FRAGRANCES OF MEMORY Kate’s Journal


Episode 4
Long Beach 1934

I blame it on the neighbor who had a grand mal seizure on my bedroom floor. Was she contagious? Among all the other vaccinations, I didn’t have that one either.

Grandma had discovered Christian Science in the body of Mary Baker Eddy, and we did not believe in doctors or vaccinations. She took my mother and aunt Corrine into the fold, but not my father and me.

I was a silent rebel, dutifully attending church services three times a week, wearing my shiny black Mary Jane’s and hat with streamers down the back. When I was sent to Auntie’s the shoes were exchanged for brown high top Buster Browns, a Dutch cut and no church.

Grandma and me 1935
Grandma and me about 1935

We lived a few blocks from the beach and there was always the smell of the ocean along with the acrid smell of oil from the derricks on the north side of town. But on warm silent evenings the perfume of orange blossoms filled most of Southern California. I believe it was the beaches and the orange blossoms which drew so many people to California in those days. The promise of jobs didn’t hurt either.

Along with other aromas flickering through my memory, the water in early Long Beach was undrinkable due to its smell and its color. Yellow sulfurous liquid poured from the spigots reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Everyone had a large bottle of water delivered to the house for drinking purposes but the bathtub was filled with deep cadmium yellow which fortunately did not stain the body.

Auntie and Uncle Phil had an avocado tree with climbable branches and Grandma had a fig tree shaped appropriately as well. I liked them both and spent a great deal of time up the fig tree. From its top one could see directly into the dentist’s office next door which gave good entertainment when he was working on a patient’s open mouth.

I could have made a lot of money inviting the neighborhood kids to climb as well, charging a nickel apiece. You could buy a lot of candy from the penny candy store around the corner in those days. The dentist was a nice man who gave me free tubes of Ipana toothpaste which I saved and gave to my teacher at Betty’s Dance Studio, where I was a primo tapper.

The movie star Laraine Day lived around the block, and I always hoped she could get me a job in the movies, but obviously it didn’t happen. Nancy Joy Peterson was a fellow tapper, whose pushy mother curled her hair high on her head and let her wear lipstick, didn’t make it either.

Me 1938
1

The Great Depression was a terrible time for the country. We were among the lucky ones. My father had a job and grandma had her renters, plus she and my mother and Aunt Corrine often were able to get a short term job. Grandma knew about the restaurant business from helping at her father’s summer resort, and there was always a need for a good waitress. My mother also once worked in a hair salon giving what was called a “marcell”; pressing the hair into waves with a hot iron. Grandma was also a great seamstress, and sometimes worked in a nearby factory sewing. None were high paying jobs, but people took what they could.

Though I was too young to understand the magnitude of its impact on our society, I retain memories of the Depression which I realize are due to the hardships we endured. My mother told me of the times we had no food in the house and so she did not call me in for dinner hoping the neighbors would invite me in to share theirs. I was often sent to Auntie’s at those times.

Many people rose late in the day to eliminate an extra meal. Coffee grounds were used more than once and then put on plants in the garden. Occasionally I went with Grandma to a place where we were given paper bags of vegetables for soup or stew. My dear aunt Corrine used to cringe with guilt to remember once stealing some empty milk bottles, because you could get a nickel apiece and three bottles could buy enough vegetables for a pot of soup.

Long Beach was a beach town and a navy town with plenty of suitable entertainment for those hoping for a respite from Depression blues. More about that later.

DEAR MRS. JAQUISH


Dear Mrs. Jaquish,

I don’t know if this is the way your name was spelled when I knew you. It’s how it sounded to me anyhow. This is a note to apologize for all the rotten things we rowdy kids did to you so long ago before we knew better. We children were not good neighbors. I’m sure you did not plant your flower garden expressly for us to pick, nor your trees for us to climb.

I would have written an apology right after we left, but I got poison ivy as soon as we began settling into living in Connecticut and after that it was too late and you were gone when we came back home two years later. I still have the nice letter you wrote to me which shames me somehow now as not being particularly worthy of your friendship. It begins “Dear Katie Lou,” which was my childhood name, and gives me the news of the neighborhood. I disliked my name even then, and you will be pleased to know I tried out many new ones along the way before settling on the present one.

PALM I can picture Long Beach even now after all these years; hopping the squares in the sidewalk, the wonderful old palm trees lining the streets which all had squiggly black patches on them. The truck which came around with hot melted tar to paste on the cracks in the pavement lives in my memory because we used to chase it down the block and grab a piece of hardened tar before the man could catch us. We thought it was good for our teeth.

Maybe that’s what Life is though, a series of patching things up. Streets, houses, relationships. Even trying to make amends for shortcomings suffered three-quarters of a century ago.

I don’t know how old you may have been in 1938, but I’m sure I am older now than you were then, and with a love of gardening equal I’m sure to yours.

There weren’t many of us children in our neighborhood. Two or three more girls and a boy or two who lived around the corner where I was not allowed to play. If you will remember, in Grandma’s rooming house where I lived, there were a number of people who kept track of me.

When we returned home in 1940, someone else lived in your old house, and one of the two little sisters, our playmate Jackie Glass, had passed away as well as yourself. She was the youngest one at eight. I have her picture at my 10th birthday party taken right before we moved away. I don’t have a photo of you, but you live in my memory. You were the first truly old person I knew.

Anyway Mrs. Jaquish, if you get this letter somewhere up on your cloud, I have learned that apologies are best given with some immediacy.

Very truly yours,