Before moving to Tuolumne County, first Sonora, the county seat, then to Tuolumne, it's namesake, my mom had never been on her own. She had gone from her own dad to my dad who she married because that’s what you did after being kicked out of high school for getting pregnant in 1969. She left my dad and LA in 1970, only eight months after my birth, having had enough of him knocking her down stairs, blackening her eyes, and threatening to take her life.
She met Amonie’s dad, Bob Thorne, a janitor, at the INS office where she worked making green cards on an IBM punch machine downtown Los Angeles. Mom had grown increasingly afraid for our safety after my dad kidnapped me from my grandfather's house where we had moved, leaving me bruised and scratched because he fell and dropped me. He had snatched me up and ran out of the house, me just a bundle in his arms, my mom running and screaming behind him. Bob swooped in to save us, a white knight, leaving his job in Southern California to move my mom far away from my father.
Mom and Bob wound up in San Mateo where Bob’s grandmother, the woman who raised him, had lived for many years in a tidy apartment near a small shopping center that had a Dutch Boy paint store – the sign an overwhelmingly large depiction of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a page boy haircut, wearing a painter’s cap and blue overalls, holding a tilted bucket of paint.
Bob Thorne was tall and handsome, the kind of man who smiled easily in spite of having lost both his parents, traveling musicians, at a very young age. He wore his straight brown hair long but just to his chin, heavy boots, and these black leather wrist cuffs fastened with a heavy silver snaps. He played guitar too, and let me strum the strings of his guitar as he formed the chords and sang my favorite song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It felt like I was almost playing the song myself. But Mom and Bob split up only a couple of years of living together, and having my brother, and well after I had started calling Bob “Daddy.” I had loved our rides to the corner store in Redwood City, where mom and Bob rented a little house, me on the back of his ram’s-horn-handle-barred ten-speed bike -- on a toddler seat that he had fastened just for me. He'd buy me my own pack of M&M's and a pack of Zig Zag rolling papers for himself each time.
After the split, Bob got his own apartment, and we lived with mom in a house with several roommates in Menlo Park. One night while spending the night at Bob's, my brother, Amonie, woke up disoriented in the middle of the night and went outside looking for Mom. He was found walking down the street near the 7-11 confused and lost. There were police, and crying, and a call to CPS.
Poor Bob, I knew it wasn't his fault. But losing track of my brother, or sleeping too heavily to hear him slip out the door in the middle of the night, hastened my mother's decision to move to the country, and Bob had friends living in Sonora – Wendy Ray and some others. So about as quickly as he came into our lives, Bob was gone, not one to settle down for long, perhaps condemned to a life of wandering childless as his parents had done before their early death. He faded slowly from our lives, at first visiting us in Sonora after getting us settled, but the visits grew further and further apart until mom was left really on her own and with two kids to support.
Before finally settling for good in Tuolumne in 1975, after leaving Bob in the Bay Area, my mom, brother, and I stayed for a year in the nearby town of Sonora. We stayed with Bob's friend Wendy Ray, another single mom and her three kids Tammy, Scotty, and Missy who were quite a bit older than we were. Wendy Ray (everyone always called her by her first and last name; rarely did anyone just call her Wendy) and the kids had been kind to take us in but the gettin’ was good right around the time Amonie had developed a habit of scribbling Z for Zorro on any available wall or flat surface with any type of writing device left accidentally within his three-year old reach: pens, pencils, the stub of an old crayon. He and Scotty had watched Zorro on the family’s black and white TV, sitting side-by side in front of the small screen – all the rest of us could see was the back of Scotty's blond head and a bit of the TV that wasn't covered by my brother's head of dark hair and his swashbuckling arms slicing through a ray of dust-mote-filled light coming through the window.
Instead of watching TV, Missy, Wendy Ray's youngest who was prone to fits of whiny tantrums played everyone's favorite song on the record player. Music calmed her, helped her forget all the things that she didn't think were fair. She'd pull the record carefully from its brightly colored jacket (Maria Muldaur floating on a magic carpet in the clouds and a radiant yellow sunset) put the record on the turntable, and carefully lowered the needle down on the second groove of the first side -- “ Midnight at the Oasis,” and she'd sing along in a way I'd never heard someone her age sing – head up, straight, blond hair floating away behind her. While picking up the house or making dinner, Mom and Wendy Ray would join in, singing their single-mom sadness away, “Midnight at the oasis/send your camel to bed/shadows paintin’ our faces/ traces of romance in our heads.”
But we never spent much time hanging around in the house before the moms chased us outdoors to play. Children and flies belonged outside. If the sun was shining, Wendy and mom would chase us out, call us in for lunch, and chase us back out again.
“It's not faaiirr, Tammy gets to stay inside,” Missy would whine because her sister who was already a teen was allowed to hang around with grownups.
