Ghosts in the Glade
A small girl in a bouffant ballet skirt darts in and out of the shady glade. I watch her dance with her shadow, lost in the patterns her tiny feet create. She appears and disappears into the green shadows, moving in and out of the sunshine. If this were a movie, she might re-emerge as a grown woman. We are, after all, in film country, for this is L.A.
I am here, again, after more than thirty years for the occasion of my second cousin’s wedding. Like a moment from a Hollywood story, every detail from the Jackie-O dresses to the Spanish-style mansion and embroidered chuppa (wedding canopy) is picture perfect. The flowergirl‘s twirling is a blur of frothy white, a snapshot of innocence that transports me back to the best time of my adolescence. I am fifteen again, excited about my trip to California. In spite of restrictive, worrying parents, I have been allowed to travel to Los Angeles. With the promise, “She’ll be safe”, my aunt reassures my parents and I am catapulted into a sanctioned summer vacation at my favorite cousins far from home.
My cousins have recently moved away to Los Angeles so that my uncle can work with his brothers in the hotel business, but the other story is that the family wishes to start a life away from the domineering Buba. She is a distant, once beautiful woman, a true matriarch dethroned by the move to Canada from Poland: from butchershop heiress to bathroom cleaner. Her overt favoritism for my aunt is legend, but we are all summoned on the holidays to appear at her house where dinners are prolonged for hours around the “good” dining room table; ancient white tablecloths and sparking new dishes. I have celebrated so many holidays with my cousins that I ache at the loss of my cousins’ move to the United States.
I think of my cousin Allan’s hundreds of tiny, rubber soldiers and how he organizes them, and arranges them for battle, and then, hurls them off the bar ledge after Passover dinners in my grandparents’ recreation room. We fight stuffed animals; we jump on overstuffed furniture; we sneak my Buba’s delicious dung-colored raisin wine; we play tricks; we hoot; we whoop; we play hide and seek, knowing Allan will always find us. We fall into delighted bundles of legs and arms, and we topple over one another in heaps of enduring affection and boundless energy. We would die for Allan! Our parents in lacy shawls and Borsalino hats gather us up at 10:30 and carry us home exhausted.
“Besides,” my mother persuades my unconvinced father, “The grandparents will soon be visiting California, too.” So the wild, careless ways of American Jews will be mitigated Or at least, so my parents are lead to believe. I hear the sound of discussion in the night, the volley of voices back and forth between my parents, my father’s voice, dark, intimidating, but in the end, my mother prevails.
As a family, we had once traveled by plane to California when I was 7 or 8. Perhaps it was the Miami-like weather or promises of the golden land ( golden medina) that had entreated parts of our family to move there from frigid Canada With always the hope for a better world, to move from the tailoring factories and sweatshops, and begin a fresh, open future, immigrants like Daddy’s Aunt Annie, Aunt Dora, Uncles Max and Aunt Dora had departed for the better, sunnier climes of the South. But there are scary stories, too, of polio epidemics that caused some relations to retreat back to Canada.
I recalled being welcomed by my father’s loving family to the land of palm trees, and my sister celebrating her fourth birthday in an amusement park in San Fernando Valley. We were allowed endless rides on merry-go-rounds of large-eyed horses, and on my sister’s birthday cake with white icing stood perfect tiny multicolored paper umbrellas. The relatives’ names, sons and daughters of the whole mishpocha, were Kim and Julius and Maurice and Annette and Frances, and Harry’s son, Steven, had even produced a record with promises from New York of a contract. And Maurice, a blurry fellow, was a film extra. Steven drove us, without our parents, through the Hollywood Hills at night in a stationwagon and paid us attention, even though we were just little girls, my sister and me.
And crusty old uncle Joe from Las Vegas, the auctioneer with no wife or children, rumored to live with showgirls from time to time, took us to a special restaurant where the trout we caught were prepared for our supper. In Los Angeles, my father refused to try Chinese food, sure that he would be eating kidnapped cats. He left L.A. early because the smog made it difficult for him to breathe and caused his asthma to act up. Perhaps this memory causes him to disapprove of my trip to Los Angeles. My mother reminds me of these facts as admonishments, facts that I must have heard, but have chosen to forget as if they might somehow temper my fascination with this American Eden. Showgirls, trout, tiny umbrellas and never ending sun do not provide indictments rather incentives to return to California.
