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Haunted by Memory

Susan Salter Reynolds last wrote for the magazine on Danish novelist Peter Hoeg

I’m not going to tell you about about the ice wagon,” says Harriet Doerr ever so firmly. It was in all the papers 50 years ago. Then again,” she says, wavering, “they were Hearst papers.”

The author of “Stones for Ibarra,” a classic of this century, is the mother of spare prose, a patron saint of life’s enduring details. “Stones,” the story of a woman who moves to Mexico with her husband and of the life they discover there, was published in 1984, when Doerr was 73 years old and had just received her B.A. from the creative writing program at Stanford University. She went on to write “Consider This, Senora” (1993, also a national bestseller set in Mexico) and a collection of essays, “The Tiger in the Grass” (1995).

But unlike many novelists half her age who jump on the memoir bandwagon, Doerr requires much coaxing to part with any story from her past. Is this simply because she grew up before the era of Oprah? The answer lies in the story of the ice wagon.

The ice wagon belonged to Al Doerr, her future husband (“Don’t say boyfriend! No one ever said that! And don’t say beau--it sounds like my mother!”) who had a summer job delivering ice in the wee hours to that part of Highland Park that once held railroad tracks and is now freeway. He invited Harriet, then 16 and still in high school at Westridge in Pasadena, to go along for a ride. (“Don’t put this in,” she says, before continuing with her tale. Once in a while she gives orders: “I forbid you,” or sometimes “I beg you.” But the story continues.)

The next day, the headline of a story that took up the entire society page of the Herald Tribune (what was then called the “scandal sheet”) read: HEIRESS RIDES IN ICE TRUCK. “There was a cartoon,” she tells me. “We were both in evening clothes; I’m dripping with diamonds, probably a tiara, and Al is in black tie. There was no end to the zeros in the story. I thought my mother would die. She came down in the morning and said, ‘Harriet, dear, something terrible has happened.’ ”

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Doerr thought her notoriety would soon fade, but people as far away as Kentucky and “those cold northern states,” Minnesota, “people on farms!” sent letters asking for money, and for several months she obligingly dispersed her $50 a month allowance among them. The worst part for Doerr was that the envelopes bore only her maiden name and the town: Harriet Huntington, Pasadena.

Harriet Doerr’s grandfather was Henry Edwards Huntington, and growing up in Pasadena, she found this a curse and a blessing. Although her middle years in Mexico have provided the rich memories she fictionalized in both “Stones” and “Consider This, Senora,” at 87, Doerr has scrupulously avoided writing directly about her childhood (though she touches on it in three essays in “Tiger”). The money, the Huntington name and reputation were her secrets to keep.

“I have a complex,” says the granddaughter of the railroad tycoon who is considered by some a benefactor, others a robber baron. (There is a turn-of-the-century story in which a father takes his 6-year-old girl out for a trolley ride. “Papa, who owns all these cars?” “Mr. Huntington,” the father replies. Later that day, sitting on Huntington Beach, the daughter asks her father who owns that place. “Mr. Huntington,” the father replies again. She then asks, “Who owns the ocean, Papa?” “God,” he says, to which the child responds, “But Papa, how did he get it away from Mr. Huntington?”)

“Every so often,” she says, “I’ll be introduced by some well-meaning person as Harriet Huntington Doerr. It makes me want to kill myself and her. It makes me want to go through the floor. What is she really saying? She is saying that my grandfather had a lot of money and gave a lot of money to the library. She wants my being related to him to be more important than the books I’ve written.”

“This is Los Angeles!” I tell her, trying to allay her fears so that she will remember an extraordinary childhood. “People reinvent themselves every second.”

“This,” she corrects, in her most I-forbid-it voice, “is Pasadena.”

As with many women writers in her generation (M.F.K. Fisher, Virginia Adair), Doerr’s success bore the burden of proof--that talent and hard work, not connections, got them published. So why reveal anything now?

The chink in Doerr’s armor is small. In fact, it is probably about the size of Doerr’s field of vision. Having lost her peripheral vision, the author can literally see only the center of things. Perhaps now, approaching her 90s, childhood looms, largely unexamined by Doerr the writer. For though a writer’s imagination wanders far and wide for material, more often than not it ends up at some point in the backyard of the house it grew up in, peering hopefully in the windows. Doerr is simply too driven by memory, too haunted by a life of richly textured details to give up on it altogether.

*

The Pasadena of today bears little resemblance to the Pasadena of 1910, the year Doerr was born, but walking up the driveway of the house she has lived in (between trips to Mexico) since 1941, past the little pond and the oak and orange trees, toward the wood and brick house with the tall shutters over the doors, the Los Angeles of today seems very far away. There is a little bit of the East Coast, a little bit of the Old South, and then that elusive desert quality . . . pure heat, afternoons that slow to a crawl, evenings crystal clear and smelling like lemon flowers.

