I was 12 or 13 when I rode with my parents from where we lived in South Orange County to pick up my great grandmother in Long Beach before going to my grandparents’ house in The Valley for a family party. The geography of this is important because it involved being on the 405 freeway – notoriously miserable at any point in time, but especially so on a Saturday in June. And. We were driving a blue, mid 1980s Volkswagen Vanagon, which is basically a refrigerator box on wheels. With spotty air conditioning. It was big enough to seat the high school golf team when my folks bought it, but a lot of car for a family of 3 picking up a 92 year old woman.
The 40-mile drive from our house to Grandma F’s apartment in the Belmont Shore neighborhood of Long Beach had taken well over an hour – with another 50 miles and potentially two hours of drive to go. Dad was … not in a good mood. He was annoyed by the drive, by going to see mom’s side of the family, by the world in general. The Vanagon was not a pleasant place to be that day. When we got to Grandma F’s apartment building, Mom and I went up to get her while Dad waited in the car. She lived on the second or third floor of an old apartment building and I always loved the journey from super 60s lobby decor, up the incredibly slow elevator, and then through the massive garden courtyard to Grandma F’s door. Her apartment was the spatial embodiment of my great grandmother. Full of art, antique furniture, and a virtually untouched kitchen – it was clear that a Lady lived here. Someone who couldn’t cook but wanted to make sure to be classy and refined and so upon first meeting my dad in the mid 1970s, she offered him orange juice – with a sprig of parsley in it. Totally on brand for Grandma F.
Most of my interactions with my great grandmother took place in Long Beach, her home since moving from Iowa (by way of a four-year stint in Alabama) during the Great Depression. Her daughter, my Grandma S, went to visit once a week and because I am the daughter, of a daughter, of a daughter (and all my cousins are boys) – I got to be included in the lunch outings my grandma would arrange for “us girls.” These were not fancy lunches with white table clothes and fine china, even though Grandma F. Was a debutante as a girl. Instead, we went to Hof’s Hut on 2nd St just off Alamitos Bay where sandwiches and iced tea, and always something for dessert was our more California casual meal. Grandma F always dressed in a silk dress, hose and heels, with perfectly coiffed hair and just the right accessories. In her later years she was in need of a little more assistance to get from car to restaurant door. Instinctively, Mom or I would go and give her a hand or arm to lean on for those potentially precarious steps. Grandma S. would sigh and pointedly say:
“Don’t give her your arm! She has a cane if she needs help. She needs to be independent. … Oh, all right, just this one time.”
And Grandma F? She would just giggle, hold on a little tighter, and act like a little kid who knows they just got away with something.
And so, on that warm and getting warmer June day, Mom and I managed to get Grandma F downstairs, but getting her into the back seat of the Vanagon was a bit more of a challenge. After all, she was 92! And she never was the strongest or most agile of ladies to begin with. She had zero upper body strength, so basically Mom and I were shoving her into the van from behind. And she just giggled the whole way in, laughing out the fun adventure of getting into her granddaughter and grandson-in-law’s minivan. Grandma F sat in the back seat for one very specific reason – because there was no way did my dad wanted her riding up front, chattering at him the whole way up to Woodland Hills.
“Kath,” he said, “you’re sitting up front with me and mom is sitting in the back with Grandma.”
Not what I really wanted to hear, because then I got to enjoy his lovely mood. But it was a command and not a request, so off we went. To get back to the 405 and continue our long and likely miserable drive, we needed to navigate through the main streets of Belmont Shore. Here is what we did not know in setting out that morning – it was Pride Parade Day! Belmont Shore was THE heart of the gay community in Long Beach, which was at the time one of the largest gay communities in southern California. outside of West Hollywood. As we drove down the street, just a block or two, it became increasingly clear that people were dressed a little differently than we were used to seeing most days. It was a colorful, vibrant, fascinating display – and one that was harder and harder to navigate around, with people walking down the middle of the streets towards the main parade route. And here we were – in a Vanagon. With the windows rolled down. Because there was no air conditioning. And oh, was it getting hotter by the minute.
Dad got more and more tense with each ticking second, which should have been impossible considering how tense he already was. He was on the point of saying something really nasty about the Pride participants, Long Beach, our family, or life in general, when Grandma F piped up from the back seat, her sweet high voice tinged with laughter:
“Oh Michael! This looks so interesting! Do you know what’s going on Michael? Everything is so colorful! Where are all these people going, do you know?!”
And the thing is, she said it so artlessly. So genuinely curious and interested. And unable to bring anger and vitriol back to that voice, Dad simply muttered in reply:
“I don’t know, some kind of parade I guess.”
Almost immediately, that crazy amount of tension and pressure building in the Vanagon eased out of the open windows, and we continued our journey to the Valley – if not with peace in our hearts, at least peace in the car. All thanks to a 92 year old, former debutante’s ability to handle the chaos and strain around her with grace, humor, and endless curiosity about the world around her.
Kathleen McGuire earned a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Riverside. This opened up opportunities to teach at universities in Tennessee, Michigan, and now Mississippi. She also worked at museums and archives in California and Michigan. Kathleen loves sharing stories from the past with students and the public. Her free time is spent with her husband, Isaac, and two dogs, Leo and Marvin.