Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the fifth excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”
The protective shell my parents built kept the bad influences out by keeping us away from people or situations that could be harmful. At home, when my parents hosted family parties, a long night of hard-drinking would inevitably lead to tense conditions that could end up in a fight, and my mom would quietly usher us away from the party to our bedrooms.
When I was in elementary school, on my walk home, I would see some of the cool kids hanging out under the trees at the back fence of campus, and they would sometimes wave me over. I told my parents and they warned that under no circumstance should I ever venture out to the fence. As I got older, I realized that the boys were sniffing glue and paint to get high. Many of those kids joined gangs, dropped out of high school, and either died violently or found a permanent home in prison.
Not only did 48 Viewmont provide a cocoon for us, it served as a safe haven for relatives down on their luck or just hiding away from the miseries of the world. It would not be unusual for me to sleep on the couch in the living room so my bed could be used by a cousin, uncle, or aunt who needed a place to stay for a few days while they worked out whatever brought them to our house.
In true American fashion, my dad taught us to be independent, to think for ourselves, and to control our own destinies. We should be good people, he would say, and be there for others in need, but don’t count on others to be there for you, he counseled. Most of all, we should know that they, my parents, would always be there for us. They worked tirelessly to paste together a family budget, and we always had a hot breakfast in the morning, bag lunch to take to school, and dinner on the table when my dad came home from work.
The meals weren’t very healthy, but they filled our stomachs: any combination of chorizo or bacon, potatoes, and eggs for breakfast; bologna sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise on white bread, cookies, and an occasional piece of fruit for lunch; and tortillas, beans, and something fried with the bacon drippings or chorizo grease from the morning for dinner. On payday Fridays, we could count on a piece of chuck steak, fried chicken, or something exotic like spaghetti with hamburger meat sauce.
We could also count on our parents being at school and extracurricular activities. I can’t think of one back to school night or athletic event that wouldn’t include my parents’ attendance, even when there were competing activities like the 1972 World Series between Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds. That night, during the school’s open house, my dad found his way to the school office to watch the game with the principal and other dads.
My brothers and sisters all recount similar stories even though we were part of two families from the same parents. My four older siblings – David, Barbara, Patty, Steve – were born in the early 1950s, and my little sister Sisi and I came a decade later; I was born in 1963 and Sisi five years after me in 1968. Together with the true baby of the family, my little sister Sisi and I make up my parents’ “second” family. According to our older siblings, she and I had it easy. I guess that’s the luck of the draw.
At 48 Viewmont Avenue, we had a clear code of conduct and value system from which we were expected to manage our lives. My dad was no nonsense and no frills, who taught us, through counsel and by way of example, to work hard, play by the rules, and have respect for ourselves and others. There was no variation from this formula. Any lack of respect and decorum, especially in public, would immediately lead to a non-verbal response, a stern look with a furrowed brow followed by pursed lips, closed eyes, and a slow shake of the head in disapproval.
He also gave us the lifelong love of reading, learning, and music. The tight shelf space in my parents’ bedroom was stacked with paperbacks and periodicals, every edition of National Geographic Magazine published since the mid-1950s was displayed on a homemade shelf for all to see. My dad would get home from work every day shortly after 5:00 o’clock with the evening edition of the San Jose Mercury News tucked under his arm, and we had to be prepared at dinner to be peppered with questions about the day’s world and local events.
Even as adults when we gathered around the same kitchen table for the holidays, he would sit at the counter looking into the kitchen with his whiskey and water and make a controversial philosophical or political statement and watch his educated kids flare up in a heated debate. In the dining room, he had the record player and later cassette player in a place of prominence surrounded by albums that included Tex-Mex, mariachi, other genres of Mexican music, and the standards – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole.
Next Wednesday: Chapter 1 continues with life at 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose.
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