Archive for the ‘childhood stories’ Category

Dr. Johnson

[This is a short story from a collection I wrote some time ago.  It is memoir.]

Ben was waiting in the car for us.  My mommy and I were in one of the little rooms in Dr. Johnson’s office.  I was happy because I would get to see Dr. Johnson in just a little while.  I liked seeing him.  He would smile at me and pick me up in his arms and hug me and kiss me.  I loved Dr. Johnson.  I came to see him all the time.  I got sick a lot so I could go see him and when I wasn’t sick and one of my brothers or sisters was sick, I would come with them to the doctor so I could see my Doctor Johnson.  It didn’t matter to me that we would have to sit and wait in the waiting room for a long time.  It was worth it to me as long as I got to see my Doctor Johnson.

I heard Dr. Johnson talking.  He was outside the door.  I heard him take my folder from the door and I knew I’d see him now.  I tried not to smile because I was supposed to be sick but I couldn’t help it.  The doorknob turned and I felt dizzy.  That happened sometimes when I saw Doctor Johnson.  He came in the door and looked straight at me with the smile I had been waiting to see.

“There’s my little Susie!  Are you sick again?”  I liked that he called me Susie.  Only my family called me Susie.  They called me that because I liked the name of a flower called a Susan so I called myself Susie, and so did everyone in my family.  Dr. Johnson picked me up in his arms and kissed my cheek.  “What’s wrong with my little one today?”  he asked as he hugged my mom and looked at my folder.

“I don’t know what’s wrong this time.  She doesn’t have a fever but she keeps crying and saying her stomach hurts and that she’s sick.  She begged me to bring her to see you,” my mother told him.

Dr. Johnson smiled at me and checked my throat and my ears and I had to cough and breathe deep.  He told me to lie down and he pressed on my stomach.  He asked if it hurt.  When he was finished he winked at me and told me I could go out and get a toy and wait by Virginia’s desk so he could talk to my mother, so I did.

I waited by the nurse’s desk and Virginia told me my mom would be out in a minute.  When Dr. Johnson and my mommy came out, Dr. Johnson said he wanted to talk to me in his office so he took my hand in his and we walked to his office.  My mommy didn’t come with us.  I sat in the big chair where my mother sat when she came in to Dr. Johnson’s office and Doctor Johnson sat on the other side of the desk.  He smiled at me.

“You know that I love to see you but I don’t like it when you get sick.  It makes me sad when you’re sick.  And your mommy and daddy have to pay money when you come to see me.  I know you aren’t always sick when you come.  Right?”  he asked me and looked at me.

“Well my stomach feels like I have to see you sometimes.  I need to see you and it hurts because I have to see you,” I told him.

“I know you like to come see me but you can’t say you’re sick.  It makes me sad and your mommy gets worried.  She has to find a ride to bring her here with you and then she has to pay the bill.”

I looked at the floor.  I didn’t want Dr. Johnson to be mad at me.  I didn’t want him to see me cry.

“Let’s try something.  How about if you tell your mommy when you want to see me and then if I don’t have a lot of sick people waiting to see me and your mommy can bring you, you can come and visit me.  Okay?  Don’t tell her you’re sick unless you really are.  Just tell her you want to see me.  Okay?”  He came over to me and picked me up in his arms and told me not to cry.  He wiped my tears and kissed my cheek.  He hugged me.   I hugged him back.  I hugged him tight.  Doctor Johnson took me to my mommy and told her I was not going to be sick a lot anymore.  He kissed me again and winked at me and put me down.  He told Virginia there was no charge for today and he waved good bye to me.

After that, I didn’t see him all the time but I did see him when I had a fever or felt very sick.  I still liked to get sick because I could see Doctor Johnson but I knew I couldn’t get sick too much, especially when I started kinnigarden because I couldn’t miss school.  I loved school!

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One of the most exotic acquisitions during this time period was a Jaguar–not the kind that eats and prowls and growls–but the kind with four wheels that moved as sleek as a cat and purred like a kitten.  It was a beautiful car.  The cream colored beauty had matching leather interior with highly glossed wood paneling, inside and out.  The steering wheel was on the right hand side.  Of all the things he ever bought or bartered, this was the one we all hoped my dad would keep and the one we all missed when he sold it two days later.  He apologized to us explaining that he couldn’t resist the buyer’s offer of a cash 500% profit.

