In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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In May of 1971, despite our lack of money, my mother decided she would take my brother, sister, and me on a vacation to Catalina Island. I was seven then, the youngest by a few years. I remember a weekend morning at our home in Ventura, California, overcast outside as it so often seemed to be in the years after my father had left, my mother sitting at our kitchen table surrounded by an ingratiating half circle of glossy brochures provided by her travel agent. Each was a colorful fable featuring attractive families — complete with a mother and father — walking hand in hand on the beach, the sky overhead an unimpeachable azure. Beneath them, the golden sand gleamed. Fun, slick, fraudulent, these brochures featured burnt-orange or avocado-hued rooms with neatly made beds and spectacular views of Catalina’s rich blue bay of Avalon.
My mother’s inquiries started with these hotels, the places at which we children would most prefer to stay, even though in calling them she ran the risk of being made to feel small, which she hated more than anything else. My brother, sister, and I surrounded her like planets to a sun, aware that something of importance was happening. Though she’d once taken us on a modest trip up to Carpinteria, never before had she attempted to have us stay on a real island, which somehow made everything so much more consequential.
She began with pleasantries (“What’s the weather like over there? Wonderful!”) followed by an inquiry regarding their rates. A painful silence ensued as she clutched the phone, eyes on her notepad. “I see,” she would finally say. Then she would thank them and hang up. Queries to the trifold-brochured hotels were redirected to the ones with color flyers, and finally to those with cryptic two-line ads in the chamber of commerce circular. The lower she descended the price scale, the longer the calls became, until finally she had traversed the troublesome subjects of daily rate, number of children, and beds available, and started to write down the address to send her deposit. By then we children were prodding each other in excitement. Ignoring us, she stood and walked to the calendar on the wall that the savings and loan mailed her every year, turned to a week in August, and wrote across five days in clear, cursive handwriting: Vacation.
She had divorced my father — a physician, and no question a kind man — three years before that trip. The reasons she offered over the years for doing so didn’t seem very substantial. In summary: She acknowledged his faithfulness yet complained of his emotional remoteness. She complained of his long absences during his residency and her loneliness — claiming that a mouse in the boarding house in which they lived was her only friend. And that later as a young doctor he was also gone a lot, except by then she was raising three young children mostly by herself. To relax after his shift at the hospital, he liked to take long drives on the winding roads through the lemon orchards before returning home — which she resented. And on at least one occasion he purchased her birthday gift from a drugstore.
Truth is, I will never know why. For most of my life, I had trouble understanding what they ever had in common. My father, ruminative, taciturn, a spender; my mother, a talker, a saver, and, later, a Christian Scientist who would dismiss the medicine he revered as mere “mortal thought.” But during their early years they both liked fast cars and driving: my mom with her red hair, lipstick, and headscarf, my dad with his sunglasses and pipe. They were fond of taking trips, mugging for the Super 8 camera, sharing adventures. For them, Midwesterners coming from the prairie, the straight county highways and rolling fields and horizon and not much else — to come from that endlessness, that feeling of being in the vast center of something, or nothing, and to arrive then in the beach town of Ventura must have been mythical, both end and beginning: a city on the edge of a continent terminating on the shore of the greatest of oceans.
You couldn’t flee any farther west — or so it seemed. And aside from my father’s job and the divine weather, maybe that’s what it was for them — an escape from responsibility, the past, their in-laws, their problems. Looking out at that ocean, their backs to the plains, it was all behind them. But even from that retreat, there was always yet another. West of the California coast were the Channel Islands. Catalina, to the south, was to be our destination.
On the big day, my mother awoke us in darkness with the flick of the light switch, fried all the eggs in the carton so they wouldn’t spoil, then packed us into her Mercury station wagon to leave for the port of San Pedro, the departure point for Catalina. It was unpleasant and strange to be awakened at that hour, to drive down blackened, foggy streets, the neighbors’ houses looking both familiar and foreign, their windows staring blankly like unseeing eyes. Then the V-8 powered surge onto the freeway, the speeding through the cropland of Saticoy and Camarillo and Oxnard, the silent endless rows of lettuce and strawberries astrally glowing around us. My mother in the darkened cockpit, tense, in charge, both hands on the wheel. Everybody too tired to speak. And then, in time, the growing sapphiric light, the freeway no longer black but gray, its minute granular imperfections skipping by, the fields no longer glowing but now faint green. Then at last came the first large buildings, the ever-multiplying lanes of freeway, the thickening traffic, the spectacular orange-smogged dawn vista of LA.
