Lisbeth Davidow’s work has appeared in print and online in Alligator Juniper, All That Glitters, Helix Literary Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Mandala Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Pilgrimage, Prime Mincer, Revolution House, Sliver of Stone, and Spittoon. Essays of hers have been finalists in Alligator Juniper’s National Creative Non-fiction contest, The Southeast Review’s Narrative Nonfiction Contest, All Write Now’s Conference Contest, and nominated to be included in Best of Creative Nonfiction, Volume II.
You Have to Get over the Color Green
“I’m not impressed,” Camilla says, bending over my azaleas. Then she stands and tells me that she wants to replace them with drought tolerant plants that have names I’ve never heard of like she’s asking me to invite perfect strangers into my house. But since she’s our newly hired garden designer, and I want to appear open, I only nod. However, when she says we’ll have to kill the small patches of lawn in the front and side of the house, I put my hand over my heart. “Giving up grass won’t be easy,” I say.
“I understand,” she says while we walk back into my kitchen. “Lawns have been associated with well-being for centuries; but Los Angeles doesn’t have the rain to support them, especially now. We’ll put mulch down instead. You’ll see–you’ll love mulch.”
I don’t know how I’ll feel about mulch, but I get her point: The “catastrophic” drought has reached its fourth year. Evergreens are turning red and dying by the thousands. Farmlands lie fallow. Water suppliers are imposing water restrictions. Giving up grass will be an act of responsibility and of long-delayed acclimation. I acquiesce.
I’ve been living in Los Angeles for over thirty years, and I still haven’t adjusted to its lack of lilacs. Along with forsythias, they were the only flowers in my childhood backyard in Massachusetts. My mother spent too much time in our unfinished basement, scrubbing clothes against a washboard and then hanging them up to dry to care about growing things from the hard strip of soil along the fence separating our yard from our neighbor’s. For her, as it would have been for me, had I not coveted Mrs. Epstein’s roses across the street, it was enough that we had our own house. Whatever grew around it– the lilacs, forsythias, maple trees and grass–did so nurtured only by our benign neglect and by the suns and rains of New England. Perhaps that is why the lilacs, with their deep color and heavenly smell, even more than the yellow forsythias, were such a miracle every April. If my memory serves me right, and it will have to since my mother is no longer here to compare hers with mine, we had both purple and white lilacs. But it is only the purple ones that I remember cutting and bringing into the house to place in a vase on the kitchen table so that their perfume could fill the room.
“We’ll be bi-coastal,” Miles had said. We were still living in separate apartments in New York when he started taking trips to L.A. to search for financiers for an independent movie he hoped to make. “It’s sixty-five degrees here and sunny,” he said over the phone with a thrill in his voice one freezing New York February evening. Even though my fifth floor walk-up on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue had no heat because, as the landlord claimed on many Fridays, the oil company “forgot” to deliver the oil, I didn’t care about nice houses or sunny weather. I was a modern dancer, running between part-time jobs, classes and rehearsals, smitten by the art form and the no frills life style of the wiry men and women who looked good in schmatas, the only clothing they could afford.
“I found an apartment in Venice you’re going to love,” he said on his last trip. “It’s right near the boardwalk. It’s like St. Mark’s on the beach.” So we stuffed our belongings into a drive-away Volvo station wagon and drove from New York to Los Angeles the following summer. Nothing on the Venice Boardwalk compared to the Gem Spa, the newsstand/candy store directly below my apartment that was famous for its egg creams. Nor did the roller skaters and muscle shirted basketball players bare any resemblance to the green-haired punks that had just started to move into the East Village. This was an alien land with eternal sunshine, tall, scrawny palm trees, endless freeways and bodies made hard not to become instruments to a higher calling like dance, but to attract a mate or a part in a movie or some status that their toned arms could grant them.
After living in Venice for six months, we moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. I got a job teaching dance at U.C. Riverside, 90 minutes away. A huge maple tree outside the dance studio’s windows offered consolation for the long commute, even though its leaves never turned brilliant red or yellow, only tepid rust. On my days off, I’d walk the few blocks to the dance studio in downtown Santa Monica where I rehearsed, grateful for the sun on my chest in February, but bereft at how few other pedestrians there were, just shrubs and “bottle brush” trees with red flowers that looked like something one could use to wash a glass or a toilet bowl.
