her might. There was a pop. The world slowed down briefly as Dad released her and brought both hands to his face. More blood spurted between his fingers and pooled on the gray concrete of the porch. Confusion resumed with the sound of a neighbor’s door closing followed by sirens. Minutes later the police were at the house.

During the fight, Taffy stood guard in front of us kids, stamping her front paws, vocalizing her concern in yelps and growls. I held her tightly as the police hauled Dad and his broken nose away. Relief flooded my entire body. The danger had passed. I closed my eyes and prayed he’d never come back. But he did. The very next day.

During the dark and turbulent years that my parent’s marriage was slowly coming undone, Taffy was more important than I could possibly understand. No matter how crazy things got, she was constant, loyal, dependable and unchanging. Her love was uncomplicated. She’d herd us children and nip gently at our heels. She’d curl up with us and follow our every move. Later, when we were uprooted and changing schools like lightbulbs; when others rejected us for being new or shy or poor or oddly dressed, Taffy loved us unconditionally. We were the sun, moon and stars. We were beautiful and interesting. We were everything in her eyes. To see this reflected back on a daily basis was a healing tonic.

Being my first experience, Taffy created a certain expectation of what it meant to have a canine family member. Then came Chico. And everything I thought I knew about dogs went topsy-turvy. In the divine sphere of Dogdom, Taffy was an angel—and Chico her devilish opposite. Chico stampeded and careened through the years. But Taffy’s soft white paws treaded softly as I grew from a child to a teenager. Until the day, when I was about fourteen, that she went to the vet with Mom and never came home. My whole life I’d taken her for granted. As children will do. Only in her absence did I realize the enormity of her gentle presence.

Of course, I can’t accurately measure the difference Taffy made in my young life, any more than I could measure the impact of my grandmother’s humor, books that filled my head with fantasies, or my mother’s reassurance that everything would be okay. All I know is that these things together—doggy comfort, laughter, imagination, mother’s love—provided an invisible shield that could ward off all evils, or at least soften their blow.

Little big dog

Chico rode into our family on a current of childish pleading and tears. My sister Teri and I found him at Victoria Park in Carson one Saturday when my brothers both had little league games. This was a huge park. The home of the Goodyear Blimp, which we’d often watched landing or taking off, its tethers waving in the breeze as tiny people manuevered it into or away from its dock. The park had many baseball diamonds and playgrounds. So, when the boys had games, Teri and I came along. Dad had moved out. Grandma had not yet joined our clan. Mom couldn’t afford a sitter and she absolutely refused to EVER miss a game. So, bored with the monotony of our brothers’ “small ball” games, we girls explored. First the concessions stand for licorice and a drink. Next, a pass through the playground. Then a stop to gather teeny daisies that I liked to fashion into chains for our necks. As I stooped and pulled miniature flowers from the grass, something unusual caught Teri’s eye.

“Hey, look. What’s that?”

Daisies dropped from my hands as she grabbed my arm and raced me across the field to a black lumpy object that wobbled a bit from side to side. It was a puppy. No collar. No people around to claim him. As we approached, he turned brown liquid eyes up to meet ours and let out a helpless little yelp. The sound sent an arrow into my heart–an arrow called Love.

Being the more decisive of the two, my sister scooped him up. The pup began to wiggle and lick her face, which probably tasted of Red Vines and strawberry soda.

“Oh, he’s so cute. We have to keep him,” she announced.

My heart filled with longing. “Do you think Mom will let us?” I asked.

“Well we can’t leave him here to die,” Teri said.

Her logic was irrefutable. We definitely couldn’t leave him to die. Even Mom would see that. Teri and I cooed over our new little friend as we walked to the baseball diamond where our brother Bobby’s game was in progress. By the time we reached the bleachers, we’d named the puppy Chico, which means “small” in Spanish (something we learned from our dad during his brief obsession with all things south of the border).

Our mother’s reaction to Chico took both of us by surprise. Instead of delighting over his sublime cuteness, as we had, she put up a hand and shook her head vigorously.

“No way. Absolutely not. We do not need another dog. I can barely afford to feed the one we have. Go put him back where you found him.” Mom refused to even give Chico a second look. But Teri was determined. She walked him back and forth as Mom turned her head from side to side. “But Mom. He’s a baby. He could die and it would be our fault.” Then she started to cry.

“Please Mom,” I added. “We’ll take care of him. I promise.”

“You kids don’t even know if he belongs to someone. We can’t just take him home. Some poor kid may be looking for him right now.”

“No way,” Teri said. “He was dumped in the park like garbage. They threw him away. And now you want to throw him away too.” Tears gushed from her eyes.

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” said Mom. I felt her resolve crumbling.

Other parents looked on with a combination of sympathy and curiosity. Just then, our little brother Ross walked up eating a Sno Cone. “Wow a puppy! Can we keep him Mom?”

After a solid fifteen minutes of pleading, Mom gave in.

“Good grief. You kids are gonna make me crazy. Let me see him.” She lifted Chico until they were at eye level with each other. He wiggled and took a frisky snap at her nose. “Trouble with a capital T. That’s what I see,” she said. Then she hugged him to her chest. “But he is pretty darn cute. (Sigh) Okay, but you have to feed him, walk him and pick up his poop. You’re responsible, Theresa Ann. I mean it. You slack off and he’s going to the pound.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” said Teri. And it was done.

Mom gave it six weeks.

By then, Chico had grown from 7 to 15 pounds. A short-legged low rider with meaty flanks, sleek fur, floppy ears and a square snout, he looked like a cross between a black Lab and a weiner dog. (Though we all agreed that was an improbable pairing.) One thing was certain. His capacity to wreak havoc was wildly disproportionate to his size.

Chico slept on the bed that Teri and I shared. He woke before the sun every morning, brimming with frenetic energy. His joy at being alive demanded to be shared. First he roused us girls with a growl, a nip, a lick and a pounce. When he was satisfied that we were awake, he ran into the boys’ room and catapulted himself onto their sleeping bodies. Mom had taken to closing her bedroom door out of self preservation. But he would not be dissuaded. He’d scratch and bark until she too was up and at ‘em. Then he’d go after Taffy, our sweet, mellow toy collie, who would look at us with beseeching eyes.

This morning reverie was anything but—especially for Mom who often worked late in her job as a typesetter at a printer’s. Tired from early rising, she came home each night to hungry kids, a messy house and fresh news of destruction.

“What’s he done this time?” she’d ask once hugs and kisses were doled out.

