My Sister: A Memoir
My sister was a good person. She died suddenly earlier this month and the suddenness of the powerful forces that control life and death forced me to go back through time this morning to recall our lives together.
Some people dwell on the negative. I did during the years I didn’t speak to her. I was angry over a favor I asked her to do for my mom in 1986.
Anyway, just over the last few years we reconnected, wrote and emailed each other regularly. She let me know how important it was to her and I let her words thaw the chill that I held in my heart, for little reason. Early this morning, my thoughts drifted back . . . years ago . Claudia was a free spirit and a wild child. She was strikingly pretty, as a teenager, and very popular. We didn’t live far from actress Natalie Wood and if you want to picture Claudia, she looked a lot like that, with dark hair, deep eyes and a great smile. She was groovy. She spent years dating singer-songwriter Gary Lewis, and I remember his father, goofy comedian Jerry Lewis, coming over to our house regularly looking for his wayward son. He wrote one song for her – one that I know of – that made the Top 10 called, “This Diamond Ring.”
They broke up and Gary went off to Vietnam. She began dating another singer-songwriter, who was altogether different. Gary was clean cut and this guy, John, was on the cutting edge of a new genre of rock. His group, Steppenwolf, was on the threshold of greatness. She kept her love for this guy a closely guarded secret, as our dad would not have approved. Steppenwolf had yet to make their mark, and I think John was from Germany or somewhere in Europe, and shuttled back and forth to L.A. He finally nailed down a contract and Steppenwolf made their world premier at my high school during an after-school assembly one day a couple of years later. That’s another story for another day. It’s funny, though, because I’ve seen both John Kay and Gary Lewis in concert during the last 10 years, spoke with them, and both remember Claudia, me and those days vividly.
I remember how cool she was. She was a tomboy and tough, too. Sometimes big kids would bother me and she’d come outside and threaten to kick some ass. One day she racked one boy up, who was taking me down. She had a reputation like that, you know. She was up with the scene. Not just music – but what was happening before it happened. She loved the beach, tanned dark, and grew her hair long like the times. It shined and gleaned in the summer sun in Santa Monica and Malibu.
One summer day I went with my dad – who loved her more than he loved anybody in the world – and he bought her a brand-new fire engine red 1962 Ford Falcon convertible with white seats and a white rag top. She drove that car into the Hollywood Hills and Laurel Canyon and she drove right out of my life. That was the first time I missed my sister.
One Sunday night I was having dinner at my Grandma Frances’ place with my parents and Claudia came over after being MIA for a few days. She sat down and ate dinner. Everything was normal except for the ring on her finger. She had gone away – I think to Mexico- and eloped, just like Baby June Havoc in the play, Gypsy.
But wait! This meant she was home again! Not home at my house, but back in my life. I loved her husband, Roy, too. He often let me ride with him through Hollywood as he collected shopping carts for the Hollywood Ranch Market and other grocery stores he had contracts with to pick up the baskets that people took home. He was quite the entrepreneur! Young, handsome and a lot of ambition. That was enough for my dad not to like him! As I recall he was from Tucson and came to L.A. to make his name in the big city. I can tell you right now I don‘t know anything about Tucson, but I promise he got a wild ride in L.A. with my sister.
Claudia and Roy got an apartment in the Palms area or someplace between West L.A. and the beach, I think. She got pregnant and they had a handsome kid, who they named, Darrin, after the lead character on their favorite TV show at the time, Bewitched. He was a good baby. I remember feeding him, babysitting him and hanging out there regularly.
But the tides of separation came again, and like the rough surf that Claudia and I loved so much, they swept us far away from each other as I moved to Washington D.C. with my parents. My father resettled us after his friend and Whittier College schoolmate, Richard Nixon got elected president. The humid green woods of Virginia was a culture shock that I couldn’t quite integrate with; and my mind was still wrapped around the burgeoning rock scenes of Venice Beach, where the Doorswere an unsigned house band every Friday and Saturday at theCheetah; Westwood Village and Headquarters; and, possibly the most important scene, Santa Monica Boulevard’s Troubadour, where the house band was Linda Ronstadt as early as 1967 when she drove home the soulful lyrics of Different Drum, there, and down the street atPandora’s Box, which we later torched in the conflict recalled now only as the Buffalo Springfield song For What It’s Worth . . . In 1969, Linda released the album Hand Sown, Home Grown, and her band quit and became The Eagles. . . .
