include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for In Training: Years of Pain, Days of Laughter by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





In Training:

Years of Pain, Days of Laughter

By

Joan Luckmann


Copyright © 2018 by Wayne Luckmann


Table of Contents


Prologue

September 8, 1954: I begin my new life

Epilogue: Three Unlikely Musketeers

In Memoriam

Postscript

Editorial Apology

Notes

Sources

Acknowledgments

Other books by the author


PROLOGUE [1]

For most of my young life I was known as Ramona Romero until I was 18 years old when I assumed the name of Joan Grey. I decided I could carry two names because I already had lived two entirely different lives that were closely joined. My entire family was odd in that everyone because of their professions had at least two names and often lived double lives. During  my early years, my family composed of a crazy cast of characters included play and screenwriters, actors, musicians, as well as faith healers, preachers, and nurses. And because I was part of a theatrical family and I had hoped to follow in their footsteps, I never imagined that someday I would be preparing to become a nurse by entering the notorious Los Angeles County General Hospital [County], the largest public hospital in the world under one roof at that time with its school for training nurses.

Uncle Ned, a former jazz pianist, former composer, and former drunk, then for several years a sober man who had a fishing tackle business, used to say,

“Ramona, you're going to grow up to be the only normal person in our family."

How wrong he turned out to be! I now surmise that the family genes carried not only artistic talent but also that of angels and demons dominating our lives and guiding our spirits through the innumerable trials and tribulations, pleasures and pains that we each endured as we struggled our way through our lives. Yet, neither Uncle Ned nor I could envision the night before I left to start the three years of training that lay ahead at County, but I could recall all too clearly the difficult years that lay behind: the death of my mother from tuberculosis, the disappearance of my father, and the hellish but character building years I spent with Babu, my maternal grandmother, who raised me or rather dragged me up reluctantly through my teens.

But although my family was always an unusual challenge, it was only a prelude preparing me for the challenge that lay ahead at County and the multitude of patients, so many who were homeless, friendless, without family, without hope, in pain and despair we young students were being trained to nurse and ease their suffering in anyway we could, that challenge eventually causing some of us to gradually lose some of our empathy in exchange for our own survival in a brutal world for which we were not ready and often unable to face or accept. For we also learned that the brutality of life extended far beyond County into the pot-hole streets, rundown houses, and abandoned stores that were the dark poverty filling the heart of East L.A. (“City of Angels”) in such sharp contrast to the world I had lived in my entire life: A beautiful Dutch Colonial house on Crenshaw Boulevard close to Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and the vast, blue ocean with its bright beaches that we could drive to in twenty minutes on what were called freeways, the house I lived in on the border of Hollywood and its own brand of crazy, vivid contrasts from movie star mansions and movie studios and people from all over the world living on the streets, many of them very young, all waiting for that big break, waiting to be discovered, waiting for the fulfillment of that big dream that always remained just a dream.

And there was, of course, the world at large filled with the fear of communism, filled with prejudice resulting in anger from people of color, Latinos and Jews, women with no legal rights, few with more than basic schooling or money of their own, homosexuals locked in a dark closet, all these bitter people forced to live on the fringes of society waiting for their time to emerge into the light while others formed grandiose plans to make their way off of our chaotic world, soaring through the heavens to the moon and eventually the stars. (“Oh, that our reach should exceed our grasp! Or what’s a heaven for?”)

Having said all that, now I should begin my story and my last night with Babu before I left the next day for my three years at Los Angeles County General Hospital School of Nursing.


September 8, 1954: I begin my new life

Temperatures already in the mid-fifties promising another hot, smoggy, September day in Los Angeles and I am preparing myself to face three years at Los Angeles County General Hospital. I had heard it referred to as “The Rock” or “The Great Stone Mother.” If that wasn’t enough to scare me, I had also heard rumors that if you could survive at County, you could survive just about any problem life hurled your way, but I already had enough problems I was attempting to survive. Trying to finish packing my bags in what had once been my mother's bedroom before she died, this day for me is special, an exciting day, a liberating day because today I am finally leaving my grandmother’s house. I am finally leaving a place where I had grown through childhood, the only place I'd ever lived, leaving behind memories that I wanted to preserve as well as too many memories I wanted to bury and forget. Most important of all, on this day, at long last, I am leaving Babu, my grandmother who raised me after my mother died seven years earlier.


Only five feet tall, but strong and sturdy, built like a Slavic peasant who has labored in the fields her whole life and has known nothing but hardship, with her dark blue eyes and her graying hair wrapped around her head in a tight braid, Babu is a powerful woman. Commanding, domineering, possessive, my grandmother is someone I am compelled to respect but can never love. Babu always an enigma, living with her has always been difficult. She could be decent, reasonable, and fair eighty percent of the time, but that other twenty percent of the time was cruel and often seemed fatal, so that twenty percent of abuse is what I remember most. All the good works my grandmother performed by helping others were negated by what she created with her anger at anyone whom she thought reduced her feelings of power and self-respect or anyone who stood in her way of possessing the people in her life she wanted to control.

I wrestled with those problems for all the years I knew her, but when I finally left I only found myself in a place even more harsh and more demanding where I was challenged by someone with even more power over me, someone who apparently believed that she, too, was helping me and others with her facile, destructive form of counseling. But, just like Babu, she too often exerting her power over us, reduced some students to the brink of tears and others even to the brink of psychic collapse. I eventually got away from her, too, but before I did, I would have to gather my strength to not let anyone control my thoughts and make me doubt myself by thinking I was in constant denial because I was too afraid to face the problems from my past mostly due to my grandmother.