Some people soak up landscapes over their lifetimes, and Doerr’s voice contains this same desert shard--a kind of drawl, followed by an edge, dry and sweet at once. “Nothing interesting has ever been written about Pasadena,” she says of the town in which she was born and raised. “There’s simply nothing to distinguish it.”

But, oh, give the author a gentle push and watch her remember shingled houses and arroyos and peacocks wandering through gardens and Christmas Eve parties at Uncle Fred Bixby’s ranch in Long Beach, and even a non-native can understand what the Chumash Indians and the missionaries and the ranchers and the generals and the robber barons saw in the place. Reminiscing, Doerr does the same thing for Pasadena that she did for Mexico in “Stones for Ibarra,” despite her protestations that the latter is so very much more interesting than the former.

“I didn’t believe it was possible to love a house so much,” she says of the home she and four of her five siblings were born in. “It was off Oak Knoll on a rise--several canyons came down from the mountains, and when it rained water would run down through the property. It had the most beautiful view from the brown shingled sleeping porch the girls slept on. When my youngest brother, Ted, was born, we gave our room to the obstetrician. My older sister and I resolved to stay up all night but fell asleep and woke to a whole baby, dressed and bathed. All four girls married in the living room of that house, under Mother’s bedroom, where we were all born [with the exception of Liz, the eldest].”

Doerr remembers the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino as her grandfather’s place, where she and her siblings had the run of the vast property. “It was a dream of happiness to play there: All orange groves . . . the library wasn’t there. The Japanese garden was there, and it fascinated us--such destructive children!--there was absolutely no supervision; it was like being on a desert island.”

Henry Huntington was born in 1850 in Oneonta, N.Y. His father owned a general store. In 1873, he married Mary Alice Prentice and they had four children. In 1848, when news of the Gold Rush reached Oneonta, his uncle, Collis Huntington, began amassing the fortune in railroads and property that would give Henry Huntington his start. In 1885, he began working for Collis as superintendent of the Kentucky Central Railroad at $300 per month. In April of that year, as first assistant to Uncle Collis, then president of the Southern Pacific Co. in San Francisco, he came, for the first time, to Southern California and stayed at the San Marino Ranch of J. DeBarth Shorb at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was, he later said, “the prettiest place I had ever seen.”

Ten years later, he bought it. Henry’s only son, Howard, Harriet Doerr’s father, was born in 1876. By age 18 he was working for his father in the engineering department of Southern Pacific in Arizona. In 1905, Howard married Leslie Thayer Green of Berkeley, whom he met when she was visiting her older sister, Florence Bixby (Aunt Polly). “Mother went to see Aunt Polly at the ranch and met my father. She played the piano, young ladies did in those days, but she was really very talented. She would cross San Francisco Bay on the ferry to give music lessons. I have a picture of her in my mind, standing on the ferry with a folder of music under her arm.” Howard and Leslie had six children: Elizabeth, Margaret, Harriet, Howard, Leslie and Teddy.

Aunt Polly had married Fred Bixby, a rancher who owned, among other things, the 28,000-acre Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach that is open to the public today. It is a dry, hardscrabble place on the outside, a few enormous and ancient trees and some wisteria offering respite from the heat. But inside the cool adobe walls are breezes that move through the house like cattle herded on the plains, the books passed from hand to hand, the sturdy Navajo rugs side by side with the finicky mementos--bric-a-brac and china that provided the only reminders of an East Coast heritage.

Some of Doerr’s fondest, clearest childhood memories are of large family gatherings at the ranch. Two annual parties stand out in particular: In summer, long tables were put out on the lawn and there was a picnic with horse riding and a hay jump in the barn (“you could jump from various heights, depending on how brave you were”). And on Christmas Eve, there would be a Punch and Judy show and a huge tree in the library, where the ranch workers would bring their children to receive presents chosen by Aunt Polly. “Uncle Fred was a rancher, body and soul,” Doerr remembers, “wore his spurs in the house and all. I suppose the Christmas Eve party was a little like Lady Bountiful in England, but it made everyone happy at the time. Now you’re supposed to give people the wherewithal to make their own Christmas for their own children.”

She shows me a photograph of three girls on a stuffed donkey, taken on the Long Beach pike in the mid-1910s. “Liz, the oldest, was the strongest-minded person I have ever met, and Margaret, one of the prettiest and funniest. We all argued a lot.” Another photo taken one summer at Lake Tahoe shows the girls with enormous bows perched on their heads. “We were all outspoken. We were encouraged to say what we thought, as long as we used good grammar. Our parents weren’t particularly conservative. Mother always took us to things--to hear Rachmaninoff in the old Philarmonic on Pershing Square, to the old Orpheum on South Spring Street, or was it Broadway --there I saw Houdini two times and Annette Kellerman (a famous swimmer) in a tank in a one-piece suit!”