One day it was a mangled shoe. The next a bit of couch chewing. The next a favorite novel out of the old wooden bookcase—or even the bookcase itself. Chico had pooped and peed everywhere, ruining the carpet.

Our attempts to train him met with defiance and an almost jubilant rebellion. Every chance he got he ran out the door and tore around the neighborhood, eluding all efforts to catch him. He was, exactly as Mom had predicted, Trouble. Teri and I were quite clearly outmatched. One chaotic Saturday, Chico escaped when the front door was left open a moment too long. It was a golden opportunity as it coincided with mail delivery. Dog and mailman saw each other in the same instant. They locked eyes and froze. After the briefest of deliberations, the mailman turned on his heels and ran full speed to his truck, leaving a trail of envelopes in his wake. Chico gave chase, barking and snapping at the poor man’s heels. Mom screamed for Chico to stop. She might as well have told the sun to stop shining or waves to stop crashing. For Chico was an immutable force of nature, driven by primal desires far stronger than our collective will to tame him. To everyone’s relief, the mailman made it safely to his vehicle. Chico stopped short of the truck and began grazing on grass. His tail wagged happily. It took all five of us more than an hour to get him back into the house. Mom tossed him into the living room with an exasperated moan. Chico walked up to her only good purse, lifted his hind leg and peed.

“Shit! Okay, I’ve had it,” she announced, swiping at her white leather bag with an old towel. “Damn ornery impossible dog. Back to the pound you go.”

“You can’t,” screamed Teri.

“Too late. You girls had your chance and you blew it.”

“They’ll put him to sleep,” I said.

“Someone else will take him. He’ll be fine,” said Mom.

Teri and I held each other and cried in disbelief. Our tears had no affect. Mom carried Chico to the car, put him in the backseat, and drove away.

My conscience tormented me. Teri and I hadn’t lived up to our end of the bargain and that meant we’d be partially to blame for Chico’s death in the gas chamber. It was too horrible to bear. When Mom returned she tried to comfort us with soft words. But our grief was too great. Throughout the day, the tears continued until we were exhausted from the effort. Even the boys were sullen. Finally, Mom could take no more.

“Damn it to Hell,” she said and stomped out of the house with no word of where she was going. We heard the car screech out of the driveway. Another layer of guilt draped over me. We’d not only killed our dog, we’d driven our mother away. But soon she returned. And with her was Chico.

“I hope you kids are satisfied. I had to pay $6 to get him out of jail.” She looked Chico in the face again and said, “You got a reprieve, kid. You better deserve it.”

He jumped from her arms and tore through the house like a Tasmanian devil—exhilirated by his adventure and the return back home.

Things didn’t get much better with Chico. He never got to be a large dog, but his attitude was bigger than the Grand Canyon. He sauntered around like the king of the castle doing whatever he pleased and barking commands when he wanted something. And though he did eventually learn to go to the bathroom outside, his skills as an escape artist grew sharper with time. We could not keep him contained. Now and then Mom would threaten to take Chico to the pound again. But the threats seemed hollow because she loved him too. He made her laugh by running in circles after his tail; throwing toys in the air and wrestling them to the ground like live prey; and standing on his hind legs when he wanted food. You could see the intelligence in his eyes. And his independence was something she begrudgingly respected despite the inconvenience it caused us.

Then one night, Mom was up late reading in the living room. Us kids were sound asleep in our beds upstairs. Suddenly she heard incessant barking. Our collie, Taffy, was at her feet. It was that damn Chico causing trouble again. At first, she couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. Outside? No. He was barking his head off in the garage. Mom was fully prepared to berate the pesky mutt once again until she smelled smoke.

She ran to the garage, which connected to the main house by a door near the downstairs bathroom. The smell of smoke intensified. The normally dark garage was illuminated by the flickering glow of flames that could be seen through the window of the door to the backyard. Mom grabbed Chico and ran to the phone. “Fire! Everybody up. Out of the house. Fire!” She woke us kids and herded us all outside as she called the fire department. From the sidewalk we could see that the wooden gate directly below Teri’s and my bedroom was engulfed in flames. Mom turned on the garden hose and sprayed until the firemen arrived minutes later. They put out the fire in no time.

“You’re real lucky, Ma’am,” said one of them when it was over. “Guess that little dog saved your house, maybe your lives.” he said. He then held up the charred remains of something. “Looks like someone around here doesn’t like you. This was arson—gasoline in a milk carton. Probably stuck a straw in it, lit and ran. Pretty simple but effective. We’ll report it to the police. Could have just been some kids, but I suggest you watch your back.”

We didn’t find out who lit our house on fire. But from that point forward, Mom never questioned Chico’s place in our family. He’d earned his reprieve—one that lasted a very long while until he died at the ornery old age of 20.

Girls will be girls

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.”

Kids’ stuff

Memory is a funny thing. It’s selective, subjective and often wrong. When I was growing up with Bobby, Teri and Ross, my three siblings, I always took it for granted that we were experiencing the same life. We played together, ate together, slept together, went to school together. I thought our stories were one. Until much later. Only as adults was the illusion of oneness obliterated by the realization that each of us had constructed a different past—cobbled together of the events and experiences we either chose to remember or had to remember. A history composed of the things that formed our personalities. Only later, as a young adult, did I realize that my sister, who was joined at the hip with me for our entire childhood, had no recollection of many of the happenings that were still vivid in my mind. And vice versa. The same was true for the boys. We agreed on many of the bigger things—the divorce, schools we went to, places we lived in, Grandma’s stories, our drunk uncle, our wild spirited aunt—but the details of our collective story varied depending on who you asked.

Bobby, being the oldest, had formed the strongest bonds with our father. He was the most broken by the divorce. At least initially. I can’t really know what he felt at age seven as he witnessed violent upheavals in our home, followed by the unmaking of his world. He was the best equipped to understand what was happening, but also the most vulnerable because he had more to lose. He wanted a dad to play ball with. Someone who would share his love of baseball, statistics, coins, stamps, cars and geography. Mom had the interest and capacity to play this role for my older brother. And eventually she would do so. But she wasn’t Dad. Bobby felt betrayed by my father for abandoning him. Guilty because surely in some way he was at fault. And angry toward my mother for driving Dad away. At the same time, he was afraid of the monster inside this man who had beaten his mother to a bloody pulp. He wanted to stand up to Dad when he was drunk, angry and menacing. But he was a little boy. On one occasion, some short time before the divorce, he tried. The whole family had gone to Dominick’s Pizza House in Carson for dinner. This was one of our favorite places. We always ordered an extra large sausage, mushroom and onion pizza made by Dominick himself (a big-bellied man with a handlebar mustache and a booming voice); A giant salad with pepperoncini’s and the special house dressing; Shirley Temples for the girls (7 Up and grenadine with a cherry) and Roy Rogers for the boys (Coca Cola and grenadine with a cherry); Coca Cola for Mom and wine for Dad. With each glass of wine, Dad got more annoyed with his loud children and their inadequate mother. We could all feel the temper storm coming. His brow tightened. Sentences became clipped. Tension and annoyance flowed out of him in waves. With strangers in the restaurant, he laughed and joked. With us, he was snide and short. When it was time to go, we piled outside and into our 1967 Chevy Impala, where my father had stashed a pint bottle of brandy. Dad was still in the doorway chatting up Dominick when Bobby pulled out the booze. I watched in horror as he unscrewed the top and started pouring the brown liquid onto the asphalt. Everything seemed to happen at once.

