The War on Baby Boomers

It’s an old story, so I won’t bore you with the whole spiel.  The media called them the ’60s Generation, but demographers and advertisers called them the Baby Boomers, because when GIs returned from WWII, it caused a boom in births and a bump in the population.

All during my youth, they were a big deal.  Everybody looked to them to see what the future would look like.  Under their reign, racial barriers came down.  Whites started treating minorities like real people.  Whites started marrying blacks.  Kids started growing their hair long.  They didn’t see the use in raising their pinky while drinking tea or maintaining the perfect lawn.  They wanted to express themselves, find meaning, and gaze at their own navel.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979

The generation before them didn’t have a name.  But then Tom Brokaw came along and named them after the fact: The Greatest Generation.  And they were great, because they had real, life-or-death challenges that later generations didn’t really have.  They fought for everything they got.  They cleaned up the corruption that was rife within society throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

But now, those generations are under attack.  A virus has targeted them.  The media talks about the virus targeting the elderly, but let’s not forget that these people were a very big deal in their day.  They won World War II.  They brought us the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Aretha.  They took us to the moon.

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Now, a small slice of American culture is saying that the mass death they are experiencing is just fine.

“Many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs, anyway….” Bill O’Reilly said in an appearance on Fox News.  “A simple man tells the truth.”

Simple, yes, although not in the way that he means it.  Truth, no.

What O’Reilly is implying, of course, is that we shouldn’t mourn these generations because they would’ve died soon, anyway.  Well, O’Reilly is going to die soon, anyway, too.  But when that happens, I won’t go around disrespecting his life, because every life deserves dignity and respect.  Some people have no class.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick put his foot in it, too, when he said:

“There are things more important than living,” and that those generations of Americans might be “willing to take a chance” on dying for the good of the economy.

Vicious, yes.  Pro life, most certainly no.

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Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

My own mother was a member of that Greatest Generation.  She remembers Pearl Harbor, blackout curtains and air-raid sirens.  She was a mother when Nikita Khruschev banged his shoe on the podium.  She worked hard for her Masters Degree, raised two good kids, and received her reward by retiring in a house on the hill.

My mother doesn’t deserve to be sacrificed body and soul so that a serial sexual harasser like Bill O’Reilly can try to goose his stock portfolio, or Dan Patrick can try to service the Texas oil companies by forcing people back into their cars.  They built this country before us.  It’s theirs.  Show a little respect, why doncha.

How I Killed My Father

Years ago, I gave my father the flu.  Six weeks later, he died of it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.  The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire.  There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did.  Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be.  We’ve seen the movie Contagion.  We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets.  We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths.  Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.

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My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager.  I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.

“Come on, just take one puff.”

By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”

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By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot.  The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness.  He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional.  Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat.  He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that.  He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it.  Decency was part of the profile, too.  He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night.  He never drank.  He wasn’t loud or obnoxious.  He coached my Little League baseball team.

One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera.  Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space.  I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.

“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.

“Taking your picture,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said.  “It’s a good picture.”

He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it.  To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”

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My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking.

By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world.  One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off.  I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything.  The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood.  However, I eventually just came out with it.

“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.

“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully.  “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”

“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you.  Have you gone to the doctor?”

“I’m okay.”

“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”

“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”

“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened.  Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out.  We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.

“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.

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So I left it to her.  Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.

“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.

So Mom started a campaign.  She discussed and cajoled.  She used reverse and double-reverse psychology.  She tried every trick in the book.  After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.

So my sister decided to give it a try.  She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America.  She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.

“Okay,” he said.

So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello.  Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor.  When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.

“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.

“No,” he said.  “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”

“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said.  “I want you to get examined.”

“Oh no.”

“Dad, we’re already here….”

“I said no.”

Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen.  His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent.  And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy.  His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.

“I worry about you,” I told my father.  “You could be very sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”

“You’re only 57 years old,” I said.  “You shouldn’t be this frail.”

