Category Archives: Family

Music hath powers …

Round about 1967-68, the then-husband and I, and our infant son, lived in the converted attic of a house in Berkeley. The apartment was wonderful and the downstairs landlady sweet and kind (she wanted to rent to a couple with children!), but she had a stroke and had to move to San Francisco to be closer to her son, and so the downstairs was rented out. When the new tenants moved in, we went down to introduce ourselves. The tenant was a psychiatric social worker (hereinafter PSW) from the neighboring county, who was not friendly. Neither was her huge and scary boyfriend (hereinafter SB), who rode a very large, very noisy hog.

I should mention that neither my then-husband nor I are large people. Short, in fact. He worked indoors and I was student, so also we were pasty. And the kid was less than a year old. Threatening? Us? Hah!

We soon learned that the PSW owned one LP, a version of Lohengrin apparently recorded in a Swiss sanatorium. She would get home at about 6:30 pm on Friday, put it on, crank it up, and play it without cease until she left for work on Monday morning. [This may have been the reason her boyfriend wasn’t friendly, but who am I to ascribe psychological reasons to a non-politician’s behavior?] Our entire apartment acted like a sounding box. We politely asked her to turn it down. The SB glowered. We went back upstairs. Husband, who worked in radio, borrowed a couple of mongo speakers from the station and strung them up facing the wall in the downstairs landing, which fronted her livingroom. We then found a recording of two favorite Spike Jones pieces: Il Barkio (an opera starring dogs) and Der Fuehrer’s Face. Husband dubbed them onto a continuous tape loop, put it on the Ampex, and cranked up the sound. It was … impressive.

Il Barkio

Der Fuhrer’s Face

The PSW cranked up her sound. We cranked up ours. She cranked up hers. We cranked up ours. She beat on her ceiling with a broomstick. We bounced a golf ball on the floor. We both stopped at midnight, by mutual but unspoken consent, for fear the neighbors would call the cops.

The next day, still all steamed up, we marched downstairs to confront her. She opened her front door, shrieking, but before we could respond the SB put his arm over her shoulder, pushed her back, and said, “Hey, man, where’d you get the Spike Jones?”

That relationship didn’t last much longer, but the noise level never reached such heights again.

Il gattino di Kahuku

Frankie-1

The composer and diva.

Frankie is composing an opera, Il gattino di Kahuku and is in a ferment of constant creation and rehearsal. First thing in the morning, she works on “Sto morendo di fame.” She experimented with the key and has settled on Squall Major. This is followed by the recitative “Mi elevare ora,” staccato con sentimento, accompanied by acrobatics which always bring down the house. In fact, this morning she experimented with hooking her claws into my shorts as I was trying to put them on, which certainly brought down the pants. This may not make it to the finished work.

The opening aria.

The opening aria. Note the pathos.

She then leads the rest of the cast in the Breakfast Chorus. The big dog, as always, maintains a dignified silence (that is, a basso so profundo that it is beneath the range of human hearing); the small dog, our alto, cavorts on her back legs, performing amazing backwards jetés, and the boy cat, the tenor, leaps onto the kitchen counter, is grabbed and thrown off, leaps again, is thrown again. All this time Frankie leads the company in “Miao miao adesso” or, in the small dog’s case, “Yip yip adesso,” come un rondo.

Basso and soprano in Act

Basso and soprano prepare for Act 2

Act Two is a true innovation in opera, as it is entirely in mime. The cast weaves along the floor, barely avoiding each other. The big dog collapses first, on the floor under the computer desk. The small dog makes sure Frankie has cleaned her plate, then stretches out on the big dog’s bed. The boy cat disappears and Frankie, after running from my shoulder to the keyboard and back again, curls up in the in-tray and falls asleep.

20151009_140751 (1)

Triumphant conclusion to Act Two.

After a few hours Frankie rises to perform “Gioca con me,” insistentemente esigenti, directed to the rest of the cast, turn and turn about. Eventually the boy cat knocks her over, holds her down, and performs acts of cleansing upon her best left to the imagination and not to the operatic stage.

The scene for which the opera was banned in Boston.

The scene for which the opera was banned in Boston.

She takes them stoically, like the classical heroine that she is. She makes her escape and reprises the opening aria as “Ora sono morti di fame,” frenetica ad alta voce.

Our tenor.

Our tenor

The fourth and final act commences with yet another reprise of the opening aria, this time reconfigured as “Sto davvero morendo di fame,” staccato e bellicoso, followed by another round, “Anch’io,” from the rest of the cast. The tenor then takes center stage to perform “Muoio, muoio di disattenzione,” while the soprano weeps. The tenor moves offstage sadly, and our splendid diva commands the stage for the denouement. She performs the aria “Filato giocattolo piede palla di punta” dancing piqué allegro before finding a nearby basket of yarn and diving face-down into it. The applause is tremendous.