“You’re gonna get in so much trouble,” Teri hissed.

“Bobby, what do you have there?” asked Mom.

Dad walked up and saw the last of his precious bottle spill out. The storm broke.

“Goddamn sonofabitch!” Dad grabbed Bobby’s arm and shook him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He snatched the empty bottle out of my brother’s hand and smashed it on the ground. Glass shattered. Bobby began to cry. I began to cry. Ross began to cry. Teri hugged herself and rocked in the backseat.

“I don’t want you to drink,” Bobby rasped. “You’re gonna fight with Mom.”

“Tell me what I goddamn can and can’t do? Get in the damn car.”

We crammed into the backseat and Dad slammed the door. He pulled out of the parking lot with a squeal of rubber and sped to a liquor store. A new bottle of brandy, even bigger than the last, returned with Dad to the car. He started drinking it before we got home. The night was ruined. Another memory secured in the dark and golden tapestry of our childhood.

A seven-year-old cannot prevent an alcoholic man from drinking and abusing his wife. He can’t save a doomed marriage. But Bobby wanted to; perhaps more than anything. Soon after the initial separation, my big brother got very sick. His limbs grew limp and immobile. Before long he couldn’t move any part of his body below the neck. He was paralyzed. Mom admitted him to a children’s hospital where he was diagnosed with a strange disorder called polyneuritis. No one knew why he’d contracted it, or if it was treatable. Tragedy brought my parents back together. They rallied for their firstborn. Tried to make the union work. As a family, we visited Bobby in the hospital. He lay stiffly in his bed. Awake. Talking. His head turning and eyes roving around the room. But his body was still. It was weird. My siblings and I were impatient. I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. All I knew was that Bobby was being showered with gifts. I was jealous of the gigantic stuffed tiger with emerald eyes. Of the constant attention he received from my mother. I was frightened that my parents were reuniting. But it was not to last. My brother’s recovery came suddenly, after several scary weeks. Almost immediately, Mom and Dad began fighting again. And, finally, Dad moved out. For good.

His departure left a void that Bobby felt obligated to fill. He’d spend years trying—torn between his need to just be a kid, and his desire to fill the shoes of the father he had lost. Mom understood this. She stepped up. She enrolled my brothers in little league and went to every one of their games. An avid baseball fan in her own right, she took us to Angel games as often as she could. Bobby and Mom could talk for hours about the players, the teams and the strategy of the game. She tried to be a father and a mother to her kids. She did her best. Meanwhile, Bobby became bossy with me, Teri and Ross. Attempts at asserting his authority over us were unanimously rejected.

“Your not our dad!” we’d take turns reminding him.

“Well I’m the man of the house now. Just ask Mom.”

“Are NOT!”


And so on.

It was hardest on Ross. Being boys, he and Bobby shared a room and spent lots of time together. They traded baseball cards and Hot Wheels. They played games that Bobby almost always won. Every activity escalated into an argument or scuffle. Ross refused to accept his older brother’s dominance. Defiance became his shield. Desire for acceptance by his Dad his cross. He was the youngest. The one who arrived into the world amidst the chaos of a marriage gone bad. While family photo albums burst with photos of Bobby at every stage of his young life, Ross was barely there. He had to feel unwanted. Invisible. His spirit demanded to be seen, heard, acknowledged. At age five, his child’s heart was already broken by inadvertent neglect. Thoughts imperfectly formed must have haunted his psyche. Why did no one take photos of him? Had his father left because of him? Did Dad love Bobby more? What right did his stupid brother have to tell him what to do?

More than any of us, my little brother experienced extreme shame and mortification during the years we were poor. To be looked down on by others. To be considered less than because we did not have polished ways and a façade of respectability. These were hard blows. They planted in him a seed of anger that tangled with his curiosity about the world and his delight at the mechanics of life. He was fierce. Intense. Charming. Fun. Ross was and remained a swirling vortex of energy seeking a channel. He loved to take things apart and put them back together again. And he was good at it. But he couldn’t ever be good enough. In his mind, he was the child who did not measure up.

I believe my mother treated Ross with special tenderness because she knew he’d been dealt a lousy hand. He was her baby. She couldn’t put back what had been taken from him. But she could shower him with love. She could encourage him and build him up with words and actions. Perhaps we were fortunate to be broke and penniless for a time. Mom could not bestow material gifts on us. So she gave what she could. Her love. Her attention. Her playful joy in seeing her children grow—and become unique individuals of whom she was relentlessly proud.

To be continued …

The rancher’s daughter

I knew something of pioneers and cowboys when I was a kid. I’d read books about Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane. I’d seen The Rifleman and Gunsmoke. Those old west types were tough, weathered people. Plain spoken. Men and women who knew how to ride a horse, rope a calf and shoot a gun. That’s what it took to live in such wild times. It was a great surprise to eventually learn that Elizabeth “Libby” Gunnell, my Granny G, was one of them. Even though she’d shared a lot of life stories with me, I never figured her for a cowgirl. Not for a minute. Not until I was grown up and began to discover the photos.

Black and white images of big-boned teenage girls in blue jeans and cotton shirts, standing on a horse-drawn flat wagon. Young Libby and her four sisters riding their horses across the Wyoming prairie. Cattle drives depicted on brittle brown paper. My grandfather Rosser, Grandma’s husband, captured in sepia tones as a U.S. cavalryman who rode skirmishes across the Mexican border when Pancho Villa’s men were raiding U.S. towns in 1919. All of this was a stunning revelation. It showed an exciting dimension to Grandma G that I never gave her credit for. She was kind of a bad ass. A girl who wore blue jeans in the early 20th century before they were cool. It was weird.

