Monday, September 12, 2011

Watching the Ice Melt in the Kool-Aid: Or, How I Learned to Eat My Vegetables

Sometimes I wish I could talk to the parents I had as a kid and ask them to explain their rationale for some of their parenting decisions back then. Dad is gone. Mom is still around, but today she's just a sweet little old lady who dotes on her grandchildren. Definitely not the 'she-wolf' I grew up with. (Sorry mom, but you were pretty intense in those days.)

One question I would ask them is this: what was the point of making a thirsty child eat their vegetables before drinking that watery Kool-Aid you served with dinner every night?

First, let me explain... Kool-Aid was the drink of choice among the families in my neighborhood years ago. Soda on a daily basis was too expensive. Thinking about it, we really did not have a choice. Parents just put the drink on the table with dinner. It was either Kool-aid or tap water. (And if too much water was added to the Kool-Aid, there was little difference between the two drinks.)

At the time, Kool-Aid came in small rectangular packages in various colors to denote their flavor. My favorites were orange, lemon-lime, and grape. I think the packets only cost a nickel or a dime, and when mixed with water and sugar they made a pitcher of liquid.

Every evening neighborhood kids were called into their respective houses for dinner. (A very different time... we actually played outside after our homework was done, then came in for dinner. If we got thirsty outside, we didn't have bottled water -- we had outdoor faucets!)

After coming in, we would wash up and head to the table for dinner. We didn't dare open the pots and pans to see what was cooking. And going in the refrigerator without asking was something we did not do (at least not until our teen years.) My husband, who has six siblings, says they were never allowed to go in the refrigerator as kids. (I can understand this when I cook enough for two days and open the refrigerator the next day and see all the food was eaten overnight. I have a friend who used to yell at the top of her lungs at 7:00 p.m. "The kitchen is now closed until tomorrow!")

So 'back in the day' at dinner time, I would get a glass of ice-laden Kool-Aid with my dinner. The problem was, I couldn't drink any of it until I had finished most of my dinner... especially the vegetables. Like all kids, I hated vegetables and would sit there playing with my string beans or peas instead of just eating them and getting it over with.

There were two vegetables that I absolutely could not eat -- okra and lima beans. Today, I can tolerate okra in gumbo, but I hate the taste, smell, look, texture, color -- EVERYTHING about lima beans. Let me say it again... I HATE lima beans. Yet there they were on my plate at least a couple of times a month. Eventually, my parents caught on that I really could not eat lima beans and stopped giving them to me. (But this took a while. Way too long. I love you Mom and Dad, but you were really dense when it came to this.)

For a long time I'd sit at the dinner table watching the glass sweat and the ice melt in the Kool-aid until I finally gave in and ate my vegetables (guess I was a little dense too). I learned to eat the vegetables first, because then I was assured of getting the Kool-aid before the ice melted and it became even more watery. However, whenever lima beans were served, I knew I would not be drinking Kool-aid on that night.

Things are different at my house. My kids go in and out of the refrigerator at will and I don't force them to eat food they don't like. This sometimes requires me to cook different versions of dinner and I am quick to remind them, "When I was a kid we ate what was put before us... no choices!"

Thinking about it... they've probably had more french fries than green vegetables (please don't tell Michelle Obama). I try to give them the vegetables they will eat on a regular basis. Nevertheless, there is one vegetable they will NEVER have in my house -- lima beans!

First appeared in Huffington Post  8-17-2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Parenting Old-School: Did Yesteryear's Parents Get it Right?

By the time I reached sixteen, I came to the conclusion that my mother knew precious little about anything of importance. It seemed to me at the time that her sole purpose in life was to make mine a living nightmare by endlessly displaying to me her total lack of knowledge. She had opinions on everything and felt compelled to share them with me. At sixteen, I decided it was my duty to let this woman know that I was tired of hearing her voice.