Babu a beautiful woman had passed that quality to her daughter Gloria Grey who until she became ill was successful in both silent and talking films. [2]

I always had a portrait photo of Mother on my dresser prompting curious people to ask why I had a framed photo of a movie star so prominently displayed.

For some reason typical of her, Babu had our portrait photographs taken shortly after Mother died. I, of course, look totally in despair while my grandmother manages to still look proud and stoic even though I knew her heart is breaking. She should have been more angry with my mother’s Christian Science counselor who had insisted that Mother keep her faith strong and refuse any medication or drugs, but so great was Babu’s sorrow she couldn't spare the energy to hate him, nor did she have the emotional strength to seek legal charges against him for his total disregard of my mother's life when newly approved medications were available that could have saved her.

With her blue eyes and white hair, Babu a powerful woman, short, sturdy, proud, always the center of attention, as Dr. Grey, Mother Grey, always a contradiction, the sort of person you admired yet disliked, Babu always declared,

"If it's a choice between having love or respect, I want respect!”

And you better believe she got it!

A portrait photo of Babu I once had displays her in a white nurse’s uniform with white hair in tight braids on top of her head held high, proud, almost arrogant.

Sometimes a savior, sometimes a villain, never a friend, far too harsh and unpredictable, her major problem, she was so volatile. Something you thought she would surely be angry about she willingly accepted. Something minor and she would explode. So what made Babu so difficult to deal with was her manic-depressive (bi-polar) personality that made her so unpredictable. I would have found much easier dealing with someone always mean with an obvious cruel streak always present who didn't care about anyone ever, never did anything without expecting payment, always forgetting any wrong they, themselves, might have done, always walking over people using them as stepping stones to get to what she wanted. So much simpler and easier to just outright hate someone with all your being and despise everything she did as a constant source of abuse and pain and get away from her, even killing her and ridding the world of such an ogre.

But my problem arose when a person like Babu could be abusive, possessive, and hateful one minute and then suddenly become kind and understanding although still possessive, the bonds she tied never loosened but tightened until I nor anyone could get away from her whenever her mood suddenly changed. The fact Babu was so unpredictable, so changeable, so erratic in addition to the loss of my mother and disappearance of my father caused me continual grief. I was always torn between feeling hateful toward her or feeling guilty about my hateful thoughts. I became as changeable as she, never knowing how to act, never knowing what to expect, my life built around a rotating wheel of fortune that sometimes spun fast and furious in the wind and at other times turned quietly in a soft breeze. I never knew for one moment to the next what she would do and why I wanted to just hate her, something I just couldn’t do.

Babu’s greatest fault was her having driven out of her life the people she loved most because of her need to possess them. But I think she could not keep herself from acting that way toward others. Babu could be a bully. She was often frightening because she was very unpredictable. Yet although Babu could be a bully herself, she would not allow anyone to bully another person. She would defend someone no matter what that person had done, as she did for Rosemary, the German girl abused by her father for becoming pregnant. But only one singular time did she accord with me and my father in condemning Christian Science by supporting our opposition to my mother’s strict adherence to a faith that led to her early death from tuberculosis that could have been prevented had she agreed to take newly introduced drugs.

Most other times, Babu always felt she was always right and always doing the right thing for other people. I don't know if she understood how her possessiveness affected others in unsurprising and very negative ways. I think Babu saw her possessiveness as a form of protecting others, although at some level she must have understood that she was destroying lives and that she had definitely destroyed my mother's marriage. My grandmother also lived through my mother’s success. Mother would have been even more successful as an actress if she hadn't gotten ill. And while Babu loved attention and drama that focused on her, Mother's death definitely shocked her and contributed to her own death from a final stroke.


Babu stands in the doorway of my bedroom watching me with a spiteful look while I go on packing trying to ignore her study of my every move.

"Nursing is hard, dirty work," she again warns quietly. "You won't be able to take it."

Then she suddenly raises her voice to a shout as if she were preaching one of her Sunday sermons, pointing her finger at me.

"Mark my words, you'll be back!”

Her pale white skin making Babu very vain, she knows how to put on a dramatic performance anywhere, anytime. She could have been in movies along with my mother. Her sense of drama makes Babu an inspirational preacher, for she knows how to lower and soften her voice when speaking to her followers often lolling them to sleep then almost screaming at them – poor timid sheep – to wake them up.

Aunt Jessie and I often sat in Mother's old study right behind the living room wall and listened to Babu’s weekly Sunday sermon, she always wearing a long white silk robe, and with her white braids, pale skin enhancing her mannerisms, Babu appeared as holy as an angel or a saint. Her flock totally believed in her in every way, and since she had done something kind and helpful for everyone of them, they all loved her without reservation.

Stout in her later years, Babu most often wore blouses and skirts. I never saw her wear a suit jacket. She did sometimes wear her nurse's uniform while practicing physical therapy, and when she preached on Sundays, Babu, of course, always wore her long, white dress. I once had a portrait of her in that dazzling dress trimmed in gold with a halo around her head, her arms stretched out to beckon lost wanderers to join her flock. People once said that Babu was a lot like Amy Semple McPherson, a famous preacher at the time. If Babu had not been so burdened with my mother, my alcoholic uncle Ned, and me, she probably would have become as famous as any preacher during that era.

