The Day The Republicans Kidnapped My Sister
A 1970’s Tale
Tommy was nine, one year younger than me when I first heard the word “Republican.” We lived in a two-bedroom upstairs apartment in San Jose, twenty-minutes away from Kaiser Hospital in Santa Clara, where Mother worked. Our apartment building stood on a perfectly circular court on Alden Way.
Our building was light-beige and nestled snugly between two other light-beige apartment buildings, each boasting a wide expanse of green and lined with a row of Oleander shrubs, whose white blossoms opened wistfully towards the sun. I used to think that Heaven was up there, beyond the white blossoms and the clouds that drifted ever so slowly in the pale Californian sky.
All three of us shared one bedroom in that apartment: my brother, my sister and I. Michelle was six and the youngest and spent more time tip-toeing to Mom’s bed in the middle of the night than sleeping in the bottom bunk that she and I shared.
Tommy slept on the top bunk and had the best view of the outside window across from our bed. On Saturday mornings, the sun streamed in and woke us all. That’s the day we enjoyed mornings.
It was a bright Saturday morning in February when I dashed into the kitchen in between episodes of “Superfriends” and “Fat Albert,” my pink nightgown billowing behind.
I was hungry for breakfast and hoped that Tommy and Michelle had left some Cheerios in the box for me. Mom’s friend, Thea, was leaning against the refrigerator in the kitchen with a cup of coffee in her hand, waiting for Mother and complaining through the walls that the “G-ddamn Republicans were ruining the economy.”
Later that week in school, we read in class that President Lincoln was the first Republican President and I heard it again. That word, At dinner that evening, I asked Mother about it, and she explained that everyone was either a Democrat or a Republican. Democrats care about poor, working people, while Republicans have lots of money and make laws to protect their money. Since Mom was a divorced working mother, and we shopped for school clothes at Goodwill, it just fell into place. We were Democrats.
About a month later, our life changed. Mother announced that we would have a house of our own with our soon-to-be stepfather, Felix. The three of us were thrilled. We loved Felix. He had shown up at our door months earlier carrying a bouquet of flowers, double-looped with an over-sized red ribbon. He worked with mom at the hospital and had a full Santa Claus-like beard. We called him “Doc,” because he was a doctor, but his name didn’t match his appearance. He wore a Navajo-made cowboy hat and wide leather Birkenstocks, and he spoke with a lyrical French accent that didn’t quite fit in California — or with his ‘Doctor’ title. Then again, neither did the Birkenstocks.
His mother had fled war-torn France at the height of her career as a physician, taking 18-year-old Felix along. I think because of this turbulent beginning, Felix had an immense reserve of patience. The challenges in our household probably never came close to his childhood and growing up Jewish in Paris, during Hitler’s reign.
Felix often brought his guitar over and played music while we were getting ready for bed. He told us the songs he played were written by a man who died a long time ago named Bach. We would fall asleep listening to Felix’s fingers strumming the long, even, melodious notes — the same notes, over and over and over.
He brought surprises, too. Pizza, doughnuts, even a toilet plunger when our only bathroom went out-of-order on the day before Christmas, and the maintenance man was in Gilroy to visit family.
It was after Easter that we learned Mom and Felix decided on a house. It would be in the neighboring city of Santa Clara and five minutes from Kaiser Hospital, where they both worked. It had four bedrooms, and a big backyard and Mom told us we could move in the middle of May. But if we moved in then, before school was out, the three of us would have to ride the city bus from school to home, at least until summer vacation began.
It was a quarter-mile walk from Cypress Elementary to the bus stop, followed by two ten-minute bus rides and one more quarter of a mile stroll until we arrived at 2577 Donovan Avenue. The front yard was full of green, green grass (“weeds,” Mom called them). An ancient wisteria stood sentry next to the front door, a tangle of root vines and lilac colored petals that draped majestically onto a faded brick path below. Even in my brief ten years of life, I knew our house was worth the inconvenience.
