Aug 14, 2003

SOLD: 3110 Country Club Drive

My mother sold her house. It was time. She can't live by herself any more. Being around my sister, her husband and four kids will give Mom some purpose. She's been a widow for nearly three years, the loneliness of the house got to her.

Escrow closes this coming Monday. We packed up her things: that is, everything she wanted to keep. The Franciscan dinnerware, the silver. The photographs. She left the couch, the china cabinet, and the oversized TV my father bought and she hated. My brother-in-law got all of her things into a U-Haul and drove it away. Mom left the next day. I wasn't when she rode off in my sister's mini van, but my brother said it was weird, watching her drive away from her home for the last time.

And after this weekend, we will all drive away for the last time. The estate sale guys are there now, arranging the stuff we left behind, bringing in leftovers from other estate sales and arranging it all into them into different "boutique areas," as they call it. Anything to make a moving sale look good. They don't want us there for the sale. I don't want to be there. I don't want to watch strangers pick over our things, things that aren't ours that the estate sale farms in.

And I don't want to hear their comments.
"What kind of estate sale is this? Where's the good stuff?"
"This place is a dump."
"Who died?"
"Look at the size of that TV. She must have been lonely."

It's creepy hearing it called an estate sale. No one died. Well something did. My childhood died. It's the only house I've ever known.

In 1967 my family moved to Costa Mesa, a bedroom community wedged between the 405, Newport and Huntington Beaches. There's also Santa Ana to the northeast, but Orange Countians try not to think about the Mexicans in Santa Ana. Back then, Orange County was only orange groves and lima bean fields. Dad was an optometrist, and he got a practice in South Coast Plaza. South Coast Plaza was just a May Company, Sears, a Woolworth. Today the mall has its own zip code and is Mecca for the compulsive shopper. It ate up the area two miles in every direction. There are no more lima beans or oranges. Just gridlines of houses filled with people living out lives of quiet desperation.

Our house was nothing spectacular. A middle class tract home, on 3110 Country Club Drive. It sounds like an exclusive address, but our house was on the side of the street that didn't back into the golf course. People knew that.

I remember the night we arrived. The moving van was delayed by a day, so the place was empty. We had no beds to sleep on. Dad brought Nancy and me to our room and I had to sleep on the worn-out cream-colored shag carpet that felt like a cheap stuffed animal When I go down next weekend for the final walk through, the house will look just like it did the night we arrived. Empty.

We weren't supposed to stay in that house. It was supposed to be a starter home. Dad promised my mom in a year we would get a nicer place, on the golf course. Dad had invested a lot of his money in the stock market. We were moving up in the world. The summer of 1968 we put the for-sale sign out. My neighborhood friends wondered where we were going. Across the street to a golf course house, we said.

I was only four, so I was in school only half a day. I went with my mom to various open houses. Houses on the golf course. Houses with fenced in front yards and back yards that looked out over a fairway. Houses with sunken bathtubs and round couches and foil wallpaper; refrigerators built into the cupboards and intercoms and the kinds of things you saw in Disneyland's Carousel of Progress. I knew the houses were rich because they were cold. So were the people who lived in them.

One evening, Dad came home. Mom was chopping vegetables on the cutting board. She wouldn't turn around to look at him. The for-sale sign came down. We never did move out and we never moved beyond the middle class. Many years later I found out what happened. Dad lost a quarter million dollars in the stock market. Dad felt God punished him because he had watched a "stag film." There were a lot worse things he did, but Dad never realized they were worse than watching a stag film. He never understood that his own children weren't satellites of his own ego cluster to manipulate, control and criticize into submission.

It was a stable home, geographically at least. Same house for 37 years. Parents married for 53 years My dad died 3 days short of his 79th birthday and Mom is still alive at 80. Mom went to the same church up to the day she drove away. Contrast that to an ex-boyfriend who moved 12 times before he was 11, whose father died suddenly at 14, who had to raise himself on alcohol, adrenaline and anger and was kicked out at age 18. So I guess I'm lucky. Geographically.

One of my brothers never fully moved out until last week. He has his own apartment, but the "boy's room" was his personal garage. He stored old camping gear, bike jerseys, a pair of clogs, remnants of various hobbies he's dabbled in. Pipe smoking, wine tasting, a pennywhistle collection, a plethora of Christian self-help books. And boxes. Boxes filled with yellowing copies of the Pennysaver, bank stubs, flyers for earthenware mugs, all of it pre-Regan era. When he finally got all his stuff out, he said he felt like he'd had a colonic.

