A Dwarf, A Boy, and His Dog

My brother and oldest sister were a year apart, with the same dark brown hair and brown eyes. When he was four, Larry wore an eye patch, and in first grade, glasses. He had a lazy eye, the only thing that was ever lazy about that boy. In September of 1940, he attended first grade at Notre … [Read more...]

Bacon and Piggy Banks

Our family moved back and forth between the towns of Vallejo and Watsonville. In 1940, Dad was working for Union Ice Company. He was a top ice-refrigerator salesman, then became a manager and foreman of the ice delivery crew. He occasionally took Larry with him on … [Read more...]

Pass the Potatoes

At the dinner table, Ma–my grandmother Barbara Clemens–put only one item on her plate at a time, which was an enormous bother. When the rest of the family raised their forks to take a bite, it would be time to please pass her the platter of meat… the plate of potatoes… the basket of bread. It … [Read more...]

I Sir, Am Not a Bum

Arden was the wanderer in the family, a vagabond of sorts. He traveled the country by hitchhiking and rail, seeing every state except Oklahoma through his dark glasses. Even on the road he was immaculately dressed, favoring light colored slacks and shirts, his shoes always shined. Story has it that … [Read more...]

Butterfly Kisses

1955, San Jose, California ~ Reading was good company and I read whatever was in front of me. I read all four sides of the milk carton, Cheerios box, and C&H container. I read the editor’s notes, publication dates, and fine print in the front of True Detective, Reader’s … [Read more...]

To Raise a Mother’s Eyebrows

March 1935 • Watsonville, California (excerpt from a family memoir) My oldest sister Carleen was born in Watsonville in 1935. Mom's sister Verda and her family lived close by, and the two families spent every weekend together.  On Saturday nights they played cards or had dinner at the Chinese … [Read more...]

Heathens and Hellions

Sonora, California 1948 Dad left their guidance to the Church, Mom left it to the winds. Their children ran through the house like heathens and hellions, and not only did they have the run of the house, they had the run of the town. Most summer days the three older ones spent their time exploring … [Read more...]

A Family, an Old House, a Small Town

Everyone in Sonora, a community of about 3,000 people, knew our family. We lived there from 1942 until the early '50s; my father was active in the Catholic Church, local politics, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Lions, Elks, and Rotary clubs. Lean and on the lanky side, he wore … [Read more...]

Please Let Me Go

1958, Honolulu, Hawaii ~  I had a crush on Bobby. He was blonde, tan, and handsome; a Georgia cracker with a slow Southern drawl and a boyish, white-toothed grin, a swabbie in navy blues or crisp white bell-bottoms. He was 19 and in his third year in the Navy, married to my sister, who was 15 and … [Read more...]

Perms, Cowlicks, and School Pictures

(Listen to Audio) Carleen always gave us a Toni the day before school pictures; she was making us beautiful. She shampooed us, yanked our snarls, swore at us to quit sniveling, then sat us in a row at the yellow Formica kitchen table. With old bath towels draped over our shoulders, Betty, Claudia, … [Read more...]

Two Cents a Cut-Out

From Behind These Doors, a Family Memoir 1945 • Sonora ~ At six, Betty opened her first business. She admired the ads featuring beautiful cigarette girls wearing long gloves, short skirts, high heels, and satin pillbox caps—and particularly applauded the ingenuity of the lacquered trays … [Read more...]

Pinball Wizard

1932: Colusa to Los Angeles, California Shortly after marrying, my parents (Carl and Babe) moved to Los Angeles where Dad landed a job with the highway crews building the three-lane Ridge Route Alternate, which later became U.S. Route 99 at Grapevine. A hard worker, Dad was always employed, even … [Read more...]

A Batch of Broken China

Over the past years my mother has been following me around, showing up in my stomach, my bones, and my dreams. She used to be a dull ache inside me, but not so much anymore. She wasn’t cruel or abusive—there was no sliver to take out, no bullet to remove, no thorn to pluck. In the five years I lived … [Read more...]