But as it turned out, our journey home wasn’t difficult, thanks to Mom’s trial runs. First in her Datsun, then in a second “practice trip” where Mom rode the bus with us, and we learned the route.
By the fifth day on our own, we had a smooth routine in place — meeting at the flag pole after school and walking to the bus-stop. The whole trip to our new home only took 30 minutes, maybe 35. It was clear that Mom was right, once again: the three of us could easily navigate the daily journey.
During the last week of our commute, the Channel Five weatherman, John Black, announced that it was the hottest week of May on record, even reaching 98-degrees. On the five o’clock broadcast, then repeating before our bedtime at 10, the CBS News team interviewed school children in the South Bay, announcing that students everywhere were having a hard time concentrating with the unexpected onset of summer. And it was especially difficult for Tommy, Michelle, and me.
It must have been 101-degrees on that last Thursday before summer vacation. Perspiration gathered under the straps of my backpack, and I could feel the heat radiating along the back of my neck.
I looked ahead at Michelle in her long velvet skirt and her white turtleneck. I was glad I listened to Mom at breakfast. I could tell by Michelle’s bright cheeks and the dampness at her hairline that she was feeling the heat, too.
“If you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back!” Tommy called back, jumping over a dirt-filled strip that sliced the sidewalk into two equal and gray concrete segments.
I ignored him.
Michelle tossed her hair back and made a half-hearted effort to jump. But her long skirt and the heat conspired against her, and she stumbled at the last minute. She tried to catch herself with a swing of her arms and a lopsided heel-toe movement but ended up collapsing, landing flat on her bottom.
“Ow! Now I broke my foot!” She caressed her right ankle, rubbing sweaty fingers over the straps of her rainbow-glitter, half-inch high-heeled sandal.
Tommy narrowed his eyes. “Did not — you can’t break your foot falling like that. You’re stupid.”
Michelle wiped her forehead and stuck out her tongue. Then she squinted, pursing her lips together and turned towards me. “Are we almost there?”
I shrugged but said nothing.
We walked this way every afternoon, and she knew the way as well as Tommy and I did. The familiar Jack in the Box clown was to our right, and the bus stop bench was in front, like always.
I didn’t have to answer, because, at that moment, Tommy called out to Michelle in a sudden burst of energy. “Hey, bet you guys can’t catch me!”
Then he burst full-speed ahead towards the bus stop bench.
But my sister just sank further into the sidewalk, her cheeks red, her lips tight in a pout. Loose, wet strands of hair plastered to her forehead.
Her voice was high and whiney. “I want to be home!”
Patience. I reminded myself and pointed ahead, maybe a hundred feet.
“Look! The bus stop is right there.” I bent down and hoisted her up by her arms. Together we traipsed across the parking lot.
“I see the 54! It’s here!” Michelle began jumping up and down, pointing. “Look! Look!”
Sure enough, across the street and traveling in the opposite direction on Steven’s Creek Boulevard was the Number 54 bus.
Tommy looked up from tying his shoe, “No, you Dodo-Brain, it’s going the wrong way!”
“It is not!” Michelle glared.
“It is too! Bowers is in that direction.” He pointed left.
“Stop.” I interrupted, “Michelle, we need to catch the one that we always do.”
Michelle got that angry look on her face that she gets when she doesn’t get
her way. “No, you’re wrong. It’s the 54! I saw the sign!”
Tommy leaned his head against the bench and rolled his eyes. I knew what he was thinking. I felt the same.
I tried to use my reasoning voice, “Listen, Michelle, Mom said we have to stay together.”
“But it’s here! It’s the 54, and we need to go now, or we’ll miss it!” Michelle didn’t wait for us to answer. Instead, she turned around and began walking to the corner. By herself.
Tommy sat up straight, both soles of his beat-up Nikes firmly on the pavement.
Michelle continued to walk, without looking back.