The grandma I knew was kind of uptight–a paragon of virtue and restraint. She wore polyester pantsuits and inexpensive faux silk blouses that buttoned up to her neck. A devout Catholic, she went to church every Sunday and occasionally got giddy on a few sips of wine. Once a year, on her birthday, she’d smoke a cigarette. One. No more. Grandma G never used crude language (the polar opposite of my maternal grandmother, Winnie). Instead, she had an amazing arsenal of quaint little old lady sayings that made me and my siblings laugh.

Babies were “cute as a bug’s ear.” People who went their own way were “independent as a hog on ice.” When things were tense, one might get “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” A lot of anything was “more than you could shake a stick at.” And so on.

All of this was charming. Still, Grandma G was a formidable presence when I was little. We had to jump through hoops whenever she came to visit. No matter how we prepared or what we did to please her, it was never good enough. Our clean house was too dirty. My hair was too ratty. The boys looked too shabby. Teri was too fidgety. Mom was a terrible cook and wife. All of us were bad Catholics who didn’t go to mass enough. (Grandma G made sure to rectify this every chance she got.) It all boiled down to the single fact that Mom wasn’t good enough for Dad, Grandma G’s only child.

In the early days of their marriage, Mom was terrified of her mother-in-law. She’d get so nervous around her that she became a self-fulfilling disaster. Dust gathered. Dinners burned. Dishes broke. Babies screamed. Mom could do nothing right. And Dad was a saint. What else could Grandma G believe? Dad was all she had. Was all she’d had for so long. He was everything. And Mom had taken him away.

Libby was 33 when my dad Robert (Bob) was born in 1934. She was quite old to be having children, much less her first and only. Perhaps she and Rosser simply had a hard time conceiving. Maybe there were miscarriages. No one is left to tell the story. Grandma G did not speak of such things. As for Grandpa Rosser, we never knew him. He drank himself to death years before my parents wed. All the stories told about Rosser Cary Gunnell depicted him as a fun and genial guy who could talk to anyone. When Elizabeth met him, she was a rancher’s daughter and he was a horse wrangler. Did they fall in love? Did her father arrange the marriage? I like to believe the former is true. That Libby was smitten with the charismatic young man who worked at her grandfather’s 94,000-acre ranch north of Douglas, Wyoming. Libby would have been sweet and shy. Rosser a clever and hardworking fellow who charmed her family and stole her heart. Surely there was romance. But it would be short-lived. The drinking that was so much a part of Rosser’s youthful mystique would be his demise. Once married, he moved Libby to Omaha, Nebraska where he had landed a job selling vacuum cleaners. They set up house and hunkered down. Domestic bliss did not follow. Rosser’s Good Time Charlie persona morphed slowly into a drunkard. He continued to work as a salesman. But it was a struggle. Jobs came and went. Libby, however, held strong. She put in 50 hours a week in a department store as a clerk. All the rest of her time was consumed caring for her son and husband. Life was exhausting; her troubles relentless. The giddy girl hardened into a stoic woman who could not afford to be weak. Libby worked and worked. She did not take vacations. She did not buy fancy clothes or perfumes. She did not take more than she needed. Ever. Moderation would give her physical health and long life. Though I sometimes wonder what dreams she sacrificed along the way.

Libby and Rosser moved to Los Angeles when Robert was still a boy. They enrolled him in Manual Arts High School. After graduation, he joined the Air Force to serve during the Korean War. Libby was left alone with Rosser, who couldn’t stay sober. One day, he collapsed and threw up blood. His doctor told him if he had another drink, it would kill him. The doctor was right. Rosser died soon after of cirrhosis of the liver. His belly had swollen with fluids. His organs had broken down one after the other. Libby tended to  him. Then he was gone and she was completely on her own for the first time in her 53 years. Her four sisters were married and scattered across the states. Her mother was old and living in Wyoming. Her strength faltered. A telegram to England brought Robert home. Her hero come to the rescue.

Grandma G demanded a lot from her hero. And he was always there for her. I believe that she gradually came to see my father for the man he was. She was disappointed by the divorce. It was a sin. By his drinking. It was a weakness. The same weakness that killed his father. Then there were the children to consider. Over the years, Grandma G saw us living in squalor. She saw my mother and Grandma Winnie collapsing under the burden as my father did nothing. Though she stayed loyal to her son, something shifted. Grandma G softened. Respect and friendship grew between her and Mom. She and Winnie became like giggly schoolgirls together. From time to time, Grandma G would take one or more of her grandkids for sleepovers at her little apartment off Vermont in L.A. My sister Teri and I could not wait to go through her drawers and closets. They were full of fascinating artifacts of Grandma’s past. A thick lock of hair cut from her head when she was 17. An ancient wind-up mechanical beetle. A box full of Kennedy silver dollars. A fur made of little foxes biting their own tails. A tiny golden gun with a pearl handle. No matter how many times we asked her, Grandma answered every question about these things as if it were the first time. She was patient and loving. When I was nine I got my tonsils and adenoids removed. Afterwards, I stayed with Grandma G all by myself for several days. She gave me ice cream whenever I wanted. She made me perfect poached eggs for breakfast and we played endless games of cribbage. We watched Lawrence Welk, her favorite show, and the Wonderful World of Disney, mine. And we laughed ourselves silly.

Grandma G lived longer than she wanted. At 98 she prayed for God to take her. But Dad could not let her go, so she lingered another two years in agonizing pain. Toward the end, she talked to her mother and sisters who had moved on. She was getting close. They were waiting. Reaching out to her. Calling her back home. Back to a time and place where she was happy—a cowgirl riding her pony across the endless plains of the American west. I like to imagine here there.

Daddy dearest

My father, Bob, was a likeable guy. He was funny, charming and intelligent. “Your dad is VERY smart,” Mom used to say. “He has an IQ of 140. Way above average.” I knew my mother didn’t lie. And I could tell my Dad had brains to spare. He was quick with a joke, dabbled in languages, and loved to cook exotic foods normal people didn’t eat. He could put things together and take them apart. Like the old cars he was always working on. For years, a faded brown Austin Healy Bug-Eyed Sprite was broke down in the garage of our house in Carson. Dad would tinker with it whenever he had the time. One day, as I was walking home from kindergarten, I heard a cheerful honk and up zipped Dad in the sports car. “Hop in and let’s go for a spin, Kiddo,” he said. We drove around the neighborhood with the top down. He blasted the radio and sang along. Happy, smiling, radiant Dad. It’s one of the best childhood memories I have of him.

