The Train That Is Coming and Will Plough Through You

Now, years later, I remember my seventh summer as an unblemished stretch of pure happiness. I believe this not to be some kind of wishful idealization by a foggy-headed adult, but an accurate memory. The reason is that I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I wish this summer would never end.

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That summer had everything. Unbelievably blue Los Angeles skies. A backyard with a tree. A wiffle ball, a bat, and two best friends, Scott and Gary, to play wiffle ball with every single day.

A sidewalk to run fast down, because running fast made me happy. I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I will always love running.

I was a pitcher on my Little League baseball team, the Beavers. I felt like a king whenever I stood on that pitcher’s mound and commanded the game. I was the cleanup batter, too, and I hit the ball out of the park once, which was a big deal at age 7. Afterwards, we all ate our fill of pepperoni and sausage pizza at Shakey’s and horsed around. The pizza chef liked us and told us his name was Peter Rabbit Cottontail Sunshine Snowball. We all laughed. My teammates and I were all the best of friends.

I will always love cartoons, I would also say to myself.

In time, the subject of movies came up, but I didn’t even want to try them out. I wanted to hang onto that totem of childhood, cartoons. I shunned other adult totems, too, such as coffee, smoking, adult foods such as green olives, and adult words such as accommodation and Plantagenet.

Of course, change is the train that is coming and will one day plough through you. Eventually, a hair sprouted on my chest. Another boy spotted it at the local pool and razzed me for it. I was appalled. It was a distressing development that threatened to end my summers of bliss. I plucked it out. Another soon appeared, and I pulled out that one, too. But you can’t fight forever against the encroachment of that particular forest, so eventually, I gave up fighting altogether on that front.

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But there were so many other fronts. When I was 11, my parents wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees. They found it awkward to talk about in the first place, but I made it even tougher on them. One day, my mother walked tentatively into my bedroom with a book called For Boys Only, saying that it would tell me everything I needed to know, if I wanted to.

“I don’t want it,” I said, turning away.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BA

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s.

“You’re starting to go through adolescence,” she said, “and you’re going to need to know about this.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll just leave it in your bookshelf,” she said, and walked out of the room.

Over the next couple years, that book was an abomination in my otherwise lovely room. It was offered to me out of love, but on principle, I never touched it. It seemed as if my mother had said something horrible to me.

I’m going to kick you out of paradise.

Paul Simon writes about this transition in his song, “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”:

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

I hesitate to call what happened to me adolescence, or even that uglier word, puberty. In fact, it was an immense tragedy and the world should mark the year with wailing and sackcloth and memorials for the dead. Everything that followed it was more complicated. Suddenly, I stank when I sweated. Girls could wrap me around their little fingers just by wearing a short skirt. I had to choose my own future, which was terribly complicated.
And when I tried out for the high school freshman baseball team, I didn’t even make the cut. All my dreams came crashing down like a Lego skyscraper. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my grace.

What was so wonderful about my childhood isn’t hard to pin down. I had an overprotective mother whose heart was as big as a Barbra Streisand song. Years later, she told me her attitude towards motherhood.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I wished I could just put you inside a big bubble and protect you from the big, bad world.

I was happy to live in that bubble, but it was bound to burst. I came home from kindergarten one day with amazing news.

Did you know, they invented this great thing! I told my mother excitedly. It’s called candy!

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My mother had never given me candy, wanting to protect me from cavities and misbehavior.

My father played a big part in my happy childhood, too. I remember him standing a couple steps up from the rest of us, resting his elbows on the railing and watching the family he loved. The phrase that best described him was without guile. To this day, I measure every person I meet against him. Most don’t measure up.

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Perhaps my allegiance to childhood arose in part because I’m constitutionally resistant to change. It is an unfortunate character trait. I tend to hang onto things like a bulldog, including places of residence, business cards, to-do lists, anger, old books, and outdated life goals. I sometimes hold onto them until they’re rotted and unrecognizable, and yet still I hang onto them. I remember with great fondness what they once were.

Like clothes. I recently discovered five pairs of Levis that I wore in my twenties. I pulled them out of storage and held them up to examine. They were beautiful, faded and blue. When I gained a few pounds, I put them away and swore I’d fit into them again. I’d work out like crazy. I’d diet. I’d do what it took. I would not throw those Levis out. Years later, I continue to work out daily on my bike, pushing myself mightily up huge hills for an hour or more, rivulets of sweat coursing down my brow and down my nose, never laying back and coasting, but pushing my thighs and glutes to 110%, because, I tell myself, 110% is where it’s at, baby, 110% is a locked door that you throw yourself against and nobody ever thinks about busting through because, goddammit, it’s locked, but hey, I bust through that door, I bust through like a warrior because I’m The 110% Man, because 110% is my solution for everything, dude, it’s the solution that most people never have the courage to try but which is my badge of superiority, and when I was seven, my mother told me I was better than everyone else, well, maybe not told me, more like imparted it to me and I’ve felt it in my bones ever since.

