There were three trees in the backyard, apricot, apple, and fig. I called the fig tree “The Elevator” because you could scoot out on a long branch and it would gently lower you to the ground. I remember demonstrating this to my cousins, Carolyn and Billy, when they came to visit one time. The apple tree was great for climbing. I could look into Mrs. DeElton’s yard or off through the haze of the Nimitz Freeway towards Alameda. The apple tree eventually got sick and died. The apricot tree offered the best fruits for preserves and I helped Grandma put them up in Mason jars once or twice. Most years, the fruit just fell to the ground and was eaten by birds.
Grandma referred to Carolyn as my “kissin’ cousin”, but I don’t think I ever kissed her. I preferred playing with her more than I liked playing with Billy. He was a rough boy and teased me constantly. I was a city boy and he was like a country cousin suspicious and disrespectful of my bookish ways.
Someone had gotten me a subscription to the National Geographic School Bulletin and a series of Science Club booklets. The booklets came in the mail with a sheet of lick and stick color illustrations that were perforated like stamps. The black and white illustrations were included with the text. My favorite volumes from the Science Club series of books were the ones about space travel, magnetism, light, and photography. I had a chemistry kit and a microscope. The microscope wasn’t very powerful, but it let me look closely at blood and boogers. When you buy a young boy a microscope, what do you think he’s going to look at?
Uncle Gene and Aunt Sue went to World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962. When they came for a visit Nana in 1964, I had never been to a fair, especially one that was so prestigious. Nana told Grandma that she couldn’t understand how Gene and Sue could afford to go to the World’s Fair when times were so tough. That’s why they were staying at her house.
There was a new baby girl named Linda and who didn’t do much but poop and cry. A new baby boy was on the way. He would be named Eddie. The house smelled terrible all the time and Nana was always in a bad mood. She would refer to Sue and the kids as “Okies”, but never had a bad thing to say about her grandson, Uncle Gene. I didn’t like my mother’s older brother. He was just another one of Nana’s evil henchmen and always willing to beat me, just like Uncle David. I did like my Aunt Sue. She was sweet, gentle, and soft spoken. She had the magical glow of a woman with a child on the way. Giving birth to six kids between 1960 and 1967 meant that she almost always had a glow on. Once again, I found myself questioning Nana’s attitudes and name calling, but I kept it to myself.
Over the years, Gene took me to places where I had never been like the International House of Pancakes, McDonald’s, and the Rainbow Car “Warsh”. Until I had a Public Speaking class in College, I always said “warsh”, instead of “wash”. It was the way my people talked. Maybe, I wasn’t all that much a city boy after all. One time when my father couldn’t take Nana grocery shopping at Safeway and Lucky’s, Gene took her to a grocery store where everything was supposed to be cheaper. Nana complained all the way home that she couldn’t find any of the brands that she usually bought. As a shopper, Nana was loyal to the brands she had been buying for years.
Gene and Sue went to Oregon, where Eddie was born, for awhile. Eventually they came back to Oakland and moved into a house near the McArthur Freeway that was walking distance from Nana’s house. Sometimes Nana would have to babysit which pretty much meant sending me and the older kids into the backyard while she watched over the babies. This didn’t go well. When Billy and Eddie started throwing rocks at me one time, I responded with even bigger rocks and broke Billy’s tooth and gave Eddie a bump on the head.
My father and Gene got into it over the incident and I think my father had to pay for a trip to the dentist. Since I was older than my cousins, I was cast as the bully. To my mind, I was the one being picked on. It was two against one. Besides, if I ran inside and told Nana, I would have been called a tattle tale. Childhood logic says it’s better to be a bully sometimes than to ever be called a tattle tale.
I don’t remember ever going to a dentist until I was old enough to pay for it myself. My father used to say that when your teeth went bad, the best thing to do was have them all pulled and get dentures. Both my parents had dentures and were avid denture supporters.
In later years, Gene and Sue would show up unannounced in Davis or Grass Valley with a car load of kids. I got the impression from my father that they were there to borrow gas money or see a free movie. A movie was never a problem, but my family never had that much money on hand. My father and mother lived from paycheck to paycheck. I never knew what my mother thought of these visits, but my father’s feelings about Gene, Sue, and my cousins from my mother’s side of the family were as outspoken as Nana’s.
When I was living in West Hollywood with my then girlfriend and soon to be wife, we took in my father who had made a bad investment with his pension. One night, while Cari and I were out, a call came from my cousin Carolyn hoping to reconnect. My father said that they had talked for a little while and she had left her number. He then explained that he had misplaced the number. My guess is that he never actually took it down. He never really took a liking to any part of my mother’s family.