Monday, July 25, 2005

Sunny Southern California
When we arrived in Los Angeles, I was introduced to Pepperdine College for the first time. In the middle of a residential area with strange looking little houses lining the streets all side by side, there was this one huge expanse of grass. We were used to houses having yards around them, but in this neighborhood, there weren’t many feet between the side windows of your house and those of your neighbor’s. Because of the crowded streets, it felt lush and rich and free to run in that Pepperdine grass. The campus was like an oasis in the middle of a big, bustling city. And that was the name they chose for their annual publication, The Oasis.

In the center of the campus was a circular fountain with a little naked girl, holding a towel for modesty, a white statue made out of plaster. She was named “Dolores” – I never found out why – and was the campus mascot and symbol. (In later years she would be stolen, defaced, and otherwise abused as part of pledge projects for the fraternities. But she got more respect when I was little.) All the buildings were painted light blue (Mrs. Pepperdine’s favorite color) and all the corners of the buildings were rounded, which when they were built was apparently a very hip architectural choice.

That first afternoon in 1958, the sun was shining but it wasn’t hot like Arkansas. Later on I came to learn that it was always cooler there on the coast than inland in the valleys, because of the ocean breezes. It was a little windy that day, the sky was very blue, and my dad was showing us some of the campus. The large expanse of lawn near us was filled with all these college girls jumping around and yelling. My dad said they were called “cheerleaders” and they were practicing. I had my first taste of campus glamour. They looked like actresses in a movie to me. It was exciting to be in such a beautiful, exotic place.

When we first arrived, we stayed for awhile at the Youngs’ house. “House” is not an accurate description of their home. It was enormous, compared to any building I had seen before. I didn’t know the words “mansion” or “estate” but that’s what it was. Years and years before, there was a big ranch that ran west from there toward the Pacific Ocean, and this white house belonged to that ranch.

This photo is of me (on right) and Barbara Buchi (visiting with her parents from Nashville) in the Youngs' driveway the week we arrived.

I remember being put to bed for a nap in Sara and Marilyn’s room, and touching the slanted ceiling above me, wondering why it was so prickly and not smooth. (The white stucco was texturized.) I remember being put to bed when it was still light outside, and complaining that it was not fair because the sun hadn’t gone down. This was the first time that I had heard of “daylight savings time”. We stayed in the guest bedrooms on the far side of the enormous living room, and Chip and I were in the back bedroom of the two.

I think the Youngs were away on vacation when we arrived, because I have no memory of meeting them at first. Their house was later to become my second home. When they finally moved out in 1971, I sat one afternoon in the emptied rooms and wrote a long blank-verse meditation of all my memories of it.. So much life happened in those fourteen years! It doesn’t seem possible that so much joy and pain could be crammed into that space. Helen Young says she still has that “poem” about the house, which I gave them as a gift. I hope someday I can retrieve it, because theirs is the only copy.

Our first home at Pepperdine was an apartment on New Hampshire Avenue. It was a Pepto Bismol- pink two story building, with two apartments on each level. Ours was downstairs on the right, if memory serves. I began to notice new California plants I’d never seen before. I remember calla lilies growing at that apartment building. The huge palm trees that lined the Promenade (the “main street” on Pepperdine’s campus) amazed me. They were the kind of date palms that have spiky brown trunks and only a few palm branches up at the top.

I liked New Hampshire Avenue. It had a lot of apartment buildings in the old Los Angeles style, twin sets of buildings narrow on the front side and running long back to an alley, with a walkway in between all the front doors. Ruthie Hamilton lived in an apartment on New Hampshire. She was my dad’s secretary for awhile, and I would drop in to visit her. She told me once, “Your daddy is so proud of you, why he tells everybody how smart you are.” I responded angrily, “Why does he tell everybody else but he won’t tell me?” My dad didn’t speak to me much after we moved to California, and I never understood it. I just took it as rejection. I would hug him, and he wouldn’t hug me back.

We didn’t stay long in the pink apartment, only until we found a house, but I do have a memory there that proved significant. My parents went somewhere and left Chip to baby sit me one evening, and he wanted to watch a scary show on the TV. I didn’t want to see it, but I had the option to stay in the living room with him, or go into our bunk bed room and be alone. So I stayed with him, and the show scared me as much as I was afraid it would. Was it a horror movie, or an episode of the Twilight Zone? I’m not sure. I was mad at Chip for not caring that I was frightened.