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Perhaps what I’m giving 110% to is getting back, as they say, to where I once belonged. But I don’t belong there anymore. They don’t want me.

There is a simpler explanation for why I clung so tightly to childhood. Maybe it wasn’t a psychological construct at all. Maybe it was indeed a great time in my life. My parents loved me. My father was a coach on my baseball team. Nobody was abusing me. I had been born with a happy disposition. I was well. I was living in the richest country in the world. It was the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Years later, though, I stand on a railway overpass, my elbows on the railing, gazing down on those train tracks. It’s a hot summer day with skies so blue that it hurts just looking up. How I wish I could run.

A Fighter’s Long Walk

It was twenty-four years ago when my mother took her last trip to Great Britain. She has yearned to return, and finally this year, in her 84th year, she convinced us to accompany her. She longed to see everything she had missed the first time. She wanted to visit the museums, see the Roman baths, see a play, maybe even take the train through the chunnel and visit France and Spain.

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“There’s something about England that I love,” she says.

She likes to tell the story about the mustard. While in London, she bought a hot dog from a vendor on the street corner. She asked him to slather on some mustard, because she’s always been a huge fan of that tasty spread. He gave her a tiny dab.

“More please,” she said.

So he gave her another tiny dab.

“More, more,” she said.

So he gave her a bigger dab, and by this time, people standing around were starting to stare in wonder.

“Much more,” she said.

The man gave her a strange look, but he complied. The hot dog he gave to her was literally smothered in mustard. The English were whispering beneath their breath at the strange American, anticipating what would happen when she bit in. When my mother finally did, she says it was like inhaling a nuclear blast up through her nostrils, past her sinuses, and into her brain. Turned out the mustard was Dijon, not French’s. But of course.

The other patrons politely stifled their laughter, a sign, she says, of the English character. In fact, she has told that story for years.

“The mustard is different over there,” she now likes to say, “but they were too polite to tell me.”

By 2014, my mother had developed hip problems. She could walk normally for about 25 feet, but after that, her arthritis would start to stab at her hips. Bone is rubbing on bone, her doctor tells her.

Watching my mother walk is sad and inspiring at the same time. She used to walk with the grace of a beautiful woman, but now, walking causes great pain, and takes the same courage with which she has addressed all the crucial issues in her life.

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In fact, there has been a lot in my mother’s life that has required courage. When food was scarce in her household in East L.A. in the 1930s, she would walk with her brother into the Chinese cemetery and steal the food that was left out for the dead. Her mother burnt her feet on the stove when she was 12 for coming home 10 minutes late, but the real reason was her developing curves, something that took her years to figure out.

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

Once, when her father came home drunk on a Saturday night from playing in his mariachi band, there was lipstick on his collar. Fighting ensued, he grabbed a kitchen knife, and it was a miracle that nobody ended up dead. But when he threatened to kill his wife and children, the kids were farmed out to Catholic charities for two years while her mother searched for a new husband.

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When my mother went back to school at age 21 to get her high school diploma, and then back to college at age 35, and then to get her Master’s at age 48, that took courage.

“I’m a fighter,” she likes to say.

So in Bath, England, when I see my 84-year-old mother walking the 100 yards from the train platform to the taxi stand, the repressed pain etched into her face, it also etches the portrait of a lifetime. I walk beside her, holding out my elbow for her to grab, steadying her. She’s had a couple strokes in the past 15 years, as well, that have compromised her balance.

“How much longer do we have to walk?” she says.

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“Not far,” I say.

And so she fights on. She’s a fighter.

When we arrive at the taxi stand, we talk to the first cabbie in line.

“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“It’s just up there,” he says. “An easy walk.”

“My mother has arthritic hips,” I say.

“We can’t do it,” the cabbie says. “We can’t turn right here. Go across the street and catch a cab. They’ll be headed in the right direction.”

So we hobble across the street and, after ten minutes, wave down a taxi.

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“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“I can’t do it,” he says, and he doesn’t even give me a reason.

So we hobble back across the street and ask another cabbie who is now first in the queue. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

“It’s just up there,” he says, pointing. “Up the road, two blocks up.”

“My mother has bad hips,” I explain. “Can you drive us?”

The cabbie seems upset.

“I’m not even first in line,” he says.

He walks over and gestures at the other taxi driver, who is busy chatting with a colleague.

“Hey, it’s your turn!” he says.

But try as he might, he can’t get the guy to take his turn, so he turns back to us.

“It’s just over there,” he says, pointing. “See that?” he says, pointing to a spot perhaps 50 yards across the street and to the left. “The baths are just 50 yards up from that.”