I picked my time.  While she was driving down Western Avenue.   I waited until she started on one of her endless tirades one day when we were returning home from my piano lesson.  My time had come and I let her have it. "Mom, let me tell you something," I said with all of the authority of a sixteen-year-old who considered herself a grown-up, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about and you need to just shut up!" There.  It was out.  I figured I was safe because after all she was driving.  I miscalculated.

I remember seeing the back of her right hand as it left the steering wheel, but I couldn't move fast enough to prevent it from hitting me dead in my mouth.  "You hit me!" I screamed, as she calmly returned to driving without uttering a word.  Her eyes focused straight ahead.  The matter was over.  I had no choice but to sit there and endure the indignity.  With one swift move she had put an end to all the righteousness my sixteen-year-old self could muster. She had never done that before, and she never did it again.

Would we call her action child abuse today?  Maybe.  Did it give me a clearer understanding of where I stood in relation to her?  You betcha.

I have to give credit where credit is due. My mom never let me get "bigger" than herself.  She let me be a kid. Maybe I should say she made me be a kid.  Of course, back then I resented her for it.  "She's too overprotective!"  "She doesn't trust me!"  "She doesn't want me to have any fun!"  This is what I told my friends when explaining why I wouldn't be joining them at some event I really wanted to go to.  "I hate my mother!" was a common refrain from me and I'm sure she overheard it on occasion.  (I wouldn't dare say it to her face!)  However, she was more than willing to let me hate her. I see now that, as a parent, she knew she had to make unpopular decisions on my behalf.

Today the lines seemed to be blurred as to who's the parent and who's the child.  And, while today's parents tend to shy away from the heavy-handed (no pun intended) discipline of yesteryear, we do wonder just how many time-outs it's going to take to make our child behave.  And, if we are truthful, many times we wonder just who does have control - the children or the parents?  Is parental authority a thing of the past?

Today in many homes it is the youngsters who dictate everything from what time dinner is served to the family buying habits.  The kids decide which TV programs are watched and what time they'll go to bed.   They eat and drink what they want, decide which clothes they'll wear, and, talk to adults as if they are the lowest forms of life on earth.

All the while, we overwhelmed, harried parents struggle with raising independent, freethinking kids who have some moral fiber.

We patiently listen while our kids come up with ridiculous explanations for their behavior: "I left the milk out last night Mom because I knew we'd use it in the morning."

We support them as they try new activities doomed to failure. "Hey Dad, I've got some new audio tapes and will be fluent in Spanish by next week." 

And, we represent them to teachers, coaches, and other authority figures: "I know he hasn't turned in any homework...but really, he did do it...that must count for something?"

At the same time, we try to teach our children the right things: "Remember to say please and thank-you, always do your best, listen to your teacher, and, by the way, please don't plan a terrorist attack on your school!"  

We strive to be better than our parents at child rearing.  We don't ever want to be accused of acting like our Moms or sounding like our Dads.  Yet in the back of our minds we sometimes wonder: "Did they actually know what they were doing back then?  And, heaven forbid, were they better at parenting than we are?"

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"The Look" – A Mother's Weapon

Like many adult children, I sometimes look back at my mother and lament over all of her child-rearing 'mistakes.' (Not as much now that I have children of my own.) Nevertheless, I must give her credit for making my brother and I respect her -- particularly her time.

She is much shorter than I am, but I have never felt 'bigger than my mother.' Not in height or anything else. Sure, I've probably had more opportunities and experiences, but I pale in comparison to her in many ways. Today, the world probably sees her as a little old lady, but I still feel she could 'take me out' in a second. And, she wouldn't have to resort to violence. You see, my mother's weapon of choice is The Look.

My mother was (and still is) an expert at giving The Look. It seems that as a child, any time I'd even think about acting up in her presence, her eyes were on me with The Look. Especially in church. I'd sit there fidgeting or, heaven forbid, talking to friends, and slowly she would turn her head toward me and give it to me.... that stern glare that said, "One more move and I'll kill you!" (At least that's how I interpreted it.) I've tried The Look on my kids but it doesn't seem to work. "Mom, why are you making that funny face?" is usually the response I get.