If Babu were alive today, she would probably become our first woman president. For Babu had every requirement to rise in politics: strength, ruthlessness, a willingness to present herself as always confident, mightier than she actually was, a way with people that made them feel important, the ability to move people so that they felt she was actually doing something for them rather than just for herself in order for her to maintain her power to promote her own, self-righteous beliefs and her goal of always seeking more wealth and usually succeeding by exploiting others. [3]

Babu producing troubled relationships by always trying to dominate others was rarely if ever a victim herself. Yet, Babu seemed remarkably lacking in prejudice against anyone, except my father. She was very upset when our Japanese gardener and his family were sent to a concentration camp in 1941. We for awhile also had a black live-in maid. One day when I was a child, I got angry because I was denied something I desperately (and selfishly) wanted and called Gertrude a nasty name. Babu was furious and loudly ordered me to tell Gertrude I was sorry. I really did feel sorry because I saw how Gertrude was so hurt when she had always been kind and helpful to me. She kindly forgave my childish rant, and I never labeled anyone with that odious word again.

Aunt Jessie, her closest friend with whom she continually fought, always said that because Babu had grown up alone in an orphanage and with no one who wanted her or cared about her compelled her to cling to those whom she considered her family because never having had her own she needed them all so desperately.

Babu worked extremely hard to succeed at all she undertook. Yet although she tried everything to save my mother, my mother died anyway despite all the love Babu offered.


I try to ignore her and continue packing, but I can’t shut out her words. Babu loves drama, and I always have been her captive audience. I think about leaving the room, but that wouldn't help because she will just follow me, so I brace myself to listen to her usual tirade for what seems like the thousandth time. I have heard Babu spit out these same words over and over for years in her usual tirade. Babu steps close to me and points her finger at me.

"I don't get one ounce of gratitude from you — not one ounce — after all I've done for you!"

My grandmother moves even closer. I can smell the sweet scent of the soap that she always uses.

"I've worked my fingers raw and bleeding to keep a roof over your head and food on the table! I could have let your selfish father have custody, but I saved you from the miserable gypsy life you would have had with him. And you! You're never grateful! Not one word of thanks do I get from you!"

I give up trying to pack and flee into the spacious living room, but she follows.

“I give you one month!” she shouts, “and then, believe me, you will be back!”

I finally turn to face her. “No I won't!” I cry. “The hospital may be as bad as it is here, but at least it will be different!" Little did I know then that the difference would be worse.

I flee the house into the beautiful backyard that Babu has nourished with her green thumb where she also built a barbeque pit, hauling in alone brick and heavy bags of cement for a patio she laid herself. Babu has such a green thumb everything she touches grows in abundance. Plants so love her, she can grow anything even in poor soil, summer or winter. We have a beautiful rose garden in back, a arbor of dark grapes over the back porch, a rose arbor at the entrance in front, an expansive lawn back and front always green. For awhile she had a fern bed and planted hibiscus. Mother and I would string the petals into leis. Babu also planted a jungle in the backyard with a trail that my only friend Paula and I tramped through on our adventures. We thought we could make tires from rubber trees and put them on trains and go all over the country. [4]

Yet, living with Babu has always been hard because Babu had an equally hard life. Raised in an orphanage, becoming a nurse when nurses mostly scrubbed floors, seeing my mother die, and then having to raise me on top of everything else, especially as I looked so much like my father, and oh, how she hated him, I felt she hated me.

In addition, she was so very possessive and controlling, she didn't want me leaving, especially since she knew I was determined to leave anyway. But Babu never fooled me. I saw both the good and the bad in her and I grew up fearing her, especially after my mother died. Mother had protected me from my grandmother's bi-polar personality, and once Mother was gone, my grandmother was free to treat me any way she wanted on any given day depending on her mood, so I never knew what to expect, and I came to expect the worse.

Yet no matter how I felt about my grandmother, most people adored her. To her clients, Babu was almost a saint, and I believe that she really did care about the people she treated, for she never charged a client if she knew that the client or the client’s family was poor. Men resented Babu but respected her. They paid her the greatest compliment any woman could hope to hear at the time: "She thinks like a man."

Babu did think like a shrewd business woman and always was a tough opponent, but Babu never truly loved any man, apparently not even Mr. Grey. She always had harsh words for him even when they were a young couple. Babu used to love telling the story of when Mr. Grey was working in a rather lowly position at a bank. One day they were in the kitchen where Babu was fixing scrambled eggs and my grandfather was reading the paper. Babu suddenly picked up the frying pan, aimed it directly at my poor grandfather and, as she said, "I just let it fly!" hitting Mr. Grey on the side of his head, creating a nasty wound and a burn from the hot butter and eggs that had splattered all over him. My grandfather was so shocked he couldn't even respond. Babu shook a large spatula at him and yelled,

"God damn you! We don't have a thing! This little house! No furniture! Hardly any decent food! You quit that job at the bank and get a good job! One that really pays! One that will make us rich!"

I don't know what Mr. Grey might have said. Most likely nothing, as he usually did in response to Babu’s tirades. But I learned that he had quit the bank, went into real estate buying property at twenty dollars an acre in the desert, and became a partner in one of the companies starting a little desert community called Palm Springs. Of course, Mr. Grey grew wealthy, and Babu always took the credit. In time, he made more money than she did, so Babu even though she had divorced him wanted some of what he had gained, and however much she might have received, she would have taken it all had she somehow managed, and I think he probably did give her some because Mr. Grey was somewhat afraid of her, especially after the abuse he took from her early in their marriage.

