remembering southern california
After my grandma and grandpa got married, those two Midwestern kids hopped in their car and drove to southern California and never looked back. For nearly 60 years—almost three-quarters of my grandma’s life—she has made California her home. My mom and her brother grew up in the hot mountains of San Bernardino. She left; he stayed. By leaving, my parents reversed the pattern for my sister and me: I’ve lived nearly all of my 25 years between Crystal Lake, Illinois, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I’m back in California for a few days to celebrate that grandma’s 80th birthday. This place is not home to me, and yet with two sets of grandparents and two sets of aunts and uncles in southern California, and knowing that my mom grew up here and my dad lived here for a part of his childhood, I’ve never felt a stranger. We visited at least once a year when I was a child, and I have memories of listening to Amy Grant’s Christmas album in the back of my grandparents’ Suburban while winding through the mountains, the engine groaning as it climbed the hills, heat shimmering on the pavement ahead.
I’ve also taken on the stories that the rest of them tell about this place. My mom keeps a box of pottery shards in her garage, each one tucked among crushed newspaper. She spotted them and picked them up when she used to go running in the desert. Sometimes, when I imagine a girl running along the dusty desert road, bending to pick up a broken piece of Navajo pottery, I get mixed up and picture myself.
Or when I hear my grandma tell of the time they lost their house to a fire in the mountains, I accidentally imagine myself walking through the charred remains of the house, sifting through the ash and letting it run through my fingers, finding only my son’s baby spoon, baby ring, and three porcelain pieces from my daughter’s dollhouse—the toilet, the sink, the claw foot bathtub.
I have only fondness for this landscape: the speckled mountains that look like stiff pieces of tawny velvet, pinched at the top and propped up, the expanse of sand stretching to the foothills, spotted with brush and tumbleweeds, lines of palms with their green tufts atop impossibly tall trunks.
But yesterday, for the first time, the landscape seemed alien. Maybe it was because we were on the highway between here and Palm Springs, a stretch of road that’s marked by an army of wind turbines. It looks post-apocalyptic. There are thousands of them, some in rows, some clumped together, a few standing alone on a hill, most with three arms, some with two, some tall, some miniature, some cracked in half, their arms splayed on the sand. I looked out at them and realized that I am a stranger to these mountains, this desert, these native plants, this constellation of shopping centers and Indian reservations and wind turbines.
A friend and I used to ask each other which geography we’d prefer to be lost in. I always answered a deciduous forest. I know that landscape. I’ve fallen for Michigan hard: its lush June trees, its fiery Octobers, the meadows, the grass, the fields. If or when we have to leave, my heart will mourn. (Unless it’s to Seattle. I could probably manage that.)
Still, I feel tender toward southern California. Maybe it’s because its landscape implies family. Memories of my grandparents, of aunts and uncles, of vacations, of silliness with my sister—they’re all fixed here. It’s like an album of photos. This space holds the memories.
Why does memory seem so consequential and so fragile? Why do we cling to it and fear losing it?
In one of my seminary courses, we talked about memory being essential to personhood. We didn’t make any ultimate claims, but we discussed the possibility that people with smaller memories do not have the fullness of their humanity. Children, for instance, are not quite as person-ed as adults. I recoiled at the thought that people with cognitive impairments affecting memory or that people with dementia might be less than human. Our professor suggested that it’s the work of the church to hold the memories of those people, to re-member them, to preserve their memory in order to preserve their personhood.
I can’t say where I land, but I do know that at the very least, we sense that our personhood is caught up in our ability to remember. Part of the reason I keep this blog is to ensure that my memories are preserved. It’s why we take photos, journal, write memoirs, document our lives on the internet: we don’t want to lose ourselves. I can’t hold all my memories—there are too many! So I store them in other places, outside of my mind, so that I can retrieve them later. It’s a worthy endeavor, but those places for storage are susceptible to being lost and, even if they weren’t, would I have enough time to revisit all the memories? We could spend our whole lives in recollection.
I take comfort in the words of the thief on the cross, who said, “Jesus, remember me.” The Lord will hold my memories for safekeeping, perhaps letting me look through them again when I am with him. In Christ, I am a person.
But that’s not to minimize the value of keeping a record of memories, of recalling stories and telling them to one another. Don’t stop asking, “Grandma, tell me about the time when—”
(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here!)