Another vignette slice from So Cal . This one is called “Door Number Two”. It may or may not be autobiographical.
Door Number Two
The month, in 1969, my mother won the big deal on Let’s Make A Deal my father flew to Hershey, Pennsylvania to dry out. It was called drying out then, not rehab. This was before Betty Ford was First Lady, and long before her name became a phase in alcoholic celebrities’ lives. My father did not go to Betty Ford, he went to Hershey. He did not get sober. He dried out. We were not allowed to tell. If anyone wanted to know where our father was we were supposed to say he was getting a physical for a month. That’s the truth. I told my friends my father had to get a physical for a whole month in a hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The place where they make the chocolate kisses.
The Let’s Make A Deal my mother won on aired while he was gone. We watched it at our neighbors, the Vartanians. I always thought they were strange because everyone in the family had very bushy eyebrows, even the girls. But they had a color TV and we didn’t. Plus we got to stay home from school. My 2 brothers, my sisters and the 5 Vartanian kids. Mrs. Vartanian served all of us tuna fish sandwiches and milk. The milk was sour. They were nice neighbors with a color set but they had bushy eyebrows and drank sour milk. Later when I complained to my mother she said simply, “They’re Armenian”. Which explained nothing.
My mother’s name is Kitty so she dressed like a cat for the show. While we watched I got the impression Monty Hall really liked my mother, who was a deep brunette still wearing Jackie’s pre-Dallas doo. She’d spent the 1960s in Burbank, avoiding college, marrying quickly and having four children in 6 years. At 29 she was 10 years married but often appeared to still be 19. I secretly loved my mother more because she looked the least worn of the young mothers in our neighborhood.
While we watched Let’s Make A Deal I remember wondering if Monty Hall could become our new dad. I glanced at my brothers and sister to see if they saw what I saw: Monty Hall was flirting with our mom. My little brother, Carl, didn’t. He was 2 and did not like that our mother was in two places at once, on the Vartanians TV and in their living room. My older brother, Will, was nine at the time. He was trying to be a sport but was embarrassed to see his mom meow for Monty. But my sister Vickie saw what was going down. We conspired via glances.
Nobody talked about my father.
When drunk my father would often make soup. Different kinds: Pea, potato, cold tomato, French onion, peanut butter, gumbo, chicken noodle, chowders, chili. He would wake us all up in the middle of the night and make us come down to taste his soups. One time he passed out while we were all at the kitchen table slipping a bouillabaisse. It was 3am and we didn’t know what to do so we finished our soups and went back to bed leaving him slouched over the table. He went to Hershey after hitting a palm tree on the way to work. His company paid for the dry out. A defense firm. Missiles. Lots of places made things like missiles back then. At the time none of us kids knew drinking like my father did was bad. It seemed normal to us and all the other dads drank at bar-b-ques. Looking back I can see that he was a hapless drunk, not a malicious one.
Here’s a list of my mother’s winnings:
Broyhill living and dining room set.
Refrigerator with an ice maker in the door.
Electric stove with self-cleaning oven
Amana radar range
Zenith color television with remote control
RCA Hi-Fi with a reel to reel tape player
A giant flashing check for $5000 dollars.
Home intercom system, installation included.
It was behind door number two. I place the list here because over the next few months the items on it became irrevocably linked with my mother. Kitty was the woman (or sometimes “That young gal”) who had won the Big Deal. Her loot arrived on a Saturday in a Beacons moving van in full view of everyone on our cul-de-sac. Our house became the home that Kitty, who dressed like a cat, furnished while my father was away. Most discussed were the appliances. More than a vacation or a new car, the newest appliances were what everyone wanted in 1969. They provided convenience and in 1969 convenience was proof. Proof of being on top. On the winning side of life. Dad made missiles. Mom won appliances on television. We were, for a time, the most American of those muscular Americans of the late 60s: Californians.
The night after her loot arrived my mother made dinner on the new stove for us and the Vartanians. We watched Laugh-In on our new TV….in color.
Dad was still getting his physical.