Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Suitable Programming

 July 1972

Three girls in a row, exposed bellies down on the cool wood floor, tanned legs bent, chins elbow propped in hands, absorbed in the destruction of a small town by a giant scorpion. The afternoon creature feature on the black and white TV that my aunt has rolled out on the brass colored metal trolley is our after lunch pre nap indulgence. We have already watched several episodes of Popeye and even though the reception is grainy with the occasional scroll up of the picture and the curved screen gives a fisheye perspective, the Texas summer heat keeps us glued to the spot in the air-conditioned family room.

The kitchen wall phone with it’s grimy ten foot intestinal cord is ringing; the loud bell can be heard all over the sprawling ranch house. This is an adult sound, so we all ignore the bell. Finally the older cousin nudged her sister to get the phone.  Groaning and stomping up the steps to the kitchen and a forced polite southern phone voice answer, then a yell Aunt Janel had the baby! I pushed back to a sit. I don’t remember knowing that my mother was pregnant, or anticipating becoming a sister, just that my mother was in New Mexico and I was in Texas, like most summers.

My mother taught first grade in El Paso and I was in the other first grade class.  I drove to work every morning with her in the red Corvair convertible with the white leather seats that were always cold.  She tied a triangular scarf on my head when we put the top down.
One morning when we were walking from the car my Scooby Doo thermos slipped from under my elbow onto the new asphalt, and when I picked it up it made a slushing sound. My mother told me that was the glass inside and took it from me angrily and said we’d have to throw it away.  I was allowed in the teachers lounge before school started and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. When we had fire drills and lined up on the blacktop against the fence, I was responsible for going through the pass through door that joined the two first grade class rooms and opening my mother’s classroom door for her class to come in.

At some point that spring I changed schools to one that was closer to our house, because my mother was let go.  She dressed in Villager pencil skirts and low flats, but her condition betrayed her and in 1971 a woman was not allowed teach elementary school if she were visibly pregnant.  I didn’t know any of this at the time of course, I just liked the new school because an ice cream truck stopped outside after school and the neighbor kids I now walked home with always had change for candy.

But this summer visit with my cousins was different, because we were moving from El Paso to Phoenix. I walked to the kitchen and took the receiver from my cousin and learned that I had a sister. 

August 1972

We set out very early with pillows slipped in floral cotton covers lining the back seat of the blue Ford station wagon. There was a cooler with pimento cheese sandwiches and cold bottles of Dr. Pepper. My aunt, her fifth and youngest child and I were driving from Texas to pick up my mother and newborn sister in New Mexico and then get settled in Arizona. I don’t know why my mother went to New Mexico, where my father’s mother lived, to have the baby. I don’t know why she didn’t stay in El Paso, where we lived, or come to her sister’s house where I was. There must have been a very practical reason. Roswell New Mexico isn’t where I’d want to go for medical care in 1972, or now.

My most vivid memory of arriving in Phoenix when I was 7 was of the palm trees.  Long rows of tall thin palm trees that stretched down the street creating a vanishing point. And there were mountains in the distance that sat like ships on the horizon. I don’t remember a baby, though we drove for hundreds of miles with her in the car. I remember the rental house with the dark green painted windows that cranked open and the dark green bushes that surrounded the house, oleanders, had pink flowers and the neighbor warned me that they were poisonous, even if the leaf brushed my hand, which still freaks me out.

I waited for the bus to my new school at the end of the street, which had a grassy median with orange trees that had trunks painted white. Then just weeks later we moved to an apartment with a fountain in a courtyard and an accordion sliding door that separated one bedroom from the living room. My bedroom window was narrow but floor to ceiling, and I lay on my carousel printed bedspread and looked out through the decorative cinderblock patio wall to the apartment across the courtyard and tried to see the people in side. I learned that a bottlebrush tree shaded this window; the red delicate spiky flowers did resemble the brushes my mother used to wash my sister’s bottles.  In the mornings after watching the Flintstones I ducked through a hole in the chain link fence in the back of the covered carport that backed up to playground of my next new school. My aunt and cousin had driven back to Texas and now my Granny was staying with us help with the transition. My father had been traveling a lot and no one had used the word divorce yet.

Summer 1974

We were moving around the corner, to a cheaper apartment, so we filled my mother’s orange Datsun 510 station wagon over and over, loading then unloading. One of my cousins had come, I assume flown, from Texas to help. She was just sixteen and my mother taught her to drive a stick shift so she could help with our move.  On one of our last nights in the nicer apartment, she took my friend and I swimming in the apartment pool. Some tenants upstairs complained that we were being too loud, although I can’t imagine what we were doing that could have been so disruptive.  We were nine.  My cousin pantomimed taking her top off and twirling it in the air, whooping “woo hoo!” then we ran shrieking back through the manicured hedges to the boxed up apartment.
The Monkees on Wallace & Ladmo!

The new apartment was smaller; the carpet was thin and rough. The laundry room had older machines and the door wouldn’t shut properly. We kept laundry quarters in a ceramic pinch pot I’d made at summer rec camp. The trash dumpster in the car port was the first thing you saw when you pulled up.  My mother had taken a new teaching position but the school was on the other side of town so she left for work earlier than I could leave for school. I had to manage that hour before third grade on my own.  This meant the Jetsons and Wallace & Ladmo. 

My sister now went to daycare and I had a house key on a hair yarn that I wore around my neck.  I didn’t know it then but I was part of a new demographic: The original latchkey kid.  When I got home from school in the afternoon the apartment was stuffy with Arizona heat but I kept the curtains drawn and the door locked, just like I was told.  I watched Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie and the Beverly Hill Billies. If the phone rang I was not allowed to say that my parents weren’t home but, ‘they can’t come to the phone right now, can I take a message?’