A tenth-generation Californian, James Raggio is living a lifelong dream, to write books.
“The journey to get to the point of putting one’s work out into the world is cathartic, to say the least. To actually do so is life changing.”
Becoming Grace is a fiction novel, a family saga, an unfolding journey of tragedy, perseverance, and actualization.
Now Available on Amazon!
Enjoy these excerpts from Becoming Grace
They both arrived in Pasadena with enough baggage to submerge an average human. He came from a war in Korea that killed a million people. He returned to Los Angeles a hero on the outside, completely changed on the inside—a person his mother barely recognized.
She came from Cornwall, Ontario, by way of Dallas, sixteen, and fleeing a rape she was forced to bottle up. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer and sang in a quartet back home. But in the United States she left her unwanted baby in Texas and fled to California.
They met at a Catholic Church dance. She hid her baby weight with a loose blouse. Shell-shocked, he jumped under a table when a car backfired. Her mother said they were a handsome couple. His parents asked how old she was. She conceived on the second date. They were married without discussion. They had five children in six years. She was seventeen when Grace was born.
Amber and Paul played Barbies in Grace’s room upstairs. From Grace’s window you could see the Magnolia blossoms, white like doves, dancing beyond the pane. Magnolia Street was named for the trees. They lined the sidewalk on both sides. In Winter time the boys wrenched the pods from the boughs and lobbed them in mock battles. But in Summer, when the light shined brightest, the white blossoms waved, oblivious it seemed to the horrors of Winter. The old Craftsman house was too small for five kids. Steve and Bryan stayed outdoors until the last touch of light. Amber and Paul had the upstairs all to themselves. Grandma D would let them dress up in her gowns, put on her makeup and earrings, prance in front of the mirror. That was before she went back to Canada. It was always Amber’s idea. Neither of them minded the light jabs from Steve and Bryan because they were the youngest and everyone thought it was cute. “I hope you never grow up,” Grandma D said. It sounded like a curse, one she repeated a little too often. Amber and Paul had each other, and Grace. Grace was the oldest. She kept them safe, in those days, away from the drinking, and the violence.
“There was a sister, Amber…” Grace started every story this way. And it never failed to bring Amber to tears; laughter tears, the kind that come out under pressure, not sadness. “…she grew up to be a princess, and lived happily ever after.”
Mom and Dad fought constantly. It was a rambunctious house, everyone, adult and child, running downhill, breakneck, and destined. Dad was a bachelor, moonlighting as a father. Mom was a diva, shedding children.
It was 1968, the Age of Aquarius. The tectonic plates of society were shifting in America. The rumbling could be felt on every block. In California, the rising voice of youth and counter culture heralded the dawn of a new era where anything goes.
Dad was a brick mason, who got caught cheating on his taxes. He chose a job in Vietnam with Mortsen Knudsen over jail time. The Rentano family shattered when he left. Mom was left with five young children and an open invitation to pandemonium.
Grace lost her virginity at Dad’s going away party. He was leaving for Vietnam the next day. His foreman cornered her in the bathroom off the kitchen, her chin on the sill with her skirt hiked up. She kept still and stared out the window. Steve and Bryan sat on plum branches, shooting buds with rubber band and tire tube sling shots. They waved at the face in the window, she looked away, so did they. The foreman left his sticky mess on the back of her dress. He thanked her, and not until she was much older did she understand why a man so old, so strong, would thank a slight twelve-year-old for that brief yet indelible moment. She rushed to the children’s bathroom upstairs, frantically working the stain with her toothbrush and Ivory liquid.
Later, in the kitchen, Mom asked, “Why aren’t you wearing the dress Grandma D made you?” “Amber had an accident,” she lied, afraid of what Mom would do if she knew the truth.
When Grace grew breasts, Mom stopped seeing her as her daughter. Grace became the competition. The going away party was an end and a beginning. Dad was gone the next day. When he left, Family died. Now they were a single mother and five children and instead of running downhill, they plummeted.