My personal favorite of my dad’s deals was a white Honda 90 motorcycle.  I loved it.  It became mine.  I was 15 and there was talk that when I turned 16 I would get my license on the Honda 90.  We lived on a cul-de-sac with very little traffic so I was allowed to drive it up and down the street.  I loved feeling the wind blowing through my long dark hair (even though I was only going about 35 or 40 mph).  Unfortunately, I never got my license on that motorcycle.  I ruined my chances of that one early summer evening, four months shy of turning 16.  I persuaded my sister, Irene (aka The Drama Queen) to go down the street on the motorcycle with me.  There were three boys who lived down the street.  They were all cute.  They were a few years older than us but they always smiled and flirted with us when we went by.  I had seen them in the window when I had driven by earlier so I knew they were there.  When Irene and I go to their house, I turned toward the window where they stood and smiled, tilting my head in a greeting.  When my eyes returned to the road, I realized that the STOP sign was much closser than I had thought.  I hit the brakes so hard that the motorcylce flipped and threw Irene and me  into the air.  Irene claimed not to be able to walk or even get up.  Although my legs and arms were cut and skinned, I picked her up and put her on the curb then I picked up the motorcycle but I couldn’t get it started so I ended up walking it up the hill (and it was a steep hill) to our house.  When I got home, my mom and dad were in the front yard and they asked what happened.  I told them we had flipped over and they asked where Irene was.  I told them she was on the curb because she couldn’t walk up the hill so they both panicked and jumped in my dad’s car to drive down and get her.  I was upset at my parents because they left me bleeding to go get Irene.  And I was more upset at the boys we were trying to impress because they had seen us flip over and knew we were hurt and they didn’t even come to see if we were okay.  The Jerks.  Needless to say, my mother persuaded my father to get rid of the Honda before one of us got killed on it (her words, not mine).  Losing that motorcycle was one of the worst things that had happened to me in my almost 16 years.

Of course there were some deals that we all regretted.  One was a very expensive and beautiful red headed macaw parrot that got sick and died within 48 hours of coming home with my dad.  Then there was the piano my dad brought home.  Apparently, he had always dreamed of having a piano so he made a trade for an upright piano that was in bad condition.  The wood needed to be refinished and it was out of tune.  Then there was the fact that no one in the house played the piano and none of  us had any  intention of learning to play.   So it sat in the garage for the better part of a year and my dad eventually had to pay someone to come and take it away.  There were also some bad scenes and rude phone calls with disgruntled customers but my dad always seemed to be able to smooth things out without it becoming ugly.

Through his wheeling and dealing, we were able to enjoy and experience a lot of things that would not have been open to us if my dad had not been forced into this mode of supporting our family by his work injury.

These years also gave birth to a variety of hobbies which began as one of my dad’s deals.  After acquiring a hand gun through a trade, my father’s interest in guns and rifles grew to the point where he was actively seeking deals that involved weapons.  He ended up with at least a half a dozen hand guns and three or four rifles.  Dad got so involved with guns that he proudly showed off his collection to anyone who came to the house, including my sisters’ boyfriends who, while not having to listen to a lecture on how to treat his daughters, paid for it dearly by having to listen to him explain all about the history of each weapon, including how to care for it and how much damage it could do when used.  Most of the boys never came to the house more than once.  I was smart.  I never brought any boys home.  I was not about to put anyone through that show!

One of the benefits gained was that my father’s lack of income and the size of our family made it possible for me to get a full four year scholarship when I was accepted to Stanford University.  Now I call THAT a bonus!

We learned a lot during those hard years.  We learned that if we are resourceful we will always land on our feet.  We learned “si se puede” and we learned to stick together as a family.

And as my dad is so fond of saying, “no hay mal que por bien no venga.”

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Over the next three years, my father was sent to specialist after specialist.  We lived in San Jose, less than an hour from San Francisco.  He had to go to UC San Francisco Medical Center for a series of treatments.  The visits to the clinic took all day.  He couldn’t go alone so we took turns going with him and mostly, waiting in the car all day.  There were hearings and visits to psychologists, physical therapists, surgeons, and lawyers.  My dad was never able to return to work and it was finally agreed, by the experts, that he was permanently disabled.  The State Rehabilitation Department decided that they could not retrain him to do any kind of work so at the age of 37, he was declared disabled.

Battling the Social Security Department was another long trip which took many years.  If memory serves, by the time his Social Security benefits kicked in, I was in college and it was around 1975.