All in all, a most satisfying operatic experience. This critic is advised that the work itself mutates slightly from day to day, so multiple viewings are recommended.

Uncle John’s Toupee

Flannel leaf caterpillar

This is not Donald Trump’s toupee, it’s the puss caterpillar of the flannel moth. But it does serve to remind me of a little family history.

My father went down to Mexico in the mid-1930s, looking for work, and fell in love with the country and the capital. His older brother John soon followed him. John always had an eye out for the main chance and (so the family story goes) very much liked it that he could choose almost any profession and practice it in Mexico without much training — and the licenses were cheap. He chose to be an optometrist and did fairly well at it. He married a woman named Virginia, who said that she was not Mexican but French.

An aside: At least at the time, this was a snobby ploy to separate from the lowly Mestizo. Having pure Spanish blood was okay, but if you could claim descent from the French who came over with Maximilian, you were at the pinnacle of the social pyramid — or so they thought. The family story says that Virginia’s folk were quite rich and, before the revolution, used to beat their maids with hairbrushes. This may explain why they emerged from the revolution far less rich than before, and in far fewer numbers.

Theirs was a curious marriage, John and Virginia, perhaps best summed up by a visit they made to California when I was a kid. Dad and John sat, for some reason, in the kitchen (probably because it was closer to the coffeepot) while Mom and Virginia chattered in Spanish in the living room.

Comes John’s voice from the kitchen: “Chachis!” (Accent on the first syllable — his pet name for her.

“Yes, Yonny!” she calls, and minces into the kitchen.

John is lounging in his kitchen chair, his jacket hanging on the chairback behind him.

“Chachis, give me a cigarette.”

“Yes, Yonny!” she says in dulcet tones. She slides her hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, the one that is hanging right behind him on the chair in which he sits, and extracts his pack of cigarettes and his lighter. She puts the cigarette between her lips, leaving traces of lipstick on it, and lights it, then puts it between his lips. She returns the cigarettes and lighter to his pocket.

Johnny puffs, approves of the cigarette, and says, “Thanks, Chachis.”

She twinkles and titters and minces back to the living room.

This act is repeated not only with cigarettes, but with coffee and glasses of water, while Dad and John sit in the kitchen.

It became a family joke. If you wanted something and were near it, you yelled “Chachis!” and the other family members laughed and heaped abuse on you.

Anyway, back to the wig.

Baldness runs in Dad’s family. It skipped my grandfather, but Dad started balding in high school and so did John. It never bothered Dad much, but apparently John hated it. On one visit to California, he and Virginia confided to my folks that their marriage had almost foundered. John had, he explained, bought a toupee and wore it while out of the house, and while wearing it conducted at least one illicit affair. It was the toupee’s fault, he said. It forced him into carnal relations with tramps.  Eventually Virginia found out, snatched the toupee off his head, and threw it into the fire, thus freeing Uncle John from its malign influence. They recounted this tale with great earnestness to my folks, and while they billed and cooed my parents struggled mightily to keep straight faces.

John thought of himself as a Jack of all Arts, and one of them was architecture. He designed the home he had built for himself and Virginia in Mexico City, a place where the building codes, at the time, were lax to non-existent. I hated the house. The stairs from the living room up to the second floor were polished stone slabs with only one side wall and no railings, and I was convinced that I would slip off them and break my neck and die. But John’s most famous innovation was the wall in his bathroom. It faced the street and was taken up by a floor-to-ceiling, side-to-side one way mirror, so that John could take a relaxing shit while looking down on his neighbors. Would have worked fine, too, except that it was put in backwards. I don’t know how many craps John and Virginia took before somebody alerted them to the problem. Instead of having it removed, they covered it with a curtain.

Some years after I became published, John loaned me a copy of a screenplay he had written and solicited my opinion of it. It was a pretty obvious rip-off of the movie RAIN, based on the Somerset Maugham story, but in John’s version the names were changed and People Actually Did It. Not on-camera, you understand, but there was some Hot Action going on, you can betcha. He pointed this out as the innovative factor, after I pointed out the connection with Maugham. I wasn’t particularly impressed, and John kept his literary efforts to himself from then on.

He had, in fact, come to California specifically to pester Barnaby Conrad with it. Conrad was currently in residence somewhere in Marin County, and he was pretty certain that Conrad would love the book and stake it financially, because after all they were both Men’s Men, into bullfighting and boating and other dick-waving events, although Conrad actually did them. In any event, he finagled a meeting, went off with his derivative screenplay in hand — and never mentioned it again.

Conversational farming.

The shack.

The Farm.