“I’m not frail.  And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio.  I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”

I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health.  In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels.  Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air.  Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe.  The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.

I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health.  I was the man who told everybody how to live forever.  At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health.  It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.

What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything.  It seemed ridiculous, but it was true.  We couldn’t make him save himself.  We couldn’t arrest him.  We couldn’t drag him bodily.  We couldn’t trick him.  It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.

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In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house.  He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it.  He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family.  During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves.  That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed.  Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching.  He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.

That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu.  For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life.  I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few.  I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion.  The trash bins were filled with Kleenex.  But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.

“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”

So I visited Dad in that big house.  It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia.  I hugged him, which he always bristled at.  I spent time with him.  We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch.  He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean.  To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.

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We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father.  I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.

“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said.  “Wow, I thought it was me.”

Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me.  He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything.  Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes.  He was gasping for air.  He was panicking.  His world was changing.  He was running out of time.

On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.

“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said.  “You better come today.  It’s serious.”

Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen.  I pretty much stopped working.  The family spent all of our time at the hospital.  Mom slept there.  Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.

There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed.  Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead.  He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling.  We came in and said our goodbyes individually.  I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself.  In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself.  Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.

I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu.  Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it.  After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu.  Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes.  In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that.  Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.

“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.

Perhaps it was his fault.  Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’.  When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry.  But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders.  I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.

 

As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.  Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many.  It looms above us like a black cloud.  But hey, I’ve been there.  My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth.  I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014.  I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him.  I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book.  But he only made it to 1989.

That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage.  It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.

Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.

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Mom with my partner Claire.

“I think about him every day,” she says.  “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”

Sometimes, I catch her crying.

“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.

Like a nightmare, it’s happening again.  Mom also started smoking in the 1940s.  She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs.  Now, she too has COPD.  She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded.  She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen.  All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.

“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”

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She’s right.  As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar.  She doesn’t let anyone in, even me.  She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets.  She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.

The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house.  Her birthday is in May.

When Mom needs food, I shop for her.  Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone.  She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out.  Then she carries the groceries inside.  She washes each package with rubbing alcohol.  Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach.  She can’t be too careful.  She loves life.  She still finds it sweet, indeed.

This week, I read the statistics.  Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID.  Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die.  Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market.  He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.  Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives.  It’s worth the lives we lose.  After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.

I just think of my father.  I would have liked another 30 years with him.  I would have liked to get to know him better.  I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in.  Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone.  I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew.  His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.

And then there’s his soul.  I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire.  He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world.  He had no ulterior motives.  I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it.  I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.

Love Has a Lot to Do With It

You may think that the story I’m about to tell you has one lesson, but be careful what you conclude that lesson is.  It’s not what you may think.  You may, for example, assume from the photos and the story that you should panic.

The apocalypse is coming!  We’re all going to starve!  We’re all going to turn into cannibals!

You may assume, as well, that you run fast–don’t walk, don’t dawdle–to the nearest grocery store and fight for survival, grab toilet paper out of other customers’ hands, that you growl like a wolf and stockpile loads and loads of grocery items.  That, however, would be a stupid assumption.  Did I mention that it would be imbecilic?  Really, this is the closest thing you’re going to get in your adult life to a valid IQ test.

Let me emphasize, guys: There’s nothing wrong with our food supply.  Taliban bombers haven’t carpet-bombed our farms.  There’s no plague of locusts besetting the land.  No terrorists have blown up all the Vons trucks.  Tomorrow morning, you will still have a great choice of produce, packaged goods, canned goods, frozen dinners, and even all that disgusting junk food that you can stuff into your piehole.

What’s wrong, see, is the people.  Some of the simplest among us are panicking.  Without reason.  Without any reason at all.

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That said, I shopped for two today.  First, I was shopping for my live-in girlfriend and myself.  And secondly, I was shopping for my mother.

