Becoming Californians

My father loved California and the
Heat.
He’d do cannonballs
Into the neighbors swimming pool
And float with only his nose,
His belly, and his toes
Above the water.

My mother sat in the shade.
With the other wives.
They drank martinis,
Painted their toenails,
And talked about womanly things.

My brother was as pale and thin
As a wisp of smoke
But he could run like the wind.
He found three boys his age
In our new neighborhood
And played basketball and baseball,
Or just ran, fast as he could,
Animated by youth and happiness
And friends.

I was the oldest girl
By far
In the neighborhood,
A block full of babies and
Boys.

I’d swim 100 laps because I could
And because it pleased my father
And then escape inside,
Put lotion on my sunburned nose,
And read.

I was more lonely than I knew.
The loneliness came in flashes
And I swallowed it inside.
I was out of place, not good enough,
Strange and foreign,
Marked like the laundry my Irish mother
Didn’t get clean enough,
Like I, too, should be hanging on the attic,
God’s attic. 

My uncle Stooge’s pigeons could go far away
and still find their way home
But not me.

So I read.
And I wrote.
I wondered and remembered,
Told myself stories I needed to hear,
Stories where I was the hero, the star,
The popular girl, the tap dancer
Or the opera singer.
Stories where I wore tight skirts and black flats
Like the other girls
Instead of brown oxfords and
Puffed sleeves.  

I learned the joy of making things up. 

I wrote about outsiders,
Like Santa Claus going down the wrong chimney
On Christmas Eve
And finding himself in a Jewish home.
I wrote about the handsomest boy in school
Falling in love with the shy, bookish girl. 
And I wrote about masks,
And painted faces,
And swallowing feelings.

Writing was a place to put my sadness
And my joys,
My fears
And tenuous hopes.

Writing saved my life and
Made me who I am.

Karen Cushman typewriter gift

Los Angeles

We moved from Chicago to Los Angeles when I was ten. When asked recently how I liked California, I came up with this.

Los Angeles

With my frizzy perm and
Little puff-sleeved cotton dresses
With sashes that tied in the back into floppy bows,
And brown oxfords, sturdy and roomy enough
To last all year,
I arrived to find California girls,
Mature even in their
Catholic School uniforms.
California girls rolled skirts up shorter and
Tucked white blouses into tiny waists
And tossed their hair in the boys’ direction.

The nuns at my new school didn’t like the way I
Looked or
Talked or
Or that the smartest girl in the class,
Had a whiff of
Polish and
Chicago about her.
You might have crossed your Ts like that
in Chicago,
The nun in my class told me with a sniff,
But we it is not proper here.

And
Those shoes might be acceptable
In Chicago
But they are not correct uniform shoes
Here.

I went home each day
Alone to lie on my bed and
Read.
In a book I could go wherever I wanted—
Home to Chicago, to Grandma and Grandpa, or
Over the ocean or
Back in time and
Imagine myself there.

Sometimes I wrote my imaginings and
My feelings down
But I never showed anyone.
I was supposed to be happy to be in California
Where the sun shone every day
And it never snowed.

I wrote letters to my grandma
Who couldn’t read or write.
My grandpa wrote back,
Enclosing a $2 bill each time
So I knew he still went to the bookie joint.

Who was drinking Green Rivers with him now?
Who helped Grandma make kolachke,
Sticking little fingers into the dough to make
Dents for jelly?
Was Sparkle happy in her new home,
Or was she sad and bedraggled,
Her cocker ears hanging to the floor?

Did the neighborhood kids play
Red Light, Green Light without me?
Did they play Hide and Seek,
Looking for
But never finding
Me?

The McCarthy Era

Moderator: How did the McCarthy Era affect you? When you were living through it, did you think of it as “an era”? Is that something we only create in hindsight?

Cushman: I am enough younger than Francine so that the only McCarthy I knew was Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummy. Joseph McCarthy and his era really were not a topic of conversation in my high school and even most of my college years. I would say that eras are pretty much identified and described long after they have passed. Otherwise we go day to day, step by step, the best we can.

McCarthy Era

About Karen Cushman’s The Loud Silence of Francine GreenSchool Library Journal wrote, “This novel follows Francine’s eighth-grade year, from August 1949 to June 1950, at All Saints School for Girls in Los Angeles, a year of changes largely inspired by a new transfer student, Sophie Bowman. While Francine is quiet and committed to staying out of trouble, happy to daydream of Hollywood movie stars and to follow her father’s advice not to get involved in controversy, Sophie questions authority and wants to make a difference. Her questioning of the nuns’ disparaging comments about the Godless communists frequently leads to her being punished and eventually to her expulsion from school. Francine begins to examine her own values, particularly when an actor friend of Sophie’s father is blacklisted and Mr. Bowman loses his scriptwriting job. At the novel’s end, Francine is poised to stand up to Sister Basil, the bullying principal, and exercise her freedom of speech.”

In California

I am on a book tour for Will Sparrow’s Road in Los Angeles. eating my way through town. Yesterday I had a three hour lunch with the delightful Lin Oliver of SCBWI. We were so busy talking that I never got around to taking a photo. And last night Sharon Hearne of the amazing Children’s Book World organized a dinner for me and fourteen teachers, school librarians, and a few other equally interesting folk. We talked books, students, teaching, and the future. I am always awed by the knowledge, dedication, and passion these people bring to their jobs. And I learn so much. Now I am off to speak to 285 7th-graders in Rancho Cucamonga. Really. Stay tuned.

Four Los Angeles photos