Now an adolescent, I prepare carefully for this new odyssey to the world of Walt Disney and loose living. My hair is lacquered straight at the hairdresser’s and my mother allows me to buy a cottoncandy coloured polyester outfit from Eaton’s. I note it pulls at my hips, but I look away from the bulges. Almost the minute Grade 10 ends, I run home to pack. I am so excited that I can barely control the delight that threatens to spill over and explode in my quivering body. Instead of last year’s summer job stuffing envelopes for a family friend, I am free.
I ride, sitting up, for three days, only changing trains once when I, a person often lost in local streets, boards the connecting train to L.A: how exotic to refer to a place with only its initials. It’s like a sexy nickname that only hints at what is hidden.
In Chicago where I change trains, I overhear a Texan, in a huge cowboy hat ,proclaim in a deep throated voice, “We eat steaks for breakfast.” I giggle to myself at this foolish outburst. Does he also eat French fries and ketchup with his steak? In Cleveland, a gaggle of rabbinic boys with dangling sidelocks and skullcaps board the train. Their seat numbers are next to mine. They share their smelly delicious meat sandwiches with me at the back of the car. I have never even spoken with any really religious people, let alone boys like these.
Later, I wonder if my female presence has contaminated their special sanctity, yet in my memories I recall their bobbing, hobnobbing heads, friendly, affable, laughing interchanges-just like regular kids. Still, I must have intuited this meeting as a forbidden pause in the life of the orthodox, for I do not collect Isaac and Moishe’s phone numbers in my little address book.
The train passes through a place called “Needles” and the air conditioning breaks down. It is 92 degrees. It is impossible to sleep because of the heat. But I never sleep anyway, sitting up. It does not matter because I am on an adventure, entering a new world.
I arrive in Los Angeles, disheveled, askew, bleary –eyed, but full of anticipation. More than a journey alone by myself, it is in Los Angeles, that my real life will begin as I descend down into my cousins’ waiting arms. I hear the Beach Boys in my head, crooning “Little Surfer Girl” and I wonder if in my bold yellow pockadot 2-piece ,I could ever be that surfer girl…little surfer girl…
Although I am shown the regular haunts of Disney, La Brea Tar Pits, Knots Berry Farm and the Farmer’s Market, I soon discover that parents inevitably disappear and play almost no role in this place: they are merely smiling props, unheeded, background noise. Once the introductory phase of seeable sights and entertainments ends, my aunt and uncle rarely intrude. There are no regularly scheduled meals here. We just float to our desires. My cousins become my guides and take over my initiation. Even my grandparents’ arrival produces no ripples to our lifestyle. They are working hard at trying to convince my aunt to return home to Canada.
My cool cousin Allan has a separate space attached to the house. He is the king of kids and he presides over a boisterous crew of Jewish club kids who worship him along with my very favorite relation in the entire world, his sister, Shelley. Their brothers, Robin and Ken, are too young to hang out with us and so, are swallowed up by the television shows they watch continuously somewhere deep in the house. Occasionally I see them on the street, playing catch. I wave to them in the distance: they could be in Canada for all the connection I have with them.
To the jokes and monologues of the Smothers Brothers, George Carlin and Bill Cosby on the record player, Allan holds court. We eat potatoes chips non-stop, play monopoly or cards late into the night and no one even notices. There are late night dances at the Jewish Centre. Shelley laughs because I wear a girdle under my pedal pusher pants. Allan really listens to me and we have real conversations. This is heaven. Viet Nam is far away for Allan. Later when he returns to Canada to deliberate about serving his country ( even though he has never taken out American citizenship),the Canadian clan is aghast that he would wear white pants in winter. They say he has “gone American. ”, but Allan decides to go to war anyway, saying he feels a responsibility to the States.
