California, here I come, right back where I started from

 


I was a Californian before I was born. My mother was raised in Long Beach and attended Scripps College in Claremont.  She became an East Coaster through her Danforth Scholarship and wound up getting her Master's at Columbia while my father was at the Law School.  My parents were married in 1958 in the back garden of my Grandparents' house. California was that back garden in my mind with fragrant gardenias and putting green worthy turf.  I remember waking up for breakfast at my grandparents' and running out the back door to pick oranges from the tree to slice in half and grind down into juice on the electric reamer.  I never had orange juice that wasn't frozen in a can and defrosted into an old glass milk jug.  This was magic - like a dream.If you lied on the grass it would cradle you like a bed of moss, hearing mourning doves in the trees.  We didn't visit from New York often, but I can recall every moment  in Nana's garden.

 

The last time I thought about the glory of the garden, my father had just died. My mother's brother Kerry was finishing up my grandparents' estate, and the last of the contents were cleared from the house at the first address I memorized aside from my own.  My mother flew out to California and was loading up my grandmother's Buick Regal with a Uhaul trailer behind it to drive back to the East Coast. I flew almost directly after my father's service to meet my mom and my Uncle Kerry's house in Newport Beach, and the bereavement time I was given from work was the span of my road trip with my mom in the back seat of the Buick as far as Albuquerque.  We stopped at the Grand Canyon and watched the sunrise.  I brought my trusty box camera.

My mother and I planned a trip to Newport Beach to visit my uncle and Aunt Elke, as well as my cousins who live nearby.  We also have a flight to San Francisco to visit my brother in Menlo Park, a tony suburb in Silicon Valley.  We land at Orange County airport and head up the hill to a neighborhood called Newport Coast.  The air is warm and dry, very different from the East Coast August humidity.  We get the breeze from the ocean up the hill.  My mom and I get settled in and I explore the house.  My Aunt Elka makes Martha Stewart look like a slob.  The house looks like it's staged.  She keeps order.  She's very detailed.  It's in her DNA.  She's German.  She never got California Casual.  She don't take no mess either.  We've always gotten along well and she's been the most supportive of all my family members of my writing.  Even during college, when I started the tradition of my annual Christmas letter, she sent me books about writers.  It even struck me then that I received these from my aunt in California, and not my immediate family,

First meal is Mexican Food, which is one of the reasons why California exists in the first place.  It was the one thing California had that we didn't growing up.  I still find the East Coast Mexican food abysmal.  I was ruined by having one foot on each Coast.  Eating outdoors without climate control and insects is a rare joy - another thing August in California has on the East Coast.  We wake up and there's full breakfast on the table as if we are at a hotel - toast, fresh orange juice, cut fruit, scrambled eggs and coffee.  We spend the next day going to the walkway above and sitting on the benches.  My head can't help but turn away from the water and look at the houses across the street - probably some of the most expensive real estate in the nation.  If feels good to walk in the sunshine and smell salt air.  We visit a fancy shopping center for lunch and eat outdoors again, because we can.

That evening my cousin Kurt hosts dinner.  I remember when he was born, he was 15 years younger than my next cousin Kirsten.  When she held him, people asked if he was hers.   He now has a family of his own with his wife Tammy, with three girls, Charlie, Millie, and Kaia.  One is freshly minted and still in a high chair.  Kurt and Tammy were married some years ago and had their reception at the aviation museum at Orange County airport.  The wedding party arrived by taxiing down the runway to an open hangar on a private jet.  Kurt inherited the Belcher Business sense that both my maternal Grandfather and Uncle Kerry have.  After finishing aviation school, Kurt realized the money was not in being a pilot, but in managing the aircraft.  He started a business with is like a time-share for private jets, so the "owner" doesn't have to sink $65 Million into a Gulfstream "G6".  They have a house even further up the hill with a patio that overlooks the valley down to the sea.  We again enjoy a lovely meal outside, with no worries about frizzing my human-hair wig.  


