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Anything Your Little Heart Desires
An American Family Story
By Patricia Bosworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Patricia Bosworth
All rights reserved.
I remember watching my father's pale naked form disappear up into the crackling flames that had suddenly destroyed the nursery on the third floor of our house in Berkeley. I remember hearing his frantic cries of "The baby! The baby!" grow fainter and fainter while my mother and I stood as still as statues in the garden outside.
It was a clear, cold California night. Full moon. The hills looked black above our house. The trees seemed even blacker. Acrid smoke billowed toward us, mingling with the pungent scent of the eucalyptus groves rustling nearby. Presently, the smoke covered the moon.
Mama and I waited for what seemed like hours, gripping each other's hands until, just as the wailing fire engine arrived on the steep drive below, my father emerged panting from the house. His entire body was covered with soot, and he couldn't stop hopping up and down because the soles of his bare feet were badly burned, but he was smiling a goofy, triumphant smile because my brother—my three-and-a-half-week-old brother, Bartley Crum Jr.—was safe and miraculously sleeping in the crook of his arm.
Still standing next to me, Mama made little mewing sounds in her throat; then she tore off her blue satin robe and ran to my father and tried to wrap it around him. I ran after her, and for one brief second we huddled close together—a family unit—one of the few times I ever remember us being literally close. Mama kept dropping the robe because Daddy was jumping up and down with the pain, but she kept trying to cover his nakedness and he wouldn't let her. "I'm okay, Cutsie," he murmured, using the nickname he often used for her (her real name was Anna Gertrude), "I'm okay." His eyes glittered out of soot-blackened rims, but they were staring not at her but into the distance.
His expression seemed haunted, almost crazy, as if he'd witnessed a holocaust and survived it—indeed he would later tell us that the experience of running across the glowing coals of the nursery floor to the baby's bassinet and feeling the fire racing after him was "like running away from death."
He didn't even seem to notice that our garden was filling with neighbors from adjoining houses on the hills. Firemen appeared dragging rubber hoses through the ivy beds so that they could shoot geysers of water directly into the windows of the blazing nursery.
It was a wonder there was so much movement in the night, so much purpose. Flames streaked through the dark cool air, sparks fell and then melted away on the ivy beds. My cheeks felt burning hot.
An ambulance arrived. White-coated medics bearing a stretcher pushed through the crowd. One of them tried to take my brother out of my father's arms, but he refused to give him up. "I'll take Bart to the hospital, thank you very much."
And with that, he literally danced across the grass—he was in such agony—and Mama ran after him holding up her blue satin robe like a shield.
The fire roared orange in front of me, jiggling powerful heat. I stood transfixed by the blaze, trembling with excitement, and after a moment someone knelt at my feet and a kindly face pressed close to mine. It was our nurse, Nell Brown, who had incredibly plump freckled arms and a warm stomach I loved to cuddle on.
She hugged me so close I could taste her tears. "Don't you ever forget this night, little doll. Your papa is an awful brave man."
THE fire in the nursery became family lore along with the time Mama saved my life at Lake Tahoe, where we were vacationing. I'd been crawling around our cabin, nosing into wastebaskets and nooks and crannies, and she noticed something bluish around my mouth; she stuck her finger down my throat, and once I'd vomited she rushed me to the Reno hospital, where my stomach was pumped out and the doctors announced, "Your daughter swallowed enough rat poison to kill eleven men!"
Between them my parents had saved both our lives—my brother's and mine—and then almost immediately shifted their attention back to what they were really interested in, themselves and each other. I don't mean they didn't love us—I think they loved us very much—but they approached parenthood as they approached every other experience, with the intention of doing the best job in the shortest possible time. They wanted to fit parenthood into the wider scheme of things.
While Daddy's feet healed at Peralta Hospital in Oakland, he kept notes of every new word I ever uttered when I visited him, but he also saw clients and used the time to begin writing a long, distinguished essay on "Mr. Justice Edmonds and some recent trends in the law of civil liberties," which was eventually published in a California law journal.
As for Mama (also known as Cutsie Bosworth—former crime reporter for the San Francisco Call Bulletin), she kept on struggling to finish a novel she'd been trying to complete since her honeymoon. But she also organized her schedule so she would be home in time to help our nurse, Nell, feed and diaper my baby brother, Bart, and to play a bit with me.
Sometimes they went away without us on weekends, and when they came back Mama would show us snapshots Uncle Carl had taken of Daddy riding horseback in Grass Valley or Daddy kissing her passionately on top of a sun-baked hill. I'd never seen them kiss that passionately in real life.
These snapshots were glued into a leather album along with pictures of a lavish costume ball in Piedmont—Daddy dressed as a swarthy Rudolph Valentino, Mama posed as a sexy Sadie Thompson in Rain.