Dad’s sense of humor and great conversational skills made him a natural salesman. He made a career of hawking sophisticated electronics to aerospace companies in the 1960s and 70s, when the U.S.A. was fully committed to the space race. His job took him out of town frequently. He went to Boeing in Seattle, Cape Canaveral in Florida, and lots of other places. Because Mom put him through school and always worked, they were a team. They bought two houses together. And Mom always held down the fort when Dad was traveling.

Whenever he was home, before the divorce, Dad tried to rule our home with an iron fist—or a wooden paddle. The Paddle was for us kids. It hung always on a hook in the kitchen. One inch thick and carved out of good hardwood, it was a constant and terrifying reminder of what would happen if I, or any of my siblings, stepped out of line. Dad would put us over his knee and whack away until our bottoms were red and our faces wet with tears. Sometimes, even if we’d done nothing wrong, he’d suddenly announce, “Free swats!” This was a good time. The unfortunate subject of the joke was put over his lap and the other kids got to spank him or her. For the record, none of us like being on the receiving end of Free Swats. It was an infuriating and humiliating experience. But Dad thought it was hilarious. So it became a “thing” in our house. And better than The Paddle.

Dad’s fists, however, were reserved for Mom. He did not use them all the time. Just on those occasions when she drove him into a white-hot rage with her sloth or her insolence. Once, Dad came home drunk to find the house dirty and the sink piled high with dishes. Filled with the fury of the righteous, he roused Mom and all four of us kids from bed at midnight.

“Get your lazy asses out of bed and clean up this goddamned house,” he yelled.

“It’s a school night. The kids need sleep,” Mom argued.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass. I’m not living in a pig sty.”

“Then clean it yourself asshole,” Mom spat at him.

A couple of slaps to Mom’s face brought the family to order. Tired and scared, my siblings and I reluctantly set about putting away our toys, books and clothes. Mom seethed with her own anger, but didn’t want to make it worse. After some semblance of order was restored to the house, we were allowed to go back to bed. There were many times that my father was fun and full of frivolity. But times like this one made him a monster to me.

I feared for my mother, but I also feared for myself. A shy and insecure child, I’d developed two nasty habits that drove Dad berserk: thumb sucking and bedwetting. Mom desperately wanted me to stop doing these things for several reasons. Thumb sucking was bad for my already crooked teeth. Bedwetting was messy and created a lot of extra work. But mostly, both of my habits pissed off Dad. Despite the danger of his wrath—or perhaps because of it—my habits couldn’t be tamed. Dad bought some nasty smelling red liquid to paint on my thumb. I waited until it was dry and popped the digit back into my mouth. As for wetting the bed (a bed I shared with my poor sister, Teri), it continued until I was seven. I still remember how it went. I’d have to pee in the middle of the night. I’d rise from bed, walk in the dark to the bathroom, sit down on the toilet, and let it flood out of me with sweet relief. But it would all be a dream. I’d wake up in a wet puddle. If Mom was the only one home, I was treated with sympathy and compassion. If Dad was home, I’d get The Paddle. On one wet morning I hid in our bedroom closet, surrounded by hanging clothes. I prayed Dad would not find me. Heard him come into the room. Cursing, angry, calling my name. I trembled and closed my eyes as I heard the closet door slide open. He yanked me out of my false cocoon by one arm and dragged me screaming to the kitchen. I knew I was bad. I knew I deserved that beating. But I could not stop my filthy habits.

Many other paddlings and Dad-Mom fights occurred before they called the marriage quits. At age five, I was so relieved at the prospect of living without Dad. But it took a couple of years before they were separated completely. Several attempted reconciliations failed until, finally, the divorce went through and we were free. My bedwetting and thumb sucking stopped. Mom emerged from a smoldering depression that manifested in sleep, sleep, sleep. Money became scarce and life got very hard. But at least we were safe. And Dad got exactly what he was after. Freedom from the burden of a wife and four kids he never really wanted in the first place. As Mom struggled, Dad refused to pay her child support or alimony. She took him to court. The judge ruled in her favor. Dad ignored it. And so it went for years. Grandma moved in to help and we became a family unit.

Meanwhile, Dad morphed effortlessly into a swinging single guy. He moved into a fancy apartment building with a pool and a rec room. He was popular—always surrounded by hot women and fun-loving friends. Money came easily. Dad drove nice cars, ate good food and continued traveling for work. He had a million jokes in his repertoire, laughed often, and partied whenever he could. But I don’t believe he was truly happy. A happy man does not need to drink daily from morning to night. A happy man does not beat his wife and abandon his children. A happy man does not value money above all other things—thinking that material wealth somehow means one has succeeded in life.

I loved my dad. But I did not like him very much. How could he not help Mom when she worked so hard to keep us afloat? There were times we had nowhere to live. And times we had somewhere to live but no furniture, decent clothes or food. Yet he still did not help. My father, I decided, was greedy. He loved money more than his family. Though we maintained a relationship with Dad for the rest of his life (thanks to Mom’s forgiving nature), I always held much of myself back. I could forgive. But I’d never forget how he’d hurt my mother and neglected us. It was Mom who eventually explained to me why Dad was the way he was.

“When your father was a kid, he was poor and fat. Other kids teased him. When he became a teenager, he started exercising. Then he joined the Air Force. He went in a fat kid and came out a handsome man.”

Seeing Dad in this light, I felt empathy toward him for the first time. I, too, knew how it felt to be chubby, poor and tormented by peers. I knew how it felt to want to be beautiful and loved. That’s all he really wanted … to be popular and rich. His dream seemed to be coming true. Then he got my mother pregnant. They married and—being a good Catholic—she kept having kids. Dad resented her and us for depriving him of the exciting life of sex, wealth and freedom that had been just within his grasp. It all made sense. Being poor and outcast scarred my father at an early age. He never got past it.

Perhaps we’re all broken children deep down. Some of us fill the fissures of our past with gold–like that style of Japanese pottery that takes something broken and makes it stronger and more beautiful with a binding of precious metal. Others sweep the shards under the carpet and carry on. They seek life’s riches outside of themselves and end up paupers in the end. Like my Dad, who would ultimately drink himself to death–broke and alone in a bed of his making.

Where dreams may go

In an old family album, there’s a cracked and faded snapshot of three children standing in front of a white and brown clapboard house that’s most certainly somewhere in Los Angeles. The lanky, mop-haired child in the center is my Aunt Shirley at age seven. She’s holding the hands of her siblings: Clifford, age four, and Patricia, my mom, who was a chubby tow-headed toddler of two. I love the sweetness and innocence of this photo. I look at their young faces and I see the adults I later knew. Shirley has a faraway smile. Clifford, dressed in oversized blue jeans and suspenders, purses his lips to form a straight line with his mouth. His eyes squint into the sun as he poses dutifully for the camera. And my mother, Pat, has a brooding look on her face, as if the day was not going the way she’d hoped.

