Shortly after we arrived in California my parents secured a flat in a housing project that had originally been built as Navy housing during WWII and was now being used for veterans housing. The buildings were one-story triplexes with a two bedroom flat at each end and a three-bedroom flat in the middle between them.
|Government housing for veterans circa 1950|
I still have numerous clear memories of living in that apartment, of the short walk to school, the neighbour girl I used to play with, the peeling pea-green lead paint on the buildings… I remember we got our first TV while living there, and that there were only three channels, one of which was broadcast from the other side of the Mexican border. I remember the black and white test pattern that my little brother, Petey, would watch, mesmerized, while waiting for the morning offering of cartoons and child-oriented serials.
I remember many of my favourite serials and Saturday morning TV shows, none of which were cartoons, but at this point in time—between 1950 and 1952—the pickings were slim and my favourite of that period was Hopalong Cassidy and his fabulous white horse, Topper. My mother liked to sleep in on Saturday mornings, so my father would get up early and go to his Saturday job at a local garage where he was a part-time mechanic and my brother and I would be left on our own: even if my mother was up when Dad left for work, the minute he drove away, she was back in bed, asleep, while Petey and I were to entertain ourselves until she was ready to get up.
I do not remember exactly what prompted it, but one Saturday morning it came to me that Petey needed a haircut. Even at age five (Petey was three) I knew better than to do anything without my mother’s permission so, during a commercial break I tiptoed into her bedroom to ask. I recall that Petey and I had matching Hopalong Cassidy shirts, mine with a dark green background, his with dark blue, the pattern being a repeat of Hoppy’s smiling face beneath his trademark ten-gallon hat, a piece of rope in the shape of a lariat encircling. I always wore that shirt on Saturday mornings when his show came on as my personal tribute.
My mother was a heavy sleeper so once she went back to bed after Dad had gone to work, you could have set off fireworks in the living room and she would have slept right through them. If you did manage to wake her, she would be in a sleep-walking kind of state, and could talk to you and answer questions and then go back to sleep without ever remembering it. As a young child, however, I was unaware of that fact but I was acutely aware that to do anything except watch TV or read a book until she go up would be a punishable offense and that was something to be avoided at all costs.
I also was acutely aware that my mother was very focussed on money. The absolute worst sin you could commit in our house was one that cost her money. Breaking something, tearing or staining your clothes, ruining your shoes by walking in puddles—worst sins ever because it would cost her money to replace them. I was too young at that time to make value judgments about her spending money on herself but not on us—it was one of those things I simply accepted as a child: parents had the money, the decided how to spend it, and their decisions were right. Always. So having to spend money on kids was a bad thing.
I don’t recall what I was watching on TV that gave me the notion but I got the bright idea that I could save my mother some money (always a good thing)) if I cut Petey’s hair rather than her taking him to the barber. I ran to the kitchen junk drawer and found the scissors, then crept into my parents’ bedroom to get my mother’s permission. She struggled up to a half sitting position at stared at me with bleary eyes as I asked if I could give Petey a haircut. She blinked a couple of times, said “Sure,” they flopped back onto the bed and mumbled something about being careful before falling back to sleep.
Delighted, I came out to the living room to tell Petey that Mommy said I could give him a haircut. Eyes glued to the moving images on the screen, he didn’t respond. One of the things people always remarked about my brother was that he seemed incapable of sitting still. Despite his unassailable position as the Golden Child, our mother would snap and snarl at him when the family was watching TV: “Stop fidgeting!” she would bark at him. “Petey, for Chrissake if you don’t sit still I am going to pop you one!” “Sit still and stop fidgeting, goddammit!” Watching TV on Saturday mornings was an exercise in avoiding his restless flinging of arms, legs, and wriggling torso, and trying to cut his hair this particular morning was an exercise in futility.
