We arrived in California in June of 1978. I was six- and-a-half months pregnant. Joel was almost 7 and Rachel 4. We were like immigrants, right off the boat, settling into a brave new world.
California felt different. We now lived three thousand miles away from everything and everyone I knew and loved. I had had no idea this would make me feel rudderless and homesick, no idea California would feel like living in another country!
Len on the other hand had arrived home. He loved everything about it. He started to run every day for miles at a time. He loved the smell of the air, the warm weather, Maria Callender’s restaurants, Laguna Beach, the avocado trees that grew in our yard, and Taco Bell.
It certainly was an interesting place to land, but it wasn’t home for me. I was used to the quaint country roads in Westchester, narrow lanes with no street or traffic lights, and driving by hills, fields and houses on two acres. I liked the fact our neighbors could only be seen through clumps of trees, that a fire in October smelled like woody perfume in crisp air and that we had a white Christmas. Everything was different there. Our stores were not chain stores like in California, but mom and pops. People were kind but reserved. You voted in a regulation-voting booth, not in someone’s garage with black garbage bags as privacy dividers. The hospitals back home didn’t have cameras that broadcasted your baby’s face from the nursery into the main lobby like a TV show, and neighbors welcomed you to the community and did not allow their kids free reign to put dog poop in your mail box or rummage your garage for bikes and toys.
Len and I lived in a parallel universe. On our first day in our new house, he went to work and left me to fend for myself with the children, my bulging belly, and the movers who needed me to figure out where every box went while I emptied them out, trying to put stuff away. So much for his pledge to be more supportive at home. Len came back at lunchtime with take-out food for us, but by then I had already dealt with the dog poop in the mailbox and the neighborhood kids ransacking the garage Lord of the Flies style. I felt overwhelmed and in tears.
Our realtor dropped by with a five gallon bottle of Arrowhead water and a gift certificate for a six months supply with the news we needed to be using bottled water.
“What??” I said incredulously.
“Yeah,” he said, “the water in Tustin is not so safe for kids to drink.”
“What????” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s no big deal. There’s too much fertilizer runoff in the system, and you just buy the 5 five-gallon bottles of Arrowhead to drink and cook with. Showers are ok to take. It’s really no big deal.”
I thought, “God please save me from California!”
I called my up mother, crying. “Mom, I hate it here. The people are weird, the crazy kids put poop in our mailbox, and Len is a shithead for not being home today!”
“Oh Dale, it’s not that bad; here’s your father, talk to him.”
“Dale Ann!” he said sternly, “Stop complaining. This is your husband’s career. You have to adjust. STOP COMPLAINING and toughen up!”
I knew they liked Len better than me. Maybe if I had gotten an MBA things would be different. I just raised their grandchildren, but that didn’t seem to mean as much to them as Len’s new job opportunity.
During Len’s third week at work, he went to the office on a Saturday to pick up paperwork. The former owner of Taco Bell, Glen Bell, was also there clearing up some of his personal stuff. Len knew him from his job interview and was happy to see him. Glen Bell came with a friend: , of all people, Richard Nixon!
Glen introduced Len to Nixon and they had a nice chat. Len told me he was awestruck meeting Nixon. He said Nixon was affable and charming.
I said, “But he’s a crook and an evil guy for expanding the war in Vietnam, and he’s responsible for so many deaths. How could you shake his hand and be so happy to meet him?”
Len went silent and didn’t respond to me.
After that, Len and his goals started to shift. He bought in more and more to the corporate mentality. He was becoming hooked on power and status, and slowly being cloned into a Republican and a Pepsi automaton. That may sound harsh, after all he was just a guy doing his job and trying to get ahead, but it seemed to me we had stepped into a world very different from the world we had come from. It challenged our values and ethics. We had stepped into the belly of the beast: the multinational corporation. At first it was a feeling, an intuition, and then it became a fact.
Our third child, Adam, was born on September 27th 1978, three months after our move to California, on a warm Wednesday night with the wild Santa Ana winds howling and kicking up dust. My labor started that night while I was watching Charlie’s Angels with Joel and Rachel. Len didn’t want to believe it was happening because my due date wasn’t until October, but Adam was coming into this world on his own schedule.
We called the doctor who said, “Come in now!” We called a friend to stay with Joel and Rachel and then headed to the hospital in Orange.
Adam arrived while Len was still out parking the car! I had no time to breathe, only to pant and hold off the birth until I reached the delivery room. It was fast and furious.