Years ago, there were times when I would linger a little too long with friends after school in front of Dorsey High, knowing that my mom was waiting. On the days she would pick me up, she would get there early and park right in front of the school so I could see her as soon as I walked out. She knew I could see her and she'd give me about a minute to say my goodbyes before I'd get The Look, which said, "Don't make me have to get out of this car and come get you."

Again... I've tried this with my kids as I wait in the hot sun for them outside of their schools and watch them slowly stroll to the car. You would think my daughter is a celebrity the way she exits the school... acknowledging each and every friend...stopping to chat with a slight wave to those far away..... friends she will see the next day!! In the meantime, I am seething in the car and trying to give her The Look because I know she sees me! Finally, she makes it to the car and the little brat has the nerve to say, "Have you been waiting long?"

Guess I need some lessons from my mom!

First published by Huffington Post on May 6, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Perfect Mate

Recent revelations of another 'Husband Gone Wild' have many wondering if there is indeed a perfect union anywhere. I don't know about others, but I can tell you that many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the perfect mate! 

I was twelve-years-old at the time and new to Bret Harte Junior High School on Hoover Street in South L.A. Today, they call it middle or intermediate school, but in those days (1968-1970) it was junior high, and encompassed seventh, eighth, and ninth grades.  It was a different world for me in many ways, not the least of which was the increased interest in romance and dating.  It seemed many girls, including my friends, were intent on claiming some unsuspecting boy as their boyfriend.

I guess I was a late bloomer, because at the time I still found boys disgusting.  I'd much rather spend time with my Barbie dolls (although I could never tell my friends this).  Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that -- according to the junior high code -- not having a romantic interest was considered abnormal.  There was only one thing I could do to fit in -- I decided to invent a boyfriend!

'Stanley' was the perfect guy.  He was older and lived in a different neighborhood, which explained why no one at school ever saw him. (It's not hard to pull the wool over the eyes of Jr. high girls.)  Stanley was understanding, kind, patient, handsome and smart. And while the other girls struggled to get the attention of the guys they liked, my Stanley adored me!  I regaled my friends with stories of all the nice things he did for me.  Pure fiction, but it worked! 

I 'went with' Stanley all through seventh grade, but by eighth grade I had to have his family move out of town. The ruse became too hard to pull off by then. Of course, we stayed loyal to each other.  It was the perfect arrangement for me.  I had a 'boyfriend' and could still play with my Barbies!

As I got older, I discovered there were certain benefits to dating a real-life guy, not the least of which was that I could take him out in public.  However, I also learned that no guy could measure up to Stanley.  Fortunately, I learned this at an early age.  Some people go a lifetime without learning it.

I would not advise young girls to make up boyfriends, but I would tell them to try to stay away from schmucks when it comes to relationships. Also, I would hope they have a line in the sand that keeps out mates who abuse or humiliate them, or have no qualms about subjecting them to outside kids, or worse yet... HIV/AIDS!

Nevertheless, perfection -- as desirable as it may be -- is unrealistic and unattainable. At least in the real world.

Bret Harte friends with their 'boyfriends.'  1969

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lessons from Dad -- Learned, and Not Learned!

My dad was not my biological father.

As a matter of fact, I didn't meet my dad until I was 9 years old, although he knew me as an infant and was my godfather (another story, another time).  My parents divorced when I was small, and I only saw my real father occasionally. I was happy when my mom married this nice man who moved us from Oakland to Los Angeles, where he had a TV repair shop off LaBrea.

He was my dad from day one and never treated me as anything but his child. I appreciate everything he did for me...the time he invested in me, and the things he tried to teach me.  Some I listened to...some I didn't, but I can now admit...he was right about everything!  Read on....

