Updated: May 10, 2021
Grandpa always watched Dialing for Dollars. Unless the Dodgers were being televised that day. Grandpa had priorities and if winning money on Dialing for Dollars took back seat to the Dodgers, so be it. Some things are more important than money.
But when the Dodgers were not on, no one could use the telephone, or if they did need to make a call, they had to be off the call as soon as their business was done. Quick, quick, quick, Grandpa would yell. The thought that he would miss being on Dialing for Dollars was something that worried Grandpa every time the phone rang.
It irritated Grandpa if the phone was someone calling for someone at the house and it was not Dialing for Dollars calling him. And this irritation lasted two hours every day while his program was on. And it got worse as the years and his declining health and dementia onset made his schedule his grounding force.
Grandma was still living then and the big hospital adjustable bed where she spent most of her day was the prominent display that you saw upon entering the house. The bed was in the living room next to the kitchen and was pronounced in its presence in the small Smith Place bungalow. Grandma could not walk and any time out of bed was spent in a wheelchair.
Cups of spit from Grandma and Grandpa’s snuff addiction lined the house and the first time I saw them put a wad of snuff into their cheeks I almost threw up. The snuff came in a glass that looked like a jelly jar and resembled the glass that was used to sell Mexican mol`e.
When I saw the elderly pair put a spoon full of snuff into their mouths, I thought they were swallowing spicy mol`e by the mouthful and I knew that would have bathroom consequences later, but as they spit it out, the running juices of tobacco made clear that it was not chile but something else.
Grandpa’s two-hour telephone moratorium every weekday and the care of the invalid Grandma were just the two most pressing things that made Sharona’s day sometimes difficult to bear. That she had two young kids, three and five, to care for as well made you understand why Sharona would run away every so often and not return for a couple of days.
Sharona came to Long Beach trailing her husband’s dream. She was what I understood beauty to be at my young age. Long blond hair, blue eyes, and skin, whether natural or tanned, seemed so evenly toned that you would think she had make-up all over herself. Sharona did not use much make-up, if any, during the week and wearing shorts or pants she looked like a movie star either way.
Her trek to California, from the Ozarks near Missouri along the Arkansas state line, with family in tow was her husband’s idea. I saw Rick, her husband, just once when he came to take the kids to Disneyland. He was, as Sharona, movie star handsome and dressed impeccably. But while Sharona looked and acted just as you would expect a girl from the Ozarks to be, Rick talked and carried himself like a guy who took on the voice of Troy Donahue or Rock Hudson.
A few years after getting to California, Rick started hanging out with the Hollywood set, mostly folks trying to get jobs by going to auditions and getting jobs as walk-on extras on commercials or television shows. At first Sharona would follow, but Sharona got tired of the guys hitting on her and seeing the other women that Rick was hitting on. Sharona did not wait to see the final ending, she divorced Rick the first time she learned he had strayed.
Sharona told me this stuff about her life because I would sit with her on the stoop stairs of her family’s Smith Place home as she smoked a cigarette and sometimes drinking a little liquor from her coffee cup. I could smell the liquor on her breath, and it was the first time I saw up-close that a woman could drink and act drunkenly confident like a man.
When Sharona got drunk she would bring out her guitar to the steps and play Hank Williams and other country tunes. She had a sultry voice that in later life I would remember as sounding like a cross between Patsy Cline and Norah Jones. Hearing her sing, then put down the guitar down to take a swallow from her coffee cup, and push away an escaping tear--all made you want to hold Sharona and tell her everything was going to be all right.
She would sometimes hold me and sway me in her arms when she would get too far into her cups and I would stay until she let go of me and I would walk away without looking back. Kids can feel sorry for adults for having to be adults. I felt sorry for Sharona in that way.
Sharona was confident in other ways. She had no trouble finding men or men finding her. They would come to the house, many of them transplanted Arkies and Okies, looking for a girl like the one they had back home. Sharona had no problem having one or two, if not more, boyfriends at a time. She especially enjoyed when they would bring her presents and she would show off flowers, rings, and bracelets they would give her.
When Sharona was excited about a man and she was planning a night out with one of them, it was a big deal for the young girls in the neighborhood. Sharona spent the day picking out just the right dress. She had country fancy clothes. Skirts with puffed out slips that looked like something a square dancer would wear. She had leather edged pants and matching boots, cowgirl wow wear. And she had lady cowboy hats that matched each outfit that she wore.
On date nights she would round up her favorite little girls to watch her put on her make-up and would even put make-up on the little girls. Several parents had told Sharona not to paint up their little girls, but Sharona had a short memory for such complaints and the little girls would blame Sharona and tell their parents that it was not their fault that they were coming home looking like six-year-olds getting ready for a night on the town.
Sharona’s front steps had a ramped portion that was used to roll down Grandma’s wheelchair. When Sharona was escorted to the waiting car by her lucky beau, she would take her time walking down the ramp as if walking on an Oscar night red carpet. Sharona could put on quite a show and we would come out and watch her take the walk to the car and some of the little girls would clap because their princess was going out with the prince they always wished for her.
The mothers in the neighborhood would watch these parades with caution because these dates could sometimes turn into a weeks and Smith Place knew that Grandpa and Grandma could not take care of each other or the two small kids. When people learned that Sharona had not come home, families made sure to check on the old folks and made sure the kids were fed and unharmed by Grandpa’s crazy ways.
Upon return from days away, Sharona would be quiet and sullen, almost repentant as if she had sinned. She would go door-to-door thanking people for caring for the family, sometimes bringing peach cobbler as a thank you. The families took the cobbler and would tell Sharona it was no problem, and they would check that she was okay. And when Sharona said all was fine that was all she needed to say.
Just before we moved away from Smith Place, Sharona started seeing a man who always came to see her wearing a black suit and always had a thin black tie to match his starched and pressed white collared shirt. He was tall and polite and always said nice things to us. We got to like his weekly visits because sometimes he would take off his coat and play with us as we tossed the balls around the street. He was acting like a father and a husband and before too long the show became real.
Sharona told us that she and the family were leaving. That the man in the black suit had proposed and she accepted his proposal, and they were moving to another part of Long Beach to the house the man owned. Sharona said the man was good for her. He did not drink and went to church. He was okay with Grandpa and Grandma coming along and he was kind to the kids.
Everything seemed great until a few months later the man came back to Smith Place with the kids and asked if we’d seen Sharona. We said we had not seen her since they left. He said one day Sharona had gotten dressed nicely and said she had an appointment and that she was on her way. That had been a week ago and she was not back. The adults told him just to be patient because Sharona always came back home again.
Smith Place always forgave. No that's not the word. Forgiveness, if it belonged to anyone, did not belong to us. Smith Place understood when Sharona needed to get away. There were many mothers on Smith Place that wanted to get away. Only Sharona had the courage and self-determination to get away. Smith Place let Sharona be Sharona. We prayed this man would do the same.