Mom, see, is at high risk for death if she contracts COVID-19.  She’s 89 years old, soon to turn 90, and she smoked for 40 years.  Even though she quit in the ’90s, her habit left her with a gift that keeps on giving: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which impairs lung function.  Ever prudent, Mom started isolating herself hard two weeks ago.  She shopped for groceries at 7 am, when nobody was in the stores.  She avoided any other retail stores.  She stayed inside.

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Mom in 2014 admiring a 10th-century castle in Ireland

Then just a week ago, Mom saw the writing on the wall and started isolating even harder.  She decided she was going to stay inside her four-bedroom, two-story suburban house almost completely.  She and her little Shih Tzu Phoebe would shut the world out absolutely.  She wouldn’t even shop for herself.  She wouldn’t go to the bank.  She wouldn’t meet anybody for coffee.

Of course, this strategy only works if you have somebody to shop for you.  That’s me, thank you.  I volunteered to do it because I’m at fairly low risk.  After all, I have exercised about an hour a day for the past 40 years and have terrific lungs.  I’ve never smoked.  I’ve never had anything go even mildly wrong with my body.  I’m as healthy as a hose, even if I can’t always spell.  Plus, I’m doing it because–hello!–she’s my mother.

So this afternoon, I drove down to Albertsons Grocery Store in La Habra.  It’s the nice suburban community in Southern California where I live.  I walked in with three cloth grocery bags, because I didn’t want to put my hands anywhere near any filthy, germ-laden grocery cart.  I would just pile all my groceries into the bags and carry them around the store.

Stepping into the store, I knew there would be shortages, but I had no idea how extensive the shortages would be.  First, I checked out the essentials that everybody is stockpiling: hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper, and water.  Predictably, those products were all cleaned out.

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They were out of rubbing alcohol, and even placed a limit on the number you could buy.

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Predictably, all toilet paper was gone.

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All water was gone, even though there’s no threat to the nation’s water supply.

But I was surprised to find that some related products were cleaned out, as well, including dish detergent, baby wipes, diapers, and various cleaning products.

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Baby wipes were out.

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Many cleaning products were sold out.

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All of the hand dish detergent was sold out.

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Napkins were sold out.

As I strolled around the store, I discovered other more offbeat shortages, as well.  For example, all the tortillas were sold out.  It makes sense, I guess, because the store is right on the edge of a Mexican-American community, but really, can’t you give a guy a break on his beloved tacos and burritos?

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All tortillas were sold out.

There were also no potatoes at all, only yams, and the only onions left were red onions.  Turns out tomatoes and carrots are pretty popular, too, because they were nowhere to be found.

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Albertsons placed a limit on the amount of potatoes you could buy, but by the time I got there, the limit had reached zero.

All the eggs were gone, too.  I love my omelettes!

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Eggs gone.  I guess it’s Cap’n Crunch for breakfast.

And rice, beans, and pasta sauce were gone, too.

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Rice, beans, and pasta were mostly sold out.

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In all, I bought $37 worth of groceries for Claire and I, and $95 worth of groceries for Mom.  By the time I got to the end of our grocery lists, I was lugging around three heavy bags.  I considered going through a regular checkstand, but decided against it because I didn’t want anybody filthy checker’s hands touching my products.  So I decided to do self-checkout.  That was a little dicey, though.  There was a lot of tapping the touchscreen and putting products on scales.  And then whenever I made a mistake, a grocery employee jumped over my shoulder and pushed the right buttons, uncomfortably close.

By the time I got to the car, I immediately jumped into the driver’s seat and slathered gobs of sanitizer onto my hands.  I couldn’t believe I had gotten through that ordeal.  It took me over an hour.

I drove a half-hour to Mom’s house and called her from her driveway.

“I’m here, Mom,” I said.

“Okay, I’ll open the garage door,” she said.

Within moments, the garage door started opening.  I took her two grocery bags out of the trunk and left the bags inside the garage.  Then I walked outside of the garage.  She grabbed the two bags and headed for her kitchen.

“Make sure to wash the bags!” I said.  “Don’t forget to wash the handles of the bags!”

“I won’t,” she said.

“And wash all of the products!”

“I know!”