Back in the early 1970s my father and brother decided to get back to the land, and Dad bought a 10 acre spread in a small valley near Watsonville, California. The acres were diagonal. The farm was mired in the process of not becoming: in the last century it had not become a truck farm, not become an orchard, and most recently had not become a hog farm. The farm house started life in the mid- or late-1800s as a one room shack. At some later time later a room had been tacked to one side and another along the back, so the building resembled a frustrated letter L. Eventually a bathroom was added to one end and a kitchen to the other, but these weren’t improvements as much as they were accretions. Dirt crept up from the loose floorboards and god knows what sifted in from the roof; frogs inhabited the bathtub drain and lizards lived under the toilet seat. When I went down to visit, usually about twice a month, it amazed me that the place was still standing.

My dad, Dick, worked ten hour days teaching at the local continuation school and a night school ESL program to bring home the mortgage money, while my brother Rick and his friends spent their days sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and engaging in what I came to call “conversational farming.” They planned to put in a windmill, either in the valley where there was water but no wind, or at the top of a hill where there was plenty of wind and not a drop of water. I remember a short lived plan to hook a generator up to the septic tank in the hopes of producing electricity from methane, because somebody remembered seeing plans for such a device in a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog which they would get their hands on any day now. They decided to buy a plow horse and were very excited until they realized that they couldn’t afford to buy feed and they couldn’t graze the horse because the only grazing land was already scheduled to be a vegetable farm, which was going to go in any day now as soon as they figured out how to plow it which they couldn’t do because they couldn’t afford to rent a tractor and they couldn’t afford to feed a horse, but boy, when that vegetable garden went in they were going to sell organic vegetables down in Santa Cruz and make a bundle. I think the only thing these all talk and no walk back to the soil hippies succeeded in planting was a small dope garden up the hill amid the scrub oaks and dying apricot trees, until the deer discovered it and ate it down to the ground. Since deer apparently don’t get high, that was wasted too. My kid sister lived there for a short time, attending Watsonville High School, until she could take no more of farm, friends, or high school and returned to Berkeley.

The conversational farmers did help Dad put in a small kitchen garden and construct a chicken house, and somebody bought three ducklings, the big white domestic kind. Two were slated to be pets and so were named Admiral Sir Elmore Duck and Gladys, his wife. The third was named Dinner, just so that nobody would mistake his eventual fate.

Blau_Eier_05The chickens were a miscellaneous lot. I remember a couple of White Leghorns, and an Araucana which laid blue green eggs, and some scruffy brownish reddish hens, and a single rooster. The chickens were allowed to run around loose until the local foxes ate too many of them. Dad built a fenced chicken yard which worked well until a coyote came in over the top, so Dad put in a chicken wire roof and brought in more chickens.

I went down to visit one weekend when my son, the third Richard in the family, was about eight. Sunday morning, the conversational farmers suggested that I gather eggs for breakfast. I agreed. As I was on my way out, my father pointed out a stick leaning up against the chicken yard fence, and said it might be a good idea if I took it into the chicken yard with me. I’m a city girl, born and bred, and raised on books like Little House on the Prairie in which innocent and helpless young girls happily gather eggs from the farm’s chickens. I suspected nothing, even when the stick turned out to be more of a cudgel. I picked it up in my left hand and let myself into the yard. I locked the wire fence gate behind me and turned, already stepping toward the nesting boxes in the chicken house.

angry chickenChickens, it seems, fly, especially when city girls come onto their property looking to steal their eggs. I turned to find the flock flying up and down, yelling and shrieking and darting at my face. I edged toward the hen house, protecting my face with my right arm. They kept a clear circle around me which I maintained with threatening waggles of the cudgel as I reached into a nest with my right hand and groped around. It was nasty in there. I thought I felt an egg, so I took my eyes from the mob for a moment – sure enough, a speckled brown egg. I picked it up and turned to find an infuriated chicken screeching and flying straight at my face.

I panicked. Without thinking, I threw the cudgel into my right hand, forgetting that this hand already held a nice, warm, brown, speckled egg. It broke, dripping raw scrambled egg around the stick, over my fingers, and onto the floor of the house. The chickens stopped attacking me and started fighting over who got to eat the broken egg. It was appalling. Even more appalling was the sound I now heard from outside the pen. I looked up to see three generations of Richards rolling on the ground laughing at me, but by the time I got the pen door open and went after them they were long gone.

In time, the conversational farmers hired a dowser to find water in the valley. He came, he dowsed, he found an old cesspit, and he departed with half the farm’s stash in lieu of payment. An attempt was made to charm the neighbors into loaning the conversational farmers a tractor, but the neighbors (thick-necked farm types all) weren’t interested in having anything to do with the commie pinko dope smokin’ free love semi naked hippies who had invaded their little valley. I think they were most upset by the resident would-be Earth Mother, a chubby girl named Mayflower who dressed in fluttering rags and liked to dance naked under the full moon, to encourage growth in the crops that somehow were never planted. I didn’t care for her myself, nor did Dad, but she was the girlfriend of the only mechanic in the group and if they ever did get the money together to buy that windmill or tractor or generator or whatever they were going to need him, so Mayflower happily danced naked in the weeds while the conversational farmers stared, the neighbors peeped, and Dad revised lesson plans.

