The house smelled like soured milk, toast, coffee, and faintly of dirty diapers. They showed me my room, the sunroom just off the living room.
Always there was the smell of the ocean in the background.
Piles of clean laundry waited to be folded and ironed. Days were filled with fixing meals, cleaning up after meals, changing diapers, doing laundry, ironing, and endless talk.
Jane told me, in her high nasal voice, about her courtship with Hugh, back at Oklahoma University. She told me that she’d told him he was the first man she’d ever made out with. Then later she’d told him about making out with another guy and he got really mad. He told her to never lie to him again.
She said that Hugh was a virgin when they married. I told her I didn’t believe that any man who’d reached the age of 30 could be a virgin. She said that the Ladies Home Journal recently had an article that said often men were virgins when they married. I laughed and said, “Do you really believe what they say in the Ladies Home Journal?”
“Yes, I do!” she yelled. I laughed again, said she was falling for propaganda. Then she threw the carton of milk she was taking from the refrigerator to the floor, and as milk sprayed across the room, she cried that I wasn’t to question the Ladies Home Journal to her again. I didn’t.
During their courtship, Hugh and Jane got the idea that they would have a dozen children after they saw Cheaper by the Dozen (a movie about a man who was an efficiency expert, and his wife, who had a dozen children, all of whom turned out to be geniuses because their father was so efficient). So there were up to six and joking about it. I thought they were crazy.
She talked about how it didn’t seem quite right that her parents were wealthy, and there they were struggling to get by. Her father had been a rather mediocre engineer, and they lived hand to mouth for years before he finally realized he would have to get off his butt and do something independent of the company if there were to get ahead. He started his own business and succeeded. She knew that if Hugh would just try harder, he could do the same.
At night, after the kids were in bed, the three of us sat in the breakfast nook talking about ideas for a business, about what it would be like to be wealthy.
Hugh laughed about the size of their family. He said, “People at work ask me how many children we have. I tell them six. Then they ask me if we’re Catholic. I tell them no. Then they ask if we’re Mormon. And I tell them, ‘No, we’re just morons.’” We all thought that was pretty funny, especially Hugh.
One night Uncle Hugh told a story about an experience he had while he was an MP in the Army, stationed in China. “I was in a train station. I went to the restroom and found a bunch of guys raping a girl. I pulled them off her, helped her up, and led her out of the restroom.” He smiled as if pleased with himself. And for some reason I felt betrayed
Two weeks after I arrived, Jane announced that we would go to the beach. We fixed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, lemonade, bananas and oranges, then walked barefoot on warm pavement carrying blankets, towels, and lunch down Bonair Street to the beach.
The children skipped ahead singing, “This Old Man.” We passed rental courts surrounded by Hollywood junipers and small white stuccoed houses with red-tiled roofs and flower beds filled with hibiscus, roses, petunias, geraniums, and ivy. We could see the ocean from the street. At the street’s end, we stopped and looked down at the beach.
Huge, flat rocks lay slightly above the sand the length of the beach. Green and blue water swirled, heaved, and rolled into waves then transformed into heavy white surf crashing against the rocks. Teenage boys with surfboards dominated the north end where the surf was roughest.
The sky was a pale blue. The sun bathed everything with clear light. The breeze was cool and smelled like the ocean. Everything and everyone had a transparent, timeless quality as in a dream. I could not have imagined a happier place to be.
We walked to the southern end, where the surf was less violent, and laid our bright bedspread, towels, and lunch on the sand between the massive rocks. The children draped their bodies with kelp and danced around each other while we lay on our towels, warmed by the sun, hypnotized into a state of bliss by the ocean’s rhythmic shush and thump. Occasionally we turned, applied fresh tanning lotion to our pale bodies, and looked around for the children. We went into the water briefly to cool off. I wanted to go out farther and swim but was afraid of the water’s powerful movement. When eventually I worked up the nerve, wading and paddling through the surf to the calm swells, I floated in the midst of sunlight, sparkling water, sky, cries of gulls, and exulted in the wonder of it all.
Several days later we were in the living room. I was ironing. Jane was looking for a casserole recipe to fix for dinner. Gini, May, and Anne burst in the front door carrying bouquets of flowers. They were dancing with excitement.
“Mommy, look! Look what we brought you!” May cried.
“Where did you get those flowers?” Jane frowned.
May answered, “We picked them at the neighbor’s.”
“Did she give them to you?”
No one spoke. Suddenly Jane’s concern turned to rage.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” she screamed. “How many times do I have to tell you not to take things that aren’t yours?”
She hit them all several times as they screamed and cried. I stood there, mouth agape, feeling guilty. In mid-August, I returned to Oklahoma the way I had come, to start school the day after Labor Day.