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To my daughters:
They never tell us about the odysseys of women. They never say about a woman: “Her passage was worthy of Homer . . . her voyage a mythic quest for new lands.” Women don’t get the Heroine’s Journey.
Men are accorded the road and the sea and the asphalt. The monsters and battles and the murders. Men get The Iliad and The Odyssey. They get Joseph Campbell. They get The Thousand Faces of the Hero. They get “the epic novel,” “the great American story,” and Ken Burns documentaries.
But our women fought harder than men — they fought men! Men who claimed to love them, to protect them, to help them — men who trapped and tried to kill them. They fought for sons and daughters, they had the battalions of their sisters and mothers and aunts. Some bad-ass aunts. The women used their cunning and their bullets, the power of their ancestors and of the other women in the wagon or the truck with them. They survived passages that would have made a lot of men quit. Sometimes the men did quit. Sometimes the women quit the men — to stay alive.
The women might have wanted to return home. But they couldn’t. They were not Odysseus, with rowers and soldiers, returning after conquer and plunder. These women had to travel to new worlds — pioneers and explorers, mythic as goddesses of war and love and intellect — because the old world was trying to kill them, starve them, or bury them alive.
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Our women were not in history class, or film, or the literature of “the canon.” Our women survived the men who survived the cannons of war, and those were hard men. We hung out with hard men. Weak men. Good men. We married them. We got the babies. The violence. The guns. More babies. The laundry. The pots. Dancing. Pigs. The barter — sex and beds and sheets. The chickens. The bread.
We kept the nation alive.
The women who came before you, my daughters, were legends. Their flights lasted decades, treks that covered America, after they arrived here from the continents of Africa and Europe and married into the indigenous peoples of this continent. They crossed countless rivers. They were, like Odysseus, imprisoned and seduced and threatened with death. They slept with lotus-eaters and escaped monsters like the Cyclops and Charybdis, and sometimes they battled other women who were Sirens or who tried to steal their children.
Because they always had their children on the boat, and even other women’s children for whom they had become responsible. Odysseus survived everything to return to his wife and son, but he didn’t have little kids on his boat. Though he kept losing his soldiers, he started out with a damn army, and instead your female ancestors had endless brigades of foolish and jealous men trying to stop them.
These women had murder and marrow on their minds. They shed blood for us.
Fine, who was your father’s great-grandmother, utterly alone after her enslaved mother died when she was six or seven. No sailors on her ship, no gods to capture winds in a leather pouch and deliver them to her for speed when she fled the violence of Reconstruction in Tennessee.
Daisy, your father’s grandmother, a lovely trickster who kept secret the identities of the men who fathered her four daughters — even, as they say, taking their names to her grave. A woman with a smile so incandescent she was threatened with death if she took her face away from her first husband. Her single captain was Aint Dear, a fierce goddess of retribution herself after they fled Mississippi.
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Ruby, my paternal grandmother, her hopeful travels in a Model A Ford with a battalion of five sisters, from Illinois to Colorado and then marriage to someone she fled again and again — the sisters her aid, the husband her love and her enemy, until the Rocky Mountains claimed her.
Rosa, my mother’s stepmother, a woman from a Grimm’s fairy tale, a stern and tireless general who with no assistance kept my feckless grandfather and his children alive by leading them to Fontana, California.
The promised land. All the women ended up in Calafia, a mythical island ruled by a warrior queen, whose inhabitants were black women. It is said our state was named for her.
The Odyssey was an epic poem meant to be declaimed aloud to people assembled for hearing the tale of harrowing travels home, for loyalty and love. We heard our stories spoken cautiously, or whispered. Here are the women. The origin bodies for thousands of Americans, including you, my daughters.
My mother gave me my first book when I was three. I read the Greek and Roman myths when I was five, in D’Aulaire’s wonderful illustrated anthology, because a kindergarten teacher was kind to me and let me sit in the corner with books. I was mesmerized by the pantheon of gods and goddesses, memorized their powers, fascinated by The Odyssey, by the monster Scylla and the beautiful Sirens. I imagined myself running like Diana the Huntress when I was attacked by boys or men, actually prepared perfect scathing rebukes, like Athena, who sprang from her father’s head fully formed and intellectually whole. My father was gone, and my mother was working, but I sprang from the pages of books fully formed, though I was so small and thin and ugly I was often invisible, except for when I was hunted as a girl and young woman, as so many of us were then, and I had to use what I’d learned in books to escape. Sometimes the women in our family didn’t escape.