10 Things Dad Taught Me (that I listened to)
  1. Always keep your car in working order.
  2. Take the time to set the table before you eat.
  3. 2 or 3 good friends are better than 20 phony ones.
  4. Never date a guy who won't meet your family.
  5. If you invite someone to your house, have food.
  6. Show up at family get-togethers, even if it's for a little while.
  7. Your mom may not always make sense to you, but respect her anyway--she's still your mom.
  8. Always have your OWN money.
  9. Let your children know they are loved.
  10. Marry a guy who respects and adores you.

10 Things Dad Taught Me (that I WISH I had listened to)

Dad circa 1968.
  1. You don't need more than 1 or 2 credit cards.
  2. A phone call should never take over 20 minutes.
  3. Always have carfare (or airfare) to get home.
  4. Don't change jobs just for more money.
  5. Check the expiration dates on your food items.
  6. You can't do everything at once, prioritize.
  7. You will wear yourself out if you burn the candle at both ends.
  8. Worry never solves anything.
  9. When you cook, fix enough for more than 1 day.
  10. Take the time to read directions.

Thanks Dad.  Miss you.

In Remembrance

To: Berman Frank,   
In remembrance of a father, it took a long time for me to know,
I wasn't there to be your daughter, You weren't there to watch me grow;

For all the years we spent apart, it sometimes made me sad,
That although you were my father, I could never call you Dad;

But, I rejoice today for the years we spent, catching up and moving on,
We accepted that so much had passed, and could not be undone;

And I've finally come to realize, although it's taken me awhile,
That you'll always be my father, and I'll always be your child;

Now it's time for me to say good-bye, and to mourn all that will not be;
And to say I'm so very grateful,
for your blood that runs through me.

(Linnie Frank Bailey, August 1995)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summertime Living is Easy

So you won't be spending seven days and six nights in a tropical paradise this summer? Your kids probably won't see Mickey and you'll be lucky if you get ten miles out of town. Maybe you have lost your job and are spending all of your free time looking for work. On the other hand, if you are employed, you may be hesitant to take time off, lest you be forgotten!

Let's face it -- this is the summer of 'staycations' (staying at home during vacation time), 'daycations' (a day trip close to home), or 'naycations' (no vacation at all this year).

However, as bad as things are, the dog days of summer don't have to be spent lamenting your dismal finances and wishing you were in St. Thomas.

And by all means, please don't do as one of the "moms-from-the-school" who spent weeks telling everyone within earshot about a wonderful Hawaiian vacation her family was taking when school ended. In reality, they had no plans to leave the neighborhood... they just stayed indoors and cancelled newspaper and mail delivery! She dared the kids to leak the truth, but of course, it got out.

Centinela Park, Inglewood. circa. 1972
There are plenty of ways to have fun on little money or limited travel options. Fortunately, children are adaptable and enjoy family time however, or wherever, it is spent! There are certain essentials for summertime fun and they don't require much money. Here they are:

1. Picnics. When I look at old family photos of my grandparents, parents, and their siblings, it seems they lived in parks during the summer! There was a time when amusement areas and resorts were off-limits, hostile, or unaffordable for African-Americans, so families and friends gathered at parks for fun and fellowship.

While most parks are still free, and open, in California, we should take advantage of them. We have small neighborhood parks and large state parks. Here's an activity: try to visit ALL of the parks within a 20-mile radius of your house this summer. Spend a few hours or the whole day. Gather up some food, blankets, and a tent (if you have one). Take cards, games, and music and have fun!

2. Grilling. What says summer more than putting some food on the grill? It doesn't have to be filet mignon or ribs, any meat or vegetable will do. You don't need an outdoor kitchen; a small hibachi will work just as well. If you can't grill at your location, go to the beach or park -- many have grills for public use, or take your own. Even if it's just a 99¢ bag of chicken franks -- grill it!

3. Water. What's summer without water? A beach, pool, lake, or river provides scenery and enjoyment. Even low-cost options offer a way to cool off and have fun. One of my best summers consisted of taking my then one-year-old to a friend's 'backyard pool.' Now mind you, this was not a lavish pool with a spa -- instead, it was a small blow-up pool perfect for two toddlers to splash around in with their moms.