I felt a drop of sweat slither down my spine. “Michelle, it’s the wrong direction!”
Tommy jumped to his feet. “We have to stay together!”
But Michelle ignored both of us. She pushed the button to cross the street, then paused to turn around, “It’s the 54! You guys are dumb, and I’m not waiting!”
Tommy gripped his fists, his face flushed. “It’s the wrong way! You’re a stupid-head baby!”
I didn’t know what say. There was no convincing her. I felt horrible, powerless. All I could do is echo Tommy’s words, screaming at the top of my lungs. “It’s the wrong bus!”
“Walk” illuminated in front of Michelle. Without glancing back, the six-year-old who was not yet allowed to cross the street alone marched across the six lanes that made up Steven’s Creek Boulevard.
Tommy and I watched her with our mouths open, arms dangling helplessly at our sides.
On the afternoon that Michelle rode the 54 in the wrong direction, Kaiser Hospital was still located at Kiely and Bowers and Mom worked on the second floor as an RN charge nurse. Years later, in 2008, an annual inspection revealed that the architecture of Kaiser in Santa Clara was inadequate to withstand the next big quake. This was not unusual for older buildings in the Valley; however, because of the Earthquake of 1989, post-millennium legislation required earthquake codes be strictly adhered to, and buildings made safe. So, after the 2008 inspection, the old Kaiser Hospital, five minutes from our house on Donovan and Wade, was razed to the ground. A new Kaiser was relocated to a nearby strip of acreage near Lawrence Expressway and El Camino Real.
Yet during the weeks we were taking the bus, Mom worked at the old Kaiser and at 5:30 p.m. a call was transferred to her at the nurses’ station. I don’t know all the details because I was at home with Tommy. We were busy munching on stacks of toast, slathered with butter and cinnamon, watching reruns of “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Gilligan’s Island” and trying to forget that we lost our sister when Mom pressed “talk.” Later that evening she repeated the story for us.
“Hello?” She asked.
“Is this Mrs. Liniman?”
“Hi, I’m Mr. Carlson from the Republican Headquarters.”
Mom immediately assumed that Mr. Carlson was soliciting donations for the upcoming election. She was thinking about a firm, but polite way to explain to him that soliciting donations from a hospital nurse was not only inappropriate but also dangerous. Because Mom was distracted, trying to find the right words, Mr. Carlson’s next sentence caught her off-guard.
“Mrs. Liniman, I have your daughter.”
I’m guessing that my mother forgot to breathe, or maybe she stiffened and gripped the edge of the countertop like they do in the movies. Or looked at the clipboards posted on the wall in front of her and saw nothing, worrying that she would never see Michelle, or me, alive.
Mom told us that she forced herself to be calm. She decided it was better not to ask Mr. Carlson the next question that she wanted to: “Which daughter do you have?”
Instead, her response was brilliant. Cool and collected, she spoke to the strange man on the other end of the phone.
“Please put my daughter on the phone.”
“Sure. Here she is…”
I’m sure there was a brief silence.
“Hi Mom, I took the Number 54, but it didn’t stop where it was supposed to.”
This was a direct quote from six-year old Michelle, one that would be passed down and giggled about in years to come.
Mother’s relief must have been immense.
Looking back, it must have made perfect sense to my sister. The Republican Party headquarters was behind Valley Fair Mall, next to the Number 54 bus stop. Michelle, with her long velvet skirt and bulging backpack, must have felt the appeal of the baby-blue house that donned an American flag and boasted a gray and pink elephant decal in the window. No doubt, she wandered into the “Republican Headquarters” expecting to find a kind, animal-loving humanitarian who could help her. In a way, she was right.
My mother was left with two choices: leave work and desert her patients, or accept Mr. Carlson’s offer to drive Michelle home. She told us later that she decided on the latter, figuring the Republicans already had our sister, and, after all, there was an election coming up.