I remember looking down at my belly during labor and watching it contort dramatically from round to oval, seeing bumps like an arm, elbow or head pressing against the taut flesh of my middle and thinking that I had no control. I watched as this little alien inside of me took over and thought, “I’m just its vehicle!” I told myself not to forget this time what labor looked and felt like. Three times was enough!
Then Adam arrived, all pink and squished-looking, his tiny lungs hollering, then quieting once he was wrapped up tight in his flannel blanket. Len and I both got to hold him in the delivery room. We were very happy parents.
I came home from the hospital in less than 24 hours, but not before Adam got his three minutes of fame on the hospital closed-circuit TV broadcast the next morning in the hospital lobby. That’s when Rachel and Joel first saw their new brother. It was so Hollywood back then!
Adam turned out to be nicknamed “The California Kid” by Len and me because he was such a character. We chalked up his humor and silliness to having been born in the freewheeling energy of California. As a baby, Adam was always taking off his socks, booties or shoes. He thought it was a riot to take anything off his feet and throw it away like an experiment to see where it would land. He reminded me of Spanky from The Little Rascals, especially the scene where Spanky keeps trying to use a hammer to squish ants and flies and then giggles when he misses, keeping himself entertained. Anytime Adam got a hold of his feet, off things came. He wanted his feet to be bare and free, so California!
He had a Jolly Jumper that he loved. It was the only thing that would stop him from being fussy or crying. A Jolly Jumper was a harness with a bungee cord attached at the top and secured to a doorway frame. Adam quickly learned he could bounce around from side to side and up and down. He got really good at doing whirlies, spinning himself until he got dizzy then laughing with a gurgle. He learned to bounce then push himself with his toes on an angle to project himself out into the room like a paddleball on an elastic band. He seemed to love it when the bungee would snap him back. I could watch him for hours do this and listen to him giggle.
Adam loved the water like his brother and sister, and the four of us would head to the pool in the center of our complex and swim endlessly. California did have its strong points. I loved the sweet fruity smell of the orange trees in the back yard and getting lost driving around the canyons and hills behind our neighborhood with all three kids in the car. Once we stopped at Peters Canyon Park, in the mild of wild untouched land. I got out of the car to read the welcome sign. When I read to take precautions against rattlesnakes, coyotes and mountain lions, I just slipped back into the car with the kids and thought, “No thank you!”
Taco Bell had a company house they allowed us to use on Lake Arrowhead. It sat up in the San Bernadino Mountains and was about an hour from our house in Tustin. It was a spectacular mountainside retreat with huge trees almost as tall as Sequoias. The rustic houses hung dramatically off rocky cliffs. Far below, the lake glittered. Standing on the redwood deck that circled the back of the house at treetop level, we felt like the Swiss Family Robinson, marooned in our tree house.
The food in California also tasted wonderful. There were abundant farmers markets and bushels of beautiful berries, tomatoes and greens ready to buy. It was a foodie paradise. Even the gas stations had convenience stores that sold dairy-fresh raw milk and raw butter!
We used to take the kids to a shopping area in Costa Mesa that specialized in chocolate-dipped fruit. We had never seen that before. They had fresh peaches, strawberries and apricots straight from the fields that were then hand-dipped into vats of warm white or dark chocolate right before our eyes.
Laguna Beach was another favorite place we went to as a family. The beach was gorgeous: flat, long and easy to walk. The soft sand sparkled a pink hue as the waves roared in, dotted with bobbing surfers ready to ride them. Joel and Rachel loved chasing the waves like little shore birds skittering back and forth in the foam.
The town around the beach was artsy and flamboyant. The air smelled like coconut oil and sea spray. Restaurants had colorful Mexican-tiled patios to relax on where you could drink margaritas and eat nachos after a hot day at the beach. People-watching was superb. This was not the uptight New York crowd, but tanned, buffed and skinny-bikini-clad families and strange-looking hipsters in flashy outfits, hanging out together. The shops were little wonderlands, like miniature movie sets filled with gifts and clothes from artisans around the world. It was like Disneyland.
The Laguna Beach Arts community put on a festival every year, highlighted with “living paintings.” Artists staged paintings from the masters like Rembrandt or Renoir with live people dressed as the original painted subjects, poised in life-sized frames to re-enact the paintings. Amazing!