When we decided to have a baby, we moved to a cube-shaped, two-story 1300 square foot house in Marina del Rey. The day we found it, I looked out the second story window at a blooming jacaranda tree in the front yard. Its flowers weren’t as curly as lilacs, but they were pretty enough to inspire the fantasy of sitting in a rocking chair with my new baby while I gazed out at them.
But shortly after I gave birth to my daughter, Hana, I felt lonely and isolated in the small boxy house. I had no family in L.A; and having stopped dancing, I was no longer part of the dance community. The house was only a mile from the beach, but it was also near Washington and Lincoln Boulevards with their strip malls, fast food joints, restaurants and car dealerships sprawled beneath the flat, Southern California light. What am I doing here? I’d think while I wheeled Hana around, pining for the leafy city of my childhood.
“I’ve found something,” Miles said a decade later when we decided to move to a somewhat bigger house. “I want you to see it.” The house was in a development of California Ranch style houses built in the 60’s. It had a Mexican Palm tree on the front lawn. Chunky brown and beige flagstone trim adorned the outside and surrounded the living room’s fireplace, about which, Hana, who was 11 by then, said, “That has got to go. It looks like the Brady Bunch lives here.” But the view of the Pacific Ocean from the back patio won me over so completely that I lay in fetal position for the rest of the weekend, praying that our offer would be accepted.
Once we bought it, I said to Miles, “Now I can live in L.A.” We’d been here 18 years.
And yet, after a while, even the ocean out back and the mountains out our kitchen window couldn’t find their way as deeply into my heart as buds of maple trees in the early spring or austere branches against a winter sky. Such is the pull of our first landscape, like the pull of a mother’s embrace. Wallace Stegner wrote in an essay about the beauty of the West, “You have to get over the color green. You have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns.” But even he had trouble adapting to a foreign landscape. He grew up in Montana, spent his adolescence in Salt Lake City and later taught at Harvard. He was so miserable in Cambridge that he left as soon as he could for a job at Stanford in Northern California. Maybe we can’t decide where we feel at home any more than we can decide whom to love.
The gardeners have torn out the grass, the juniper hedges and the jungle of bougainvillea in back. They’ve left the Mexican Palm in front which has five trunks and a few smaller ones that are sprouting from the middle. Miles wants to take out the smaller trunks to have a cleaner look, but I disagree. Those little trunks look like children to me. Together with the taller palms, they are a family. I put my foot down about this. Killing them seems like a crime.
“How is your daughter?” José, a master carpenter, is standing at the back of the house, looking up at the roof. He worked on the interior remodel 15 years earlier.
“You remember her? She’s fine. She’s living in New York.”
Hana fled Los Angeles as soon as she graduated from high school. She went to college in Berkeley and then moved to New York, which she now considers her home. Although she enjoys the warm weather and the beach when she visits us, she gets restless after a couple of days.
“Yes, I remember,” José says, his eyes still on our roof. “You haven’t done a thing to this house since then. Those eaves are rotting.”
“That’s why you’re here,” I say, and it is. We’re finally doing something about the rotten eaves, the filthy, peeling stucco and the cracked concrete. We considered covering the stucco with clapboard, like my childhood home, or Cape Cod shingles, like our neighbors’ house next door; but in the end, we decided that there was no use pretending that we live in anything but a California Ranch and chose smooth trowel stucco the color of desert sand. Travertine pavers from Turkey will replace the concrete. I like the idea of having stone from a civilization older than New England’s even though I don’t like thinking about the fuel it takes to bring it to Los Angeles.
The smell of manure wafts inside the house. They’re preparing the soil now, digging it up, getting rid of stones, twigs and the remaining plants, making the dirt browner and moister. Plants with Latin names arrive in pots of quarts and gallons and wait on the ground like immigrants at a port of entry. My favorite is the exotic Grevillea Superba with its long, coral, spidery flowers. It originated in Australia and usually does well in California. So I’m crushed when it doesn’t survive the transplant from the pot to soil and goes into shock, shriveling into a light brown collection of twigs and rigid leaves. The gardeners tell me that its root ball got “molested” during the transplant. That sounds terrible. I order another one to be planted between the lemon and orange trees I’ve insisted on having in the hopes that eating fruit from a tree in my yard will connect me to the land in which it grows.
