In the human race, mom certainly did not come in last. Smart, beautiful, resourceful and with a keen sense of humor, she got to work making a home for herself and me after my father left. Brother Mel had moved away before the end times. I envied him his distance from the nightly fights before Dad moved to Hermosa Beach. Mel lived at Knott’s Berry Farm and managed Ye Olde Mill Stream trout farm run for the Knott family by our friend Cole Weston. Mel got paid under the counter to stock the ponds and haul bags of fish food and teach kids how to fish on weekends. He had a room to sleep in behind the ticket booth and commuted to Marshall High School in Silverlake, Monday through Friday, driving his sea green mist Chevy.
Mom had always voted with her feet. She found a job at The Lung Association in the Public Relations office. Conscientiously, she hired the same folks to work for her at home as our neighbors hired. When Luis and Bess had to move back to Mississippi and could no longer serve as occasional handyman and monthly maid, mom turned to the wondrous being of Sue Jones whose ancestors were from Holland. Sue could've stepped off the page of a Van Gough sketch, all knobs and bumps, with gnarly thumbs, fingers, elbows and knees. She always took off her shoes when she mopped the red cement floors of our flat-to-the-earth, redwood and glass rectangle of a house, scrubbing by hand with rags and buckets full of scalding, soapy, pine-scented water. Knurls on her toes turned as red as the floor, knees too. She’d move wispy almost white tendrils of hair out of her face with the back of her wrist while she lectured me about life and laws of nature.
Without Mel at home, and all my best buds moved away, my days seemed endless. I spent a lot of time in Sue’s company after school whenever she was there.
Sue had a way of incorporating nature teachings pitched solely at me. Whenever she wiped the counters free of the teeny tiny grease ants that loved to make a conga line from their home in the wall to the butter dish, she would do so gently and with a prayer under her breath: May you come back as a beautiful butterfly. Hers was the first finger pointing me toward things beyond the day to day life I knew at ten years of age. God, angels, sprites and spirits were of the realm Sue Jones inhabited. Resurrection and reincarnation. In her book, bugs, animals, and people all had a chance at moving up some mystical magical spiral staircase of consciousness. I imagined a gauzy pastel chiffon draped circular staircase, every step filled with ascending critters of all kinds disappearing into the clouds as she spoke.
At twelve, I read a library book called The Astonishing Ant. From it I learned about societal constructs and hierarchies these six-legged creatures were capable of creating. There was a huge hill of black ants at the base of the four by four wood post holding up our mail box and another even more elaborate red-ant hill out back by the tall eucalyptus that was planted way before my parents bought the iconic John Lautner mid-century modern home in 1949. I liked to imagine in three dimensions the two colonies’ underground tunnels, rooms and nurseries.
Quite a distance separated the tribe of red from the tribe of black ants, but I fed both the same snacks of 'Nilla Wafer cookie crumbs and tiny individual capsules carefully culled from oranges cut into quarters for my after school snack. Black ants were more socialized. They gladly accepted what was put in their path. Red ants walked around the orange capsules but hoisted the crumbs onto their backs to take down into the hole in the center of the crumbly earthen hill. Summer afternoons during the three years between my father leaving home and mom marrying Leo were spent, in part, exploring just what ants liked best.
The summer I found Ray Bradbury, I set out to read everything he wrote. I gorged myself on oranges and cookies and books with my foot wedged into the top-most V in the tree. My shaggy bark reading room was high above the old playhouse that my father built for me when I turned four. Brother Mel used to smoke out in the play house. Mom eventually took it over as her writing space. From tree top, besides all the eucalyptus pods and crescent shaped leaves on the play house roof, I could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean - out beyond Miracle Mile and Century City. I’d read up there for hours, mostly R is for Rocket and Martian Chronicles. Something Wicked This Way Comes creeped me out a bit, but I could read Dandelion Wine three times a week, so intoxicating, it was.
Crumbs and peelings at the bottom of the tree were the only evidence of human activity outside our house. If only my mom had looked up, she would have found me. I much preferred not to be found. By then, Peter and Angelika's mother had died and the twins' dad moved with them to their family’s summer home in Running Springs. Jacky moved from the bottom of our hill on Avon Street to Santa Monica when we were in fourth grade. Julie was the first of my best friends to move from Echo Park all the way over to Miracle Mile off Wilshire Boulevard. From my tree perch, I fancied I could see her walking home from school… if only I had a telescope.
By thirteen, I'd outgrown 'Nilla Wafers and segmenting oranges, but found both colonies of ants liked dabs of butter and sugar that fell off my toast on which I slathered layers and layers of both until the creamy coating was almost as thick as the bread and spread evenly crust to crust. I was taught not to waste crusts, so they got slathered extra high and often to the delight of the ants, little chunks would fall into their domain while I watched their scurrying forms heft many times their weight.
In seventh grade, Rhonda Dunstan became my new bestie. She lived all the way down Echo Park Boulevard almost to Sunset Boulevard. Our mothers would drive us most often to one another's homes for playdates. Sometimes we’d walk. Our favorite thing to do was to buy penny candies at El Batey liquor store near the corner of Morton. We’d walk from her house to El Batey, use our allowance on candy, and climb up onto the garage roof of the apartment building next door to hers and eat every bit of what we bought. One day, we'd gotten what we thought were giant purple grape-flavored jaw breakers for our thirty-two cents to share equally. Eight jaw-breakers each at two pennies a piece. Our eyes widened at the same moment when we discovered the center was soft gooey grapey-good gum! We giggled and chewed, giggled and chewed. One ball after another. Purple spit ran out the corners of our mouths and dripped off our chins. Whatever possessed us to think of throwing the wads of partially chewed purple gloptiousness onto the neighboring garage wall, I do not recall, but throw them we did - small chunks at a time. All told, there must've been two-dozen globs of purple gum wads randomly decorating the expanse of otherwise beige stucco.
One of the neighbors was a fink. Rhonda's grandmother confronted us when we went inside. No use denying it. We were purple from face to knees. She said someone had just called her saying she saw us throwing stuff at the wall and now we had to clean it off. I took a page from Sue Jones book. We got two bowls of hot soapy water, rags and a step ladder and whistled while we worked. We also wrote a note to the nosey neighbor apologizing (that was gran’s idea) for our lapse in sanity… or something as high-falootin.
I told Rhonda I hoped Miss Nosey Neighbor would come back as a beautiful butterfly… and soon!