This entry captures my skewed priorities during my senior year (aka known as my Great Depression). Getting accepted at UCLA was momentous (and kind of crucial, since I neglected to apply to any other institution of higher learning). It was truly life changing.
That said, my obsessive focus was on pinpointing where I stood in my relationship with X – talk about an absurd waste of time! A mollusk could’ve deduced I was nowhere – the same place I’d been for almost two years.
It’s a peculiar kind of hell, pretending to be satisfied being “just friends” with somebody you’re madly in love with. To level the “just friends” playing field, I invented a boyfriend to compete with his living girlfriend. When he tortured me by rhapsodizing about how much he loved her, I could retaliate with my make-believe relationship with the non-existent Pericles. (I gave him a more normal name which is not to imply he was one iota more believable.)
To render an already pitiful situation more pathetic, I repeatedly pulled my fictional punches. Instead of touting my relationship with Pericles as a love affair for the ages, at the slightest hint X might be interested in me again, I kicked poor Pericles to the curb. My brilliant reasoning went, “X secretly wants to come back to me but he’s afraid he’ll be rejected for Pericles! Play it smart. Tell him you dumped Pericles so you’re fully available to him.”
Yeah, that’ll work every time – somewhere other than the planet earth. Suffice to say, my Herculean efforts to recapture X’s heart failed miserably. When I left Santa Clara (as it turned out, for good – and in June, not September) I never expected to see or hear from X again – but at least I had UCLA in my future. And that’s what actually mattered.
I’ve written elsewhere about how right UCLA was for me (link) but I knew little more than its four initials when I applied. For all I knew, it could’ve been located in the dregs of downtown LA. (Except then it would’ve been called USC. Whoops, my snark is showing.)
My parents were equally ill-informed – their now-void plan had been to send me to a Lutheran college where I’d meet and marry a guy at least half-Scandinavian. To their credit, they hid their disappointment well and didn’t try to change my mind.
Consequently, on Friday after Thanksgiving in 1968, my parents and I left my sisters in Santa Clara and drove to LA. It wasn’t often I spent significant time with them without my sisters as buffer. It was exhilarating to reclaim their undivided attention but also unnerving. Too much focus on me risked revealing defects I sought to hide, especially from them. Based on the most formative experience, which took place when I was two years and two days old, imperfections – the failure to entertain, for example – were cause for replacement. Either one of my younger sisters – both less flawed than me – could easily take my place.
It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d done it before and could do it again.
Click this link to view family photo albums illustrating the inner torment of a highly sensitive recently displaced first-born child. You’re not being disloyal to Janet or Joyce. They signed off on my weird obsession decades ago. I’ll add new photos and captions in the near future.
What’s not to love about travelling to research a writing project? For starters, producers must fly writers First Class – something my Midwestern roots won’t allow me to do for myself. It’s superficial, but it made me feel important. Another benefit, for some – free alcohol. All I know is, the diet Coke they serve in first class tastes the same as it does in economy.
In the early days, I fantasized jetting to Paris for a true-life story but apparently very few Parisian lives are MOW material, (link to Movie of the Week). The stories I got hired to write unspooled in tiny Texas or Louisiana towns where the top hotel stood side by side with the local slaughterhouse. This is not to knock small towns or southern states; I’m from rural Iowa myself (Graettinger and Estherville, anyone?) However, as quaint and charming as Kickapoo, Kansas, might be, no one will ever mistake it for Paris.
I liked everyone I interviewed except the cold-blooded killer in the high-security Texas prison. Getting to know the people made the job fun. What made it hard was their desire for their stories to be told truthfully, like they happened in reality. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that regardless of how dramatic and compelling their tale might be, inevitably “a true story” dilutes to “inspired by a true story” or, worst case scenario, “inspired by a concept based on an idea related to a possibly true story.”
This particular tale of young love in the bayou was not produced, which was disappointing but not surprising. In those days, maybe half the scripts a network developed got produced (which is still a significantly higher ratio than feature projects in development). What did surprise me was my sympathies shifted from the love-struck kids to the Mom. A tad troubling, since I built my career on angsty teens, not their uptight parents living lives of quiet desperation. Was it possible my struggle with my rebellious teen son was turning me into one of “them”?
The highlight of every summer in the early seventies was my trip to Santa Clara to see my old friends again. Since my parents moved to San Diego in early September of 69, I never had the opportunity to go “home” for a summer after college. I visited a week or two by myself, sleeping on my high school friend’s couches. It was never enough time to catch up – which, I guess, explains why – although we remained friends – we gradually drifted further apart.
If I’d stayed in Santa Clara, the changes might not have been as apparent as they were when I visited annually. When my family and I moved to California in the fifties, the Lawrence Expressway was Lawrence Station Road – two lanes bordered by a row of walnut trees, then a path, then the backyard fences of our housing tract. Simply by crossing Lawrence Station Road, I went from Santa Clara to Sunnyvale.
