Chapter One: Densmore Avenue North
I grew up in a working-class suburb just north of Seattle, a mile from the prestigious Lakeside School, where my contemporary, Bill Gates, would birth an empire.
I lived in a house on Densmore Avenue North. It was very small house; two bedrooms, one bathroom, with a small bedroom in the unfinished basement. My parents paid $14,000 for the house in 1963. I know because I have the deed. My mother always said she told my father she didn’t like the house. But he did, so she gave in. Those were her words. She gave in.
It was a dark house, cut into the side of a small incline, just a block from my elementary school. There was a big picture window at the back of the living room that looked out onto an expansive backyard. The yard seemed so big to me then. It was the outer edge of my world. I had no real concept of what lay beyond.
On sunny mornings when the grass was still dewed, with my head just above the sill, I watched fat blue robins with their magnificent red breasts cock their head to the ground, then dart and pull a worm. It was early. I was up, my brother was up, both bursting with that anticipation of all good things to come.
My dad had long since left for work. My mother was still in bed. We’d go in periodically and poke at her, or just stand next to the bed staring until she opened her eyes and looked into ours. It seemed like hours before she would get up, but I’m sure it was only a matter of minutes.
She’d rise, sit on the edge of the bed, and reach for her hearing aid. She’d put it on, and our excited exhortations would turn audible. Instead of just seeing words moving on our lips, she’d hear us imploring, “Mamma! Mamma! Get up!”
She’d get up and sit on the couch. We’d crawl on her, nudging into her arms and her thick dark hair with desperation, seeking that nourishment only a loving mother can provide. She was sleepy but happy, encircling us in her arms and darting us with kisses, just as the robin darted for worms.
I remember morning kindergarten, walking the block home at noon. She’d fix me lunch, a tuna fish sandwich and a handful of chips. Usually a cookie. After, I’d sit near her and we’d watch The Afternoon Movie on Channel Five. The movies were classics from the 40s and 50s. She’d tell me the names of all the stars. The actresses were intoxicating, with their lustrous hair piled into elaborate designs, their heads tilted back as they looked up into men’s eyes with yearning. But what was best of all were their beautiful gowns; evening dresses that sparkled in black and white, cut to a woman’s form with precision. I wanted desperately to live in a world of Rogers and Astaire.
Still, when I catch an old movie, I transport into my five-year-old mind, even feeling my mother’s arm around me as we sat on the sunken brown couch. It wasn’t until later she began to ask me bits and pieces of the plot she missed. It would be decades before dialogue would scroll at the bottom of the screen. From across the room, she watched the actor’s lips move, trying to decipher the plot of which she only ever gained a superficial understanding. That is why we liked musicals best of all.
It was about that time she would lift me onto the kitchen counter and put the rotary phone handset up to my ear. We’d rehearse what she wanted me to say to whomever answered. Then she’d dial the call, and intently watch my lips to ensure the message was being communicated. When the receiver asked for a name, she had to prompt me with hers, which I hadn’t yet memorized. The calls would take a bit of time, if you can imagine scheduling a doctor’s appointment through a five-year-old, but we managed. I don’t know how; I had no concept anything was at all amiss at the time. We managed. But it didn’t feel like just managing. It felt like life. Normal life.