Other men often viewed Babu as a powerful woman, a view not readily accepted at the time. But I don't recall any men attending her Sunday sermons or any male clients in her therapy practice while women always held Babu in awe as someone progressive. Very few women in that era could achieve what Babu accomplished with little help from anyone while facing all the problems she had to endure surviving adoption, nurses’ training, marriage to her Swedish husband, having my mother, married to Mr. Grey, having my uncle, starting her own nursing and physical therapy practice, founding an apostolic church, caring for my uncle when he was recovering from an accident driving while drunk, raising me, caring for my mother while watching her die. Babu's hardships as a child and a young student nurse had left her with a taint of arrogance, she always having something to prove and usually gaining anything she wanted because Babu knew how to intimidate people, especially me. Babu so possessive and controlling, she never wanted me to leave her house especially when she knew I was leaving despite whatever she said however loud.


Babu finally leaves me alone, apparently to allow me to reconsider what she has advised, but I only think of her harangue that occurred the evening before when I reluctantly went back into the house from the garden in back after Aunt Jessie had called me to dinner of another great meal by Babu always the great cook including roast lamb, mashed potatoes, Babu’s canned peas, freshly baked apple pie I shared with Babu, Jessie, and Johnnie in our beautiful dining room beyond the blue and white Dutch kitchen.

Jessie and Johnnie try being nice, encouraging me about what was ahead for me, Babu silently angry, fuming inside.

I excuse myself, “I should start packing.”

Babu stops my flight. “Aren't you going to help with dishes?”

Jessie and Johnnie both respond almost at the same time, "That's OK, Mona. We’ll do them.”

Babu glares at them more angry than ever.

Babu too often a bully, she frightens me because she is so unpredictable, and she believes in corporal punishment. She adheres to the adage that you must straighten a child before the age of seven or the child will grow up crooked, or some such saying just as harsh that asserts children should be subject to abuse for their own good and hitting or even beating a child is sanctioned by custom. When I did something she thought improper, she would become very threatening. I would beg her to reason about the problem and sometimes she did but sometimes she didn't and she would hit me with a coat hanger, bending it while supposedly straightening me.

Babu follows me into my bedroom once my mother's before her death, Babu forcing me to sleep in the same bed in which my mother died.

"Nursing is hard, dirty work! I should know! I've had to take care of your mother! I have worked my fingers to the bone taking care of you! I've had to be father and mother to you!"

Babu had no relatives other than immediate family. Babu always claimed to have been born in Wales, another fabulation on her part. She just wanted to appear more exotic to others. Babu actually born in Oregon of Slavic heritage soon after became an orphan when her mother died and her father left Babu in a Catholic orphanage but said that he would someday come back to get her from that horrible place. From her account, Babu’s childhood in that orphanage was terrible. She claimed the nuns were mean and always beating her for any infraction however minor, they having been forced as young girls into a convent to live a life demanded of them by their parents and their faith. My mother and I knew Babu had to believe her father loved her and did not desert her. But he never came back, and Babu was adopted when she was about eleven or twelve by a family apparently very kind to her, giving her a decent home until she was fourteen or fifteen, when they helped Babu enter training to become a nurse and become emancipated. Babu graduated from nursing school, became an RN, and later developed skills in physical therapy.

I once had a photograph of Babu in her long striped apron over her long, white, starched uniform. She had beautiful long auburn hair swept up into a bun on top of her head. She was holding my mother in her arms at whom she was smiling sweetly.

Babu would never admit that her father had abandoned her. She always claimed he was a war hero greatly decorated from not caring if he died because he wanted to be with his wife in heaven. I know he was a decorated soldier because I saw his photo that Babu always carried with her. But if he had been a real hero, surely he wouldn't have left his child in an orphanage.


Babu snatches a picture of my father out of my hand that I’m about to pack. Her eyes fill with hate.

"He never did anything but control your mother and ruin her life!”

How many times had I heard her accuse Dad of being a Svengali casting a spell, keeping an evil hold on my mother? [5]

Babu hated my coloring always reminding her of my father and his Gypsy heritage. “You're just like your father!"

I still remember my grandmother pulling my hair while brushing and exclaiming: "Why aren't you blond like your mother instead of dark like your father!” [6]

Babu hates everything about my father, but she actually is the problem: Possessive with everyone – Mother, me, Aunt Jessie — Babu is jealous because she suspects something she can’t accept is going on between Jessie and Johnnie who had lived together before moving in with Babu when Babu had immediately claimed Jessie as her own.

According to Jessie, the three of them had fought every night for ten years. One night Babu woke me, got me out of bed, told me to get dressed, and said that we were leaving. I never understood where we were going as Babu could not drive! So we stood outside for a while on the front lawn then went back into the house and I went back to bed. What that was all about I'll never know, most likely the result of one of those nightly fights among the three women that lasted until Babu grew seriously ill.


Babu thrusts at me a photo that includes my father.

“Here, take it! Take this one too!”

From that picture of my mother, my dad, and me, Babu has cut out the image of my father! I am stunned. I am so glad that I am leaving here and leaving her. What am I supposed to do with this mutilated picture?

“As far as the training you’ll get, you won't be able to stand it! You'll be back, Mona! Believe me!"

I tell myself: "Never! I'm never coming back! I don't care how bad it is, I'm never coming back!"

Babu finally leaves me alone in my room. Jessie and Johnnie come to hug me and wish me well. Johnnie leaves and Jessie sits on the bed while I continue packing.


I never knew Aunt Jessie's full name. She wasn’t my real aunt; she was always just Aunt Jessie to me, my “play” aunt, Babu's best and most likely intimate friend who had a close relationship with Aunt Johnnie, my other play-aunt, always a source of contention with Babu. I had no knowledge of Aunt Jessie’s background other than her having been born in St. Louis. I knew nothing of her parents since she never discussed her family, so I never knew whether she had siblings or why she had never married. I knew she had finished high school and trained to be a secretary.

