"Little Man" series started during my evening doodle-time. After a few drawings where this little guy kept popping into the frame, just wanting to be in the picture, hanging out, half reading, half observing.
One waking morning, it came to me like a loud knock on the door, the little man in these doodles represented my brother, Wes, long gone from this life. Along with this came a strong sense that there is a plan and that knowing it ahead of time would not be much fun now, would it.
Since I, as well as many others in our family, feel Wes' presence quite often, this whimsical manifestation did not entirely surprise me. I thanked him for his gentle influence and imagined his sparkling eyes and all-knowing smirky grin as acknowledgment.
Around that time I was prodded by my sister, Connie, to write stories of some of our memories from childhood. This seemed reasonable and doable. It was also suggested by some Facebook friends that the doodles could become an illustrated book…Hmmm.
And so it begins, a small book of illustrated family stories, embellished by an imagination run wild, and some quirky outside influence, who, by the way, still insists on being in the picture, even though these stories, in linear time, took place long before he came into our lives.
It all becomes curiouser and curiouser. I keep wondering, what that book is that he is reading?
On the Road with Mom
Tip’s Castaic Junction
It was a shiny Maroon-Red 1953 Ford sedan. For Mom it meant freedom, it meant wake the girls up early on Sunday morning and get on the road. She had long ago walked away from Sunday church and a religion that shunned her for being a single mom. Society’s judgments made her angry. Like a caged wild bird, my mother, she held some force inside that fought hard against the unfair constraints meant to keep a woman in her place. She’d show them. Sunday took on a whole new life for her, for all of us. It became a day to shake off the shackles and show her girls the real blessings this world had to offer.
Connie, the oldest always rode “shotgun.” She and Mom talked adult talk, while Donna, the youngest and I were assigned to the backseat where we farted and giggled ourselves into hysteria. We were tolerated to a point, then one word from Mom would send a silent pall over the backseat. Only the most muffled snorts escaped our flaring nostrils from then on.
Mom wouldn’t tell us where we were going. She liked it to be a surprise, a mystery perhaps. Maybe she liked to flavor the experience for us with anticipation and wonder. Sometimes we’d drive all the way to Castaic Junction, a middle of nowhere place at the edge of LA County, where the narrow highway we traveled from San Fernando Valley met up with Interstate-5.
After nearly two hours on the road, needing to pee and stomach’s starting to growl, Donna and I could see it from the back seat, the Tip’s Restaurant sign at the top of a tall, tall pole. The beacon-like sign made it look like a last-chance deal for hungry travelers as they moved hypnotically down the lines of a highway surrounded by a sea of barren desert. For us it was a destination, a marker on our journey together, one that seemed expansive and endless.
I can’t quite pull the actual meals we ate from my memory. I know pancakes were involved. What I do recall though is a strong feeling… It was like an open window where birds could come and go as they pleased – we had traveled from one world into another simply by climbing into the car and letting it take us away. With Mom behind the wheel the possibilities were boundless.
One Sunday excursion with Mom took us into the heart of San Fernando Valley where orange orchards blanketed the valley like a giant quilt of green. I remember the endless sky, so awash in turquoise and dotted by tiny birds, it made me long for flight.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, on a two-lane road, lined on each side by orchards, Mom made a left hand turn onto a gravely road and pulled it into a carved out patch of dirt, wide enough for one shiny 1953 Maroon-Red Ford.
A plywood sign with a rudimentary painting of an orange frothy drink, read Orange Slushies. Behind the counter of the greyed wood stand, under a shingled awning, a Hispanic man welcomed us, a touch of laughter teasing at his lips, as if he’d been waiting and was so glad to see us. Beside him was the machine – the likes I’d never seen – where he made slushies right then and there from freshly picked oranges.
We sat on the picnic bench together, the four of us all quiet and sipping through straws. Polished green leaves flickered like laughing stars above our heads. I remember so clearly thinking that it was the best thing I’d tasted in my entire life.
Times like that I actually thought my mom was magical – finding that tiny bit of heaven on a back road to nowhere in particular. Later in life I would wonder about the electricity for the wondrous machine that turned those oranges into something so divinely delicious. But I let those thoughts go. Mom was an enigma to me and I liked it that way. I was in awe of her and feared her at the same time. I wanted to be her.
During the summer between my seventh and eighth grade, Mom moved us all from the rough and tangle dirt roads of Pacoima to an apartment in the suburbs of Burbank, where manicured lawns and real sidewalks lined the streets, and stop lights actually halted cars so kids could safely cross. It was all so cheery and well-ordered, it made me wonder if it was okay for people like us to be there.
Piggy, our family mascot, went with us of course, she was no ordinary piggy-bank. Mom made her from clay, when back in the day, she had her own kiln. Piggy was about the size of a big cookie jar turned on its side. She stood proudly on four fat elephant-like legs. Delicate pink flowers with green leaves dotted her bulbous white body. A mischievous grin and chubby cheeks spoke of quarters held secretly in her round belly. Piggy did not have a hole at the bottom that would conveniently open for access to the coins. She had only the slot at the top where coins were meant to go in and not come out.
But somehow we discovered that if one sister held Piggy upside-down and wiggled her a bit while the other slid a butter knife into the slot, coins would slide out onto the rug. Being left alone during the day to our own devices while Mom worked, you would think us girls would have raided Piggy dry of coins. But we didn’t. Not that we didn’t occasionally rob her of the ten cents it cost to get into the park swimming pool. Mostly we took the less desirable pennies for that purpose. But first we’d check under the sink for empty soda bottles, worth two to three cents each, before resorting to Piggy. We’d save the big piggy-bank raids for when Mom was home.
At the very end of the block in this new neighborhood of ours stood a small grocery store that enticed local shoppers with a never ending supply of freshly baked desserts and sparkling clean floors that glistened under bright lights. It was the kind of store where even a scruffy little kid might get a smile and welcome greeting. And always, always, in the center of one long glass case, surrounded by an array of tempting desserts, sat the most elegant cake creation you can imagine – A Cherry Torte it was called. Dark cherries, bathed in their own gooey juices, covered the entire top of the cake. A generous flourish of whipped cream around the bottom and top edges and one dollop in the center, topped by one lovely cherry, made it look like something to be saved for a visit from the queen.
On occasion – we never knew when it was coming – when dinner was over and dishes done, Mom would casually ask Donna and I if we wanted to walk – as if Donna and I ever actually walked anywhere, more like goof-balled our way – down to the market to buy a Cherry Torte Cake. Nearly shaking with anticipation, our eyes darted to the shelf where Piggy sat, smiling as always, ready to happily relinquish her stored treasure.
Like a group conspiracy with plans to commit robbery, the four of us then gathered around Piggy on the living room rug. We took turns coaxing out the coins – preferred quarters in one pile, other silver in another and last-resort pennies in another. Somehow, there was always enough for that Cherry Torte Cake. How very rich we were.