I know what the problem is: Nobody wants a short fare. Then he has to get back in line again. Uncertain, I think that maybe the best solution to this problem is to walk my mother 100 yards up. So we start out, get 50 yards up, and then I turn.

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“Wait here,” I say. “I’ll scout it out.”

I walk briskly up the walk-street, looking for the baths.  But when I get to the curve in the road, I ask a police officer how far it is. He points to a spot about a half-mile up another walk-street.

I turn back, now really angry. Just fifty yards up? Just fifty yards up?! What kind of person are you, to turn down service to an 84-year-old woman with arthritis, forcing her to walk a half-mile in pain?! I’m really pissed now, so I walk back to my mother.

“We’re going back to those damned taxi drivers,” I say, purpose in my voice now. “And we’re going to take down some names and kick some ass. It’s illegal what they’re doing, and we’re going to be driven to where we want to go, dammit, or we’re going to report them.”

So my mother turns around, and we trudge the 50 yards back to the taxi stand. When we arrive, the previous cabbies are gone, but there are a couple new ones there. I walk up to one.

“We’d like a cab,” I say quietly, loaded for bear.

“Where would you like to go?”

“The Roman baths,” I say.

It’s a sixtysomething man whose cool sunglasses make him look like he was once a player in the singles clubs and nobody has told him it’s all over. I am ready for his evasions. When he starts his double-step, I will say something like, Excuse me?! Excuse me?! Do you know that my mother has arthritic hips and can’t walk 100 yards?! Then I will take out a pen and start writing down his license plate number while saying, I’m going to find the nearest policeman, or report you to whoever you report these things to, and your ass, as we say in America, is going to be grass…. And then we’ll see if turns me down, or if he suddenly changes his tune, saying, Okay, all right, calm down, I’ll drive you….

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We wait for the cabbie’s response. It takes a moment, but when it comes, it’s direct and friendly.

“Okay, hop in,” he says.

At first, it stuns me. I’ve got indignation in my shovel and nowhere to dump it. But then we’re inside the car and we’re driving. I immediately start explaining what had happened with the other cabbies and he shakes his head.

“That’s wrong,” he said.

“You should go home to your wife tonight and explain that you’re a hero,” I say.

Because my mother, who has gone through so much and whose courage knows no bounds, deserves to be driven around England in style.

[Here are some photos of my mother in Bath, England, where for 25 years she has dreamed to return.]

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A Warm Body

When I was 11, my mother took a job as a secretary at JP Negley Company.  She had been a stay-at-home mother since I was born, but now, figured that she could leave me and my sister with a babysitter from 3 – 5 in the afternoon.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BAIt lasted for six months.  I wasn’t happy.  The babysitter was a little strange, and I felt a little lonely and displaced in the afternoons.  She left Playboy magazines on the coffee table, which is not a good thing to do with an adolescent boy in the house.  The house seemed dark and creepy.  So did the babysitter.  I felt like I was somewhere I didn’t want to be.

One day at the kitchen table, I asked my mother if she would quit her job.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I like you there in the afternoons.”

“Well, when I’m home, you immediately run outside and play and don’t spend any time with me.  Why is this any different from the way it is now?”

I thought for a minute, then said: “Well, I have your warm body here.”

That melted my mother’s resolve.  The next day, she gave her notice at work and went back to being a full-time mother.

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In 2014, my mother turns 84.  In 1989, her husband of 37 years died of lung disease.  In 2000, she took on a boyfriend, but he died of stomach cancer in 2007.

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So today, I called to make sure that she had something to do on New Year’s Eve.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said.  “It’s not safe.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

I was hoping to go to her house and celebrate the new year with her and my girlfriend Claire.  But then I booked a lucrative show in Corona del Mar that I couldn’t turn down.  It made me sad.

But the Saturday before, on the 28th, there’s a party Claire and I were invited to at a poetry friend’s house.  It’s a party for writers who are going to read from their own works.  When I was younger, I wouldn’t have been caught dead with my Mom among such a hip group.  I was carving out my own identity.  My parents were so provincial.  They didn’t understand words like oeuvre and genre and denouement.  They had never read the greatest writer of our time, Don Delillo, and what’s more, didn’t care to.

But it’s different now.

“Mom, do you want to go to a writers’ party on Saturday night?”

“Okay.”

“You could read something.”

“Okay.”

“Like maybe that poem ‘Pie’ that you wrote in that poetry class you took a couple years ago in community college?”

“Whatever you think.”

“Yes, I think ‘Pie.’  Everybody loves that one.”

We made plans to pick her up and drive her there.

These days, my mother quilts for hours and hours, alone in her fabulous quilting room.  She has her new computerized sewing machine, closets full of fabric, and a plethora of tools, books, and patterns.  Her friend Ronnie has moved to Cucamonga and she doesn’t talk to her friend Mary anymore because of a disagreement.  So she sews and watches TCM.