One of the best things about going to Laguna Beach was the drive. After you exited from the noisy busy freeway, isolated rolling grassy hills hugged the narrow road for miles. You would see no signs of life until you reached the town that suddenly opened directly to the gleaming ocean. It always made me gasp at its beauty and surprise.
The one thing I never expected to feel in California was homesick. I had never felt homesick before. Suddenly, after Adam was born, I began to miss my family and my friends terribly. It didn’t help that Len was gone so much. I could feel him slipping away. I tried to do things to get his attention. I decided to go on a diet and lose all the weight I gained from my pregnancy and more. I foolishly thought that if I were a size four, he would notice me more and that I would be more attractive to him.
How cliché could I get! So I lost all the weight I had gained plus another 20 pounds. Len didn’t notice! How could he not notice? His friends at work did. Our neighbors did, but he never said a word to me about it.
As much as I tried to like California and fit in, it just wasn’t happening. I was 28, with three small children, living in our third house and not happily married. It was rough. I thought I was building a life with the man I loved, but things kept changing.
Some of the people I met in our neighborhood were okay, but it was hard to develop close ties. They seemed more interested in washing their RV’s on Sunday mornings than talking.
Our neighbor next door was from Australia. Her daughters were friends with Joel and Rachel. The kids used to have a great time re-enacting the movie Grease outside, using the stairs to the pool as their stage and a cassette recorder blasting the music from the movie. Joel always loved to pretend he was Danny Zuko. Rachel wanted to be Sandy and loved singing “Summer Nights,” but often got bumped by the other girls, who wanted that part, and she ended up as Rizzo.
It was wonderful to watch them play outdoors and have so much fun singing and laughing with their friends. But then our neighbors suddenly got transferred back to Australia, just when I thought we finally had some friends and community.
After a few months, I wanted to go back east. I told Len that California wasn’t working for me. We argued a lot. I remember one argument where I was so fed up that I dramatically threw dishes at him in the kitchen one Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t trying to hit him, I was just so overwhelmed and frustrated! It was childish on my part and kind of reminded me of my father hurling the steak against the wall. But I picked up a plate and threw it at the counter. Len ducked. It felt good so I threw another one. What a relief to hear and feel the smash of plates against the hard tile of the kitchen counter.
To address my unhappiness he tried to get me to see the company shrink. I declined the offer because I didn’t trust this guy or his connection to Taco Bell. Later on I found out that the company shrink was being sued for sexual improprieties with his patients!
What I wanted was Len’s love and attention. I craved having a solid relationship with him where we could talk about anything. I also wanted my family to be with our extended family and friends. Len and I were just two people on a collision course.
I felt relentless and wanted to leave. I said bravely that I was going back east no matter what. I knew that if I had to go it on my own, I would probably have to live in Rochester again, but I was okay with that.
Len could tell I was serious. In the end he did value me and our family. He figured out a way to get us back to the east coast. I guess they didn’t want to lose him at PepsiCo because they transferred him back to Purchase as the controller. They gave him a promotion! He was now a company officer. So much for me being the monkey wrench in his career!
I never knew the details of the transfer or how he got the new job offer, it just happened. However, it became the defining moment of a breakdown between us that was never repaired. He definitely blamed me for not being able to make a go of living in California. Later on I found out that I was vilified as the uncooperative wife at work. I now had a reputation that wouldn’t go away. Who knew that our personal issues were company business and that Len capitalized on them? There seemed to be no accountability for his shortcomings.
We moved back to Westchester, just a few miles from my brother. I felt secure again and happy. Len had a new job and traveled more than before, but he also seemed happy with his promotion. He was the youngest controller of a Fortune Five Hundred Company at 34. I didn’t know that at the time. I also didn’t care. I made it back east and that was all that mattered.
I found out later that other company husbands and wives also had rough times during a job transfer. It put a lot of stress on a marriage. The spouse that moved for the benefit of the other always got the short end of the deal.
I tried to adapt to this new life. I gave Len the space he needed to work long hours and to travel. I was happy to see him grow and excel in a career he seemed to love. I took over all the household decisions, planning and caring for the children and anything else that came up. We talked about the big things together, like the schools the kids should attend, planning a family trip and his work. But I tried to not put pressure on him even though it was clear his absences had consequences.
I tried to do what my father told me to do. I tried to suck up the hard stuff and make things work.
On the outside we looked like a happy, loving, well-adjusted family. On the inside, the work I did to keep my family together was faltering, but I wouldn’t give up.