“We had a nurse,” Doerr remembers, “named Edie Pink. She was Cockney and took care of all of us when we were small. We also had a tutor, Miss Hutchins, who came on the streetcar from Monrovia. She lived in an old white house surrounded by lemon and orange groves. She tutored me until I was in fourth grade, when I went to the Polytechnic Elementary School in Pasadena.”

Everyone connected with the house in Pasadena, Doerr muses, died of cancer, an astonishing fact in which she exhibits only the faintest interest. Over the years, Edie, Miss Hutchins, her parents and all five of Doerr’s siblings succumbed to various forms. But it was her father’s death, the first, in 1922, that she remembers most vividly. She was 11. “You feel so self-conscious going back to school after something like that happens. Everyone in assembly stares at you, I guess I’ve always hated that feeling. You are supposed to be different or special, and, of course, all you want is to be normal.”

The only thing Harriet Doerr seems to do even better than writing is remembering. She remembers choosing a Christmas tree from a flatbed wagon pulled by horses. She remembers how much better a drink tasted with a chip of ice than with a cube (“there’s something so fresh about a piece of ice”). She remembers the family car, a Locomobile, a thrilling thing with jump seats and isinglass. When it rained, you’d put up the glass on the sides.

“Efforts were made,” she remembers, “to teach my mother how to drive, but in a different car,” Doerr is nothing if not precise, “an Owen Magnetic. Two or three of us went along and worried tensely in the back seat. Somehow, we knew it would never happen. Sure enough, at the end of that day, it was back to the [Locomobile]. We used to drive all the way to Los Angeles on North Broadway. There never was any traffic in those days. Men went to work on streetcars; they’d stand on the corners reading the papers.”

“What happened?” she asks, looking suddenly straight at me--something she does, periodically, as though coming out of a trance, unable to make the leap to the more crowded, more polluted, harsher present tense.

*

Harriet Doerr met her future husband at a Christmas party in the house where all the girls were married. “There was no such thing as coming out, I’m happy to say!” He was a freshman at Stanford. “We ate supper on the stairs. Things weren’t very formal in those days. Is that why,” she asks, coming back to the present, “they were so much more fun, or do we forget the pain of it all?” She pauses for a moment, blinks, and then the present is gone again. “Anyway, for our first date, he took me to a prizefight at Wrigley Field. It was 1927, the summer I tried to smoke and failed. I did go with him, but I didn’t like it. There was a lot of blood. Al, of course, loved it. He was on the Stanford boxing team. I remember how it sounded with all those women screaming. I don’t understand women who scream at prizefights,” she says. “Is it a physical thing like sex? What is it?”

Doerr went off to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1927. The East Coast did not seem at all foreign to her, she insists, “but I was disheartened because it was so very cold. I lived on Green Street and Belmont in Northampton, right off the campus, in number 36. We ate at 12 Belmont Street, and I could walk down Green Street to Sage Hall, the music department, where I took piano lessons.”

“I was homesick,” she admits reluctantly.

In 1928, she returned to Pasadena, then went to Palo Alto, where Al Doerr, whom she would marry in 1930, was completing his engineering degree at Stanford University. In 1932, they moved into Harriet Doerr’s second favorite house, a grist mill in Pasadena that never succeeded because of the damp. It was built in 1810, in connection with the San Gabriel Mission, and the couple would often wake on weekend mornings to find painters with their easels set up outside the windows.

On Oct. 1, 1931, her son Mike, the first of her two children, was born. When asked about Mike’s battle with lung and brain cancer in the mid-1990s, Doerr does not answer. Instead, she tells a story. “Happiness comes and goes,” she says. “Physical surroundings are nothing but geography--adobe, plaster and geography. We inherited a Great Dane named King when we lived in the mill, a dog who bit several people--my sister, many delivery people, a baby-sitter--but fell in love with Mike. He followed him and protected that baby. When King would dig up bones and get down to chew them, Mike would chew them right next to him. Now why,” she looks up, “did I talk so long about King?”

After a pause she speaks again. “You know what the worst word in the English language is?” she asks me. “Closure!” She spits it out. “Is it a real word? As in, take care of the gate’s closure? It just smacks of something phony. A child dies. In the first three months, everyone is patting you. In the next three months you’re a little better, maybe you can smile. Next three months, lunch with old friends. Next three months, guess what? You meet an attractive man. And then? Closure! I feel like throwing up! If you’re a writer, you can’t have closure, not ever. If you kill any part of your memory, you’re doomed.”

*

When Doerr’s second child, Martha (who comes to visit frequently from her home in San Francisco) was born in 1935, the mill was too small, and the family moved to a rented house in San Marino. They had visited Mexico in 1935, when Doerr was pregnant with Martha, spending a week in Mexico City with Doerr’s husband’s family, who owned various mining properties. Doerr’s sister-in-law once tried to keep her from going into a kitchen that she felt was not clean enough for visitors, but Doerr was already discovering the strange and marvelous aspects of life in Mexico. The cook, for example, named Maria de Jesus, kept a parrot in a cage over the stove.

