The Day My Life Changed

It’s funny the things you remember. Like that day in March 1952.

I am seven years old. I will be eight in May. I am in the second grade at Tahoe elementary school at 60th and Broadway. I walk to and from school along Broadway. I am walking home, alone. I walk past the row of white California bungalows adjacent to the schoolyard. Swan’s Dry Cleaning is at the end of the block on the corner of Broadway and 58th Street.

I cross 58th Street and pass the small shopping center where my mother buys groceries at the Emporium Grocery, Lyon’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Store, where she buys buttons and thread for the shirts and dresses she sews for my sister, brother, and me, past the California Barber Shop with its walls lined with Breck Shampoo posters featuring beautifully groomed young blonde, blue-eyed women and children where my dad and I get our hair cut on Saturdays.

At the end of the parking lot, I quicken my step to hurry across the front of the weather-beaten old house, the sort of place designed to terrify little kids. Faded and tattered shades cover the windows facing the street. No one is ever seen coming or going from the house. The yard is overgrown and dry. From the heights of a tall palm tree comes the chirping of birds. Featherless dead baby birds are often seen on the sidewalk beneath it. Looking straight ahead and holding my breath, I pass the old house quickly. I heave a sigh of relief as I walk in front of the vacant lot next to the old house.

Beyond the vacant lot are more houses, newer, modern homes. I cross 56th Street, another vacant lot, and finally cross 55th Street to the safety of my own block where our house sits across Broadway from the California State Fairgrounds.

Fourth from the corner, our gray stucco house is typical of the California-style family homes built in Sacramento after the war. It has three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, dining room, kitchen with a breakfast room, a laundry room, and a two-car garage. Mother and Dad bought this house in the spring of 1950. The move meant changing schools, so I finished the last couple of months of kindergarten at Tahoe Elementary School.

Arriving at the edge of our front lawn, I take a shortcut across the grass rather than going to the driveway and up the walk as I have been asked countless times to do. Approaching the house, I can see through the large picture window into the living room where Grandma, my dad’s mother, and Auntie Beth and Auntie Vera, two of my dad’s three older sisters are seated. Odd, I think, but what a thrill to come home to find the people I love most.

Entering the house, I am aware that this is not the usual out-for-a-Sunday-drive-drop-by visit I’m accustomed to. The room is quiet. No one acts happy to see me. The misty-gray walls and dark green draperies reflect grim expressions. “What are you doing here?” I ask with a smile and a hint of twenty questions in my voice. No one answers. Auntie Beth sits on a straight back dining room chair, her permed blue-gray hair framing an expressionless face, mouth a straight line, eyes downcast, not looking at me as though she has a secret she fears making eye contact will reveal. Auntie Vera, small, bird-like, with large dark eyes and an expression of wonder, sits, hands folded in her lap, on the rose-colored sofa. Grandma, wearing a black dress and holding to her mouth a white lace hanky that matches the color of her hair, sits in the big rose-colored easy chair. Wide mahogany strips resembling Greek pillars running up the fronts of the chair’s two arm rests from large mahogany feet, suggest gravitas befitting the matriarch of a large family.

My mother appears in the hallway at the far end of the living room with her friend, Peggy Spotts. She’s dressed in a simple cotton dress with a plaid pattern, shirt-like top with gathered skirt and sandal-like shoes, probably white but maybe not because it’s March and white wouldn’t be appropriate.

“Denny,” she says softly, “come with me. I want to talk to you.” We walk down the hall together to my parents’ bedroom. At the foot of the bed is a low backed vanity chair painted white with a floral upholstered cushion and matching ruffle. She sits down.

Standing in front of her, she takes my hands in hers. I look into her face, young and beautiful, the soft brown hair gently caressing its edges. Her blue eyes are bright, intense. “Denny,” she says, “Daddy has had an accident and he’s not coming home.” Tears fill her eyes. I begin to cry. At first, I cry because my mother is crying. I don’t like seeing her cry. I am not certain I have ever seen my mother cry; but, today, she’s crying and it upsets me. She puts her arms around me and holds me close to her breast. I feel the pounding of her heart and the shudder of her sobs. I am angry that something has hurt my mother. The awareness of my father’s death hasn’t registered. I continue to cry because I don’t know what else to do. Peggy, who followed us to the bedroom and sat quietly on the edge of the bed, rises and comes toward us putting one hand on my mother’s shoulder and the other on mine, then kneeling down and holding us in her arms, presses her cheek to my mother’s. The tears stop, the convulsions ease. We are quiet together for what seems a long time.

My sixteen-year old cousin, Teddy, appears at the bedroom door. “Come on, Champ,” he says. “Let’s go change your clothes.” Teddy takes me to my bedroom where he helps me into a clean pair of gray chinos with sharp hand-ironed creases and a shirt my mother sewed, laundered, starched, and ironed. “I don’t have a daddy and more, Teddy.”

It’s funny what you remember.

I remember, later, sitting on my grandmother’s lap and seeing her cry. I don’t remember what we said to each other.

I remember hordes of relatives and friends and tons of food.

My cousins came from San Diego. I remember going to the train station in Sacramento to meet them. Grandpa was with us.

I remember my cousins and I made crosses from pieces of cedar shingles and climbed up to the roof with them. We acted out something that had to do with death. I posed behind my small wooden cross like a statue in a cemetery, or something like that. Who knows what was in my almost-eight-year-old mind. My mother came out of the house and yelled at us for being on the roof. It’s easy to get up there. Just climb up the fence next to the garage, stand on the flat cross piece at the top of the fence and then pull yourself on to the garage roof. Walk across the garage roof over to the front porch roof. It’s easy. Getting down from the roof, I slipped and scraped my arm. My mother screamed. I don’t remember what she said, but I can still see her, later, sitting in the living room looking out the big picture window over the back of the sofa and crying.

My mother’s sisters were there.

It’s funny what you remember.

The landscape of memory is not like a video recording. There are many blank spaces. Some things I wish I could remember, like who said, “Now you’re the man of the family,” a simple declarative sentence that changed my life forever.