Our family life changed drastically.  There were still six of us kids living at home, four of us completely dependent on my father.  My mother had never worked outside the home and having dropped out of school in seventh grade, had no marketable skills. My older brothers contributed everything they could from their part time, minimum wage jobs.  My oldest brother dropped out of college after the first semester so he could work full time.

My parents have both always been very proud; too proud to go on Welfare or any kind of state aid.  He did finally give in to accepting food stamps and medi-cal benefits to keep us fed and to get medicine for my sister who had developed medical problems.  There was no cash income as his Social Security benefits had not yet kicked in and the small amount he got for state disability was not much help.  My sisters and I did what we could, babysitting in the neighborhood, so we could buy our own clothes and shoes and what we might need at school.  Even so, we couldn’t afford a lot.  We went without.

It was very difficult to see what the whole situation did to my father.  He started drinking even more heavily than he had before the accident and he began to mix his liquor with his prescription pain killers.  He felt ashamed of not being able to provide for his family.

These were also very interesting times and in a way, very inspirational.  Because we had no income, my Dad had to resort to his hidden talents.  The most productive of these being his ability to talk people into almost anything he wanted to talk them into or out of.  This manifest itself primarily in my dad making a living by buying something very cheaply then turning around and selling it at a substantial profit.  We never knew what my father would find to make us money by browsing the “magic mini ads” which were free two line ads in the local newspaper.

Once, my dad bought a portable bar which held and tapped a keg of beer.  He kept it for one week before he sold it at 100% profit.  With the profit, he bought himself another portable bar which he kept for himself and a portable sauna.  The sauna was traded the following day.  The trade yielded a talking parrot and a 25 gallon aquarium, complete with exotic fish.  He sold the parrot and traded the aquarium.  The deals yielded him in excess of 150% profit plus a yellow headed parrot.

This parrot was very young and did not yet talk.  My three sisters and I took care of that very soon.  We placed the cage on the counter next to the telephone and within a couple of weeks, he was talking.  We had taught him to say “hello,”  “how are you,” and his name, “Loco.”  He used to go crazy saying “poco loco coco” over and over and over again.  Although he was the family pet, I grew very close to him and all these years later, I wish I still had my Loco.  I cried when we had to sell him a year later.  We needed the money.

Another time, my dad surprised us by coming home with a huge metal cage which held a very large and heavily sedated monkey.  The monkey’s name was Jimmy and he was a Macaque (pronounced MaKayk).  Jimmy was so close to being human that it was frightening.  He acted like a baby when he wanted to get his way.  If it didn’t work, he’d throw a tantrum, like a two year old.  He would grab a hold of his cage and shake it from side to side, almost knocking it over.  Those times were pretty scary.  What would happen if he escaped from the cage during one of his tantrums?

Jimmy was capable of escaping from the cage.  He proved this to us on a number of occasions.  Once, my oldest brother, Carlos, was in the living room washing windows.  He looked up in time to see Jimmy on the outside of the window, mocking him, then Jimmy waved at him and ran off.  Carlos was speechless but managed to compose himself quick enough to run down the street after Jimmy!

Jimmy began to have more and more violent tantrums, especially when my sister’s boyfriend came to visit.  He was very jealous.  My parents had to sedate him.  They would crush one of my father’s valium pills and put it in Jimmy’s food.  This only worked the first time.  After that, Jimmy would carefully dissect all food given to him and wipe off anything that looked like pulverized medicine!

Eventually, my parents felt it was time to get rid of Jimmy because of his violent fits.  They sold him to a man who lived on a large ranch and promised to build a 9′ x 12′ cage for Jimmy so he’d have a place to move and be free. When Jimmy left, it was clear that he was crying right along with the rest of us.

Once Jimmy was out of the house, it was time for more deals.

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We had a gas stove in the kitchen. It was almost always on. Good things came from that stove and the best part was that my mother was always there, at the stove, near the stove, using the stove and wherever my mother was, I wanted to be.

My mother made flour tortillas for every meal. She was in the kitchen making the dough–the masa–before the rest of us were out of bed in the mornings. When I was dressed and ready, I would go into the kitchen and watch her. I sat at the red formica table and watched my mother bring the rolling pin out then she would dust the table with flour and take one of the little dough balls and set it in the middle of the flour. She’d begin to move the wooden rolling pin back and forth over the little ball, flattening it, turning it over, and flattening it some more until it grew big enough and thin enough to cook. By then the black cast iron griddle (called a comal) was hot enough to cook the tortillas and my mom would put the thin layer of masa on the griddle for just a few seconds then flip it over. She would spend the rest of the time walking the four steps between the stove and the table to flip the tortillas over as she kept rolling out more tortillas to cook. I was always scared that she would burn her fingers when she turned the tortillas over.

