The snapshots that survived
My FAMILY’S FIRST CALIFORNIA HOME WAS A
mental institution, so I never found it odd that our next one was a madhouse. Our parents purchased 1788 Belmont Lane 45 years ago, and my brother, Tim, was still living there two weekends back, when an avalanche of fire cascaded down from the hills.
Now he and I stand, arms over each other’s shoulders, gazing into blazing rubble that includes my late father’s legacy -- a house and garage, an add-on library and two storage sheds full of his beloved books, including hundreds of signed first editions.
Emotion roars through me with the force of the eight-foot flame spurting from the gas line that until that afternoon had fed the kitchen stove. But the emotion isn’t sadness. And it isn’t fear. “What is this I’m feeling,” I wonder? The wind’s howl offers this nonsensical hint: “Don’t let the rag bag sag.”
We’d moved to San Bernardino from Chicago in the late ‘50s so that my mother could help care for my grandmother, who was getting senile. My Aunt Ethel was a psychiatrist at Patton State Hospital, and for our first year we lived in her state-subsidized residence on the grounds of the legendary mental institution, with her brother Buzz, a sweet man when he wasn’t drinking; my grandmother; and however many other squabbling aunts, uncles and cousins needed a place to stay.
My parents were grateful for the arrangement, but relieved to move into our own home a few miles away on an acre of land shaded by 54 olive trees in the foothills that flowed out of the San Bernardino Mountains.
The house was a yellow stucco box with a concrete tile roof and 800 square feet of living space. A few of my friends had pantries bigger than our kitchen -- which, like the garage, doubled as a bedroom whenever our household swelled with “strays” as my mother called the wounded creatures, animal and human, she took in.
Sometimes all this embarrassed me. For the most part, though, I saw my parents’ generosity as a given. My brother, sister Laurie and I adopted my father’s devotion to the homestead and were calmed by the peace he found pounding nails into whitewashed fencing and building bookshelves that he never stopped filling.
My mother shared my dad’s love of books and words, but not his full affection for the tiny house. A fiery city girl stalked by anxieties and loneliness, she adapted by pouring out such love that some people flocked and others fled.
“It takes a heap of living to make a house a home,” she told us often. “Treat family as friends and friends as family,” she preached.
Our doors were never locked and only Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked -- then they too were invited in. Others burst in at any hour, grabbed a plate of mom’s spaghetti or Dad’s soup and settled in to argue politics or tell stories over the hi-fi and TV, which often blared simultaneously.
In a house that small, a living room is truly that. Bodies, ideas and emotions collide and rub off. As an adolescent I sometimes found it claustrophobic and I’d step out onto the dark driveway and watch the glow of muted chaos through the big picture window.
The night the house burns, I stand on the same spot.
With only the chimney and hearth standing, the collapsed structure blazes within the concrete foundation, flat as a stage. Upon it, my mind projects a chronological jumble of scenes.
It’s the ‘60s, and miles away. Watts is on fire. Brad, a burly black man who works for the county with my dad, watches the rage on our black-and-white TV and shouts: “Burn, baby, burn.”
It’s Thanksgiving and, as always, we push a hodgepodge of tables together and cover them with a linen tablecloth. Gathered around the turkey are neighbors, our long-haired high school friends -- whom my mother, as always, browbeats into wearing ties -- our psychiatrist aunt and Uncle Buzz, who gets drunk, bellows slurs and knocks over my mother’s china as she chases him out the door.
It’s a summer night, and the usual multiethnic, multigenerational mix swarms the room. Mom scoots around the room, petting dogs and cats and dishing hugs or gentle swats to children and adults as she sees fit. Dad cracks jokes and reads aloud from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
It’s Christmas. A young man’s car has somersaulted down the nearby mountains, pounding my brother’s head and body so severely the doctors don’t offer much hope. The hospital bed won’t fit in the bedroom, so our parents set it up against the hearth. The day Tim regains consciousness, someone slips a Groucho Marx nose and glasses on his surgery-scarred face.
It’s the night of my mother’s funeral. Friends play guitars and my daughters, the youngest still in diapers, dart through our legs as my dad’s brother Jim tells stories of my mother and father’s ebullient youth, reducing us all to teary laughter.
It’s a weeknight, just a year ago, and the front door flies open. In stomps Brad, still burly and raging with life. He has gone on to become a cardiologist. He lives in Lompoc now and works a couple of days a week in Los Angeles. Often when he finishes his shift, he drives to San Bernardino, sits watching a quarter or two of a Laker game in our living room, then makes the four- or five-hour drive home.
Dad’s in a hospital bed in the living room now and this evening he can barely raise his lips into his signature goofball smile. Brad takes his hand and talks to him, telling him stories I’ve heard a hundred times. “Remember when your dog chewed up your duck, and that crazy wife of yours took him to the vet? Cost you $50. That was a fortune back then, man! And every night for months that woman put that damn duck’s leg in a whirlpool. Therapy! A duck!”
Brad’s booming laugh fills the room. My teenage son laughs too.
It’s the year we move in, and my mother baby-sits her mother, whom Alzheimer’s has turned into a frightened child. “I want to go hoooomee!” she shrieks, terrifying a buddy who’s come by to play. Only my father can amuse Grandma. This time he evokes giggles by jiggling a sack of sewing scraps and crooning: “It’s the rag bag, don’t let the rag bag sag.”
I can still hear it the night I stare into the flames through a window that is no longer physically there. Out in the orange-tinted darkness, neighbors’ walls collapse and propane tanks explode. But I’m calm, and at last I know what I’m feeling, breathing smoke that pours from the works of Roald Dahl and John Milton and Dante Alighieri.
I feel blessed.
Bob Sipchen is the editor of the Outdoors section.