The Game of Their Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody remembers how long the game has been going.

Mama played before she died, and Millie, the oldest sister, did too.

Progressive rummy. Six hands and the last one's a killer.

The voices of Jackie, Virginia, Georgette, Henriette, Margaret, Norma and Theresa bounce steadily against the soft pit-pit-pit of a light rain.

It is Tuesday and the seven remaining Loiselle sisters are playing cards.

"Oh look, Virginia," teases Georgette, whom everybody calls Georgie, as an old black-and-white photo of the whole clan is passed around. "You had a neck!"

In the picture, the sisters are lovely. Young. All eight of them are posed with four brothers, and their mother, Rose, her mouth partly closed to hide her missing top teeth, sits in the middle, beaming through half-shut lips.

Their sisterhood--forged in those early days and mellowed through girlhood, motherhood and now encroaching old age--binds them forever to each other. They are, after all, of the same time and the same genes, knit by blood and shared experience.

They came to Los Angeles with the coming of the freeway, a robust clan of eight girls and four boys, growing with the region and reaching their difficult years along with the city itself.

One married a son of chicken ranchers whose egg stand gave way to a skyscraper on Ventura Boulevard. One had a daughter who ran off to Haight-Ashbury during the summer of love. One knew a victim of Charles Manson.

Now, they share stories and Maalox. They go on cruises and brag about their grandchildren. Some of them share tears about surviving their husbands. They are old women together.

Barring funerals, operations and other forms of bad luck, Jackie, Virginia, Georgette, Henriette, Margaret, Norma and Theresa get together every Tuesday. Their stories, their lives, weave in and out among the cards. Six hands.

Shuffle: Two Decks

Jackie sits near the kitchen, ready to jump up and pour coffee from an old tin stove-top pot. This week the game is at the Northridge ranch home where she lives with her husband, Jack, and she has made a plate of mini-muffins. They sit to her right in paper jackets.

Norma leans back in her chair, laughing at one of Georgie's jokes. At 73 she is a biggish woman with gray hair and a simple dress. Margaret's seat is empty--she's late.

Henrie, the oldest, and Virginia, 11 years younger at 65, sip coffee and stare at an old picture.

Ante up. Nickel a game.

A pair of hands, older and a little cracked, wedding band on the left ring finger, closes around a deck of cards and stacks it on top of another.

The sound of shuffling interrupts the sound of conversation. But only for a moment.

Do you remember, one of the sisters says, amid clinking cups and clacking cards, when we moved to Los Angeles from New York and stayed downtown on Main Street in that place, what was it called? Your Hotel? And Georgette sprained her ankle jumping down the stairs and they used to let us in the movie house next door for free? When we were living in Eagle Rock and they declared war on Japan and Virginia hid under the table because she thought the bombers were coming?

When we first moved to the Valley? It was 1943. Things were different then.

*

First Hand: 1943

In 1943, the only freeway in the San Fernando Valley was a tiny section of the 101, which had scaled the Cahuenga Pass three years earlier to connect the East Valley with Hollywood. It was the year of the Zoot Suit riots, when dozens of zoot-suited Mexican American youths had been stripped of their "hoodlum" clothing and beaten senseless by white servicemen, in retaliation for an earlier clash between Mexican American youths and a group of sailors.

But the Valley was bucolic.

Charles and Rose Loiselle, with children ranging in age from 7 to 27, moved into a house on Moorpark Street in North Hollywood.

Theresa and Virginia and Raymond, the youngest, began classes at Riverside Elementary School. Millie, who was already married, had stayed behind in New York, where she and her husband, Bill, ran a small market.

On Sundays, the Loiselles went to church. But on Saturday, Mama got to go to town. Rose and Charles and whatever children weren't otherwise accounted for made the trek over the hill in the family's old Cadillac to Hollywood, taking in lunch and a movie.

Next stop was the Grand Central Market--then, as now, a bustling block-long center for shopping and people-watching. The girls would always get a treat and Virginia, then 12, spent much of the morning anticipating her favorite--a hot dog and a root beer.

The senior Loiselles were French Canadian Catholics who hailed from a small town in Quebec. They moved their growing brood to New York in 1928, where Charles, a plaster maker, produced statuary for churches.