I was at the house last week while we were packing. It was hard to visualize the place as it had been. But I tried to conjure up a memory from each room.

The Living Room
That's where we celebrated Christmas. Mom recalled the 37 years of opening presents and holiday gatherings. It's also my father crapped out every night. He'd come, eat Mom's food and push his plate away for her to clear. Then he'd sack out on the couch all night and curse Wall Street Week in Review or the Pittsburgh Steelers. He'd lie there half awake as the TV blared. I'd go to turn it down or off, but he woke up and turned it back on. I spent my entire teen years hating TV. I missed major cultural events like MASH, Dukes of Hazard, Laverne and Shirley and Dallas. I guess that's not a bad thing.

The living room is also where I got grounded for three weeks. Which lasted three days. It was the summer between my junior and senior year, and I had met a great group of friends in drama. I didn't drink or smoke, and I was 3/4 of my way toward becoming Valedictorian and a virgin. My parents knew I had been out every night hanging with friends. But why was this night more important than all other nights? Dad decided to wake up out of his TV induced coma and exercise his 11th hour rage discipline. So they waited up for me.
"You'll come to no good," dad predicted. "I knew we never should have let you skip half-day kindergarten. You're irresponsible and immature."
"I was four years old."
"And look what happened."
"I've got a 4.0. GPA."
"And a C in PE."
"PE doesn't count. And since when did you give a shit?!"
My mother cried and tried to find a solution."Why don't you bring your friends over here?"
"Because I don't want them to see Dad asleep on the couch!"

The back room
It had been a patio but was enclosed before we moved in. I listened to Sgt. Pepper for the first time on the record player back there. We also had a TV in the back room. One night Nancy ran from the living room to the back room to tell us what channel The Flintstones was on. She ran through the plate glass window and gashed open her right leg. A fire truck and an ambulance came. A policeman tried to put me in my room but I came back out, screaming and crying. Nancy severed the main motor nerve in her leg and had to be put in a cast for a few months. We put decals on the glass doors. A couple of years ago they were no longer moveable so Mom had the glass doors removed.

The Kitchen
Not long after we moved in Mom replaced the space age wallpaper with a cheery orange and white wallpaper with nasturtium print. She painted the cupboards cream with orange trim. I remember especially because I have a photo of it. It was Mom and Dad's 24th wedding anniversary. Dad didn't take mom out on dates. But he did for her anniversary, and I baked my first cake. Yellow cake with mocha frosting. It was great. I still have the photo of it.

The kitchen came to be what most kitchens are, the hub of activity. It's been the site of extended family meals, domino games, a place to do the bills my mother neglected after her stroke. The best view in the house was from the kitchen window. You could look out at the front garden my mother managed so well, the western sun setting over eucalyptus trees and the more expensvie houses on the golf course. It also became a place of sadness, as mother removed one leaf in the table and then another, until the table became a small circle where she ate microwave dinners and cans of soup. She didin't like cooking for herself, and after her stroke she had a hard time remembering how.

The hallway
When I was a kid I had stuffed animals. But by my fourth Christmas I asked for "a cat that moved by itself." That was Bootsy. She later gave birth to kittens in the linen closet. It left a faint smell. Not putrid, but a sweet stale smell of blood and dust and life. When we were unpacking the linen closet last week I swear I smelled it again. Blood and dust and life. I think the whole house is filled with blood and dust and life.

The back yard
When I was six we replaced the living room vinyl pull out couch with a sofa and love seat, which my mother recovered. The vinyl couch went out to the back yard. We got on the roof of the back room and jumped onto the unfolded couch. It's amazing we survived.

There was a rubber tree outside the back door. I loved climbing up climbing the tree, as much as I loved climbing on the roof and jumping off. Its roots eventually pushed up the cement and it became difficult to close and open the door. One day I was trying to shut the door and cursed, "dammit." I think I was five
My mom came rushing out and spanked me silly.
I cried, terrified and upset. "Why did you do that?"
"Because you said 'dammit'."
"Dad says it when he watches football."
My mom dropped my arm, went into the house and cried.

