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The Game of Their Life

It Looks Like Rummy, but When the Seven Loiselle Sisters Play Cards, History Unfolds

November 20, 1996|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody remembers how long the game has been going.

Mama played before she died, and Millie, the oldest sister, did too.

Progressive rummy. Six hands and the last one's a killer.

The voices of Jackie, Virginia, Georgette, Henriette, Margaret, Norma and Theresa bounce steadily against the soft pit-pit-pit of a light rain.

It is Tuesday and the seven remaining Loiselle sisters are playing cards.

"Oh look, Virginia," teases Georgette, whom everybody calls Georgie, as an old black-and-white photo of the whole clan is passed around. "You had a neck!"

In the picture, the sisters are lovely. Young. All eight of them are posed with four brothers, and their mother, Rose, her mouth partly closed to hide her missing top teeth, sits in the middle, beaming through half-shut lips.

Their sisterhood--forged in those early days and mellowed through girlhood, motherhood and now encroaching old age--binds them forever to each other. They are, after all, of the same time and the same genes, knit by blood and shared experience.

They came to Los Angeles with the coming of the freeway, a robust clan of eight girls and four boys, growing with the region and reaching their difficult years along with the city itself.

One married a son of chicken ranchers whose egg stand gave way to a skyscraper on Ventura Boulevard. One had a daughter who ran off to Haight-Ashbury during the summer of love. One knew a victim of Charles Manson.

Now, they share stories and Maalox. They go on cruises and brag about their grandchildren. Some of them share tears about surviving their husbands. They are old women together.

Barring funerals, operations and other forms of bad luck, Jackie, Virginia, Georgette, Henriette, Margaret, Norma and Theresa get together every Tuesday. Their stories, their lives, weave in and out among the cards. Six hands.

Shuffle: Two Decks

Jackie sits near the kitchen, ready to jump up and pour coffee from an old tin stove-top pot. This week the game is at the Northridge ranch home where she lives with her husband, Jack, and she has made a plate of mini-muffins. They sit to her right in paper jackets.

Norma leans back in her chair, laughing at one of Georgie's jokes. At 73 she is a biggish woman with gray hair and a simple dress. Margaret's seat is empty--she's late.

Henrie, the oldest, and Virginia, 11 years younger at 65, sip coffee and stare at an old picture.

Ante up. Nickel a game.

A pair of hands, older and a little cracked, wedding band on the left ring finger, closes around a deck of cards and stacks it on top of another.

The sound of shuffling interrupts the sound of conversation. But only for a moment.

Do you remember, one of the sisters says, amid clinking cups and clacking cards, when we moved to Los Angeles from New York and stayed downtown on Main Street in that place, what was it called? Your Hotel? And Georgette sprained her ankle jumping down the stairs and they used to let us in the movie house next door for free? When we were living in Eagle Rock and they declared war on Japan and Virginia hid under the table because she thought the bombers were coming?

When we first moved to the Valley? It was 1943. Things were different then.

*

First Hand: 1943

In 1943, the only freeway in the San Fernando Valley was a tiny section of the 101, which had scaled the Cahuenga Pass three years earlier to connect the East Valley with Hollywood. It was the year of the Zoot Suit riots, when dozens of zoot-suited Mexican American youths had been stripped of their "hoodlum" clothing and beaten senseless by white servicemen, in retaliation for an earlier clash between Mexican American youths and a group of sailors.

But the Valley was bucolic.

Charles and Rose Loiselle, with children ranging in age from 7 to 27, moved into a house on Moorpark Street in North Hollywood.

Theresa and Virginia and Raymond, the youngest, began classes at Riverside Elementary School. Millie, who was already married, had stayed behind in New York, where she and her husband, Bill, ran a small market.

On Sundays, the Loiselles went to church. But on Saturday, Mama got to go to town. Rose and Charles and whatever children weren't otherwise accounted for made the trek over the hill in the family's old Cadillac to Hollywood, taking in lunch and a movie.

Next stop was the Grand Central Market--then, as now, a bustling block-long center for shopping and people-watching. The girls would always get a treat and Virginia, then 12, spent much of the morning anticipating her favorite--a hot dog and a root beer.

The senior Loiselles were French Canadian Catholics who hailed from a small town in Quebec. They moved their growing brood to New York in 1928, where Charles, a plaster maker, produced statuary for churches.

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