* * *
The women crossed thousands of miles of hardship so that when I was fourteen and your father was fifteen, he could walk one mile from his house to the end of my street — no one had cars, no one had any money for a date, we met only in parks — where he bounced a basketball in the playground of my elementary school. I walked there to meet him. We sat on the wooden bench against the chain-link fence that separated the playground from the railroad tracks twenty feet away. His shirt: white waffle- weave long underwear with the sleeves cut off for a tank top. I remember the smell of freshly laundered cotton and Hai Karate even now. My shirt: a halter top I’d sewn from two red bandannas, from a pattern I found in Seventeen magazine. We talked for a long time in the darkness, played a few games of H-O-R-S-E (I wondered why it was always horse and never something more entertaining, like platypus or elephant or anaconda), and returned to the splintery bench. We kissed for the first time.
His arms were the color of palm bark — brown with a glossy red underneath — and his fingers so long and elegant that when he put my palm against his, my whole hand barely came to the middle knuckles. My arms should have been pale, but this was 1975 — some girls rubbed Johnson’s baby oil onto their skin and lay at the beach or beside pools to get brown. I had the baby oil — but no beach or pool. I mowed lawns and lay in the bed of my dad’s truck while he drove us to the desert.
Your father pointed to the dark brown dot on the skin below my collarbone. “What’s that?” he said quietly.
Was I supposed to say mole? Mole sounded terrible. A blind animal nosing out of the earth. I was so nearsighted I could barely see the playground, because I’d left my glasses at home. “Beauty mark?” I said.
He laughed. “That’s if you paint it on your face.”
“All my aunts.”
I remember too the smell of sulfur in the rocks along the railroad tracks, and the pepper trees nearby with their spicy pink berries.
Thousands of miles of migration — from slave ships arrived to America, from boats leaving Europe after World War II, from indigenous peoples, hardened ranchwomen, and fierce mothers. The women moved ever west, fled men, met new men, made silent narrow-eyed decisions in the darkness, got on buses and in cars and walked for miles to survive. West until there was no more west.
We were born here, to more dreamers of the golden dream, the ones you never hear about. We moved through the streets of southern California, still with no money, but we had more than those women did when they were girls. We shared one burrito four ways, we rode eight to a car in a Dodge Dart or crowded the bed of a Ford pickup, we partied in the orange groves or in a field by the towering cement Lily Cup, where our friends’ parents worked at the plant making paper cups that Americans used to hold at the water cooler.
More than a year later, your father finally picked me up in the Batmobile, a 1961 Cadillac with vintage paint oxidized brown as faded coffee grounds, with huge fins as if sharks would chaperone us down the street. The sound was like a freight train. Sitting in the passenger seat, I saw a dark stain along the inside of the door. It was cold, and I asked your father to roll up the window, but he didn’t want me to see the spiderweb cracks around the bullet hole in the glass. Some guy had been leaning against the car window when he was shot. The stains were reminders of his blood. General Sims II, your grandfather, had bought the car from under a pepper tree where it had sat since the murder, covered in California dust. Your father drove me a mile and a half, to General and Alberta’s house, and in the driveway Alberta held out her hand and said, Come and make you a plate, and my life changed.
* * *
That is how you, our three daughters, became California girls. Via the Batmobile. You are the apex of the dream, the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, hoping they — the ancestors — won’t be forgotten.
In the country of women, we have maps and threads of kin some people find hard to believe. The women could not have dreamed that in this promised land we would still have bullets and fear and murder. Fracture and derision and assault, sharp and revived.
I was born here, and I am still here, and I didn’t leave, which doesn’t feel very heroic. You three have laughed at me for looking out the kitchen window of our house toward the hospital where I was born, where your father was born, where you were born. My daily life is a five-mile radius of memory and work and family. You three daughters know this in your genes: You love only orange-blossom honey, because you grew up with that scent and those flowers, that fruit and those bees. You long for Santa Ana winds and sunflowers, tumbleweeds and the laughter of people eating at long unfolded tables in a driveway. We bury descendants of the women, and we serve funeral repasts in church halls built by some of California’s black pioneers. The women in our family are everything: African-American, Mexican-American, Cherokee and Creek, Swiss, Irish and English, French and Filipino, Samoan and Haitian. Some of their heritage remains a mystery.
