Friday, September 16, 2011

Telephone Line

"Hey, how you feelin'? Are you still the same? Don't you realize the things we did, we did?"

I grew up in East L.A. in the 70's, when a telephone had a long cord that was secured to the wall. We memorized phone numbers because we dialed them so frequently and if we called someone and they were talking on the phone, we would get a busy signal.

In the 70's the smog was so thick, the city of L.A. would declare smog alerts, keeping us kids inside our homes on certain days during hot summer months.

My mother and her sisters were tragic beauties with the faces of Mexican movie stars and the hearts of orphans. Mom made the best of love and life with Mexican music in our kitchen, in her Chevy cars and at parties in our covered patio.

My brother, cousins and I listened to rock music and coped with the legacy of our mother's broken hearts with things that always seemed to come in baggies. We would pile into my brother's custom van that had a tiny bean shaped window in the back and a velvet gold couch that converted into a bed. My brother would drive us around and there was always a great rock song to sing to and a joke to laugh at.

My dad tended to roses in our garden while my aunt Helen's husband Paul tended to orchids at their home up the hill from us. Helen and I are the youngest of our siblings.

Helen divorced her first husband after having three kids. She started to date again and Paul, who was ten plus years younger than her was her babysitter. My cousins loved him. Paul went to Vietnam and wrote to Helen while he was gone. When he came back they got married and lived happily until he passed away last week.

Helen is the last of my mother's siblings still alive. At the grave site, sitting in a wheelchair with no make-up and short grey hair, all of her grief could not hide her beauty. Big brown eyes, high cheek bones, full lips, nose curved at the tip. Each time she would speak, I'd hear my mother's voice, her intonation, the pause of her breath between words. I sat and held her soft hand with trademark long painted nails.

Helen was ahead of her time, marrying a man so young, having more children as she turned 40. She got a lot of criticism for it over the years but when I saw my five cousins happy with their first and only spouses, I realized that Helen and Paul had it right.

As I started my drive from the east side back to my home at the beach, I sat at a red light in traffic. It was rush hour on a weekday and what I noticed mostly was one hard working Mexican man after another, driving home in their clean trucks after earning an honest day's work. Maybe it was my imagination.

Since then, I've been under a spell of nostalgia. I will never play on the grass of the home I grew up in, chest heavy after breathing a day of bad air. I will never hear my mother laugh with her sisters, or see them dance in custom made dresses that hugged their curves. I would not see our father's in crisp guayabera shirts or smell old spice on my dad's smooth face. I would never be embarrassed by my mother singing a mariachi tune to herself at the market. I would never get that stare from my mother or aunts that would make my cousins and I tremble with fear.

I went to the funeral because my mother would have wanted me to. With all of their differences, those sisters showed up for each other. They learned to do that after their mom, my grandmother who I never met, died when they were little girls. I went to the funeral, selfish, to hear that distinct voice of a dying breed. I went to get the blessing, the sign of the cross on my forehead with soft fingertips when I kissed Helen goodbye.

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