The Beverly Hillbillies.

Dear friends,

phyllis & jm beach

Yesterday I spent six hours driving alone on an adventure I’ll tell you about on another day. Suffice to say, I had some time to kill in the car.

With no one to talk to and only a classic rock station to keep me company, I inexplicably decided to call my sister. I hadn’t talked to her in more than a year.

This story isn’t about the dynamics of our relationship. Like many family bonds, ours is complicated. The fastest and most polite explanation is that my sister has lived a colorful life. And I have lived a conventional one. Thus, our paths diverged a long time ago.

“P” is 10 years my senior. She married and moved out of our home at age 18 and I have but a handful of memories of us living under the same roof. The photograph above is one of them. It was taken on the beach in Santa Monica, California, in 1968.

A year earlier, my brother Markie was injured while serving in Vietnam. As soon as he was transferred to a California veteran’s hospital, my mother — twice divorced by then — quit her job, loaded P and me up in our rattletrap car (a Nova perhaps, I’m not sure), and moved us to Santa Monica to be near my brother while he convalesced. One of the few vivid memories I have of that time is of my mother driving P and me across the Arizona dessert at high noon with an ice chest that was empty long before the sun went down in an automobile with no air conditioner.

I have a vague recollection of the apartment we lived in and the Kindergarten I attended. (Whenever I smell overcooked peas, however, I am instantly transported to that California school.) Two rare but clear memories of that time include:

  1. The image of a standard green street sign — a prominent Southern California boulevard — with my maiden name on it; and
  2. The opening credits of the television show Marcus Welby MD, which included footage of a Santa Monica street we drove down many times (and which always delighted the grade school fan I became after we moved home to Oklahoma).

I’m not sure how long we stayed on the West Coast — a year, perhaps. Regrettably, my life as a Southern Californian is a hazy blip on the radar screen of my life.

But while talking to P on Saturday, she reminded me of a story from the Golden State that surprised and amused me. She says we were joined at the hip during that time because my mother worked long hours and I was often left in her care. She didn’t go into detail, but it seems one day she and I had managed to pick up a car full of hippies (you can imagine Southern California in 1968, right?) before driving through Beverly Hills. Who knows what we were doing — P has learned it’s best not to elaborate with me — but it wasn’t long before she was pulled over by a police officer.

“It was a piece-of-crap car, you know, with Oklahoma plates,” P explained, “and we were driving around a pretty ritzy neighborhood. The cop told me to get you home right away, and to make sure I dropped off the hippies AFTER I exited Beverly Hills.”

She laughed while conjuring this happenchance memory for an infrequent listener who has been reluctant to relive shared adventures. I laughed, too, and smiled at the sound of my nickname, JM, being spoken by a voice so distant and yet so familiar. For just a moment I was spellbound, captivated by the impromptu intersection of two lives that so often digress. I ended the phone call then, afraid we might break the spell and hopeful I could hold it in solitude long enough to inspire another phone call on another day, to grasp one more chance to darn the raveled sleeve of sisterhood.

With gratitude {for the inclination to make the phone call},

Joan-Marie, but like my sister, you can call me JM