Within the week, Mom returned home from the grocery store one day, and Gloria was with her. Mom needed an accomplice. Gloria bragged how she’d killed her husband in Mexico. It was the sixties. Everyone under thirty was suddenly “anti-establishment”. Mom “dropped out”.
That first night Mom and Gloria ran down the porch steps and didn’t come home until noon the next day. From then on, until the day the family moved, Mom and Gloria were inseparable, feeding off one another, living the Dionysian dream. Grace, the oldest, saw it coming before the other children. The Rentano children had never come first, but now, they were shuffled into the shadows. Pandemonium settled over the Magnolia house: an endless supply of alcohol, open door sex, incense and herb, an unfettered 24/7 bacchanal. They were now on a psychedelic wave that was turning darker by the day. #####
It felt like the safest place in the house. The upstairs bathroom. Grace, Amber and Paul sat on the edge of the claw foot tub. Grace hadn’t spoken with Mom all day. Amber and Paul waited in the dry tub patiently, watching Grace’s every move. Grace poured in bubble bath, and turned on the faucet. Amber and Paul faced each other, toes wiggling
as the water level rose. Grace took off her bathrobe and slid in with her younger siblings. Grace began to scrub Amber and Paul while they made beards with the suds. Grace worked their brown edges with a tattered pink wash cloth. She reached into the opaque water and gripped Amber’s foot. Pink cheeked Amber squealed, inhaled a mouthful of suds and spat. Grace examined Amber’s pink stump. “Do you remember how you lost your toe?”
“Yes, Nana. The bike chain got it.” Amber’s eyes lit up. She pursed her lips, making an “oooooo” sound.
Grace ran the cloth over her tiny toes, slowing around the stump. She leaned forward, searching the tub for the other foot. Amber squirmed playfully. As if seeing for the first time that her older sister was changing, Amber exclaimed joyfully, “Boobies!” She reached for them wildly, delighted at this budding mystery. Paul squeezed in next to Amber and suddenly they were knee to knee with Grace.
Grace played along. Pointing to each breast she sang, “Chocolate, strawberry,” and pointing to the water, “and vanilla.”
Paul leaned forward and latched onto Grace’s breast. “I want chocolate,” he said, suckling her breast.
Grace froze. It was a pleasant sensation. She gently nudged Paul away, but Amber did the same to the other breast. It was too much. Grace tickled Amber to break the connection. They both reached for her breasts, giggling wildly, as Grace batted their wrinkly hands away, and covered their bare teeth with the soapy wash cloth. Amber, beside herself, took the ivory soap and pretended to take a large bite. She pantomimed sharing the tasty soap with Paul, who played along. Amber took it a little too far, put the soap on her tongue. She blinked and spat into the murky water. Grace kissed her forehead, started on Paul’s feet.
As the tub drained, Amber stared at the droplets streaking down the steamy window. Paul, a year older, followed her gaze. Suddenly, Amber looked at Grace. They all listened for a moment to the music rising up from the kitchen.
“Is Mommy drunk again?”
Grace sighed. “I don’t know.” Her mouth tightened into a line as she swung her long black hair over her shoulder. She pulled her shivering siblings out of the tub, and buffed them dry. Amber always required more attention. She still cried and laughed easily. Amber was Mom’s last pregnancy. Mom drank the entire nine months. Grace had been in the waiting room when she was born. Amber was so small and red, it was a miracle
she’d survived. When Grace looked at Amber, she saw someone who wasn’t born with the right stuff. She wondered if she’d ever make it on her own.
“Grace!” Mom yelled. She and Gloria had been in the kitchen all afternoon, drinking and smoking.
Grace quickly helped Amber and Paul dress. They tumbled down the stairs in their natty pajamas and joined Steve and Bryan in the living room. The room was a musty, dark place with age -old drapes, threadbare rugs and dusty portraits of elegant dead people in their prime. A blocked up red brick fireplace loomed behind the small black and white TV sagging on an orange crate.
Grace set Amber and Paul in front of the TV and twisted the clothes hanger antenna. Steve and Bryan lounged on the large tattered sofa behind them.