But Tammy, in her thick-framed glasses, wearing her nylon fur collared coat if it was the least bit chilly, liked coming outside too. And neither Tammy, Scotty, nor Missy seemed to mind too much about having my brother and me tag along with them around the lot where their house sat just off of Tuolumne Road amongst a small crop of ragged-looking mobile homes. The only other house on the property was inhabited by a very old man who we didn’t see too often who spooked us from time to time when he’d all of a sudden appear slightly stooped and grumpy looking. We'd dart around on the cracked court that bordered his property a place we often played or met the neighborhood kids -- known tattle-tales, who lived in one of the rickety trailers on the lot, the one with the busted up stairs.
When we tired of running around on the court, searching for rolly-polly bugs between the weeds that grew through the cracks, or throwing dirt clod bombs at one another, we'd climb the two glacial boulders, or we'd pretend to drive the old rusted out car on blocks, sitting inside it on what was left of the seat, springs poking through, turning the steering wheel round and round. My brother drove recklessly, a funny sight – a little boy with long brown hair in the front seat of a rusted car with no driver side door, unable to see out the windshield, but Tammy always helped him get out of the car so he wouldn't get hurt. Before I graduated high school and left Tuolumne, the houses on the property in Sonora, my family’s Plymouth Rock, was leveled, the boulders and car chassis disappeared; the land was cleared of any evidence of nature, wild children, or Zorro graffiti and replaced with a car dealership.
Tammy, Scotty, who bore a striking resemblance to the Dutch Boy in San Mateo, and Missy were good company in spite of missing Bob and his music. Together we made a new kind of music, but after about a year of looking for our own place in Tuolumne, mom found a rent-to-own property for the three of us, just Mom, Amonie, and me.
Only seven or so miles away from Sonora, Tuolumne had a distinctly different feel from Sonora. Our new place, a half-acre of property with several tall, acorn-dropping oak trees, seemed to satisfy her pastoral fantasy – the one that she had been nursing along with several house plants since she left East LA, from the time we arrived to Redwood City where we lived with Bob, to the house we lived without him in Menlo Park, to Sonora, and finally to Tuolumne where the schools were still safe, and the land was cheap, filled with trees and promise. If only the dirt road that began at the end of our property didn’t lead down to the sewer treatment plant that we discovered gave off a mighty powerful smell during the summer and attracted plenty of mosquitoes. The house on the property was a problem too. Barely inhabitable, it was filled with garbage, only promising a roof over our heads and plenty of ragged wall space for my brother to cheer up with Zorro’s mark.
I watched as some old guy name Hoyt, a neighbor who had seen Mom working in the yard all by herself and offered to help, pull bags and bags of trash from the house, faded yellow Coors cans, a broken toilet, and scrap wood from the house. Most of the garbage dragged from the house was taken to the dump, but what Mom couldn’t move herself or afford to take to the dump was thrown in the yard with the rest of the discarded things that lay about – little mountains of kitchen linoleum, pieces of cement, an old tire, nine volt batteries, nails, bolts, a rotted piece of two-by-four, the springs and stuffing from an old chair, and an occasional salvageable toy – an old metal car missing wheels, and a little plastic horse with a melted hoof.
The scrap wood was burnt in the tin lizzy wood stove that mom scraped up the money to buy after the long cold nights had already settled into deep places where layers couldn’t reach. During the day, I went outside in search of a sunny spot to warm back up after having to snuggle with my bother, who still wet the bed, to keep warm. From outside, the house looked more like a shit shack, something built by a man with a terrible hangover, with its tin roof sloped at odd angles and that leaked rain into dented pots and pans that mom placed strategically around the kitchen floor during thunderstorms, the ping, ping, pinging of water drip, drip dripping and the hiss from the fire in the tin lizzy, keeping us awake and lulling us to sleep. My brother’s habit of writing on the walls subsided, but his bed-wetting got worse.
Living on our own was noticeably different – quiet and solitary, even though there were three of us. We missed Wendy, Tammy, Scotty, and Missy. Without them we were faced with the realness of our situation. We had nothing. No car, no black and white TV, no wood for the winter, not even enough light bulbs for each room, and no more Maria Muldaur, no more “Midnight at the Oasis/Take your camel to bed,” though mom could be heard humming the tune during the day as she did what she could to make the place feel like home. During dinner, while my brother and I ate, she'd take her plate and sit alone in the front room. Sometime later, she got a small radio and she listened to it quietly during dinner away from us. I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at her from my place at the table, the seat a splintery picnic bench.
She looked sad.
My brother and I tried to be good and did what we could to cheer her up, and by extension ourselves – offering to rub her feet or color her toenails with old stubs of crayon, each toe a different waxy color. We knew she’d be okay when she’d get up off the worn saggy couch and put a large oak log into the wood stove, the kind that lasts most way through the night, and then lie back down and pull us toward her. She’d roll onto her side, so one of us could crawl in behind her and the other would lay in front, spooned by her body. Wedged in between the two of us, with her arm around whoever lay closest to the edge, we did not move or fidget; we did not stir, and the coals on the fire, the flame and heat of the single oak log, caused the sides of the tin lizzy to glow red.