When our father left us, my mother said it was written in the stars. This was the summer of 1976. I was twelve; my brother Doobie, five. We lived in the Sunset Royale Estates, north of Los Angeles, next to the Blazin’ Glazin’ Car Wash. In the evenings, we put the television on the back patio with an extension cord, sat under the aluminum roof, and waited for a breeze to slide down from Mulholland.
My mother and I watched The Sonny & Cher Show, all the summer reruns. We adored everything about Cher: the Bob Mackie dresses and her long black hair, the glimmering sequins and thick boa feathers. We felt her voice vibrate through the TV speakers: rich and deep, dark and dreamy. One night a week, she dazzled us with her dancing and made us laugh. It was easy to love her.
The morning our father left, Doobie and I were walking to 7-11 for cherry Slurpees. He pulled alongside us in the Skylark, the car shaking as it idled. He leaned out the window. He said, I’ll be back. The Skylark thundered down the street, a shroud of blue smoke billowing behind it. That afternoon Doobie sat on the front porch until dinner time. Waiting.
My mother and I never miss your show. My father can’t
stand it, but that doesn’t matter anymore. My mother said
she knew all along he’d leave. Said he was broken when
she found him. Said he was cracked, right down the middle.
Doobie said maybe our father was lost, like Gingerbread, our cat. You’re too young to understand, I said.
For a while, my mother acted like nothing was wrong. She let me help her clean houses for extra pocket money. We ate Fruit Loops for dinner. She splurged on Milk Duds at the movies. Starting over, she said.
Johnny who? she said on the phone to Aunt Ruth.
At Sears, we shopped for new curtains, what the saleslady called “window treatments.” My mother paused over each one, admiring the pattern, feeling the fabric between her fingertips.
What do you think? New window treatments or new chemo treatments? It was the first time she’d mentioned chemo. I didn’t understand what it meant but I knew it had nothing to do with curtains. I studied her face, unsure what to say. Music piped in from the ceiling speakers.
Maybe the saleslady can help, I said.
Doobie asked my mother why she didn’t report our father missing to the police. I’d report him if he wanted to be found, she said.
On my mother’s birthday, I bought her cassette tapes with my pocket money. Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves. Half-Breed. For weeks Doobie and I lay in bed at night, listening to her sing along. She knew all the words and harmonized with Cher, the slow, drawn-out ballads lulling us to sleep. When “The Way Of Love” came on, my mother grew quiet and let Cher sing to her:
When you meet a boy
That you like a lot
And you fall in love
But he loves you not
If a flame should start
As you hold him near
Better keep your heart
Out of danger, dear
Maybe my mother was wrong. Maybe my father wanted to be found. Maybe he just misplaced himself.
One night Cher said, The trouble with some women is they get all excited about nothing—then marry him. My mother tilted her head back, exhaled from her cigarette, and watched the smoke touch the ceiling. Got that right, she said.
My father named Doobie after the Doobie Brothers, a band that was originally called Pud until they changed it for obvious reasons. He had no idea what a name like Doobie would do to a kid like Doobie. At least he had the sense not to name him Pud.
I brought the cassette player with us to the clinic, popped in different tapes as she leaned back in the chair, hooked up to the machine. I fast-forwarded through all the Cher tracks and when she closed her eyes, I knew I’d found the right song.
Doobie and I sang songs into blank cassette tapes. He loved Elton John. “Rocket Man.” “Bennie And The Jets.” We made outfits with aluminum foil—togas, hats, sunglasses. Take it away, Elton, I sang into the hairbrush microphone. Doobie banged his fingers into a pretend piano while I danced. We were Cher and Elton, the glitterati of glam at the Royale Estates.
My father came back in the middle of a show, when Cher was in a dance routine with The Jackson 5. She wore a silver jumpsuit with fringe, sparkles and sequins, tight bell-bottoms. All baubles and beads. Legs elastic like rubber bands. “I Want You Back,” they sang and “I’ll Be There.” Then my father opened the front door and walked in.
He stood in front of the television, blocking it.
He said, Cher’s a whore.
My mother threw a beer bottle at him and he ducked.
He said, What’re you watching this shit for, Greta Anne?
Johnny, MOVE IT!
He wouldn’t budge. She threw an ashtray at him.
She yelled, I CAN’T SEE HER!
On the show last night, you said you wouldn’t fold up and die
if you didn’t have a man. My mother said she wouldn’t
either. But I think she would. I think she’d shrivel right up
At the wig store on Ventura Boulevard, my mother sat in the chair and took off her scarf. The wig lady measured her head. In the mirror, I saw my mother’s swollen face and fingers, her smooth and hairless scalp. The lady fitted a wig onto my mother’s hairline, pulled it over her head and down along the nape of her neck.
Strawberry-blonde? she asked.
My mother shook her head no.
The wig lady tried another. She brushed it out and styled it on my mother’s head. My mother checked the mirror. She flipped the long, silky black hair over her shoulder and turned to me.
Do I look like Cher? she asked.
Yes, I said.
In her room that night, she sang to no one but I heard the words to “I Got You Babe.”
I couldn’t do it anymore, stopped going with my mother to the clinic. She took the bus alone, carried the cassette player in a bag. When she finished, a nurse put her on the #27 bus. Once she told us how, on the way home, she missed the stop to get off. She’d fallen asleep and the bus circled back around to the front door of the clinic. She’d forgotten she’d had her treatment, stepped off the bus, and waited in a chair until the nurse helped her back outside again.
Like a merry-go-round I couldn’t get off, she said.
