February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
September 2, 2014
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
—Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides
There is a spot on the downslope of Colima Road in Hacienda Heights, in southern California, where, if conditions conspire for clear air—which they rarely do—you can see the sharp, low-slung outline of Catalina Island, twenty-two miles out to sea. There are other places where the view is better, of course, but none of them are half a mile from my grandmother’s house, and none of them afford quite the same magic of the unexpected glimpse from the car window, only for a few seconds before the horizon returns to dusty golden hills and an old Little League field. An island and an ocean have passed outside the driver’s-side window, and then they are replaced by very ordinary things, and that, to me, is the magic of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is magical to me in the way only the place you grew up can be magical, in that every nook seems full of hidden mystery. You never know what will be around any given corner, or when you will pass someplace replete with childhood memories, or when a busy street will give way to a view of the turquoise Pacific.
People who hate Los Angeles are legion. They’re the same kind of person who say they love all kinds of music except for country, which is to say they are happy to dismiss entire genres and places out of hand without ever paying it any attention. But when you are from Los Angeles—when your childhood comprised trips through the drive-through at In-N-Out while you were in your jammies, when your earliest memories include shivering as you run from the cool Pacific to the hot towel on the sand, when you and your friends played outside in January as the smog colored spectacular sunsets—you know the secret. You know what makes this place so special, so perfect. You know it is the place that made your mom who she is, the place that brought your parents together, the place where your grandparents live one block away from each other. You know the magic of palm trees with Christmas lights strung all the way up their spindly trunks.
It had been a long day of driving, stuck in I-5 traffic on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My younger sister, Mallory, and I drove through the gate into Mema’s condominium complex—Mema was what I had said when I tried to pronounce “grandma” as a girl—and I instinctively rolled down the windows. The familiar soapy smell of eucalyptus came in with the cool night air, and I sped well past the ten-mile-per-hour limit enforced by the complex’s rent-a-cops. Mema was waiting at the door when we pulled up, parking permit in hand. I hung the permit on the rearview mirror and picked up my purse and suitcase. Inside, I went upstairs and deposited my things in the bedroom on the left, the room Mallory and I always shared when we visited.
When I visit Mema now, I try to take her to Huntington Gardens. It is a good place to be quiet, to explore, to say, “I’m going to look over there; I’ll meet you back here in ten minutes.” Huntington Gardens is in San Marino, a thirty-minute drive with no traffic, and I tell her that I love to drive so that I don’t get carsick from her constant, jerky braking. On the drive, she talks about which roads get crowded most quickly and how her cat loves to chase a small laser beam she directs on the floor and how she’s sorry she can’t pay for my ticket to enter the gardens. When we walk through the entrance, past the coffee cart and down the steps, I feel my body enter into rest. I take a deep breath, inhaling cut grass and sage and, my favorite, eucalyptus.
Huntington Gardens—officially “The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens”—was once a private residence belonging to Henry Huntington. Henry’s uncle, Collis, was one of the Big Four railroad magnates of late-nineteenth-century California, along with Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. Henry inherited his uncle’s fortune and took his wife, Arabella, whom he married in 1913. At Arabella’s encouragement, Henry amassed an enormous collection of portraits, most famously Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie and Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy.
The library’s holdings rival the art galleries: there is one of eleven known copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first two quartos of Hamlet, and a giant draft of John James Audobon’s Birds of America that used to thrill me as a girl. The main room of the library building is dark and mostly windowless, with two stories, the top of which is lined with ladders and accessible only by staff and researchers. Glass cases line the walls on the bottom floor and display, at turns, drafts of Walden, letters from Lincoln and Jefferson and Junipero Serra, and manuscripts from Jack London and Alexander Pope. Because it is a library, and because the people who visit grew up darkening the doors of libraries, everyone keeps a respectful quiet. Even Mema, never too far from where I stand reading placards, holds her remarks for the sunlight.
When we go today, we drive the 60 to the 605 to the 210, exit Allen, and go straight down to the iron gates of the Huntington. The clouds are patchy but low in the sky, so the day is alternately overcast and sunny. Halfway down Allen, we get to talking about how people want to be remembered. I’m not sure how we arrived at the topic, but there we are and, all of a sudden, she is tearing up.
