by Michael Ryerson
On the evening my Mother died, she had fixed herself a sandwich and a tall glass of iced tea and was listening to the Dodger pre-game show, Vin Scully’s voice filling her little living room. She had apparently just set up a dinner tray near the television and collapsed near the couch and was gone.
Following her beloved Dodgers and reading those cheesy mystery novels filled her evenings. My father had been dead for eighteen years and her second husband for nearly ten, so she filled out her scorebook and kept track of hits, runs and errors and when the baseball season faded, she turned to one of the MacDonalds, Ross or John D. and fidgeted with the crossword puzzle in the Times. She enjoyed her garden and pampered her calico cat. And she continued to smoke those damned cigarettes.
I didn’t realize my Mother was beautiful until I was nearly an adult. She always seemed just normal, you know, like my Mom. But then I heard stories about her courtship with my father and people described her as the prettiest girl in their high school and I looked at her in a different way and could see how other people must have seen her. She was very little, barely five feet tall, so her nickname was Short. He was tall and gangly with a lively arm and lots of brothers. They were married right after high school and together, chased his dream into the minor leagues of the Chicago Cubs. He played third base and pitched and she sat quietly in the stands, keeping track of the game in a scorebook and making margin notes about his game to be discussed later over coffee. He made extra money driving a cab or chauffeuring for a wealthy businessman, sometimes he worked for the railroad or in a drugstore but he continued to play ball in places like Salina, Parsons and Tucson. She darned his socks, clipped off the fraying edges of his shirt collars, cooked, wrote letters, sewed her own dresses and on Sundays, would walk to church while he slept late.
When he was promoted to the Pacific Coast League, they drove to California in a worn-out Ford Model A roadster with a rumble seat and a cracked windshield. She went to work at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank and he played at little Wrigley Field in south-central Los Angeles. He suffered with shoulder pain for two years and finally, when he could no longer make the throw to first, was released. He went to work for Lockheed, too.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he lied to a Navy recruiter about his shoulder and was accepted for radioman’s school. My uncle Bob went into the Army and my aunt Evelyn and my mother got a little apartment just below Sunset Boulevard on Descanso Drive. Every day they would ride the streetcar out to Burbank and install radios in Hudson bombers.
All my uncles, twelve of them, went into the service. So it seemed someone was always passing through Los Angeles and they slept on the floor or on the couch at my mother’s apartment just south of Sunset and they all shared ration stamps or commissary food they’d brought with them. In all the pictures in her scrapbook, these were the best times, the smiles warm and the eyes watery. My uncle Dick was wounded in North Africa but not too seriously. He was treated on a hospital ship and went back to his unit. But my uncle Art was wounded at Omaha beach and came home to the veteran’s hospital. For two years, he lived in a stark, white ward with other veterans and every Monday and Wednesday and most Saturdays, my mother would ride the streetcar, reading her paperback books, to spend an hour or two with her brother in the atrium at the hospital. He came back slowly. Rage, depression and booze, in the end, he beat them all but not before his first marriage failed. He regularly slept on my mother’s couch and would hitch-hike out to the beach to watch the surf and sleep. Finally, he went to school on the G.I. bill, became an accountant and married Henriette. He was forever after a stern man, solitary, controlled, full of self-discipline and few words. He never talked about the war or about the hospital but later, when the family was together, I would see him holding my mother’s hand.
My mother’s favorite saying was, ‘You are known by the company you keep’ and throughout her life she showed little patience for poor judgment. When I went into the Marine Corps, my parents came down to the community center for the going-away lunch. There was a speaker and a short film and when we boarded the bus, I kissed her goodbye and saw something in her eyes I’d never seen before, an uneasiness, fear maybe and sadness. I didn’t understand it then, didn’t have a name for it. I was gone a long time.
I came home from Southeast Asia with a limp and stomach trouble. I avoided crowds, didn’t see my family much, did some drinking. But once a week, I would try to have dinner with my mother. Sometimes I would sleep on her couch.
Many years later, a close friend gave me some very good tickets to a Dodger’s game, third base side, just above the dugout. I called my mom and she sounded excited. My wife and I picked her up and, following my friend’s directions, exited the freeway at Santa Monica Boulevard, went east to Sunset and made a right turn toward downtown Los Angeles. This is not the glamorous Sunset Boulevard; this is working-class bustle, pedestrians, sidewalk vendors, small dress shops, bars and pawn shops. Most of the buildings date from well before the war, lots of brick with exterior fire escapes. As we drove along, my mother chatted happily in the back seat. If I leaned over just a bit to my left, I could see her face in the rearview mirror. As we worked our way through the evening traffic, she gazed out the window and talked about how little the neighborhoods had really changed, oh look there’s the Owl-Rexall drugstore, do you remember that little park where we used to walk, Mike? I pulled into a long line of stopped traffic and she fell silent. Across the street was a café from the old days. I leaned over and looked at her in the mirror, she was looking up a side street toward an old brick apartment building, a faded sign near the top said, Alfred Lee Apartments, Singles Available, by the week. I bent my head slightly and read the street sign, it said, Descanso Drive.
This morning, on my way to work, I passed a Greyhound bus, all new and shiny. I thought about my bus ride so many years ago and the look in my mother’s eyes. Now that I have a seventeen-year old son and feel the time passing so quickly, I finally understand.