What were you doing?

I grew up at Disneyland. Every time relatives visited from the Midwest, we took them there. There was no wearing jeans in those days. My brother Leo and I were four and three years old the first time we went. Mother dressed us up, me in my dotted Swiss pinafore, Leo in a white shirt, and dark shorts and shoes. You enter and leave the Park through Main Street. Sometimes as we walked out through the gate, Walt Disney was sitting on the balcony of his apartment waving to his guests.

Each time we went, we spent a good deal of time buying giant dill pickles from a barrel and listening to the party line at the General Store on Main Street. The Disneyland Band wandered the streets. On that first visit, the director invited me to lead the band. As he tried to hand me his baton, I reached for my little brother Leo, and I waved that baton with our arms around each other’s waists.

As we grew older, we pushed Grandma around the Park in a wheelchair, and she said that was scarier than any of the rides. We always twisted mom’s arm until she went to Tom Sawyer’s Island with us, the only place in the Park where you could wander on your own. We would get mom on the suspension bridge and swing it until she screamed. That didn’t really take much. She was scared of everything. Sometimes we got her into the “Indian canoe” where she swore she “never put all her weight down.”

Disneyland is the perfect fantasy. It offers a glimpse to the past and future. You can totally leave the present behind. Our family changed when we were there. The kids got to choose.

Leo is in 6th grade and I’m in 8th. We share the same recess and lunch periods, play together and go home for lunch together. We run across what was once an orange grove, then a field where we fought dirt clod wars and is now an asphalt parking lot that fills to the brim for five Masses each Sunday.

Usually we kneel as the Angelus rings from the Church bell tower, but all the rules are broken today. We burst breathless into the kitchen where mom is ironing; a starchy steam rising from my father’s dress shirt. A sweet smell, warm of the kitchen, mingling with the yeasty scent of bread dough rising.

The counters and backsplash are tiled blue slightly brighter than Wedgewood. Weekdays when he’s not traveling, Dad makes tall glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, eggs, bacon and toast for breakfast. Mother’s plugged the iron in on the wall between the nook and telephone corner. She’s wearing a housedress, her hair neatly cut and curled. She turns up her hearing aid as we walk in.

It’s November 22, 1963 and Sister Mary Hope just announced over the Intercom, “President Kennedy has been shot!” We run into the kitchen to tell mother. “Is he dead?” “Yes.” “Good.”

I’d like to say my heart stopped. I’d like to say my own political ideas changed in that instant. I’d like to say the news cracked the shell of prejudice and stubbornness that was my worldview. I can’t.

Since the early nineteen-ninetys I’ve known big changes come to me after depression. Maybe that’s true of my high school-length depression as well. When I return to Bishop Amat High School after my first year of college, no one recognizes me. I can’t vote or drink, and I’m just getting my driver’s license. But I can protest. I can march. I can boycott class. Years later my mother will ask me, “When did you become a Democrat?”

Reader interactions

3 Replies to “What were you doing?”

  1. I’m sure your relatives read this differently than others. Love picturing you and Leo with the baton! And really? Walt Disney greeted you?! In person? Not wax?

    So sad that that would be a response to any death. I guess none of her descendants have followed grandma politically.

  2. Walt Disney would sit on a balcony above one of the Main Street buildings and wave to all the people leaving the Park. Sometimes. I know he’s controversial, but aren’t most heroes?

  3. Mom had the same reaction to Bobby Kennedy and MLK. It did change me. Forever. Why? Because a teacher asked us to share about our reactions to MLKs death. My teacher was horrified to hear such a reaction. Education changes lives. Forever. So why do we keep cutting funding for all levels of education. So you can all have a few more cents in your pocket. We are the poorer for it!

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