BABS was the first person who talked to me woman-to-woman. I was about five; she must have been about twenty-five. She had very short, curly, frizzy blonde hair—the shortest I’d ever seen on a woman—and a tall “Negro” boyfriend. They were living in a little town on the West Coast called Carmel, sort of like the candy. She was one of the first friends my mother made when we moved briefly from Greenwich Village to California in 1949—so my mother could make better “contacts” in her stalled screenwriting career. I worshipped Babs—she was pretty, fearless and kind. She treated me like a person.
“Honey,” she said when she saw me wriggling and postponing a needed trip to the bathroom (I didn’t want to miss out on any delicious adult talk), “You must NEVER put off going to the bathroom. More women ruin their bladders like that. For no good reason! None at all!” Then for dramatic emphasis, she took a prolonged puff from her long-handled black plastic cigarette holder.
I was shocked to hear an adult use the word bladder in polite company. But that was Babs all over. And she owned a pet skunk with its glands removed, and its own rhinestone-studded leash! California was living up to all my wildest expectations.
Carmel, however, proved to be too tame for my mother. After a stint writing a column for the local paper, The Pine Cone, she packed the two of us off again to her ultimate goal: Hollywood. She managed to find a place in the hills not far from the Hollywood Bowl, which at night poured forth long cones of light that swept the sky for hours during all the glamorous events that I imagined but never attended.
Our rented house had a fireplace with brightly patterned Spanish tiles all around it, and an actual nectarine tree in the back yard. There was a curving stairway with an ornate black metal railing, and a landing with a little niche in the stucco wall where you could put a statue if you had one that size. Later, after my mother fell in love with a handsome woodcarver (or, as she preferred, “sculptor”) she did receive a small statue. I believe it was a Don Quixote figure, carved out of olive wood; his lance broke off later, during the hasty move back East.
There was never much furniture in our Hollywood house, but the sunlight (which smelled like warm pine needles) streamed in through small, mahogany-trimmed windows, and the place had a friendly, welcoming feel to it. We just never got settled in, that’s all.
My mother became unexpectedly pregnant at forty, but halfway through the pregnancy the handsome sculptor caught pneumonia and died. As fate would have it, we flew back to the Village on money that my mother found on Hollywood Boulevard in a paper bag. She turned it in to the police right away, but no one ever claimed it. They called her after a few weeks and she returned from the police station with plane tickets and a bit of cash left over.
It was meant to be, she often said. My children were all meant to be born in New York City.
Before we left, she bought me the new yellow cowboy-style rainboots I had coveted for months. Running and jumping into puddles and gullies, I created a sensation on my last day of school, yelling for joy and shouting that I was going home to New York. I desperately missed the streets of Manhattan, where sweet little dogs were available for petting on every corner and it seemed like a Chinese fortune cookie came with every meal.
My new sisters were born prematurely in their seventh month. As we skipped hand-in-hand to the Foundling Hospital to visit them in their preemie incubators, two beautiful fraternal twin girls produced by my forty-year-old mother and the talented sculptor, my mother confided in me that giving birth to all five of her children in New York City was one of the great achievements of her life.
Although there was no denying that I missed the free nectarines, I knew exactly what she meant.