Half a Tuna on Toast

1954 • San Francisco, California    “Sprouse as in house, Reitz as in right” was the slogan used by my father’s employer. Nobody said “Reitz” right; they rhymed it with “Pete’s” so I corrected them. Taking the Greyhound to spend an occasional weekend with Daddy, he’d take me to work with him; … [Read more...]

False Hope

November 1968 • La Habra, California When my mother died, her life was packed in a small 1954 two-door, light blue white-topped convertible Hillman Minx, now parked in my sister’s driveway. The front seat held her clothes, small feather pillow, and jewelry; the back seat, her black and gold … [Read more...]

Gold Country, Sonora

1943: Sonora, Tuolumne County, California ~ Emerging into view from the crown of Highway 49 and a mile from end to end, the town of Sonora is tucked into the foothills and ravines of the Sierra Nevada—the gateway to California’s gold mining region. During World War II, most of the men not … [Read more...]

Dick and Jane

Audio: click arrow to play ~  Dick and Jane • 1955, San Jose, California ~ Jefferson Elementary was like all grammar schools: the classrooms arranged with five rows of seven metal wood-topped desks; the playground as barren and flat as a prison yard; the morning and midday recesses echoing … [Read more...]

A Defining Moment

Audio: A Defining Moment * December 1953, San Jose (click arrow to listen) I don’t remember how I got there or who dropped me off, perhaps Daddy waited in a car across the street, or maybe the family I’d been living with brought me. Who knows? It didn’t really matter; I was coming to live with … [Read more...]

A Billet-Doux to My Siblings, 2004

Audio: Billet-Doux (condensed version) click arrow to listen Dear Gordon (Larry) and Marian, Carleen, Liz (Betty), and Claudia, My writing began with “Queen Bee.” When I shared it with each of you, it gave us a connection we hadn’t had. I also read it to our cousin Marceline whom I’d met … [Read more...]

Positively Haight Street, 1968

Audio: Positively Haight Street (click arrow to listen) 1968 was the year Eldridge Cleaver published Soul on Ice. He and his wife Kathleen, who had the most immense head of hair I'd ever laid eyes on, banked at my teller window. It was the year of the Yippies, Black Panthers, and the SDS, the … [Read more...]

Sweeney’s Penny Candy

On Haight and Belvedere, tightly wedged between my Dad’s dime store and Superba Market, was Sweeney’s. The Sweeneys were a sweet, white-haired old couple who lived in the flat above their penny candy shop. Actually, now that I think about it, Mr. Sweeney was on the crusty side, a big man, balding on … [Read more...]

A Confused Heart and a White Train

October 7, 1967 • San Francisco On a crisp October day, my father escorted me down the carpeted aisle of Holy Name of Jesus, our church in the Sunset. I looked like a fairy princess, dressed in the white wedding dress my stepsister wore when she married. It fit like a dream: white lace, cap … [Read more...]

Bee Sting and a Dead Roly-Poly

1955, San Jose, California ~ I read whatever was in front of me. I read all four sides of the milk carton and the Cheerios box and the C&H container. I read the editor’s notes and publication dates and fine print in the front of True Detective and Reader’s Digest and Cornet or whatever Mom … [Read more...]

A Chicken Named Blackie

1943 • Sonora, Tuolumne County, California ~ Our family lived at 104 Green Street, a white two-story house right in the center of town that rented for $35 a month, and where I would be born in five years. A wide porch ran on three sides. The back portion was enclosed … [Read more...]

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Audio:  Smoke Gets in Your Eyes • 1959, La Habra, California Sequestered by the murky outline of the San Gabriel Mountains, Orange County had constant smog alerts, sometimes so bad they closed the schools. Everyone was told to stay indoors, the outside smothered in a pea soup of brown haze … [Read more...]