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PRIVATE FACES, PUBLIC SPACES : A Daughter’s Dowry: Good Name, Strong Back

On a scorched hillside in Alhambra, a woman clears a vertical slope. She works hour after hour in the still and burning heat. Brambles, weeds, stones, fierce undergrowth scratch and bruise her. For this, she makes $3 an hour. She could charge more, but doesn’t. Carla Mary Ceballes is new to her father’s gardening service.

The day after Frank Ceballes died, his son drove up from Orange County and let the helpers go. It was a son’s decision. It never occurred to anyone to consult the daughter. Never occurred to anyone that she might dream of taking over. “Imagine how my dad’s men felt--no Frank, no job. I was so mad. How can it just be over?”

She went out and found them: two men who had faded back into a world of no addresses, no phones, appointments on a street corner. She took the old truck, the lawn mower and blowers, and walked--finally--in her father’s footsteps.

The oldest customers, the ones who knew her as a pretty child skipping by her father’s side, were surprised to find her in their gardens again. It was her older brother, the landscape designer, who her father talked of--the only son, all was for him. In a household that revolved around its men, she was the daughter, loved and petted and called “baby,” even into her 30s. Going to night school while her brother went to college. All the unseen hurts and jealousies stifled.

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For years, unnoticed, she had watched her father work. “It wasn’t a matter of my dad showing me. I was right there. I always felt my dad could make weeds turn into flowers. Now I have people say, ‘Carla, you’re an artist just like your dad.’ ”

Some customers are tickled to find her at their door--a small, pretty blonde with rhinestone looks. Others become sharp; do they automatically distrust her as she shows up outside the kitchen? Assume she isn’t strong enough to tame the earth, drag the bushes to the dump, do her father’s work? Do they know how it is to get up at 3 in the morning and work until after dark? To find there is no money after six days’ toil because something needs repairs? “Last week, the truck broke, the lawn mower broke, and my mother said, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I said ‘Fix it.’ I cried and bawled and then got on with it.”

If she looks rushed, it is because she is always running. Running to fetch her two children from school, taking them to her mother’s, fetching and carrying. A woman’s life with its mass of contradictions. Being seen as her mother, while wanting to make her father’s strength her own. Fearing the helplessness of the old ways that used to be women’s lot, while still longing for them. “All I ever wanted was to be married forever and to be loved. But what you want and what you get are two separate things.”

Her mother was married for 52 years. “She breathed my father.” Her mother never held a job but she has worked for others her whole life. Carla first went out to work at 13 and has married twice--child-men, in her view. “I never found kindness, loyalty, gentleness--everything my dad was. He was my heartbeat.”

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She stood in her brother’s shadow--the daughter who was leaned on, the son who was their pride; the son who shops at Nordstrom, the daughter who forages at garage sales: the price of having a life that no one has taken seriously--until now, as she pays the men, books the jobs, struggles for respect.

But she is afraid: afraid to raise her father’s low prices, afraid to set a proper price lest she lose customers. Not everyone wants to give her a chance; some prefer the cowed, anonymous workers: men, interchangeable. A woman’s sweat and muscle discomforts; her father’s went unseen.

As she works, she touches the soil he turned, the shrubs he tended--the rose gardens he planted in the months before his heart attack, as if he knew they would stand as his memorial. “My dad, he worked a life of a hundred years, and I’m going to keep his business going until I’m too old to walk--and people are going to know my dad was somebody. My dad made me very proud. I want him to be proud of me.”

There were no savings; her mother needs her; her children, too. In losing her father, she became him. She is Frank Ceballes now.

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