When Mom called home to tell us Michelle was on her way, Tommy and I were in the middle of the second episode of “Gilligan’s Island.”
Then the phone rang.
Tommy reached it first. Mom had him in tears in seconds. She asked him to put Michelle on the phone, and the whole story came out, between tearful gasps of “I’m sorry Mom,” “She wouldn’t listen,” and “I’ll go find her.”
At 5:45 p.m., Michelle pushed open the front door. Two minutes later, a shiny Cadillac pulled out of our driveway and continued down Donovan. Tommy and I later learned that that was a Republican.
Mom was not happy when she got home from work that evening. Of course, she was happy to have Michelle back, safe, but she was disappointed with the three of us. She was still talking about it at dinnertime.
“What if something had happened and you never saw your sister again? How would you feel if her picture ended up on a milk carton?”
Mom moved pans around on the counter.“I don’t get it. You call me for every other reason, but you can’t remember to call and tell me that your sister is lost?”
We didn’t answer. Instead, we quietly finished setting the table.
It was Felix that broke the silence, entering the kitchen with his usual good cheer. “My mother made her ticket for the middle of August — August 10th.”
He sat down at his regular seat. The three of us took it as a cue and sat down opposite him.
“I’m hungry.” Felix picked up a fork. “What’s for dinner?”
“Goulash,” Mom crossed the kitchen and smiled. But it was a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Okay, so everything’s under control now. Michelle’s home.” She sat down beside Felix. “So, let’s eat dinner and be happy.”
She lifted her fork and knife and dinner began.
“I’m happy,” Felix interjected, pouring himself, then Mom, a half-glass of a California Cabernet.
Mother pushed the bowl of vegetables closer to our side of the table. “Here, you kids make sure and eat some vegetables. I mixed a little cauliflower with the broccoli, and I know you all like broccoli. I want you to try some cauliflower, too.”
Tommy stole a glance at me, and I raised my eyebrows back.
From underneath the table, I felt Michelle’s foot crash against my shin. I looked up and she gave me a “Yuck, I hate vegetables” face.
On any other night, Michelle would have voiced her protest aloud, and on any other night, I would’ve complained to Mother, and showed her the bruise I was sure would be appearing in a couple of hours.
But, tonight was different.
After giving me the eye, Michelle lowered her head and stared at her plate. Then she raised her fork and stabbed the smallest piece of cauliflower.
Tommy, on my other side, was pressing his fork into the hard, yellow cube of butter. Quietly, I waited for him to finish, then sliced a generous portion for myself and squished it into my vegetables. I resigned myself to eating healthy.
We were silent throughout the rest of dinner. Mom chattered on with Felix about a receptionist at work who had overbooked the new intern. At one point, between dialogue and forkfuls of goulash, she put her fork down to ask if we had finished our homework.
“Yes.” We answered without hesitation.
None of us had.
By the end of dinner, Tommy and I ate all our broccoli and cauliflower and Michelle only left three pieces. We finished way before Mom and Felix and set down our forks and knives beside our almost-empty plates. We waited.
Finally, Mom, then Felix leaned back in their chairs.
One after another, we stood up and carried our dirty plates into the kitchen.
I could hear Felix chuckle as we reached the sink.
“So, Bess, since the Republicans gave Michelle back without a ransom, does this mean we have to vote Republican?”
I slid my plate into the tepid dishwater and glanced over at my mom. She leaned her head back and laughed, then stretched her hand forward, circling her fingers around Felix’s.
Above the table, many years later, a quake that hit 6.9 on the Richter scale would etch a tiny hairline crack across the ceiling of our little green house on Donovan Avenue. That tiny crack would grow longer, wider, and more ominous with every rumble, tremor, and shake of the Earth. But that would be years later when the three of were all grown up.
During my childhood, the ceiling remained smooth, white, and crack-free. And it was a happy ending for all of us that evening, on that day the Republicans kidnapped my sister.