Christmas, 1940: Abandonment and redemption in L.A.
by Leon Satterfield
It's the day before Christmas, 1940, and I'm six years old and I've just been cruelly abandoned on the streets of L.A. Worse, I'm stuck with my three-year-old sister and her Shirley Temple curls. She's just been cruelly abandoned too.
It's not my fault.
If we were back home in Kansas, there wouldn't be a problem. When you get cruelly abandoned in my hometown, you can walk home in five minutes.
But we're in L.A. where my uncle just moved so he could get a job in a dumb airplane factory. L.A. is such a hotshot place, he'd written us, that anyone from back in the States would have to see it to believe it. They have Christmas lights wound around palm trees. So my father decided we should drive 1500 miles to take a look.
I hope my big sister is really catching it right now.
"What'd you do with your little brother and sister?" I hope my mother's asking her. "Did you cruelly abandon them on the day before Christmas?"
My eyes tear up at the enormity of it.
We're going two blocks to the grocery story, see, to get bread and baloney and root beer. My uncle's at his dumb job and my mother's stuck in his dumb apartment with my new little baby sister. My father's out driving around looking for palm trees with Christmas lights wound around them.
He's also looking for places with funny California names he can make really funny jokes about. Yesterday he found El Segundo where oil refineries make the air stink. This morning he sniffed and said "Elsie sure smells bad today, doesn't she?"
"Who's Elsie?" I said.
"Elsie Gundo, " he said. "Ha ha ha."
We get the groceries and my big sister is carrying them back to the apartment. My little sister and I are looking at stuff in the gutter. We don't have gutters in Kansas.
"Hurry up," my big sister says. "Stop looking at stuff in the gutter."
She's cranky because all her friends are having a Christmas party back in Kansas. She's in California.
"If you don't come right now," she says, "I'm going to abandon you."
"We don't care," I say. "We know a shortcut." So she abandons us.
The short cut is to go down the alley behind my uncle's dumb apartment and come in the back door while my big sister is coming in the front door. Then I'll say "Where you been, you think you're so smart. Ha ha ha."
But something goes wrong in the alley. We never come to the apartment. Instead we go all the way through the alley and come to a street I've never seen. We walk east on one side for a block, then west on the other side. I ask a lady sitting on her front porch where my Uncle Roy Corey lives.
"What's his address?" she says.
"I don't know," I say. "I'm from Kansas."
She says she knows what I mean. She's from Oklahoma. But in California, she says, if you don't have an address, no one knows where you are.
My little sister starts to sniffle then. She wipes her nose with the same hand she's holding onto me with.
"You come on in the house, honey," the lady says, looking at those Shirley Temple curls, "and we'll call your uncle on the telephone."
But he's not in the phone book. He doesn't have a phone yet. The lady looks disappointed and gives us the two biggest oranges I've ever seen.
"California oranges," she says. "Off my tree." Then she calls the police.
I figure it'll be Christmas Eve in jail, Christmas Day in an orphanage. Gruel for Christmas dinner. And my big sister will probably go to hell.
When the policeman comes, he wipes my sister's nose and says there's nothing to worry about. Sure. Tell that to my big sister.
At the station, we sit on a bench looking at our oranges. A woman comes to gurgle over the Shirley Temple curls and to bet we don't have oranges that big in Kansas. The policeman's on the phone and finally gets the right airplane factory so my uncle can tell him the name of a neighbor lady. The policeman calls her and says to go next door and tell the people from Kansas he's got their kids.
By then, my dad's finished looking at hotshot places in L.A., so he comes to redeem us. He walks into the station just as the radio begins "Joy to the World."
"Here's your kids," the policeman says.
"Here's your dad," the gurgly woman says.
Back in our own car we're suddenly hungry so we peel oranges all over the seats. It's getting dark and as we drive to my uncle's apartment, a big NOEL sign comes on and my dad makes the same joke he makes every Christmas: "Look, they tried to spell your name, but they got it backwards. Ha ha ha."
We laugh and laugh all the way to the apartment. My big sister's glad to see us because now she won't go to hell. My mother's happy too, but she gets over it. Next time we take a shortcut, she says, they'll just go back to the States without us. But it's a joke, so we all laugh some more.
And outside, the palm trees are turning on.
Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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