I loved the smell of tortillas cooking on the griddle. Tortillas, when they are cooking, smell of warmth and freshness. The smell meant that when the first one was cooked and had cooled a little, my mom would let me have it. I would be the first one to take the round flat tortilla and fold it in half, tear a piece off of it and put it in my mouth, tasting all the work and the love my mother had put into that one perfect tortillas.

I was always amazed that none of the tortillas burned while she rolled out more and more. It all looked so easy. Somehow my mother timed it just right. While she rolled out the tortillas, I would sit at the table and talk to her, asking her questions about what she was doing and why she was doing it and what would happen if she did it differently. She would answer my questions and sometimes she’d laugh and ask me why I was so full of questions. I asked her once why her fingers didn’t burn when she turned the tortillas over and she said it was because she didn’t use the fingers. She said she used her fingernails. That’s why she couldn’t ever wear pretty polish on her fingernails, because if she did, it would burn. Another time I asked her how she got the tortillas so round and perfect. My mom said the secret was to run the rolling pin over and back just one time, then to turn the tortilla a little bit before running the rolling pin over and back again. She said you had to keep doing it like that, roll over and back, flip, roll over and back, flip, until the tortilla was ready to cook. Sometimes she would tell me I should run and play outside with my brothers and sisters but I never did. I liked to be inside, with my mother, next to her, talking to her and learning from her. As she cooked on the white O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove, my mother and I kept each other from being lonely.

When the tortillas were all done, enough for the nine of us, she would put everything away and start on the food. I got to stay and watch and when I was old enough, I got to help her with the cooking. That’s how I learned to make tortillas and my three sisters didn’t. That’s how I learned to make the enchiladas, tostadas, the menudo, chile verde, and all the other foods our family loved to eat every day and my sisters didn’t. That’s how I got to spend many hours talking to my mother and listening to her, learning from her and letting her learn about me, and my sisters didn’t.

My mother did other things in the kitchen and I learned to do those, too. I remember that she used to iron in one corner of the kitchen and I remember her sewing our clothes when we tore holes into them. But one special thing that I loved most that my mother did in our pink kitchen was sing. She almost always had the radio on and when the radio was on, she would be singing. She knew the words to all of the songs and when there was a new one, one she didn’t know, she would take a piece of paper and write the words then she’d put it next to the radio until the next time they played the same song and when they did, she’d rush over to the radio, grab the paper and write down more of the words until she had them all. Then the next time the new song was on, she could sing it without looking at the paper. I loved hearing the music but I loved hearing my mother sing more! I learned the words to some of the songs and sometimes I would try to sing them too. One song I liked was called El Caballo Blanco. It told the story of a white horse that escaped and ran from one city to the next, admiring the countryside of Mexico. I liked that song because I had been to some of those places. When the white horse died in Ensenada at the end of the song, it always made me sad.

Sometimes my mother would take me by the hands and twirl me around the kitchen as the music played and as her mouth sang the words to the songs. My mother loved music. She loved singing. She loved dancing.

When I think about my mother, these are the times I like to remember. Those days were filled with wonder and love and the promise of good things.

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When I was growing up, my family didn’t place value on books or reading or writing. For me, it was horrible because I loved them all. From as early as four or maybe before, I loved to play with letters and words. My mother thought it was strange. I was the fifth of seven children and the only one that would rather stay inside, playing with letters. I didn’t know they meant anything. I just loved playing with them. I used to cut letters out of the newspaper and play with them, arranging and re-arranging, much like Scrabble tiles (which I never even saw till I was in high school).

One day, on a thrift store trip, I saw this wonderful toy that I just had to have. My mother didn’t know why. She discouraged me and offered a doll but I persisted. She finally relented and bought me the toy….the learning toy. I loved to sit and play with it and when my mother said I had to go out into the backyard with the other kids, I would take my toy with me and sit on the steps. What was this toy? I never knew what it was called. It was an oval shaped orange slate with metal bars that had wooden letter tiles on it. You could move the tiles around the oval till they got to the right metal bar and then you slid the tile in there, creating words. I was too young to know about words. Too young to read; too young to write. So I just played. One time, my brother, David, ran by me on his way down the stairs to play tag with my other brothers and sisters and he told me I had spelled it wrong. I didn’t know what he meant. He said if I moved the “t” behind the “a” it would say “cat.” That’s how I found out that letters could mean words and that words could say things.