Kids love water toys in the back yard, or just turn on your sprinklers or hose and let them run through the water. Children love water in the summer, as evidenced by the legions of East Coast-bred kids who have broken many a fire hydrant. (Please don't do this... it is illegal). Try a water balloon fight... fun, fun, fun.

4. Cool Drinks. Iced tea is a summer favorite, but easy access to ice-cold water is a must during hot summer days. Keep a cooler in your car and keep cold water on hand. In addition, mixing up a pitcher of margaritas is sure to get some friends over!

5. Being Outside. Who wants to be cooped up inside during the summer? Even if it's too hot to be outside during the day, (or you are fortunate enough to have a job) try the evening hours. Walk around the neighborhood, or sit outside your house on a patio, garage, front porch, courtyard, or balcony.

I remember a summer many years ago, before my parents were able to buy a house. I was around 10 years old and we lived in an apartment building in South Los Angeles. In the back, we had a covered parking spot separate from the other parking stalls. Most summer evenings, after my dad got home from work (and parked in front of the building), we took our reclining lawn chairs, food, drinks, and music to that stall and relaxed. Many times, other occupants would join us.

Over the years, I have relaxed in tropical locales and on lavish patios; however, some of my fondest memories are of summer evenings with my parents and neighbors on those concrete parking stalls.

The point is -- you can enjoy summer without spending a lot of money or traveling far. You just have to use a little imagination and redefine what it truly takes to make you happy. Whatever you want for the summer -- fun in the sun, relaxation, seeing something new, or lounging with friends and family -- it's available for you at low to no cost!

Summer... like life, it's what you make it.

(first appeared in Huffington Post 6/6/11) 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thick Smoke at the Forum

The smoke was thick at the Forum during a recent Prince concert. At least in the section I was sitting in with my twelve-year-old, who kept asking, "Mom, what is that strange smell?"

"Shut up and enjoy the concert!" I wanted to say, but instead I would fan her face periodically as I danced to Prince rocking the house. Still, I felt for my daughter since most of the smoke was coming from the two elderly matrons directly behind us.

I had been so worried for the women as I saw them struggle with walking up the steep Forum stairs. Once they took their seats, I heard one of them say, "We're not moving until this concert is over!" Well, they had that right, because within twenty minutes of arriving they were probably too high to move!

They said they were from Palm Springs and hadn't been to a concert in over 40 years. I'm sure they brought every ounce of their medical marijuana with them to light up. I prayed they weren't driving home that night and still don't know how they made it down the stairs. We left them sitting there in their glow.

It had been a long time since I, too, had attended a concert at the Forum. There was a different kind of smoke in the air that night. It was May of 1974 and Marvin Gaye was the main act. Driving down from Baldwin Hills, on the way to Inglewood, we could see thick smoke coming from the East Side near Slauson.

It seems the authorities had finally caught up with the Symbionese Liberation Army (called the SLA) a group of leftist radicals mostly known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. At some point, she 'joined' her captors and helped them rob banks. We heard on the radio that the SLA had been located on East 54th Street and the house they were in was on fire.

Marvin Gaye put on a fantastic show that night. He had recently released his Let's Get it On album and it was topping the charts. He wasn't yet in his 'gotta-drop-my-pants-for-the-ladies' phase, but he had all of us young teen girls swooning over his on-stage antics and performance of "Distant Lover."

We didn't care much about what was going on nearby, or the smoke outside the Forum. We assumed the SLA would escape the fire... after all, they had been on the lam for awhile and seemed adept at avoiding capture.
After the concert, we heard reports that they all stayed inside as the house burned down. We believed the SLA had tunneled somewhere and escaped yet again. (Even in today's world... especially in today's world of techno gadgets, we always think the bad guys have extraordinary escape methods and would never be caught 'with their pants down.') But the SLA members who were in that house perished.

