April 10, 2018

Survival City

Behind the Book by

My mother was the gorgeous daughter of two gorgeous, careless people who did not want to live ordinary lives. I have three pictures of my grandfather. In one, he has his arm slung over my grandmother’s shoulder—she looks like a flapper, with marcel waves in her hair and bows on her shoes, and he looks like a somewhat sleazy man of the world, of some world, anyway.

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“Whether they ever loved her, thought about her or missed her is unknown. What is known is that she loved them, thought about them, missed them. And she still does. And there’s nothing any of us who love her can do about that.”

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp transports readers to Hollywood and Las Vegas in the 1930s and ’40s, where an irrepressible, self-reliant girl named Esme grows up surrounded by the imperfect and unfulfilled dreams of her parents. It’s a vivid and heartbreaking story inspired by the author’s own family history, and here, Sharp traces her Los Angeles roots to the late 1930s and shares the story of her own mother’s survival.

My mother was the gorgeous daughter of two gorgeous, careless people who did not want to live ordinary lives.

I have three pictures of my grandfather. In one, he has his arm slung over my grandmother’s shoulder—she looks like a flapper, with marcel waves in her hair and bows on her shoes, and he looks like a somewhat sleazy man of the world—of some world, anyway. Full of moxie. My grandfather came from a family of Jewish gamblers who played the numbers and bet on the horses at Pimlico, and when the great Los Angeles racetracks of Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park were built in the late 1930s, he and my grandmother moved west to follow the races my grandmother called “the sport of kings.” Because my mother was by then school-age and would therefore be a problem to deal with in their new exciting, peripatetic life, they left her behind in a Baltimore orphanage, the Daughters of Hannah, without a word to anyone. I’m not sure how long it took the rest of the family to discover that my grandparents had disappeared from one coast only to reappear on another. It was probably just a couple of days. But to my mother, her time in that orphanage, where she wandered, bewildered and mute, felt like an eternity. She can still exactly recall the sight of one of her uncles walking through the door to retrieve her. In fact, when he was on his deathbed, decades and decades later, she whispered to him what she had said to him many times before, “Thank you for finding me, for saving me.”

Unnervingly for my mother, her parents did not vanish totally and completely for another 15 years. They would occasionally pop back into her life now and then—to take her from the stability of one aunt’s house or another and into chaos. One year, her father took his little family to live in the projects that were built right after World War II, where the walls dripped with moisture and my mother developed pneumonia and impetigo, and where neighbor kids would throw mud at my grandmother’s laundry hung out on the line and shout, “Christ killers,” because, of course, my grandparents were the only Jewish family in the projects, and despite all this my grandfather still thought the projects were the greatest thing because they were rent-free. He was always looking for an angle, an inside tip, a scam he could take advantage of, a bonanza of some sort.

My second photograph of my grandfather comes from the period when they lived in Los Angeles. In it, my grandfather and my uncle—for my grandparents had a second child after the war—are walking a downtown Los Angeles street. It’s probably 1946. My grandfather looks troubled now, confidence gone, hairline receding, older than his age, though he couldn’t have been more than 35, and my uncle, maybe 6 or 7, strides beside him in tall cowboy boots and suspenders, his own face clouded, uncertain. They had a difficult, unsettled, constantly uprooted life out West, a life filled with hotels (my grandmother thought hotel-living was glamorous, Hollywood-like) and movie magazines and evictions and horses and tip sheets my grandfather forced my uncle to sell outside the gates of Hollywood Park on Inglewood Boulevard, and lots of hot dogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and I cannot imagine, given the proximity of Las Vegas and its desert postwar boom, that my grandparents would not have gone there to gamble, if not to live for a while. In all this tumult, my uncle rarely attended school, a truancy he relished as a kid and rued as an adult. He was left practically illiterate by it. He finally escaped his life with his parents and reinvented himself by joining the Army, and to this day he will not utter their names.

