As a junior-high-aged child, I rode by my present property every day on the school bus. And every day I rode that bus, I played a game in which I imagined living in the various houses, from the clapboard shacks to the Egyptian revival, the modest Janes cottages to the Myron Hunt, the Craftsman extravaganza to the midcentury ranches.(I never saw the home I would own, though, since it’s invisible from the street).
When house hunting in 2001, I was drawn to my Altadena home because of the third of an acre that came with the nondescript — okay, ugly — little home. The trees lured me, the towering eucalyptuses, the citrus, the expressive Hollywood junipers screening a basketball court. Other attractions included my old high school friend Michele Zack next door (who told me all about Popenoe and wrote the beautiful, informative and entertaining local history, Altadena, Between Wilderness and City), along with other nearby cronies, and the ongoing, notorious Altadena mix of artists and eccentrics and soreheads, the latter of whom for years prevented undue development and incorporation (Altadena isn’t a city but a northern outpost of L.A. County), thus preserving the town’s idiosyncratic and rustic charm.
Still, in moving back to the scene of my childhood, I feared I’d be gut-socked by melancholy for old times, for my grandparents, my mother who has been dead for 17 years now, for the orange-and-lemon-groves-turned-infill. I wondered, too, if my return would seem an admission of failure.
For I’d been a restless, easily bored child, and from a young age plotted to live far afield, seriously far — Brazil, Algiers, Calcutta. I would’ve been outraged then if you told me that I’d fall so close to the proverbial tree.
But neither melancholy nor disappointment descended. Instead came a surge of contentment. Memories persist, but they also accrete, and there’s satisfaction in the resulting continuity and depth. Some days, when the myoporum is in bloom, it smells like my childhood, and when mourning doves coo and a distant train rumbles at dawn (where is that train?) I am 8 years old in my old narrow bed with the red corded-cotton spread in my pistachio-green room. Sometimes, too, I lie in bed — the one I’ve covered with a red Indian spread in my olive-green room — and try to imagine what will be here on this land in another hundred years — a parking structure? A condo complex? Desert sands? Much depends on progress, and therefore on the local soreheads, and their ability to control progress’s unruly accomplice, infill. What will remain? “The trees!” my husband says. But he is optimistic; the hundred-foot eucalyptuses, already many decades old, will surely be gone, as will the aged kumquat, the gnarled persimmons and Hollywood junipers. Will I, like Popenoe, be mentioned in a history book? Will my name linger on a deed?
Will the garden tool or lost fountain pen be dug up by a gardener or a bulldozer? How long will my mail keep coming?