My mother had 5 children in 9 years. My father worked at an oil refinery near Long Beach and my mother stayed at home with those five kids. I was number six.
At just 29 years old, my mother believed she was too old to have another baby. When I was born, my oldest sister was just starting high school. Other siblings were in junior high and grade school; my youngest brother was only just out of diapers. My mother was ready to be done with babies. She was way too busy to take pictures, so you won’t see many baby pictures of me.
My sister Lucy liked to carry me around and tell people I was her baby. My mother was absolutely mortified to think that people might believe one of her daughters was an unwed teenage mother. I believe this is why Lucy and I were so close; she gave me the love and affection I needed as an infant, and I gave her something she could call her own.
As the last of six children, I enjoyed a life very different from that of my oldest sister. She spent her first years surrounded by strangers in a cannery in northern California, while I spent mine surrounded by family. I was the only child in the family to attend private school, since the public schools in Compton were already in decline by the early 1970s. My family was established, my brothers and sisters were dating—but there I was, little Gracie, keeping my mother in a phase of life she so badly wanted to leave.
One day, my father bought me a new bike. It seemed that I had been asking for one for an eternity, but really, it was probably only a few months. The neighborhood kids rode around on shiny new bikes with streamers on the handlebars. Meanwhile, I rode around on an old hand-me-down that had probably belonged to all of my brothers and sisters in turn.
I remember opening up the garage to see my shiny, glitter-painted new bike with white tires and pink streamers on the handlebars. In my hurry to rush my new bike out of the garage, I heard a terrible noise. The end of my handlebar scraped my father’s new car, leaving behind a long scratch just beneath the passenger’s door handle. I rushed out the door, hearing my mother and father yelling in Spanish to one another.
As I rode down the street, I imagined I could feel envious looks from the neighborhood kids. I felt truly free, with the wind in my hair and the warm California sun warming my face. My heart was content. I never wanted to go back, because I knew I’d be in trouble when I got home. I imagined riding my bike all the way to the beach. It was the perfect place to start over, and I would be able to ride my bike every day.
Much later, I learned that I was the first person in my family to get a new bike. I was too young to understand how envious my siblings were that day. My brothers used to joke about getting new bikes every year. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized why my brother kept a lock cutter under his bed.