“When we found out your grandfather had pancreatic cancer, we just got in the car and drove and drove. We got out at a store and we walked in, and we were by one of those displays and he wanted to buy me a sweater set, to remember him by.”
Her eyes were hidden behind prescription sunglasses, but her voice faltered and she reached for a Kleenex, which she pronounced “Clin-ex.”
“I told him I would always remember him, of course. Later on that year, he sat next to me at Christmas. I think we knew it was his last Christmas, and he watched every gift I opened and held my hand.” Attentiveness had not been Papa’s strong suit. “He gave me a card and in it, he said ‘I want you to know, I am thanking you.’ And, you know, he didn’t use many words, but I knew what he meant when he said that, that he was thanking me for all the care I gave him.”
I squeezed her hands and said a few words about how I knew he loved her dearly, words that seemed pale and anemic as soon as they came out of my mouth. We had come through the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the Huntington, and I kept her hand in mine while I steered us into a parking spot. She smiled at me and commented on how busy it was for a Tuesday.
It was busy, it turns out, because there was a members-only event. We looked at each other and shrugged. “Shall we?” I asked, gesturing toward the free champagne. No one was checking IDs or membership cards, so we each grabbed a glass and ambled around the open courtyard. It was decorated for Christmas, with overpriced tea and cookies for sale in one corner and the contents of the gift shop moved to a trailer in the other. It was a double-wide, the kind of trailer my offices had been in when I worked at a small seminary in northern California, with enough room for a bathroom and four offices and a large kitchen. This trailer was the same size, only filled with porcelain ornaments and books on California history. We walked in, overhearing snippets of conversation about the newly opened Chinese Garden and browsing the books that lined the walls. We had gone our separate ways when I heard a whisper in my ear: “This champagne isn’t even as good as the Cook’s I have at home, and that’s the cheap stuff!” I smiled and told her she was right, that’s why I had set my glass down already.
The clouds parted for a while as we wandered around the Children’s Garden, the one garden that was open. We got our picture taken in front of a small blue door, then ducked under its arch and into a small gazebo, complete with tiny table and chairs. There were small shoeprints in the concrete, and pomegranate trees held the last fruits of the season. The gardens were the green of California autumn, which is surprisingly vivid given that the whole state has been without rain for months.
The Huntington is one of the places I’ve always felt the most at home. It astounds me still that this tranquil place exists in one of the biggest cities on earth, and that contrast—a quiet spot in a pulsing metropolis—comforts me somehow. More than that, though, it’s the one place in Los Angeles I’ve been visiting as long as I can remember. Through all our family moves—even to Illinois—the Huntington felt like it contained something of home for me. It is only a handful of miles away from the house to which I was brought home from the hospital, so it is a place in which I have grown roots. It is resplendent with eucalyptus trees, those Australian stunners that now seem to me so quintessentially Californian. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking you are in Australia as you wander the gardens, or in Japan, or in an English rose garden. The Huntington offers far-flung corners of the world for the local imagination.
As we leave and she chatters away in the car, I wonder whether Mema has a place for quiet or stillness in her mind; whether I, without the benefit of counseling and good friends and medication, would have room to hold such space for myself. I used to think that home meant a place free of anxiety. But I don’t suppose there is any place I can call home, if that’s the case. Now I suppose that home is more of a sliding scale, having something to do with peace and something to do with growth and lots to do with the ability to be quiet, to be still.
We’ve gone to lunch somewhere too fancy for a Tuesday, where I insist on treating. We split a salad and a BLT, and we are both relaxed. We chat about the food, about the beautiful homes we just drove by, about how things are going at her church. Mema remarks that she doesn’t believe God will ever let anyone lose their salvation, no matter how far they turn from him—this because my sister has recently returned to the faith—and I think I disagree, but then I think, who the hell knows, and I say, “It certainly has been quite a journey.”
