In those days, Curtis Avenue was a graciously curving street in an old, established neighborhood of Alhambra, California. It was one of those lovely California streets that was lined with a plush mix of palms and oak trees, side, by side, and well attended flower gardens.
The neat white sidewalk wound its way by the old stone street, and the sky gleamed blue and clear above. Walk up this street and see a huge spreading oak tree dominating a generous front yard in front of a gracious traditional home. That is where I lived. Stroll on the used bricks that form the front walk way, and then stroll around back. You will see a large patio and barbecue, made of the same brick. That was the back yard. Behind that and over the tall wooden fence was the alley, lined with early garages, and cars.
The home on Curtis was a lovely old California styled home. My grandfather, Bernard Holle and grandmother, Anna Holle built this home in about 1937. When it was finished, Bernard painstakingly painted the numerical address on a very large rock, and placed it conspicuously under the oak tree.
The front door was a heavy mahogany affair that did not face the street. That meant that after you stepped onto the brick front porch, you had to turn left, and then knock on the door. You entered into the house through a small entrance hall that opened into a large front room on the right, and a large kitchen and dining room on the left. Both joined together into one huge area that was meant for fun and socializing. The kitchen table was a enches, instead of a formal dining table. The living room floor was shiny oak hardwood covered with oriental rugs of deep royal blue and gold. There was a lot of garnet colored velvet furniture, a fireplace on the far wall, and a grand piano. The kitchen floor had terra cotta slate floors, and all the polished yellow cupboards seemed to surround the large picnic table in the center of the kitchen.
As I met my childhood, the morning sun gleamed through the full- sized windows on the east side of the house where my grandmother’s bedroom was, and then in the late afternoon, reflected, in rainbow colors through the huge beveled glass window, then into the crystal lamp in the front of the living room. As the afternoon turned into evening, the room was filled with rainbows on the floor, walls, and everywhere. It wasn’t a large home, but it was a beautiful home full of love and the smell of good food.
My days were filled with scheduled activities that started with breakfast, then, walking down the hall to peer at my grandmother’s silver powder box that played the Minute Waltz. My grandmother never put powder in the box, but rather a beautiful long necklace of light blue opaque pearls, that I could only view with my eyes wide open, and my hands behind my back. Then, the next thing to do would be to jump on her bed over and over, until, it was time for the morning nap. That was my world then. It was my world, and it was filled with sunshine, warmth and love.
My grandmother’s name was Anna, but I called her Mimi. She was a statuesque woman of about five-feet-four inches. The way she carried herself , the way she spoke – everything about her spelled elegance. Yet for me, she was my playmate, my fun Mimi who always knew how to have a great time with a child. I spent all of my waking hours with her, and she made my life full and happy. Days were filled with walking, exploring, visiting, art, and games. Mimi was my friend and my joy, and, she was also my beloved grandmother.
It was on such a day that the morning routine seemed full of talk – my talk. My talking actually, because I wasn’t talking at all. I could see no need or purpose for it. Furthermore, I had nothing to say that I really wanted to say. My mind was full of pictures, my senses were full of sensation, my body full of action, while my lips remained closed. In other words, my mouth was NOT full of words. And so, despite my elders’ endless antics to get me to talk, I stayed silent, finding no purpose for verbal communication at all. I liked my own world quiet and free, with my very own perception of everything around me.
In many attempts to break my silence, Mimi would take me for visits in the neighborhood. We’d walk to Bess and Henry’s house on the corner, my hand held firmly in Mimi’s hand while she coached me on saying “Good morning; thank you; good bye and hello”. Alas to Mimi’s frustration, no words passed from my lips as the elderly Bess and her husband, Henry offered me cookies and juice.
Bess and Harry lived in the big white house on the corner of Curtis Avenue. They were kind, and very retired with their children long gone. The elderly couple were a fixture in the neighborhood, and had been there long before Mimi and Bernard, her deceased husband, built their custom home three doors down from them. Bess and Harry had supported Mimi through the first agonizing years after her husband’s sudden death of acute spinal meningitis, and I am sure they were part of the community that met in the street and at my house when Freddy disappeared.
Their house was one of those big white frame homes, with a covered porch that stretched the length of the house. I remember the huge white sidewalk squares, then big tall steps climbing up to their house. “Why, hello!” Bess and Henry would beam at me, and wait expectantly as they held the door wide open.
It wasn’t that I sat on their couch ignoring them or purposely not speaking to them. And, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak up. Actually, that would have made it so much easier for everyone, including me. Henry wouldn’t have had to try to make conversation with me. Bess wouldn’t have asked me over and over if I like the cookies. Mimi wouldn’t have tried to encourage me to speak. I just didn’t have anything to say. My mouth would drop open as I began to find refuge in the folds of Mimi’s skirt. I was a quiet child who liked it that way, and I couldn’t see the purpose in all of the noise people make with their mouths. My thoughts were quiet and imaginative. My mind was where I had unfettered freedom, and there was no need to express them to anyone else except myself. I was beginning to see social conventions, and to understand that we needed them, like good manners. Yet, when it came to the actual speech – I just didn’t care, and I stayed in my own quiet world.