Eventually, my mother and her brother pieced together their histories, the mutual and the solo of it, the back and forth from Baltimore to Los Angeles, his life versus hers. She envied his life with their parents, despite their screaming rows and their constant packing of the bags. She had not had enough of them, as my uncle had, and she wanted to know where they were, what had become of them. But because he had endured his parents’ company for so long, my uncle had no interest in their lives that had gone on and on without him. In fact, he told my mother if they ever came to his door, he would shut it in their faces. He envied my mother’s life with the aunts, her relative stability, her education. My mother had been a double major in chemistry and biology, achieved through the aid of a tottering tower of scholarships that covered every last thing, including her cap, tassel and gown. And after graduation, though the pediatrician my mother worked for part-time offered to put her through medical school and then to make her a partner in his practice—people often stepped forward to offer my mother amazing things—she declined. She had met my father, she felt she could no longer live off the charity of her aunts and uncles—one of my uncles had her take her bedding out of the den that was her little ad hoc bedroom whenever he wanted to watch a movie on the television and had her sleep on the living room couch and one of my aunts, when my mother begged her for a purse, covered a Kleenex box in wrapping paper and gave that to her to use—and she wanted to create a family of her own, a stable, solid confection of a husband and three children and house in the suburbs, exactly what her parents did not want and exactly what she did. As did my uncle.

She got it. She got it all. He did not.

My mother saw her mother for what would be almost the last time in a Baltimore department store—Hutzler’s to be exact. It was the night before my mother’s wedding. Apparently, my grandparents had dropped back into town again. For a moment or two. Her parents had not been invited to the wedding, of course, had no idea about it, had no known address, but her mother had a word of advice for her: “Keep your bangs. You look like Audrey Hepburn.”

After that, no one saw or heard from my grandparents for 50 years.

All that time, my mother hoped that they thought of her, hoped that they would remember her in some way, perhaps leave her something in their wills, let her know that despite everything, they had loved her.

Ten years ago, she tracked down her parents. They had, ultimately, it seemed, remained in Los Angeles. They had been placed, somehow, in a Medi-Cal nursing home. My grandfather had died without a note, a phone call or a word to his two children, and had been buried with strangers in a California veteran’s cemetery. He had served during World War II. Whatever belongings he once had had vanished. My grandmother was alive, overtaken by dementia, with no idea who my mother was when she came to visit. She also didn’t understand that her husband was dead. She thought he had run off with another woman. The story of her life with him had to have been a difficult one. When my mother told her her name, my grandmother responded that she had a daughter with that name. But when told that my mother was in fact her daughter, my grandmother, whatever she understood of this, responded that she didn’t want to talk about what she called “family matters,” which must have been my grandparents’ defense against quarrels between the two of them over what they had done or against the questions of strangers: Where are you from? Where are your children, your sisters, your brothers?

Children, sisters, brothers were all accounted for. They weren’t the ones who had vanished.

My mother sent her mother the sweaters and movie magazines she asked for. Not long after this, on a call to the nursing home, my mother learned that her mother had died a few weeks ago and that her body had been stashed in a county freezer. At some future time in some Los Angeles location where the indigent were interred, my grandmother’s remains would be buried.

No remembrance for my mother—no ring, no bracelet, no letter.

And so ended my grandparents’ great adventure.

But not my mother’s love for them. Because she could not bear to let my grandmother endure the bleak fate the state of California had assigned her, she made the necessary arrangements for my grandmother’s remains to be sent to the Veterans Cemetery in Riverside, California, where she was buried with my grandfather. After all, my mother said, they should be together in death. They gave up so much to be together in life. Whether they ever loved her, thought about her or missed her is unknown. What is known is that she loved them, thought about them, missed them. And she still does. And there’s nothing any of us who love her can do about that.

Because I’m a writer, my mother wanted me to write her story, the story of a young girl who was abandoned by her parents, who survived that abandonment and who, at the end of the novel, stood by her parents’ graveside. My mother has actually not yet seen her own parents’ graves. She’s not well enough anymore to travel. It’s a very nice gravesite. My brother took a picture of it. My last photograph of my grandparents. I will never go the cemetery. I’m like my uncle. Shut the door in their faces. And I could not write that novel. What I did write was a novel about an absolutely magnificent woman who uses her mother’s beauty and her father’s charm and her very own exquisite intelligence and drive to make her way through the world my grandparents lived in and my mother never set foot, a world anathema to her but sweet honey to them—the racetracks and casinos and mobsters and boozers of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. And my character makes a success of herself, despite her parents’ best efforts to wreck everything around them, much as my mother did. My original title for the novel was Survival City. But I changed that, too.

Adrienne Sharp

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