On Such a Winter’s Day

El Cajon winter is green, practically florid—that is, if you manage to make it past second street. The cactus are making little red fruits and my Grandma (Ruth’s) Dehesa house garden is overgrown with weeds and narcissus and low hanging citrus. Her large, yellow-eyed cat perches on the back of the chair I’m sitting in. The location of the windows in the house is just so that sunlight gets in, but never enough to heat the tile floor. Well, that’s the problem when you design your own house, says Pete, my Grandma’s husband. You are forced to live with your own mistakes.

“This used to be a nice place to live,” I’ve heard people say about El Cajon. Nowadays, the southeastern San Diego County city is more like the the place where young Hell’s Angels come to make trouble and old Hell’s Angels go to die. The tattooed young men in wife-beaters and the pink-haired obese woman on the adult tricycle with a twelve pack in the back basket waiting to cross at the light are not at all out of place. El Cajon, in all its seedy glory, is nonetheless the setting of my personal myth. It’s where my Mom rode horses and my Dad rode dirtbikes as pesky teenagers in the days before cellphones or seatbelts. It’s the place and time that they both somehow managed to make it out of, alive.

My Grandma (Ann’s) property, just a few miles from the Dehesa house on Lippizan Way was the rural indulgence of my childhood. The yard was where my mom kept her horse as a teenager, and where I, as a child, climbed orange trees. On any given summer weekend I could be found in that back yard stupidly daring my even stupider cousin to hoist himself higher amongst the rotting rafters of the dilapidated, lead-painted barn, or trying to convince the steadfast Palomino grazing the neighbor’s corral to stick his head over our side of the fence. The long, sloping driveway leading up to the house is where I remember, very clearly, being let go (without training wheels) on my pink Barbie bike for the very first time. The walls of the house’s interior were covered with my Grandma’s paintings, and the sun-flooded art studio—where I got lessons in oil painting—was decked in the work of her students. The house smelled wonderfully like wood and oil and books, and the cabinet doors in the kitchen opened and closed mockingly by themselves.

The house is now rented to someone else. The last time I saw it was from the side-mirror of a 21-foot Northbound U-Haul, packed solid with 40 years worth of treasures and accumulations—material and otherwise.  I want to drive by the Lippizan house again, now three years later, but I can’t seem to find it in the foothills. It is almost as if it has vanished in a strange hiccup between eras, and is now languishing—it’s garden overgrown—somewhere in the golden but corrosive light of memory. I drive around for a while in circles, all the while sensing that I must be close, before giving up and finding the Northbound freeway again.

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