For those of you who (like me) do not have photographic memories, here are the major winners that year.
This was a fun, easy party to throw. I ask guests to dress in formal regalia, as if they were really attending the Oscars. Slightly more than half usually follow through, not a bad average at our age.
The house-cleaning, such as it is, is on me, but not the food. I let people know it’s pot luck but do not specify what type of food they should bring. For those who prefer a conventional dinner, this adds to the night’s suspense. (We might wind up with 15 desserts, 15 appetizers or nothing but wine!)
I issue ballots and everybody puts $2 into the kitty. One year we upped it to $5 per person which was just enough to jack everyone’s competitive drive to an obnoxious level so the following year we brought it back down to $2 – not really enough money to come to blows over. (Neither was $5 a head but go figure.)
Just for the record, I have never won an Oscar pool, which seems a tad unfair since I host the party (apparently, that doesn’t make me any smarter.)
When I wrote this, I’d known my in-laws for less than a year but so far everything I knew was fabulous. They’d fit right in at one of Jay Gatsby’s wild parties or a formal meet-and-greet with a sitting US President. (No exaggeration – through them, J and I met Gerald Ford when he was in office.)
Other than J’s and my marriage and their own 40-plus year marriage, Chet and Flo had little in common with my parents. No value judgment is implied; they were different but neither one of them was superior to the other. Their strengths were in different areas.
John’s parents were more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than mine. They had more books in their house. They drank, they smoked, they went out to dinner and threw parties. They played a mean game of bridge. Florence was a joiner, an active voice in clubs and charities throughout Fresno. Born a privileged San Francisco socialite, she was confident with a strong sense of self but never a haughty snob. She could make anyone feel like her new best friend. She was so entertaining, so easy to talk to, even a deeply reserved introvert like myself stayed up till 4 AM because it was fun to hang out with her.
John’s father was the ultimate family man, a good thing for the father of seven to be. CD was the first grandchild for John’s parents and mine – consequently, he was deluged by love and attention from both sets of grandparents. Sam and Alex got their fair share, too.
Did CD favor the Rowells or the Knutsens? He looked a lot like John as a baby.
As he grew, so did his resemblance to my father.
But, then again, also the resemblance to J.
And perhaps a smidgen of a resemblance to me.
Which family had the more dominant genes? I call it a draw.
My sister Janet worked as an Assistant Director trainee on the movie 9 to 5. When they needed children – extras – for the day care scene near the end of the movie, she thought of her nephew CD. I suggested Marjorie’s daughter Jenny, about the same age. I’m guessing Marjorie’s sister Christine acted as guardian because Marjorie and I had both been around enough sets to know how dull they can be – especially if you’re there to chaperone a lowly extra. In retrospect, I wish I’d seized the chance to see iconic actresses like Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin at work even if it meant hours standing around.
Marjorie Arnold and I shared an apartment for a couple years while we were both at UCLA. She was an aspiring actress who landed commercials as well as parts on shows like “Room 222” and “Marcus Welby”. She was (and still is) a beautiful woman; some people described her as a “young Natalie Wood”. She was talented, too, and took her career very seriously.
Living with Marjorie, I grew grateful I wasn’t an actress. If you’ve seen La La Land, you’ve got some idea how brutal and demeaning auditions can be and how rarely people realize their dreams and become big stars.
While rejection is equally pervasive for fledging writers, it seems to me – and I could be wrong about this – rejection is less personal for writers. A producer says no to my script, not to me as a person – or so I tell myself. I’ve never auditioned as an actress, but I suspect rejection in that capacity would feel more personal – as if they rejected me – even though, in reality, it’s probably not personal. They’re just looking for a different type.