I’d see that same look on her face on and off over the years, though Pat was not generally considered a dour person. Mostly, people remembered her for an inexhaustible sense of humor and a hearty laugh. Like many funny people, humor was her armor in a life filled with hard knocks and disappointment.

Pat grew up in South Central Los Angeles not far from the Watts Towers. In the 40s and 50s, her neighborhood was as diverse as it got. With a fairly even mix of white, black and Latino families, it was a true melting pot. “I didn’t really think about it,” Mom told me looking back. “We all hung out together, played together, went to school together.” From the place she lived, Pat developed tolerance and an unwavering belief that all people were the same. From her mother she learned to work hard and have a good time. She and her mom, Winnie, also loved movies. They were like life, only better. Men were handsome, brave and true. Women were beautiful, charming and cherished. Hard work could turn a pauper to a prince. Watching larger than life stories played out on the big screen filled Pat’s young mind with fantasies of romance, glamor and adventure. Something she’d never completely outgrow. Despite a mounting body of evidence that showed people to be shallow, greedy, dishonest, cruel and unfair—Pat clung doggedly to her belief that life was good and dreams could come true. She was stubborn and determined.

Pat was an avid reader. She loved learning about art, music, history, philosophy and politics. All that lust for knowledge, and she didn’t even finish high school. At 15, Pat dropped out of tenth grade and learned the typesetting vocation from her mom. She got her driver’s license, bought a car and was financially independent by the time she was 17. I admired her gumption. Assumed she did things her way. But I had it all wrong. The real story would not be told until much later. It all started with a dance.

Fourteen-year-old Pat was quiet and a little naïve. But like her mom, Winnie, she was a dancer. Jitterbug was the hot trend in the 50s and Pat couldn’t get enough. She entered contests and won many of them. At one of these dances, she met a handsome young sailor whose name is lost to history. He danced her silly and sweet-talked her right into bed. Mom lost her virginity that night. She never saw the sailor again but he left a lasting impression. One missed period led to another. As the horror of being an unwed, pregnant high schooler dawned on Pat, she panicked. Finally, she had to confess to her mom. Winnie pulled her out of school and shuffled her directly into a Catholic home for unwed mothers. She lived there for the next six months, hidden away from prying eyes and wagging lips.

I try to fathom how she must have felt. To be 15, alone, and surrounded by cranky nuns as a child grew inside her. Surely she made some friends. Being young girls, they’d have whispered secrets to each other in the dark. Perhaps they bonded with their unborn babies–and maybe even dreamed what it might be like to keep them. That, however, was not in the cards. As soon as Pat’s baby girl was born, she was taken away and adopted out to a respectable married couple who could give her a good home and decent Catholic upbringing. Did my mother cry? Was she relieved? Did she feel guilt? She never said nor did she ever try to find her daughter as far as I knew. Her illegitimate child, like other family secrets, was not discussed until many decades after the fact. Eventually, my siblings and I would meet “the baby,” who oddly enough was named Patricia by her adoptive parents. But that’s a story for another time.

Meanwhile, Pat returned to life. Her sister, Shirley, was still missing after running away several years earlier. Her brother, Clifford, soon went off to serve a two-year stint during the Korean war. Her dad, Herb, was having an affair with a floozy who was always hanging around the auto body shop where he worked. Winnie and Pat had each other. They worked together, went to movies together and grew closer. Pat was a great comfort to her mother and vice versa. Of course, Winnie knew, it wouldn’t last. Eventually, Pat would find a man and fall in love.

His name was Robert Clark Gunnell, and he was supposed to be a blind date for Pat’s best friend Joanie. But Pat ended up with Bob instead. He was charming and good looking, and recently returned from England where he’d served as a radioman in the U.S. Air Force. Pat had taken to bleaching her hair blond, like Kim Novak, her favorite movie actress. She wore coal black eyeliner and peach-colored lipstick that accentuated the blush on her pale white cheeks. The two hit it off. They made each other laugh and talked fervently about politics. Being a worldly fellow with adventurous tastes, Bob introduced Pat to exotic food and drink. He took her to Tijuana, Mexico and impressed her with his ability to make friends–even in a foreign language. Pat was all in. But Bob was not ready to settle down. He had wild oats to sow. He had big plans for the future. Was going to be a rich man someday. Then Pat got pregnant. They rushed off to Vegas and hastily wed in the Little White Wedding Chapel. The year was 1958. Pat was nineteen. Bob was twenty-three. Eight months later, Robert Christopher Gunnell was born.

A glimpse at their wedding photo gives no hint of what the future holds. The groom wears a simple dark suit and tie with a white shirt. The bride a knee-length white satin dress just a little too short for the slip underneath. They smile sweetly at the camera, arm in arm. But behind the façade of youth and innocence, seeds of discontent have already begun to sprout. Eventually, the tendrils they produce will grow and tangle. They’ll feed themselves into the cracks in this fragile union and tear it asunder. The one child will have become four. Bob and Pat’s legendary fights will be etched into the memories of the children, to be told and retold across the years until they glow with a dark and terrible beauty. The pain will subside. The tears will dry. But they’re never truly be gone. Hidden beneath the surface, they root like dark matter into the bones of the survivors. Become part of each one of us. Still, we go on living. And laughing at the absurdity of life that so little resembles the stories we read as children.

