In 1971, I left my mother and little sisters in Tempe and flew to the Bay Area alone to spend the summer with my father in Oakland. We’d moved from Berkeley the summer before, so I hadn’t seen him in what felt like a very long time, all of third grade – he felt like a stranger suddenly.
My father had started a commune in his huge Victorian house. I was given my own room on the third floor under the eaves, a small room with a secret passageway behind the wall. There was a tiled koi pond in the backyard. There was a laundry chute in the butler’s pantry off the kitchen, and a dusty green velvet couch in the front parlor I liked to lie on.
I was the only kid around the place that summer. My father, a Marxist activist lawyer, had filled his house with young, righteous politicos, all of whom seemed to revere him. They did a lot of sitting around and talking through clouds of pot smoke. I don’t remember what I did all day, but I do remember feeling out of place and homesick and intimidated by my father, who was charming, charismatic, handsome, and intelligent, but distant and gruff with me. I felt awkward around him, like a big lummox. I wasn’t sure why I was there. Maybe he just wanted to upset my mother by enforcing his custodial rights.
One night, at a dinner at some friends’ of my father’s, as I watched a bearded giant frying an odd dish he called “peachburgers,” which were literally hamburger meat mixed with chopped peaches, I blurted out to the entire assemblage of guests that my father used to hit my mother, and she cried. I remember saying it, I remember the shock I caused, and I remember how angry my father was at me afterwards.
With his girlfriend, a sweet, solid woman named Karen, we took off in a tomato-red VW bus to drive around the Southwest, just the three of us. I remember straddling the Four Corners grid, my hands and feet in four different states. We went to Bryce Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, the cliff dwellings in New Mexico.
I couldn’t stop annoying my father. I pestered him to play cards with me and bragged when I won; I could feel, viscerally, how tense this made him. One night, very late, long past my bedtime, he left the campfire where he’d been talking with a group of people we’d met and found me whimpering and crying outside the bus, standing in the darkness.
“Why aren’t you asleep?” he asked.
“You forgot to feed me,” I said. “No one put me to bed.”
“You’re almost nine years old,” he said. “Old enough to speak up. Don’t let this happen again!”
I recoiled. I hadn’t spoken up because I was not a kid who whined or asked for things, and I was shy with him sometimes. He gave me some yogurt, which I ate in silence, and then he packed me off to my little bed in the back of the bus. I lay there with a knot in my stomach, still hungry, fiercely mortified.
One day, Karen walked me into the desert alone and told me that I had to stop being such a pain in the ass. “Your father can’t take it anymore,” she said. “He’s really at the end of his rope.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll try, I swear.”
After this little talk, which felt like a Mafia hit, things deteriorated. And so, after a summer of looking like a wild animal, rat’s nest hair, dirt-streaked face, ratty clothes, I found myself suddenly, abruptly scrubbed clean, with freshly washed and braided hair, wearing travel-worthy clothes, being driven to the Albuquerque airport.
My father looked at me in the rear-view mirror as he drove. “If the cops stop us, they’ll think we kidnaped you,” he joked.
He had called my mother and told her I was flying back to Arizona that night. She was in the middle of her weekly poker game with her psychologist pals; luckily, she was home, or she wouldn’t have known. She drove to Sky Harbor airport, leaving my sleeping sisters in the care of her sweet, clueless-about-children friend, Fred, who looked panic-stricken at the thought that they might wake up, but who manfully offered to babysit nonetheless.
The stewardess who’d been put in charge of me walked me off the plane, and there was my mother at the gate. I’ve been happy to see my mother many, many times in my life, but this particular reunion stands out.
My sister Emily just sent me our mother’s recipe for the cottage-cheese pancakes we all used to love so much on Friday story nights.
This recipe comes from an old index card and is written in our aunt’s handwriting, our mother’s older, deaf, mentally retarded sister, Aillinn, with parenthetical additions by our mother.
1 cup Blossom Time cottage cheese
1 egg (2 are better)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 (is that really an 8?!?!) cup milk
(or a very little cream)
1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel
2 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 cup flour (+ a little wheatgerm)
Place first six ingredients in bowl and beat well with rotary beater. Stir in flour, drop by tablespoons on greased griddle. Serve with butter and hot syrup. Serves 4.
These are thin and crisp and taste like home, long ago.