At some point, a fence went up, separating our house from what was becoming Lawrence Expressway. Before long, I was lost in the city I once knew like the back of my hand. Major landmarks like Jefferson Junior High disappeared, replaced (I think) by some business facility. I grew up believing institutions like public schools would be around forever.
We used to walk to Lawrence Square. Macdonald’s Department Store sold high-end clothing. There was a Safeway and a laundromat. Compare Lawrence Square now to what it looked like then. Does it tell the story of our city?
Even as a child, I tried to get out of housework – so much so my mother warned me I’d better be rich enough to hire a maid or I’d live in squalor. John’s chivalry with regard to the mop notwithstanding, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Clean around the house either. My mother almost fainted when his mother expressed relief, “that John finally has someone to keep him neat and organized.” If I was supposed to play Felix to his Oscar, we were in big trouble.
Domestic situations aren’t the only ones where I feign ineptitude to avoid doing something I just don’t want to do. Almost anything technical or complicated involving computers or electronics qualifies. My children and husband accommodate me, more or less, although lately my daughter’s exasperated sighs are more pronounced. “Is it plugged in?” she always asks. It’s embarrassing how many times that turns out to be the problem.
I recognized my own “learned helplessness” in 2001, when I lived alone in New York. My laptop broke down and because I needed a laptop for my job there, I couldn’t afford to be without it. Basically, the hard drive needed to be replaced.
If I’d been at home, I never would’ve attempted such a feat but J and my children were in California and I was in New York. My back against the wall, I followed instructions, removed my old hard drive and replaced it with a new one. When push came to shove, I could perform and I was proud of it. I fully intended not to default to learned helplessness when I went home.
Joyce and I went to Taos to visit a former friend I’ll call V (for Voldemort – she who must not be named). Neither Joyce nor I had ever been there. Ostensibly we were going to get a lot of writing done but I’m not sure either of us believed that would happen (it didn’t). In truth, it was a chance to escape our routine days – which revolved around our husbands and children – and reclaim our “independence”.
We shopped in Taos, took silly pictures, and beaded necklaces. V talked us into taking an African Dance class. Later she wound us up and down twisting mountain roads to a secret hot spring that supposedly few people knew about. After we parked, we hiked down a narrow slippery path to the spring.
It was every bit as spectacular and secluded as advertised – a genuine hot spring with a breath-taking view of the Rio Grande rushing past hundreds of feet below. Joyce and I, Midwestern Lutherans at our core, are not the type of girls to skinny-dip, but V ridiculed our narrow-minded inhibitions so we shed our clothes and slipped into the steaming water.
I’m glad she did. It was magical, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I would’ve regretted it if I’d declined. Remembering special times shared with V creates all manner of cognitive dissonance. It’s easier to demonize, to refuse the existence of any mitigating factors.
I suspect I am not alone here. Experiences contradicting my mind set are inconvenient and acceptance is hard work.
My diary drags me kicking and screaming back to reality.
It’s not terribly surprising I was adamant about Santa Clara being my home considering my family left Santa Clara for San Diego a mere six months before I wrote this entry. In contrast, it astonishes me that 47 years later, I still regard Santa Clara as my home – despite the fact I never lived there again. Realistically, hasn’t LA – where I’ve lived the last 47 years – earned the right to be called home?
Yeah, objectively, no doubt about it. Emotionally, not so fast. I grew up in Santa Clara, it will forever be where I spent my childhood, it’s the backdrop for all my highly formative memories and experiences.
Unfortunately, the Santa Clara I regard as home ceased to exist shortly after I left. I’ve covered this in other blogs (July 18, 1969, August 26, 1969) and I’m loathe to repeat myself. Still, Santa Clara’s metamorphoses into Silicon Valley fascinates me.
Someday I’d love to write a historical novel about Santa Clara. I’d approach it as a multi-generational saga about a family who own an apricot orchard, tracing family members and the city itself as it evolves to Silicon Valley. I’ve been warned family sagas are out of fashion but by the time I finish, they might be all the rage again.
There were plenty of reasons both John and I felt uncertain about the future. He was in his first year of law school, finding his place in a highly competitive environment. If anything, my future was even less assured. At least with law school, odds are you’ll find work as a lawyer assuming you pass the bar. My MFA was in Professional Writing and there’s no guarantee you’ll make a living writing, ever. If anything, odds are you won’t.
Speaking strictly for myself, I was sick of dating. I spent entirely too much time obsessing about the state of my relationships. There wasn’t a snippet of male-female behavior, subliminal messaging, or secret motivations I didn’t ponder for days. A relationship I could rely on – i.e., a husband – freed hundreds of hours previously devoted to relentless analysis about how he really felt about me, what would happen next, what he really meant when he said I’ll call you later.
What about love? Isn’t that the reason to get engaged and married? We were very much in love, at least insofar as either of us understood what love meant, which is to say – not much. Realistically, we were in the grip of mad infatuation. We thought we knew each other but we didn’t really, not as we’d come to know – and love – each other over the next 42 years.