Waiting at the dock in San Pedro was the now long-gone SS Catalina, then the sole ferry to the island. A few years later it would get the ax, replaced by a trio of smelly diesel boats, but at that time, it was still lord. A glistening white steamship, launched in 1924, with an old-fashioned straight-up-and-down bow and tall single funnel from which billowed thick black smoke, it was, like my mother, an unapologetic citizen from a different time. There was something about that ship having traveled from Prohibition right through to that LSD-steeped year of 1971 that made it an agent of transformation. So too did its overcast, early morning passage from the foul waters of the harbor, across twenty miles of bluing channel to Catalina Island. In summer at the pier in Avalon it was daily met with a crowd and a brass band, producing a metamorphosis in even its most work-numbed passengers that upon arrival caused them to lean over the rails and wave ecstatically at the well-wishers below as the sun shone and the band played and the black smoke wafted overhead and the horn thundered, issuing pure white steam. To arrive thus from mainland fog to bright sunlight was to awaken to a life reborn.
Like the ship, my mother passed through the 1970s but was not of them, not with expressions like Ye gods and Fiddle-de-dee and Damn Sam and, when really pissed, Hell’s bells! My favorite of hers, though, was Heavenly days! — an exclamation, a sign of pleasure. Give that sweet tooth a big bowl of ice cream and she might say it. Have her torch up a smoke and tell her a funny story and she might say it: Heavenly days!
While the early seventies was a time of uncertainty — Vietnam, sure, but also nuclear disaster, energy insecurity, pollution — she had arrived in that decade direct from an age of knowing what was right. She valued thrift, despised frippery — except when deemed beautiful. She had a Christian appreciation of the world, of work before pleasure: “It’s a beautiful day,” she would tell me on our Sunday phone calls over the years, “and there is much work to be done.”
Late morning arrival on the island. My mother on the pier in her white sun hat, inscrutable behind round Hepburn-like sunglasses. Not a believer in taxis, she assigned each of us luggage, then strode behind with purse on shoulder, suitcase in hand, as we staggered under the weight of palm mats, snorkeling gear, and beach bags down black-topped streets lined with T-shirt boutiques, souvenir shops, and a bamboo-themed Polynesian bar. The air a bouquet of Coppertone and fried fish. At a beachfront hotel with a kidney-shaped pool, other kids were playing and swimming as their attractive mothers lounged facedown, bikini straps undone, while a trim, tanned dad bounced with authority on the powder-blue board before executing a crisp dive. It was the slick brochures come to life: family complete, swimming pool, normalcy. We children watched with hunger.
But my mother only lit a cigarette, held it horizontal between two long, slender fingers, took a thoughtful draw. Then consulted her map, pointed us toward cheaper environs, uphill, away from the beach. Land prices plunged, tourists thinned, and souvenir places and ice-cream shops gave way to laundromats and stray dogs. Finally, our shoulders numb, thighs burning, she ordered a halt in front of a square stucco structure with dusty, wood-framed windows that winked dully in the sun. The second floor was an odd square turret from which a rickety metal fire escape descended into a back alley. There was no pool.
In our “suite” we found a sagging bed for my mother and sister, a veneer dresser, and a small TV on a stand, rabbit ears limp. Beyond was a back room that would belong to my brother and me, with another concave bed, a view of the hardware store across the alley, and in the distance, a glimpse of the harbor, jeweled and flashing in the wind. The sash window opened onto the fire escape, where we would hang our wet towels. The floor was a dull-blue linoleum, like the inside of a mussel shell. The kitchenette refrigerator contained a half-eaten bucket of chicken left by a departed guest, which, pursuant to my mother, became our lunch and dinner. We slid open the windows, and like a miracle, a breeze came in with the smell of the ocean.
Once we had unpacked, we put on our swimsuits and she led us out to the distant Pebbly Beach with its smooth rocks and “Undersea Gardens,” where we would spend our days. She had snorkeled in Mexico after the divorce, and she showed us how to spit in our masks to keep them from fogging, how to walk backward into the water with our fins on, and what it was like to witness another world. Aquatically, she cut a dignified figure: tall, bikini-clad, snorkeling with her hands clasped politely behind her back as she surveyed the life below. We kids swam behind her in a gaggle, clowning, splashing, screaming into our drugstore snorkels at the sheer strangeness of this realm, the translucence of the water, the cracklings of the stones, the greedy calico bass, the bossy garibaldis, the placid señoritas.