I guess no matter who you are, sometimes the smoke gets a little too thick.

(first appeared in Huffington Post 5/12/11) 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dressing Up for Church

Every Easter at church I see small girls dressed in brightly colored dresses with matching Easter bonnets. Sometimes, their moms also have on an equally colorful dress and hat. Not as much as in the past though. Few of us 'dress up' to go to church anymore, unless we are attending a wedding or a funeral.

In the past, dressing up for church wasn't just a way of showing off fashions (although for some it was), it was a way to recognize the 'specialness' of the occasion.

Theologians would tell us God is much more interested in our souls than our dress. In fact, many churches insist on casual dress so worshipers won't feel intimidated by the fancy clothes of others and stay home.

Years ago, in communities where everyone was struggling economically (are we back to that yet?) I suppose this wasn't as big a deal. Men and boys had the one good suit... and women had a few good dresses (sometimes homemade).

For African Americans, Sunday service was a chance to throw off the economic shackles of the workweek. Parishioners, who daily languished in uniforms, or as maids and janitors, were glad to have the opportunity to 'dress up.'

One of my early hats. Circa 1960.
For Black women, at Bethel A.M.E. ,the South Los Angeles church I attended for years, hats were the norm at Sunday services. Everyone could wear a hat, but not every woman could 'don' a hat (takes attitude). I can don a hat, and I miss it... even though it has absolutely nothing to do with serving the Lord. I seldom see hats now at my suburban church.

Still, I have a closet full of church hats. I even named some of them -- there's the 'Queen Latifah'... the 'Pixie'... and the black-straw, wide-brimmed, 'Drop Dead!' I wrapped and stored them carefully, hoping that someday here in America we will be like the Ladies of London who wear hats regularly. (Can't wait to see the hats at the Royal wedding!)

I remember a Sunday morning in Jamaica years ago. In the twenty mile ride from the resort to the airport, I witnessed Jamaicans walking to church. The men had on well-worn suits, the young boys had on white shirts and slacks, the girls had on white blouses with skirts, and most of the women wore white dresses and hats. Along the coastal route, I also saw a mass baptism taking place in the sea. People were lined up on shore awaiting their turn. They were clothed in white sheets. It all seemed very holy and pure.

Dressing up for church seems to have gone the way of family gatherings on Sundays. I admit, many times I wear jeans to church... however, one day I'm going to unpack one of my church hats and don it.

(first appeared in Huffington Post 4/25/11)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Losing Siblings

"I'm the only one left. They're all gone."
 An elderly relative is telling me of the recent death of her 91-year-old sister. I listen as she fondly describes growing up with four siblings and the emptiness she feels now that they aren't around anymore.

I am confused because I only knew her to have three siblings. "Oh no," she says. "There were five of us -- I had a baby brother who died when he was a toddler." She tearfully recounted, "I remember playing with him and how devastated we were when he got sick and passed away." I can tell the hurt is still strong for her some 80 years later. That is the nature of losing a sibling.

Some siblings are lost through death, others to squabbles and disagreements. Sometimes it's minor, and sometimes it's major, although it seems to me that when you're standing over a sibling's grave, most conflicts will pale in comparison.

Many times, money is the culprit in family disagreements, especially when it comes to inheritances. In my own family, I saw my mom's two older brothers fall out and stop speaking to each other. They were each in their late 60s when the dispute began. It was over an insurance policy that had probably been cashed out 40 years before and had little cash value.

The brothers went to their graves without speaking -- each living over 10 years with no contact. The one who outlived the other did go to his brother's funeral. At the grave he was heard saying, "All he had to do was pick up the phone and call me." At that point it was too late.

Unfortunately, sibling rivalries and disappointments can last a lifetime.

I also remember a beloved aunt who severed ties with her family. She was the eldest of the seven kids, and we all called her "Sister." Sister was sort of the rebel of the family, and from what I heard, she kept tongues wagging most of her life. She lived where she wanted to live, dated whom she wanted to date, and had a hair-trigger temper. I remember her as my most "fun" relative.

