With the eyes of a child
You must come out and see
That your world’s spinning ’round
And through life you will be
A small part
Of a hope
Of a love
In the eyes of a child you will see
-the Moody Blues-
So I am Collecting Memories Before They Get Tangled Up
My childhood was split in two, creating memories in California and in Washington.
When my mind goes, I wonder which state I will live in?
One of my earliest memories is of my father, who was twenty-three at the time, lifting me up to stand on a kitchen counters, then instructing me to jump into his waiting arms. He was always saying things like, “I won’t miss” and “come on, trust me.” I never jumped. Not once. Trusting wasn’t in my DNA.
Dad had to satisfy his desire to see his children free falling, and him catching them before smashing to the floor, with my sister, who would not only jumped by the age of twelve months, but would dump the next sibling out of his bassinet and onto the floor, because she leaned too hard on the edge. Having given up on me, I think she saw him as a fellow jumper.
A lot of things that started out up, often ended down in our house, and I didn’t want to be one of them but I didn’t mind watching or encouraging the jump.
When my dad later took us up for our first airplane ride, I encouraged my sister to jump out. For a girl who liked jumping off things I was somewhat surprised by her reluctance. Malice wasn’t behind my promptings. I simply didn’t understand the consequences.
My parents were into water and beaches in those days; mostly the Pacific Ocean. I don’t remember arriving but I remember the smell of the ocean, and excitedly getting out of the car, and running out onto sand so hot that it burned my feet. I should have been wearing shoes but I never did.
Mom was only in a hurry on Saturdays, which was when she would be looking through the entire house for missing shoes which was pure entertainment for us because we’d usually find her yelling under one of our beds, with her butt and legs sticking out. For the other days of the week, we all went barefoot, except for dad who I suspect had the “boots on and ready” rule banging around in his head after being in the military. When kids are little, they get anxious when they think their parents are going somewhere without them. We got anxious when we saw mom wearing shoes, because it meant, she was going out. My kids got anxious, and not my dog does the same thing.
Going barefoot all the time seemed normal to us, except when we stubbed our toes, or ran out onto hot sand, or moved to Washington state, which was the number one reason why I knew our parents had made a mistake when they moved us here. Our barefoot days were not over but it was certainly never the same.
I hadn’t really thought about my barefoot habit, until I went outside into the rain one day and a neighbor happened to be coming over at the same time. She looked down at my feet and the look on her face made me wonder if I had forgotten to shave my toes, or if I had stepped on a slug, or on a pile of dog crap.
“Wow, I’ve never seen anybody do that. How can you do that? I could never do that.”
Was she kidding? Had she never run through wet sand at the water’s edge without a ceremonial removal of shoes first, or had a relative play This Little Piggy, with her toes, on the way to the kitchen to fetch another Tab, or watch her mother take the house apart, on Saturday morning, looking for shoes? I felt sorry that my neighbor had missed out on these traditions.
My parents were into snorkeling and scuba diving. They’d put on big black flippers that smelled like hot rubber after sitting in the sun, and a mask with a snorkel, then instruct us to wait on the beach and not go past the life guard towers to the right or to the left of us, as they’d make their way down to the water, lifting their legs high enough to walk in their flippers, giving them the appearance of ducks with something stuck to the bottom of their feet. We laughed every time, but once they were out of earshot we asked each other why they were allowed to spit into their masks but we weren’t allowed to spit at all. This was also confusing to me because my dad told me that one of the worst smells in the world would happen if you spit into a jar. I had to try it. He was right! Boys know things like that but mask spitting isn’t as bad. I suspect he had left his jar out in the sun.
On one occasion, I learned the importance of not turning my back on a wave. One slammed into me, I did two full rotations under water, then landed upright on the sand where they water had retreated, leaving me to marvel over my salt water journey, and my full recovery. I found out that saltwater could go in my mouth and come out my nose and to this day I refuse to clean out my sinuses with a baby snot sucking bulb-thingy. It’s just not worth it. Despite the involuntary Pacific Ocean sinus cleanse, I was beaming with the confidence of a naive survivor. I decided I had mastered the waves and proceeded to collect my little sister so we could venture past the shore to find weird things in the tide pools around a rock outcropping. Incoming waves were no threat to me now. It was probably sheer luck, or an outgoing tide, rather than skill, that preserved us both from being licked right off the shore and swallowed into the bowels of the ocean.
One time we arrived at the beach early enough to see who had spent the night around the fire pits. There were half-covered bodies everywhere, sleeping, and completely unconcerned about anything or anybody bothering them. There was the smell of smoke in the air, and baby oil mixed with iodine, and old, warm beer. It was California and it seemed like a lot of people slept outside. I had to try it.
I remember my parents putting a bunch of us kids outside for the night, in a row of sleeping bags, when we went camping with another family, a family whose mom had pushed out five boys in six and half years. Our own family now had four kids so when I say “a bunch” of kids, I mean eight (baby brother had to sleep inside the panel wagon with mom and dad). We thought that sleeping outside would be an awesome adventure, and we begged our parents to let us do it, until we found out that Washington is not California and that one of those states produces dew at night, and one does not. We were in the wrong state.
We also had a trail riding horse, that we brought along on that camping trip, whose tether broke loose in the middle of the night, and rather than walk around a row of kids lying on the ground, he decided to walk over us. To that horse’s credit he never stepped on a single one of us. He gingerly placed one hoof between Craig and David, then the next hoof between Debbie and Kelly, and so on until he was past all of us and on to whatever he had fixed his eyes on that night.
My mother had a purse so I had to have a purse. It was tiny, made of pink plastic, had a strappy little handle, with a flower or two pasted on the front. My father had invited me to go with him on a road trip for a viewing of the custom scuba suit he was having made at a dive shop. I got my empty purse and off we went.