She had always believed in adventures. Once she’d driven us across three counties to Lion Country Safari, a now-defunct animal park, where lions walked up to people’s cars; she’d taught us how to leave pennies on railroad tracks to get them pressed by passing trains. When the La Jenelle, a third-rate ocean liner, swept aground in a storm onto the beach off Port Hueneme, she drove us down in her station wagon on a cloudy afternoon to contemplate its listing desolation. She understood the appeals of transition, newness, the unexplored, and how experiencing these things burned your brain and made you want them more.
Once out of the water, we lay back on frayed towels and sipped blackberry, root beer, and lemon-lime sodas from pop-top cans. It was pleasant to close one’s eyes and feel the sun, hear coarse respiration through perfect lungs. And when I opened them, framed through wet lashes, reliably I would see on the horizon a smudge of black smoke against the yellow smog of the mainland. Easy to miss, and yet the smudge would grow bigger, would rise higher, and from under it would resolve a tiny birthday cake, atmospherically distorted, yet pure white, square sided, topped with a single candle from which emerged black smoke. Larger and larger it grew, until I would finally look up and there it was, the ship, with tall white and black-topped funnel, its railings lined with people, and as it approached the pier, once again the band would play; the music floated across to us in a mixed-up cloud, distorted but happy.
Later in the afternoon, as we were walking back to the hotel, the sun yellowing and moving downward, the harbor water darkening, from the pier we would hear again the ship’s horn, three times: first two short blasts, BUHMP, BUHMP, then a final BUUUUUUUHMP! before she turned her back to the island and headed home.
Back in our room, we poked our fingers into each other’s shoulders to see who had the reddest skin, an odd sort of a prize. Everybody then longed for the sun. If we live now in times of caution and regret, that first decade of my childhood was one of pleasure, immediacy, of warm sun on young skin, of looking forward to things. We hung our towels on the fire escape, squabbled over who got to shower first, and ate hamburgers and beans for dinner on the floral-patterned plastic plates from the kitchenette. The old sash window, its frame thick with decades of paint, was kept open for therapeutic breezes. After dinner the sky outside turned blue, the town quiet, the street below shadowed, and the ocean air wafted into the room in long, cool marine puffs.
Some nights after dinner we would walk along the harbor way past the Tuna Club, the Casino bright in the distance, the sailboats swaying gently in the swell, the shine of their mast lights reflecting onto the water, wavelets smacking gray on the beach under the moonlight, splash, splash, splash. The sky overhead a bowl of star-spattered blackness. Other nights we stayed in and watched the black-and-white television together, the light from the bedside lamp warm and yellow. My mother, relaxed, reclined against the headboard, her face sunburned, and smoked. Back home she would read to us from Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki — about his raft expedition across the Pacific — and that’s what being on her bed was like: all of us on a raft, my mother the skipper, my sister beside her, my brother and I lounging at the foot, the cheap bedspread rough against our sunburns, the room edges melting away into darkness, all hazards at bay.
She was forty-two years old that year, the skin around her eyes only starting to line from sunlight and worry. She still had her beauty, but like an ebbing tide, it was flowing out. When she exhaled, the smoke from her cigarette expanded upward in slow profound rolls. Some nights we’d watch The Partridge Family, or maybe, as a treat, The Streets of San Francisco. If there was a funny scene, she might smile. Some nights we watched old movies in which men and women dressed sharp, wore hats, and talked to each other in terse, knowing ways that I didn’t understand, and she would watch these scenes intently, her cigarette glowing orange as she inhaled. At such moments I was aware that she was more than just our mother. She had studied fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York City; she had sailed for Europe on the Île de France. From the age of nineteen she could sketch effortlessly in charcoal, could paint in watercolor, acrylic, and oil. She had a fur coat and knew how to order a highball. That was also who she was.