While we were still new to California, we took our first trip to the beach. We went to Playa Del Rey, which would figure significantly in my life until I left that beach for Malibu and Zuma. We parked the car and started to walk to the ocean. I was so little that I could hardly see it from where we were. The beach seemed to stretch for miles from the parking lot to the water. It felt like miles to my dad, too, who had not worn shoes and whose sensitive, thin-skinned feet were getting blistered, the sand was so hot. He was jumping around, trying to spend as little time with his feet getting burnt as possible.

My mom was never pharmaceutically sophisticated. She didn’t like to give any kind of illness the time of day. We never had medicines or creams or remedies in the house, and it amazed me when I started to spend time with people who did. She didn’t know, I guess, to bring anything to protect our skin, so naturally I got sunburnt. When we got home that afternoon, the water in the shower stung my skin and I cried. It hurt to put clothes on. We were going to Youngs for supper that night, and when we showed up, Emily recognized my plight. She went to get a bottle of vinegar and some cotton balls, and she soothed my burning skin with those. I thought she was an angel. She was the Youngs’ oldest daughter and now she was my hero.

Our families decided to take a beach vacation together while we three were still little girls. We drove down to Oceanside and rented bungalows right by the beach, and I was shocked that my mom had brought Spam with her to cook for supper. We never ate that before or since, that I recall, but this once she had bought a can, and she broiled the slices in butter and brown sugar and we had fried Spam sandwiches. I loved them, of course.

That beach was just packed with the tiny bivalves that I called periwinkles. (I guess I loved that word, because there were also some flowers I insisted on calling periwinkles, and it’s one of my favorite colors as well.) They were actually Coquinas. I loved them because they were so many different colors, and Sara and Marilyn and I ran around collecting cups full to take back to our bungalows. We sat them on the edge of the tub, and ran out to play some more.

That evening, when it was time to come in and take our baths and clean up, we were so little we already had our clothes off and were running around the house naked. We went into the bathroom, and those cups had come alive. I thought they were just shells that we had collected, but they were living creatures, and all the slimy little bodies had come partly out of the shells and were waving around aimlessly in the air. This sight really freaked me out, and Sara and Marilyn took great delight in throwing them at me and chasing me with the waving, slimy bouquets in their cups. Imagine the screaming that ensued.

Oddly enough, I tried to read Alice in Wonderland on the trip, and there was something about it that scared me. I really hated it, and I never read the book again until I was an adult. At the time, I had no idea what I was feeling, but looking back I decided it was because there was such a sense of insanity about the dialogue between Alice and all the other characters, funny to a grown-up but scary to me as a child. It reminded me too much of the craziness I felt sometimes in my own life.

School Begins: Raymond Avenue

It was in that first pink apartment that I turned five. We had just arrived in July, so I didn’t know anybody by August 5th, and the pictures of my birthday party show that I was still a bit bewildered. I was a stranger in an exceedingly strange land. I first went to Kindergarten riding in front of my dad on his bike, to the Raymond Avenue Elementary School. Sara Young was also five and was in my Kindergarten class. I don’t know why, but we seemed to fight a lot, or at least not behave ourselves when together. One day we were punished by being made to sit back to back on the floor in the empty classroom while everyone else went out for recess.

I have one wonderful memory of Kindergarten. Our teacher told us to bring one of our dad’s old shirts to school the next day. We were going to paint, and she didn’t want us to mess up our school clothes. I remember the feeling of the finger paint on my hands, and the smooth squish of the paint on the big white paper, and the sense of freedom it gave me to do whatever I wanted to with it. I also loved standing in front of the easel and painting with a brush on the paper. I learned the word “tempera” and was amazed that you could mix powder with water to make the paint.

My dad was responsible for getting me to school. I guess my mom started immediately to work in Pepperdine’s library, and as Comptroller of the college, my dad had a little more flexibility in his schedule. There was a problem, though. My dad loved to watch Amos ‘n Andy on TV, and the show ended just when I was supposed to be at school. So we were often late. I remember the teacher scolding my dad for getting me there late, but I don’t remember him reforming to satisfy her. Not exactly the best role model for respecting authority…and I would soon develop a problem in that area.

