I’ve always known the circumstances of how my mother met her Mexican boyfriend, my soon-to-be Mexican stepfather, and about the events leading up to their decision to run away (split) together because my mother and I spoke about them frequently throughout my childhood. Ruminating now and writing down these memories has helped me process my grief at my mother’s passing but it has also had the side-effect of giving me access to details and nuances I was either too young to recognize, had blocked, or had otherwise forgotten.
George Bagdasarian had been our neighbor in the Contiki condo in Los Angeles where we all first lived when my mother and Stanley began living together. The same Contiki condos where much to everyone’s relief I’d finally started to speak in complete sentences. Once we moved to the house on Casa Grande, George and his girlfriend, Rose, came to visit Stanley and my mother in our new house in Montebello.
Rose is without doubt my mother’s equal in the looks department – a stunning beauty. I don’t know if she would agree or appreciate my comparison here but I’ve always thought of her as someone every bit as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor but with the added blessing of having the heart and the Mexican soul of Linda Ronstadt. Rose would later become my “Tia Pocha” as she was called because she uniquely among my Mexican family was born, raised and educated in the United States (al otro lado).
When Rose and my mother met I believe they instantly recognized in the other commonalities that transcended their physical appearances: fierce intelligence, a complete lack of pretense and disarming honesty. They became the very best of friends and their friendship would endure for decades.
Once we’d moved down to 4008 Channel Place, Rose had many occasions to come and visit us there. On one of these occasions Rose was driven down to Newport Beach by her first cousin, my future Mexican stepfather.
I never until recently considered how it was Mother was able to make the clerical leap from refusing to continue living with Stanley without benefit of marriage because it displeased Jehovah to then rather suddenly deciding God would be ok with her running off to Mexico with her new boyfriend leaving her children behind in Newport. Despite hours and years of our talking about these events, I regret that I never thought to ask Mother about the theological basis for her sudden apparent reverse religious conversion.
But by then Marion had given Stanley every opportunity to “make an honest woman of her.” He’d at first refused: “Mother Dear, I’m very happy with the way things are.” and then he’d failed in his delivery with the 11th hour pre-nup offending my mother’s dignity by calling into question her integrity and her character. For Marion this was an unforgivable trespass. If my mother and I share a single personality trait – and we share many – one is that we do not tolerate any question of our integrity and character.
By the time Stanley came to his senses or to his knees or whatever, it was simply too late. Mother had fallen deeply in love with her Mexican boyfriend and nothing would ever be the same again. My mother and Rose burned the only copy of the pre-nup on Rose’s stove one night and that was that.
I personally don’t believe in jealousy, I think of it as a waste of energy. But if I am jealous of one thing it is my mother’s abiding friendship with my Tia Rose. To me it has always seemed a delicious, luxurious, extravagant and precious gift they discovered in each other. If the rest of our family, or even my mother herself, failed to deliver on the promise of that friendship, then shame on us.
Mother’s new boyfriend spoke no English and was what those of us on the political left today would refer to as an undocumented immigrant. Back then people in his circumstance were most politely called “illegals” or more frequently the culturally offensive slur “wetbacks” (mojados) or worse.
Stanley was a wealthy and powerful man and thus accustomed to getting his way and woe to anyone who might deny him what he wanted. Once Stanley came to understand the seriousness of Mother’s interest in her new boyfriend he made it his business to cause trouble for them with a maniacal aim to drive them apart. My Tia Rose recently wrote to me telling me she always referred to these as “Stanley Tactics.” That made me laugh. My Tia Rose and I laugh and cry a lot these days together. Laughing and crying at the same time is something of a Mexican trait we share and it is a blessing to us both.
Mother’s new boyfriend was living on Fetterly just off Whittier in East LA in an apartment building with one of his sisters, her husband and some cousins. All of them I’m assuming were without documentation (sin papeles). Mother’s boyfriend was working as a stockman alongside his cousins in a wholesale menswear operation called Sports Clothes in LA’s Fashion District. His job was to unpack shipments of menswear and hang them on racks to be pressed. When Stanley uncovered this detail he called the US Immigration Service (la Migra) and had the store raided. The authorities took everyone except my mother’s boyfriend. My mother’s boyfriend had heard them coming and as they were taking the others away, my mother’s boyfriend hid in a box of suits and so was able to evade detection.
Finally, and my mother told me this herself and I remember her words like yesterday, Stanley told her, “Mother Dear, it’s time for you to put your Mexican plaything back on the shelf and come home.” For what I have to believe were valid reasons Mother interpreted this as a threat to her boyfriend’s safety or perhaps even to his life. So Mother drove over to the apartment building where her boyfriend was living with the intent of leaving his keys in his mailbox along with a note explaining that they must never see each other again.
When it turned out my mother’s boyfriend was (I think unexpectedly) at home, my mother and her boyfriend instead appropriated a car from his sister’s husband and left (split) for Mexico the following day. I suppose back then the car would have been referred to as second hand. These days it would be called a vintage T-Bird but it was in that T-Bird that they left without notice and without a trace.
Once they’d left, and completely unbeknownst to me at the time, Stanley upped his game and went into overdrive. I’m not in the position now or then to comment upon Stanley’s judgment or to evaluate either his strategy or his tactics but what he did was the equivalent of declaring all out war against anyone who might have aided or abetted Mother’s escape and crucially who might have knowledge of where Mother was, using her children, me, as his point of leverage.
Here are two things Stanley did:
This I don’t remember personally but know to be true: Stanley told Rose that the police had found Mother’s car in a ditch by the side of the road somewhere with the front seat covered in blood with no trace of a body and that under the circumstances he had little choice to but call the child welfare authorities to turn us over to them. Rose knew Stanley was lying and just causing trouble but was deeply upset at the prospect of our being handed over to the authorities and begged Stanley to leave us in her care instead. Stanley declined because it didn’t suit his purpose.
This is do remember personally because my mother told me so herself: Stanley took out a newspaper ad that ran for a single day so he could copy it and get word of it to my mother: “Motherless boys in need of a good home…” I can’t imagine such an ad running today without the authorities becoming involved. I suppose because this was the go-go 70s, etc. that somehow it didn’t raise the alarms it would hopefully raise today.
Perhaps I wasn’t truthful earlier when I wrote just now that I’m not in the position to comment upon Stanley’s judgment or to evaluate either his strategy or his tactics.
What Stanley did was to take advantage of his knowledge of two of the many traumatic experiences in my Mother’s young life.
One I’ve known about since perhaps Elementary School: My mother was taken from her parents and raised in foster homes and orphanages. So for her, Stanley’s threat was potent.
The other I’ve only just recently become (re)aware of though I’m not prepared to discuss it just yet. I cry about it nearly daily, but only for short stretches, moments really.
I’ve come to realize that there are people, here and now, who are relying on me: My Wardell, my Tia, my friends, my clients, my colleagues, my business partners and indeed myself.
I will not fail any of us. And even in her death I will not fail my mother.
You, and she, have my word. xo