After we arrived I remember walking past a window where there was a man standing at the edge of a pool, looking down at another man who was sitting on the bottom of the pool. It was explained to me that this was made possible because of the tank the man had on his back, which helped him breath, and metal weights which he wore in a belt around his waist, which kept him from floating up.
I looked up at my dad, remembered his determination to get me to jump off counters, and suddenly panicked at the thought of being submerged with an air tank and metal weights strapped to my tiny body, just for the adventure of it, but he kept walking right past the pool, and I breathed a sigh of relief. As I ran to keep up we entered through a door, into a room, and there it was; his custom made scuba suit, lying on a table, with arms and legs stretched out, and some guy who had a sharp knife in one hand, and black sweet smelling glue in a silver metal can, in the other hand. He was brushing the rubber seams with a gluey brush and I remember wondering if clothes could be made the same way. About ten to twelve years later, I learned to sew and I always wondered if our trip to the custom dive shop inspired me.
I also decided I wanted to be a surgeon because of the way I saw that razor blade slice open the rubber suit. It peeled back and opened up so beautifully and I just knew that human skin would do the same thing. I later tried to remove one knuckle from my little brother’s finger, with a pair of surgical scissors my dad had brought home from one of his Air Force kits. I was convinced that it would not hurt my brother but looking back on it I realize that there were some important steps I had skipped, like anesthetic, or adult permission. Even at two, my little blond brother also knew, so he vigorously shook his head “no”, all three times that I asked to perform the surgery.
We left the dive shop, with me sitting next to my dad, on a bench seat without a seatbelt, into a vehicle I have no recollection of (I generally skip telling Peter this part of the story because he can name every car his family ever owned, even the one they owned before he was born). I was eye level to the orange lit dash board with its round dial faces that indicated something important would happen if one of the arms moved into the wrong position. For the first fifteen years of my life I’m not sure I ever saw my parents’ fuel indicator above half a tank, which I learned was an adventure itself, if calculated incorrectly.
“Want to get some chow”, he asked as we made our way back home.
Since I was an Air Force brat, I knew what “chow” meant. Of course I did want chow, and I suppose we wandered into some diner down the road, but I can’t remember. I do remember that I had my dad all to myself without having to share him with my little brother or sister, or my mom, who I found to be a huge interference because she and my father were always kissing, which I had decided was mostly her fault.
That was our first daddy-daughter date. Our next one would be years later in a ’56 Chevy pick up truck where I watched The Apple Dumpling Gang, with Bill Bixby, Susan Clark, Tim Conway, Slim Pickens, and Don Knotts, at The Auburn Valley Drive-in Theater, while dad slept with his head against a window. Those were the years when he worked long hard hours and commuted before most people did, to provide for his family. Trying to spend quality time with each one of us, didn’t fit very well with his work schedule but he tried, even if he did sleep through some of it.
My earliest memories of religion are of attending a Seventh Day Baptist church which meant that we went to services on Saturday. I had conducted a thorough survey, at the John Adams Elementary school, and knew that everyone else went to church on Sunday, so we were special
The church building’s interior had high arching wood beams, hanging lights that I often found myself staring straight up at, and wood pews that were polished shiny from years of peoples’ butts sliding in and out, and polished even more by kids like myself, who tried to turn the pews into horizontal slides by tucking my dress far enough under my fanny to lessen the friction before shoving off. On a good day, and with no adults watching, I could master a five foot slide before having to use my feet to push off again for the next pass.
Pew polishing was a good alternative to my other idea of stripping off all my clothes, and running down the aisle naked, right after the pastor had told us, with a mere wave of his hand, to sit down, stand up, sit down, then stand up again, during what seemed like the first hour of every service. Now that I think about it, this is my first memory of guilt. Surely there was something wrong with me if I wanted to run naked through the church, not just anytime, but during the most sacred, quiet, meditative portion of the sermon, where I’d be sure that my naked protest would be noticed and a committee would be formed to question the ridiculous formality of the whole affair. It was simply too much but not being confident of the desired outcome, I left my clothes on.
I also think that this is where I learned to preoccupy myself by doing things like counting light bulbs in the fixtures hanging overhead. When my parents finally gave us permission to draw on the bulletins, with the little wooden pencils that were on the back of the pews in predrilled holes, sermons became much more tolerable, probably for everyone involved.
One day, and with one or two accomplices, I discovered a secret passageway behind the podium, leading up to a hidden room which we later found out was the pastor’s office. We were scolded once we got caught, but a few weekends later we had dismissed our fear of whichever old woman had rebuked us, and decided to enter the room again. Disappointed, we found that the door had been locked, but our adventure was not in vain because we found another set of stairs, behind the office, that led to the basement where we had potluck every weekend, and the adults were always preoccupied where food was involved; either eating it or preparing it, which gave us the time we needed to explore every inch of that building with its moveable wood wall panels on wheels, or the bathroom we had to go through two doors before getting to the toilets, or the back door that only people who didn’t want to visit with everyone else exiting the front door, used.
Even as a kid I knew that the stone archways, covered in ivy, made this building something special architecturally. It was beautiful and mysterious with its ivy hidden window covers and stone balcony.
My parents were married in that church and years later, after we’d moved out of state and had returned for a visit, we were heartbroken to see that the Seventh Day Baptists had sold the building. It had been taken over by a business which had violated the sanctuary by filling it with cubicles and typewriters. We took some comfort in knowing that it was on the list of historical buildings in the City of Riverside, but it was never the same after that because in some cities, being on the historical list doesn’t mean much. The building is falling to ruin now.
….to be continued.