We rented a little house at 1050 West 80th Street. It was on the corner of 80th and New Hampshire, just down the block from where our apartment had been, and only one block away from the Pepperdine campus. My dad’s first office was in the Administration Building, which was a huge building that faced 79th Street. I liked our little white house. I remember it had an arch over the front porch, and a high fence with a gate into the back yard.

Once we were moved into the house, we started having visitors. I remember my dad’s mother, Nannie, came on the train from Tennessee. We went to the train station downtown, near Olvera Street, to pick her up. It was then I made my first big social blunder. I asked her, “Nannie, when are you going home?” She turned and quoted me to my dad, and I could tell she was upset. I really believe I innocently meant to ask how long her visit would last, but she took offense at my question, and never visited California again. It wasn’t a fear of travel, because she did make a tour of Europe and another of Israel years later.

This episode frustrated me. I didn’t like it that something I said could upset a grown-up so much. I didn’t like it that my explanation didn’t fix things. And I didn’t like it that something I said could change the course of history like it did. Never come to visit again because a five-year-old misspoke? I thought it revealed something very disconcerting and unpleasant about my family and grown-ups in general.

It was 1958, and Disneyland had only been opened three summers before (on July 17, 1955). People from my parents’ past, from Tennessee, Germany, Texas and Arkansas started to “visit the Moores in California” and so at least twice a year for my entire childhood we made trips with guests to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. It was fun to feel like those places were in my “back yard” when other people found them so exciting and special. I learned something about how visually sensitive I am after an early visit to Disneyland. We had gone on the Jungle Cruise, where lots of wild animals screech and jump at you as you pass through a Congo-like jungle in an “African Queen” type boat. When we got home, I was supposed to lie down and take a nap, and I dreamed of all kinds of little animals and insects coming at me, crawling over me, and woke up crying.

One of our earliest visits to Disneyland including staying late enough to see the fireworks show. They had a huge fireworks display every summer night around nine o’clock. A love for fireworks was born in me that night that has continued all my life. Fireworks have gone off in the sky at some special personal moments. My first summer in Heidelberg, Germany when they did the Schlo╬▓beleuchtung and we sat on the riverbank and watched them shoot toward us. (Each summer they reenacted the destruction of the castle from some other century’s warfare. They had fireworks and also fires in the boats stationed in the river near the bridge.). That was the night I tried my first beer. The night my college boyfriend and I talked about marriage, there were those mysterious fireworks going off over the ocean. (It wasn’t even a holiday.) The night two friends and I were in Chicago celebrating my fiftieth birthday, there were fireworks over the lake.

After we saw that first Disneyland fireworks extravaganza, it was very late for a five year old and I was very tired. As we walked through the park on the way to the car, we came to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and Jiminy Cricket was singing, “When you wish upon a star…” I started crying. “I don’t want to leave! I don’t want to leave!” The music broke my heart and reminded me of all the wonderment I had felt that day. I didn’t want to put it behind me.

When I got a bit older, I started to understand something about prestige and reflected glory, and I would tell people, “My dad has met with Mr. Disney and Mr. Knott.” I don’t know if that was because my dad used his position to learn something about “how they operated” (he did that a lot) or if he had any official Pepperdine business to discuss. I do know that Mr. Walter Knott’s daughter, who owned one of the shops at Knott’s Berry Farm, donated a house in the La Costa resort north of San Diego to Pepperdine, and the Youngs used to take me with them when they went there to get away for a weekend.

The La Costa house was furnished with all the luxurious decorations the lady sold in her store. One symbol of luxury that house held for me was that there were extra brand-new sheets, bedspreads, and towels stored in the hall closets. I remember sitting in the La Costa house one day, at an expensive table topped with beautiful rainbow-colored abalone, and reflecting that it was not worth what it took to seek after money and possessions. I determined that wealth would not be my life’s goal. By that time I was fourteen or so.