Sometimes I ask her if she’s lonely, and she shakes me off and says no.  But I want to make sure, just like I wanted to make sure she was with somebody last Valentine’s Day, and on her birthday, and just like I visit her as much as I can, not just to help her with honey-do’s, but also, just to sit at her kitchen table in the late afternoon with a cup of mint tea and be with her.  I want to make sure she has a warm body around.Mom 1b smaller

Her Daughter’s Homeless Parents

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine came onto the Facebook page for the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors), saying that she was going through something extraordinary: Her adopted daughter’s birth parents had just become homeless.

Vanessa asked where she might pitch this great article idea she had.  It was indeed a great article idea, and we helped by suggesting outlets, including third- and fourth-tier publications.

But Vanessa didn’t have to settle for third or fourth tier.  The idea was so good that she got an assignment from the august New York Times.  Not only that, but she did such a bang-up job on the execution of the article that today, it was published.  I defy you to read it and not say, Wow.

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/the-birth-parents-move-in/

The Cop Who Did the Right Thing on Christmas Eve

The hammer came down on my mother tonight.

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It was Christmas Eve, and as usual, I was performing as Santa Claus.  It’s a gig I started years ago as a young man, and I still enjoy it.  All you need to do as Santa Claus is love.  I had a gig in Granada Hills at 5 pm, and another in Santa Clarita at 7 pm.  Because of that, I was unable to drive my mother to our extended family’s New Year’s Eve party.

My mother knows she shouldn’t drive at night.  She’s had two strokes, one of which gave her a small blind spot between 11 and 12:00.  In addition, her night vision has gotten worse to the point that the streetlights look like Fourth of July sparklers.  But my mother is proud and doesn’t like to ask for help.  She likes to be independent.  She’s fierce, as you know from previous posts.  And she doesn’t like to relinquish control to anyone, and I mean anyone.

“I can do it,” she said.

At the Santa Claus gigs, I entertained little kids with my elf Clairabelle at my side.  I’ve known eight-year-old Annie since she was born, and I was thrilled that she hasn’t yet reached the disbelieving threshold.  The autistic kid in the house, 19-year-old Damian, still believes in me.  He sits next to Santa Claus, hangs his head, and croaks out his Christmas wishes.  He now works at Lamppost Pizza.  Some autistic kids are geniuses at one thing or another, but not Damian.  He’s just a regular adult who believes in Santa Claus.

At 6:45, we jumped onto the 5 freeway and sped up to the Calgrove turnoff.  When I entered the second home, I was interested to see how 8-year-old Melissa was adjusting.  Her father died two years ago, and everyone has been worrying about her.  I was glad to see that she seemed just fine, dressed in her lovely lacy black dress and shiny patent-leather shoes, but I was especially pleased with her radiant smile.  There are wounds that aren’t evident, I’m sure, but I’m confident that she’ll survive.

After that, we jumped on the road and sped back to the family party.  It was after 9 pm when we walked in.  Immediately, we could sense that something had happened.  Gradually, I got the story.

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My mother had been driving to the party in the dark when another motorist saw her weaving.  They called the cops to report an erratic driver.  What was strange was that just a half-hour earlier, we had called 911 and reported an erratic driver on the 210 freeway approaching Pasadena.  Within seconds, a cop was on my mother’s tail.  The lights went on and she pulled over.

“You seem to be driving erratically,” the cop said.

My mother never drinks.  It interferes with her medication. My mother was impeccably dressed, tastefully coiffed, and didn’t have any liquor in her voice or in her eyes.  Later, she told me that “his face was so close to mine that I thought he might kiss me.”  Obviously, he’d been smelling her breath for a $10,000 probable cause windfall.

“I saw that you were looking down at your GPS device,” he said.

Mom explained that yes, it was a new GPS device, but the main problem was that she had simply mistaken one line on the road for another, ending up in the center lane, the one you’re not supposed to drive in.

“It’s dark around here,” she said.

“Do you have a license?”

She handed over her license and he checked it.  Everything came up just fine, but there was still the question of the erratic driving.  At 83, there’s always a question of whether her keys should be taken away, and with it, her independence, her self-respect, and her autonomy.

“I’ll be honest with you, officer,” my mother said.  “I know I shouldn’t be driving at night.  But it’s Christmas Eve and my son is working.  He gets hired out to play Santa Claus at people’s homes on Christmas Eve.  So I thought I could drive myself, but…I don’t know…it’s so dark on this street….”

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The cop had a decision to make.  He could give Santa Claus’s mother a ticket for erratic driving and ruin her season.  She would have to get retested at the DMV and jump through hoops.  Or he could…what else could he do?  He had to be responsible to the other drivers whom my mother might slam her car into.