We come back to her home and the afternoon has gotten cloudier. I had planned to hike up the hill behind the condo complex, but the weather is inhospitable enough that I plant myself inside with a book and a cup of tea. Most of the furniture in her house is fairly new, at least compared to her old house, the one she shared with Papa. Not long after he died, she got broken into several times. My mom suggested she move, and so she did, and now I am sitting on a velvet couch of butter yellow, a couch my grandfather never sat on but somehow, now, fits this home. I hope, as I run my fingers along the edge of the couch, that Mema has a place where she feels at home, which is mostly to say a place where she feels comfortable and relaxed. The anxiety we experience has nothing to do with pending life events or normal reactions to normal threats. It is the blood-borne, chemical-deficient kind, the mundane sort of conviction that everything will go badly for me and that the future is only menacing. The places that have become home for me act like small shields against this anxiety, like buffeting sails when the fear rolls in. Those places have been so helpful to me as I’ve navigated my way through the anxiety. I want to ask her, but I’m not sure whether she would even know what I meant.
There is another spot to see Catalina Island, and this one I have all to myself most of the time. It is a one-mile walk behind the condominium complex where my grandmother lives. It is only one mile, but that mile feels like a forty-five-degree grade stretching straight up into a gray-skied heaven. The sidewalks run next to houses built in the 1970s and not touched since, some with ceramic statues of deer or bubbling fountains in their front yards. As the road climbs, the ambient noise dims. Not many cars come up this way.
I think of the hill as broken into thirds—the first third quite steep, the next leveling out, and the last the steepest of all. I mark the thirds by houses in my mind: the first is over when I’m at the plantation-style house with a cluster of yellow amaryllis at the foot of the driveway; the second, when I’m across from the long house with three garages; and the third is almost over when I pass the house with the dog who barks from the second-story window. At the asphalt’s end is the entrance to Schabarum Park, and after walking under two giant telephone poles and up one last hill, I come out to a flat clearing. On most days, the landscape stretches out into dingy smog, the horizon a smudge and the rounded edges of Rancho Palos Verdes jutting up from the south. But on a very clear day, if conditions conspire for clear air—which they rarely do—you can see the sharp outline of Catalina Island.
I walk the hill every time I am at Mema’s house, always hoping for a bit of the Los Angeles magic that I love so much. Her house is inseparable from the experience of the hill and the hoping. My hopes are dashed more often than not on reaching the top, but when I do see the island, I am spellbound.
Not long after getting in that first night of our weeklong stay, we sat down to eat. Mema had made beef stew the night before and was reheating it on the stove. Into the oven went nine small baguette slices to broil the shredded cheese and to brown the bread. Mallory made our plates and we carried them into the dining room. Mema, a piece of bread in one hand and a mischievous grin on her face, started to talk.
“I don’t normally—I mean, if I have soup at a restaurant, I don’t care, sometimes I will take my bread and crumble it up and put it right on top of the soup!”
“Oh, I can’t believe you would do such a thing!” I replied, mock horror playing at my lips. “How uncouth!”
She smiled, pausing for a fraction of a second. “Well, I would never dip my bread in my soup at a restaurant.” Her blue eyes twinkled as she held the last curve of bread in her arthritic hands, ready to plunge it into the beef stew. “That’s what home is for.”
I will leave in a few minutes to meet two of my best girlfriends from college. We’ll have cocktails and order in Thai food, and I’ll stay later than I planned, because I’ll feel so at home. We’ll talk about Rachel’s upcoming wedding and Lauren’s new job, and I’ll drive back to Mema’s house in the dark, on the 101, with the LA skyline out my passenger-side window. I’ll slow down as much as traffic allows, roll down the windows and inhale the smog-laden air, turn on K-Earth 101, and sing along to the oldies. I’ll remember being a small girl in the backseat of the car, making up games, getting In-N-Out burgers on the way home from church, and feigning sleep so that Dad would carry me inside and tuck me gently into bed. I’ll think of my mom at eight years old, living in Las Vegas with her mother and a man she doesn’t know, making herself strong because she only has herself. I’ll think of my grandmother, alone these past twenty-four years in a house where the clock ticks the seconds and a mind that makes note of every one. I’ll press the button that opens the gate to the condo complex, shiver on the walk from the car to the door, and fall asleep in the room that feels as much mine as any room on earth. In a few days I’ll leave, and one day, not too far from now, this house will be empty. Mema is not sick, but she is eighty-two years old. One day, she will need me and I will not be here, or she will get bad news from a doctor and I will be unable to fix it, and she will be gone and I will be here, and she will be free of her anxiety and she will ask God all those questions she has for him, and I will be here, waiting, quiet. I will be here. I will be home.
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco, California.