Grace rushed into the kitchen and came out red-faced, with a tray of plates. She passed the plates to the boys on the couch, then to Amber and Paul. When she was finished Grace sat with her plate next to Amber on the floor. Steve got off the couch and started switching the channels. Images and faces clicked by. He paused on the CBS news with Harry Reasoner, “Today in Vietnam…” before flipping to The Twilight Zone, “You unlock this door with the key of imagination…” and the stoic Rod Serling.
Amber pointed up at the screen. “Daddy!”
Gloria came in from the kitchen drying her stained hands on a ghastly red dish towel. As
the door swung wide, Grace spied Mom leaning over the kitchen sink, her hair dripping
blood red. “That’s
not your Daddy. He’s dead by now.” Gloria turned the volume down and returned to the kitchen.
Everyone stopped eating.
“Is Daddy dead?” Amber asked. She was ready to blow, lips quivering, eyes glazed. Grace shoved a spoonful of food in Amber’s mouth. Amber chewed slowly, blank faced, eyes back on the screen.
Later upstairs, Grace slid in next to Amber. Paul was already asleep in his little bed against the wall. Grace listened to their slow breaths rising and falling. Mom was downstairs ranting. She wondered if she still loved them, if she ever had.
Grace didn’t like the new color of Mom’s hair. And she didn’t like being housebound. Even if she had friends, she could no longer trust Mom and Gloria to watch Amber and Paul. She watched from the shadows as Mom spent less and less time with her
children, and in those infrequent moments she was impatient and harsh. Starting on Friday night the kitchen door was locked. Come Saturday morning the kids were herded out the front door—banished for the day.
The family was adrift, headless and fractured.
One Saturday Grace, Amber and Paul grazed the dandelion lawn for Skippers; Grace taught them how to catch the little butterflies without hurting them, to house them in a Ragu spaghetti sauce jar. Amber limped on the stiff brown grass; the nub on her lost toe was still raw. Paul showed Grace the wing dust on his thumb and forefinger. Presently, Mom called them into the house.
All the kids crammed onto the couch. Mom strutted in front of them, waving her cigarette. “This place is a mess,” she declared. They’d never seen her in shorts, let alone red, white and blue hot pants. They were struck by the purple web of varicose veins and her shocking pale thighs. Gloria hovered behind her, sipping from a frosty glass.
“You don’t get dinner until it’s all cleaned up,” Mom slurred. “Boys, you clean up the front yard. Girls, you’re inside. Dust, vacuum and make sure everything is picked up.” She lit another cigarette on the butt of the last. The children waited for her next volley.
“I’ve got special friends coming over tonight. If you make it look real nice, you can have pizza for dinner.” The kids looked at one another. Had she forgotten? They’d had pizza every day that week. Mom stormed back to the kitchen. Steve and Bryan ran outside.
Gloria stood on the porch scratching a rash on her neck. Steve and Bryan chased each other across the knee high lawn, kicking the downy afros off of Dandelions. “Get busy, you two!” she yelled.
Grace, Amber and Paul got right to work picking up. They started upstairs in the boys’ room. “Put the dirty clothes in the hamper,” Grace instructed. They weren’t much help, but it was better to keep them busy. Grace opened the drapes, a cloud of dust was caught in the sunlight. Amber and Paul were awestruck by the slow motion cloud. Amber jumped off the bed and swatted the moving light. To her delight, the floating dust scattered in the current. Paul joined her. He tried to write his name in the cloud, tracing it over and over. Amber blew the floating dust toward the window. Paul joined her until they lay dizzy and out of breath on Bryan’s bed. Grace watched them, amused at first. Spurred by fear, of a beating or worse, she opened the window. The soft morning breeze cleared the dust away. “Let’s get this done so we can get some pizza,” she said.
Amber and Paul dragged the hamper out of the closet and began filling it with clothes. They held up each article, giggling at the size of their brothers’ pants. They spent a half hour in the boys’ room, before moving on to their room, and then the bathroom. The
work was slow. Grace kept them close, double duty, they were so young and disinclined to work. After an hour they took a break in the living room.