I kept my orange word toy for a long time, even after I had learned to read and write. Then it got lost. Decades later, in fact only a year or so ago, I was at an antique shop with my daughter and there was a plastic version of my learning toy! It was smaller and it was round instead of oval like mine but it was almost the same. On the box it said “Spell-o-matic” and there was a company name on it. I went home and looked online, typing in the Spell-o-matic till I found one that was just exactly like the one I had as a child. I bought it online and a week later I received it in the mail. I treasure it.

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One year on Easter, when I was about eight years old, we went to my Aunt Joy and Uncle Joe’s house for a barbecue in the mid-afternoon.  As we did every year, we took our Easter baskets with us wherever we went, including to their house.  After a while, my aunt told us we should put our baskets in her bedroom so we could play without having to worry about our baskets and all of our stuff falling out.  She took them to her bedroom for us.

Later, we asked our mom if we could have a candy from our baskets and she said we could.  We were good.  We knew from experience that one candy meant ONE candy so we took only one.  I remember thinking that our baskets weren’t as full as they should be but I just took my one candy and went outside, as did my sisters.

We played and we ate and instead of having cake for dessert, we asked if we could have a candy from our baskets and once again, we were told we could.  When we went to my aunt’s room to get our candy, most of our candy was gone.  We hadn’t taken it.  We looked to see if it had fallen out but there was no sign of our candy.  When we went back outside, we told our mom and she said we had probably taken more than one when we were supposed to take only one.  We hadn’t.

Later, when it was time to leave for home, there were no candies left in our baskets.  We hadn’t been inside the house in a long time and there had been candy left in our baskets then.  No one had gone inside, except my aunt.  My mom investigated.  She believed us but she couldn’t very well say my Aunt Joy had taken it.   My mom went outside and told my father that we had eaten all our candy.  My father got mad at us and then my aunt spoke up and said she had taken some of our candy because we had so much.  She liked candy, she said, and she didn’t get any because there were no kids in her house so she had taken “one or two” of our candies from each basket.  There were four of us girls there and all the candy was gone from all of our baskets!  Yup, she had taken “one or two”!

I remind Aunt Joy from time to time and we laugh about it.  When I go to her house for Easter, I take her a basket of her very own candy and we laugh!  I’m going to be near her house today so I’m thinking of putting some of the left over candy in a little basket for her and dropping them off.  I hope she’s there so I can laugh with her!  Who said Easter candy is only for kids?!

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David always stuck up for me.  Always.  When I was in first grade, David was in fifth grade.  One morning we were got to school an as we walked across the playground, a big kid yelled at me to get out of his way then he threw the baseball at my head, knocking me down to the ground.  David made sure I was okay and he got me to the office then he went and beat the kid up.  He didn’t care that the kid was a lot bigger than him.  He just beat him up for hurting his little sister. 

The following year we went to a different school.  I was the only one in the class that was new to the second grade group and they didn’t like me.  David was in sixth grade and was on the school Safety Patrol.  One day, he was near my building when I was out at recess.  I was on the spinning thing they called a merry-go-round and I was losing my grip.  I yelled for them to stop so I could get off but they laughed at me and went faster and faster.  I fell off and no one would stop it or slow down.   They were kicking me in the face and I was crying.  My mouth filled with dirt and tan bark.  All of the sudden David was there, blowing his Safety Patrol whistle and yelling at the kids to stop.  He pulled me out and got me to the Nurse’s Office and stayed with me until I got cleaned up.  When I got back to class, I found out that David had gotten the kids in trouble for not stopping when I was down under everyone’s feet.

Throughout our time in school, at least once a month David would come home with a torn shirt because he had been in a fight, sticking up for us, his little sisters.  He even got in a fight sticking up for our other brother that was two years older than David.  David was fierce when it came to protecting and defending his brothers and sisters.

I miss David.  I need David.  Sometimes I go to the cemetery and talk to him.   I took my kids with me to introduce them to David when they were babies.  Now I sit and tell him about what is going on with me and with my kids.  I ask him for help and advice.  Sometimes I cry, sitting there telling him how I miss him and how I wish he were here to help me and defend me.  I ask him to help me make decisions.  I know he hears me.