During the hard times that followed the stock market crash, Charles Loiselle made religious figures in the basement, and the children pitched in, painting blood and tears on statues of Jesus. Norma had to quit school in the ninth grade, and worked as a baby sitter and nurse's aide to bring in extra money. Millie had to quit too.

By the time the family settled in the house on Moorpark Street, Norma was 21.

The Lockheed Aircraft Co., by then a fixture in Burbank, was booming, making planes for the British and American war efforts. Norma applied for a job there.

*

"I worked at Lockheed for four years," Norma was saying, taking her turn to deal the cards. She was a rigger--stringing wires in the wing and tail flaps--and a riveter. She caught the eye of Guy Smith--"Smitty"--the mechanic who would become her husband.

"He asked me out three times," she says. "I didn't like him! Finally, I went out with him just to show him that he couldn't get anything. He didn't even try!"

Well, Jackie says, it was a good thing too. Georgette's son had a baby at 18, but there was no way that would happen in Charles Loiselle's home. "My father told us, 'If any of you get pregnant, don't come home.' "

The talk turns to dating and marriage. One time, when the family was still in New York and living on the edge of a rough neighborhood, Jackie was almost beaten up by some tough girls who said she was stealing their boyfriends. Norma saved her by showing up with her own gang of friends--and threatening to beat up Jackie's accusers.

"You were the cutest," Jackie says to Margaret. "You were always stealing my boyfriends."

"Really?" asks Margaret, who at 67 is rail thin, her face etched with the deep lines of a life hard-won. She is missing several bottom teeth, but she doesn't like to wear false ones. "Maybe I had something to prove."

*

Second Hand: Coming of Age

Margaret was the prettiest sister, and she knew it. Once, Father covered all the mirrors in the house to keep her from gazing in them.

She had a habit of borrowing her sisters' clothes. Virginia, three years younger and the most organized of the girls, was the one most likely to have a stash of freshly washed and pressed garments. The way out, Virginia decided, was to iron only the clothes she was going to wear that day--so Margaret wouldn't be able to use anything. Georgie, never so subtle, drew a line down the middle of the room they shared.

Margaret and Jackie both won the affection of the same boy in high school. He would take first one, then the other, home on the handlebars of his bicycle.

At 24, Margaret married John Evans, a policeman with an eye for pretty women. He had been married once before.

Jackie met Jack Gindera, a bombardier, after the war. Jack's parents owned the egg stand on Ventura Boulevard, where an office building now stands. Mae West and Barbara Stanwyck were regular customers. "Cottage Poultry Ranch," proclaimed the sign. "Fat Stew Hens."

Henrie was already married. She had been courted by Allen Chaikin when the family still lived in New York. Handsome and friendly, Al loved to take Henrie boating on Sheepshead Bay.

But he was Jewish, and the Loiselles strict Catholics.

One day, Henrie disappeared. She and Al had eloped. And Charles Loiselle was furious. He wouldn't talk to Al--even after the struggling young couple came to live with the family.

*

"Father was angry that we didn't tell him we were going to elope," Henrie recalls, passing on a chance to pick up a queen of hearts. "Then he just accepted it."

Margaret feels a burp coming on, but shuts her mouth and catches it at the last moment. She looks up a little sheepishly. "When you're by yourself," she explains, "you can let it all hang out."

The conversation careens around the card table. Past, present and future collide as the seven women reminisce, joke and brag a little bit.

Jackie announces that she found a set of shrimp cocktail forks at a swap meet and displays them. Norma doesn't want them.

"Why not pass them on to your children?" Jackie asks.

Norma declines. She, everyone agrees, is devoted to her children and grandchildren. Which doesn't mean that after all these years and so much history, it's easy to keep it all straight. Norma tries to remember the year her son Dana was born.

"Dana was born in '47," she says. "No, '45. No, '50."

After some discussion, it is settled that he was born in 1950. Then someone produces a family history, which shows that he was born in 1957. Everyone agrees that this is correct.

*

Third Hand: Baby Boom

In 1957, Norma, Margaret and Theresa were all pregnant. The postwar baby boom, which started in 1946, was in full swing. As was the Loiselle grandbaby boom, which began in 1940 and continued until 1963 and would net Rose and Charles 28 grandchildren.