Within a couple minutes, Mom was back in the garage, washing the cloth grocery bags in a sink.  She used bleach, just to make sure.  Then she dried them.  All the while, I kept a respectful 25 feet away from her.  Finally, she left the bags in the middle of the garage for me.  Once she had moved back a safe distance, I stepped up and grabbed the bags.

“Love you!” I said, and left.

And, in fact, that’s quite true: Love has a lot to do with it.

I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

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As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

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Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

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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Old Buddies Who Met at the Old Stick

I published this four years ago, when I was performing tableside magic every Friday evening at the neighborhood restaurant Stick ‘n’ Stein.

For a couple years, I’ve been visiting with a couple of fascinating old men at Stick ‘n’ Stein, my Friday-evening restaurant magic gig.  Their names are Jack and George, aged 90 and 85, respectively.  They eat at the Stick at 6 pm nearly every Friday evening, and I sit down at their table and might do a magic trick or two, but mostly, just chat with them.

In the late 1930s, Jack was a professional basketball player.  Those were the days when you could excel at pro B-ball without topping six feet.  In 1941, though, he joined the Air Force to save the world from Hitler and The Rising Sun.  He flew reconnaissance flights over Japan.

When the war ended, Jack joined the aerospace industry.  That’s what brought him to El Segundo, which is lousy with aerospace outfits.

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In the 1950s, Jack used to eat at Rob’s, the restaurant that originally occupied the building that Stick ‘n’ Stein now sits in.  When it changed hands and became the Jolly Roger, he ate there, too.

By 1993, the building was vacant.  There was a successful restauranteur named George Stevens who wanted to use the property to expand.  For 20 years, George had run a successful bar on Grand Avenue in downtown El Segundo called Stick ‘n’ Stein, but he knew he could make it a bigger success if he had more square footage, a bigger parking lot, and a frontage on Pacific Coast Highway.  So he moved in.

Jack and George started eating at the new place.  Jack had retired five years earlier, but he still wanted to do things.  He had been elected to the planning commission a few years before, so he wasn’t letting the grass grow.

In recent years, Jack and George have made the Stick a regular habit.  They park their new grey Mustang in front of the restaurant–right in front in the owner’s traditional spot, not even in a legal parking space–and walk in like they own the place.

Five years ago, Jack and George used to come in with Jack’s girlfriend Jean, who was his secretary at Hughes Aircraft years ago.  But for the past year or more, Jean has been confined to a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s.  Lately, Jack and George have been coming to the Stick alone.

When I sit down to talk with the guys, we talk about a wide range of subjects.  Lately, I’ve been reading a biography of General Douglas MacArthur, so I thought I’d be smart and brought the 1,000-page book with me to the Stick.  I told them a little about MacArthur in Tokyo, and how he brought democracy and women’s suffrage to the island-nation.  George smiled.

Jack said: “In 1945, George was based in Tokyo.  In fact, George’s office used to sit right behind MacArthur’s.  He used to salute the general every day.”

George chimed in: “At night, I used to see him pacing back and forth in his office, thinking.”

Wow.  I had read in the biography that MacArthur was a pacer, but George had actually seen it firsthand, day after day.  Holding a mere 1,000-page book in my hand, I felt terribly inadequate.

Jack’s health has been failing lately, although he doesn’t show it.  Apparently, he has prostate cancer.  Last Friday evening, he told me he wouldn’t be coming in to the Stick next week.

“I’ll be having surgery,” he said.

“Is it serious?”

“Well, any surgery is serious.”

Jack explained a little about the surgery, about how he has an artery that’s 90% clogged so they’re going in through the carotid to clean it out, but I zoned out while he was talking.  I wondered if this was the last time I’d be talking with him.  I wondered if that’s what he was saying.  I doubted whether Jack’s relatives would know that I wanted to go to a funeral, if that’s what it came to.

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Finally, I shook his hand.

“Good luck,” I told him.

Jack has now passed on.  I was not invited to the funeral.  George is the last one standing.

 

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

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.”