The era, like the people who lived it, is hazy blur today. But back then, like vibrantly-colored birds in Africa, we flew through the nights free and high and brilliantly bright.
Watergate, and the dirty thieves involved, murdered my father’s spirit. Six years later, we buried him in Virginia – a shadow of himself during his last few years. My family became empty with a shame permeating our home.
I missed my sister, but she was thousands of miles away. I wrote her and told her what things were like and she invited me to move back and live with them but I didn’t bother to bother them. I had taken a place in Beverly Hills a couple of years earlier, late in summer 1969. I finished high school at 90210 before hitting the Pipeline in Waiamea on the North Shore of Hawaii the following summer. I never made it back to UCLA to study pre-med, as I got in some trouble with some older kids on the island, then moved back east to rejoin my folks. The reason I mention it was, Claudia had picked me up and drove me to the airport to surf that summer in Hawaii and as fate would have it I wouldn’t see her again for about a decade.
She and Roy busted up, but I don’t remember when. I wondered why, but I never asked.
Anyway, she was able to support herself and had a good job with the phone company. She advanced from a 411-Information and 0-operator to management and then upper management. Claudia had a work ethic. More than most, I’ve ever knew. She worked hard and she made it. She was transferred by her company, Pacific Bell or General Telephone – I forget which one it was at the time, since she worked for both many times, as they used to bid for her services and she went back-and-forth over the decades – and they sent her from the San Fernando Valley to the Palm Springs area.
She met a single guy who was a top telecommunications director in the phone company. His job was being responsible for sending the TV signals for all the desert sporting events, like major golf tournaments, to the satellite uplink. She called me one day and told me how happy she was and asked me, since dad had passed away, if I would give her away to her beau, Stormy. Claudia’s pride and joy was her hard-earned BMW with the personalized license tag, “I got mine.”
I took the flight out to L.A. and picked up our grandmother. It was a garden wedding and grandma, who was still years away from dying, was like 95 at the time, and survived the desert heat that day as the band played and my sister and new husband looked happy. I wore a green pin-stripe suit . . . and walked up to the alter arm-in-arm with my sis and gave her to a no-nonsense kind of man, who I knew right away was strong enough to be her match.
I saw her again briefly, a few years later. I was on holiday with my girlfriend, Petals, and we stayed a couple of nights at Claudia and Stormy’s – a house trimmed with cactus out front and some “special” plants out in the backyard. We said goodbye and as we were driving away, I remember thinking to myself, “I miss my sister.”
As it turned out, I never saw her again. I had relayed a message to her to call my mother and when she didn‘t, I was pissed. They were on the outs, true. But for Christ’s sake, Mom wanted a deathbed pow-wow and Claudia wouldn‘t pick up the phone. When Mom died two or three days later, I cried and vowed to myself never to speak with Claudia again. Until this very moment, as I write these words, nobody knew the reason she and I became estranged except us.
At this moment, like all wars, it sounds as foolish as fools can be. Yet when you‘re in the midst of your own anger, you‘re more related to your dog than your mind. And, families, all families I think, get that way sometimes. That’s how I was anyway.
One day, so many wasted years later and not that long ago, I was still surfing, only now it was on the Internet instead of the white water and curl. I think I typed her name into a search engine and found a message she had written to me. She was looking for me, and there I was with the dilemma: either let my hatred go or hold on to it forever.
It was around Christmas, so I wrote to her and we began writing and emailing all the time.
It might have been this summer when she told me she had a mastectomy a few years back, and may need another. She constantly badgered me to come visit her, as she “does not fly.” I asked her if I “needed “ to come out and she said, “no, but you never know.”
Maybe she did know. Maybe we all know that it is so much later than we think.
Claudia died suddenly last Tuesday. And, I remember in 1963, I missed my sister. I remember in 1968, I missed my sister. I remember in the 1970s and 1980s and even through the 1990s, when we didn’t speak, I missed my sister.
This morning, I woke up. In the dark and silence of my room, I began to think and cry. I wiped my tears and closed my eyes and I was back on the beach in Malibu with my sister and it was 1967 and it was one of those crazy, secret moments in time, the kind that nobody but you and some other person know or care about. We were laying there on our blanket and talking. We had the radio tuned to 93-KHJ. On comes a song, Tuesday Afternoon off an album called Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues. We hadn’t heard it before. We looked at each other and she said, “come on, little bro, and tell me was that song bitchin or what?” We locked eyes and smiled and that became our song . . . So, yeah, I doubt I’ll listen to it anymore.
I miss my sister.