During our time in California, she was exposed to tons of music. There were always street musicians downtown, and we had music playing at home constantly. Her favorite song at that time was “Jesse” by Janis Ian. Every time the lyric “Hey, Jesse” came on, which was the start of each verse, she would look up and smile or coo. She also went to numerous concerts both in utero and as a baby. On New Year's Eve in 1975, when she was 4 months old, we went to the Keystone in Berkeley for a concert with The Jerry Garcia Band. Because it was a small indoor venue, I decided it was too loud for her little ears, so we went to a back room where the volume was much less but I could still peek through the windowed door and see the show. Nicky Hopkins, who had played with The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Quicksilver Messenger Service and too many more to name, was playing keyboards at this show. At intermission, he came out for a breather to this back room and hung out with us, eventually asking if he could hold my baby. Of course, I said yes, and was thrilled as she cooed and smiled at this awesome musician.
When Jessie Lea was 8 months old, her dad (Paul) and I decided that we wanted to move to Oregon and try to get work in the orchards. In order to make that happen, Paul quit his job and hitchhiked north. Meanwhile, I moved out of our apartment, putting all of our possessions in storage, and lived in the park with our friend, Amber. She had a VW bus that we slept in and lived out of, but we spent most of our time outdoors. We had agreed that he would make phone calls to the pay phone outside of a nearby café, The Broken Egg Omelet House, every few days to let me know any progress he’d made and where to go when it was time for us to join him. This was well before the age of cellphones, so we set a day and time for the first call and planned the next each time we talked.
I settled into an easy routine with Amber and Jessie, thoroughly enjoying our gypsy lifestyle. Amber had planned a visit to Connecticut to visit family, and Jessie and I were going to travel with her, coming west again in a few weeks to meet up with Paul, hopefully giving him enough time to settle before we reunited. To see all of our grand plans to fruition, these scheduled calls and the timing in general were crucial. When Paul missed a phone call a few days before we were due to leave, I started to panic. What should we do? The calls were scheduled one at a time. We hadn’t thought about what to do if we missed one. I stayed close to the pay phone all that day and the next day. I wasn’t willing to live in the park with my baby alone and without any vehicle to sleep in but was worried about leaving on a cross-country trip without checking in with Paul first. How would I find him again when we returned? We were hanging out in the park, the day before we were supposed to leave, when a waitress came running up asking if I was Debbie Cavanaugh. Thankfully, Paul was calling. The pay phone was out of order, so he had finally called the café. He let me know that he’d been unable to find work and was on his way back to Santa Cruz. We waited for him and all left two days later in Amber’s VW bus for the long ride back home to Connecticut.
We decided to take a southern route since all three of us had arrived in California via the northern routes and wanted to see new sights. This was also before the days of seatbelts and car seats, so we set up a tiny play area on the floor in the back for Jessie. She actually took her first steps while we were driving down the highway. She could toddle back and forth in the moving vehicle but not on solid land, and I could see how confusing that was for her. I learned a lot during that trip about how to travel effectively with a young child. We made that whirlwind trip in three days, taking turns driving and sleeping, driving all night long, living on coffee. I drew the short straw and ended up with the middle of the night shift, so for three days, I drove at night and catnapped during the day between reading and playing with our young daughter.
We only had one dangerous situation to handle during that trip but Jessie, who had been safe in the bus with Amber at the time, never had any notion of danger. We arrived in Connecticut only to find out that my parents were on vacation in New Hampshire. Ugh! It didn’t take me very long to get an address for the house they’d rented, and off we went to find them. When we got to the vacation house, no one was home. “Oh, no! What do we do now?” I suggested that we park the bus out of sight, behind the bushes and break into the house, surprising them when they came home. Looking back on it now, like so many other things, I realize how stupid that was. It’s amazing that my parents didn’t faint or have a heart attack or something. But, they didn’t. My mom screamed, then cried. My dad shook his head in disbelief then laughed. We had a wonderful visit and went back to our hometown with them. Paul and I got a gig at a local bar, had a great turnout and, in our youthful enthusiasm, decided that this must have been our “big break.” We decided to stay and left poor Amber to make the long drive back alone. My family were thrilled and helped us set up housekeeping, providing us with furniture and household goods, all the things that were locked up in a storage locker back in Santa Cruz, which we paid on for years to come.
So far, in her first nine months, my daughter had hung out with many different people, lived in an apartment, in a city park and in a VW bus. She had learned to walk while crossing the country in a moving vehicle and was now settling close to her grandparents, who she barely knew, and moved into a very different environment. Luckily, she was raised to be flexible and was still quite young. At not yet a year old, she had already had more experiences than many adults have in a lifetime. Although I know she doesn’t remember these things, they helped mold who she would become.
Stay tuned for the next installment, “A Year in Connecticut.”