How many times did I hold that wig while she got sick in the toilet?
Said he was here to stay. Said he’d take care of us. Said no more coupons for pizza, no more buses to the clinic. When he saw her hairless scalp, he buzzed his own with clippers in support. His copper-red hair fell in small clumps, covering the floor. He gathered up the downy pile in his hands and showed it to her, told her he’d make her a new wig. She laughed, and for a minute there, it sounded like hope in her throat.
Doobie liked to play house and only wanted to be called one of two names: Baloney or Mustard. Some days he couldn’t decide. I was always the rich aunt, he the orphaned child.
My mother laughed when you said, Men should be like
Kleenex, soft, strong, and disposable. But she let my father
She said, You and Doobie need a parent when I’m gone.
I said, If that’s what you want to call him.
She’d been sick for two months and I wondered how much time we had left. She wondered what we’d eat after she was gone. Doobie liked his baloney the way I liked my Spam, dipped in raw egg, then fried in oil and smothered with ketchup. I told her not to worry, we’d count ketchup as a vegetable.
In Los Angeles, people say the stars are everywhere. Merv Griffin at a stoplight. Tom Selleck at a liquor store. Lynda Carter at the movie theater. The only star we ever wanted to see was Cher.
Aunt Ruth arrived from Paso Robles to help, but there wasn’t much to do at that point. She stood at the kitchen counter making sandwiches the day my father said he’d had enough and couldn’t take it anymore.
That didn’t take long, Ruth said.
The pills, the toilet problems, he said.
Don’t forget the smell, Ruth said.
He asked if he could have a sandwich before he left. Ruth stared him down. As he walked out, we saw he’d missed a bristly row of hair down the back of his head with the clippers.
Doobie called him Skunk.
Ruth and I helped my mother to the toilet. My mother put an arm over each of our shoulders and we hobbled to the bathroom. It’s not supposed to be this way, Ruth said to my mother. You should be doing this for me. We eased my mother down.
She winced when her backside bones hit the porcelain. It hurts, she said.
Yes, Greta Anne, Ruth said. Yes, it does.
Ruth adjusted my mother’s catheter and urine rushed into the bag. She showed us ways to help our mother.
Doobie fed her chocolate pudding. I massaged her feet and hands. We took turns sitting with her in the living room, watching Cher on TV. Sometimes she was too tired to laugh.
Most of the time I stared at the crack in the floor, the rip in the sofa cushion. Too scared to say anything. I believed she would die in front of me if I opened my mouth. I didn’t know it then, but years later, I asked myself, Why didn’t I say what I wanted to say, what she needed to hear?
Somewhere, my father rode his motorcycle down Ventura Boulevard. Somewhere.
What did you mean last night when you said, God made
woman beautiful and foolish; beautiful, that man might
love her and foolish, that she might love him? I looked at
my mother and her cheeks flushed red, like she knew
exactly what you meant.
Does anyone forget the morning they dressed for their mother’s funeral? I ironed Doobie’s shirt and pants. My father offered to help with his tie. Doobie shook his head. It seemed like he was already reconstructing his childhood, even as he was living it, to include her and not him.
When someone dies, everything about them, except for them, remains.
What remained of my mother, in her bedroom:
Three celebrity movie magazines.
A half-finished crossword puzzle.
Cher cassette tapes.
A pack of cigarettes.
Stacks of diapers.
Dirty pajamas, heaped on the floor.
On the way to the service, we stopped at the Shell station off the 405. My father told us the story of how he saw Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O pumping gas into his car. He said he made a gun with his fingers, pointed it at Steve McGarrett, and said, Book ‘em, Dan-O!
Two things I wanted to tell him. One. Steve McGarrett is a character, played by Jack Lord, the actor. Two, the golden rule in Los Angeles: never speak to a star.
It was a “celebration of life” but I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in the first pew, listening to my father speak about my mother. As if he knew her. As if he were a part of her. I stared at the photograph from her high school graduation on the back of the funeral program. She wore Ruth’s white gloves, a dress belted at the waist, her tidy chestnut hair pinned back, off her face.
Her whole life ahead of her, as if waiting for its occasions.
After her funeral, Doobie and I sat on the front porch. It was the end of summer. The day’s heat blistered the tar on the street. He looked at the sky and wondered why we didn’t see stars during the day.
Our father unraveled and disappeared again. At the time I thought, How do you love an asshole? That’s when I decided: You don’t.
Ruth moved Doobie and me to the farm she shared with our grandpa Will, west of Paso Robles where my mother had grown up. We’d been before, but never without her. Ruth told me to take my mother’s old bedroom. Start unpacking, she said. I moved my mother’s 4-H trophies from the dresser and took down the photos taped around the mirror of her and my father as teenagers, so I could see myself.
Lying in bed at night, I remembered an evening years ago, before Doobie was born. My mother washed dinner dishes at the sink while I spooned ice cream. My father snuck up, twirled her around, took her soapy hand in his. He touched the small of her back and glided her across the kitchen floor. They moved imperfectly but soon got the rhythm. She didn’t know where he was leading her, but her feet knew what to do.
Now that she was no longer here, she was everywhere.
After Ruth died, Doobie and I cleaned out her attic and found a box containing my mother’s cassette player and Cher tapes. One tape said Do Not Erase in her handwriting. I snapped it into the player. Her voice unspooled into the room. A capella. Bold and fearless. My chest bloomed. Doobie sat next to me on the floor. All the songs came rushing back to us and we leaned into each other as we sang along.
We knew all the words by heart.