(I must start by saying the formatting is gone so I have to fix on the fly. It read better in Word).
When I was 25, I took a month off work and traveled with my Grandmother and Aunt across the country to meet relatives, learn about my Grandmother’s life and payback the woman that took care of me in more ways than I knew.
This came about in a series of choices and coincidences that worked out perfectly. After college, from 1982 through early 1984 I worked at a “computer company”, it was an early internet startup, before the internet was around. Despite some great products, the company (“DataFax”) was very much ahead of its time, and it closed shop very early in the year.
As an aside, my friend Steve Coyne got me the job at DataFax. It was my first job out of college that wasn’t a waiter. I graduated in 1981, in the middle of a slight recession, and jobs were not thick on the ground. I never expected to work with computers, but this was my first foray. As a matter of fact, in college I refused to work with computers. I was a proud luddite, but lack of job opportunities will change your perspective on things.
Ultimately, as with nearly all computer companies I worked at over time, it folded. While I was there, I worked for a woman whose card read, I shit you not, National and International Sales Manager. Which is a bit much. I went to Comdex with the company and closed my first sale the same way she closed many of hers, with dinner and drinks. Okay, and sex. But back to our main story.'
Around that same time (we’re back in 1984), I was speaking with my Grandmother, Zela. I will get to more about Zela, much more, but we can start with the fact my Grandmother was very important to me. I lived with my father after my parents’ divorce and my father was spectacularly unreliable. Zela backstop raised me for much of my life. During a tough phase at UCLA, she loaned me some money for school, and I paid her back, $50 a month. After I finished the loan, I continued to pay $50 a month for years, since it meant more to her than to me. I don’t say that as a brag, but it meant a lot to Zela at the time, and probably deepened our relationship. We were always there for each other.
One day I went down to visit – a drive from West LA to Orange County, twenty miles and about an hour in traffic, just to say hi and tell her about my fun at the LA Olympics. I had attended a lot of the competition from the LA Olympics. Typically, after I did something fun or traveled, I would go share the pictures with Zela and we would talk about the event and then life in general.
It was on this particular visit she told me of a relative that passed away. As the good grandson, I said, “Do you want to go for the funeral, I can help with flight.”
She gave a grandmotherly sigh and said, “No. I hate going back only to funerals.”
And so, we talked about driving to visit her family back east. Being LA born and bred, anything east of the Colorado River is “back east” to me. Her family, and my much more extended family, was from Illinois and Missouri. Not Illinois like Chicago, but like Cairo. Cairo Illinois is pronounced KAY-row, not “Cairo” as in Egypt. Cairo, as you may not know, is a city at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Back in the day of my relatives (Zela was born in 1911), this made Cairo a busy prosperous place with lots and lots of barge traffic. But then planes, then trucks and then the interstate road system took the city out of Cairo and made it another dead-end town in the rural parts of flat Appalachia.
Given that I enjoyed my grandmother’s company, she wanted to visit the relatives while she was alive and I was working at a bar and could take off as I wanted, we decided to take a road trip to see (for her) and meet (for me) the family. The only concern was my Aunt Martha, who had down syndrome (now the proper word appears to be mentally challenged, but this was before that particular terminology was in vogue). Given that I grew up with Martha and she was part of the family, we quickly decided she should come along. She was all for the idea because a vacation is a vacation.
It’s funny to think back on the trip. Zela and I never questioned that Martha would come along, but that was the concern most everyone else had originally. The common question from my father, whomever his current wife was and the few family members in the city was “What about Martha?” It was never a question my grandmother or I had. I suppose it comes from knowing Martha as a person, not only as an occasionally seen dependent.
That discussion was about the sum total of our planning. We decided to wait a couple of weeks so Zela could contact the relatives – she wrote some and called a few. Zela lived through the depression, and like most people of that era, watched every dime. She still thought of a phone call in terms of “long distance” and “toll calls”, concepts now long forgotten. She was frugal and wrote letters normally. But for this trip, she called people and gave them a general idea of when we would get there.
