Dear Vera: On Growing Up in California

Dear Vera,

I am long overdue in writing your monthly letter. Apologies. This summer has been a whirlwind. One day you’ll be a college freshman somewhere and will casually answer someone’s question of where you grew up. I was born in Chicago, you’ll say, but we moved to Los Angeles when I was two. And the sentence will come so easily, even though the act itself was so much bigger and more complex than that, spanning months and bank accounts and enormous hopes and fears and eventual contenments.

We are living in Santa Monica now, in a sweet little Spanish-style house in Ocean Park. At night the electricity lines crackle in the heavy ocean mist and a lemon tree sits on our patio, its branches drooping with abundant yellow fruit. Your dad and I take you for walks every day, winding through the neighborhood to the park, past other Spanish-style homes and yards filled with bright, crimson bougainvillea. Palm trees fronds shimmer audibly in the balmy air above and everywhere we look there are plants like none of us have ever seen before — tall, spiny cacti and fat, squat succulents, flowers that beckon Hawaii and magnolias that remind me of the south.

I can’t believe you’ll grow up here.




California feels magical to me. There’s no other way to describe it than with some of the tritest words. It just feels special, unique unto itself. When I was a kid, growing up in Georgia, we often visited Southern California because my aunt and grandmother lived here. Each day we spent here steeped me that much more in such unusual sense memories — the strange light and air, the abundant plants and flora, the ocean singing itself to sleep each night. I returned home to Atlanta each time with a longing I couldn’t describe. I never understood how a place, a place, could fill you up and make you ache for something you couldn’t even touch.

I can’t believe you’ll grow up here.

There’s a good chance that you’ll take it all for granted. That it will all seem normal to you, but even if that is true, it makes me happy to think that magical will be your baseline. Growing up here will change everything about who you are, give you opportunities and perspective that it took me years to gain. You’ll have to work hard to work hard, I think. Does that make sense? Every parent wishes to bestow upon their children something they themselves worked for. What will it be that you work for then?

I can’t wait to find out.








  • Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    They way you describe it makes ME think it’s magical–and I lived there! So beautifully put. These letters are amazing–as are you.

  • Carroll
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I love the concept you articulate here of presenting (in every sense of the word) our children with things we had to work hard to attain. In my parent’s generation, so many of those aspired-to gifts were material. But still, they carried a price. I think what I gave to my own children in that category was self-esteem. A fascinating dinner table conversation in the making here!

  • Posted September 28, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    It really is an interesting concept, and one that hadn’t fully occurred to me until I wrote about it. I like that you passed down self-esteem!

  • Posted September 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Lovely. Love the idea of magical being a child’s baseline. That’s what we’d all like for our kiddos. 70 and sunny it is.

  • Posted September 28, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Ah, you of anyone should understand a magical baseline, Julie. You give that to your kids more than anyone I know.

  • Posted September 23, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    Beautifully written, once again! I know what you mean about longing for California when you live somewhere else. Whenever I’m not here, all I can do is dream about getting back. When I found out I was pregnant last November, we were living in Florida. I knew instantly that we HAD to move back to CA so that my child could have the kind of life I’d dreamed about while growing up in the midwest. Just the words “Burbank” and “Santa Barbara” excited me when I lived in Illinois. It’s weird, but I feel like I have childhood memories here although I didn’t step foot on California soil until I was 28. Now my daughter will get to live in this magical place that I brought her to. Thanks for making me feel good about that all over again. 🙂

  • Posted September 28, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Glad you can relate, Liz. Sounds like we’re right on the same track, as always!

  • Kristine H.
    Posted September 24, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I totally get what you are saying! I lived in California for two years and while I ultimately returned home to the Midwest (having my best friends and family close by is priceless, even if it means enduring winter) every time I find myself back in that state I’m inspired to write poems, sing, dance. There are so many sensory devices out there, and I’m glad you and Greg are experiencing them as you work on your writing projects.

  • Posted September 28, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Kristine. You’re definitely right about their being a lot of good sensory devices out here. I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it just now but when I write about California I always do spend a lot of time describing the light and the air and the plants, much more so than any other place I’ve ever lived.

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