I was not beautiful, and I never went anywhere. But I’m the writer. When I was seventeen, and left for college in Los Angeles, one of my first class assignments was a Xeroxed copy of Joan Didion’s famed essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” I read it three times, actually breathless. Her sentences were lapidary and precise. She dissected the place where we live with lovely caustic prose: “This is the country where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers’ school. ‘We were just crazy kids,’ they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.”
I was stunned. She was writing about us, except for the Dial-A-Devotion. (I never knew anyone who did that.) My mother and all three of my aunts had been “divorcees.” One aunt had been married three times. One was recently divided from a Fontana Hell’s Angel biker. My stepmother was divorced when she met my father; she was now his third wife. My friends — black and white and Japanese-American and Mexican-American — were named Kimberly and Sherry and Debbie. We lived amid the citrus groves described in the essay, with low walls built of riverbed stone.
I went home that weekend, passing through the places Didion’s essay made famous: Ontario, Fontana, and Rialto. Finally I got to Riverside, and in my mother’s kitchen, standing at the Formica counter I had spent half my life scrubbing, I tried to explain the piece to my mother. She was distracted, cooking, not interested until I read part of a paragraph out loud, wherein the cheating wife pushes a burning Volkswagen that contains her unconscious husband into a lemon grove. My mother looked up at me then, and said, “That was Lucille Miller. Your aunt Beverly lived across the street from that woman when it happened. She always said Lucille was going to kill someone.”
I was further stunned. I went outside to look at the palm tree in our front yard, whose stair steps of gray desiccated bark I had climbed when I was five, everyone shouting at me to get down. I knew a version of us, of the girls and women here, that was not in the essay. Debbie Martinez, Deborah Adams, Deb Clyde. Girls descended from Mexican and black families arrived in the 1920s, and white families arrived from Arkansas after the Korean War. Our mothers and grandmothers remember their pasts.
I wanted to write about us.
* * *
Here in the land of tumbleweeds so immense and fiercely mobile, a windstorm in November sent so many skeletal balls of thorn blowing across the fields that the small house where my mother and I lived was buried in brown. It was a valley of granite boulders and turkey ranches. Tumbleweeds six and eight feet across packed in drifts around the windows, which were coated with dust from the famous Santa Ana winds. “It was like a snowstorm,” my mother told me years later. “I couldn’t even open the door.”
My mother, Gabrielle Gertrude Leu Straight Watson, grew up in the Swiss Alps, in a chalet built in the 1800s, the wood nearly black with age, the balconies carved with floral designs, and in winter the snow reached the roof. She told me stories of skiing to school, the beauty of glittering icicles, drifts of sparkling white crystals nearly blinding in the sun. But when her mother died and her father remarried, he took them to Canada, a place about which she told me no stories except these: she worked in the fields, her stepmother, Rosa, tried to marry her off at fifteen to a pig farmer, and my mother ran away.
My father, Richard Dean Straight, grew up in the Colorado Rockies, in rough wooden ranch outfits built in the 1800s, the wood nearly black with age, but no balconies or flowers, just corrals filled with cattle and sheep, and his feet damaged by frostbite, his memory damaged by terror. His mother, Ruby, left his father again and again, but always returned. My father went from Colorado to California, from remote ranch to the city of Los Angeles, and back to the mountains. He was born for leaving, as the cowboy songs go, but when he left my mother and me, he didn’t go wandering on a horse back to the ranch. He never came back for more than five minutes at the curb, once a month, while I climbed into his Mustang and went to his house for two days. Never longer than that.
It’s stunning to gather the stories now and see the parallels in their lives, my parents, and to think they spoke about twelve words to each other in the last fifty years.
In November 1963, I was three years old. The tumbleweeds were everywhere. My mother was crying, and I was trying to climb up onto her lap, but there was no lap because she was eight months pregnant, so I sat near her feet. The Santa Ana winds blew incessantly and dust filtered through the cracks around the windows until a golden sparkle of haze moved on the floor in the light from the streetlamp.