In her 40s, Jessie seemed old, but then everyone at that time looked old to me, although she wasn't overweight like Babu. She was trim and she was taller than my grandmother who was only 5 feet tall. Jessie’s clothing style was always conservative, mostly suits and sensible shoes with short heels, mostly because of her employment.

Other than her strikingly blue eyes, Aunt Jessie’s appearance was nondescript, very plain looking with brown hair and bangs to cover her high forehead she hated. She wore only a bit of lipstick, and I can't remember much about her appearance expect that she seemed quiet and humble and sort of blending into the woodwork until I saw her at her office when she was at her job. There she looked very efficient, professional, someone to be respected. She was for years executive secretary for the head of the Santa Fe railroad and looked every bit the part. We used to joke about how she wrote all of the letters for her boss and that she was the one actually running the company, her writing the CEO’s letters and memos probably the main reason the railroad was still running and not in some giant train wreak at the bottom of a canyon.

Always serious, Aunt Jessie read the daily newspaper she considered the poor person’s encyclopedia, but she read few books, and although she did not read widely, she always seemed well-informed and wise. Aunt Jessie was the picture most people have of a typical old maid, the most patient person I've ever met, especially with me. Aunt Jessie used to sit in a special, very comfortable chair after dinner and I'd sit on the floor and we'd talk, I mostly complaining about how difficult Babu was and how I wished she would change for the better, and Aunt Jessie quietly, patiently listening to my too often repeated tale of woe.

Just the opposite of Babu, she was almost impossible to shake or upset. She didn't have any disabilities, was always in excellent health, and I can't recall her ever being sick. She also seemed totally lacking in any sexuality. I can't image Aunt Jessie involved with a man although I think she would have made a wonderful mother.

Jessie and Babu and Johnnie fought continually at night for ten years, about what I never did know, but I suspect that Babu was very jealous of Johnnie because Babu wanted Aunt Jessie all to herself. Babu was jealous of Jessie’s close friendship with Aunt Johnnie with whom she had lived before both came to live with Babu. What made the friendship among the three even more curious was that although Johnnie and Jessie had a close relationship, to everyone's surprise, especially mine, Johnnie for a time suddenly became engaged to a nice looking man, and Eric and Johnnie would put on quite a show for me at night when I looked out my window and could see them kissing. I don't know if Johnnie was ever serious about getting married to a man since Eric and Johnnie broke their brief engagement and I never did find out why or whatever happened to Eric. My feeling was that Johnnie was never interested in men, but she thought she would give it a try, and when it didn't work out, Aunt Jessie, Johnnie, and Babu were back to their nightly fights. Fortunately, no one used alcohol or they probably would have killed each other.


This morning after breakfast, I'm back in my bedroom trying to finish packing to leave Babu and start training. I'm waiting for Aunt Jessie to take me to County. Babu, for what she knows is the last time, tries to keep me from going. She as usual is raging at me. I'm trying to get away from her by fleeing into the living room, the kitchen, her treatment room, but she follows me continuing to yell. When I don’t respond, Babu finally understands that I'm leaving despite anything she says.

I keep wondering where is Aunt Jessie? Please come so I can get out of here! But when I move through the house one last time, I see again how beautiful it is: My mother's room, small but quite fancy with a pink satin quilted bedspread, mostly as it was when she lived but changed only because it was now mine; the gorgeous living room with sofa and matching chairs with printed gold fabric of large oriental designs; the big Dutch kitchen with blue and white cabinets and checkered tile floor; the beautiful rose garden my grandmother had planted along with the rose arbor out front.

I finally sit down on a bench in the hallway by the front door waiting for Aunt Jessie and I consider what I have been through and learned while living in Babu’s house: Married to a tall, blonde Swede, Babu had my mother when she was only sixteen or seventeen. My mother seemed to know nothing about her biological father except that he was Swedish. Babu divorced him while Mother was very young and went on to marry Mr. Grey, a Serbian, with whom she had Uncle Ned. I met Mr. Grey many times but I never liked him. Yet since he had made a lot of money in real estate in Palm Springs, Babu always wanted me to be very sweet to Mr. Grey. But I never called him grandfather or grandpa. I could only be polite. I never could accept having to "kiss up” to anyone who had money or something I wanted. I remember that Babu always was irritated because of my unfriendly attitude toward Mr. Grey.

Yet, the only person Babu truly loved was my mother, but in some weird way she must have felt something for Mr. Grey besides anger because she always wanted something from him, something he wouldn't readily give her – his money. I suspect my mother wasn’t very close to her stepfather. Mother desperately ill for a long time, I don't remember Mr. Grey ever visiting her. My grandmother divorced him and became very close to Aunt Jessie and Aunt Johnnie. Just before her divorce, Babu went to Hawaii leaving Mr. Grey standing on the dock watching my grandmother sail away with her friends whom she cared for more than him, if she ever really had cared for him at all.

Babu learned later that he finally did have money that he had earned because of her relentless threats and demands, and she, of course, wanted a share but apparently was denied what she claimed her due reward. As a result, Babu almost lost our house soon after mother died, so she with only required help refurbished our large house into apartment units and afterwards was always able to make the mortgage payments. Babu also had street savvy. An astute business woman, sometimes she seemed a bit of a con reading tea leaves, gazing into crystal balls, using a Ouija board trying to contact "the dearly departed," all for a fee. Kind to patients, devoted to my mother, extremely hard working to a fault, I often found Babu scrubbing the kitchen ceiling shouting, “Cleanliness is next to godliness!” Using her talents in many ways, she was always busy because “idle hands do the Devil’s work.