Amber and Paul waited on the couch while Grace went into the kitchen to get them water. When she was out of earshot Paul pulled something out of his pocket.
“Grace!” Amber yelled, grimacing at the matches. “Shush! They’re mine!” he said proudly.
Grace walked through the door with three glasses of water. Paul tucked the matches back in his pocket. They drank their water and after a few minutes went back to work.
Grace handed Amber and Paul damp rags and directed them to dust the living room. Grace didn’t see Paul sneak into the closet, but soon, she saw smoke gathering at the
bottom of the front door. Flames licked at the bottom of the closet door. Grace gathered up Amber and scanned the room for Paul. She ran into the kitchen. Mom and Gloria recoiled. “Fire!” Grace screamed. They all rushed out to the back yard.
“Where’s Paul?” Mom asked, running up the driveway.
Smoke billowed out the front window over the porch. Flames pummeled the window overlooking the porch. Grace and Mom ran up the steps, covering their faces. Inside, the closet was a wall of flame. Grace banged the flashing next to the window. “Paul, come on!” The heat forced them off the porch. The fire truck arrived as the window by the front door shattered.
“Is everyone out of the house?’ the Chief asked. The rest of the firemen kicked in the front door, and sprayed down the closet. The red hibiscus bush by the porch was singed and sagging.
“Paul is missing,” Mom said, her hands on her waist. “He’s got…”
Her voice trailed off as she focused on something over the Chief’s shoulder. She pointed. “There he is!”
Paul walked up the street staring at his shoes. Grace ran to him, knelt in front of him and hugged him. “Where were you?” She tensed, knowing her Mom’s eyes were on her back. She shielded Paul as they returned to the sidewalk where everyone was standing.
The firemen in the house rumbled down the steps. “We caught it just in time,” one said, winking at the kids. Everyone waited. Paul looked from Grace to the Chief, and then back to Mom. His chin dropped to his chest. He reached into his pocket and held out the matches.
Mom grabbed the matches. “Where did you get these?” she screamed.
Even the Chief took a step back.
Mom lunged toward Paul. “Where did you get these?”
“I found them,” he mumbled, beginning to shake.
The Fire Chief stepped between them. “What happened, son?” He was a white-haired gentleman with a brush mustache.
Paul took a deep breath. He wiped his nose on his t-shirt. “I was making a rocket ship.”
Paul looked up at Mom and Gloria. He shook so hard Grace thought he might wet himself. She wanted to run away with Paul, just then. She could take Amber and Paul, and live with Grandma D in Canada. Amber took Paul’s hand. She put her free thumb in her mouth.
The Chief turned to Mom, who was still glaring at Paul. “Ma’am, Please come with me. I have some questions.”
Gloria scowled at the fire chief. She shadowed them for a few steps, then retreated to the porch. She turned at the top of the steps, surveying the damage. In a moment she marched around the side of the house. “Come on! In the kitchen…now!”
The children followed Gloria, shoulders sagging for what was about to come. They filed in the back door, dazed. The smoke was still thick. A kidney shaped puddle filled the entryway. Gloria herded them into the living room and turned on the TV. When the pizza came Mom didn’t say a word. She dropped the pizzas on the rug, stomped back to the kitchen. They ate pizza in silence. The smell of soggy char was so strong, they kept all the windows open. It was dark out, and the fresh evening breeze brought in moths and made them shiver.
Mom and Gloria stayed in the kitchen. Grace thought it frightful that, for the first time since her Dad left, there were no guests over, no music, and not the slightest murmur. All she could hear was the sound of chewing. It was the worst pizza she’d ever had. At that moment the warmth of Amber and Paul leaning close seemed like an aberration, the calm before the storm.
Then it happened.
Gloria burst into the room making a beeline for Paul. She grabbed his arm roughly and pulled him to his feet. Steve jumped off the couch and lunged at Gloria. It was a long time coming. He struck
Gloria in the small of her back with all his might. She turned, twice his size, and slapped him across the room. Grace jumped to her feet. Amber was upended; she began to wail at an ear-piercing pitch. Paul shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he repeated over
and over, dragging his feet. At the kitchen door, he grabbed for the jamb but missed. Gloria kicked him in the rump, propelling him through the doorway in one motion.
