THE STREET WHERE I LIVED
I wrote this a few months after my father died. It was published in Life magazine on November 19, 2004. In trying to organize years of my magazine and newspaper pieces, I came across it and decided to re-print it.
From the street where I lived as a child you can see the ocean. On this Fall morning an ash-colored layer of smog sits atop the Pacific, making the view murky and unattractive. I don’t remember it being like this decades ago, but maybe the tendency is to paint our memories with a clear wash.
In the last year of my father’s life, I often drove up to this familiar Pacific Palisades neighborhood to walk in the place where so much of my history brushes past me. I came here to cry quiet tears — tears I didn’t give into while inside my parents’ house. My responsibility there was to be strong, but here I could wander the streets of my childhood to breathe and grieve and remember.
This is the first time I’ve been back since my father died in June. Though not yet eight o’clock, the morning is noisy. Houses are being demolished. Mansions are being built. They outnumber the houses that have been here for as long as I can remember. It used to be so quiet you could hear birds singing without even trying. Sometimes you could even hear the flap of their wings as they lifted out of tree branches. Now there is only the sound of jack-hammers, cement mixers, engines, and the radios of construction workers.
I’m looking for the life we lived then. I’m looking for the world as it was. This is why we return to places we have known — to reconnect with who we were, and to understand who we have become. Childhood sweeps us up, carries us in its swift currents. It’s only afterward that we see how little we appreciated the ride, how restless we were, how easily we skipped past moments and memories-in-the-making. As adults we learn how quickly time flows, and then we find ourselves yearning for what we can never hold again.
I was a small girl walking with my father and our dog to the cul-de-sac at the end of our street. My father had dog treats in his pocket and as the late afternoon sun moved closer to the ocean, he taught our young dog Lady the basic commands of sit, stay, come. He may not have realized it, but my father was teaching me about patience. Again and again, he told Lady what he wanted her to do until she understood and obeyed. His voice was soothing and firm. When she got it right, his praise was effortless. It seemed as if we would always be able to walk together through the cool air of late afternoons.
I know every inch of the property now hidden by trees and shrubbery. I hear the long-ago echo of children splashing in the pool; I see our dog leaping to catch the scoops of water we tossed into the air. My parents smelled like Coppertone, and the afternoons felt like forever. I want to race my father to the end of the pool again. I want to do a perfect dive, rise straight-arrow from water into sunlight and turn to see him beaming at me.
We used to get winter thunderstorms in California — wild rumbling storms that would last through the night. We’d pile into my parents’ bed — all of us, even the dog. My brother — a small, giggly toddler — would say, “The wind is going to blow my whiskers off!” I would ask my father if God was rolling barrels around in Heaven, and he would laugh and say, “Maybe.” I never thought the seasons would flatten and dry up into a dusty stream of colorless days. I believed the rains would always come. I believed I’d always be able to ask my father about Heaven.
I turn up another street. It’s a steep incline. A long time ago the asphalt ended halfway up; so did the houses. There was a dirt path and a scrub-brush hilltop where we flew kites. This street, too, is now loud with the sounds of construction. It’s as if people are at war with the earth, eager to cover every inch of it with cement. Where will the children go to get grass stains on their clothes? Where will they fly kites?
Even though the neighborhood looks so different, my memory is clear and unfaded. We left footprints in the earth here, my father and I. Even though no one can see them now, I always will. As Alzheimer’s devoured his memory, I held onto mine with a savage grip. I came from this once-quiet neighborhood where the sky changed with the seasons and children rode bikes and skateboards along the streets. I came from soft blue afternoons, rain-drenched winters, and thunderstorms that turned into stories.
We remember so that we can go forward with a sense of where we came from. We return to the places of our childhood because when enough years have passed, we understand that we never really left. We know that to walk through the rest of our days we have to linger among the days that are gone. We have to fall in love with them in all the ways we didn’t when we were young, and weave the rest of our lives around them.