When we buried David more than 25 years ago, there was a tiny little pine tree next to his grave.  That tree is now huge and nine times out of ten, when I go to see David, after I’m all done talking to him and asking him to help me, a single pine cone drops from the tree and lands right next to me, even when there is no wind or breeze at all.  It makes me smile and although no one else seems to think so,  I know it’s David letting me know that  he’s there with me, listening, and getting ready to go slug it out for me!


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This is the rest of the story referred to in Catching Fire. Part 1 can be found here if you have not yet read it.


        I remember one time when we were all home except my Dad. My Mom was making dinner. Her hands were all full of dough from the tortillas she was making. There was a knock at the front door. My brother, Carlos went to open it. We all went with him but we let him open it because he was older than the rest of us.

        There was a man there. He said, “Is your mother here?” He had a suitcase. He was probably selling something. My brother told him my mother was busy. “Well could you go get her anyway? Tell her it’s Jessie.”

        Carlos closed the door and went to the kitchen. “It’s some man with a suitcase. I told him you were busy but he won’t go away. He said to go get you anyway. He said his name is Jessie.” My mother was kinda mad because she had to shut the stove off and go wash her hands.  She walked to the front door, drying here hands and we all followed her again–all seven of us. She dried her hands as she walked. She opened the door and screamed. She started laughing and hugging and kissing the man. We all looked at each other.

        “Carlos, help him in. Get the suitcase,” my mother told him. She was crying but she didn’t look sad. We all just looked at them. Carlos picked up the suitcase and brought it in.

        “Just a minute. Let me go tell the Taxi to go. I wasn’t sure if it was okay so I asked him to wait.” The man turned around and went down the stairs. We noticed the Taxi. That was neat. No one had ever come to our house on a Taxi before. We still didn’t know who he was or what he was selling. “Mammi, who is that man? Are you going to buy us something?” my little sister Irene asked.

        “It’s your Uncle Jessie. My baby brother. He came to stay with us for a while. He came all the way from Texas.” My mom laughed as she wiped tears from her eyes. She looked at us and started to clean our faces and fix our hair.

        The man came back and he had another suitcase with him. This suitcase was bigger than the other one. I guessed he was going to stay for a long time. My Mom told him all of our names. He smiled at all of us. He shook hands with my brothers and hugged and tried to kiss us girls. Then we all went inside. We sat in the kitchen while Uncle Jessie talked to my Mom and she cooked dinner while he talked.

        Uncle Jessie stayed with us. After a couple of weeks, the people in the apartment moved out. My mom and dad let my Uncle Jessie live in the little room behind the kitchen of the apartment. When the next people moved in, they rented all of it except the cuartito where my Uncle Jessie lived. He didn’t need a kitchen or a bathroom because he used ours.

        We liked Uncle Jessie. He used to come over to iron his clothes. He would stand there ironing and listening to the radio and singing. I liked the music that the radio played when he listened. It was in English and it sounded different from the Spanish music my parents used to listen to. He used to stop ironing and take us girls by the hand and dance with us. We had fun. On the weekends when my mom and dad listened to their Mexican music, Uncle Jessie would try to teach us how to dance. We used to stand on his feet and hang onto his hands. It was fun but sometimes we would fall off of his feet.

        One day, when it was almost Christmas, my Mom made a cake. She said it was Uncle Jessie’s birthday and we were going to have a party for him. That night we all sang Happy Birthday to Uncle Jessie. When we got to the part about ‘how old are you…how old are you…” Uncle Jessie said, “Uhh…21.” We all laughed. He blew out the candles and we ate the cake.

        Then one day Uncle Jessie got his suitcases and we took him to the bus station. He said he would be back. My mom cried. We were all sad when he left. Texas was real far away. It would take him three days to get there on the bus.

        After a long time, Uncle Jessie came back but he wasn’t alone. He had a lady with him. Her name was Letty. Uncle Jessie said she was his wife. She looked nice. She was pretty and had short black hair. They moved into the cuartito where Uncle Jessie had lived before.

        It was nice to have Uncle Jessie back but it was different. He didn’t come over unless Letty came with him. They only came over when it was time to eat or at night when we were in bed and only my parents were up. Uncle Jessie didn’t belong to us anymore. Most of the time, they stayed in their room laughing and resting. They rested a lot. It seems like they were always telling us to go away because they were going to rest.

        Sometimes Uncle Jessie and Letty would fight. Uncle Jessie would get mad and yell at her and she would throw things at him. He would slam the door and come visit us. We liked it when they fought but my mom didn’t. She used to cry when they would fight.