My mother had brought few things from Switzerland. She was allowed one small trunk on the boat to Canada. How she came into possession of the wooden clock, I don’t know. But three things she had are now mine: a black lacquered bowl painted with Swiss wildflowers, one pair of silver scissors she used to cut our fingernails, and a strange little folder of cloth into whose pages are inserted sewing needles of all sizes. I was taught to sew, knit, crochet, and embroider when I was seven.
My mother had spent her childhood darning socks for her father and brothers, and knitting new ones. She taught me to knit in the way that her mother had taught her: I sat across from her, holding the heavy loop of yarn as it came from the store, and she pulled the yarn to make a large ball. Now and then she wove yarn tightly around pieces of Brach’s hard candy, which could be bought cheaply by the pound, butterscotches and peppermints and oblong toffees, all in bright cellophane or foil. She wrapped yarn so fast her hands were nearly invisible, and the strands covered the candy like a sped-up cartoon.
Then I sat in a chair and knitted, the ball of yarn at my feet — exactly as she had. My head was bent, my hair was in a braid, and I was required not to touch the ball of yarn, even when I saw a flash of foil or yellow cellophane. The piece of candy had to fall out onto the floor, after I had knitted enough to remove those strands of yarn. I was always glad when the cats batted the damn ball and the candy fell out early.
She told me she hated the darning of socks. I knew I didn’t have to learn to darn because we lived in a place where it was over 100 degrees for weeks at a time, and my siblings and I went barefoot until our feet were so dark and callused we were proud to not require shoes to walk on glass and thorns.
She had made it all the way to southern California to get a job, get married, buy a small house, plant roses, and have a baby. Me.
* * *
She worked as a teller at Household Finance Savings and Loan in Riverside. One day in 1955, a man came in to apply for a $50 loan. He was on strike from Boeing Aircraft, living in his car for the moment, and recently divorced, he said. Why she agreed to go out with him is an enduring mystery to me. Richard Straight. Why she married him is even more confusing. But he was handsome.
They lived in a tiny wooden bungalow behind a larger house on Tyrolite Street in Glen Avon, an unincorporated community people called Okietown. My mother was very good at saving money. After four years, they bought her dream house, an eight-hundred-square-foot stucco cottage off Pyrite Street. The new freeway and poultry ranches and granite quarries to the north; to the east, the Santa Ana River. My mother still had her job. But my father had met another woman, and he was gone. Now she was abandoned. On the west side of the river, fifty miles from Los Angeles, we lived in an area where white people had arrived from dust bowl farms, Mexican people from Michoacan and Zacatecas, black people from Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Japanese-American strawberry farmers and Spanish-Mexican native Californians had been there for decades. My mother was the only one from Europe.
We had oatmeal and a can of beans. I recall the oatmeal, but in a vague way. My mother says we had a conversation on the third day of oatmeal. My mother: “I told you to eat the oatmeal, and you said you wouldn’t. I slapped you so hard the oatmeal flew off the high chair. You said, ‘You can hit me again but I won’t eat it.’”
She shook her head. “You only wanted your book.”
I had one book. I knew all the words. I wanted another book.
All my life, my mother had told me two versions of how she taught me to read in a single weekend, when I was three. The first: My father was gone, she had to go to work, and she didn’t want me to bother the babysitter by talking (I’d been dropped on my head once by an inebriated caretaker), so she taught me to read and sit quietly in the corner. Believable. The second: She didn’t think American kindergarten accepted children unless they could already read, and she was eager for me to go to school and not pay for babysitting. Also plausible.
But I asked her again in 2017, laying out the two stories. For the first time, she said with some bemusement: “No — you taught yourself to read. I read you the first book, maybe three times, and then you knew the whole thing and you wanted an- other one. We were so poor, but you just wanted a book, and I went to Stater Bros. [the local grocery] and spent my last quarter to buy one of those little books with the gold at the edges.”
I was so surprised. She’d bought me a Little Golden Book. Maybe Poky Little Puppy, she thought. Then President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed, a public murder so graphic and visible on television, shocking to the nation. My mother sobbed and grieved in front of the small black-and-white television, and I lay on the floor listening.
* * *
My mother had become an American citizen in November 1960 so that she could vote for John F. Kennedy in the presidential election. Before that, for five years, she had been an immigrant with a green card. “I wasn’t in any hurry to become a citizen,” she told me the other night. “Not until I saw John F. Kennedy.”
“You didn’t vote for—” I blanked. She called to my stepfather, John—“Who was before Kennedy?”