I used to pore over that album when I was a little girl, studying my parents' expressions—radiant, self-confident. Their smiles were dazzling, but finally impenetrable. I could never figure out what was going on in their heads.
In my memory we seemed to exist always in a state of constant drama, of perpetual excitement. And no matter what the crisis, Daddy always made it more than bearable.
Once he insisted we hide out in our garage during an earthquake. I remember my brother and I huddling in the backseat of our roadster convertible while our parents sat in front. We were surrounded by pitch darkness and an eerie, greasy smell. Far away, we could hear a rumble and growl from deep within the earth. Pure waves of energy moved under our feet, and Daddy explained to us that San Francisco was on the tip of a peninsula squeezed between two of the most active earthquake faults in the world; to the west of the city, the San Andreas fault, which dived into the Pacific; to the east, the Hayward fault, which happened to form smack at the base of the Berkeley hills—less than a mile from our home.
"We are living very precariously, my darlings," he announced. "We will always live precariously if we stay here, but I think it's much too beautiful to leave."
OUT of the blue he would sometimes say, "Develop your five senses."
"Is there a sixth sense, Daddy?"
"Sure, there is," he'd answer. "There's panic." I thought he was joking until after I grew up and realized he must mean the terrible sense you have inside yourself when you've taken on too much and you feel irresponsible—to your talent, or to your family, and certainly to yourself—and it's too late to do anything about it.
Daddy must have experienced a lot of panic in his life. Of course, everybody experiences panic. But Daddy considered himself first and foremost an Irishman and a Catholic, meaning that beyond his ebullience and charm he was a master of concealment. "What will you do? What will you do?" Mama would cry when some problem arose—another money crisis; another murky political harassment—and Daddy would either remain silent or answer, "Never explain—never complain." This was a maddening little ditty he had picked up from his mother, Mo Cavanaugh, the most self-protective and hidden of women.
I was never sure whether I should value my father's elusiveness or beware of it. Actually, his talent for concealing was a trait he undoubtedly inherited from his maternal grandparents, Bartholomew Cavanaugh and Kate McTernan, a wily couple with "a lot of moxie" (as Daddy used to say) who'd escaped the potato famine in County Sligo by immigrating to Boston in the 1850s. Then, like thousands of other Irish immigrants, they had journeyed to California during the gold rush.
For a while, legend had it, Bart Cavanaugh panned for gold in places named Piety Gulch and Puke Ravine before moving with Kate to San Francisco when that city was the gaudiest and most violent place in the nation. ("Five thousand unsolved murders in one year," a newspaper account said.)
In San Francisco the Cavanaughs raised eight kids (Mo Cavanaugh among them), and Bart Cavanaugh saw to it that his family became the prime unit for emotion and survival as he slaved away as a boiler maker. For a time, he worked at the United States Mint. Every so often he'd sneak off to a bar and get roaring drunk; he usually carried his shillelagh with him.
By the late 1860s, he and Kate moved everybody to Sacramento, where he became county sheriff. They built a two-story frame house at First and I streets opposite the state capitol. Sisters and brothers took turns bathing in the kitchen on Saturday nights behind a screen. There was an outhouse in the yard.
Not long after the move to Sacramento, Bartholomew fell ill with tuberculosis, so Kate took over the family finances. For extra money she rented out the ground floor of their house as a bond office; later it was transformed into a bar (this was before Prohibition), and finally into a coffee-grinding establishment.
Just before World War I the eldest Cavanaugh son—my great-uncle "Black Bart" Cavanaugh (who was already a successful bookie at the age of twenty-one)—turned the basement of the house on I Street into a betting parlor, complete with steam bath. The place soon became a very popular private "club" for most of the police in Sacramento as well as some of the local politicos. Supposedly the ballots of several elections were counted there.
As the years went by my great-uncle forged many friendships and loyalties with his cronies and obtained patronage jobs for various relatives, including a job for his favorite sister, Mo, a slender girl with soft dark hair and thin lips. She became the first female stenographer in the state of California. Mo kept the job until 1896, when she married James Henry Crum, a burly bronco buster.
For a wedding present the couple was given a pretty little ranch on the banks of the Feather River, where Mo had a Chinese cook and raised peacocks. Their first child, a daughter named Estelle, was born in 1895; five years later, a son (my father) was born. It all seemed perfect and harmonious until James Henry ruined everything by gambling the ranch away in a drunken poker game, and he and Mo were forced to move to Sacramento and live with the Cavanaughs at the tumbledown house at First and I.