Pat was not a housewife. For each consecutive child, born nearly a year apart, she worked until her water broke. When the appropriate amount of time had lapsed, she hired someone to help and went back to work. She supported my father while he went to electrical engineering school. But she was not an absentee mom. My most distant memories of her are like a warm embrace. She read me to sleep. Played games with all of us. Tickled and giggled and told embellished and reimagined stories of family lore. Mom was love. Dad was fear. His explosive temper led to epic rages. They were triggered by a dirty house, too much spent on groceries, loud and unruly children. And my mother was the focus of his anger. If he’d been drinking, which became more frequent with each passing year, he would hit her. The first house my parents owned was on Gladwick Street in Carson. It was a tract house, two stories, very modern and working class. It had sprinklers on the front lawn and a hill in the backyard that was covered with succulent ice plants that bloomed a vivid purple and left smears of gooey liquid on small hands and feet. The three bedrooms our family used were all upstairs. The boys shared a room. The girls shared a room. And across the landing my parents inhabited the master bedroom. One of my most vivid memories in that house started with a jolt awake late at night. Dad was screaming and Mom was giving it right back. Teri and I held onto each other as the fight escalated. I remember my Dad’s hand making contact with Mom’s face. She reeled across the landing, through our bedroom door and across our bed. Her body landed against the wall and slid to the floor. I clung to my sister, terrified, and prayed that my mother wasn’t dead. She wasn’t. Just a little bruised on her face. The wounds that didn’t show were much deeper. They manifested in a sort of low-level depression. Mom took to sleeping during the day when not working. We had a live-in housekeeper by then who helped to care for us, but we wanted Mom. I understand now that she was broken. Sleeping was all she could do to cope. More fights followed. One in which Dad was drunk, red-faced and wielding a baseball bat. “Where’s your goddamned mother,” he screamed. All four of us kids were crying. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” we said one after the other. We knew she was hiding in the backyard behind the brick chimney, but we couldn’t tell this monster. His rage. The bat. It was too horrible to imagine. The marriage finally ended after another fight so brutal that there was no going back. This one I don’t recall. Perhaps we were elsewhere when it occurred. But Grandma Winnie later filled me in.

“One night, there was a frantic knock on the door of our apartment,” she said. “Herb answered and there was your father. Crying.’I think I killed Pat,’ he told us. I’ve never been so scared in my life. We called an ambulance and rushed to the house. Your mother had come to. She was black and blue all over. Her clothes were almost torn off her body. But thank Jesus she was alive. It was all we could do to keep your Uncle Cliff from killing Bob.”

Seven years after it’s inception, the marriage was over. My parents divorced. My brothers and sister were devastated. Bob worshipped Dad, who used to take him to ball games and play catch in the street. Ross, the youngest, desperately wanted to win his father’s approval. Something he would never have the chance to fully do. Teri wanted a family that was whole and normal like the ones on TV. But me, I was glad. Though only five, I wanted him gone. To this day, I believe that divorce was our only chance at happiness. To this day, I know how lucky we were to be raised by my loving, unorthodox mother, and not the angry man who spoke with fists, called our black neighbors terrible names, and worshipped money over family until the day he died.

The outlaw hero

My mother’s older brother, Clifford Haughawout, was a prominent figure in the early life of my family. Tall and craggy with a lop-sided grin and slicked back hair, he looked like a man who’d stepped out of an outlaw saga. In some ways he was. Uncle Cliff was a gambler, a drinker and a conman. He listened to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Always had a cigarette in play. Didn’t so much walk as swagger. And he loved to spin a yarn, one eyebrow cocked and a sly half-smile sliding up the right side of his mouth.

My mother adored Clifford. He’d been her best friend and protector when they were teenagers growing up in 1950s Los Angeles. When she was 17 and he was 19, they went in on a brand new Chevy Bel Air convertible—cherry red and white—and cruised around town together with a car club. Both were working. They had money to burn. Life was grand and the future full of golden promise.

Then, Cliff joined the military. Everybody drank in the service. And he kept up with the best of them. He did his duty, made some buddies, and was out two years later a raging alcoholic.

For a time Cliff functioned. Held down a job. Met a girl. Got married and had three children. A good Catholic man with a strong sense of responsibility, he wanted to do right by his family. Love and be loved. Drape himself in a cloak of goodness and decency and make his mama proud. But Cliff was no longer driving his own life. Alcohol had him by the reins. He fought the demon, prayed and cursed. He binged and purged and binged and purged. Out of the smoke and ash of this raging battle, the outlaw emerged. Cliff surrendered to his vices and became a petty crook with a string of aliases. His marriage disintegrated. His wife went crazy and was institutionalized. And all of his children went into foster homes. He wouldn’t see them again until they were grown.

When I was a kid being raised by Mom and Grandma Winnie, Uncle Cliff drifted in and out of our lives. Sometimes he was sober and brimming with stories of his adventures on the road. Other times he was raging drunk, in jail or lost among the bums on Skid Row in downtown L.A. Grandma was often bailing him out of one fix or another. I dimly recall going with her to a run-down street in the heart of the city. Winos lined the sidewalks that reeked of piss, shit and garbage. I held tightly to Grandma’s hand as we stepped into the dark hallway of a neglected brick building with boarded up windows. I don’t remember how she knew where to go to find Uncle Cliff. All I recall is her determination. She was the Angel of Salvation and he was the Fallen. We made our way to a wretched apartment with a couple of dirty mattresses on the floor. Uncle Cliff was there in worse shape than I’d ever seen him. His face was a sallow pit of despair. Inside the crumpled, dirty clothes was a man who was dying of drink. Grandma Winnie tried to get him to come with us. He refused. “Get out. Leave me alone.” He did not want to look at our faces. Could not bear the tormented eyes of his mother. So she left him some money and we drove away.

It made me sad to see Uncle Cliff so crushed by life. In my child’s mind, he was a heroic figure who’d made his own rules and rose above the tedium or ordinary life. I’d heard countless stories of him traveling all over the country with his friend John Hood. They lived by their wits. They cheated at cards and pulled small-time cons. They’d go into a store to confuse the clerks with practiced slight of hand that yielded them a profit. One time, John Hood met a woman in Texas and married her. He took her money and her car, picked up Uncle Cliff, and drove to San Francisco where the soil was fertile to start their exploits anew. When I saw the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I thought of Uncle Cliff and his partner John Hood–a couple of rebels carving their own path through a world filled with obstacles for those not born to privilege. Or so it seemed to me then.

Cliff never did hard time, except in his battle with alcohol. But he kept trying to be a better man. To go straight and get clean. To redeem his sins in the eyes of God and his family. When I was 10, he moved with Mom, Grandma, and the four of us kids to Utah. Why a broken down Catholic family thought life would be better there is hard to fathom. It wasn’t. And six months later we were fleeing back to Southern California and a life that was, if not easy, at least familiar. We made our exodus in winter during a snowstorm. Crossing over a mountain, our beat up old station wagon, Betsy, broke down. No surprise. She was crammed to the gills with three adults, four kids, two dogs and the stuff of our lives. As we sat freezing on that mountain pass, snow piling up around us, Uncle Cliff cinched his inadequate trench coat around his body and positioned himself next to the highway with his thumb out. The few cars that passed sped up as their lights reflected off his shadowy figure. He stood for a half hour, refusing to give up as his hands and face froze. Not until my brother, Bobby, ran to his side did a car finally stop. Standing there with my brother, Cliff was no longer an outlaw—but a father looking out for his child. And in that moment, we were saved.