When Babu suffered her first stroke, she continued to work as a physical therapist for a demanding doctor. One day when she couldn't make it up the stairs to his office, he had yelled down at her, ”Get up here even if you have to crawl!” Babu did crawl to work that day, but when she established a treatment room in our house she would never again have to endure such insults. Babu had a very successful practice and she also took in patients after surgery.

One time, when I was about 13, we took in an unmarried beautiful German girl who had become pregnant. Her father, a horrible man who beat her, later died of cancer, an end I thought he deserved because I felt that a man so cruel had no right to live. I shared my room with Rosemary and she seemed to have been resigned to her father’s frequent abuse, but I often was so upset I was sick to my stomach most of the time she stayed with us. I never knew what happened to the baby, but Rosemary trained to be a nurse and graduated from County, so I admired her and wanted to be like her. Rosemary warned me not to train at County and advised me that I should attend another school for nursing that was easier and less exhausting. She said that the students at County were all young girls who at the end of a day of working the numerous wards on so many of the eighteen floors they would all return to their rooms and go directly to bed. But despite hearing that bad report, I later enrolled in County anyway, mostly to get away from Babu but also because of my fondness and respect for Rosemary.

Babu loved to gamble, especially playing bingo and some strange game where everyone threw balls in the center of the gambling hall. Babu always said that she liked gambling because she needed to relax after a stressful week, but Babu had never learned to drive, so Aunt Jessie did all the driving, and we always had Chevies, always brown. We used to go out for a long drive every Sunday after my grandmother's sermon, go for dinner to Babu’s favorite restaurant for prime rib, then out to Venice where Babu would gamble until eleven at night when we'd go home and Babu and my make-believe aunts would get ready for another day of work and I another day at school. Every Sunday we did the same thing: a long drive, a sumptuous dinner of prime rib at Babu’s favorite restaurant, then out to Venice where I waited with Aunt Jessie outside the gambling hall, or Aunt Jessie would take me out onto the boardwalk to observe all the muscle men displaying their bodies, or we would watch the Fat Lady, a hugh woman who appeared made of rubber as she laughed and laughed and laughed at all of us idiots gawking at her.

We also used to go on longer overnight trips, but I would always get car sick and had to be brought home. We did visit almost every California mission within a day’s drive when I was in my phase of reading about the lives of saints, especially about Joan of Arc whom I thought my patron saint and whose name I later assumed as my own when I enrolled in the Los Angeles County General Hospital School of Nursing.

Babu, however, wasn't interested as I was in reading fiction or fantasy, perhaps because she lived it. I never saw her sitting quietly reading a book. She was always up and busy. She painted her kitchen Dutch blue and white with a white ceiling that she scrubbed at least once a week, always a compulsive cleaner always scrubbing something, she was most interested in and focused on her therapy and home nursing business, her apostolic church, her in-home patients that brought in money, the more the better.

Babu loved crocheting or knitting or weaving large rugs that were beautiful and looked like something you might find in an adobe hut during the early days in the West. Babu loved all colors except black. She wove rugs in multiple colors and we had furniture beautifully coordinated with throws of Chinese patterns in gold cloth that was the fashion at the time. For awhile, we had a beautiful home with a spiral staircase. But Babu eventually converted her house into apartments and an office and exam room for her therapy practice in order to save us from eventual foreclosure. After Babu had another stroke, she needed to work at home and that way she also could keep an ever watchful eye on me. She wanted to build her own church, to make a lot of money, to accumulate property, to help my mother get well, and to keep her family members (especially me) under her control.

Aunt Jessie was Babu’s best friend and I know Babu loved Jessie as dearly as I did, but Babu’s attitude toward women was ambiguous. While she had two husbands, she had no other male friends, and she seemed so very close to Aunt Jessie, even sharing with her the same bed. If they lived today, they would likely marry.


When Aunt Jessie finally pulls up to the curb in our Chevy, I pick up my bags and hurry out through the beautiful rose arbor, the grass lawn beside the walkway neatly trimmed, the whole grand Dutch Colonial inviting and immaculate to anyone who hasn’t lived there with Babu.

Babu follows me and now changes her approach becoming nicer. I feel confused. I always feel confused around Babu. You never know what mood she's coming out of or when. Babu doesn't want me leaving her house, especially when she sees I am obviously leaving anyway.

Aunt Jessie helps me lift my bags into the trunk.

"I thought you'd never come!" I whisper with grateful relief.

Always calm, she quietly answers: "Stop worrying, Mona. I'll get you to the hospital in plenty of time. We won't get lost. County is way too big to miss."

Babu stands on the curb resuming her rant about how dangerous East L.A. is with its poverty, gangs, drunks, homeless, and drug addicts. She throws a newspaper at me.

"You don't believe me, Mona! Here, read this! Take it with you! Read it when you get to the hospital! By then it will be too late!"

I don’t respond to her final assault, ignore the newspaper, climb in the Chevy, and wait for Aunt Jessie to take me away leaving Babu behind on the curb watching us go.


Aunt Jessie says she doesn’t want to drive the new Pasadena freeway, so we take the alternative old route to the hospital through downtown L.A. and head for State Street and Marengo, the neighborhood, as Babu predicted, growing worse with homeless on sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles and derelict houses as we get closer to the Eastside, a striking contrast to Babu’s beautiful home. As we start across the Macy Street Art Deco bridge that marks the border to East L.A., Aunt Jessie exclaims at seeing the hospital even at a distance its massive white bulk soaring above the surrounding plain of houses. [7]

“There it is! I'm glad that you're the one going there and not me. I'd just as soon keep working for the railroad.”

