Forging a New Life in California

1976 was the year we moved to Northern California. I was a wee kid, but have vivid memories of that year…

I was born in 1970 in the lush and glorious international destination of Flint, Michigan, but my parents’ divorce led Ma and me to Denver by the time I was a year old. At the time she was a freewheeling hippie chick, and we moved around a lot. A lot. So freewheeling, in fact, that we actually lived for a while in a bread van named Freewheelin’ Franklin. Those old enough (and hippie enough) will perhaps fondly remember Freewheelin’ Franklin as one of the colorful stoner characters from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic books of the early 1970’s. The bread van was painted red, with a picture of Freewheelin’ Franklin on the side. I may have learned how to read from those comic books, actually. They are certainly burned into my childhood memories. Pun intended.

Ma was going to community college in Denver, majoring in English with a minor in Creative Writing. She had a Work Experience job in the Dean’s office, and was trying to play it straight for awhile. (Those were the days when “straight” meant “not hippie”. The change in colloquial meaning of the word was a very confusing transition for me in the early 80’s, often leading to amusing misunderstandings.) We moved into a small house on Chase Street near Sloan Lake, which was her favorite destination to indulge her passion for water skiing. Ma traded Freewheelin’ Franklin for a guitar. She wrote poetry, and started writing songs from her poetry based on the only four chords she knew: C, A minor, F, G7. It’s amazing the endless variations and songs that can be achieved with that single classic riff.

We spent enough time living without TV or radio, surrounded by her social circle of like-minded hippies, that live music “jam sessions” were the only music I knew. Later on, when we actually had a radio, I remember hearing the Eagles sing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and thinking somebody had stolen Ma’s music. Evidently I knew all the popular music of the day. I just didn’t know it was popular. Before that guitar came along, she was all about the tambourine. That duty got passed along to me when she was playing guitar.

Ma had a boyfriend, Farley. Farley was his last name, but his first was Bob or something too generic for his hippie self to identify with. Too straight. He had a long ponytail and full, bushy beard. (But then again, who didn’t? Excluding straight guys, of course.) Farley worked as a carpenter and lived in a windowless basement apartment in a tall Postwar apartment building where he got free rent in exchange for maintenance. He took me to one of his jobs once, in another apartment building owned by the same man as Farley’s building. The long, grand entry hall had floor-to-ceiling mirrors on both sides. That’s why Farley brought me along that day. He knew I’d get a kick out of the mirrors. It was my first “infinity chamber” experience, and I clearly remember jumping and jumping over and over to try to see over myself at the me standing behind me. I’ve never seen a better infinity chamber since, and believe me, I’ve looked.

I loved spending time at Farley’s apartment. It was across the street from a park with an A&W restaurant on the other side. Once in that park I got my ankle stung by a honeybee as Ma and I walked barefoot through a patch of white clover. We were always barefoot. The bee dangled from my ankle until it finally pulled itself off, leaving its sac hanging there. It was traumatic, and I cried and cried until she took me to the A&W for a root beer float. Getting her to go for a root beer float was not a challenge ever, though. The sweet waitress gave me a kid’s glass mug as consolation for my bee sting, but I kept crying and crying that I wanted the big float mug. The real one. With exasperation she eventually told Ma she would turn her back, and if the mug “disappeared” so be it. Just shut me up already. I still have and treasure those Ma-and-Zann mugs.

Farley’s basement apartment had dark orange shag carpet. It was the 70’s, after all. I frequently climbed onto the kitchen counter and tried to jump over the linoleum to the carpet. The linoleum was a lava pit, and the carpet was the cliff on the other side of the pit. Sometimes I wouldn’t quite make it, and would have to grasp at the shag of the carpet and pull myself out of the pit, legs dangling dangerously close to the million-degree heat that was going to consume me. Sometimes I’d miss altogether and burn up. I had magical powers of resurrection, though, and could return to the counter to try again.

Given that he did maintenance, there were always cans of paint around Farley’s apartment. I had one whole wall of his apartment that was mine to do with as I pleased. He used it originally to test paint colors and make sure they dry to the desired shade or tint, so it had a head start as a multicolor mess. He handed it over to me, and took his own swatch testing to another wall. He showed me, too, how you could paint a light bulb and scratch patterns into the paint, and the patterns would show on the walls and ceiling all around the room. What fun I had!

