Sunday, September 16, 2018

Only Son

From Salinas to Oakland and San Leandro and on to Phoenix the life of an only child in a single mother household wasn’t all bad. While Rachel Helen Immel moved us every year or so and that will keep a kid off balance she always found the best that the place had to offer. She was an erudite and cultured women who played the piano, loved ballet and art films and enjoyed good food. She had a regal bearing and wore clothes with panache. She was every inch the lady. She was an ardent feminist though she probably didn’t know the term. She was asexual as far as I know and may have been a “man hater” if my father’s younger sisters are to be believed. According to my father’s favorite baby sister, Ruth West, who died at 101 a couple of years ago, he confided to her shortly after he married my mother that “it just isn’t going to work” because they were at odds about sex. He apparently was into it and she was repulsed. But they copulated at least once thankfully. I appreciate your service. Certainly, their paths in life painted a picture of divergent sexual appetites. He had three marriages and a parade of curvy babes and she was devoutly solo. She never had a date and the only man in the house was the plumber. In the years between age four and nineteen I never saw her with a man nor do I know of a single relationship with one.

That didn’t seem odd to me. It was all I had ever known. That she would be involved with a man never occurred to me.

She had two sisters, Fern a textbook spinster, and Imogene, the saucy divorced one who smoked cigarettes and did, reputedly, have a life outside of work. All were elementary school teachers, mom of the first and second grade persuasion.

Fern, the much older sister, was built like a barrel and seemed to be from an entirely different generation than Rachel and Imogene, called Imo. She lived with us for a time in our first apartment in San Leandro and commuted to her school in Niles, California. Niles was southeast of Hayward some fifteen miles away from our apartment. Back then it was in the sticks but now is a suburb of sprawling Fremont. Imo taught in Palm Springs and Santa Maria and had to perspicacity to live outside of the hermetically sealed mother and child bubble my mother created wherever we lived. I was her life until I wasn’t.

Steve at six?

My mother gave me things and experiences in lieu of actual parenting. We never had the birds and bees conversation so I was left to learn through trial and error. When I joined Cub Scouts and there was a fishing merit badge to be had, she bought me a complete fly fishing rig; rod, reel, straw creel, assorted flies and a vest with all the little pockets from a sporting goods store in Hayward. We went fishing precisely once. It was at Strawberry Lake in the Sierra National Forest just west of the John Muir Wilderness. It’s a mystery to me how she found the place. Then there was skiing. The same thing. The full kit though a rented one in this case. I remember the long pointed wooden boards and the leather bindings. Off we went to Frisco Peak by bus in a snowstorm; a real Sierra snow with 20 foot drifts. The snow rose to the eaves of the lodge and that's where I headed. Twenty-five years later our son Garrett performed the same trick at Killington in Vermont. And Peggy wigged out then just as my mother had in 1950.

From wherever we lived in the East Bay we made our way to San Francisco as often as possible. Even when we lived in Arizona we traveled to the “The City” a couple of times. The magic of San Francisco was etched in my brain at an early and impressionable age. As early as 1947 we took Southern Pacific’s Starlight Express from Salinas to Fisherman’s Wharf. We sat in the dining car eating Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches on toast and sipping hot tea. A little later when we moved to the Bay Area we took the train to San Francisco to partake of breakfast at Manning’s, lunch of Welsh Rarebit and creamed spinach at the bar in Townsend’s and high tea at the City of Paris department store. Famed columnist Herb Cain called Townsend’s, “the little old ladies historic hangout.” And so it was.

We watched Alec Guinness in 1951s Lavender Hill Mob at a little art house. We went to the 1950 premier of Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart, and the 1951 premiere of Bob Hope’s Lemon Drop Kid where they gave out boxes on lemon drops. This was always in San Francisco I should note. Oakland was beneath us. We saw Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer in Princess and the Show Girl at the Curran Theatre on Geary Street near Union Square. The 1,600 seat Curran housed some the biggest productions in theatre history and was home to the San Francisco Civic Light Opera when we saw the young Shirley. It closed for a time but reopened in January 2017. It will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022.
The Curran Theatre, circa 1950
During the Christmas season San Francisco is magical as all great cities are. To me San Francisco is the one real city on the left coast. There are New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the pantheon of America’s great cities. The others are pretenders. We always stayed at The Cartwright off Union Square. It was affordable and right in the center of things. From the Cartwright we could walk to all our favorite haunts. Every San Francisco Christmas included midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of California and Grant, the entrance to Chinatown.