“Where are you headed?” the cop asked.

“A family party,” my mother said, and she gave the address.

“Listen, I’ll escort you.  Just follow me.”

So my mother followed the police car to the party, which was only two miles away.  When she had parked, he jumped out of his patrol car and held the door open for her.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” he said.

“Okay.”

“Can I carry something?”

“I made some deviled eggs,” she said.  “They’re in the trunk.”

So he carried the deviled eggs and followed behind her as she walked up to my cousin Gary’s door.

For the people at the party, I heard later, it was an arresting sight.  The doorbell rang, and in the doorway appeared my mother with “this big hunky cop behind her,” according to my cousin Chrissy.  “I thought, ‘Oh God, Sally’s done it again.  She’s dating some really gorgeous cop now.'”

Gary invited the cop inside, but he demurred.

“You can have something to eat,” Gary said.  “We have tamales, menudo, the works.”

The cop turned it all down.  Instead, he asked to speak to my sister.  He was just going to talk it over with the family and start a conversation.  Make sure they’re aware that her failing eyesight might be a problem.  He wasn’t going to let it drop.  It was the responsible and kind thing to do.  And when it was over, when his job was finally done, he quietly left, knowing that he had gone out of his way to do the right thing.

When I arrived at 9:15 pm, my mother was sitting on the stairs looking chastened.

“Can you drive me home?” she said sheepishly.

“Of course, Mom.”

“I’ve got quite a story to tell you.”

“All right.”

After All, It’s Christmas

My mother has had a lot of heartache in her life.  In 1989, my father died, and she took it badly.  Still, she survived.  She’s a survivor, for sure.

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In 2007, my mother and her boyfriend Sid considered getting married.  Then they got into a fight and didn’t tie the knot.  That was January.  In February, Sid went to the doctor for some stomach pain that he had been having for quite a long time.  He was a very thrifty man, so he had waited till the last possible minute before he saw a doctor about his symptoms.  The doctor did some tests and determined that it was stomach cancer.

By summer, he was dead.

In the years since, my mother has lived alone.  She has spent a lot of her time sewing.  She has sewn quilts, aprons, potholders, table runners, and whatever else she can put stitches in.  She has dove into Brazilian Needlepoint.  She has studied Amish quiltmaking.  She has exhibited her creations at the county fair and won awards.  In the beginning, it was the way she dealt with her grief.  Later, it became the way she dealt with loneliness and old age.

After a few years, the stack of sewn masterpieces has grown higher and higher, until she now has a stack of lovely, colorful creations that nearly fills an entire room.  She gives them away for Christmas and birthdays, but she still makes them faster than she can give them away.

In the spring, I told her that she should try selling them on eBay.

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“I don’t do the computer well,” she said.

“I’ll help you,” I said.

So I listed a few things, but nothing sold.  Our friend John, who is a top seller online, advised us not to give up.

“Wait until winter,” John said.  “People buy a lot more quilts in winter, especially before Christmas.”

So we pulled the items off eBay and waited.  In September, my mother bought a computerized sewing machine.

“It feels like I’m not even doing the sewing,” she said.  “In a way, it takes all the fun out of it.”

In fact, the machine will sew your name into a quilt in a fancy font with just the push of a button.  In a way, that’s great, but in another way, it’s unsatisfying.  After all, the act of sewing calms my mother.  It even brings down her blood pressure.  The other day, for example, when my mother’s plumbing sprung a leak and flooded her hardwood floors, and the insurance company sent out a team to hack up the floor and clean up, leaving her half a floor, concrete slabs, and loud industrial fans to dry everything out, I knew my mother was stressed.

“I’m worried about you, Mom,” I said over the phone.  “You should take your blood pressure.  Remember, you’ve had two strokes.  You should take some deep breaths and calm down.”

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“You’re right, I know.”

“Calm down.”

“The thing I have to do is sewing,” she said.  “That’ll calm me down.”

In November, we relisted the quilts and other items on eBay again.  We listed 14 items on eBay and 3 items on etsy and waited.  We promoted on Facebook.  We tweaked the words to get them just right.  We offered an array of products.

(To see her online store, go here.)

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But price was a factor.  My mother didn’t want to short-sell the items that she had poured so much of her passion into.  She wanted to sell them for what they were worth.  But there are companies that sell sewn items for quite a bit less.  Their secret: They cut corners.  They contract out to China to manufacture the items in sweatshops staffed by unskilled workers.  They use cheap fabric that isn’t obvious on an online listing.  They don’t use high-quality thread.  After a few washings, the items start unraveling.  And something my mother can’t do is get cut-rate prices on fabric by buying in huge quantities.