Roses will climb the picket fence that separates us from the “Cape Cod” next door as will a San Diego Bougainvillea and a Boston Ivy, which I chose for its name alone, the same reason I wear a Red Sox hat on my morning walk. One of the gardeners warns me that the Bougainvillea and the ivy will compete for sunlight, that the Bougainvillea will spread much faster and throw the Boston Ivy into too much shade for it to grow. I tell him to do what he can. Camilla says that the ivy will turn red in the fall. Seeing that alongside the bright pink Bougainvillea would be the closest I’ve ever come to being bi-coastal.
I have one last request: Even though I know the answer, I ask Camilla if I can have a lilac tree.
“Sorry,” she says. “But it doesn’t get cold enough here.”
I recall a tree with purple flowers that I’ve spotted on my way home from Santa Monica. One day I wind my way down through the canyon past the trees with purple flowers, park on a side street, walk up to the trees and look. Camilla’s right. Whatever they are, they aren’t lilacs.
Would I be willing to endure frigid temperatures and endless snowfall just to see lilacs bloom for a couple of weeks? I remember snowstorms being exciting when I was a kid. The snowdrifts in the backyard looked like huge, sugar mounds. My brother, who lives in Boston, where they’re enduring the snowiest winter on record, quickly dispels my fantasy. “There’s nothing exciting about this,” he says, his voice grave. “It’s only anxiety producing. The snow in the backyard is taller than I am; and it’s so heavy, parts of our roof have caved in.”
Hana complains about the cold in New York, too. “I don’t know how many more winters I can take,” she says, her voice cracking, and not from static. “I’m not cut out for this.”
“Where would you go?”
“California, I guess.”
She would come home? I’ve been assuming that she would live her adult life in New York, as though it were a retribution for my living mine 3000 miles away from my mother. Do I dare fantasize about meeting her for dinner at a restaurant in Echo Park, or having her over for Sunday dinner, or maybe someday, feeding her child an orange from my tree?
“It wouldn’t be for a couple of years,” she says, as though she’s reading my mind. “And you’d have to do something about the water problem.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say. And we both laugh although there’s nothing funny about it.
Until things improve, maybe she’s better staying off in New York where she doesn’t have to feel anxious or guilty every time she takes a shower or flushes the toilet. It pains me that California may become so inhospitably dry that it could keep her from me. I picture the two of us leaning towards each other across a map of the United States, our arms extended in sorrow above the Great Plains.
Once spring finally arrives, Hana’s natural enthusiasm returns to her voice. She bought a new bike, she tells me; and she loves being outside now. A friend in New Jersey emails me a picture of the buds just forming on her maple trees. I notice a yellow shrub behind them and I write back, asking if it’s a forsythia tree. “Yes,” she writes. “It is.” And then she sends me a picture of lilacs that her husband cut, put in a vase and set on their dining table. “They smell delicious,” she writes, and I wish there were a way to convey smell digitally.
It’s getting warmer here, too. I’m savoring these last comfortable days before it gets too hot. I lie on the patio this morning, directly on the stone, letting my palms graze the pitted tiles, recalling when I was four, huddled near the stone foundation of our house where the sun hit the mica and made it gleaming and warm to the touch. I’d lean unseen on it, like a Harlow monkey, gathering its warmth into my body while my mother was inside, doing the chores that prevented her from planting flowers or from seeing what her little girl might be up to.
Miles is drinking coffee in the kitchen and reading the paper, as absorbed by the news as my mother was by her chores. Unlike his mother, who used to say when she’d visit us from New York, “Why would anyone want to live here?” he’s content here. Unlike me, he always has been. When we first moved here, I’d say to him, “I don’t know what I’d do here without you. But then again, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.” I yell to him now to come outside. He interrupts his reading to join me on this sunny patio in front of the bright orange African Honeysuckle, not far from where this western edge of land meets the ocean, and the ocean meets the sky. If I could, I’d take a bite out of what I see. And then I’d turn the blue above us to grey and thicken these delicate clouds with rain.