Friday, November 05, 2004

Autobiography, Part IV

My dad never held a job for more than a year, and he was unemployed most of the time. There were nights when we didn't have enough money for food - so we ate artichokes for dinner 3 days in a row...because they were 10 for $1. Apparently, we were on welfare though neither of my parents talk much about it. I know that we had to go on welfare when my dad left, because he took all of the money in the checking and savings accounts and left us with nothing.

There wasn't any money to go on trips or take vacation. We did go to Disneyland one year when I was about 7, although we weren't allowed to buy anything, not even one of those balloons with the ears.

My sisters loved telling me how I was not "planned." It was just supposed to be the two of them, and mom's pregnancy with me was a thing of shame. First, she felt she was too old to be pregnant (32) and secondly, she had no idea how they were going to be able to afford me. Mom decided that no one was to discuss the pregnancy, and my sisters were threatened to not tell any of the neighbors. Mom didn't leave the house in her later months and then I just sort of "appeared."

I think my presence put mom over the edge. She just couldn't handle life...or me. She had some sort of breakdown when I was 5, though I don't remember it much. She had to go away for a month and my grandmother moved in to take care of us.

To give my mom a "break," I spent most of my summers living in Corona del Mar with my Aunti Hazel, who was technically my great-aunt. Aunti Hazel was born in 1898 and was raised on an orange farm in Redlands, California. She was an independent soul and didn't marry until she was in her late 50's. Until then, she own a ladies dress shop and invested her money in real estate and blue chip stocks. When she did marry, she was already a wealthy woman. However, the man she married was one of the top insurance salesmen in the state of California and was a millionaire. They were together for about 10 years until he died of a heart attack - which was before I was born.

Aunti Hazel's house was perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. I remember waking up to the sounds of fog horns and the smell of the salty ocean breeze.

It was the only time in my childhood when I felt safe. Her daily routines were predictable and something that I could count on. Bacon for breakfast, cocktails at 6pm. She had a double scotch and I drank a Coke from a crystal highball set upon a little, black serving tray. Dinner always included candlelight. The best part was that we talked. About school, about my day on the beach, about the new people I had met in the neighborhood. She was interested in me. She also enjoyed answering my questions about her childhood or her siblings who had passed away years before. Opel, Homer, Harold, Neva, Clara Bell. She was the baby in a very large family.

Aunti Hazel knew about my parent's financial situation and helped us out all of the time. She bought me school clothes for every year that I can remember...all the way until I was 18. She would take me to Robinsons or Buffums and let me pick out anything that I wanted. Sweaters, pants, shoes and socks. She also gave me $4,000 for my first car...a chocolate brown Toyota Corolla (she did the same for my two older sisters.) , and she paid half of the cost for me to go to college.

Aunti Hazel taught me the value of being goal-driven and focused. She modeled what is possible in this life with a little elbow grease, a lot of blessings, and determination. Plus, she saved her money and invested it wisely.

Every day, Aunti Hazel told me that she loved me through her gifts and support. However, she never said the words out loud.

If I could live my life over again, the one major change would be that I would tell Aunti Hazel that in many ways, she saved my life. She helped me see another way to live. She helped me understand how one can start with nothing and build something solid and stable. She helped me see how I, too, could help others who have very little.