This date in 1970 was a Saturday.
A cloudy day in Los Angeles, about 60 degrees, probably in the afternoon we would have loaded into the shiny red Volkswagen camper and headed to the beach or a pier somewhere, for lunch or to fish or to revel in the relative warmth of a January day, as people from Back East often did.
She was 28 and he was 39 and it was the best time of their lives. They each had new GEDs and steady paychecks and a new church, and that Volkswagen, and the middle class door had cracked open a bit and beckoned them come.
He’d been in Korea and she’d been in the state hospital and they met at Jumbo’s, out above North Hornell, and one day when they’d had enough they drove to California. Route 66 dumped them off in Santa Monica and soon she was waiting tables and he was on the grill.
But that was before 1970, that was before their three children came, that was before the demons were slain or the dream was begun.
I was her son from before. Pregnant at 17 by a Marine who told her to hit the road, she spent the first two years of my life at the psych center, thrown off kilter by the reality of her situation and the tempests of her family. It was different back then for single mothers, and it wasn’t good.
I joined them briefly when I was three or four, spent kindergarten in Canisteo, and was back in California for first-grade. It was a long time ago, and it was a different world. We were poor, and my baby brother slept in a cardboard box, like I had slept in a dresser drawer as an infant myself. One year was particularly bad, and I went to six different schools, as we were evicted in turn from apartment after apartment.
A couple of times she had breakdowns. About once a year she would rage at him and drive nonstop back to New York, where in time she would rage at her mother and drive nonstop back to California. I took a half a dozen such trips across country, watching America pass from the back seat, wanting to stop at the Jack Rabbit Trading Post to get a piece of petrified wood.
It was after one such trip, in the summer of 1969, that he said that while we were away two missionaries had knocked on the door and he had let them in. One was Elder Rasmussen and the other was Elder I can’t remember and they asked if they could talk to my mother and she agreed and they told us about their church and put little figures on a flannel board to illustrate what they were saying.
And in September, on my brother’s birthday, he and she and I were baptized, and instead of getting Winchell’s Donuts on Sunday mornings we crowded into a giant church with clip-on ties and listened to the Mormons preach.
They had gotten their diplomas by then. He took the class at night first, and then she took the class. And then he took an electronics assembly class at night and got hired at Guidance Technologies Incorporated, his first job ever that wasn’t the Air Force or a restaurant, and then she took a secretarial class at night and got a job keeping the mailing list for Pool News, typing out thousands of mailing labels on the kitchen table at night after we kids were asleep.
By then it was four of us kids.
I was 10, Sean was 5, Peter was 3, and Natilee was a toddler. We all slept together in a double bed, rolling away unconsciously in the night from pee spots that might emanate from one or another of us. It was our room and their room and the bathroom and the room that had a kitchen sink on one end and a couch on the other.
And a simple kitchen table around which we gathered on Saturday mornings while he cooked us breakfast.
It was one our things. A big Saturday breakfast with bacon and eggs and toast, maybe homefries, made in a flurry by a man whose big forearms were still speckled by the popping-grease scars of countless breakfast rushes in one diner or another. It was a joyous time, and to this day I savor buttered toast dipped into over-easy eggs as a communion with those distant Saturday mornings.
It wasn’t all joy. As I think about that room, I feel still with my tongue the chip in my tooth, worn smooth by life, from when I had dawdled in washing the dishes and he cuffed me in the back of the head and my mouth struck against the lip of the porcelain sink. And over by the door, when I had inadvertently put my little brother’s shoes on the wrong feet, a whipping with the belt that, of all the beatings over all the years, is the one I remember the clearest, for the odd quivering of pain and the inability to catch my breath between the sobs.
But those were different times, and people lived differently, and there was no malicious intent.
And those clouds had cleared with the new jobs and the new church and the new Volkswagen. And the new realization that life could be more than struggle, more than a kick in the head, and that maybe they had a place in the world.
This date in 1970 was a Saturday.
And he made us bacon and eggs and toast, maybe homefries.
I was sitting at the 6 o’clock of our round little table. Natilee was at 8, he was at 10, she was at 12, Sean was at 2 and Peter was at 4. I was facing the sink, my back was to the door. His back was toward the bedrooms.
And he just went over, slumping to his right, landing at the foot of Natilee’s highchair.
I lept from the table and ran out the door.
It was a two-level apartment building, and we were on the first floor. The doors lined up and opened onto long, superimposed open-air balconies. On the second level, in the second apartment, the lady who lived there was a nurse, and went to work wearing a white dress and one of those little nurse hats like they had then.
I pounded on her door and screamed. Her husband answered, in his pajamas, and I said that my daddy was sick and needed help. That is a quote. “My daddy is sick, and he needs help.” I was crying. Like I am now. And his wife stepped around him and ran down the stairs. The next I remember seeing her was when the firemen wheeled him out on the gurney, she was slamming her fist onto the center of his chest.
Sean, Peter, Natilee and I spent the day at an apartment on the second level, with a family we didn’t know. All I remember about them from before that day is that one evening I had sat outside their open door surreptitiously watching Laugh-In on their television. They fed us and gave us toys to play with but I mostly just sat there and prayed.
In the afternoon, my mother came through the door with some people from church. She was dazed, almost oblivious, we children ran to her.
“Where is Daddy?”
“He is with Jesus.”
In her hand she carried his wristwatch in a cotton handkerchief. A nurse had slipped it from his wrist and given it to her and taken her to a room with a hard floor, where she could smash it under her heel, and stop it in the moments after his death.
Two days later, I picked out his casket.
The next week, she was forlorn beside his grave, three thousand miles away, in the New York snow, wishing she could die and be with him.
This date in 1970 was a Saturday.
And the worst day of my life.