Sister left her native Texas in the '40s and moved to San Francisco, which she loved. I live in "the City," she would say in a condescending way to her siblings who had settled across the bay in Oakland. On weekends, Sister and I would traverse the town enjoying all San Francisco had to offer: the Fillmore District, Castro, the Wharf, Nob Hill, Cable Cars, the tour boat to Alcatraz, Chinatown, and Candlestick Park to see Willie Mays! She loved the city and passed that on to me. Also, she taught me to drink foreign teas! We would have tea parties where she would serve using her "good china."

Sister had a dark side, which I saw more of as I got older. Today, we would probably diagnose her with some mental illness and say, "Oh well, Sister forgot to take her meds." However, in those days, whenever she would go into one of her rants, they just said, "Well, you know Sister is crazy!"

Years later, when she was near 80, Sister decided that she was done with her family and moved to Nevada. She left no forwarding address. I remember one of my last conversations with her when she told me that as far as she was concerned, she had no family. "Everybody needs family, Sister," I chided her. "Not me," she said. She had just received a sizable inheritance and took off to spend her remaining days at the slot machines. We never heard from her again.

A couple of years after she left, one of my uncles went to Nevada to try to track her down. He had heard that she was in the Reno area and had gotten into an altercation with someone and pulled a gun. Apparently, the police were involved, and she was institutionalized and died a few months later. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But, I have to admit, this is the way we thought she would go out.

I've thought of still trying to find her, or at least where she is buried. I'm sure there was a police report on her in Nevada (probably one of many). But she's gone -- has been for over 20 years. I've since lost all my other aunts and uncles -- her siblings.

My mom is the only one still alive of the seven kids. Every now and then, I hear her say tearfully, "I'm the only one left. They're all gone.."

Sister and I.  Circa 1960.

(first appeared in Huffington Post 4/7/11) 

Friday, February 18, 2011

My First Cigarette

I received my first cigarettes around the time I got my first iron, stove, and refrigerator. This was the sixties, and the appliances were toys. The cigarettes were candy.

Looking back, I don't know what bothers me the most these days. The fact that I was being prepared for housework at such a young age, or that I was being prepared to smoke!

We see the commercial of the woman with the hole in her throat describing how as a young girl she was encouraged to light up. We also see her depicted as a young teen admiring herself in the mirror with a cigarette in her hands. I did this as an even younger child with the candy cigarettes!

I, like her, grew up in a different time. The adults around me smoked, drank more than twice a week, and kept guns under their beds. But also, the men wore suits on Sunday, we had family dinners often, and children were expected to be respectful to adults. We emulated adults but were careful not to cross the line. We knew not to look under their beds.

I was given candy cigarettes the way kids today are given chocolate bars. The adults figured kids wanted to act grown-up and this was one way to do it. Even with alcohol, there was a 'children's version' and it was a treat for me to order a Shirley Temple whenever we went to a restaurant that served liquor. 

I also remember my first adult drink... one that was offered and poured especially for me! I was around fourteen, and it was at my next door neighbor's house in South Los Angeles. 

Our neighbor, Miss Cassie, was an older woman, probably around 60 at the time. Her husband worked at night and slept during the day. He was off on Mondays and this was the only time we would see Miss Cassie leave the house - always riding with him. Even though she stayed inside, we figured she knew everything going on in the neighborhood because she was always peeking out of her window. 

Finally, one day my mom managed to catch Miss Cassie outside and introduced herself (that's how we found out her name). After awhile, Miss Cassie would come outside to talk to my mom and eventually invited her into the house. After that, about twice a week my mom would visit Miss Cassie and some afternoons she would bring me.

We would sit in the small, tidy, dark living room and 'chat.' The drapes were always drawn. We found out that Miss Cassie's husband worked at Chasen's... a famous Hollywood restaurant that was known for its delicious chili. Miss Cassie's husband always brought home plenty of Chasen's Chili and we would sit and eat it. The women discussed the goings-on of the neighborhood and I would sit and listen. (In those days, kids weren't allowed to join in adult conversations unless asked a question.)