We say he has been brainwashed, even though he has refused to pledge alliance to the flag with his hand over his heart every day at school. For this, he has been labeled a “trouble maker” when they call home from school to report his lack of conformity. Sadly, the experience of friendly fire will cloud much of his later life.
When I am 15 and talking with Allan, he is the coolest dude, ever and I am, too, his loyal follower. In this place, I seem to belong, not set apart from the popular girls at school who either ignore me, or gab and cluster in cliques in their pearls and poodle-skirts. They speak another language that makes me feel my hips are gargantuan, my nose huge, my clothes ridiculous. When I knit a nose-cozy in the winter, they laugh uproariously. I pretend that I do not care.
But here, we dream on the beach all day, lifting our bronzed heads only to sip cherry cokes or lazily roll onto our backs, and await the sun to lick our tanning bodies. We spend all day in the sun. We go grunion hunting at dusk. I’m part of my cool cousins’ crowd. I am accepted in a hub of friendly faces. Someone asks, “Hey, do you live in an igloo? Do you drive a dogsled?” I think this is a cruel joke, and I bristle a bit, but the faces are serious, not mean. ”Are you crazy?”, I blurt out, amazed at their ignorance. Richard raises his tousled blonde head and says, “ My mom’s from Canada and she told me summer’s hot like this.” There are guffaws, easy laughter, relaxed acknowledgements that my difference, in spite of my accentuated syllables is just fine- cool.
I am gradually transforming. I learn how to outline my eyes in black liquid. My cousin takes me to a place that will burn off my split ends. My bangs lay flat. I no longer wear a girdle under my pedal pushers. I smile at myself in the mirror. My beautiful cousins, their friends and I: seamless. The beach where we lounge and bake is even called Hermosa: beautiful. I am floating in happiness.
We rise early and slip from our beds to scale high hills in the pre-morning fog and watch the sun rise, then trundle off to gorge ourselves on blueberry pancakes with whipped cream and nuts. I eat my first Big Mac here, washed down by a chocolate shake, feeling somewhat guilty that I have consumed both milk and un-kosher meat- together- but it is the most delicious meal I have ever tasted. I ride on the back of motorscoters and cruise dangerously through traffic, my curly hair unfurling like a flag of freedom. My mother would kill me if she knew, but she doesn’t and no one will tell. Kids feel protected, empowered and impervious here, blissfully so.
When I must leave for home at the end of the summer, I cling to my cousins, weeping because I know I have been exiled from paradise.
My grandfather recalls such weeping when families were torn apart in Europe, the old country. He shakes his head in disbelief as he relates this to my mother later. He cannot imagine that in six short weeks such bonds could form.
I return home, more confident, relaxed, but when I use the new words “ bitchen” and “boss” my new summer vocabulary, my few friends turn away in disgust. My parents too censor the way I speak. They disparage my “wild summer” and my father regrets ever letting me go. He looks darkly at my mother. I wonder which parts were wild: the potato chips, the beach, the split ends burnt off my hair?
I return to the lone girl I was before my trip.
* * *
So after thirty years, I have returned: Allan now married to Shelley’s best friend, Kathy, has three kids, Shelley divorced, presently a Buddhist and a landscape architect; my aunt, uncle and grandparents now dead; the club kids dispersed across America, or grown into middle age here in L.A.
This time I am accompanied on my trip by my mother and daughter. I recognize the old faces: wrinkles at the eyes, baldheads hidden beneath baseball caps, welcoming smiles of recognition. My memories recalled, I again ponder why those days had been considered “my wild times”. The old gang says, “You haven’t changed.” I am as surprised as I was at the mention of dogsleds. Rich says, “ Your daughter looks just like you at that age.” I know this is not true. Erica glides, has confidence and style like a real “surfer girl”, but I am comforted that a memory of me might be like my dazzling girl.
Even now, I am transfixed by Allan anew, and again, I am swept away by my love for Shelley.
Like the twirling child in the wedding party who seeks the cool enchantment of the trees, I continue to long for summers in California. I wonder how I would have grown up without those days where I too twirled and pirouetted-like the flowergirl- out of the shadows into the sunlight-even briefly.