“Eisenhower,” he replied dryly. She waved her hand dismissively. “No,” she said to me. “I didn’t feel any reason to vote until President Kennedy. He was different.”
She was pregnant with me, in late 1960, when she began the citizenship class at the Riverside courthouse. “You had to renounce your other citizenship, back then,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose my Swiss citizenship, but I really wanted to vote for him. It wasn’t hard at all, back then, to become a citizen,” she said. “We learned some history.”
She had me in October. The following month, she said, “We went to the courthouse. Dad and me. We just happened to be there at the same time.”
That dad was not my father, Richard Straight, whose name my mother never ever said aloud. That was John Paul Watson, my future stepfather, born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. They became citizens together, taking the oath in the same room.
She was truly an American then, when she cast her vote for John F. Kennedy in a white skirt and blouse, her hair carefully risen in a Jackie Kennedy bubble.
But by the night of November 23, 1963, she was on her own, two weeks overdue in her pregnancy. “I had taken the week off from work, because your brother was so late,” she told me. “But he didn’t come, and I couldn’t afford to take any more time off. I had no money. I was desperate. I was watching television, and there they were, he and Jackie, and then he was shot. It hurt me to the quick. I just cried and cried, I couldn’t stop crying.”
I remember the crying, the black-and-white images going past my face, which I held close to the thick curved screen where the static from the constant dry wind would shock me so hard I could feel it inside my nose.
“I couldn’t stop crying, and your brother wouldn’t come. I went to see Grandma.”
That was her stepmother — Rosa. I said, “Where was I? I didn’t go.”
My mother frowned. “Where were you? I took you to the neighbors. I drove to Fontana and Grandma said the best thing when your baby is late is to walk. That’s all she told me. So I walked all around Fontana. I didn’t know what to do.”
She went into labor and the following morning she had my brother. In 2017, telling me this story, she sat in her sixth house, each one a bit bigger than the last, but all within a ten-mile radius. I ladled out the chicken and rice I brought on many Sundays. “Then the TV was on in my hospital room, and I saw that man shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. Who was that man?” she called to my stepfather.
“Jack Ruby,” he replied.
She said to me, “I saw the whole thing. Over and over again. That was terrible, too.”
The next day, Rosa drove her from the hospital with my brother, and dropped her off at the dream house. “She didn’t come inside. She said, ‘You made your bed. Now you must lie in it.’ That’s what she told me. Then she drove away.” My mother was quiet for a moment.
I knew this part. I said, “The neighbor had left our door unlocked and the wind blew it open.”
“I took him inside and there was dirt everywhere. I was so tired. And I had to get out the vacuum.”
That door faced east, into the brunt of Santa Ana winds screaming down off the foothills. The door was wide open and the house full of dirt from the fields. My mother, though abandoned, had spent the last weeks feverishly knitting a new layette for the baby — soft yellow jacket and booties. She had a new bassinet. These were the things she cared about most, having spent all those years knitting thick woolen socks for her Swiss father and brothers, and now knitting fine booties for her son. The bassinet and its lining, the layette she’d left displayed there, for herself, if no one else — all of it was filthy, and the wind was hot as hell.
My baby brother, Jeffrey, was screaming, his fists held on either side of his face all clenched tight and red, like puckered tomato bottoms three in a row. Then he threw up all over the bassinet. (His hands were fists for the rest of his life — larger than the rest of his body, so powerful, knuckles and wrists swollen with work, scarred from fighting and farming and burning old paint off buildings.)
I had my book.
She was broken. It is the only time my mother ever described to me feeling as if she were defeated and could not go on. No food. Swimming in dirt and thorned weeds. My brother blind with fury. I had my book.
Rosa Leu’s words seem particularly ironic and cruel, since my mother had slept only two nights in the hospital, and she sure wasn’t going to be lying in her bed, alone, while her three-year-old and three-day-old children lay in the dancing dust on their blankets.
She went back to work the next day. We went to the babysitter. I read my book. While my brother’s hands remained fists, my eyes remained the hungriest part of me. As long as I had a book, or a Sears catalog, or a cereal box, or a Betty Crocker recipe book, I would eat what I was given. As long as I had something to read, I could imagine I was somewhere else, speaking with the strangely colonial Mr. Quaker Oats with his long gray curls, wearing new Sears dresses with smocking, while Betty Crocker with bouffant hair served us lattice-crust pie on a checkered tablecloth.
