By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
With Esther's and Sidney's help, Mother anxiously began to cobble together a financial life. Her most immediately marketable skills lay with dressmaking and cooking, with what in the 1950s was called homemaking. The first junior high school in the Valley had just opened in San Fernando. Like other Valley schools confronted with a rapidly expanding population, this one was desperate for instructors. Mother got a job teaching home economics there with no credential beyond her considerable skill and gracious personality.
Mary had a knack for getting along with people different from herself. It was more than an ability to smooth over rifts with the light touch of Southern manners; it was a tenet of her constitution. Young Mexican girls, the daughters of braceros working in the northeast Valley, along with the daughters of other, similarly marginalized workers, flocked to her classes. They liked her verve and egalitarian approach. Her success with them, I believe, was at least partly attributable to the students' sense that she understood class distinction went nearly as deep as race did in characterizing the nation's prejudices.
Mary also taught two nights a week at Pierce Junior College, and further supplemented our income by working as a dressmaker at home. On the odd Saturday morning, she'd whisk my brother and me off to L.A. to tour the fashionable department stores on Wilshire -- I. Magnin, Bullocks, May Co. She'd disappear into a dressing room with three or four coutureoutfits, then tell the waiting clerk that nothing quite fit her. Later at home, using the penciled notes from her purse, she'd pattern and sew identical outfits for herself and her clients in the Valley.
Her friends from those days have told me that, unable to call on child support, Mary simply pitched herself into the harrowing economic reality she faced. Hers was more than what many other women might have been looking at in her circumstances, because she insisted on buying her own home. After her divorce, she purchased a small two-bedroom house on a quarter-acre of land in Reseda, a lot that gave her room enough to plant two dozen fruit trees. She dated various men (including a successful poultry rancher from Canoga Park and a nursery man who landscaped the Reseda place), set a beautiful table and, as she repeatedly reminded us to do, held her head high.
It was, I can believe, just such an enterprising woman as this that James M. Cain had in mind when he wrote Mildred Pierce, dramatizing the difficulties of a divorced woman with two children, making a way for herself in the San Fernando Valley and periodically weighing the advantages of taking another husband.
WATER, ITS TRICKLE, POOL AND FLOW, IS THE DREAM image I recall most often from those years. And with it the fecundity of vegetable fields and flower gardens in the Valley; big marine winds boiling through the eucalyptus trees; and the ineffable breadth of farmland opening to the west of Reseda and to the north of Northridge. To this day, I locate in these bucolic images the impelling power of that mythic injunction to American children -- hit the road. Straddling the crossbar of my bike at the foot of a windbreak row of poplars on some dirt road between Reseda and Calabasas in 1953, looking out across the truck farms, walnut groves and orchards, the dark-green reaches of irrigated alfalfa to dry chaparral on the fan slopes of the Santa Susanas, I would wonder where fortune lay for me.
The intimate water of my childhood -- easy to surmise -- was the Los Angeles River. From my house on Calvert Street it was only a short walk to Caballero Creek, a dry wash mostly, but the best-defined stream course on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Caballero Creek empties into the L.A. River just past Victory Boulevard, near Lindley Avenue. Though the river was channeled to the west of Reseda in the late '40s, it wasn't paved, and we hiked it regularly. The soft river bottom formed a sonic tunnel, alive with red-winged blackbirds and house finches, black phoebes and yellowthroats, egrets, barn swallows and teal. To us, the L.A. was a different river here than the one running in a concrete shunt to the east, beyond Sepulveda Dam.
This way of imagining the Valley -- urban and domesticated to the east, wild and agrarian to the west -- fixed my way of seeing many things in life as extensions from a borderland. In grade school in Encino (at that time the most refined of Valley towns), boys like me from north of the Southern Pacific tracks were called dirtballers, kids who fought each other with dirt clods from the fields. We were from the outlands. We didn't build our play forts in backyard trees but out in the open, in decks of baled hay.
The rural character of the west Valley was changing so fast back then that only a child riding the crest of this wave of suburban development might remember it as gradual or isolated. In that pivotal decade (195060), the population of Granada Hills, for example, increased by 1,001 percent. Canoga Park grew by 576 percent, Chatsworth by 361 percent. In that same 10 years the Valley as a whole, growing at two and a half times the rate of the rest of Los Angeles, doubled its population from 402,538 to 840,531. This change in population density had an ã almost sharply delineated edge. It was surging west and north from the southeast corner of the Valley, moving toward Calabasas, Chatsworth and Granada Hills from Encino, Van Nuys and Pacoima.