Out of necessity and need for change, I moved far away from the beautiful place where I grew up. We started over with our little family 800 miles to the north about 15 years ago, but every year I go home. I say home because even after a 15-year absence it remains home to me. Even after my father passes and the house where I grew up is no longer mine but a part of some other family’s story, San Luis Obispo will be me and I will be it. There is no escaping the places that formed us, the landscapes that crafted every curve of our personalities and the essence of our identities. We can run far away, but they always call us back. Where else would we go when the place we escaped to needs escaping from?
When I return home for the annual pilgrimage to San Luis I am at once assaulted and assuaged by my hometown. My love/hate relationship with California extends deeper into my soul here, where every bit of teenage angst was borne and every fragrant memory of my mom’s kitchen and garden both comfort and sadden me. The sweet aroma of citrus blossoms, Santa Rosa plums, and olallieberries, which she magically crafted into jams and cobblers, overwhelm my senses, and I return to a childlike state.
There are ghosts around every turn in this town. Wispy pieces of my mother lurk on every single street. From the goddamn terrible purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees that bloom without shame every July in honor of the anniversary of her death, to the scent of the bone dry hills covered in yellow grass and remnants of yucca, I cannot escape my memories of her here. It is a sensory attack to my whole body, not the least of which is the tactile assault on my fragile and broken heart.
We stay with my dad and his wife in the house where I grew up. He maintains the old backyard lovingly, tending the citrus, avocado, and other fruit trees with carefully rationed water. There is not much I miss about living in California, but the memories of running out back in the morning to pick ripe fruit off of trees, my feet wet from the dew in the grass do make me long for this warmer climate.
I take an evening walk with my unwilling daughter through the old neighborhood and the entire outing is filled with stories. I am only trying to make our walk more interesting for her, but I realize I do not need to embellish anything. There was so much drama on these streets. We pass the house where my best friend Mary lived as well as the house across from Mary’s where the bully Sonja lived. Then we stand at the bottom of the steep street that leads to the house where a boy I knew stabbed both his parents to death one dark night and made me afraid to go outside for a long time. And up another lonely hill covered in dead yellow grasses stand the remnants of an old abandoned brick building, the former Hells Acres, which was, according to 80s urban legend, a former insane asylum. Teens who dared used to party there in the creepy and supposedly haunted structure.
We stroll down the gently sloped streets, gazing into dry yards and tidy houses. I identify plants for her that she does not recognize, having grown up in the much wetter and cooler Pacific Northwest. I unintentionally make her cry with the story about the jacarandas blooming during her grandma’s last weeks fighting cancer. My daughter innocently thought they were just pretty trees, but after nearly 30 years I am so disassociated that I tell the story with ruinous glee. After my mom died I had wanted to plant one in our yard in her memory, but my husband thought jacarandas were too messy. I point out to my daughter the ocean of purple debris on the sidewalks, laughing that he was right. Only then do I notice her tears.
We walk up and down the halls of my elementary school. It’s not pronounced the way it looks and so I give her the lecture I heard 7 straight years in a row about why. It still bothers me to hear Sinsheimer mispronounced. As we come full circle through the neighborhood, we pass the place I met her dad when he was trimming trees and I was doing odd jobs and waitressing. Here is the store where I stole candy once, and down another street lived a very cool girl named Lisa whose young and single mom kept her the very same year mine gave me away.
But this story is not about that mom, it’s about the other one, from whom I inherited no physical traits, but whose legacy of kindness, patience, and compassion helped me grow strong and healthy, curious and silly. She shared with me her middle name, which I, in turn, bequeathed my own girl. She is the mom who took me and loved me and held me when I cried, the one who made me popcorn and hot chocolate after school on rainy days, and sewed me whole wardrobes of skirts and dresses because I refused to wear pants.
Until my brother and I started school she stayed home to care for us, cooking from scratch, grinding wheat for bread, canning fruits and veggies from our garden, and tending rabbits and chickens in the back year. She and my dad tried to convince us at the dinner table that rabbit meat was chicken, but it didn’t work. She made me walk or ride my bike to school at a time when everyone else got rides. I am forever thankful for the emphasis my parents put on physical activity and health. My childhood was spent swimming, hiking, camping, biking, and playing tennis and working in the yard. I have the sun damage to prove it.
They never met, my mom and my daughter. I am the bridge that connects them, these two most precious women in my life. Me and this awful, wonderful place are the only things that tie all 3 of us Dianes together. And so my memories must become her memories, because these things and my mom, must not be forgotten. How else to accomplish this than to tell and feel the stories in the very place they occurred, in this parched and fragrant town? San Luis Obispo is home to the splintered pieces of my heart; how could it ever not be mine? We must come home to remember, and because jacarandas do not grow in Washington.
Vanessa Sager grew up in sunny California where her parents constantly urged her to "go play outside" even though all she wanted to do was snuggle on the couch with a book. She now lives in the cold and wet Pacific Northwest where there is no such pressure.