11 October 2005

Family Tree

I suppose it’s not very Texan to not be particularly proud of being a Texan. And I guess that’s why I still consider myself to be a Californian. It isn't that I don’t like Texas, because I do. Having grown up here from the age of three, I can certainly appreciate the diversity of people, the bigness (of everything), and even the beauty of certain parts. I just don’t have that blaring sense of LONE STAR PRIDE that makes me want to display a bumper sticker or own a cowboy hat, or feel the need to tell everyone I meet that I’m from Texas.

Though I was just steps beyond a toddler when we moved away to Houston, California is still the place that feels the most like “home” to me. Anytime I’m there to visit relatives, which has been often over the years, I instantly feel like I’m back in the place that I truly belong. I love the fresh, cool air, the rocky beaches, the smell of cracked crab legs and sourdough bread, the honey-scented flowers, the scenery that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Hollywood sign, and the general pace of life. I get homesick just thinking about it.

Today, California has come to visit me.

My aunts and uncles from the west coast are all here in Houston, and we spent the afternoon telling stories and looking at old photos on the wall at my dad's house. He is the oldest of five siblings, each of them distinct and fun to know:

There’s my Uncle Robert, whose laugh I can always hear in my head, even if it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen him. He’s a writer too, and a really good dad, and someone who I remember always sending me interesting toys when I was small--- the kind you’d buy at a children’s museum instead of Toys ‘R Us. I'm not sure if I was seven or thirteen, but there was a year back then that I decided to start calling him Bobert for awhile. (My own little nickname for him that I don’t think he particularly liked, but he was a good sport about it.) I always think of him in crew-neck sweaters, blue jeans, and broken-in loafers. Like a page torn from a Gap catalog. Maybe he's only worn that actual outfit once in his life, but it's how I think of him: comfortable and familiar and someone nice to hug.

My Aunt Maryanne actually lives in or near Seattle (not so far from California) and sends smoked salmon every year for Christmas. She works for 911 dispatch, and was my hotel roommate last April when my Aunt Jeanne got married. When I was very young, my family took a Winnebago trip up to Washington and Vancouver, and I remember not only getting my fingers slammed in the Winnebago door, but once we arrived at Maryanne’s, my fingers got caught and pinched in the lift-up car door handle outside in her driveway. That was not a good trip for my hands, but I'm sure the rest of me had a wonderful time.

My Uncle Phil reminded me today of the time we went to see ET, and I sat in his lap at the end of the movie when ET starts to fade away and his nubby alien finger begins to flicker out. I also remember when he worked at a record store (Uncle Phil, not ET) and he showed us around the shop after we’d gone out for pizza. I thumbed through all the white plastic dividers printed with the names of each artist in big black letters. I remember one section was for a band called Big Pig. [I consider that to be a curious use of my brain space, the fact that I have chosen to hold onto Big Pig in my memory for no particular reason at all. The pizza and ET though…definitely worth remembering.]

I saved Aunt Jeanne for last because I know I could write pages of entries just about her. It will take some mental editing to narrow things down a bit. My temporary nickname for her was "Miss B" and I was "Mini B" (her sidekick I suppose.) So many of my favorite moments in life were spent in her old apartment in Palo Alto. I learned to crack an egg without breaking the yoke in her cozy kitchen that always had a soft stick of butter resting on the counter instead of in the refrigerator. Much easier to spread this way. She also had a little office room where she grew small ferns and house plants under a special kind of light that stayed on at night. [That last sentence sounds kind of scandalous but I promise, they were just regular plants. She is really good at gardening.] When Jeanne went to work, I’d brush my hair in the pink-tiled bathroom, skip across the old wood floors to the apartment door, and turn the lock and doorknob at the same time because that was the only way to open it. Out I went to stroll down Emerson Street, darting among a slew of stray cats, sniffing the crisp air and gazing at the overhanging trees. Several easy blocks later, I’d find my way to the art supply store to choose new colored pencils, or to the old public library where I’d find a little corner and plop down with a stack of books. On the weekend, Jeanne and I would climb in her light blue VW bug, the one that now sits in my garage in Nashville, and zip down to the Peninsula Creamery for thick chocolate milkshakes (the same ones my dad drank when he was a kid), or down to Santa Cruz to amble along the boardwalk. There was always Cat Stevens or James Taylor or someone soothing in the tape player. And there was always Ghirardelli Square for chasing pigeons or watching the jugglers outside the chocolate shop.

It’s no wonder California still and always will feel like home to me, even when I’m 2000 miles away.