| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 37

“I don’t know what you’re thinking about, honey, but I came to the Haight to see the old neighborhood and visit an old friend”

August 1964

San Francisco’s summer sun struggled with the dust on the bedroom window, but a few determined rays managed to break through and pat Marjorie on the cheek. She shook herself awake, trying to remember where she was. There was a strange haze in this half-lit room: smoke from cigarettes and sputtering candles, a trace of lavender incense combined with the smell of dirty dishes and sweat.

Marjorie sat up and looked at the other cots in the room. Yes! There was Chrissie lying directly on a mattress, no sheet or blanket or even a pillow, snoring lightly. A second girl was huddled on the other bed, asleep fully clothed.

Marjorie looked down at her crumpled T-shirt and stained pants. She’d worn them, awake and sleeping, for the past two days (or was it three; hard to remember after all those hours in the car). She couldn’t wait to go out and buy some new cool peasant dresses and flowery cotton tops and maybe some groovy love beads.

With what, Marge? Or have you forgotten? You’re dead broke.

She shrugged; maybe she’d be able to borrow something cool (or, she sighed, at least clean) from Chrissie.

A second bedroom held similar sights: girls out cold on unmade beds, one with stringy black hair, another with — how crazy could you get — a rainbow painted on her face, stretching from one ear to the other.

She walked into the apartment’s tiny kitchen. Ah! Here was an aroma, warm and welcoming and familiar: oatmeal, being cooked by Mama Mumu on her camping stove.

“Good morning, Mama.” She spoke in a whisper, in deference to the sleeping girls.

“You can go ahead and use those vocal cords of yours, these gals are dead asleep,” Mama answered, ladling the oatmeal into a cracked bowl. “Nuthin’ except the San Francisco earthquake waking them up for hours.”

The oatmeal was thick and sweet and... not enough. “I’m still hungry,” Marjorie whined.

“That was the last of the porridge, and there’s nuthin’ else here,” Mama answered. “Check out the fridge.”

Mama Mumu was right: Marjorie opened the small Philco and saw some rancid cheese going green at the edges, a few uncooked potatoes, and a half full bottle of cheap wine.

Feeling a bit at a loss, with the excitement of adventure clashing with slight pangs of anxiety, Marjorie turned to her companion.

“So,” she said, pasting a smile on her face and determinedly ignoring the protests of her unfilled stomach, “we’re here. What do we do now?”

“I don’t know what you’re thinking about, honey, but I came to the Haight to see the old neighborhood and visit an old friend.”

This was news. “You have friends here?”

“You can say so.”

“Can I come?”


Walking down Haight Street, Marjorie felt her excitement mounting. Though at this early hour the streets were not crowded, there was still an electric feeling in the air, a vibrant atmosphere of youth. Marjorie couldn’t help thinking about one of her favorite childhood books, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, living carefree in Neverland, where no one grew up.

Mama Mumu became unusually garrulous, pointing out landmarks of her life in the Haight, before it had become a magnet for rebellious young people. “Here’s where Eddie and me would get food sometimes,” she said, waving towards a tiny corner grocery store.

“Eddie? Was he a friend of yours?”

“Kind of.”

“And we’re going to visit him?”


They passed a wooden house that sported a bright blue exterior, an octagonal cupola, and a steep flight of stairs. “Here’s where I slipped one foggy day,” Mama Mumu laughed. “Sprained my ankle. Eddie had to take care of me for two weeks.”

Gradually the Haight turned into a seedier neighborhood. Mama Mumu stopped talking, but that was okay; Marjorie was entranced by the California sun and sky, the occasional glimpses they could get of the Bay, and the heady feeling that there was no place she had to be, no one she had to listen to. She was here, wherever “here” was, and that was enough.

After about half an hour, they reached a low stone fence surrounding a grassy area, with a stone building overlooking… “Mama, this is a cemetery!”


Without another word, Mama Mumu walked through the gate, past headstones strewn about in the grass, seemingly completely at random: large, ornate stones and sad little bumps, their inscriptions covered by dust or weeds.

Puzzled but curious, Marjorie followed Mama Mumu until she stopped in front of a tiny, particularly neglected stone.

“Hello, Eddie,” she said.


or the most part, the Levine’s Zenith console television sat quietly in a corner of the living room. TV time for the Levine children was carefully rationed: “Don’t spoil their brains with nonsense,” was Abe’s opinion, while Annie shared Papa’s belief that television shows were not appropriate for frum children — or, for that matter, for frum adults. “Married to a doctor, I’ve got enough drama in my life,” she would tell friends who urged her to join them in watching soap operas — “and with all my kids, I don’t need situation comedies to make me laugh.”

But that was then, and this was now. Annie had a son in Army Basic Training, and America seemed to be sliding, like a tank that’s lost control, into war in some faraway country in Southeast Asia.

