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First California Christmas

By: Pauline Nevins
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Mother had taken the train – something she rarely did.  Her kids visited her, not the other way around. We sat in my upstairs flat by the bay window – Mother puffing on her Senior Services cigarette as I stared out at the grey North Sea.

"You’re mad," she’d said earlier. “Dragging these kids half-way around the world."  I think she meant to say, “Don’t go. I’ll miss you.”

It was December 1970, and I was a week away from leaving Felixstowe, a seaside town in East Anglia, to move to California. I’d fallen in love with an American airman.

My mother wasn't the only who thought I'd lost my mind.

“America is such a violent country," one worried friend reminded me between bites of a sausage roll at my work going-away party. "They assassinated their president and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.”

Other friends added to the cacophony of doom. “Everyone owns a gun. It’s still the Wild West over there.” Yet another shared the good news that the weather was crazy. “Haven’t you read about the tornadoes and the hurricanes?”

I wasn’t worried. I'd lived on and off in America and managed to survive. Besides, I wasn't moving to America. I was moving to California.

Thanks to Georgia, my American friend, and her “Get Pauline to America,” fund drive, enough money was raised from her friends to fly me and the children to New York but not enough to fly to California. Getting to Sacramento would take three long days on buses decorated with a galloping racing dog.

Jim, the man I'd left home for, met us at the Greyhound bus station on L Street.  He was driving a fire-engine red Chevelle Super Sport.  The car looked even more striking than in the photograph he’d pulled from his wallet in England.  Jim had purchased the car four months before being drafted and whisked off to England for three years. There were times, his mother told him, when she was driving the Chevy and teenage guys in muscle cars would pull up beside her at stoplights, flash her a grin, and rev their engines.  She said that she was almost tempted.

With Jim at the wheel, and the children and I settled into the black tuck and roll seats, the powerful Chevy easily climbed the winding Highway 50.Jim had grown up camping in the Sierra Nevada and was excited to show us Hope Valley — one of the lush high-mountain meadows where his parents, brothers and Basque grandfather pitched their tents and fished for rainbow trout in the snow-melt streams.

 “This brings back memories,” Jim said as he deftly shifted into third gear.  “My dad had a Volkswagen Bug. The car was packed to the headliner with our camping gear.  Mom was in the front, and my two brothers and I were in the back.  This was in the ’50s before this highway was built and we had to take two-lane roads from downtown Sacramento to the mountains. Since my brother, Ray, and I were the two oldest kids, when we reached the steepest hill, my dad would tell us to jump out of the car to lighten the load.  We’d race each other up the hill ahead of the sputtering Bug. Our baby brother, Mike, lounged in the back seat grinning like a Cheshire cat.”

On our return trip, Jim pulled over into a turnout. As the children and I jabbered about what we’d seen that day -- Jim wandered off. When he returned, he answered the question asked by my raised eyebrows.  It’s a broken branch he’d said. We had our Christmas tree.

Back in the apartment, Jim nailed the branch to a small wooden cross he’d made as a support, and centered it on the vinyl tabletop.  Soon our cramped second-story apartment was filled with popping sounds and the toasty smell of roasted corn kernels.  Jim demonstrated how to string the puffy kernels together with a needle and thread, and wound them around the tree — a holiday decoration new to me and the kids.  He was kept busy trying to pop enough corn to replace what the kids kept eating. 

As the kids and I stepped back from the table to admire the decorated tree, Jim said it needed something. He tore the flap off a cardboard box and cut it into the shape of a star.  He showed the kids how to cover it with aluminum foil and then tied it to the top of the tree.

I knew that I’d taken a chance “dragging the kids half-way across the world,” as my mother had said. But Jim had already shown he was as caring as I’d hoped. I knew everything would be alright.

 If gifts were exchanged that Christmas, they have long been forgotten. 

Resident Pauline Nevins is the author of the memoir, “’Fudge’ The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby.”