Nothing was ever the same for my mother. The motorcade, the beauty and hope and pillbox hat and handsome jaw, the accent so patrician, the way her president spoke, and his wife with her
clean smile and cheekbones. Then that wife held her husband’s brains in her hand. She was alone.
My mother was alone, too, with two children. Her president was buried. She never missed work. At the branch was John Watson, from the citizenship ceremony, who had worked with her at Household Finance before Richard Straight came in for that damn loan. (My mother’s dating pool was apparently very small — men inside the savings and loan building.)
She left us, my baby brother and me, with a babysitter who lived at the edge of the orange groves, and married her friend from Canada. I loved him because the first time he met me, he gave me a Tonka truck. He had asked what I wanted, and I didn’t say doll, but truck. Earthmoving seemed important where we lived — that is what I saw every day, bulldozers and tractors and turkey feathers and trucks hauling oranges. We lived in an unincorporated community, not even a town. I moved a lot of dirt in that yard, after my stepfather married my mother. Less than a year later, she had another baby — another boy, John Jr. — and we moved across the Santa Ana River to the city of Riverside.
* * *
We were feral children, as were most of us then, in the 1960s and ’70s, and our wild kingdom was the orange groves. The other kids threw fruit as missiles and set up bunkers in the irrigation towers. But after the wars, I sat under the white blossoms that fell like stars, and I read.
That night I asked my mother how I learned to read, she looked into the distance and added, “I was an immigrant, and I had no money, and I could never buy enough books for you. But I wanted you to go to school and do well.”
She took me to the Riverside Public Library, where I attempted to check out twenty-two books. She limited me to ten. That fall, I was not yet five. My mother walked me down the street, turned left, walked another long block, and took me into the kindergarten classroom, where Mrs. Dalton, a kind and generous teacher, allowed me to sit in the corner and read. She did not force me to take a nap with the others. I refused to sleep when there were so many books.
The next day, my mother said, “You know the way,” and I was overjoyed to be alone on the sidewalk, along the dirt path through the foxtails and wild mustard, and then into the class- room. I have felt this way for the rest of my years.
I read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods. Their log house was buried not by tumbleweeds but by snow. The entire Maud Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy series set in Wisconsin, with snow and muffs into which girls put their hands be- fore skating; Caddie Woodlawn and the Nancy Drew mysteries (what the heck was a sedan?). In 1965, my stepfather had adopted my brother, Jeffrey. But Richard Straight would not consent to my adoption, and I became the rift that never healed. Every three weeks, he picked me up, alone, and we drove to his new family. There, I was the youngest of five children. My stepsiblings, Jim, Dick, Pam, and Tricia, were ten to fourteen years older than me. From them I learned to macramé, listened to Gary Glitter and the Rolling Stones, and saw my stepbrothers go off to Vietnam.
But in 1966, my mother brought two foster children home. We went to the county juvenile facility to pick them up, at night. It was dark and terrifying. It was a jail. Then we were stair steps, and I was the oldest of five children: Susan, Bridget, Patrick, Jeffrey, and John Jr.
It was a strange place to be — in the middle of two families, step and half and foster siblings, and my brother who now had a different last name than mine.
I know now my mother wanted to give other kids a safe place to live. We all wore the same home-sewn T-shirts and shorts. We each held a hot dog in a bun. We sat in a row on the hot metal tailgate of the Country Squire station wagon. But decades later, my mother said to me, “I never asked how you all felt about it. You didn’t ask children how they felt.”
And my stepfather, John, called out, “You never asked me, either! I’d come home from work there were two more kids at the table and they stayed for years! You never said a word.”
My mother grinned, and shrugged. My dad and I knew she was the small intractable engine of our lives — she always got what she wanted. She wanted life to be better for those kids. Bridget and Patrick stayed for three years, until they went to live with their grandparents. Only a short time later, my mother found Sandy and Chris, exactly the same age in relation to us, in shelter care, and they came to live with us for five years. The controlled chaos of our house was all we ever knew—we stole oranges and my mother quartered them onto our plates, never tired herself of the magical sections of skin-held juice; we rode skateboards and left our knee-skin on the sidewalk, and she dispensed the rusty-hued pain of Mercurochrome and told us not to flinch or cry. If anyone made fun of us at school, she was staunch in our defense. My stepfather worked six days a week, and came home to look longingly at the dinner table, where we ate a lot of hot dog casserole, tuna casserole, and potatoes.