Paul whimpered when he saw Mom sitting at the kitchen table. Her foot jiggled wildly as she blew smoke up into the kitchen light overhead. Gloria dragged Paul to the stove. He fell to his knees, trying to lay flat, to root into the linoleum floor. It was hopeless. Gloria was too strong. She yanked him off the floor, and now he was inches from the stove. She turned on the burner. The flaming blue ring hissed. Grace and Steve rushed toward them. Gloria picked up a pan on the stove and hurled it inches above their heads. The pan bounced off the kitchen door, leaving a massive dent. Paul looked at his Mom one last time. Mom was a statue now, avoiding his eyes. A slow rising feral cry escaped Paul. Gloria placed his hand over the flame. He began to dance as his eyes grew wild.
Grace leaped forward, clutching air, inches from Paul now. Gloria picked up the iron skillet from the back burner. She swung it toward Grace, grazing her forehead.
Gloria screamed in Paul’s face, “Are you going to play with fire?”
Grace brushed her hand across her face, it was painted in blood. She rushed toward Mom.
A cat-like scream froze them. All eyes turned to the kitchen door, where Amber stood wide-eyed—a trickle running down her leg.
The word Divorce was new to them. Grace heard it for the first time when she was in the kitchen putting margarine on Paul’s blistered fingers. She stayed home from school now to watch Paul and Amber. They stayed upstairs mostly. Hungover, Mom and Gloria ignored them; his injuries were her business now. Grace stole glances at them while Paul licked the excess margarine off his wrist. They were in an adult orbit she found suffocating.
Later, Grace and Steve met in his room, away from the other kids. Last night was an especially raucous affair: wine and liquor bottles, overflowing ashtrays and a shredded Doors album cover were all scattered about the living room. The room reeked of sulfur, the origin of which was a mystery. She hadn’t noticed it last night.
They met to confirm what they’d both heard, fragments of conversation, up through the floor.
“We’re moving,” Grace said. “I know. Where?”
“Highland Park,” she replied.
“To get away from Dad.”
“What’s a divorce?” Steve asked. “It’s when families are separated.” “Oh.”
They sat there in silence, facing one another like adults they’d seen on TV. The house was eerily quiet. Grace wondered if he knew. He seemed so impassive, never a word about what Mom was doing, or if he missed Dad. Grace wanted to tell him about last night, how Mom had awakened her hours after all the other children were asleep, when the party was peaking, and the living room was wall-to-wall people. How Mom had taken her by the arm—still in her nightgown—and guided her to the master bedroom next to the living room, and how Mom’s friends took turns lying on her, while Mom stood in the doorway drinking and dancing. Steve was the man of the house, he helped keep the kids in line. There was nothing he could do, she thought. Yet, it was the way he didn’t look at her, instead staring off her shoulder to the Magnolia trees out by the curb. He knew. When he did look her in the eye Grace looked away. She stood up and stretched her back. Her limbs ached, her pubis a screaming bruise. They separated without a plan.
Downstairs, they skirted the mess and headed out the front door on their way to the backyard,
where the rest of the kids were messing around. They didn’t tell Bryan, Paul or Amber
what was about to happen. They sat still on the porch watching the other kids—too engrossed in their play to see the change whirling about them.
Mom and Gloria came home on the backs of a pair of Harleys. The children watched as they stumbled by on the arms of two leather-vested behemoths. When the stereo kicked in, Grace and Steve’s eyes met. They jumped off the porch and the others followed. The children spent the rest of the day walking along the Rose Bowl parade route, noticing things they hadn’t before—stopping at the slightest whim, marveling at the rose bushes the residents nurtured for the once-a -year event. On a perfectly manicured lawn, they lay on their backs as Grace told a story of the time they’d walked to the parade, together as a family. She found herself talking incessantly. Amber held her hand so tight, it felt like they’d fused together.
