The Signal Tribune newspaper

My den mother

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Everyone was excited to have Mrs. E, Jeff’s mom, as our Cub Scouts den mother. After school on Thursdays, we’d walk to his house just a few blocks away to do activities to earn new badges. Mrs. E was funny and very devoted to our den. She laughed at our third-grader jokes and seemed to really enjoy being silly with us. She always gave us the best snacks. Those Thursday afternoons were ones we all really looked forward to, and Mrs. E was the main reason I stayed in Cub Scouts.

Thinking back to 1975 or so, Mrs. E was probably in her mid- to late-30s, which, at the time, seemed so, uh, old to me (I know better now). She had long, dirty-blond hair and wore John Lennon glasses. She reminded me of the sweet carefree character Emmy Jo from that 1970s kids’ TV show, “The New Zoo Revue.” She was a bit of a hippie, and I know she played the acoustic guitar. I always wondered if she ever thought of pursuing being a folk singer while she was in high school or college. I believe she stayed at home to raise the two kids and Mr. E was the breadwinner. I can’t remember what he did for a living, but I probably never knew. At that age, all we knew was that your friends’ dads just went to work.

Jeff was a nice kid and good friend at the time. He was fun, goofy, quirky and had a bowl haircut and round face. He loved to imitate voices of all kinds and often ran through a whole routine of them during class. I will always remember how he ran knock-kneed with his legs kicked out to the side. He was obsessed with monsters and was a talented cartoonist at that young age and could draw Godzilla and King Kong better than any of us. He had a bit of a nervous tick, and his eyes would roll up as he spoke sometimes. I would spend the night at his house, and we would build model airplanes and look for monster movies on TV. He tried staying over at my house once, but got homesick after two hours and had to be picked up. He was a softy and wanted his mom. His younger sister, Lisa, tagged along with us and hung out during the den meetings. She was one of the gang, and there wasn’t anything odd about that.

She, too, seemed to have the ability to laugh at everything, which made it all the more fun to be at their house. I didn’t know Mr. E very well. He was a quiet guy and seemed friendly enough.

We had a lot of fun at the E house each week and all went together to our monthly evening pack meetings. That was my first sense of community life. After the meetings, the Cubberly cafeteria would smell of coffee and cookies, as the adults would stand around and talk while we ran around and conspired about what trouble we would cause the next day at school. I could hear Mrs. E’s laugh bounce off the cafeteria walls and cut through all the chatter. It was all innocent, and there was just a sense or normalcy and idealism at the time.

I was sad when, at the end of fifth grade, Jeff announced that his family was moving to Huntington Beach. His dad got a different job, and they wanted a bigger house in the new tracts out there. After Mrs. E and family left, I didn’t move on in Cub Scouts, but started to pursue soccer instead. So, it was a new chapter for all of us.

Fifteen years later, I randomly bumped into Jeff’s sister when she appeared in the lobby of my work. I managed a production company and rehearsal studios in Anaheim, and she came in with one of the bands. She had grown up to be very attractive, but there was a sense of sadness to her face. I could quickly tell that she had gotten into drugs and dated a lot of musicians in the local scene.

She faintly remembered me and was only semi-friendly as we caught up a bit. I asked about her family and was surprised to hear that Jeff had joined the Air Force. Having such discipline and structure didn’t seem to fit a guy who was more of an artist type. Made me wonder what had changed with him. I learned that her parents had split up years ago, and she has no contact with her dad. As she talked, she started opening up more, and I learned that her dad had been very abusive to them all, especially to her mom. Apparently, there had been a lot of emotional and physical abuse in the house for years. She had also implied that she herself was the victim of physical abuse. At that moment, all of my memories of the silly, laughing family went dark. I didn’t want to hear or picture any more. We said goodbye, and she went off with the band.

Flashback to the one night I had dinner with the E family just after they just moved into their new house. I do recall that Mr. E had a hair-trigger temper. He snapped at Jeff when his eye tick would appear. I remember not really wanting to sit at the table and hoped we could just eat in the family room, but Mr. E was polite enough to me as a guest. It was fine being there for most of the night, though I could sense some tension. We went to a local hobby shop to buy model airplanes for our project that night. I went home the next day and never saw the Es again.

Flashback even farther back to the one Thursday afternoon that was different from all the others. All us scouts showed up to the house for our den meeting as eager as usual. The garage was already set up with the tables, chairs and craft materials. Mrs. E came out to greet us, and we noticed that she had a cast on her arm. She told us a story about tripping and falling down the stairs and joked about being such a klutz. We were 8 years old and didn’t think anything of it. We spent that afternoon doing our activities as normal. Mrs. E doted on us, helping us with the craft, gave us our snacks, laughed as we all joked around and acted what I can only imagine nowadays would be controlled obnoxiousness.

Standing there in the lobby, the light went on, and I connected all the dots. It took me the 15 years, some hindsight and maturity to understand it. After speaking to Lisa, it finally dawned on me that my den mother’s arm had been broken by her husband. It was anyone’s guess as to what else she had to suffer or go through and for how long. How many Thursdays did she come out with that big smile of hers as a cover-up to what was really going on inside that standard green and white, post-war, eastside tract house? Theirs was the house on the quiet street with a big secret.

What a tragic tale I discovered that I can only hope got better sooner than later over time. The illusion of this perfect childhood memory had the cover torn off to reveal the ugly truth. It was a lesson of looking beneath the surface of things and realizing that not everything is as it appears. So true to this day.

In this era of revelations of abuse of power of all sorts, I am reminded of what appeared to be an all-American family that had a deep, dark secret, and I was right up close to it, but never knew. I felt bad for them all, how their laughter and smiles covered up so much.

I hope Mrs. E survived well enough and never lost her ability to laugh that silly laugh of hers.

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My den mother