I cared nothing about our clothes or the single hot dog. Only books. Story was the escape. Cloth diapers and pins that stuck my thumb rather than fat baby brother thighs, weeds and tomato worms I dropped into coffee cans, sliding glass doors with fingerprints like swarms of ghostly beetles I sprayed with Windex the blue of ocean in Anne of Green Gables. I looked at my stepfather and imagined Prince Edward Island, close to his birthplace. I read Heidi and looked at my mother, imagining the Alps. I hid in closets, in hedges and trees, and under beds to read.
In my rough neighborhood, where one man six houses up from us shot a peephole into his front door, and kids set the foothills on fire for enjoyment of the spectacle, I read other worlds, and never imagined anyone had written about a place like mine until I found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, when I was eight.
At the library, I checked out this novel and stepped into a mirror that made me feel almost lavishly dizzy. Francie is also the dreamy impractical eldest daughter of an impoverished, stern immigrant mother. Francie hates cleaning, and her thrill is the library, where she works her way alphabetically through the shelves. Back at her apartment, she arranges peppermint wafers on a blue plate, and sits outside on the fire escape to immerse herself in another world.
I put one Oreo on a plate, climbed the fruitless mulberry tree in our backyard, lying on a branch above the exposed roots and dirt where my three brothers had set up elaborate military maneuvers with hundreds of olive-drab plastic soldiers, and while I was shot with mud clods, entered 1900s Williamsburg: pickles, carts and horses, men who wore celluloid collars, boys who died of tuberculosis. Brooklyn, I whispered.
That we could control death and violence by writing about it was transforming. I had seen drug deals, wildfires, a man who held a woman so tightly by her hair that her temple puckered. Sometimes I was terrified. There was the man waiting on the narrow dirt path on the way to school, who opened his coat, a clichéd pervert (who the hell wears an overcoat when it’s 100 degrees?), but I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn four times by then, and Francie’s mother shoots the pervert (he’s called the pervert) in the groin, so I just glanced at him (pale and gross and oddly just like the novel) and ran into the weeds, wishing I had Francie’s mother or her gun.
The summer of 1970, the bookmobile arrived in far-flung neighborhoods like mine. No one wanted to accompany me, and I was thrilled. I walked alone through fields of wild oats, past the pepper trees under which older kids smoked marijuana and drank Coors and listened to Grand Funk Railroad and James Brown on transistor radios, across the railroad tracks, down into the steep arroyo where a green trickle of water was my creek, and up into a grocery store parking lot where for two hours inside the air-conditioned hum of a converted bus, I read about death. I found S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, with desperate, joking, hardworking boys as close to my own neighbor- hood as anything I’d ever read, and then, shaken, walked back home as the branches of the pepper trees shivered with electric guitars and laughter. Tulsa, I whispered.
By then, I’d worked my way through the children’s shelves downtown, and kids didn’t wander the adult sections. But in the bookmobile, no one paid attention to me lying near the mystery shelves while I read Alfred Hitchcock, wherein people were stabbed, strangled, shot, and poisoned, all scary but less likely than drowning by bathtub. A man killed women by surprising them while they bathed, grabbing their ankles and pulling, rendering them unable to clutch the slippery sides while the water overcame them. We had no shower in the bathroom. At home, I drained the bathtub water after my siblings were finished, crouched under the faucet, and shivered.
When I was eleven, I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. It altered everything. John, wielding a carpet sweeper on a rug, was with me while I swept the endless windblown leaves on the sidewalk. He was a boy trying to please a father who cannot escape his terrible past, watching his brother and other boys fighting themselves and the world. I was failing to please my mother, and my brother came home bleeding.
Just after that, I saw a slim paperback in a rotating rack, on the cover a pensive young woman with brown skin, a flowered dress, and a yellow rose. She looked like an older sister of a girl in my class. But she was Sula. The voices of the women in Su la were like those of the mothers and grandmothers who came to our elementary school auditorium, the women cheering in the bleachers at the Little League games where my brothers played. Medallion, I whispered.