At one point, near Magnolia Street, she walked in silence, listening to the pitter-patter of Amber’s imbalanced feet. She longed to be young and innocent and oblivious. Lost in thought, she walked past their house, stopping only when she realized everyone had gone in, and she was down the block alone.
When she came in the front door the kids were all sitting still on the couch. Mom stood over them, just about to light a Viceroy. She motioned with the unlit cigarette for Grace to sit down.
“We’re moving to Highland Park. We’re only taking what we can fit in the Pontiac. We’re leaving tonight.” Mom threw her cigarette into the fireplace and returned to the party in the kitchen. A volley of laughter boomed from the cloistered adults. The children sat in the still smog of Mom’s words as if their next breath would stop the world from turning. Finally, they stirred, the older ones first, the younger ones in tow.
After hearing the news the children let loose a torrent on the house. It was not a planned assault. Steve stampeded them to the shed, where they found their father’s scaffolding pipes. Next, he led them upstairs to the boys’ room. They took turns ramrodding the poles into the wall until they made a jagged passage to the girls’ room. Grace, Amber, and Paul ramrodded from the other side. It took them ten minutes to break through. From there it was only a matter of widening the opening, until, in less than fifteen minutes, the entire family stepped, one by one, giggling and coughing, through to the other side. At one point Amber went to the window to watch the Magnolia blossoms wave. Their white petals seemed to be saying goodbye.
Gloria yelled up the stairs and the mood shifted back to the job at hand. They packed their clothes in trash bags, stepping over piles of wood slat and sheetrock.
Within the hour, they were all waiting on the porch steps, ready for transport to Highland Park, a house, and place they’d never seen. All they’d known was Magnolia Street: the trees, the alleys, the sidewalks, the railroad tracks and the penny candy store. After herding Amber and Paul onto the porch Grace crept into her parents’ room.
The bed loomed like a sacrificial slab, and her legs felt weak, as she edged into the musty space. In spite of her fear, Grace was compelled to find something, but she couldn’t quite grasp what it was; some proof that they’d been there, been a family. Mom and Gloria’s laundry mixed together on the bed. A plastic gallon of vodka sat on the bedside. The curtains were drawn, and an extra blanket was pinned to them, keeping the light out. She spied herself in the mirror of the bureau, saw a pretty young woman she didn’t feel like.
She went to the closet. The doors were offtrack, but she was able to wrench one free. There were boxes stacked in the back behind old, musty coats. She pulled out a box marked “albums”. One album was labeled “Mama and Papa Rentano” She turned the leather bound cover and went from page to page, touching some old photos of her father’s parents when they still had dark hair. She liked how she resembled her grandmother. She heard the Pontiac’s horn and frantically flipped the thick pages. At
last, she found a photo of her grandparents with a toddler. She recognized the sweater. SHE was in her grandfather’s arms. The expression on his face was one of pride, and in his massive palm, her doll-like hand lay. She had a sudden flash of playing with those strong hands, their permanence and the aroma of pipe tobacco.
Grace turned the photograph over. Grace Anne, 2yrs. Only Mama and Papa called her that. Grace turned suddenly at the sound of Mom’s voice on the porch. She returned the photograph to its plastic sleeve. She emptied a box of old ribbons and bows and placed the albums inside. A silver-framed picture lodged between two albums caught her eye. It was a new photo, obscured intentionally, it seemed. It was their family, all dressed up in Christmas clothes, and she suddenly remembered the day they’d spent making the memory. It was a dream day because it was Christmas in February. Paul sat with his legs crossed in the front row, she was in the back row with Amber on
one side and Steve on the other. Bryan, in suspenders, knelt next to Paul. She remembered holding onto Amber’s dress from behind to keep her from squirming. Even so, Amber’s face was blurred and upturned to her. Paul wasn’t smiling.
When she lumbered across the porch, Mom was in the driver’s seat of the old Pontiac station wagon. The rest of the kids watched Grace cross the lawn. Grace loaded the box into the back and closed the tailgate. She pulled some of Mom’s old coats over the box. As they pulled away from the curb, Amber sat on her lap. Paul cried next to her. She took one last look at the house on Magnolia Street.