I'm completely fascinated by my cousin's business, so he invites me down to the airport to take a tour of the facility.  We sit in his office with impressive screens tracking flights, and various gifts and trappings of luxury travel.  Kurt dragged my Uncle Kerry out of retirement to be the bean counter.  At first it was, "Could you help us with the books once a week", but then in true Belcher fashion, he couldn't do it halfway.  It became negotiating fuel purchases, re-negotiating equipment leases, and recutting the margins with an X-acto knife, which is a full time job.  I don't think "retirement" is in that family's DNA.  I'm obviously deficient in the revenue-generating department.  We head to the rooftop to look at the helicopter.  STILL have neve
r been in one!

One of the reasons I even know what a blog is, is because of Frank Davern.  Back in the early days of the Internet, Frank had a website called Coolgrrrls.com.  I stumbled across it from another girl, Jennie V., who played in a band called Tulli and wrote about the Toronto scene.  I wrote to Frank and asked if I could write about New York happenings and such, since I was active at the time around the turn of the century.  Frank posted to his Facebook page that he was suffering from Stage 4 renal cancer and had maybe weeks or months left fo life.  He is with his family at home, with an oxygen tank about 40 minutes away from my Aunt & Uncle's house.  I tell my mom and Aunt about Frank's situation, and ask if I can borrow the car, or get a ride to a car rental.  My aunt offers to drive me to Frank's, with my mom.  Driving down the coast, I get the same feeling that I did riding the train to Kate's party in the UK - I have no idea what I am headed into, but I know this will be the last time I see Frank alive.  Writing about events and gigs and travels is one thing, but finding parting words that aren't too grim or ebulent is something I need more than 40 minutes to formulate.

We enter the house and Frank's sister's face is a portend of what to expect, her voice kept low like a librarian.  She expresses her gratitude in a way one greets attendees of a wake.  My mom, my aunt Elka and I look at each other as we 'round the corner to greet Frank.  My memory holds Frank as an imposing Ken doll, who hikes daily, catches snakes for fun and is the embodiment of a California Man.  He stands up to give me a hug and it is all the energy he can muster from his chair.  His oxygen tank is like a ball and chain as walking across the room is now a challenge.  The normal pleasantries of "How are you doing?" do not apply.  I am at a loss for words, so I let Frank talk.  He describes his situation, and the tears flow.  His description sounds all too familiar - everything was fine until it wasn't.  The doctors said there was no treatment as he had gone beyond the point where anything could be done.  This news was so recent, it he was still in shock from finality of his lot.  My mother and aunt are in awkward silence, so I introduce Frank as the man who gave me my start as a writer.  Coolgrrrls.com was my first "publication", and kept me to a schedule of writing.  Frank was a mentor in that respect, and I made friends with many of the other Coolgrrrls in the US and abroad.  I reckon "Thank you" is better than goodbye.  We sense our time there is closing in, we do out final hugs and part.

  

Mom and I are headed to Northern California, which is a different beast entirely.  We get into my brother's neighborhood and there are TREES - live oaks.  My brother has to work during the day, so we keep ourselves busy with some sightseeing.  We take a drive across the golden gate bridge and I need to pull over to the car park to take those iconic photographs, with the famous fog/smog in the background.  We drive down to Sausalito amd gawk at the houseboats, then stop for a bit to eat at a fancy place that has a view of the water.  I indulge in a glass of prosecco because I'm on vacation.  I have no idea where we are going but we drive up the hill to get to Muir Woods, and apparently, you have to reserve online in advance to drive through there.  There are amazing redwoods along the way.  We keep driving and get to Alice's Restaurant.  Yes, THE Alice's Restaurant.  Again, we have to stop for SOMETHING.  We have an iced tea and look around - it's very rustic.  I was envisioning the diner from ALICE, the TV show.  It feels more like a General Store.    We drive down the winding hill again, no destination in mind.


My brother is headed into San Francisco the next morning for work, and I make arrangements to see my SF friends.  The first person I visit is someone I know form New York, Joey Kotfica who sent me one of my first "Cancer Christmas" gifts.  Kleenex, mints, hand lotion and a knit cap.  I was not sure what it all meant, but they turned out to be the PERFECT GIFTS because she works at Family House, which supports people with cancer.  I asked, HOW DID YOU KNOW, and she replied - "Because it's my job.".  The Kleenex still floors me, as does the fact that my nose hair fell out and I practically EAT Kleenex.  My brother drops me off blocks away from Mission Bay and I walk into the community where there are food trucks, mini golf and what seems to be an outdoor recreation area.  You can tell this are has been recently "revitalized" and may be the new hipsterville.  It connect with Joey and we visit one of the bespoke food trucks with artisanal coffee and housemade scones and all that.  She takes me to Family House and I understand - this is like Ann's Place which is the facility near me with classes and support for people and families of loved ones with cancer.  I finally meet the famous Blodgett, Joey's husband, whom I only know from Christmas cards.  Joey and I bonded through the crucible that was Coney Island High, when she was our webmaster.  Now we are forged through the crisis of cancer.  Joey has always had short cropped hair.  We have our photo taken with matching hair. 