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Other online items are put together by hand by beginners in America.  My mother can spot them.  When we browse through eBay, she says, Oh, she did this wrong, or Oh, she did that wrong.  My mother has studied this stuff, and even earned a Master’s Degree in Home Economics.  She took classes in the chemistry of fabrics.  She knows how they burn, how they unravel, how the molecules change under different stressors, everything.  And after she graduated, she taught Home Economics in college.  She’s all about quality.

“I want to make a profit,” my mother said.  “I don’t want to give these things away.”

I agreed with her.

“Charge what they’re worth, Mom.”

Finally, the other day, I called my mother.

“Mom, we got our first sale,” I said.

Her voice suddenly perked up.

“We did?”

“Yes, I’ll tell you when the money has fully transferred to PayPal.”

My mother was so excited.  Finally, the object of her passion, sewing, was turning into a saleable commodity.  When she was young, it had been a way to assuage her poverty.  When she was middle aged, it had been her profession.  After deaths, it had been her way of dealing with pain.

Turns out a young woman in Monterey County named Maria had bought a fabric children’s book that my mother had sewn.  It was washable and you could fold it up.  It was sold to a woman on Facebook who had been following my own magic performance since she saw me performing on the street at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey last year.  After Maria made the PayPal payment, I put them in touch with each other by phone, trying to figure out whether Mother Goose was more appropriate for her daughters, aged 5 and 8, or whether she should go with ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, also a fabric book.

(To see her etsy store, go here.)

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On the phone, my mother discovered that Maria is a single mother who was born in Mexico and lives in a tiny home in a poor community in Monterey.  She doesn’t have much money, but she scraped up enough to buy the fabric book for $30.  Her daughters were so excited about it.  As my mother listened to Jessica’s story, something happened.  My mother became Maria.  Because she had once been a young Mexican woman, too.  She had once lived in the barrio.  She had once had little children, age 5 and 8, whom she loved.

“So you want the Mother Goose book?” my mother finally said.

“Yes.  When I get some more money, I’ll buy the Christmas book for my girls,” Jessica said.  “They’re so excited.”

The next morning, wrapping the gift to send to Monterey, my mother stumbled upon a moment of truth.  My mother placed both books into the package, and then tossed in a $5 bill, too.  After all, they were more than just products to her, quilts and table runners and aprons and fabric children’s books, they were from the heart.  And my mother was more than just a seller, a profit maker.  And Maria was more than just a customer.

“After all, it’s Christmas,” my mother said to me on the phone by way of explanation.

On Christmas Day, a message was posted on my Facebook page:

“I am feeling so happy and blessed with my two daughters. We just opened the books you mom send us, David Groves and both of my daughters are so excited and so happy with he book I bought for them.

“But also because your mom send and extra book, a note an a very generous amount of money as a gift for Christmas. Your mom is so kind, if you can please tell her We want to thank her very much for her touch. I wasn’t expecting that, and I am very surprised, also I am worry about her, because if she keep doing that with all of her customers, She’s going to get broke very soon.. Jklol

— feeling blessed with David Groves.”

After she read it, my mother was happy, but she also said: “I’m not going to go out of business.  It was from the heart.”

 

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Adventure on Road X (part 11)

[Continued from a previous post]

It all started with a baby.

027 (2)In the spring of 1956, Donald and Sally Groves had hearts that were fuller than they could ever imagine.  They had both had difficult childhoods and gotten tangled up in their own pain and anger along the way as a runner might trip over his own shoelaces.  But finally now, holding a baby in their arms, for the first time in their lives, they had found themselves.  They knew they were doing something good and pure.  They had brought a baby into the world and they were going to give him all the love that they had never received.

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Sally had witnessed violence in her household.  Her father regularly hit her mother.  Her mother hated the pain, but in a strange way, loved it, too.  It made her feel alive in some primal way, so in some ways, she provoked it.  In fact, she was filled with primal feelings.  She put her daughter’s feet on the stove, ostensibly for coming home five minutes late from school, but actually, for beginning to grow up.  It was a confusing sin for the daughter.  Sally’s father had gone out with other women.  He longed for adulation and fame, as his grandson later would, but the progression of a Mexican entertainer in the thirties was by tradition stunted.  For his violence at home, he was rightly charged with assault and battery.  When Sally’s older brother grew old enough, he beat up the father for his violence.  As a reward, the brother was sent away from home to CCC camp.  It was a confusing and enraging childhood.  Heroes were punished, beauty was damned, pain was pleasure, pleasure was never quite pleasure, and truth was buried in the backyard along with the dead cat.

But now, with this child, it was all over.  The new baby wasn’t going to go through any of that.

I wasn’t going to go through any of that.  And I didn’t.

Sally Groves with her new babyMy parents took a 2-week trip, the baby in tow, to the Midwest to visit Don’s relatives.  Don’s grandfather Charles had died six years earlier, and his widow Dora had moved in with her son Earl in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was an eye-opening trip.  I don’t remember it, of course, but we visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove through Oklahoma and were refused service at a diner because of my mother’s skin color.  And when we reached Earl’s house, my parents were stunned to learn another ugly fact: The old lady didn’t want to see them.