Along the iridescence of the railroad tracks, abandoned shopping carts lying on their sides in the arroyo, covered with water grass like green fur, I saw all those fictional children like me. I walked home through the wild mustard dried to rattle at my knees.
By the time I was thirteen, books were my addiction, as powerful as the alcohol, Marlboros, and marijuana joints my friends and the neighborhood boys held in their hands. Kids were drinking Everclear and Olde English. I partook of the Marlboros and beer. I was afraid of everything else. I spent my time under the pepper tree branches, and in the vacant lots where parties were held (think Dazed and Confused, but with way more black and Chicano teenagers, and additions of Con Funk Shun, Parliament, and Tierra). But even at the moment when the police helicopters came, or my friends fell off their platforms, lit embers floating in darkness like constellations of red and gold, I was waiting to be somewhere else. Reading a novel.
* * *
Back in 1965, my stepfather bought the Laundromat next to the market where my mother had spent her quarter on my first book. For the next ten years, we kids swept the floors of landed clouds of lint, restocked the little boxes of detergent. I watched the people move about, descendants of Okies and slaves and braceros and Japanese strawberry farmers. These were the parents of my friends. We drank in vacant lots, Boone’s Farm strawberry wine in Lily Tulip cups, near the Lily Tulip plant with its actual giant concrete cup. (The world’s largest paper cup!) Then we married each other, and our children are American babies, despite what some people think.
A few times a year now, I walk near the old Lily Tulip Cup, the towering cement painted white and blue, near the last orange groves. As a child in the Laundromat, I must have known my life would be about language, and place, because I saw people’s baskets full of stories, the way their hands moved when they held up a shirt, their eyes narrowed with private legends of the man or baby or mother to whom it belonged.
But every night, I walk along the Santa Ana River, and up into the steep small foothills along the riverbed. From the rocky slopes, I can see my whole life. That is not an odyssey. I am the woman who left briefly and then came back right away, who has never left home since.
Looking west, I can see Mission Boulevard, the street that leads to the house where I was born, and the lights of the Laundromat, in the small place called Rubidoux. That place was rancho land taken from the Cahuilla peoples by the Spanish Californios, and sold to Louis Robidoux, a French-born fur trapper who married a young Spanish woman. Dwayne’s cousins still live near the river in a family compound built by Henderson “Gato” Butts in the 1920s, after he left Oklahoma.
Looking north, I see the Cajon Pass, which everyone in our family navigated when they came to California. My grandmother Ruby and my father, only seven, came down the pass in a bus, down onto Route 66, where all roads led away from her husband: San Bernardino, Ontario, and Echo Park. Dwayne’s great-grandmother Fine, born just after the Civil War, sent all her grandchildren across that same desert and down the same pass to Los Angeles.
Turning east, I see my childhood neighborhood and Dwayne’s, the old tract homes from the 1960s. The avenue I drive every single day to work, that passes the street of Dwayne’s parents, General and Alberta Sims, and the driveway where I learned to be a good human, and the houses of all my relatives and friends.
Turning the last quarter, looking south only half a mile, I see my own house, where I’ve lived for thirty years this spring, where I’ve raised three daughters. In historical photos, acres of citrus and walnut groves covered the land for miles, broken only by a few farmhouses. Mine is one of those. A bungalow with green shingles and burgundy window frames, once solitary in the trees, but now anchoring the corner of my block. A house that my eldest daughter’s friends told me I could not paint a different color, because they wouldn’t be able to find their way to the place where they could always be sure of food and a couch on which to sleep, and the right book to take with them in the morning.
My house — which I made into the home from Robert Frost’s poem: “When you go there, they have to take you in.”
I learned that from my marriage family, from Alberta and General Sims.
Every night, I stand there for a moment with my dog, the brittlebush quivering in the wind, thinking that all those years, no matter which way I looked, I was never alone.
The women who brought us here were utterly alone. Sometimes they had only what they held inside to call company. Even as children, they had no one but themselves.
Born in Riverside, California, Susan Straight has published seven novels and one middle-grade reader, including Highwire Moon, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, and A Million Nightingales, a finalist for the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her short stories have appeared in magazines such as Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The Sun, and her essays have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, The Nation, and elsewhere.
Excerpted from In the Country of Women: A Memoir, by Susan Straight. Copyright © 2019 by Susan Straight. Reprinted by permission of Catapult and Susan Straight.
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