 

In a connection of kismet, I make a date to connect with Alisha Amnesia, who was someone I met through Frank and Coolgrrrls.com.  She was the San Francisco reporter and then became the editor of the entire website.  Before we meet up, I wander to a church that's near Alisha's apartment.  It's a gorgeous cathedral.  They have a memorial wall and I light a candle for my father.  I get to Alisha's apartment and discover on a crazy coincidence, she is planning on coming to New York to show her fashion line, Punk Majesty, but she doesn't know if she can pull off the logistics.  Lindsey to the rescue.  I offer to pick her up and the clothes, pick up the garment racks, help her set up.  The clothing is really cool and we support each other, after knowing each other over 15 years, meeting in London, Vegas and all over.  It can be done.  We plot her world domination over some mexican food and a couple of margaritas.  I head back to the Cal Train AKA The COW Train because if its unimpressive speed.  It's hard to find the station and I wind up waiting on the platform for over an hour.  I get back to Menlo Park, actually to the Palo Alto stop and settle in to a family dinner.  

My brother is like me, easy-going and unflappable, but chose a different career path and lifestyle.  He calls me "Aunt Wacky" and I guess I am for his kids. This is the first time Jevan has seen me since my diagnosis.  When I see someone I last saw B.C., I feel like they are checking me out. You say that are fine but are you REALLY fine.  Yes, I'm REALLY fine.  I kicked most of my bad habits and I got a Fatbit from Jevan so I try to make my 8,000 step per day and log some minutes of exercise, walking or doing yard work.  I was shoveling manure into the raised beds for the tomatoes.  Who knew that shoveling shit was real work.  My brother is now separated from his wife, but when we are over to his "old house" for dinner, there are strange yet familiar sights from my childhood.  One is a crazy piece of Italian art I used to STARE at when I was a child.  A very impressionistic mid-century painting but you know exactly what is going on here.  Woman in a bar looking away, as if at nothing and a man almost leering over her shoulder.  Just fascinating.  There is also the carved ebony and ivory chess set from india and the sides are the Hindus vs. the Sikhs.  It's of a time in both material and the figurines.

It's kind of strange being around my brother's kids as they barely know me.  They come to the East Coast every year, and maybe I see them every other visit.  I lived in Colorado for five years and did not go to Northern California during that time.  I used to visit Charlotte after she was born in 2002 and Ryan was baptised in in 2005 so I made the trip out there.  I lived in Sweden when Jack was born but visited right after I returned when he was still in a high chair.  I played some shows in the San Francisco area a couple years ago, and Charlotte became very interested in my guitar, so I got her one for Christmas one year and a Pignose amp.  There was this huge gap of probably six hears where I was absent from their lives completely save birthday and holiday cards. So now it's probably extra weird for them to be around me when I have no hair, look kinda weird and I'm visiting.  It's a bit awkward because my brother doesn't live where they live so that leave it feeling a little more once removed.  I'm the nice lady that comes to visit, but I don't know if they feel like I'm family.  That will have to take regular visits and time.  I leave California, so strange and and so familiar.  I look at everything differently now, more closely.

First, I have to get through this.  Then I can do all the things I said I should do if I had time, like write a blog and stop wasting time on the Internet. My chemo sessions go so fast that I don't really have the time or focus to write these things.  I've also had some nice chats in the infusion room I catch up with my favorite nurses.  It's also familiar but different - a routine with a moving pieces.  The patients come and go and the nurses rotate.  I almost never see the same people twice even though I go on the same day of the week.  I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I don't really want to think about it.  I'm just trying to get to the next session, and cram everything i can in like a hot dog-eating contest.  Gotta cram it all in before they call time.

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