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The day my mother stopped playing by the rules

INSIDE/OUT

When I think of home, the home of my youth, I think of a gray,

two-bedroom house in Huntington Park.

My family and I lived in many houses while I was growing up, but

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this was the one that took, the home in which we stayed long enough

to put down some roots and lay plans for things other than our next

move. It was a big, single-story, 1900s holdout, so old it sagged in

the middle. It had a short brick walkway that led to the front porch.

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The walkway leaned to the left during the first couple of years we

lived there, then to the right following the Sylmar quake in ’71.

My mother had found the house purely by accident. She was walking

to the corner store one day and noticed it for the first time,

forsaken and overrun with weeds and grass. Later, when my father and

brothers and I took on the task of getting rid of all that weed and

grass, we found a rusty “for rent” sign that had fallen and

disappeared in the overgrowth three years earlier. My mother talked

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to a neighbor who put her in contact with the owner, who was so

excited at the prospect of a tenant that she rented the house to us

for $75 a month.

“It’s a fixer-upper,” my mother told us later that night. “Don’t

turn on the heater or it’ll blow up.”

A week later, the eight of us were moved in.

Mom’s first step toward home improvement was to rip the thermostat

off the wall, certain that one of the boys would turn the heater on

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one night to see if it really would blow up. But the place still

needed a lot of work.

Besides the heating system being shot, there were holes in the

walls, gashes in the ceiling you could see the stars through, exposed

wiring everywhere. Forget about the bugs. The floor in the laundry

room had almost disintegrated with dry rot. You’d turn on the water

and the pipes would groan and think about it. In the mornings, my

mother hung blankets up against the walls to keep the cold out, and

the blankets would billow in the draft.

The neighbors thought we were out of our minds for living there,

and they warned their children to keep away from us. When I told my

mother about this, she just laughed. She had been in a good and

progressively better mood since we had moved in.

My mother had been at her wits’ end before finding that house. She

was 30 days past a 30-day notice to vacate, and had spent the past

month searching the lowest income neighborhoods in L.A. for someone

who would let to an impoverished family of eight. She’d have had an

easier time finding a homeland in the Middle East. No one would rent

to us. Desperate, she turned to the state for subsidized housing

assistance, and was put on a waiting list so long she might just be

getting a place about now had she waited.

Then, finally, when it seemed like the eight of us might be

spending a few nights in my dad’s Rambler, my mother stumbled upon

this house. She began smiling the moment she laid eyes on it. It was

big enough. It had to be cheap enough. And my mother’s feet were

really starting to kill her.

So when the landlady asked my mother how many children she had, my

mother paused.

“How many are you willing to take?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t want to rent to more than a family of four.”

My mother sighed. She had a hard time believing that termites, dry

rot and explosive heaters could be considered harder on a property

than six children, but there it was. She made a decision right then

to stop playing by the rules.

“Well, there are five of us.”

The landlady looked at the sagging old house.

“Well, I suppose I can live with that.”

That night, my mother gathered us together and with a big smile on

her face told us that three of us had to go.

And so began the days of the big family conspiracy. Whenever the

landlady would make one her unannounced quarterly visits, whoever

spotted her car first would shout “The landlady! The landlady!” My

father would stall the landlady at the door while my mother shooed

three of us into the linen closet. Then she would rush out to greet

the landlady and steer her to the backyard where she would show her

how beautifully she was fixing it up and how big her three little

darlings were getting. Meanwhile, in the linen closet, three little

hostages to rental fraud would jostle and charley-horse each other

and curse the landlady under our breaths.

Of course, it wasn’t a well-thought-out conspiracy. My mother

could never quite remember which three kids she had frantically swept

into the closet the last time the landlady showed up. So sometimes

she’d bring three of her darlings out and the landlady, a very old

woman, would scratch her head and stare for a long moment, and say

things like, “Didn’t you used to have three girls?”

And my mother, without batting a lash, would shake her head, and

say things like, “Oh no. Michael has always been a very pretty boy.”

And the landlady would nod and wonder if she was starting to go

senile.

But you can be certain that, whomever my mother brought out to

meet the landlady, I wasn’t one of them. Being the youngest, my

official existence wasn’t even open to debate. I’d hear the cry “The

landlady! The landlady!” and immediately drop my toys and run to the

closet. One time, I ran in and closed the door, and there with me was

my brother Junior -- and my dad. He looked at me and made a “shush”

gesture with his finger. I just shook my head and sighed. I didn’t

even want to know.

We lived in that house for six years before I finally saw our

landlady’s face. It was on the night before my sister Linda’s

wedding, a big production in which the efforts of every member of the

family was enlisted. My job was to tie little silk bows around

plastic champagne glasses. The eight of us were all laboring away in

the living room when the landlady strolled through the open screen

door, carrying a big, gift-wrapped box.

Sixteen eyes followed her as she walked across the room and handed

the gift to my sister and kissed her on the cheek. My sister thanked

her; the rest of us were as silent as deer at an NRA convention. Then

the landlady turned and started walking back toward the door.

And just when we were starting to think our luck would hold out,

the landlady stopped at the door and turned to the six children, five

of whom had already been introduced her over the years as my mother’s

own. The old woman stood there with her hands on her hips and wearing

a triumphant expression, as though she could finally prove at last

that she hadn’t been losing her mind. Then she turned to my mother

and announced that she was raising the rent 50 bucks a month, and

left.

My mother stared after her for a long time.

“Well,” she said at last. “I suppose we can live with that.”

* DAVID SILVA is the News-Press city editor. Reach him at

637-3233; or by e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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