Wednesday, July 22, 2009

4. In The Name of Progress


My father’s vision, for our small farm-yard, was nothing like mine. I adored its earthy spirit from the instant we moved there. Everything embraced me with open arms. But Gus started tearing down the animal pens and cutting away foliage, to make way for big changes. He and Helen had plans to move the main house farther back on the property and modernize it. My brother and I were oblivious to such matters, we thought the emerging dirt mounds and lumber piles were our new play areas. None of us had a clue that our San Fernando Valley Utopia, of the 1950’s, was an endangered species.

I'm second from the left (middle row) with "Little Lulu" curls
Mike is the little guy (front row) hiding Nancy's chin

Innocence prevailed as we munched on grapes and splashed in our rubber wading pool. Princess, our cocker spaniel, joined the family, along with Baby, the cat. My 6th birthday bash, beneath the grape arbor, was a sort of 'coming out party' for my brother and me--friends joined us from the new neighborhood and the new school. Helen fussed over setting up the table and creating twisty curls for me so I would be 'in style'. I had to sleep with my hair rolled up in rags the night before.

Soon however, a snafu arose in my parents' plan that would strongly impact me. I was excited because my new friend, Nancy, had come over to visit. We were barefoot on that hot summer day, feet squishing in mud while playing with the hose outside our kitchen door. Suddenly Nancy screamed in surprise. A nail had pierced her foot. She cried while my mother washed it, put a bandaid on it, then carried her back home. Shortly, Helen returned from Nancy’s house with a long, sad face.

“I don’t think Nancy’s mother is gonna let her come here anymore..." Helen was on the verge of tears as she continued, "I really got the third degree. She acted like this was all our fault. I've always felt like she looked down on us anyway...” my mom lamented. After that, whenever Nancy and I did play, it was mostly over at her house. In Helen’s mind, the rift with Nancy’s mother never ended.

Helen and Gus were opposites. When she stepped into an elevator at the new 1930's Hotel Phillips (Kansas City), she fell instantly in love with the shy bell hop (my father). Being a coy, impulsive "Harvey Girl" with the Kansas Pacific Railway Cafe, she was convinced that this tall handsome stranger would become her husband. Now, more than 10 years later, that era of escapades with old friends, often loomed larger in her mind than the less glamorous (and more isolated) lifestyle of raising a family and "scrimping to make ends meet". PTA meetings left her feeling insecure—like she "would never measure up".

Gus, was more of a 'present-moment' guy and hardy survivor--having been the youngest of 4 kids whose Italian-immigrant 'single mom', worked in a sewing factory to support her brood. Dad’s busy life could always be put 'on hold' for the family he cherished. We were thrilled whenever he would say,

“Hey you kids! Wanna go to the lumber yard, and hardware store, with me?”
Enticed by metallic aromas in this oily, sawdusty, 'man’s world', Mike and I would try out the flashlights or dip our hands into nail bins letting the cool, silver rods run through our fingers to clink into the pool of nails below. Dad would tease us, then shine his wide wordless grin our way. Gus seemed to know the secret of how to interact with strangers. I watched how easily he navigated the realm of pumping gas, pleasing people and engaging in casual banter with the guys at the old fashion cash registers. He supported us by tending bar all night at a local restuarant. He'd say,

“Bartenders are actually like counselors who listen well; that’s why people want to sit at the bar and talk to me.” He laughed—as if it were a joke. Of course, we knew that it was true, in his case.


A deep vein of stillness began to penetrate the soft bloom of my life as I often roamed in solitude throughout our vast kingdom. This would largely shape, and nurture, the "me" I am today. Spinning imaginary stories from my mind, I directed my little brother, Mike (or tried to!) in games of playing ‘house’ or ‘car lot’. We had friends over on occasion, but like any pattern--as it starts to unfold, and slowly settles itself into place—we cannot foresee how it will become our life. Vignettes get stored in the mind. We piece them together as ‘what happened’. We believe these 'stories' and live them out. But at any given moment, what mattered most to me was fully experiencing each instant of life, inside and out.