        One day Letty left with her suitcases. Uncle Jessie took here to the Bus station. My mom said she wouldn’t be coming back. They were going to get a divorce. We never saw Letty after that but it was okay because after awhile, Uncle Jessie wasn’t sad anymore and it was fun to have him coming over more often and singing and dancing with us again.

        One time a lady named Elva moved in. Her husband was never home. Sometimes he would come to see her because she was going to have a baby. One day when he came to visit, we heard them fighting. Elva told him to go away and not to come back because she didn’t want any borrachos around her baby. We heard him hit her and she was crying. He kept on hitting her more and more. It made us sad because we thought of all the times our Dad hit our Mom and made her cry. Elva’s husband beat her up real bad and the firemen came and then the ambulance. By the time the police got there, no one knew where her husband had gone. There were a lot of people in our front yard. They were all whispering and one lady kept calling my father names and yelling at him because she thought my mother was the one in the ambulance.

        When Elva came back home from the hospital, she was skinny again. She got her things and when she was leaving we asked her if she would bring the baby to see us. She touched my cheek and she cried then she went away and my mother told us Elva didn’t have a baby.

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This is the story I wrote for a class many years ago. It is the one referred to in Catching Fire. The story is quite long (3,000 words). I have posted the first part here. I will post another part in a day or two.


            I like to listen to my parents when they talk at night and they think us kids are all asleep. One night I heard my parents say something about how they owed too much money and my father didn’t earn enough to pay it all back.  Then they said they wished they didn’t have seven kids and I cried because if they weren’t my parents, they would only have six kids and they would have more money to pay the bills. Our house was real big and it was one of the oldest ones on the block. Inside, it had four big rooms, and two kitchens and two bathrooms. Mom and Dad were saying that we should move. My father said that the newer houses cost too much and they wouldn’t be big enough for our family anyway. My father said that he wanted to stay in this house because it was only five minutes away from the cannery where he worked.

            The next night they talked some more about the house. Finally my father said that the only thing to do was to make our house bigger so that we would all fit in it. “If we open the basement, we can make rooms down there and we can rent the other side as an apartment.” My mother agreed. “Yes, that way we will all fit in the house and with the money we collect for rent on the apartment, we will have enough to pay the bill.” I fell asleep and was happy. I didn’t have to find new parents because they would have enough money now.

So we all started to help him to make rooms in the basement. My oldest brother was ten and my little sister was two, but all of us helped. The boys were old enough to dig out all of the dirt while us girls got our sand pails and filled them with dirt and carried them to the pile where my father showed us to dump it out.

One afternoon, a big dirty yellow truck came to our house. They drove it onto the front lawn. The back of the truck was kind of round and it kept turning and turning and turning the whole time. Then some mushy gray stuff poured out into the window my father had made in the basement.

            Even Ben, the old man across the street, came to help. He was very old and skinny and he walked real slow. He used to call my father ‘mi hijo‘.

            By the end of the weekend, the basement was almost finished. During the following week, my father would hurry home from work and start varnishing, putting in linoleum, and gluing paper on the walls. He would work down there while we ate dinner and even after we’d gone to bed, we could hear my father yelling at my mother, “No, not like that, you fool! It won’t match if you do it like that… mejor vete! Just leave! I’ll do it myself!”

            I tried to sleep but I could still hear them talking. Later when I woke up in the middle of the night, I could still hear them down there. It was only for a few nights and soon the boys each moved into a room downstairs and the four of us girls got mad because we had to share the same old room upstairs.

            Soon, there were people coming in and out of the house looking at the apartment that used to be my brothers’ bedroom. Some people moved into the apartment in a few days and we all had to act different. We couldn’t run down the hall anymore and we couldn’t make noise when we played out in the yard.

            Then, one weekend, my father started to build a room at the back of the “apartment.” We called it the “cuartito.” It made the apartment bigger and my parents said we could get more money for it.

            Every time someone moved out, the phone would start ringing and people would want to rent. Sometimes, my parents would tell us to be extra noisy when the people came over and to go out into the yard and have a lot of fun so we would and the people would go away real soon.

            Most of the people were older than my Mom and Dad. None of them had any kids for us to play with. Sometimes the ladies would act like our mothers, but nicer. One lady used to buy us toys and I remember that one of them used to look at us and cry. My mother said it was because she didn’t have any kids of her own. She made my older sister a dress for school and she made me two of them because she liked me better and besides, it was my first year in school so I needed the dresses more.