IMHO, love is nothing but illusion in those starry-eyed early days when you can’t see past the glorious magic of the other. Love becomes real when you realize your partner isn’t perfect – that is to say, she or he isn’t exactly the way you want them to be all the time – and you stick around anyway. Real love requires patience, compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy. It hurts sometimes. It changes both of you. It’s not easy – but it’s worth it.
That said, if I knew then how not perfect – how difficult and sometimes painful – love and marriage would be – would my answer still be yes? Absolutely.
This wasn’t my first – or last – fantasy about taking drastic measures to escape my life. I didn’t follow through on this brilliant plan or any of the others which didn’t stop me from devising new schemes to start over someplace else whenever I’m overwhelmed where I am.
Before my wedding, I thought about hopping a plane and disappearing in Sweden (because I took Swedish at UCLA, as if that would do me any good.) Thank God I lost my nerve – or regained my senses – and showed up at the church on time. Sticking around and seeing things through was always the right choice.
The fantasy of running away – starting a new life with a new name – is probably impossible in our high-tech surveillance-happy world. Even if I could, there’s no reason to believe my new life would improve on the one I’m living. As the saying goes, wherever you run to, you take yourself with you.
And of course, “myself” is the problem. The only way to change my circumstances is change myself. It’s an inside adjustment, not an outside one. I didn’t know that in ’69, as I sank into a bottomless clinical depression. I find solace in the fact that no matter how much I wanted to leave this life, I stayed – and you know what? It got better.
Yolanda moved in with us in 1984. She loved Chris, Sam and Alex with everything she had – especially Sam, although she never admitted favoritism. The tip-off? She always referred to Sam as “the princess.” Alex was Ahni and Chris was Goose because that’s how the princess pronounced their names. Yolanda balked at calling us John and Kathleen; we were forever Mr. John and Mrs. Kathleen.
She confided her cancer to the princess, who stepped up. She drove Yolanda to all of her doctor’s appointments, sat by Yolanda through every chemo, visited every day when Yolanda was hospitalized. The rest of us pitched in but the princess earned Yolanda’s second nickname for her – my angel.
On Friday February 10, Yolanda’s doctor estimated she’d live thirty days. She had thirty hours. When she drew her last breath at 1:30 AM, we all understood it was for the best. Her pain was excruciating, cancer terminal, death inevitable. No surprises. We knew where this road led.
Except we didn’t, not really. We’re in shock. All day I shushed our dogs so they wouldn’t awaken Yolanda – as if anything could. Three fat cats looked increasingly concerned – where’s our Fancy Feast? ‘Where’s the human who opens cans?
The light is on in Yolanda’s room. For a second, I think she’s there. I haven’t been in her room alone in years. Everywhere, pictures of our children – framed on her bureau, taped to the wall, stacked in photo albums. She carried their photos in her wallet. She loved it when strangers thought they were hers. Was I jealous, did I worry she’d spirit them off to El Salvador? No. If anything, it endeared her to me. If I couldn’t be there, who better than someone who loved them like they were her own?
On a sheet of paper tacked above her bed she drew a cross and scrawled, “Please god please god no cancer. Please god no cancer.” A purple spiral notebook was scribbled with recipes. She saved expired coupons for things she didn’t buy. A few of her clothes trailed price tags, waiting to be worn. Whoever clears my room when I’m dead will find comparable artifacts.
The photos we leave behind show what we did. Fragments of incomplete projects remind us of all left undone, bits and pieces of Yolanda. I should have known her better, more deeply, sooner. I don’t know her sister’s name or phone number in El Salvador and I don’t speak Spanish even if I did.
So what did I know about Yolanda? She made the LA Times her own personal illustrated blog. She drew devil’s horns on basketball players she hated, basically everyone but LeBron and the Clippers. She trapped a rattler outside our door by slamming a concrete slab down on its head. (I would’ve been dead from heart attack.) She didn’t drink, smoke or party. Her modesty did not permit her to wear shorts, swimwear or sleeveless blouses – ever.
She loved our forays to Costco – “the big store” – but recently I was too busy to take her until she was too weak to go. There are so many things I meant to say – should have said – but didn’t. I hope she knew – I think she knew – how much her kindness meant, how her patience and loyalty changed our lives, how many others – my sisters, parents and friends – grew to love her like we did and always will. How much we’ll miss her smile, her red coat, her curly hair, her commentary on current events (you thought she’d stop at sports?) in the LA Times, all part and parcel of the boundless heart and infinite capacity for love we knew as Yolanda Hernandez.
We’ll meet again, Yolanda.
(I’m not trying to make a political point about immigration. However, since Yolanda was an illegal immigrant when I hired her, here are the facts. She always worked, either caring for the elderly or children. She neither asked for nor received welfare. She became a US citizen in the early 90s. For the next twenty years plus, she paid taxes like everyone else. In other words, she writes checks to our government without cashing checks from them. Our country gave her something more valuable than food stamps – a chance at a better life. The way I see it, she was lucky to get into our great nation – but not as lucky as we were to get her into our family.)