We’ll return to five years old and 1958. I’ve already indicated that my mother and I had a difficult relationship. I had just had a bad day with her, and now my dad was home from work. I was sent to bed without supper, and I was lying there in the dark, very upset because I was feeling so cut off, so alone. So I got back up out of bed and went into the living room, where they were sitting side by side on the brown couch, reading the paper or magazines or something. I said, “God has forgiven me, I need you to forgive me too.”

One of them – I don’t remember which one – answered, “We’re sorry, we don’t know how to do that.” I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do with that horrible feeling of being cut off from my parents. I went back to my room miserable and horribly lonely. I wonder if that’s when I started being afraid of the dark.

Soon I became convinced that there was something under my bed that would grab at me if I let any part of my body come outside the covers or over the edge of the bed. It didn’t matter that no one could see it. It was invisible but it was real, like a shadow you see out of the corner of your eye that’s not there when you look at it full on. Even today, I have to tell myself that it’s okay to be uncovered, or to let my hand droop over the side of the mattress, because that habit ran so deep. I would take a running jump to get into bed, so nothing could grab my ankles. And I would hold the sheet tight up around my face, no matter how hot it was.

One summer we visited the relatives in Nashville, and it was oppressively hot and humid. My grandmother Whitesell (my mother’s mother) didn’t have air conditioning, and I was in one of the guest bedrooms upstairs by myself. Grandmommie slept across the hall, but she always had her door closed, and the bedroom next to hers was never used. It was my grandfather’s bedroom, and it was where he died. This was very creepy to me, and I was feeling very alone. I was lying there with the sheet covering everything but my nose, and I heard footsteps on the stairs and in the hallway. I lay paralyzed for hours, sweating and dripping under that sheet, somehow believing that if I could be perfectly still, nothing bad would happen. But the adrenaline from the fear was keeping me awake. The next day everyone promised they had not gotten up during the night.

I know 1958 was the Christmas that I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I was sleeping on the brown couch’s hide-a-bed in the living room, because we had company staying with us for Christmas. It was very early morning, but there was enough light to see my dad creeping into the living room to put some present around the Christmas tree. I was barely awake, but I understood what was happening, and that my Daddy was playing Santa Claus. I felt disillusioned. A layer of innocence was gone.

That was also the fall that I cut my hair. I had long blond curls, and all the little girls in my Kindergarten class had short hair. I don’t know if I felt out of place with my long hair, or if I was just curious and wanted to know what it was like to have it short. I must have known it was not okay with my parents for me to cut my hair, because I went out in the back yard with the scissors one morning to do it. One whole side of our yard and garden wall was covered with ivy, and I stashed my hair in the ivy, as if hiding it could improve the situation. Then I went back in the house through the back door. It was just before school, and there was no time to punish me, just time for Daddy to make one little snip to even up the excellent haircut I had given myself. Years later, he commented on that haircut: “That was your first sign of open rebellion.”. That struck me as a very dramatic thing to say about a five year old girl.

I had a huge formative experience that fifth year of my life. I had gone to nursery school at Harding in Searcy, but this was the first time being connected with a college benefited my life in a way I could appreciate. Each year, Lewis Fulks, the theater director, had the students put on a musical. It happened that when I was five, he selected Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I for that year’s performance. Of course they needed lots of real children to fill the court of the King of Siam and his many wives and concubines. I was chosen, and then I was especially honored to present a rose to “Mrs. Anna” and get a pat on the head as she sang, “Getting to Know You.” Not only this, but I was brought to rehearsals, put into a costume (an open black vest that strained my sense of modesty, and some purple satin pants), painted with body makeup, and given black hair from a spray can. One day I was even allowed to go to school with my makeup and hair still on, for Show and Tell.

This whole experience of the theater was magical to me: the excitement of the performances; watching people I knew transform into characters in a story (Matt Young played Prince Chulalongkorn, and really touched my heart in the scene where he watches his father die); the smell of grease paint and sweat as I entered the hallways to the dressing rooms. I had a powerful feeling of disappointment the night of the cast party, when I wanted so much to go and my parents didn’t allow it. I remember crying with frustration as I sat in the bathtub washing off the makeup and black hairspray. It must have seemed ridiculous to my parents, but as a five year old I already felt like I belonged with those people and I should be at the party.

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