The night before – my 22nd birthday – the guy I was dating took me to see Rudi Nureyev in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada at the Shrine Auditorium. Jani’s boyfriend from Irvine took her to the ballet too so we met them at intermission – Jani’s 20th birthday would be the following day. I don’t know about Janet, but this is the only professional ballet I’ve ever seen. The lavish fairyland sets were amazing, as was Rudi in his prime, but the truth is ballet doesn’t hold my interest. I pretend to be interested, because I feel like I should be, but I’m bored. I don’t blame ballet – I’m well aware it’s my own attention span that’s deficient. (Yet another reason I failed to realize my early dream of growing up to be a ballerina, see November 7, 1966)
Jani’s comment – “Did you try and do any of the ballet steps when you got home?” – got to me. It was so spontaneous, so in the moment. Obviously, she paid attention, so much so that she was moved and inspired to try to do the steps at home. I envied her enthusiasm then and I still do today. I’d love to be that kind of person but it’s impossible to be somebody I’m not.
The closest I’ve come to ballet since then is taking my kids to ballet lessons. CD and his BFF Geo Ackles took ballet as toddlers. It was a great excuse for the boys to get together and for me to chat with David Ackles but neither lad looked like a future Nureyev.
Sam was more interested in climbing than ballet although she did play a dead ballerina in one of my television movies, Friends to the End. She and a dead male ballet dancer haunt the villainess in the final scene. Her blue costume was the reason I wanted to be a ballet dancer in the first place – the gorgeous fantasy clothing.
Alex was spared ballet, to his great relief, so no embarrassing photo ops of him.
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.)
This decision was a turning point in my life – so it surprised me that until I re-read my diary entry, I remembered it wrong. The big beats – the struggle and the decision – remain essentially the same but over the years, I romanticized the fight. In my mind, it became a testament to J’s belief in me as a writer. While in essence this remains true, his willingness to bet on me didn’t come easily or with his whole-hearted support.
And in retrospect I can’t say he was wrong to have reservations. Neither of us knew that a month later, around the time the health insurance my job provided terminated, I’d discover I was pregnant and we’d pay 100% of all the ensuing medical bills. Most of the free time I envisioned after quitting my job would get eaten up with taking care of our infant son.
While I did develop a successful career as a writer, it would be three years before I earned a penny writing – seven or eight years before I’d earn enough writing to support myself, let alone our growing family. If I’d kept my job, those breaks on our tuition and medical insurance would’ve come in handy, particularly since I didn’t accomplish anything much during that interval anyway.
Betty Friedan was right – work expands to fill the time available. Later in life, when I worked forty plus office hours a week co-producing a television show, I got more writing done on other projects at home than I ever had before. When my time is limited, I use it more wisely.
So, quitting my job to provide me with unlimited free time wasn’t our best decision although it was good for our relationship. It meant the world that J believed in me but I probably should’ve believed in his judgment and stayed employed.
When I started to write this diary blog I realized this was the last time my family and I skied. How could 23 years fly by so quickly? Why did we stop? We didn’t make a decision to give up the sport, it just happened – like far too many of my relationships (and in some cases, obsessions) end, arbitrarily and without warning.
My sister Janet and I taught ourselves to ski as children. I introduced my husband John to the sport around 1980. We invited John’s brother Matt along on our first and subsequent ski trips. In no time at all, John and Matt skied advanced slopes while I stayed stuck between beginner and intermediate. I broke my hand at a Motley Crue concert in 1985 (See November 28, 1985) which didn’t help. It heightened my fear of falling and re-injuring my hand, which made me nervous. A nervous skier is a bad skier.
Chris, Sam and Alex surpassed me because by nature children are fearless – and being close to the ground, they didn’t have as far to fall. Other than our final trip, we skied at Deer Valley in Park City, Utah.
On this trip, we skied in Oregon, a vacation arranged by one of John’s high school and college friends Bryan Arakelian. As usual, everyone’s favorite Uncle Matt came along. In addition to being a great skier and musician, Bryan is an all-star chef so it was gourmet dining every night at the condo. Due to deadlines, I stayed home half the time to write which was fine with me since not only was I unable to keep up with the grown-ups, I could no longer keep up with the kids. We had a great time.
Because I’m a pastor’s kid (PK), my father confirmed me – married me – and baptized my children. Every time I stood in front of the congregation and looked into his eyes, tears welled and I teetered on the edge of complete meltdown. I wasn’t sad, just overloaded with emotion. The same thing happens when I think about him now. The memory of my father officiating at CD’s baptism makes me reflect on unique aspects of life as a PK.
