Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vagabond Childhood---a memoir

Brenda Jane Sims, five years old

During the nation’s idyllic migration to the suburbs in the Fifties, my family moved from rented house to rented apartment to federal housing project. This nomadic lifestyle colored my childhood as sure as the western sunset colors the sky. The hottest summer in decades we spent in a tiny upstairs apartment where a delivery man brought ice in big blocks for the ice box. My Least Favorite Award goes to the apartment with the outhouse--yes!--inside the city of Evansville, Indiana during the Fifties. Could my lifelong intestinal issues have come from the terror of creepy-crawlies when perched precariously over that rough-hewn wood? My tiny butt tried to find balance over a hole big enough to swallow my body while my psyche fought being devoured by fears.  However, each dwelling place proffered best and worst memories. The outhouse apartment came with a delightful old man who wanted to sharpen with his multi-purpose jackknife my only school pencil before the school year started. I’d looked forward to using the school sharpener because I didn’t want the task botched, but when he pushed, I could not say no. He carved a point so sharp and smooth it was a cupid’s arrow straight to my heart.
The best and worst of federal housing projects stun me when viewed through my rear view mirror. Among its best features was the experience of living intimately in a black and white melting pot. Our next-door African-American neighbors brought throw rugs and pillows over to make our apartment presentable when ex-in-laws visited. When I later discovered racism existed not just as historical phenomenon, I was shocked. We did not learn prejudice at home and we did not experience or learn prejudice among our white and black neighbors. My dusty memory proffered playgrounds with no grass and a wasp sting as the worst of the project not racial tension. And I actually liked the giant block of cheese every family got from welfare.
In 1960, when I was thirteen, mother and stepfather Herman moved us all from Indiana to California for the promise of better work for Herman. The initial trip to California consisted of all five children from age fourteen to an infant in one car. I don’t remember the make of the car; I do remember it was not a station wagon. Baby Vivian cradled down on the front floorboard near Mom’s feet. The other four of us fought over back seat real estate. Dirty, tired and grouchy, we arrived in California after two thousand plus miles in four days for the start of my eighth grade year. Because Mom’s homesickness never abated during these years in California, trips back and forth between California and Indiana became family lore. One Christmas trip, we all had colds so Herman just passed the cough syrup over the seat and we all drank out of the bottle.
Our first house after moving to Torrance, California came in exchange for our service as janitors for the church next to the house, actually not a bad house except for the cockroaches. We cleaned the toilets of the church on Saturday and sat in the pews for worship on Sunday. Finally, the next year we owned a home for the first time in Palmdale, CA where we stayed three whole years. We purchased two homes in the same neighborhood (I have no idea why, must have been some misguided adult plan to make money on them) and moved back and forth between them during those three years. I still view those as “the stable years.”
Mom romanticized our rootless life by saying she ‘had a gypsy streak’ and sang Golden Earrings in her smooth contralto voice. “There is a story, the gypsies know is true--that when your love wears golden earrings, he’ll return to you.”  The connection of this romanticism to our vagabond life escaped me. Sister, Margaret, added to the embarrassment by dubbing us “the new idiots,” her own creative nomenclature.  This condition compounded with being “the late idiots” because we couldn’t seem to get anywhere on time. Our family occasionally put the fun in dysfunctional but more often just dog-paddled for survival. Mom delighted in reminding us that Grandma and Grandpa Sims held the record for the fastest move because they decided to move to another house before they had the bed rails set up in the current one.  God knows what circumstance created that record breaking departure and God is far too busy to keep up with my family’s travel plans. 

No comments:

Post a Comment