Don’t call me Shirley

My Aunt Shirley was a fallen angel. A sinner and a saint. An old soul blessed with the virtue of forgiveness. She forgave her father for using her young body; for stealing her innocence. And she did not allow his darkness to reside in her. Instead, she ripped her roots from the tainted earth and blew like a tempest through her youth. At 12, she would fix herself up like a movie star and go to Pacific Ocean Park in Long Beach, where she got sailors to buy her cotton candy and take her on the roller coaster. She was a child pretending to be a woman. Mature beyond her years.

“She looked just like Ava Gardner,” Mom used to say. “I wanted to be like her, but I was so quiet and shy. Shirley was the opposite. She was something else.”

Something else. A force of nature. Wild child. Free-spirit, hippie, poet, beatnik. When I was little, I heard my aunt described in all of these ways. Her Gypsy looks added to her mystique. She had high cheekbones and dark eyes that glittered with mischief. Waves of black hair framed her extraordinary face. Her skin was olive and her lips were red. Aunt Shirley was fascinating—and as different from my pale, blond mother as a cheetah is from a Labrador retriever.

About a year after her father stopped abusing her sexually, Shirley left home. With a few clothes, a little bit of money and an over-abundance of courage, she stuck her thumb out on the highway and was gone. Was she running away from her dad? Escaping her childhood? Or was she running toward a new life filled with adventure?

“At 14, she just ran off,” Grandma Winnie said later. “Didn’t really ever talk about it. Didn’t leave a note. Gave no reason–nothing. Tore my heart in two. I prayed to Heaven she’d be okay.”

Time passed and no one heard a word from Shirley. It was as if she’d vanished. Only years later would the story come out. Shirley spent a couple of weeks hitchhiking around and finally ended up in Miami. Free from all family restraints, she was now writing her own script. She changed her name to Linda. And when the opportunity came to join an animal oddity show, she took it.

Hired as the ticket girl, she traveled with a crew of carney folk from town to town and state to state. Among the curiosities on display in this small circus were an albino alligator with blue eyes, several of the world’s smallest deer, a two-headed goat and a big white Brahma bull named Bing. There was a monkey show and a flea circus. And lots of teenage boys around Shirley’s own age who were charged with setting up and tearing down the show.

When the animals weren’t on display, Shirley would visit with them. She fed cigarettes to the deer and sang show tunes to Bing the bull. Most nights she ate dinner with the man from the monkey show. He’d make a big pot of slumgullion using whatever meat and vegetables he had on hand. They ate it right out of the pot with hunks of bread, surrounded by screaming monkeys. The way Shirley told it, one of the little monkeys was in love with her, always wanting to sit on her lap or shoulder.

These were exciting and interesting times for young Shirley. She made many friends and felt safe with most of them. She saw the world and had money to burn. It wouldn’t last. The owner of the show was a drunk who’d inherited the business from his father. One day he invited Shirley into his trailer for a friendly visit. Then he tried to force himself on her. But he was drunk and old and she was not. Shirley slapped him and ran. The man pursued her, determined to get what he wanted. So Shirley grabbed a sledgehammer and turned the tables. She chased that lecherous creep all over the camp.

“You’re fired!” he finally yelled.

“You can’t fire me. I quit!” she screamed.

Shirley grabbed her few belongings and the money she’d saved and stormed off. Most of the teenage laborers left with her. They found themselves homeless and jobless in the middle of Wichita, Kansas. But they were young and unafraid. And as luck would have it, a Wild West Show happened to be in town. Shirley and the boys joined up—she selling souvenirs and they doing whatever odd jobs were needed.

Fifteen. On the road. Surrounded by males. It was inevitable that Shirley would seek out a protector. The lucky fellow was a broncobuster named Winky, ten years her senior. It became known at the Wild West Show that Shirley was his girl. Both of them did their jobs by day and at night they’d get a room and eat a good dinner in whatever town they happened to find themselves. It was romantic and exciting. Until Winky began to get restless. He wanted to become a real rodeo star. Not some dandy player in a make believe show. So, he told Shirley he was moving on.

“I’d love if you came with me,” he said.

“I will,” she said. “But only if you marry me.”

Winky refused but Shirley held firm. Next thing she knew, he was gone. Heartache for Winky blossomed into an obsession. Determined to find him and restore the love they’d shared, Shirley started hitchhiking to every town she knew of on the rodeo circuit. Eventually, she ended up in Reno, Nevada. She never found Winky. Instead, she met a charming Irishman named Danny Kelly. He was handsome, funny and a career bank robber. Shirley felt like she was in a movie. She fell hard for Danny and three days later they married.

For a while, Shirley was dazzled by the dangerous life of a robber’s wife. Several times she even waited in the getaway car while Danny and his boys pulled a stick up. But gradually, she grew weary of their hard, fast life. And then she got pregnant. Danny was thrilled. Shirley was terrified. This, she knew, was no life for a baby. It ended as quickly as it began. Shirley took off without a word and hitchhiked back to Los Angeles. No note. No phone call. Nothing.

Her head full of visions of motherhood and domestic bliss, Shirley reunited with her family and settled down in Long Beach to raise her son. Her life there was anything but tame, however. She began hanging out with jazz musicians, smoking dope and writing poetry. Her son, Michael Kelly, was born in 1950 when Shirley was 18 and at her pinnacle of hedonistic experimentation. She loved her son, but was out of control. Michael grew into a wild young man on the streets of Long Beach. By the time he was 20, he was following in the footsteps of a father he never knew. Shirley’s boy, the son of a bank robber, became a bank robber himself.

As a young girl, I idolized my Gypsy poet aunt. I pictured her feeding cigarettes to deer, robbing banks and hanging with beatnik musicians in dark jazz bars. Her courage terrified and amazed me. Shy as I was back then, I felt sure I’d never be as brave or as interesting as Aunt Shirley. She’d set an impossible standard. As I grew older, I saw another side to my aunt. One that made me love her even more. Because until the day she died at 73, Shirley believed that humankind was headed toward an age of enlightenment. Despite the abuse she’d endured as a child, and later (I would learn) as a woman, Shirley had an abiding faith in the goodness of people. Yes, she was careless and often neglectful. But she was never cruel. Nor bitter. Nor even cynical. She looked out on a world full of violence and pain—and she saw something worth saving. She embraced the most broken among us and forgave even the darkest sins.

Once, I asked Aunt Shirley about her father. “Do you just hate him?” I wanted to know. She looked at me with mild surprise. “No,” she said. “He couldn’t help what he did. He was just a hurt little boy. No, I forgave daddy a long time ago.”