My favorite pets are buried in our back yard. When I was in third grade my mom got me a kitten for my birthday. Bootsy and her prodigy had long been given away or killed crossing the street. But this kitten, Tig, lived until a week before I went to college. He was my best friend. Tig turned out to be kind of a legend. He was huge, 16 pounds. Noble and shy, like a tragic hero. Everyone loved Tig. He wasn't like other cats. He came when you called him. He loved people. He guarded the house and neighborhood with great pride. And he was sensitive too. There were so many days I came home from Lutheran private school, bullied by the resident psycho. Fourth fifth and sixth grade I endured the terror. My mother was too frightened to stand up for me, but my cat did. I would climb up on my bunk bed to find solace. Tig would jump up onto the windowsill and then leap up to my bunk, burrow his face into my side and purr. I don't know, I think God must have known what was coming, and brought that cat into my life to help me through.

The summer before college, I was out spending most days with my boyfriend. I didn't notice Tig losing weight, but my sister was gone all summer and noticed when she got back. Turned out he was riddled with cancer. He died the week before college started. Maybe I had abandoned him for my boyfriend and Tig died of a broken heart. Tig was 12 years old.

The family dog is also buried in the back yard. Last week my oldest brother Rob dug to find the bones. He wanted to take him somewhere to be cremated. He didn't have much of a childhood he wanted to remember. He didn't talk to my parents for six years. In my father's dying days he would ask us in a morphine fog if Rob was coming. We just said, no he's not here yet. On the day of my father's funeral, Rob finally called my mom. She cried, but not for her husband. Rob never found the dog's bones.

The Bedroom
A lot of stuff happened in there: Barbie campouts, Parcheesi, and stuffed animal conventions. I remember going to sleep, looking at the Christmas lights outside. Each light cast a color into the area partitioned between each eave. It was like a row of colored light boxes and it made the season magical.

I also remember saying my prayers before I went to sleep as a child. Or the night I lost my virginity as a teenager and then finding out the guy was cheating on me. I remember praying to Jesus to hold onto me because I didn't want to live anymore. I remember how dark that bedroom felt back then.

The summer my father died.
I had just begun to date this guy. The relationship moved fast and I was worried he's lose interest just as quickly. But he drove all the way down from LA to meet my Mom and Dad. He brought flowers. I made him a peach pie for his birthday. My father was bedridden, so I ushered the guy into my father's room. Dad said hello and asked where the guy was from. He said the east coast. Dad chimed in, he was born in Pittsburgh but his mother took the family out west for the community colleges. Dad said that California weather was the best in the country. We stood there a while in silence. Dad couldn't talk much. The guy and I went to the kitchen to make Norwegian cookies with my mother. Later we went down to the Balboa Arcade and took some of those black and white photo strips. Later he showed the photos to his sister who beamed, "you guys are gonna get married, I can tell."

Dad died a few months later. The guy and I used to look back at those moments as signs we were made for each other. We were both Norwegian. He was the last boyfriend to meet my father. The weekend of Dad's funeral, one of the guy's east coast friends happened to be house sitting six houses away. All those signs. And they started with that day he came down to visit my dying father.

I can still see the guy standing in the summer light, listening patiently to my father's slurred speech. Three years later the guy changed his mind. I wasn't "The One," after all. I was just "the first one." His first adult relationship. Like I'm a set of training wheels. All those signs feel like lies now. Or a truth he stopped believing in.

The Entry Hall
Mom repapered the entry hall not long after we moved in. Got rid of that foil water spot look that was a too Beverly Hillbillies. When she papered again back in 1995, they peeled off the1968 paper. There on the paperless walls lay all sorts of childish drawings and scrawls. My name in wobbly cursive. SUSIE with the E backwards. A stick figure cat named BOOTSY. It was like I was like uncovering a lost memory, unearthing your own hieroglyphics. I was standing outside time, looking at my whole life in the present.

I'm going down to the house on Sunday. The estate sale will be over. My brother, brother-in-law and I will do the final walk through. The house will be totally empty then. I wonder if some shadow of my self will rush through like a ghost and pull me back into some event I have forgotten.

A house is just a house. The real life is in the people who lived there. But I will no longer be able to see and touch and smell the life that was lived in it. I will have to rely on memory and photographs, of the blood and dust and life lived there.

So long, 3110. Take good care of the bones that remain.

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