Neither Annie, nor Abe, nor most of America, had ever heard of the Gulf of Tonkin, and certainly not of the Navy’s destroyer, the Maddox. Not until the first week of August, when headlines and news broadcasts screamed about an unprovoked North Vietnamese attack on the United States battleship. So Annie turned on the television to hear CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite speak in his clipped tones about torpedoes shot toward the Maddox, about jets from aircraft carriers sinking the North Vietnamese vessels, about the President of the United States telling the American people that the US would “take every measure in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia.”

As Annie anxiously watched the half-hour broadcasts, night after night, during that first week of August, she kept wondering: what was “every measure” that the Army would take?

And where would it leave her Mutty?


arjorie pointed at the stone. “The cemetery is where Eddie is? Eddie is… dead?”


A silence fell over the graveyard. Marjorie was simply too surprised to say anything, and Mama Mumu, her eyes half closed, seemed to be in some kind of meditative half-trance, her lips moving soundlessly, speaking to someone far, far away.

After a few moments, though, the tranquil quiet began to feel heavy to Majorie, almost suffocating. She’s alone with her ghost. What about me? Feeling the need to move, but not comfortable leaving Mama Mumu alone with phantoms, Marjorie stooped down toward the small headstone and began pulling away the weeds. She took a tissue out of her pocket, cleared away a little of the encrusted dirt until she could just make out the inscription: “Edward Sawyer, age 13.”


ore silence, more soundless conversation between living and dead. Marjorie shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. She stared at Mama Mumu, at her gold tooth, at the bright yellow daisies on her oversized dress.

Mama Mumu had always been a cheerful, if often silent and sometimes weird, companion, doling out sound advice and potato chips: the background scenery in the drama starring Marjorie Burton. Now, perhaps for the first time, Marjorie saw something different, something more.

A person.

A person with a past. With family, maybe friends. A person who came from somewhere. A person who might need help, encouragement, or just a hug.

The Burtons were not a demonstrative family, and hugs had been noticeably rare in Marjorie’s life. Which made it all the stranger when, hardly thinking, she clasped her hands around Mama Mumu’s arms and held her in a tight embrace.

And, as Mama Mumu began to cry, Marjorie wept with her.


nd then came the story, in bits and pieces, as they sat on the uncomfortable stone fence.

A father, a mother, a daughter and, a few years later, a son they called Eddie.

“Eddie? Edward? He was—”

“My brother. Nice boy. Kind’ve simple, but full of love.”

They grew up poor farmers on a small ranch in Texas. Trouble was always a neighbor, but it moved right in to the ranch house during the War. Daddy was sent overseas and buried there, not long after he’d hit the beach on D-Day. Mam worked herself half to death on the ranch. Eventually she got pneumonia and worked herself into the grave.

Marjorie’s eyes glinted in the California sunshine as she heard about a childhood so removed from her own too-safe existence.

“Aunt Ida, she came, she moved in, but she looked more at the ranch than at us.” Eddie never went to school, but Mama Mumu did, until Aunt Ida insisted she stay home and help with the endless chores. Tired of her aunt’s tongue-lashing and, occasionally, the sting of a real whip, Mama Mumu took her younger brother and ran away.

Somehow, they made it to ’Frisco, begging or stealing food, thumbing rides, walking long and hot miles. They wound up in the Haight, where a kind grocer hired her to stock the shelves, letting her take food and giving her and Eddie a place to sleep in the back.

“Eddie, he tried. Really tried. But he’d put the cans upside down or in the wrong place.” So he’d spend the day playing ball on the sidewalk while his sister worked. Until that day. A man who’d drunk too much. A car moving too fast, skidding onto the sidewalk where a boy was playing….

“We buried him here. The grocer, a good man, put up the stone. And me? I hit the road. Been on my journey ever since. I haven’t been back here for a while, and when you said you’d be coming, I got a hankering to say hi to my brother.”

Marjorie sat absolutely still. San Francisco’s famous foggy mist had rolled in, giving the cemetery an unearthly, almost ethereal feeling: a place where imagination could run wild. She thought about her parents, imagined losing them to death when she was just a child; about being raised by a stranger. Her brother, annoyingly perfect but also her playmate and childhood friend, being placed in the dark earth. She thought about a woman, cruel to orphans, stealing what should have rightfully been the orphans’ property.

Imagination receded; fury took its place. “And you never went back to claim your parents’ farm from that horrible aunt? To tell her off?”

A gleam of gold, a smile. “Nope. No reason to fight over rocks and soil.”

“So you let her get away with what she’d done?”

“Hon, I forgave her. She’d had a hard life, too.” She picked up a pebble from the cemetery floor. “Baby, you can hold hate like a stone, carrying it in your heart. It’s a heavy load. Or you can forgive and move on.” She threw the pebble to the ground, towards her brother’s grave. “Me, I chose to forgive.”

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 881)

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