“That must be so boring!”

“Well, yes, sometimes it is, and I have to admit sometimes pretty awful too. Especially the kind of jobs they offer women along with the rotten pay. I hope that after your training in that monstrosity you'll at least be able to earn a decent living, if you don't get married to some doctor with money.”

“I'm not going to marry for money!” I'm going to make my own money.!”

“Watch out, sweet child. You'll end up an old maid like me.”

“I'd rather be an old maid anytime than be some man's slave!”

Aunt Jessie just looks ahead and smiles.

We pass gangs of loitering young Latinos on the streets beneath the monumental grandeur of the hospital that looks like a mighty fortress I’ve heard called “The Rock,” a beacon especially at night to the sick and suffering masses of Latinos and other poor ethnic groups who inhabit East L.A., the hospital also a notorious training ground for those of us who want to learn how to alleviate suffering and ease the pain of dying.

What will those patients be like? Was my grandmother right? Is the task just a challenging, dirty, thankless job as she has so often loudly claimed? Now after an initial sense of relief getting away from my former house and neighborhood, I start to feel anxious, my most common response to anything unknown to me.

The hospital as we get closer looks so hugh, so overwhelming, so frightening that I am becoming scared and want to go back to where conditions were miserable but at least predictable and I knew what to expect. What was it going to be like working inside that massive eighteen-story monster above a cavernous basement rising before me as we slowly approach?

Aunt Jessie smiles. "Getting excited or just getting scared?”

"A little of both. But at least I won't have Babu yelling at me."

"Yes, but you'll have doctors, patients, instructors yelling at you. Someone is always yelling at you in this world, Mona."

“That shouldn’t be!”

"Well, dear child, I learned long ago that life isn't easy or what you think it ought to be!” Then she adds, “But at least we have it better than the poor little children in China."

We both laugh.

“Aunt Jessie?" I suddenly ask what I’ve always wanted to ask. “Why have you stuck with Babu all of these years? She's always trying to pick a fight with you over something stupid! She’s always possessive of you and of me, just as she was of my mother! She doesn't want anyone to even breathe without her permission! She wants to keep a strangle hold on all of us! Why do you still put up with all that!”

“I'm your grandmother's friend,” Aunt Jessie replies quietly as a matter of fact, “I help her stay stable. Babu has had a hard life abandoned as an infant, growing up in an orphanage, watching your mother die, and then raising you. She didn't have to, you know.”

But Aunt Jessie’s response only begins to irritate me. “Why do you always defend her!”

“Because I'm her friend – that's what friends do."

"I still don't see why you put up with it!"

But I can see that Aunt Jessie is getting tired of the exchange we must have had too many times. Aunt Jessie closes her lips tightly and looks straight ahead. I know well what that means without her saying a word:

“Shut up, child! I don’t want to talk about it anymore!”

Now that we are closer to the hospital and it grows even larger, I'm definitely starting to feel excited. There is something about the place with its giant, towering wings generating an intimidating force emanating from its huge bulk. Here we are before what I have read is the largest public hospital in the world under one roof. [8]


I ask Aunt Jessie to circle the hospital so I can show her how grand it is and I excitedly point out the magnificent entrance to the hospital with its statues of the founding deities of medicine, Pasteur, Vesalius and Harvey, on one side; Hippocrates, Galan, and Hunter, on the other that stand above the doorway of the Acute Unit above the wide flight of 30 steps with two landings. [9]

Having seen them in the brochure I received with an application to the nursing school, I with growing excitement point out the major areas as if I already knew the place well: The older Acute unit and more recently completed Psychiatric unit, the older TB and Osteopathic units that look antique compared to the new CD unit. We view people of all ages laboring up the wide stairs of the entrance or limping down. We witness the expressions of sadness, anxiety, anger, pain, or relief on faces of little children and the elderly perhaps from receiving a recent diagnosis or treatment. We finally pull up to the entrance of a modern brick building two stories high, the new apartment unit for student nurses completed the previous year. [10] [11]

Opposite the brick building across from the psychiatric unit are two-story wood barracks referred as cottages we will live in once we are capped after three or four months of probation, the remaining months as official students until summer vacation when we’ll be suddenly reborn as Juniors. There's a big chain-link fence around the barracks.

We pull up behind a line of other cars beside the brick building. Other new students are getting out with their parents, hauling out their luggage, climbing the few wide stairs, and entering the residence. Everyone looks excited but anxious. I feel the same.

“Well, here we are! Let's go!” Aunt Jessie exclaims as she climbs out of the Chevy and opens the trunk. We start unloading my luggage then climb the stairs along with others.

“Yes, “ I say to myself,  “Here we are! Let the games begin!”

Little do I know then how soon I will learn how much fun those games will offer.

Aunt Jessie and I enter the foyer. Most new students seem about my age, some shy, some loud, all anxious. Several older women in their twenties seem less nervous, more confident that they are going to make it through this difficult day. A cluster of five men who appear in their mid-twenties, probably medics who served in Korea, a couple look somewhat effeminate, and I recall how people look down on male nurses although they look up to medics as heroes. The male students are introducing themselves to each other and exchanging war stories, real or imagined. They look pretty blasé compared to the rest of us. I'm sure they have seen it all: shattered bones, bloody faces, death and dying. This place may be a stroll in the park for them.

