Within months, we moved to Long Beach, where Mother's family had relocated. Opa had suggested his daughter and her family join them, with the expectation that they might become a close-knit clan, something they'd never been.
It didn't work out that way. Opa died not long after the move, and Gertrude Gelien remained distant from her mother and siblings. Her new husband didn't even bother to go south with us. His home was the Monterey, sailing back and forth to Australia, a round-trip, literally, to the ends of the earth. His paychecks, however, were faithfully routed to his wife.
When Harry did appear, Walt and I made his life hell. "You're not our father!" we'd taunt, dispensing sullen disrespect, nonstop. Unfairly so, because Harry seemed to genuinely love our mother, and he treated her well.
But Mother didn't love him in kind. Not once did I see her show Harry any kind of warmth, not even when they reunited after his long weeks at sea. Years later, she would confide to me: "I have never been in love."
That reality was, I now believe, at the root of my mother's eventual crisis.
Protection, more than affection, is what Mother offered to Walt and me. Her stern demeanor may have masked a vulnerable, sensitive heart, but the armor was virtually impenetrable. Her maternal devotion, overall, took the form of lessons, dispensed daily from the Gertrude Gelien Compendium of Clichés:
"For every door that closes, two open."
"Always have a goal, and when you reach it -- set another."
"Every experience in life is worth having -- if you learn from it."
"Soap and water are cheap -- never forget that."
"Good things happen to good people."
"Whatever you do, thank God every day."
"Constructive thinking brings good results."
"Things may not be good now, but they'll get better."
These platitudes were one reason why I never confided anything to my mother: she wouldn't respond with a comforting hug or a reassuring smile, but only with one of her patented bromides.
Harry Koster's salary couldn't keep us going indefinitely. Mother landed another job, this time as a nurse on the Avalon, which sailed overnight from the mainland to Catalina Island. We moved to a tiny apartment on the island for the summer of 1940 so we'd all be together when Mother finished her daily circuit.
Whenever Walt and I heard the whistle of a departing steamer, we'd race to the end of the pier, dive off, and wave like crazy to the ferry passengers, who'd throw coins into the water. We'd compete with other kids to scoop the money from the shoals. That's how I became a good swimmer, diving deeper and holding my breath longer than any of the other boys.
Walt and I would spend all day, every day, exploring the island and cap it off at night hunkered over his bed, counting out what was left of our scavenged loot: pennies, nickels, dimes, and sometimes -- as rare as gold doubloons -- quarters!
Summer over, we moved back to Long Beach, where prewar life was idyllic. I couldn't have been happier. Our landlord lived in the house next door, and every morning he'd be out front by six, watering his garden. I'd jump out of bed, slip on shorts and a T-shirt, and run barefoot into the yard to help him dig in the dirt and tend the plants, something I still love.