I had my first best friend in that building. A girl named Squirrel lived on the top floor, and she was my age. We played house all the time. We would both be housewives and her biggest teddy bears would be our husbands. My husband’s name was Tony Randall, and he was a carpenter. We would cook our husbands dinner and wait for them to come home, and when they showed up tired from a day of work, we’d make out with them. Sometimes I would wake up very very early, before dawn, and go all the way to the top of the building to sit in front of Squirrel’s apartment door in the dark and sing. I would sing “Helplessly Hoping”, a wonderfully alliterative song that Ma must have written, since she played it all the time. I’d sit there and knock on her door quietly to the rhythm, singing until her dad came to the door and told me to go away, obviously irritated that I was there so early. Exasperation for both of us. The next time we spent the night with Farley I’d go upstairs before dawn and do it all over again. Squirrel’s dad was straight and thought I was a bad egg.

That summer of 1976 was the US Bicentennial. Ma, Farley, and I went to watch the fireworks over Sloan Lake. I vaguely remembered having seen fireworks the previous year when I was four, and asked Farley why we were having them again. He tried to explain to me that there were fireworks every year here at the same time, but this year was a special birthday. I didn’t get it, but it didn’t really matter because I was excited to be around so many people and watching them now. Actually, I was probably more tired and ready to go to bed than anything, but it was still fun in my memory. Little did I know there was a whole different set of fireworks about to explode.

Ma’s job in the Dean’s office apparently didn’t pay quite enough to cover us living in an actual house. She was fairly practiced at signing documents on the Dean’s behalf. She had access to the school’s checks and had been practicing his signature in, well, “other ways.” Not a lot, apparently, but just enough to make ends meet.

The forgery was discovered, naturally. Ma was a wanted woman and our house was being watched. We had to leave the house behind, along with everything in it. All we had was our belongings that were at Farley’s apartment. At least the mugs and my favorite Snoopy were there. (Yes, I still have him, too.) One night we had finished eating and were sitting there in Farley’s living room while they were trying to decide what to do next. Ma knew that jail would mean I’d go off to a foster home, and she wasn’t about to let that happen. For both our sakes, she couldn’t let that happen. She needed me just as much as she wanted to protect me. I knew something was up, but was too young to really get it.

A firm knock came unexpectedly at the door. Ma explained to me that it was time to play hide-and-seek. Farley’s closet had a nook in the wall that was elevated off the floor and was just big enough for the two of us to squeeze in. It was hidden behind his hanging clothes, and its position off the floor meant that anyone looking underneath the clothes would have no idea it was there. They would have to part the clothes to see us. It was the hide-and-seek game of my life. I’m sure her heart was racing as much as mine. Farley let the police into the apartment to search for us, and I was giggling with excitement that we were playing my favorite game that didn’t involve lava pits. Ma had to keep her hand over my mouth and a finger up to her lips to signal me to shush. Her eyes were open so wide that I knew she meant it.

The police searched the closet, indeed. I could see a flashlight on the floor right below our hiding place. I was bursting with anticipation, wanting to pop through the clothes and scream Surprise! But I refrained. Self-control had been the theme of recent lessons, and I was hell-bent on success.

When we were able to come out at last Farley looked like he was going to pass out, and had a US map out on the cable spool that he used as a coffee table. We would have to leave Colorado, and Ma knew she wanted to come out to California. They had already been talking about that earlier. She looked at the map and decided that Eureka sounded like a good place. It was pretty much a straight line across the map from Denver. Eureka it would be.

With a suitcase, the guitar, and $100 in cash, Ma and I headed for the Greyhound station early the next morning. I had to spare Squirrel her morning serenade that day, and I wasn’t happy about it. Gasping at glimpses of gentle true spirit I ran, wishing I could fly, only to trip at the sound of goodbye. We can’t use our real names until we’re done with our bus ride, Ma said, and came up with a new last name for the bus tickets.  It’s going to be a fun new adventure, she told me. And off we went. Forging a new life.