I was convinced that if he just sat still I could run the scissors parallel to his skull and give him an even haircut, a “butch” haircut that was all the rage with young and old alike. Essentially a buzz cut with the hair the same length all over the head, it looked very simply to achieve. It was, with electric clippers, but not so easy with a pair of questionably sharp scissors wielded by an inept five-year-old on the head of a perpetual motion three-year-old.
Petey frustrated me because he wouldn’t sit still. Every time I tried to make a cut some part of him undulated or jerked, moving his head and causing my cut to go awry. I hissed at him to be still and he just reached up and tried to bat my hands away. I was getting upset because Mommy was going to wake up soon and I needed him to sit still to finish—and fix—the haircut and he was having no part of it. Eventually I gave up—his hair had chunks cut out here, shingled layers there, original lengths elsewhere, and my beloved Hopalong Cassidy shirt was covered with hair. I went into the bathroom to brush it off into the toilet and, focussed on my task, I didn’t hear the bedroom door open. Concentrating on getting the little hairs off my shirt, I jumped a foot when I heard my mother bellow from the living room: “VIOLET!”
She was mad because of the hair all over the floor, I was certain. I came running out of the bathroom babbling “I’ll clean it up. Lemme get the dustpan…”
She stopped me in my tracks with a glare. “What the hell is this?” she demanded, gesturing to Petey, the scissors and the clumps of hair on the floor.
“I’ll clean it up,” I repeated, heading again for the kitchen.”
“No you don’t!” she said. “Get your ass back in here. What the hell is this all about?”
I didn’t understand. She had given me permission to cut his hair, why was she pretending she didn’t know what this was all about.
“I gave Petey a haircut?” I ventured, not sure what she wanted me to say.
“Why in god’s name would you do that?” she demanded. “Look at the mess you made!”
“I’ll clean it up,” I said again, trying to get to the kitchen and the dustpan.
“Are you going to clean up his hair?” she bellowed. “Jesus Christ on a goddamned crutch, what is the matter with you? I can’t even take a little nap without you screwing something up and costing me money I don’t have!”
And I started to cry because instead of saving her money I was costing her money and now she was mad and yelling at me. And that just made matters worse.
“Do not start with the water works, missy!” she levelled at me. “If you want to cry I have more than enough reason to give you plenty to cry about!”
Stifling tears makes you sniffle. I was not allowed to leave the living room to go get a tissue, if she saw snot running out of my nose she would be furious, if I sniffled it would make her furious because she hated that sound. I was caught—to cry would get me a spanking, to force myself to stop crying would make my nose run and I didn’t have permission to leave the room to get a tissue which means I would sniffle and she would likely backhand me for it. I sniffed, she glared, I pointed towards the bathroom with one hand, my nose with the other and she gave me a grudging nod.
I clearly remember Petey being annoyed at us because he couldn’t hear his cartoons. He turned the TV up so loud that my mother turned it off, which made him mad at me. She send us both outside to play and he stayed mad at me the whole day because he had been deprived of his morning fix of Popeye and Oswald the Rabbit. When my father got home I heard my mother haranguing him in the kitchen and a few minutes later he came out, scooped up Petey and the two of them drove off in his car. When they came back Petey had a proper butch haircut. Nobody said anything more to me about it—I remember my father’s face as he and Petey got into the car, a look of suppressed mirth—so I suspect he told my mother to let it go and she did.
What I learned from this was that I couldn’t trust my mother. Nobody told me not to trust what she said when she was asleep, in fact, nobody said anything at all about it. All I knew was that I asked permission, got permission, and got in trouble for it anyway. I remember feeling kind of hopeless at the realization that I could do everything exactly by the rules and still come out in a heap of trouble. It was many years later, after my parents were divorced, that I discovered that unless my mother was sitting up in the bed with both of her feet on the floor, you could not trust a thing she said because she was still asleep and she refused to be responsible for anything she said in that condition…I was in trouble for asking because I “should know” her brain was still asleep.
It would have been nice if somebody had bothered to tell me about that much earlier on.