When I was seventeen, my sisters Linda, Susan and I traveled to California for the month of August. The furthest we’d been from home was Jasper, Alberta, since our usual family vacation meant going away to the farm. I know. That sounds like a euphemism for being killed. But we truly loved the farm.
Once we’d conned my aunt and uncle into inviting us to stay, we began our journey. A long car trip took us to Saskatoon where we caught the train. We were supposed to ride it all the way to Vancouver, but there was a fire in our dining car. CN flew us to Vancouver, then put us up in a sleeper car for the night. Except for the earache I had on the plane and the six hour wait in Edmonton, it was all an adventure. Then the real excitement began.
We hopped a greyhound bus for the long journey down to San Jose, California, where my uncle Marvin would meet us. We almost got sent back at the border because Susan and I were underage. Fortunately, my sister Linda had a letter from my mother with parental consent plus advice about not talking to strangers. Oh, the irony. There wasn’t a hobo, sleazebag or potential serial killer that we didn’t chat up over the next few days.
We didn’t sit together, not that I can remember. And the places where we had to switch buses were always interesting. Teenage girls can always find someone to entertain them. Nowadays, parents would have nervous breakdowns worrying about three girls on their own. My parents probably thought, ‘Three down, four to go.’ Just kidding.
When we got to San Jose, my uncle was waiting for us in a pink Cadillac convertible. Our sense of sophistication ratcheted upward, though we probably looked like young hookers driving off with a pimp. But the car top was down, our hair was blowing in the wind, and Linda got to sit in front, like always.
They lived in a distant suburb of San Jose, and man, was it classy. My uncle was a doctor and they had a beautiful house with an Olympic sized pool. That was nothing. We soon met rich folks who had indoor AND outdoor pools. At the time, Flin Flon had nothing like it. We had to take our swimming lessons at Phantom Lake or Denare Beach. The cute life guards partially made up for it, but this! We were in heaven.
Yes, there was some culture shock. Yogurt hadn’t reached Flin Flon yet. We were still eating basic meat and potato meals with regular vegetables like carrots, and breakfast cereal like corn flakes. People in these neighborhoods had pet goats so they could make their own yogurt. This makes it sound like a farm community, but it wasn’t. Everyone had acreages and did whatever they wanted. Hippies were still in fashion. These were wealthy, pretentious hippies, except for my fabulous aunt and uncle who were part of the dressy cocktail crowd.Think Mad Men, the later years.
Picture three teenage girls from Flin Flon, Manitoba, visiting California for the first time. My oldest sister, Linda, was a beautiful nineteen year old. Long blond hair, long soon to be tanned legs. Susan and I were just inching our way out of the dorky stage, which wasn’t helped by our behavior. My aunt and uncle had invited their friend’s teenagers over for us to meet, but we were too busy shooting each other off the diving board in a serious game of cops and robbers. Susan also complicated things by using what can only be described as a Eurotrash accent for the whole vacation. It was so annoying, and Linda and I were constantly telling new people that she was faking.
My aunt was thirty-six at the time and drop dead gorgeous. She was the first person to tell me that name calling my sisters wasn’t nice. My parents had done their best, but I’m sure having seven children left them wishing we were using weapons instead of words. Just kidding. Anyway, thank you, Auntie Joanie, for your kindness. She and Marvin took us to fabulous restaurants, she let us wear her clothes and wigs, and took us shopping. The beach was amazing, and I got to see my first anorexic person. Coming from such a large family, none of us could imagine a person voluntarily giving up food.
From the visiting teenagers, I learned that we had terrible wardrobes. That the children’s section at Flin Flon’s Robinson’s store wasn’t cool. (Susan and I were small for our age.) By the time we left, we had a growing suspicion of just how out of it we were. Many people I attended high school with could have filled me in, but I’m not sure I was ready to hear it, then. Though Debbie St. Goddard did take me aside in the Hapnot school washroom and tell me to try wearing my glasses under my sideburns instead of over. “You have a nice face,’ she said kindly. ‘Now, doesn’t this look better?’ Honestly, where did she learn this stuff? I’m still puzzled about it.
One afternoon during our California vacation, I met a thirteen year old who looked like an eighteen year old Ann Margaret. Her makeup and hair were immaculate. Seventeen!’ she kept saying to me. ‘You can’t be!’ “This is how a seventeen year old looks where I come from,” I lied. Later, I got introduced to my uncle’s liquor cabinet and got drunk for the first time and broke a glass in the shower. Why, I’m not certain. My sisters covered up for me, and I’m only able to tell this story because my mother is dead. Susan and I drove our sister Linda crazy. She might have looked the part of the sophisticated teenager, but her idea of risky behavior meant staying up all night to finish her book. Our immature shenanigans did not interest her at all. We couldn’t even tempt her into a game of cops and robbers.
For the trip back to Vancouver, my uncle decided to fly us in his small plane. We had one too many people, so Linda flew commercial. When we arrived at my aunt’s friend’s house, I couldn’t get over how other people lived. It was such a beautiful place, and the mom stayed home with the kids and had her own sitting room that her children couldn’t enter without knocking first. I hoped my mother wouldn’t find out how the other half lived, because we simply didn’t have the space for that kind of entitlement.
While in Vancouver, we went to the horse races and sat in the la di da section. (Not sure of the official name.) We all had to dress up, and my uncle bought us champagne. I even got to bet on a horse, but I didn’t win. Apparently you’re supposed to study the racing book to help figure out your odds.
While there, we met more teenagers with beautiful houses who simply ignored us. By this point, I didn’t blame them. ‘I know,’ I wanted to say. ‘We’re working on it.’ One night the three of us went down to the P&E fairgrounds. We had a blast and flirted with three teenage carnies who had the audacity to show up at our place the next morning with little stuffed animals for us to take home. Susan and Linda were gracious, but I stayed up in my room, horrified. After all, I had a boyfriend at home who wouldn’t leave for university for a couple of weeks. That demands a certain standard of behavior, right?
Returning home must have been dull compared to weeks of sun, fun and new experiences. I promptly bought a Beach Boy’s album and fake remembered my life as a surfer girl, or possibly someone whose name was Wendy. I’d brought home a new pair of crushed strawberry velvet hipster jeans, a fabulous sweater that I shrank in the wash the following week, a very cool hat that Susan and I shared, and a black unitard that we all fought over for the next few years.
I also remember:
Watching cable TV for the first time.
The almost instant change from day to night compared to the long twilight of the north.
The movie, Love Story, on the largest screen I’ve seen yet, and the copious tears that followed.
Floating around the pool on large Styrofoam chairs with drink holders. (Explains burglarizing the liquor cabinet.)
My auntie Joanie is still alive, and Jennifer has brought her back to Winnipeg with her. When I see her, I’m going to give her the biggest hug and thank her for putting up with us. She was a saint, but a very fun one. In honour of our trip and all of our memories, here’s a video of the Beach Boys. My aunt looked just like the girl in the polka dot bikini, but blonde.