Ma is anything but good when it comes to directions, and often acted on impulse. We’d had travels earlier in my life where we tried to take a train from Michigan to Colorado, and ended up in Canada. We’d had another trip to the airport where we turned left off the freeway and drove straight across opposing traffic and islands and median strips and into the hangar looking for a friend’s incoming PanAm flight. This proved to be another journey much like those.

Greyhound should be pretty straightforward, but when you get off the bus or have to change buses it’s a whole different story for Ma. The journey that was supposed to take three days took seven. We had a layover in Salt Lake City and had to change buses. There’s a bus that does a scenic loop of the Great Salt Lake. I don’t know if that was even a Greyhound, but we took it. And again. And a third time. That last time, the nice bus people put us up in a motel overnight and came to fetch us in the morning. They led us by the hand (literally) to the correct bus and sternly stood there as we boarded. They told us not to get off until San Francisco. Not even for a cigarette (but smoking was permitted on buses back then anyway.)

I was a restless five-year-old, and all these days on the bus were very trying. I kept stretching my legs against the seat in front of me. A large woman in that seat was as frustrated from too long on a Greyhound as we were, and kept telling me to stop it with increasing loudness. Ultimately, she stood up and turned around in her seat, threatening me with hand poised to backhand me upside the head if I didn’t stop. Ma was having none of it. Though usually timid, threatening the offspring brought out the fury in her and she laid into the woman with a vengeance. The rest of the bus ride was much calmer, and I stretched my legs as often as I needed.

I imagine my current fascination with maps and obsession with knowing my way around comes from that trip.

Along the way Ma had plenty of time to write a song about the journey, about leaving our mountain home and already missing the life we’d left behind. Her forgery had a seven year statute of limitations during which time we knew we would never be able to go back to Colorado, even for a visit, but she wanted so much to return. She called the song Purple Mountain Endlessness:

Purple mountain endlessness
Take me in your womb
Let this time cease to exist
I’m ready to go home
Let them have their seven years
Take them from the hungry child
Cross the line and end the fears
Hold the green and keep the smile


The next time we had to change buses was in San Francisco, and Ma wisely asked for some handholding to make sure we got on the right bus there. The nice bus people in Salt Lake had suggested that, knowing we’d be switching again. We were in our new home state, and only had a few hundred more miles to go! We headed north along Highway 101 on the last bus of our journey. The bus had a bit of a stop in Santa Rosa, and Ma just had to get off for a breather. Sounded good to me. The little town had a downtown plaza that was very quaint, and we sat on the side of a fountain to eat some sandwiches. The air was fresh, and it was a sunny August day. It had been a month to the day since that night of fireworks over Sloan Lake, and so much had happened. Something felt right to Ma about Santa Rosa. She asked if I thought it looked like a good place to live, and I said sure. I was mostly just ready to get off the bus for good. A stray puppy came up to us, begging for a piece of crust. Zack, we named him, and he was ours. And we stayed, to forge a new life in California.


14 thoughts on “Forging a New Life in California

  1. Oh Zann, thank you for sharing your stories. You triggered a memory for me this morning. That same Fourth of July I remember vividly. I had already come to expect fireworks on my birthday but I knew the Bicentenial was something special. Our whole family stayed in a little motel in Fort Bragg. An unheard of indulgence in our family. There were people everywhere celebrating. I knew they were not all there for my birthday, but it sure felt like they were celebrating with me. I got a little wooden train and my sisters and I all got those leather bracelets with pictures stamped on. Thank you for that walk down memory lane.

    1. Phoebe! I’m glad you like them! I’ve been triggering memories for people with this one, and I love hearing about it. What a great memory of your own! It must be a mixed blessing to have a holiday birthday, but it’s great to at least pretend the fireworks are for you. 🙂 The celebratory air is always a good thing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  2. Zann – I too was the child of a hippie gypsy who provided me with an adventurous childhood…which led to me being very, very rooted in adulthood :0). I loved this story and admittedly even cried a bit – thanks for sharing!

  3. Amazing, Zann. you told me that story a Lo.g time ago at Britex, but it was so lovely to read. You are so talented. I’m looking forward to the next glimpse into your past, present or future. I know it will be funny, honest, and a pure joy to read. Cheers to you 🙂

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