The first time I went to La Jolla was the summer of 1957. I was 15. Mama had remarried that spring to a man we all thought was beneath her. My brother Jimmy had left home shortly afterward, calling her an adulteress for remarrying. He had become a holy roller not long before that out of sexual guilt and fear of burning in hell. After he left home he became a circuit revival speaker and traveled all over he country. Mama put Grandma in the Masonic home for the aged because Hank wouldn’t marry her otherwise. And there I was, a wayward daughter — as Mama’s minister said to the congregation — and Mama didn’t know what to do with me for the summer — if I were left at home alone while they were at work, no telling the trouble I might get into.
I think someone had told her I was fucking with Art, the boy down the street, the summer before (actually it was Lloyd). She came knocking on Art’s door while we were watching TV and dragged me down the street hitting me and calling me a whore. She didn’t say who had told her what, but I thought Jimmy might have told her and she got the facts mixed up. So she asked her youngest brother Hugh to put me up for the summer — promising that I would help Aunt Jane with the kids (Walt, Anne, Gini, May, Val, and Andre) and the housework. La Jolla was a magical place by my other uncle’s account, where everyone had lots of money and everything was “fabulous.” The thought of escaping Oklahoma’s oppressive heat and the incessant noise of locusts was enough to make me want to go. The thought of the beach was perfectly enticing.
On a warm day in early summer, Mama took me to the bus station to see me off. We stood on the pavement outside of the bus terminal where the buses were lined up like elephants in a circus. Some were silent, some roared. Clouds of vapor escaped their tail pipes. Mama seemed emotional. I was grateful for the noise and the excuse to say nothing. I tried to be cool. I had recently transformed from a gawky, geeky tomboy to a reasonably pretty girl, and I wasn’t used to it. I was slender and tall for a girl, with blonde hair, blue eyes, good skin, beautiful teeth, and unusually fine facial bones. Adults sometimes commented on my looks — not always in a way that pleased me. My best friend Karen’s grandmother said I had changed “from an ugly duckling into a swan.” I was mortified.
As I settled into my seat on the bus, I looked down at Mama, who was waving me goodbye. She seemed anxious to get my attention, anxious for me to wave to her. I felt embarrassed because I wanted to be sophisticated. I wanted to have everyone think that I was used to traveling. She waved a little more frantically. I felt distant from her as if the window of the bus had separated us forever. I thought, Now you need me. Where were you when I needed you? I gave her only a little smile, no wave goodbye. Then I turned my head and looked around the bus as it pulled away from the station. I felt a sense of power, but a loss too — a loss of innocence.
The bus trip was long and dirty; it was 30 hours to San Diego from OKC. A young man caught my eye then came over and sat next to me (I must have smiled a little). I was flattered. He talked a lot, about himself. I was bored. He put his arm around me. I pulled myself in, wishing he would go away. I looked out the window at flat farmland, mountains, mesas, vast blue skies, and fluffy white clouds. Finally he got off at a small station in New Mexico. Departures and arrivals were announced by the hollow sounds of strong male voices: “Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Kingman, Needles, Los Angeles.” I ate dry sandwiches and drank Cokes. My behind was sore. I was alone but not unhappy.
Uncle Hugh was at the station to meet me. He was getting a little bald and his eyes looked tired, but his smile was still as sweet and his gentle voice familiar. We drove a long time in their old station wagon. He talked about the project he was working on at Convair — about the wind tunnel, strain gauges, and other things I’d never heard of. Occasionally he paused to name a place of interest — the Marine Corps Depot, Mission Bay, Pacific Beach — in his soft, slow voice. I made an effort to pay attention, but mostly I looked out the window at palm trees glittering green in the sun, blue sky, occasional glimpses of the ocean, and orderly rows of houses with plain, treeless yards.
For the first time since I left home, I felt lonely and anxious.
When we arrived in La Jolla, lawns and plantings become lush and architecture varied as if the atmosphere allowed a freer growth of flora and imagination.
We turned onto Bonair Street. Theirs was a plain stucco house. The lawn grass bare in places and littered with toys. The planting beds were a jungle of banana trees and birds of paradise. Jane and the kids greeted us at the door. She was holding Andre, the youngest boy. His hair and eyes were light brown like Hugh’s. The oldest boy, Walt, was six. He was the spit and image of Hugh. The girls and Val were very blonde and blue-eyed. All were tan. Jane still looked youthful, full-breasted, and pretty. The sun-streaks in her tousled strawberry-blonde hair and her many freckles were the only indications of change I could see.
With only a hint of reproach in her voice, she joked lightly that theirs was the oldest and poorest house in La Jolla. Then they took me on a “cook’s tour.” Two ducks in the back yard were there to entertain the kids and eat snails. Jane declared that walking barefoot out there was dangerous because of all the duck poop. Overhead lathe covered the back part of the small yard. Uncle Hugh pointed out plants I’d never seen nor heard of: passion vine, tree fern, bougainvillea. An aviary housed tiny pretty finches that cheeped constantly.