When I was two years old (before the Alien Baby emerged, and ruined my life), my father took me with him to give communion to rural parishioners. Halfway through the ceremony, his communicant’s eyes wandered so he turned to investigate what caught their attention. It was me, toddling behind, imitating his words of blessing and passing out imaginary wine and wafers.
We acted out Bible stories to amuse ourselves. The Good Samaritan was a favorite. My father played the battered victim near death by the side of the road. I took on multiple challenging roles ranging from a snooty priest to a snotty Pharisee and a self-absorbed Levite. Basically, I pretended not to see the dying man by the side of the road. At this point my sister Janet, bobbing with excitement, took center stage in the starring role of Good Samaritan. Between you and me, a monkey could have played her part. All she needed to do was hoof it as far as the kitchen and ask Mommy for a glass of water. When she accomplished this feat, dramatic tension peaked. Invariably she paused – and guzzled most of the water, saving a few drops for our dying dad. And I’m the one who got typecast as being selfish?
Sometimes Janet and I played Israelites in search of manna. Confused about what constituted manna – was it vegetable, legume or dairy product? We agreed it probably resembled chocolate chip cookie dough and hid globs of it in the sofa cushions for the Israelites to discover and devour. Who knew about salmonella in the fabulous fifties?
(Future blogs will explore other aspects of growing up P.K.)
I love Art Everett’s observation about how some humans maintain their cock-eyed optimism in the face of certain disappointment. There are plenty of people at the other end of the spectrum – perpetual pessimists – but I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by optimists. I flirted with cynical despair myself in my senior year of high school when I struggled with clinical depression but it’s not my natural inclination. (Senior Year Depression ) If it was, I’d work hard to change as empirical evidence suggests that most people’s happiness meter is set. Basically, we’re about as happy as we expect to be. A sudden windfall or financial disaster might make you go TILT for a moment but your internal happiness meter will reset at its normal level before long. Given this, why not put in a little effort to set that meter as high as possible?
What can I say about that mortifying pratfall? Admittedly thin-skinned and over-sensitive about looking stupid, it bothers me more than it should when people laugh at me. Consequently, I rarely tell stories in which I’m a complete buffoon. This pratfall was hard to forget. Years later, whenever I ran into Tony, Laraine or Debbie, we’d laugh about the day I totaled their plant with my fat pregnant butt. On the bright side, I never backed up without an eye to the rear-view mirror again.
 As you may have surmised, when attending a reject gift party each couple brings a newly-wrapped hideous present someone else once gave to them. Hilarity ensues as guests swap one atrocious gift for another. It’s a really fun party and I highly recommend it.
The day was almost perfect, aside from the fact my sisters and I knew our father wasn’t feeling well. (I’m not sure anyone else noticed – being Norwegian, he did a masterful job of putting everyone else at ease by pretending he was fine.
It was the following day – January 1, 2013 – all hell broke loose.
My father was hospitalized and diagnosed with prostate cancer after a trip to the ER. Bill Connell, who helped set up for the ceremony, was hospitalized with heart problems. Yolanda Hernandez, virtually a member of the family for 30 years, discovered she had an aneurism and was hospitalized to await brain surgery. What are the odds? Three people, all essential to mounting the wedding, immobilized 24 hours later.
Aside from the collective health crisis, everything went as well as it possibly could. It was a pleasure to get to know Jerry and April Ekins, Serena’s father and stepmother, as well as her brother and adorable niece and nephew. A large contingent of CD’s aunts and uncles – the geographically extended Rowell side – showed up to lend their support. CD was thrilled his oldest friend Geo Ackles and newer friends from UCLA’s film school were there to celebrate with him and his beautiful bride.
On a purely selfish note, it was a great opportunity for me to catch up with some of my dearest friends who moved out of state (or at least out of my zip code). Weddings have a way of bringing people together. Christmas and the holiday season don’t hurt.
After one of the longest courtships on record – 21 years, I kid you not – it was clear to one and all that Chris and Serena are as romantic and madly in love today as they were when they met. So, here’s to love and the future!