Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Like just about anyone active in the San Diego workforce at midcentury, my mom worked for a time at Convair. She was a secretary there for I don't know how long, and told me toward the end of her life that she could still hear in her mind the sound of the B-36 bomber prototype warming up on the tarmac at the edge of Lindbergh Field. The old Convair offices were there, and most native San Diegans of a certain age can probably picture them in their minds as well.
Dad was just starting his career as a teacher, and finished up his master's in education shortly after I was born. Thus for a time was my mother probably the primary breadwinner. They put off having me, the firstborn, for five years after their marriage in 1949, back in that quaint time when people actually planned ahead and contemplated consequences before diving into ambitious life projects.
There at Convair she befriended another secretary whose husband also worked in the place as an engineer. Everyone concerned came from elsewhere and were without family in California, so the two couples decided to spend the holidays together each year. By the time I came along and on into the late 1980s, the tradition was that we went to their house for Thanksgiving dinner and they came to ours for Christmas dinner.
The first few times in the early 1950s there was only one child among them, the daughter of the other couple. She was a red-haired girl who was three years old when I came along and made it two kids for the holiday get-togethers. Then they had a son a few months younger than myself and called it quits. My folks, on the other hand, had two more coming. My brother was three years younger than myself, and my sister came along when I was five.
Since my brother and I were both born between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I'm sure our additions to the holiday mix were treated as very big deals among this small group of revelers. I was too small to remember much of that, though.
A movie like "Goodfellas" does it better than I could ever describe, but we actually did grow up celebrating the holidays to a soundtrack of mid-fifties through early-seventies music. Dad hated rock 'n roll, and never warmed to the growing tendency of Christmas music to be set to modern arrangements by folks like Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. We kids heard these songs on the radio when they were new though, and played our kids' games with them and more traditional arrangements from phonograph records providing the background music to our holiday memories.
The daughter seemed hopelessly older than the rest of us and we three boys didn't hang around with her much, though she seemed to enjoy playing Very Big Sister to my little sister. It was a good arrangement, as we three were inseparable during those two days of the year. We played army and cowboys and such on the hills behind our respective houses while working up an appetite for dinner. We lived on College Avenue above University, and they lived in Clairemont for a time then moved to a house on the Mission Bay side of Mt. Soledad, near Kate Sessions Park. By the late sixties, we'd moved a few blocks away to a quieter street in the same neighborhood and missed not having a hill to run around on, though Henry Clay Elementary with its big playground was nearby.
Years went by and the kids grew more worldly, or older anyway. One year-end when the son first got his drivers license, he took my brother and me to a ranch near Escondido where his folks kept a couple of horses. We had some of the most fun we'd ever had, at one point letting the two Mexican ranch hands put my brother on the back of a burro that promptly ran out into the middle of a giant mud puddle and just stood there while we all tried to figure out how to get it to move, me translating in my high school Spanish.
By the mid-seventies I'd gone away with the army, coming back only once for Thanksgiving in 1976 and not again for either holiday until Christmas 1979. Though I was out of the loop and kind of lost track, I think the two couples continued getting together with various combinations of their kids until the late 1980s, when mom's old co-worker passed away at a relatively early age.
It was remarked many times along the way that we kids got a kick out of each others company and ought to get together more often, but I think part of what made it special was that we only saw each other at a special time of year. The parents broadly hinted half-jokingly that the daughter and I ought to date, but I don't think either of us were ever the slightest bit interested.
For the past twenty-plus years I'd get snippets of news about that family, and see them in various combinations with extreme irregularity. In the early 2000s we met the father and daughter a few times for Sunday brunch in Mission Valley, and then in 2006 my mom passed on as well.
As had to eventually happen, my dad was next in 2011. He was 90 years old and went out in style, quite healthy and active until the last week or so, when he was belatedly diagnosed with congestive heart failure. To this day, the father of our holiday companion family is unaware that he's gone. He came to be quite close to my dad, and by coincidence shared his birthday, both day and year. He's in a care facility now, not doing that hot, and doctor's orders are that he not be told that my dad (or presumably, other close friends to him) is no longer among us.
Mom showed my sister how to prepare a turkey during the last couple of years of her life, and now she's the official hostess for Thanksgiving dinner. My brother comes down with his wife, and we've gotten into a comfortable holiday routine now, this second season without either of our parents around. His wife goes over to help my sister prepare dinner, and my brother and I hang out at my place for a few hours, staying out of the way and laughing over any number of things nostalgic and current.
We were sitting there on my sofa, drinking beer and bellylaughing at a video of Popeye cartoons, when the phone rang with an unfamiliar 858 number on the caller ID. I answered with a slight WTF mindset, but wasn't terribly surprised to find it was the daughter of our folks' holiday friends, calling to wish us a pleasant Thanksgiving. I put on the speakerphone and we had a nice three-way conversation, agreeing to meet the next day for lunch.
When dad passed on I bought the family house from the estate to use as a rental, and had arranged with the tenants to go there with my brother the day after Thanksgiving this year to do some yard work. The job, as always, was bigger than we'd anticipated, so we just invited our old friend to meet us there at the house while we finished up. She's in her early sixties now, and that no longer seems incredibly older than the rest of us. We took a cruise by the old house on College Avenue, and saw the columbarium at the church near SDSU where two small urns of my folks' ashes are interred. We got some takeout food and ate at my little place along University Avenue, watching the 1999 video of my folks' 50th anniversary party in Old Town. She and the rest of her surviving family had attended, and we really didn't look all that different now than in the video. Once you grow up, things just don't change as fast or as radically as they used to.
It was a very neat visit, and we vowed not to make it such a long time before the next one. It's nice to see that our folks' friendship has carried on into a new generation, the now not-so-young adults that their offspring have become.
Time passes so damned quickly now, and I'm not really in the mood for another holiday season. It seems like the one two years ago was about six months ago. My life is comfortable and I had a great summer adventure, six weeks of travel and study in Europe. I've taught an adequate but unspectacular fall semester at my community colleges, doing what has to be done. My evenings are often spent brooding over what to do for an encore, in a seemingly futile attempt to get excited about the future.
Somehow I keep going though, and things can't be too bad if my biggest worry lies in how to break away from the apathy of my comfortable existence. At least end-of-year 2012 has had already one pleasant memory that I'll often stop to think about, whatever the future may bring.