Students seemed to be arriving in shifts. I look around and wonder how many of us will be left by the end of the month. I hope one of them will be me. Aunt Jessie having helped me lug in my bags, gives me a hug and a kiss, and tells me to call my grandmother to let her know that I'm OK.

“Ramona, I know you don't want to call her, but you need to do the right thing!”

Then she leaves, and I watch her descend the stairs to her car. I suddenly feel all alone. Well, I guess I got what I wished for, despite my long-lost father's frequent warning.

Two housemothers check us in, give us our schedules, and take us to our rooms. One of the housemothers seems very nice, but the one who admits me I learn later has been a guard at Tehachapi State Prison for Women, unfriendly, ordering students around as if they were convicts, acting as if she were still a guard. She, of course, is the one who checks me in. Lucky me to be assigned to her!

"State your name! Here, fill out these forms and sign them!”

I find an empty place to sit, fill out the forms and sign them, then take them to the prison guard.

“Pick up your bags, Grey! Follow me!"

So I follow her down the hall to a room with two beds, a chest of drawers, a desk, and two utility chairs. The room looks very modern and what I would expect in a college dorm. I see the magazine Seventeen lying on my roommate’s bedside table. [12]

“Don't get too used to this,” the Tehachapi State Prison guard warns. “Once you get your cap – if you get your cap – you'll be moving into the barracks across the way. We prefer to call them cottages. Not as fancy as this, but they work. Put your bags down, Grey! Keep your schedule for the first week handy! Don't lose it! Be sure you follow it as if your life depended on it! It does!"

The housemother inspects my luggage.

"Looks like you've brought everything you own! You'd better start unpacking!"

She walks over to the chest of drawers and pulls open the top drawer and paws through the contents. I can't believe what I'm seeing. How dare she! What is she looking for?

"This drawer is to your roommate’s.” She pulls out the lower drawer that’s empty. “Here, you can use this one!"

The housemother starts for the door, stops, turns back. "Your roommate should be here any minute. She’s a Senior. We weren't able to arrange a room for you with the rest of your class on the second floor."

“Oh, great!” I groan to myself, “just great! Just my typical luck! With such a good start, what’s next?”

“Set your alarm for 5:00 a.m. if you want to take a shower! Everybody — that includes you — must have breakfast and be on duty at 7:00 a.m. sharp! No lingering allowed here, Grey! You got lots to learn!”

Didn’t I know it! I try to smile. "It was nice to meet you."

The housemother gives me a look that tells me ‘You have not a clue as to what you're in for’ but says outloud, "Dinner this afternoon in the cafeteria starts at five!"

The housemother marches off leaving the door open.

I want to ask, “Where’s the cafeteria?” but I think better of it. I wasn't hungry anyway.

I sink down onto my bed. I have been here less than an hour and I am already exhausted. I feel as if I have been bullied; I feel isolated and (I hate to admit) homesick. I wish Aunt Jessie were here, but she isn't. Now as I imagine that brown Chevy moving away and disappearing, she seems so far away she might as well be on another world.

I finally get up and start to unpack. I pull out photos of my mother, my dad, my grandmother, Aunt Jessie. I consider putting them in the drawer. I consider what I have lived through this far, note again how everyone here is addressed by last name, and I begin to wonder if the same practice is followed in other schools of nursing, especially those connected to a college or university. All that has happened so far at County seems rather rough and tough like I imagine the military. L.A. High was not like this nor was UCLA and especially not the Hollywood Professional School and I decide not to mention to anyone that I have gone to both. I know the likely response: “What are you doing here?” I consider who would most likely ask that question. I find out soon enough.

Two young women enter the room. Both have two black stripes on their caps signifying they have survived to become Seniors. Neither of them seem very friendly. I can tell from her manner and her expression that my roommate is just as upset about having a Probie as a roommate as I am having to room with a Senior. Following a brief introduction, my roommate with her friend whom I learn is her rotation partner on the wards sit on my roommate’s bed. Neither one appears very attractive, and for being Seniors, they just look very ordinary young women.

When she sees me put my father’s portrait photo into a drawer, my roommate asks, “Who’s that? He’s good looking! Why are you putting him there? You mad at him?”

“Not anymore.” I answer quietly. “He’s my dad. I just haven't seen him in a long time.”

But inside, I know how angry I really am at him for just disappearing from my life and deserting me, and because of him, here I am in this strange, forbidding place confronted by these two obnoxious Seniors.

They both smile, but I get the feeling that they are about to give me a bad time, something easy enough to do since I feel very nervous and alone and anxious about being a newcomer in what appears a hostile environment. I had certainly expected things to be different; I had at least expected to be with my classmates who were probably as apprehensive. I hadn't expected to have a housemother who was a former guard at the women's state prison. And now these two obnoxious Seniors? But Aunt Jessie would say: "That's life – get used to it!"

The two Seniors arrange themselves on the bed across from me as if they were about to assume the role of judges, a superior smirk on their faces. Here it comes. They are going to try to scare me. That shouldn’t be too difficult.

I tell my roommate about the housemother going through her clothing. Both almost at the same time they tell me that what I had seen was no surprise to them. They tell me that the old guard always searches their bags for drugs every time they leave the residence and when they enter. I am shocked at anyone even suspected of trying to smuggle drugs out of the hospital and even more shocked that everyone’s bags would be routinely searched as if smuggling drugs in or out was routine.

My roommate informs me students sometimes use a dealer who sells them Benzedrine tables everyone calls "bennies from heaven," and students also take Ritalin tablets from the shelves of ward medical supply rooms because these medications help with the fatigue everyone feels from working so hard. Of course, both Seniors insist that they never take any drugs!


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-29 show above.)