We spent the next few weeks listening to my father tell us, separately and together, that this was not a good idea. We would break down, or get bored, or Martha would act up. He told me that we should be responsible, which is pretty damn funny coming from a man in the mist of his ninth marriage – at the time.
We didn’t pack much. My grandmother had a big-ass Olds Cutlass with a V8, with enough room for three bags in the trunk, and a cooler. Zela decided we would save money by making sandwiches for a lot of lunches. I made sure to take a camera – although you will see it wasn’t a very good camera. Another quaint idea lost to the ether of the twentieth century, a separate camera. And, this being 1984, we did not have a cell phone. In retrospect, it was almost like crossing the country in a covered wagon.
I do have to make one quick story about cars. The Cutlass was the 2nd big ass V8 Zela owned. The first was a Chevy Impala, purchased immediately after my Grandfather’s death in 1970. My grandfather, Henry Albert Mitchell, was a great guy. He took his new wife and son from St. Louis to Los Angeles at the end of the depression and made a new world for himself. He became a Mason, and Secretary of a Masonic Hall, which was a big deal. He raised a pain in the ass son, then a late child that turned out to be a mentally challenged daughter and adjusted his life to match. He ended up taking in his father in law, a cantankerous old coot and, off and on, me. He took it all with a smile and good will. Except my grandmother’s driving.
Zela was, do her dying day, a horrible driver. A story circulated in our family that was repeated so often it was considered gospel. One day Zela drove down Figueroa to work and hit a parked car. My grandfather was very understanding. Two days later, driving down the same street at the same time of day, she hit another parked car in the same place. After consoling her that it would all be alright, he did say, “But Zela, please find another damned street to drive on.”
His only control over her driving was the choice of automobile. While he was alive, she drove a Nash Rambler. Now, Nash was out of business long before I remembered cars , but I do remember the Rambler. It was a round, solid car. It was all metal and, in California without salt that rusted cars, a Rambler could last forever. It took all the bumps and dings my grandmother could give it. And it was spectacularly under powered, which drove Zela nuts.
My grandfather died on July 2, 1971. We will come to why I remember this date later, but for right now, take my word for it. It was a heart attack, and everyone was broken up over it. We mourned for quite a while. However, once the mourning was done, my father took the camper van they had, and Zela sold the rambler. She went out and bought a 1971 V8 beige Impala with the landau top. And drove that V8 like a bat out of hell. By the very early 1980s, the car had plenty of miles, but was still the safest thing on the road. She passed it on to a relative (her niece) that badly needed a reliable, if older, set of wheels and purchased the Cutlass. That Impala lived another couple of decades, passed down along our relations that needed help. I think it gave up the ghost somewhere along mile 300,000 plus. It was also spacious and offered plenty of room for sleeping in the back seat.
The Cutlass was a bit newer and fancier, and only had 2 doors. It was never quite as reliable as the Impala, but the back seat was still great for napping and Martha made the most of it. You may ask what happened to the Cutlass. Turns out it was not as indestructible as the Impala and was totaled after only 3 of Zela’s accidents.
One last thing about the procession of Nash Ramblers (and Martha). Ramblers were heavy and had big doors. For some reason simply closing the door never worked. It always remained halfway closed and would fly open on a curve. This led to constant reminders to Martha, Zela and myself from my grandfather to close the door again. “And this time,” he would add, “slam it.” Aunt Martha learned this lesson deeply and would thereafter slam any door she shut for her entire life. On the rare case where my grandmother would not close the door enough, Martha would yell out, “Slam it, Zela!” It was one of those humorous family things that probably got old for my grandmother about the 100th time she said it. And she said it for another 30 years.
And so, on a late summer day, we were off. Armed with a camera, gas credit cards, chocolate chip cookies, a cooler of tab, white bread mayo and bologna, we set out.
Here I have to rely on my memory and a small set of notes I took. I created a mini album for my grandmother with daily notes. As we would drive to each town, we would talk about the family members we would meet. Zela would share stories of them and herself. These for the foundation of my memory. These stories were rarely fit for print if a family member read them in 1984. Now, 30+ years later, the stories are quaint and charming. Upon rereading the actual notes, I am surprised how banal they are.