That trip to Catalina was perhaps the high point of that decade or so when she was regarded by my brother and sister and me with the mostly unquestioning obedience and adoration of childhood. We called her Mama in those years, and that’s how she signed her birthday cards to us: Love, Mama. This would be followed by the ignominious Stuck with Three Teenagers period — in which we abbreviated Mama to a bellowed Ma! — followed by shouting, accusations, and slammed doors. My departure for college commenced her self-described Free at Last! period, in which she again took up painting, and, finally, at the end of her life, her teeth gone, back twisted, watery-eyed, suspicious, came her final To Hell with ’Em! period.
She died three years ago. She had brain cancer, dementia, osteoporosis, macular degeneration, and ominous black growths on her back from a lifetime of sun — and that’s just what we knew about. As part of her faith, she wouldn’t go to a doctor unless absolutely necessary, so other things may have been lurking. With her passing went a center of gravity, an aesthetic built over nine decades: her paintings, mostly acrylic, mostly landscapes or facades of buildings — studies of shadow and light; her crystal and plate sets; the mid-century Danish wrought iron furniture so eagerly sought after at her estate sale; the books from her library, on the other hand, that nobody wanted, ranging from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, to Palinurus’s The Unquiet Grave, to a study on the work of Mary Cassatt. She left behind a brand-new weed eater that she bought in her last year to prove she was still well enough to clear brush, even when she wasn’t; and she left behind a Hermès scarf and her wedding dress.
Inescapable was the last day on the island: the race before checkout, the stuffing-full and sitting-on of the suitcases, the splurge pancake breakfast. Then the last pass through the souvenir shops — places with names like Treasure Chest or Pirate’s Cove — their walls festooned with old harpoons and fishing nets studded with starfish. With ten dollars provided by my father, I purchased a child’s skipper’s cap with SS Catalina on the brim. At last came the sad walk to the pier where the namesake awaited, wafting smoke like a reckoning.
The water beneath us was clear and fathomless as we trudged up the gangway, the sky a brilliant blue. Once aboard there was the hot bass hiss of the steam venting from the funnel, and everybody on the pier looking up at all of us on deck with curiosity and something like pity.
The lines were cast off, the horn sounded, BUHMP, BUHMP, then the final BUUUUUUUUHHMP! long and deep, a cry to the end of island days and ocean sunsets, to summer itself. The ship turned toward the mainland, belched black smoke, took up its course. The town grew smaller. Soon we were too far away to jump over the rail and swim back.
She found us a bench on the fantail of the ship. When nagged for money to spend at the ship’s snack bar, she referred us to a bruised apple in her purse. The flag, transparent in the slipstream, whipped against its staff. Below the rail lay the white churn of the screws leading back to the island. My mother sat upright, facing the bow, cigarette in hand, lost in thought. The three of us sat down on either side of her. We leaned on her shoulders as she smoked; the ship steamed toward home.
Sometimes now I reread her letters. She wrote frequently in a pleasing cursive, enclosed clippings and Far Side cartoons. She gave advice and admonishments:
“You may wish to soften some aspects of your personality,” she once wrote me.
In another, she asked, “Have you thought what would happen if you got _____ pregnant?”
She supported my decision to be a writer, even if she was skeptical. Enclosing a clipping about novelist Thomas Sanchez, she wondered: “Why must writers always look so soulful?”
The smell of cigarette smoke still reminds me of her. She started smoking at the age of fifteen and refused to quit. As teens, we mocked her dependency: Coffin nails, we called her cigarettes. Death sticks. We would start gasping and coughing when she lit up. Once we hollowed out a couple of them and filled them with match heads so they would ignite Roman candle–like when she lit them. In later years, we pleaded with her to stop.
From the estate, my brother requested her Volvo station wagon, which she had driven up to a few months before her death, and when he found a pack of her cigarettes in the glove box, he was careful not to throw them away. My mother baked my birthday cakes, ran races with me up and down our cul-de-sac when no one else would, and, when I was four years old and silent after the divorce, rode me on the back of her bicycle to the Easter Seals for speech therapy.
I now seldom see my brother and sister. Stuck in freeway traffic, I sometimes return us all to the island, to the old bed at that long-shuttered hotel, the black-and-white TV on, the incandescent lamp on the side table glowing yellow against the dark of the room, cool sea breezes pushing through the opened windows. I see my mother leaning against the headboard, us kids gathered round her — a world whole and safe. Relaxed, face intent, with one hand outstretched she traces with her cigarette an image — a line, a horizon, a face — something only she can see. The blue smoke wafts and rolls and turns on itself before rising to the ceiling to disappear.
Alex R. Jones