Dora lived in a back house on Earl’s property, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Why did she have to marry a Mexican woman?” she told Earl.  “I refuse to give my approval to a dirty Mexican and her dirty son.”

My parents were terribly disappointed and hurt.  They had traveled halfway across the country, after all, just to be refused at Dora’s doorstep.

After that, they looked for solace with Don’s great-aunt Caroline Allen, who lived in Colorado.  When he was in the service in 1948 – ’51, spending several bloody months fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, Aunt Caroline was the only one who wrote him letters.  Don always thought fondly on Aunt Caroline, and when the baby came along, they gave her last name to their child as a middle name.  But astonishingly, Aunt Caroline disliked my mother because of her race, too.  Caroline offered a chilly reception, and they went away terribly sad.

In the years that followed, my family looked back on that incident many times, and it eventually became a defining moment for them.  They settled into the comfortable suburbs and Sally hardened herself to those who had rejected her.  Thereafter, my mother referred to all Midwestern locations as “the South.”  To her mind, they weren’t worth visiting because they were all racists.  (There was much more to this story, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.)

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Many years passed.  In that time, the civil-rights movement transformed the country.  Racism began to be considered as an abomination, no longer the status quo that it once had been.  The child grew up not knowing what crucible he had been born into.  A whole new generation began intermarrying–brown with white, yellow with brown, red with white, and all shades in between, even black.  The n word became forbidden.  Laws changed.  Blacks moved into white neighborhoods.  In the 1950s, my Mexican Uncle Ray had been banned from purchasing a house in Paramount, but his son lived long enough to be glad that he had been turned down.  Hispanics were elected to Congress, state office, and even became movie stars–Freddy Prinze, J. Lo, George Lopez, and many others.  And finally, as a crowning glory, a black was elected President of the United States.

It is now 2013 and the baby has grown into adulthood.  A couple months ago, he was visiting Kansas on a genealogical quest and had stopped in at the local library to peruse the old newspaper archives.  It was at that moment, sitting at the reference desk, that he discovered an odd fact.  He stared for a long time at the article from the Hutchinson News-Herald that the librarian had given him.  It didn’t fit in with anything that he knew about the situation.

Dora Groves obit date

Dora, as you’ll recall, was Don’s grandmother, who had refused to see her own great-grandson because he had Mexican blood.  But there’s something strange about this obituary: It was published on September 25, 1955, reporting that Dora had died the previous Friday, September 23.  That was eight months before their trip to “the South,” and in fact seven days before he was even born.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I questioned my mother about it.  But she was adamant.

“Your Dad’s grandmother wouldn’t see us,” Mom said.  “It was Grandma Dora.  She was living in the back house at Earl’s place.”

I showed her the obituary again.  She looked at it for a long time, puzzling over it.  Finally, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes.

“Then who was living in that back house?” she said.

A Love Letter from 1955

In the year 2000, I received a strange letter.  It was from an insurance company, saying that they wanted to pay me about $2,000 in benefits.  I was immediately suspicious.  I wondered if their main office was in Nigeria.  I wondered if I was going to be asked to put up $500 first before I received the $2,000.  But strangely, it turned out to be a love letter from 1955.

I called the company’s 800 number and the lady on the other end looked up my account.

“The records say we’ve been looking for you for a while,” she said.  “It’s a life insurance policy.  You have a choice of taking the money in stock or getting a cash payout.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.  “I’ve never taken out an insurance policy with your company.”

“Well, this goes back quite a number of…decades.”

After conducting a little research through their computerized records, she discovered that the policy had been taken out when I was only a month old.  After 20 years, the policy had been paid off, and at a certain point, they had lost track of me.  I didn’t understand all the technical aspects, but by law, they had to try to find me.

The one who originally took out the policy, they finally discovered, was my father, who’s been dead for over 20 years.

I was puzzled.  I had never heard of this policy.  So I went to my mother and asked her.  For a while, she drew a blank, but then it all started to come back to her.

“Your father paid all the bills while he was alive,” she said, “but yes, okay, right, I seem to remember that we took out a life insurance policy the year you were born, I remember now.  We paid every month.”

After all the identifications were made, I finally received the check.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  In my quiet moments over the next few weeks, I pondered this mysterious policy.  My father had been raised virtually by wolves–that is, by a mother who was mentally ill and neglected him, pestered him, harangued him.  My mother had been raised in poverty in East L.A., and her mother used to beat her.

There was so much drama in her house.  Once, my great-aunt Margarita laughingly recounted an incident in which my grandfather came home at 4 am stinking of whiskey and with lipstick smudges on his shirt.

