“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. . . In other words, I don’t improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.”
– John Steinbeck
My first trip alone was in 1958. I was 15. I flew from my small town of less than 250 people in the mountains of Pennsylvania to Montgomery, Alabama to visit my cousin, Larry and his wife. The plane landed in Atlanta. Because of mechanical problems it stayed there. After several hours of boredom & hard seats in the airport I decided to take a bus.
I was one of the last to board the packed Greyhound bus from the depot in downtown Atlanta. I scrunched down the narrow aisle past ruddy white faces sitting in all the available seats to the back of the bus where there was an empty one. I asked the black man in the seat next to it if the seat was taken. He shook his head no. As I settled in, a white man in the middle of the bus stood up and yelled at me. “What are you doing sitting with the niggers?” he screamed. I remember his red, mad face hovering above the backs of heads and the silence. People knew he was trouble. I grew up in an Irish bar so I wasn’t afraid of much plus my mother had married a man whose face got red when he was angry-which was often.
“You want me to take your seat and you can stand?” I asked him. Faced with the option of standing or standing up for what he believed, he backed down muttering something about fucking Yankees. I asked the man next to me if he wanted me to move. “No, Ma’am. It’s fine where you are.” I felt embarrassed and ashamed, like I had caused his outrage somehow.
Segregation had been glossed over in my small mountain school. Our emphasis was on learning the dates of events not digging for reasons. Or maybe I just didn’t learn it. But on the bus I learned that my school was short on truth; that they had glossed over the substantial facts and gave us the Cliff notes; that there was more to it than the red face yelling at me & that being close up and personal was the best way to find out the real truth.
In Montgomery the closest movie house to my cousins was for colored folks. I didn’t realize it until I tried to buy a ticket and was told I was in the wrong place. My movie house was blocks away. The lady let me stay. I sat in the back.
In a few weeks I will be 64. My life has been motored by a series of impulses. The first significant one occurred a year after my trip to the
South. In the spacious back seat of my mom’s 1959 two toned salmon V8 Dodge with the push button transmission, I exchanged my virginity for Kirk, a child who was quadriplegic the 43 years of his life. Each day’s decisions were mostly fueled by the amount on energy I woke up with or the needs of my children: not vision, planning or specific goals.
I was 12 when my Grandpa died. The event taught me that I had no control; that life would do what it wanted with me. As stuff came and went: husbands, money, even the children, I learned to tuck and roll to keep us safe.
I landed here in Tehachapi because one night after working the pledge line at KPFK I met Sandy, a free style, mountain muse. She promised to send me a post card inviting me to Mountain Festival-a weekend of music in the Tehachapi mountains two hours NE of Venice Beach where I lived-and where developers had summarily kicked me and my daughter and grand daughter (Alice & Cooper) out of two residences. Stung by their ruthlessness, when the post card came I was ready.
I was enchanted by the music, the people at the festival. Cindy Latham greeted me with a smile & wide open trust. Pat Seamount offered me a piece of pie from a pumpkin she had grown and baked herself. It was clearly not Venice.
A few months later I bought Falling Apple Ranchita. It was not love at first site. She was a homely little 1965 tract house. But, she had everything on my list-just not the way I imagined: privacy, a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a towering, bountiful, Golden Delicious Apple tree in the fenced back yard, and a fireplace I dubbed Darth Vader for its imposing darkness and ominous hood.
I gave her an extreme makeover. Her garden, Dave Boulden says, “has more bugs than Guam.” It’s lush, intimate and aromatic. A Nicaraguan hammock hangs under the apple tree. Buddha meditates above the small fountain that creatures wild and tame use. My first concord grapes bloomed this year- two pods of them. Magnificent cannas imported from Venice and Hermosa Beach by me & my friend Linda command your attention.
I love my friends here. It is home as much as anywhere has ever been. But, Kirk is gone. He flew away with the full moon a couple of years ago. I rocked him into the next world then we celebrated his life with a two day Irish wake after which Annette Kirby, Sophie & I headed the procession carrying his spent body to the crematorium in her VW Vanagon; his sisters & their families followed behind. Kirk is no longer spastic; he is free. He has freed me.
Now it is time to move on. Last winter was too cold-I was too alone. My fingers grew stiff as I wrote my memoir, as I laughed & cried my way through my life, gnawing on old, buried bones, reliving both the good & the ugly.
One afternoon as I cruised the web looking for Spanish immersion classes it occurred to me I should immerse myself by moving to Mexico. I told my daughters, and my friend Cameron. Before I could list it, Cameron had bought Falling Apple Ranchita. It was swift. Like my life. Like death if we’re lucky. No time for mulling. Pack up your shit, don’t worry about the potholes and head south. Once a bum, always a bum.
Cooper, my 13 year old grand daughter was here to write her intials in the fresh concrete when I moved in. She is appropriately here as I get ready to move. We went white water rafting last week and are going to the Grand Canyon & Las Vegas in a few days to see LOVE. That she even knows the Beatles songs is lovely don’t you think. She is 13. I am 64. We are on different pages but both learning, both exploring. A toast to us all.
May the road rise to meet you May the wind be always at your back May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall softly upon your fields and until we meet again May God hold you in the palm of your hand.