Neck_of_white_duck.The seasons passed, the garden failed and flourished and failed again, the ducks grew up and grew fat, and the day came for Dinner to turn into his name. The other conversational farmers became sudden vegetarians and my dad was at work, so my brother picked up the cleaver and went outside. I pause to say that he had named the cleaver “Eldridge” and horrified our sister by sitting at the kitchen table sharpening it and chuckling. So, he took Eldridge outside and caught Dinner (who thought he was a pet like the others, and would come up to you looking for food), stretched the duck’s neck over a tree stump, and – couldn’t do it.

You must understand that my brother is a very short man and has never come to terms with that. So far he had been able to blame the farm’s problems on others, who filled a long list that he would review periodically, re-ordering it depending on who he currently found most offensive or who had most recently witnessed his failures. Reprieving Dinner was a non-starter because he would have to explain why Dinner still graced the yard instead of the table, and he couldn’t blame anyone for his lack of nerve except himself. He had said he was going to kill the duck and by damn he was going to do it. So he went back inside, took up the shotgun, went to the yard, and blew the poor damned duck’s head off.

Dinner did what fowl tend to do in such circumstances: he ran around the yard with the remains of his head held on by a bit of skin and flopping against his neck, spouting blood like a fire hydrant. My brother went into the bushes and lost his lunch. After a while Dinner stopped running and pumping and fell down into the dirt, and a bit later my brother went over and prodded him. When Dinner didn’t move, he picked the duck up by one foot, carried it inside, and threw it onto the kitchen table. Plaster dust sifted over it like flour. He went back into the bushes and lost his breakfast. My brother was sitting on the stoop when Dad got home. He jerked his head toward the door and said, “I killed the duck.” Then he went into the bushes and lost his midnight snack.

My dad was also a short man, but he had come to terms with that years previously and was content with himself. He grew up in California’s wide Central Valley during the Great Depression, where he helped supplement the family dinner table with hunting and helped butcher the occasional pig or calf with which my grandfather was paid for his carpentry. So Dad had no problem gutting, plucking, and dressing the duck, and cooked it up a  l’orange with new potatoes on the side. Dad said it was one of the best ducks he had ever tasted. My brother said it tasted like shit. The conversational farmers, forsaking their morning vegetarianism, dug in anyway.

Eventually Dad got tired of supporting the conversational farmers and required them to be productive so they moved away, taking with them dreams of windmills on hills and generators over piles of shit, and horses that never happened and fabulous vegetable gardens that produced just enough food for the gophers. Dad met the woman who became my stepmother, who made him give up his long hair and earring, dressed him in pearl-buttoned Western shirts and Tony Lama boots, and moved him into town. I don’t think my dad had ever been happier. Dad rented the farm out to a series of bleary eyed slackers who did nothing to keep the place going except to dig a cesspit when the old septic tank filled up, and nail flattened tin cans over the leaks in the roof. The old farmhouse rotted so thoroughly that the window sills would fall off all by themselves.

AromasShackWhen Dad and my stepmom decided to build their dream house on the farm, they thought to get rid of the old place by offering it to the local fire department, who could practice their technique while burning the place to the ground. The fire chief came by one day, took a look, and refused – the place wasn’t even good enough for burning and he wouldn’t risk his crew in it. Dad hired guys to come in with sledge hammers and crowbars to take the house down.

To everyone’s surprise, the old place didn’t want to go. It had been built of clear heart virgin redwood which over the years had become one with the nails, except those around the window sills, and it took contractors close to a month to pull the place down. Then my stepmom took the place in hand, as she had taken my dad in hand.

Things that take a long time becoming leave ghosts.  The remnants of the old hog pens are long gone, as are the rotted apricot trees and most of the poison oak. In their place a cozy white house graces the valley floor, surrounded by porches which are, in turn, surrounded by my stepmom’s flower beds and the fruit trees she and Dad planted. It has become a home, and I like visiting. Sometimes, after the folks have gone to bed, I spend an hour in a rocker on the porch, sipping a little Irish whiskey and looking out over the valley. Sometimes, especially when the moon is full, I can almost see a chubby, naked Earth Mother dancing through the flower beds, and if I listen with care I hear the sound of windowsills falling off, all by themselves.

photo credits: “duck neck” By Ezhuttukari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Araucana eggs” By Penarc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Angry chicken” Olena Istomina/iStockphoto

all others © 2005 Marta Randall