“All those little things became fixed,” she says. “It was wonderful to later put them on a page. Everything is important,” she says. “There is nothing that is not worth looking at for at least a second!”

Mexico became another home and the family went back frequently, sometimes for years at a time. Once, and this is probably the time the “Stones” is based on, they went back to look over a piece of property her husband’s father had left him. “It had huge trees and Indian people living on the property, as they had for centuries. My husband loved it . . . just getting there by car and bus and mule--there were no roads on the property. After my husband died, and El PRI discovered that Americans owned that land, they raised the taxes. So the family sold it to the government, exactly what shouldn’t have happened. Of course the trees were cut down and the Indians moved. It’s a sin, and I and my in-laws committed it. There are things you acquiesce to because there is no way out.

Do you have,” she asks me, “anything like that in your past?”

Doerr refers to three periods in her life as her happiest: summers spent in Del Mar when the children were small (“it was like being shut away in a shell”); when the family lived in Mexico, a period from which Doerr has drawn almost all of her published material, and when she went back to school at Stanford to discover that she could be a writer. Three years after Al’s death in 1972, her children had challenged her to finish her B.A. “I never expected to get anything published,” she says. “But it is wonderful to find something you can do. A thing that makes people say, ‘You’re pretty good.’ You know, all the good works, the things you kill yourself over that no one notices. You’re glad you did them but they don’t add up, they don’t last the way the things you’re really good at do.”

When we talk, we sit mostly in Doerr’s library, which is salmon colored, and lined with shelves of books. Videos are piled on the floor: “Out of Africa,” “Love in the Afternoon,” “Gigi,” “Roman Holiday.” Tables are piled with books: Ron Hansen (a fellow student at Stanford), E.L. Doctorow, Szymborska and Anatole Broyard, who reviewed “Stones for Ibarra” in the New York Times Book Review. Some days we venture into her kitchen with its yellow pantry and make lunch after her helper for the morning has left. We make vichyssoise from a can and eat it at the kitchen table. She cuts a few chives and we sprinkle them on top. For dessert we have strawberries.

One of Doerr’s great strengths as a writer is the way she uses details. “A great deal comes from a very small thing if you see it in a certain light and you leave yourself open,” she says. “E.L. Doctorow came to speak at Stanford and he told a story about how he set up his typewriter to face a blank wall. He wrote on a regular schedule, whether he had anything in mind or not. One day, after 45 minutes staring at the wall, he wrote on the page, ‘wall, room, house,’ then the date the house was built, and from there ‘Ragtime’ unfolded.

“I don’t understand it, but everything seems so terribly important to me. I’ll kill myself this way. I remember where we stopped on various roads to have a sandwich. I remember two dogs I hit in the car in Mexico. You get used to things tearing you apart, even though you think you never will. You may not like it, you may lay awake at night, but you develop, over the centuries, a range of what’s important. Mexico helped me see that. So often, it’s a matter of eating, of finding a job.”

One of Doerr’s favorite things in the world is baseball, and she refers to her favorite announcer, Vin Scully with a messianic zeal that I am more than a little familiar with, since my husband placed a transistor radio under our son’s pillow when he was all of 14 months so that he could hear Vin Scully’s voice. “It’s more soothing than a lullaby,” says Doerr. “His voice has not changed a bit over decades. It’s like a great miracle! Talk about timing. He’ll bring things in, Shakespeare, whatever, and then without missing a beat, he’ll be back in the game. Besides, no one can pronounce ‘gone’ the way he can.” She recalls several historic plays for me with the same precision she devotes to landscape.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this,” she says one day. It is clearly something that she has been saving to tell me, as if to offer me hope that she can, and will, write the stories about her childhood. “I wake up in the morning thinking about things. I almost always see a picture of a way to get somewhere. Instead of seeing the house first, I’ll see the road. I’m trying to figure out a way to say that in the end this is a sort of process . . . a long series of arrivals at places.

“Of course, the place is the main thing--the house, the school, the village--but I always see the way there first, perhaps because of all the trips and because I am so tired. I see different places along the road as if they were here in Pasadena. I see fences made out of tin cans, things I didn’t pay much attention to at the time; one ranch under a very tall mountain on the way to Chihuahua with trees around it. Why that ranch house with all those trees? You don’t see the ranch even, you see the tall mountain, which is beautiful on a rainy day with clouds. I can’t figure out why those people built that house and why they live there so far from everything else.”

As she strains to see into the lives of the people who lived there, she is drawn back repeatedly to the landscape. “Behind it all,” she puzzles, “looms this high, high mountain.”


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