“Maria [my grandmother] accused him of being with another woman,” Margarita said, “and he said ‘So what if I did?!’ and she started hitting him.  Well, that got him really mad.  He went into the kitchen and got a big ol’ knife and took out after her.  So I jumped on his back, put my hands around his neck and yelled, ‘Run, Maria, run for the hills!'”

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My mother as a little girl.

Donald Groves age 13

My father as a child.

Finally one day in 1951, when my parents were 20 and 21, respectively, they found each other, two wounded birds trying to act like normal adults, but each with a secret.  Within three weeks, they were married, and in October, 1955, they had their firstborn.

I see my parents holding this child and looking at each other, like, Now what do we do?  They did a lot of things wrong along the way, to be sure, but one thing I can’t fault was their intentions.  They always had the best of intentions.

They say that no movie can be truly satisfying without a transformation in the protagonist.  If so, this movie has no flaws in that regard.  I saw genuine transformations in my parents.  I remember misbehaving when I was five.  My mother ripping a switch off a tree and whipping my behind.  My father taking off his belt and whipping my behind.  My father using his hand on my bare behind, and me yelling, No, no, no! 

But over the course of a year or two, it became increasingly difficult for them.  It made my mother feel evil, she later told me.  When she did it, she felt first a rage, and then a deep regret.  She loved her children too much to use a belt on them.

“I felt myself turning into my mother,” she said.  “I remembered the pain of being hit.  I remember the hurt and rage.  I couldn’t pass this violence along to another generation.”

Some parents don’t learn, they just pass along the sins.

Donald took this photo of his pregnant wife Sally on the day his first child, me, was born

Donald took this photo of his pregnant wife Sally on the day his first child, me, was born

If I focus on that moment in 1955 when I was born, I can understand.  After the labor, my mother, all sweaty and weak, apologized to her new husband for how she looked.  But Dad responded with that thing they say in all the movies these days and has become a cliche, but only because it’s so true.

“You look more beautiful today than I’ve ever seen you,” he told her.

They didn’t say it in movies back then.  He really felt it.

And if I focus on that moment in November, 1955, a month after I was born, I can feel their love.  Their new baby was four weeks old.  It was their light, their joining, their responsibility.  It could be anything, the sky was the limit, if they didn’t screw it up.  Hell, it had already changed their lives.

But what was important, they felt, so very important, was to care for him the way they had never been cared for.  There had been so much pain in their own pasts, but they were determined that their son would never have that kind of pain.  So they took out a life insurance policy and paid into it a little every month, just in case.

Growing up, I was never hungry, never beaten.  My mother never put my feet on the stove because I was five minutes late coming home from school, as her mother did.  I was never left alone at age 7 at my mother’s house, as my father was, her having spent several days at another man’s house.  I didn’t have to figure out stoves and ovens at that age and cook my own meals.  I wasn’t scared when a thunderstorm hit when my mother was gone, so scared that I fled to my father’s house.  My father didn’t come home that morning from the graveyard shift to his whimpering little son crouching soaking wet on the back porch.  I was dry and fed and happy.  I was loved.

And decades later, I had a check in my hand that proved it.

What Did You Say to the White Light?

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Although I have fictionalized this incident for the novel, this really happened to my mother.  My approach to fiction is to take all the most interesting things that have happened in real life and throw them into a story and see where it takes you.  Buy the novel at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.

Her brother was driving.  The car rolled several times.  My mother went through the front window and was hanging half in and half out.  She had to wait an hour for the ambulance to come because they were way out in the boonies of Downey.

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She really did have a conversation with a white light.  Later in the novel, I divulge some more intriguing details, including the nature of conversations with white lights.  My mother was haunted by this experience for years, until sometime in the 1980s, it became socially acceptable in her circle to talk about near-death experiences.  A friend of mine was doing her Master’s Thesis on near-death experiences and heard about my mother’s experience.  She sat her down for an interview and got it all on tape.

Initially, the near-death experience was disorienting.  Loony bins were mentioned.  But over the decades, the experience became a comfort.  Suddenly, she knew that God existed because she had seen him.  I don’t have that certainty, not having seen firsthand what my mother has seen, but that knowledge is a comfort for anyone as they’re growing older, especially my mother, who’s now 83, knowing that there is someone who will catch you when you fall for the last time.

Mexicans Don’t Become Nurses: Followup

My mother read your lovely comments about her today.

IMG_2663 smaller IMG_2665 smallerAs you know, I published a short account of her valiant fight to attain an education in a blog called “Mexicans Don’t Become Nurses” (see below), and to date, we’ve had over 36 comments from people who found her story inspirational.  As she was reading the lovely comments today, she became teary eyed.

“Wow,” she kept saying.  “Wow.  Wow.  Wow.”

Mom is 83 years old now and so appreciates the good wishes.