Miss Cassie would "serve cocktails" as she called it, and one day, with my mom's permission, she offered me a glass of Scotch-on-the-rocks... their drink of choice. I felt so grown up and 'privileged' to be joining these women in their afternoon cocktail; however, one taste of the Scotch made me sick to my stomach. (I still get nauseated just thinking about it.) I refused Miss Cassie's offer of cocktails after that.

I'm not going to say I don't drink occasionally today, but I never became a heavy drinker or developed a taste for the hard liquors. I prefer mixed drinks (I love margaritas!) or wine. Strangely enough, I also like beer. (It was the bitterness of beer that turned a lot of kids against drinking.)

But... back to those candy cigarettes. Around the same time I was holding them and pretending to inhale, I also started developing an aversion to cigarette smoke. I hated being in smoke-filled rooms and eventually would cough when exposed to smoke. My mom quit smoking around this time, although it took my dad many more years to stop. He wouldn't smoke much in the house however and never in the car. Still... as an adult I developed asthma and I think all the smoke I was exposed to as a child and teen didn't help. The Los Angeles smog might have contributed also. 

I don't fault my parents or Miss Cassie for my early exposure to cigarettes and alcohol. It would have happened anyway... possibly in a worse environment. Maybe adults in those days knew this and this was their way of trying to control things. Like I said... it was a different time.

(first appeared in Huffington Post 2/1/11)

Friday, January 21, 2011


When I was a child in Oakland, before moving to Los Angeles at age ten, our next door neighbor was a woman everybody called ‘Tootsie.’  I never knew her real name, but I knew from listening to the adults around me that Tootsie was known to hit the bottle every now and then – like everyday!   Tootsie had ten children.  (Stairsteps, my mom used to call them because that was the phrase she used in those days for multiple siblings close in age.  Today she would call them the equality unpolitically correct phrase -- bananas.)  There was a ‘Mr. Tootsie’ who would show up every now and then, but, for the most part the children were on their own.  Their house was in disrepair and the kids didn’t always make it to school.
Tootsie pretty much kept to herself.  Sometimes when my mom was hanging clothes on the line, she would venture out to say hi.  They would chat and laugh for a few minutes and then Tootsie would return to her sanctuary.
Even though most of us were only one paycheck from abject poverty, there were those on our street who looked down on Tootsie and her brood.  Some of the neighbors wouldn’t allow their kids to play with Tootsie’s children, but my mom let me play with the ones closest to my age.   She also insisted I address Tootsie properly – calling her Mrs. Johnson.  (I think a couple of her kids had that last name.) 
Once I caught a real bad flu and was out of school for two weeks. Tootsie made sure one of her children would go to my class and get the homework for me.  I also remember when my grandfather died, Tootsie cleaned herself up and came over to pay her respect.  She even brought some food over, although everyone was afraid to eat it. 
There were other “Tootsies” that I came across in my Los Angeles area neighborhoods as I grew up.  Some had money, some were destitute.  I always remember my mother telling me that it is a gift to be able to relate to everyone – from a pauper to a prince.  That was the beauty of the neighborhoods I lived in.  There were all kinds of people from all walks of life.
Today, we try to keep our children away from the have-nots in life.   Our suburban neighborhoods are pretty homogenous, so our kids may never learn about “the other side of the tracks.”  Also, they may never come to understand the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” 
Yet I’m sure that within our pristine, well-kept neighborhoods, there are Tootsies lurking behind closed curtains.  Sometimes we see them at the supermarket, or picking their kids up from school.  They are just waiting for a “Hi how are you?” or some acknowledgment that they exist.  Maybe, instead of judging them, we need to throw our arms around them and see what we can do to help.  Someone might have to do the same for us one day.
 (First published in 2007)