Saint Mary's Cathedral
My sartorial needs were not neglected either. On one of those Christmas trips from Arizona I stepped into the Ivy League, buttoned down era; the one with the waspy Princeton haircut. At a small haberdashery on the north side of Market Street I was fitted with my first soft shouldered three button sport coat, a nifty corduroy number, chinos with the buckle in the back and a light blue Gant button down. It was quite the step up from the big shouldered film noir suits I had favored till then. It foretold some seventy years of appreciation for stylish threads and too little closet space.  

And lest you think my adventures were limited to the tweedy environs of San Francisco, it was a 1951 trip to the silver mining town of Alamos, Mexico that led to our move from northern California to Arizona. My mother had seen a piece in Sunset Magazine about a quaint, undiscovered Spanish Colonial village in the Mexican state of Sonora near the western end of Copper Canyon. The Nicky Hilton article extolled the charms of the remote pueblo. It was so alluring that we found ourselves in Alamos by way of Ciudad Obregon and Navajoa and all of that by public transport one of which was a rickety Aeronaves DC3. In Alamos I cobbled together some rudimentary Spanish as kids will do and soon was leading tourists through the village for a few pesos. The highlight of my itinerary was the hacienda of the Mexican jumping bean king. You can’t make this stuff up. I still feel the busy beans jumping in my nine-year old palm.

Our hotel on the plaza had a drive-in courtyard. Our room was upstairs facing the courtyard and fountain. Drinking water was “treated” by resting it in earthenware “ollas” suspended from the second story portal. Many an evening was spent at the “Cine” on the north side of the plaza watching John Wayne and Esther Williams movies dubbed into Spanish.

On the way back to California from Alamos we stopped in Tucson. We sat in the lobby of the long-gone Santa Rita Hotel and absorbed the cowboyness of the place. The lobby was redolent of leather and straw hats. They say our olfactory memories are particularly vivid and the smell of leather still takes me back to that moment. Real ranchers moseyed through on their way to the Mountain Oyster Club upstairs. Women strictly prohibited. In the southeast corner of the hotel was a western wear store, probably Porter’s, where we continued our theme of indulging little Stevie's every whim. I donned my very first pair of cowboy boots, kangaroo no less. The hook was set. We'd be off to Arizona before the following school year.

It didn’t end well between my mother and me as has been reported in these pages. The last words I heard were, "From now on I don't have a son." It was my 21st birthday.

But the women gave me a taste of taste and a yearning for adventure. I'll give her that.

Much to her credit and not withstanding my enmity toward her, my mother exposed me to culture, cuisine and travel that created a life view beyond the neighborhoods in which we lived. From our Oakland apartment near Mills College we took the bus to hear Helen Keller speak at the University of California, Governor Earl Warren, too. I watched twin All-America running backs Johnny Olszewski and Jackie Jensen light up the gridiron for Cal’s Golden Bears. The game was preceded by lunch at Larry Blakes and my first Caesar Salad. In Phoenix we took the bus downtown to see Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Phoenix Union High School. So, the breadth of what my mother showed me was considerable.

In response to my ego bruising tale last week, a California friend wrote, “There are very few 70+ people who still hold grudges against their parents.….” And further, “I realized only recently it was an adolescent mindset to blame parents for unhappiness along the way…..” A valid point to be sure. However, I don’t see calling out specific thoughtless and hurtful acts as blaming them for unhappiness along the way, meaning presumably, later in life. I blame them for what they did when they did it. Always will. And as to very few seventy year olds holding grudges against their parents, I wouldn't bet on it.


Blacks Crossing said...

Yet another Grand Slam, Steve I. This one about your mother, who certainly did lead you in many cultural directions. Although it may not always seem so, you were amazingly lucky to have been introduced to so many amazing things, especially in San Francisco. Fred knows Niles, Fremont, and Alameda so well that I dare say you share some of the same olfactory memories. San Fran is an extraordinary place. It is the best left coast city bar none. And as to your last statement in the blog, we agree 100%. People like to say they don't hold grudges against their parents, but we wouldn't bet on it either. Well done, Amigo!

Steve Immel said...

You got to this early, chica. Last night for Pete's sake. I can name three people right of the top of my head who harbor grudges against their parents, all men. Hmm.