            One time my parents rented to some people and it turned out that they had a little boy named Kenny. They had paid their rent so my parents told them they had to pay more for Kenny. Kenny used to fight with us girls and my brothers would beat him up when no one was looking. My parents knew about the fights but they said maybe they would move out if Kenny kept getting beat up. My father hit him with the car one time, but I guess he didn’t do it right because Kenny didn’t even have to go to the doctor. My Dad did have to get some bumps out of the car with the hammer though.

            Another time, when it was raining, a man ran to the door. He said his name was Chino but he wasn’t. He asked about the apartment. My parents rented it to him but didn’t like it much when his wife came in from the car. They made funny faces at her. Chino’s wife was very pretty. Her name was Victoria and she had blonde hair. She was gonna have a baby and she was real fat. Later, when they left, my parents talked about the baby. “But the poor baby. What will it be? Okie or Puerto Rican?”

“Who knows? I guess it will have light hair, but curly, don’t you think? They agreed.

After Chino and Victoria had lived there for a while, they got real friendly with us. We used to go and play a real long game when it rained. We used play money and little green houses. It was fun. I wished the money were real so I could give it to my parents. They needed it. Chino spoke to us in Spanish. He used to tell us stuff about how dumb Victoria was and laugh at her because she didn’t understand what we were saying.

            When my parents went shopping  one day, I leaned back real hard on my chair and I broke the big window behind me. Chino heard me crying and came over with a tape thing. He went away on the car and when he came back, he had a new window with him and he put it in so my father wouldn’t hit me when he got home.

            Sometimes, when Chino was at work, men would come and go into the apartment. One day Chino came home early and one of those men was still there. He got real mad and threw him out and threw a small brown box at him.

            That night I heard him tell my parents about it. I was embarrassed and glad I wasn’t in the same room because Chino was crying. He said that Victoria was crazy. “Look Vince, there’s nothing you can say to change my mind. She’s totally crazy. Since I met her the family told me but I thought she would change with time. I’m tired of telling her…nothing goes in. Those men are taking pictures of her. They use the pictures for dirty magazines. I can’t stay quiet any longer. You would do the same if you were in my place.” He said he would go away and take the baby with him, even if he had to go to court and have them take Victoria to a hospital.

            A few days later he came in real happy and told us they were going to have another baby. He said he hoped the next one would have black hair like him. The baby they already had looked too much like Victoria and he wanted one that looked like him.

            They moved right after the baby was born and we used to go to visit them in San Francisco. They always had candy for us. The new baby had blond hair, just like the old one. Chino said his hair was almost like that man’s that he had thrown out of the apartment.

(To be continued.)

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This is a piece I wrote two years ago.  It is inspired by a prompt, “headlights in the rain” and from childhood memories.

I was so tired.  I wanted to be home, warm, safe, in my bed, but I wasn’t.  My mother and my brothers and sisters and I were walking home from the movies.  It was dark and late.  We had stayed all afternoon.  We watched both movies and the cartoons over and over again.  My mother gave us money to get food at the snack bar when we complained we were hungry.

We wanted to go home but my mother said it wasn’t time yet.  So we stayed longer.  Finally all the movies were over and everyone had left.  We were the only ones there and the man came and said we had to leave.  So we did.

When we walked outside, it was dark and cold and raining.  My little sister complained that she didn’t want to walk.  She cried and told my mother to call our father to come get us.  My mother said no.  She said our father should be asleep now and we couldn’t wake him up.  So we started to walk.

This wasn’t the first time.  It happened all the time.  When my father didn’t have to work on the weekends, he would drink beer.  A lot of beer.  Then he would fight with us and with our mother. My mother always let him say things to her and even hit her but when he started to hit us, she would get mad at him.  She would find a way to send us outside or in the other room where he couldn’t hit us.  Then she would come and tell us to get our shoes on and our clothes ready because we were going for a walk.  We had to be quiet.

And that is what happened today.  He drank his beers.  He yelled at my mother.  He hit her.  Then he started yelling at us.  When he got up to hit David, my mother distracted my father and motioned for David to leave the room.  Then we got our jackets and quietly waited for her.  It didn’t take long.  We went to the movies, walking quickly and looking back to make sure he wasn’t following us.  Then we watched the movies and waited.

Now we are walking home, and I know we are all hoping he will be asleep when we get there, or the fighting will start again and we can’t leave at night time, because all there is out there are headlights in the rain.

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