I spent most of Tuesday down in Orange County, first in Long Beach and then later in Laguna Beach to be part of the Pen on Fire Literary Salon, which was just fantastic. (Side note: I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to get to know the two other writers I was a panelist with: Dinah Lenney and James Brown, both of whom have fantastic memoirs out.)
But really, what I thought most about that day was California. As I wound along the 405 freeway for miles and miles, as I drove past long-familiar exits like Golden West and Beach Blvd., my eyes skimmed to all the places where my father once lived. I thought so much about him and his years in California, first as a young man in Pasadena and then as an old man in Garden Grove. He first moved to California in his mid-twenties, along with his wife, three children, as well as his mother and sister, all of them exiling themselves from Michigan, the only place any of them had ever called home.
My grandmother got a job as a perfume lady at a department store and my aunt Jean worked at an auto-dealership, which in the 1950s was kind of glamorous. She set her blond hair into waves each morning and spent her days smiling at customers amidst the gleaming new engines of big, beautiful cars. My father and his little family settled in Pasadena, his wife staying home with the kids while my father drove off each morning down the oak tree-lined streets to his engineering job.
My grandmother and my aunt never left California, settling into Long Beach as if they’d always known that this was the turn life would take for them. My father and his family were here for at least fifteen years before moving on to Florida and eventually to Atlanta, my father following his dreams of owning a steel manufacturing company. It was in Florida where he divorced his first wife; he was living in Atlanta when he met my mother. For years after he married my mother and had me, we flew out to California at least once a year to visit his mother and sister. I don’t remember what my father thought about California. I only remember my own fascination with it, with the constant sunshine and ocean air, the strange plants pushing themselves out of every corner and crevice, and the bright, tropical flowers cascading over front doorsteps and back fences.
One year on a visit that we took when I was eleven or twelve, we all drove down to Laguna Beach, and I completely fell in love with its oceanfront cliffs and glimmering, artistic community. For months after we returned home I wrote stories about a girl who ran away to Laguna Beach. Even after the stories stopped my fondness for California never quite abated, and later in high school my best friend Liz and I schemed to go to UCLA for college. But then I got swept up by life, and also by New England, and for quite some time I forgot about California.
My father never forgot about California though, and after my mother died he moved back here. He lived with his sister Jean in her condo in Garden Grove until she died only a few months later of pancreatic cancer. She left not just her avocado-green couches and swimming pool-sized ashtrays, but the entire condo, to my father. And he was happy here, among the soft warm air and palm trees, and each time I visited him from New York I could see it in the way he always had something new to show me about this place he once again called home. He took me long drives up through the hills of Riverside or out into the desert. He pointed out plants and mountains and water ways that would seemingly never exist elsewhere. And I stared out the window at the little bungalow homes and the tropical flowers passing by and I was glad my father was happy, even I longed to return to the grit and grime of New York City.
I moved here when I was twenty-four, and right into Hollywood, where I failed to fall in love with my new city right away. It was really only after moving to the beach over a year later that California’s strange shimmering air and tropical plants filled up my heart before I really knew what was happening. I realized then why I could never shake the feeling all those years that my father knew something I didn’t. It was if he’d always known that this was where I belonged, but typical to my father, he let me figure it out on my own.
It’s a strange thing to love a place. We’re so good at loving people and things, but so many of us spend years and years in places that fail to inspire us. The first place I ever loved was New York City, and I still love it. Each time I visit, it’s akin to running into an ex-lover, one who I’m never quite sure I should have left. I could equate my time in Chicago to a lover as well, my life there like a forced relationship I always knew was never quite going to work out. On the flip side, returning here to Los Angeles last year felt like coming home, in the deepest sense that I’ve ever known.
Funny that we often think the place where we grew up is where we belong, and how many of us never bother to find out if that’s true or not. Driving back to Santa Monica the other night, I realized that I’ll never stop feeling grateful to my father for giving me this place, for showing me where my home was.