That year, the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik and the Los Angeles City Council voted yes on a deal to bring the Brooklyn Dodgers to town. A much bigger portion of the Hollywood Freeway opened, finally making the heart of the Valley accessible to the city.

The seven sisters drew close, sharing baby-sitting duties and at times running what amounted to an informal preschool. They'd gone their own ways in high school and in the early years of marriage, but now their children bound them together.

Margaret had three little ones before her husband left her, Georgie had four and Henrie three. Norma had two, and Jackie had one. Virginia had two and Theresa four.

These were good times.

*

"My son," Norma says to no one in particular, "got a $200-a-week raise."

"My son got a $250,000 bonus," counters Georgie.

The conversation turns to their mother, to the number of years she spent pregnant and caring for toddlers. Norma recalls that when Rose, then 42, found out that she was pregnant with Raymond, the youngest, she started to cry.

"The nun said, 'You wait. He's going to be your best one.' And he was."

*

Fourth Hand: The '60s

Rose was nearly 70 in 1962 and Raymond was 23 with a son of his own.

Henrie and Al had just begun building their dream house on an avocado farm they had carved out of the brush in Fallbrook in northern San Diego County when their boys got the call for Vietnam. Stephen and Ricky signed up with the Navy and shipped out.

Jackie's son Chris was old enough, but he had small hands and got to stay behind.

Chris loved horses and motorcycles, and often rode in the equestrian country of what was then near-rural Chatsworth. Nearby, the murderous cult leader Charles Manson and his "family" of followers were living on the Spahn movie ranch, planning for a race war that they believed would make them rulers of the United States.

The sisters had known Donald "Shorty" Shea, a ranch hand on the Spahn property, since childhood, when they rode at a ranch in North Hollywood where he had worked. Shea disappeared in 1969 at the hands of Manson's minions.

Ten years later, when Shea's decapitated body was finally found, the sisters were horrified. Margaret in particular couldn't believe it. The handyman and ranch hand had been kind of a cowboy father figure to some of the young girls who had boarded and ridden their horses there.

In 1969, though, the full horror of what had happened wasn't yet clear.

Theresa was pregnant that year with Tommy, who was born in April, but Norma's daughter Lisa was old enough to be drawn to the burgeoning hippie culture.

She had a friend who had run away from home eight times. Once, Lisa, who had taken to going around barefoot, had gone with her. But soon after, the phone rang at Norma's North Hollywood house. It was Lisa.

"Mom," she asked, "Can I come home?"

*

"Your hair looks better now," Henrie was saying to Margaret as Jackie prepared tuna sandwiches for lunch.

"Yours looks terrible," Georgie says to Henrie. "It looks like a flat wig."

Margaret is talking about the 1994 Northridge earthquake, whose epicenter was near the trailer park where she lives.

"All of a sudden--crash! Up with my couch!" she says.

"Then all of a sudden I see the smoke and fire. Some of the mobile homes had fallen on their gas tanks."

Margaret says she started drinking after her police officer husband left for another woman. The guys down at the station house, she says, never understood why. Margaret, they always said, was so much prettier.

"My old man liked the night shift," she says. "That was where the action was."

*

Fifth Hand: Losses

Georgie already had three children when Darren was born in 1961. Denise, her oldest, was nearly 12. So Darren really was the baby.

One morning when Darren was 7 years old, he woke up choking. Georgie tried desperately to help him, to get him breathing again. She rushed him to a nearby doctor, who performed an emergency tracheotomy. But it was too late.

Unbeknownst to the family, Darren had cancer in his thymus gland. And while he slept that night, it burst inside his body.

When he died, later that day, life was wrenched not just from Darren's little heart, but from Georgie's big one as well. She shut down.

She couldn't concentrate. She was so lost in pain that she didn't see that David, the oldest boy, really needed her to steady him. He instead turned to his girlfriend, and their son, Georgie's first grandson, was born when his father was barely out of high school.

Pain came to Henrie's life soon after.

She knew something was terribly wrong by the look on Al's face. The doctor hadn't said anything to her, but Al's sobs told her what she needed to know.

"I thought I was going to go first," he said as they waited in the sterile office. Breast cancer. And she was only in her 40s. She had six months.

The doctors recommended a radical mastectomy, but even with the operation they didn't think Henrie was going to make it.

Then a friend came up with a bizarre plan. They would go see a faith healer at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, where Aimee Semple MacPherson had founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in the 1920s.

