When we were planning our trip to California for Christmas, Dan told me that he wanted to do something he had never done before. I’d been thinking about trying to go up to the place we lived until I was 10, something I hadn’t done since 1991, but this settled it for me. Dan assured me that seeing the place where I lived as a child would certainly count toward the “something new” quota, and so it was settled.
On Christmas Eve day, we got in the car and drove through the town where I went to elementary school, across the bridge, turned left, and meandered through the barren vineyards, passing farms and homes and trees. The mustard had started coming up but wasn’t blooming yet, and the century plant was where it had always been. “That’s where Geno crashed his car,” I thought, and may have pointed out to Dan. “That’s the back way to go. We’ll come back out that way.” Instead of continuing up the road until it ended, as we would do to get to the place where we got married, we turned right just before that and hairpinned back and forth, Dan intent on his driving and me boggling in anticipation and memory. Same, different, same, different. Around another bend. The big tree was still there; the fancy house looking shabbier and smaller after all of these years. The first potential locked gate wasn’t even in existence anymore. Down, past the house where there was a robbery while my mom was housesitting. Around the bend, over the creek, up and down another hill to the sign tree, with directional signs to ranches owned by new families and old neighbors still living in their houses, up yet another hill, pass the trees, pass the next gate (both unlocked and open). I have so many memories of stopping here on this hill, with the drop on one side and the hillside on the other, helping my mom to open the gate, fiddling with the metal combination lock, remembering the story my mom used to tell me in the car when we’d drive to ballet lessons or to go grocery shopping. I remember that when I was first learning to read I thought the sign here said “No trees passing” and thought that was funny because how could we not pass the trees and still get to where we needed to go?
Up through the open clearing, and then the next batch of trees, mostly manzanita and madrone until the next set of hairpins, and then everything opened up to be scrub and big pines. I wracked my brain trying to remember the names of everyone who lived there, whose driveway or side road that was, which one belonged to which person. The next hairpin took us through what I always thought of as the open field, with a big new fancy house on the opposite side. Another curve, another set of trees and driveways (that’s where the Greenbergs were! wow, the people there still have horses!), the spot where my dad had to clear the tree off the road that one time of the Valentine’s Day flood, and then the final ascent past the wild plum trees and the open grassy fields to the spot where the people who own the property now have built their fence. We parked the car there, under the oak trees that still have oak galls on them, next to the drainage/creek, and managed to squeeze through the fence and hike the last 1/4 mile or so, me pointing things out to Dan and seeing my past through a haze. “That’s the hill that I used to climb,” I showed him. “There’s the funny gnarled bay tree where I used to sit.”
I pulled out my camera to take a photo of a dead thistle head, but the batteries in my camera were dead. “You’ll take pictures for me, right?” I asked Dan, and he said he would.And we came around the bend.
I knew, intellectually, that the house our neighbor (the one who used to mow his orchard nekkid) lived in was gone and replaced by an Italian villa. I knew it, but I didn’t really KNOW it until I saw it with my own eyes. But so many of his trees, olive and orange and apple (and FIG OMG the FIG TREE) were still there, still obviously bearing fruit.
And then I turned to look, and I saw where the A-frame and the tool shed and the barn weren’t. In the field where I learned to ride my bike and had an easter parade with my stuffed animals dressed to the nines and where the cows would hang out, at the far end, was a huge barn-like thing that I’m convinced, judging from the sounds and signs surrounding it, was actually being used as living space for someone (a caretaker?). The house that I’d lived in for ten years, where I’d had birthday parties and jumped off the roof and hadn’t dreamed about since sometime in the 90s, was still there. They kept it.
Our house was still there.
Granted, it was barely recognizable as our house. They’d removed the living room and all of the internal walls and redone it completely from the inside out, but the basic structure was there. Our apricot tree, our walnut tree, the huge rose bush, the huge oak growing out of the deck my dad had built, all there. I showed Dan everything, where the rope swing had been, and where the fountain had been, where we’d had our sand box and the chicken coop, where there was once a jungle gym, where I’d spent hours once looking for a four-leaf clover, all the spots that were MINE. They were all still there, even if they didn’t look the same, even though they didn’t look the same. The huge old tree under which we’d buried all of our pets was there, though it was obviously a victim of some parasite or sudden oak death or something because it certainly wasn’t healthy, but the place where Daisy Deer and all of our dogs and cats rested their bones still existed.
Dan pulled out his camera, and his battery died after the second photo he tried to take.
The wind went out of my sails. Now I could see everything that was different, all the changes they’d made in 20 years. The house was a guest house, with brand new fixtures and perfect white linens and a spread of tasteful magazines on the coffee table in front of the flat screen television. The area had been landscaped to match the Italian villa down the field. It was cute and kitchy and not my house. It really looked nothing like it did in my memory, and the apricot tree was so much smaller than I remembered, and the oak trees were dying.
A little while later, when I got tired of seeing everything that was no longer there, we wandered back over to the orchard and I saw that the fig tree had lived through the ordeal of the earthquake, or at least some of it had, because coming up from the split were many obviously newer branches. I desperately wanted to take pictures of it, kracken-like in its wild tangle. I picked an orange from one of Geno’s orange trees, and we headed back down the road. I showed Dan where the water pump had been, and where I’d first seen cows having sex. We got to the car. I peeled the orange and tried to separate it, but it had very little structure, and mostly turned into a big juicy mess in my hands, so I shoved half the thing in my mouth at once, not realizing until I started to chew just how many seeds were in the thing.
We drove away with no photos, no drawings, nothing to show what was there now or what had been there once, and I felt curiously hollow inside. I only hoped that it had been worth it, that Dan had seen something of what it had meant to me to grow up in that place, even if it was a place my mom had hated, even if my sisters barely remembered it, even if my childhood friends’ parents had needed 4-wheel drive to get up our road in the winter. It was a significant place in that it helped make me who I am. It was the last place I was truly free, and there’s something to be said for visiting that place again, no matter how different it is from what it once was.