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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

Without Mom, Life Hits the Skids

November 04, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

So here we are driving to LAX--one of Southern California's better airports--on a sparkling night that's as clear as a baby's conscience.

"Look, Dodger Stadium," the little girl says, admiring some bright lights off to the right.

"That's Glendale High School," I say.

"It's beautiful," says the little girl as we zoom along the freeway.

The little girl can't wait to get to LAX. To her, it's a magical place. The lights, the luggage, her mother. That's right, her mother, returning home after a week of taking care of Grandma.

"They could go faster," the little girl says of the car in front of us.

"We have lots of time," I say.

"Yeah, but they could still go faster," she says.

With her mom gone, it hasn't been an easy week for the little girl. By Tuesday, we were out of oatmeal. By Thursday, we were out of clothes.

"Dad, there's no more oatmeal," my lovely and patient older daughter said.

"I'll buy more oatmeal," I said. "Anything else?"

"Clothes," she said. "We're out of clothes."

"OK, I'll buy more clothes," I said.

That's the kind of week it was, a week of shortages, a week of me running out to buy one or two items, only to return to find we needed even more items.

"Dad, could you maybe make a list?" my older daughter asked at one point, clomping around the kitchen in her penny-loafer clogs.

"Yeah, Dad," the little girl said. "Mom makes lists."

"Well, I'm not your mom," I said.

Which made everybody silent and a little misty-eyed, including the dog.

"Nice going, Dad. Now you've made the dog cry," my older daughter said.

For a week, they have suffered. Like Russians, they suffered, wandering the house aimlessly, their little shoulders sagging, T-shirts draped over their heads like babushkas, mumbling to themselves and missing their mom.

Once, I found the little girl standing in front of her mother's dresser, looking at the wedding pictures.

"She's coming back," I told the little girl.

"When?" the little girl asked.

"Not soon enough," I muttered, mostly to myself.

And the little girl pulled her T-shirt babushka around her head and wandered away mumbling and kicking at the air, as if herding goats.

"Soon!" I yelled. "I promise, she'll be back soon!"

And tonight she finally is, on a flight from Fort Lauderdale, through Tampa and now into L.A., where we will swoop her up and whisk her home, like they do heads of state.

"Dad, we're there!" the little girl says, as we pull off Sepulveda.

Like most major airports, LAX is a driver's dream--sort of U-shaped, with all sorts of secret entrances and exits designed to keep traffic from moving at a regular pace.

As if that weren't enough, there are lots of little signs--painted by trolls, most likely--pointing this way and that, the kind of signs that you have to pass before you can actually read them.

But best of all, there is an astounding number of shuttle buses and vans, from hotels and remote parking places as far away as Pittsburgh. Hundreds of vans, four for every passenger car, which creates an interesting traffic dynamic. Kind of like a stampede.

"Watch out, Dad!" the little girl shouts, peering out the back window.

She is looking around like a little girl in combat, checking to her left, checking to her right, checking behind her. At one point, she notices that the driver two cars back is leaving too much space.

"He could move up," she says.

"I guess he's in no hurry," I say.

"Yeah, but he could move up," she says.

Eventually we park, then head to the gate. As usual, the plane is arriving at the very last gate. I explain to the little girl that planes always arrive at the very last gate.

"Those other gates? Merely decorative," I say.

"Why?" she asks.

"Tradition," I say.

We pass a lot of cool stuff on the way to the last gate. There's a currency exchange. And a gift shop. And a lounge called Malibu Al's Beach Bar, where seven guys sit hunched over their beers, watching figure skating on TV. Just like at a real beach bar.

"She could walk faster," the little girl says of the woman in front of us.

In 10 minutes, we are there, at the last gate watching the people get off the plane, gradually forming a gantlet with the other waiting relatives, so that the passengers can't just walk off the plane freely. First, they have to pass through this tunnel of people.

Every once in awhile, a waiting relative steps forward to hug someone, bringing the entire procession to a halt.

"Why do they stand in front of everybody?" whispers the little girl.

"Tradition," I say.

Then finally, her mom appears, back from Florida, back from her mercy mission 3,000 miles away, to the mercy mission that is her day-to-day life.

"Mom!" the little girl yells, jumping in front of everybody.

And as everybody waits, the little girl hugs her mother home.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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