Mo never reconciled herself to living in reduced circumstances. She was so angry about losing the ranch that she had her sister Kate sneak down to St. Mary's Cathedral and ask the priest to baptize her baby boy "Bartley Cavanaugh" instead of "James Henry," as had originally been planned. And my father grew up in that house on First and I, until he left for college in 1918. He was raised by his mother, Mo, and her spinster sisters Maggie and Kate, who shared a bedroom off one of the parlors.
James Henry lived there, too, a silent, often drunken, presence. At some point, he managed to get a job as a telegrapher for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and he would amble down to the train station early in the morning and come back after dark; the Cavanaugh sisters would serve him supper, but there were few words exchanged. He lived in a state of perpetual disgrace for thirty years; he was never forgiven for gambling the ranch away (his own father refused to speak to him on his deathbed).
Nobody ever said anything out loud, but James Henry was thought to be a failure. Daddy once told me that he loved him, but that they were never close.
UNTIL recently, I knew nothing about any of Daddy's relatives. The collective memory of the family was avoided because my mother, who had very grand pretensions about her beginnings, thought Daddy's family was "shanty Irish" and beneath her. As a result, we never spent a single holiday with either the Cavanaughs or the Crums.
In fact, my brother and I traveled to Sacramento only once; I believe it was in the late 1930s and this was because my grandfather was recovering from some sort of stroke and Daddy wanted us to meet him.
I remember us all standing in a big backyard, the grass tickling our legs. We sipped iced tea from heavy green glass tumblers while Mo, slightly disheveled in a baggy print dress, hung on Daddy's arm. I remember staring at my grandfather's beautiful snow-white hair and wondering why his ruddy face was all twisted. He didn't say a word, he just held my hand.
It was so hot in the backyard I could hardly breathe. And there was a brownish haze around the Tehachapi Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range; we could see the mountains from the yard. When we left a short time later, Daddy hugged his father very tight and then told us we would be taking a walk before we returned to the hotel.
Mama had stayed behind in our suite; she'd been felled by a migraine and we'd left her lying on top of the bed with a wet sheet over her nude body and her eyes covered with cotton pads soaked in witch hazel.
My brother and I moved with my father through the silent shady streets. Although it was late afternoon, the parks and sidewalks were empty because of the terrible glare of the sun. Eventually we approached the American River, where "gold had been discovered," Daddy told us, and where he'd swum naked as a kid. He said Mo had caught him swimming there once, when he was supposed to be taking a piano lesson; she'd plunged into the river up to her hips and dragged him onto the bluffs and then twisted his ears—"like she wanted to twist them off."
"Oh, Jesus, she hurt me, my darlings," he told us, laughing. "But I never cried out."
IT'S perhaps an apocryphal story that Daddy had nursed at Mo's breast until he was four years old, but it was common lore among our family. "It was the beginning of all his troubles," Mama said.
"I never heard of such a notion," my cousin Jim Wiard (Daddy's nephew) wrote me. But, he added, "Mo did dote on Bart." And sometimes his older sister, Estelle, nicknamed "Sally," was ignored. "Mo loved Bart to distraction. She was determined he would be special. She fed him stories about Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison, poor boys who came from nothing and achieved greatness. She paid for extra piano lessons and he was tutored in Latin and German. Didn't Bart use his German when he attended the Nuremberg trials?"
Meanwhile, his aunt Katie was teaching him about his soul and how it was a violent battleground for good and evil. "Your entire life is about saving your soul," she would say. "Your entire life is about redemption."
And he attended daily Mass with her and he read the Gospels; he was an altar boy; he appeared very devout. "Bart has the gift of faith," Aunt Katie would say.
For a while he toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but in the end, the law won out; it was more flexible and more logical than the Church; it was about moral and emotional transactions.
As a teenager, my father took all sorts of odd jobs to earn extra money for college. He delivered mail in a horse-drawn cart; he tutored friends in English grammar and Latin.
At eighteen, summering at Inverness with his family, he courted a girl named Billie. She had red hair and freckles and she was older than he was—by some four or five years.
Women loved him. He was a tease; he was funny, he was touching. "He had a smile that made you smile right back," an old friend, Helen McWilliamson, said. "And he was always giving you compliments. 'You look wonderful,' he'd say. 'You look marvelous!' But with such intensity you couldn't quite believe it. Later you would think, 'Did I really look that good?'"
Excerpted from Anything Your Little Heart Desires by Patricia Bosworth. Copyright © 1997 Patricia Bosworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bosworth relates her family's story against the backdrop of her father's roles in the Post WWII challenges to reach agreement on Palestine and the HUAC hearings. The book is so well written and Bosworth's personal experiences during that time period in our history add depth to what is already known from other books on the topics. Highly recommend this one!
She sat legs crossed in a small black dress with a gold belt. Grey eyes were framed be decidedly darker hair. Black as ebony.