As I recall cheerful red flowers bursting open, cluttering the unruly pomegranate branches--it is springtime again, in the crystal clear valley. With summer, I see us sitting on the steps, prying out ruby tear-drop clusters, ripe with nectar, from the swollen fruit. Mike tears into the amazing red ball, rambunctious as juice squirts, spilling everywhere. All of it still continues to exist within me, each detail so ‘Donellen perfect’. The eucalyptus, the pepper trees, acknowledging what my young soul sensed (as if bequeathing their 'plant-wisdom') amid the loveliness of overgrown vines, quaint sitting areas, pathways and patchwork. I am honored to have been one of those elements, also shaped, by the sheer essence of such a functional art form.


The summer of my 7th birthday reoriented our reality, springing a strange adventure on me. We moved into a motel on Sepulveda Blvd. Dad had hired a house-moving crew to relocate our home to its new spot on the land, so we needed a temporary place to stay. Once we did return home it was a shock. There was a hole where our house had been. It was quite disorienting--as if the tornado (from The Wizard of Oz ) had picked up our whole house and dropped it down in a different spot. It was also quite exciting.

The four of us celebrated my birthday in the tiny kitchenette of our motel. I opened my present to find a silky stuffed kitten, as pure as white snow, and softer than anything I'd ever touched. Although I generally tried not to let my feelings show, it was clear to everyone that this was the most wonderful gift EVER! 'My kitty & me' became instantly inseparable.

The units of this motel encircled a lush green lawn with a swimming pool in the middle. I remember how delicious the thick green grass felt beneath my bare feet, as I walked off alone, clutching my kitten close. We found a private little courtyard and hid away together--just the two of us. It was the first time I'd ever felt an omen, a strong sense that LIFE itself was smiling upon me with promise. It was almost too much--How could something so wonderful be given to me? Surely there was a catch...

Reluctantly I returned to our unit. My mother smiled happily when she saw me proudly nuzzling the stuffed toy. I wanted to hide it from her, from everyone. I wanted to keep it away from the "too rough fingers of the world" (Langston Hughes poem: The Dream Keeper). Even in the bathroom I couldn't bear to let go of my new kitten. This was a mistake. When the kitten fell into the toilet I yanked it out in horrified disbelief. I knew it was too good to be true! Torn between grief and shame I hid the wilted thing under my bed and tried to escape without my mother's notice. I just wanted to run as fast and far as I could, to where even the world would not find me. But her radar was quite powerful.

"Honey, what's the matter?"
"Where is your kitten?
"What kitten?"

She finally got it out of me--what had happened. She washed it, fluffed it back up, and tried with all her might to console me, but I felt that nothing would ever be the same again. Back home we all moved on with the business of building our new life (literally and figuratively). I don’t remember how or when I finally grasped that my father’s vision of creation required destruction, before it could begin anew. But, I do remember the wrenching sense of irrevocable disbelief, when I found that the pomegranate bush was gone and that I’d never be able to pick any more of its abundant, and freely given, gifts.

Gus and Helen’s generation utilized ‘resources at their disposal’ to improve and enrich the lives of their families, “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” to secure a future. Casting a spell without knowing it, their labor of love turned our lush open valleys into concrete, box suburbs, shopping malls and smog. The latest installation of ‘pioneers’--who only wanted to help 'The American Dream' unfold--were good-hearted folks who unknowingly co-created a phenomenon that would spread across the entire country, eventually causing "nature deficit disorder'' for their great-great-grandchildren.

My childhood enchantment flourished, in any case. Amid the sweet fragrance of sawdust hills and castle mounds, underneath my father’s table saw in the old wooden garage... Through the Charleston and Jitterbug dances, Helen, did for us, her pretty smile returning to a time when all was glammor and excitement... In small acts like holding a tape measure for Gus or marveling at the perfect miniature model of balsa-wood, depicting the house he planned to build... In the way he would pretend to growl at me and Nancy, then how we would run squealing (in terror and delight) whenever we passed the door of his workshop. These moments became my antidotes to what was lost of the ‘Ole Donellen Era” (and with it the traces of magic that this land held out to us on the day we arrived there).

It never occurred to me back then, but now I can’t help wondering: Did the sweet elderly Donellen couple ever drive past their place, again? And if they lived long enough to see the way it changed with time—I wonder whether or not it broke their hearts? How might they have felt about the farm they entrusted to us? I think somehow, that they would understand exactly how I feel, about the loss of that Pomegranate bush and those trees.