One day, as healer Kathryn Kuhlman called to the faithful from the altar, Henrie's friend shoved her up on the stage. The charismatic woman touched Henrie on her forehead with just one finger, and Henrie slumped to the floor.

That night, Al dreamed she was blowing out 70 candles on a birthday cake.

And so she did.

*

"Look what they did to me," Henrie says, pulling down the front of her blouse to show a thick pink scar over her flat rib cage, and a prosthesis in her bra.

"They butchered her," Georgie says.

"You want a seven of hearts?" somebody asks Georgie, who has left the table for a minute.

Jackie picks up Georgie's hand. "No," she says, "She doesn't want it."

In the end, Henrie says, she outlived Al. She was 61 when he died, after 41 years of marriage, in 1982. Now she's 75.

"I knew he was going to go," she says. "He was in intensive care for 6 1/2 weeks."

After he died, Henrie sold the avocado farm and moved to Escondido.

When your husband dies, Georgie says, it's like having a limb amputated. You keep thinking it's there, but it's really not. You keep thinking you can lean on it.

Georgie's husband, Sandy Dunnet, passed away last year. Theresa lost her man when she was just 39 and her youngest child was 3.

Only Virginia and Jackie have husbands who are still alive.

"You realize what you've lost after you've lost them," Norma says.

"I still think about him. I still miss him," she says. "Especially when you want a little.

"I think, 'I wish Smitty was here.' When you want to make love."

*

Last Hand: Old Women

"I still feel young inside now," Margaret says. "But I look in the mirror and I think, 'Oh my God! Who is that prune?' "

"I still smoke heavy," she adds. "Tough titty. It's my choice."

One terrifying day last winter, Theresa was rushed into open heart surgery, forced to face the same type of operation that had killed her husband years before.

"I always said I would never have open heart surgery," she says. "But it happened so fast."

Now slim and bright-eyed, Theresa lives in a wood-paneled guest house rented from a friend.

When the sisters play cards there, she puts her dinette set in the living room. They met there for the first card game after Theresa's surgery, and Theresa served beef stroganoff and homemade apple cake.

Talk turned to the group's annual cruise. A few years ago, on a cruise to Mexico, they met a charming man, a grandfather himself, who asked Virginia to dance.

"Aren't you jealous," Norma asked his long-haired partner, not realizing that she was speaking to a man, "of your husband dancing with my sister?"

They became fast friends.

This year, the sisters will cruise from Vancouver back down to L.A. Theresa is planning to bring a brilliantly colored sequined blouse to wear over slacks, and a massive supply of Tums and Maalox.

*

Jackie is not able to put any cards out. Her sisters cluck and shake their heads. "We help each other out," Norma says. "Until the last hand. The last hand is cutthroat."

Norma picks up a jack of diamonds and starts to sing the old song of the same name.

"I would never get married again," Norma says, her brief song over. "It's like being a prisoner."

In 40 years of marriage, Norma recalls, Smitty cooked one meal--franks and beans. "Now I can do what I want," she says.

It is 5 o'clock and the day is winding down. In the yard outside, where Margaret has gone for a smoke, the light has started to fade, at first almost imperceptibly, then quicker and quicker.

The old picture of Rose and her brood comes out for one last look. In the 24 years since her death, all of the sisters became grandmothers and three of the siblings--two boys and the oldest sister, Millie--have passed away.

There in Jackie's kitchen, the seven surviving sisters remember and move on. They do not fight over boyfriends anymore. But they persist in teasing Virginia about being so well-organized. They laugh about Norma, so naive as to think their gay friend's companion was a woman.

They smile to think of Mama, how she never wore her false teeth. They giggle about it like a bunch of 10-year-olds.

Henrie, who is staying with Norma for a few days, gathers her purse and wrap. Georgie fusses with the telephone. She is worried about her grandson, and she can't get through to the house because he's on the Internet with his computer, tying up the phone line.

Outside, the traffic is revving up at the end of another long Los Angeles day. The sisters will join weary commuters on the streets and freeways heading home. Home to the overbuilt, overpopulated Valley, where Shorty's North Hollywood ranch is now homes and apartment buildings, and the freeway stretches all the way up the state.

"See you next week," the sisters chorus.

"See you next week."

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