It was on one of the “speech days” where Mimi played with me and read to me all morning and asked me all kinds of questions, to which I had no answers. The play and the visit to Bess and Henry’s had been fun, but the effort exhausting. I awakened from a long nap on a late summer’s afternoon. I felt hot and grumpy as I walked to the edge of the curb, sat down and began to watch all the activity of the bugs on the ground, poke a stick into the spongy black tar that filled the cracks in the street.
Although the sun bore down on my side of the street, it had begun to descend behind the large trees in Freddy Brown’s yard casting deep shady patches halfway across the street, almost to where I sat. I looked for Freddy but there was no sign of him. I sat on the curb noticing the sparse dry grass on the strip next to it, when I saw my friend, Billy pedaling down the sidewalk towards me.
Billy Martin was my friend since I could remember. He was a little blonde haired boy of four years old, and today he was trying to get control of his tricycle without much success. As he made his way precariously down the sidewalk, the tricycle, with Billy on it, careened first to the right side of the sidewalk, and then to the left. When he set it straight and made a little headway, it would veer once again one way, and then the other, eventually running into the dry dirt on the parking strip and toppling over. In this condition Billy worked his way down the sidewalk towards me. I had resumed my bug observation when suddenly – Whap! Billy ran into me full force with his red tricycle.
I looked around to see Billy smiling at me with a great big smile in a very dirty face. Suddenly, I felt deeply insulted that this boy had dared to run into me. As Billy dismounted his tricycle and stood beside it beaming, with his big blue eyes shining bright under his tousled blonde hair, everything inside of me boiled up into a grumpy rage, and I blurted out forcefully, “Go to hell Billy!” at the top of my voice.
My voice was loud and clear. It was so clear, it seemed to have come from someone else, some other child, but not from me, but I knew that the voice was mine, and that I had spoken clearly, with authority, and voice. I stood up to Billy and glared, as his beaming smile transformed into confusion and hurt. I put my hands on my hips and fixed myself on saying the powerful words again, watching their effect, when I felt a large weight on my shoulder. It was my grandmother’s hand firmly on my shoulder. She stopped me just as I had taken another breath to volley another group of powerful words and said “Stop right now young lady. First you are going to apologize to Billy, and then you will have soap in your mouth.”
Apologize to Billy – – apologize to Billy who had just run into me with his red tricycle – apologize? “No!” I thought to myself. “No!” I yelled out loud. “No!”. Mimi took me firmly by the hand and marched me up the front walk telling me about soap in my mouth.
The questions began marching out of my mouth, and they seemed to make sense to Mimi. “What is soap in my mouth?” I queried, looking up at her, suddenly curious about the whole idea.
“Soap is what happens when a child says something really naughty.” Mimi was matter of fact.
“Do we eat soap?!” I asked.
“No we do not eat soap.” Again, more facts, more information. Entertained about not eating soap, yet having it in my mouth spurred many more ideas and questions, but when I started asking them, Mimi told me to be quiet, and that I had talked enough for one day.
Mimi looked glum as she stood at the sink in the yellow bathroom, carving chunks out of a bar of lemon yellow soap. To me it looked delicious. She held the big pretty bar up, and then dramatically carved first one little slice out of the bar, and then another. It looked delicious.
‘It’s not going to taste bad Mimi.” I stated.
“O-h-h-h-h yes it will. It will taste awful. You have to have your mouth washed out until it is clean of all those bad words you said to Billy out there.”
“What bad words?”
“Those bad words.” Mimi paused the dramatic slicing, and looked at me meaningfully.
“Billy is your friend, and you were mean to him.”
Once again I remembered the scenario with Billy deliberately pushing his bike into me.
“Billy didn’t push his tricycle into you on purpose. It was an accident. He didn’t mean to do it. He’s just learning how to ride his tricycle. ” Mimi had read my mind, and now I was curious about how something like running a trike into someone could be an accident, but my thoughts were interrupted with Mimi telling me to open my mouth. As she bent down and peered into it, she placed a chunk the yellow confection on my tongue.
“Okay, close your mouth – it’s time to wash it out from all those bad words. ” Mimi was matter of fact, and I knew I had to do it, so I did. I closed my mouth and allowed the soap to melt a little. No matter what Mimi had said, I knew that little yellow slice was going to taste very good.
The morsel began to melt, and immediately the hotness of its bitter burn flowed into my sinuses and nose, causing it to run fire water down onto my lips and chin. My eyes blazed with scorching fumes and exploded in agony, while bubbles escaped from my mouth, at first one by one, and then in great foamy groups, all bonded together, and all, every single one, coming out of me.
I felt my throat close up, blocking the air. My mouth gaped open gasping for air, and the contents of my afternoon snack and probably lunch, and anything else that was in me spewed out all over the bathroom floor, the walls, me, and Mimi. I released every bit of the soap that had been put inside me, over and over again, until relief finally began to cover me in cool shakes as I sobbed.
I awoke to birds singing and sun rays filtering through my window, laying their reflections across my bed. My little brown teddy bear was tucked in by my side, and the little clock ticked dutifully on the toy shelf. I felt the presence of Mimi sitting on my bed, patting me.
“Good morning” she said cheerfully, waiting for a response. Getting none she kindly repeated her greeting. I looked at her quizzically, and then, out of the window. I really had nothing to say. Nothing of any importance at least.
There were no words in my head, and no words came out of my mouth, nor would they, for a very long time.
Curtis Avenue, Alhambra California, 1950