I remember my mother’s house on Bayview Drive in its various states of ramshackle, demolition and reconstruction. It started out as a beach shanty used for duck hunting. There was an ordinance that said you couldn’t shoot ducks from your front porch. The floor in the upstairs bedroom was slanted downward because it had been the first-story roof at some point. The house in its one-story beach shack form was way before my time. In the old days, beneath the street where the house stood, they floated empty wine bottles in the sewer to gauge the level of the sewage. Sometimes when the tides were too high, sewer water came spewing up through drains in the street, and you could watch cars splashing through the water with sheets of toilet paper embedded in their wheel treads.
Old buildings have a character all their own that reflects the character of their previous inhabitants. They are like sponges that have been squeezed tight of their liquid. But, no matter how hard you squeeze, something always still remains. Three houses down from my mother’s is a house that was used by bootleggers during the Great Depression. Under the house is a hidden room where they stowed all the liquor for the speakeasy above. I fantasized my mother’s house as having been a bootleggers’ lair.
That first Christmas when I drove to my mother’s house in my Volkswagen Beetle from my apartment the San Fernando Valley, I instantly realized that her income level had dropped substantially in this new marriage. She had gone from being the wife of a company president to the wife of an airplane mechanic, and I decided that it had to be love on her part because people don’t often descend the social ladder willingly. I remember opening the house’s Dutch doors at that first visit and stepping into an excessively warm house filled with the smell of my mother’s roasting turkey, an island of familiarity in a foreign sea.
There was a dog pacing back and forth, watching me with squinty, suspicious eyes — a security guard alerted by an unauthorized entry. I shimmied though the entryway, past the scrutinizing beast, entered the kitchen packed with unfamiliar people and found my mother mixing, clanking and stirring with great intemperance. There were too many people in the kitchen. Everyone was pleasantly tipsy. My mother was wearing a red, velvet thrift store jumpsuit; her bone straight hair had been permed into a 1970s Afro. This was a far cry from the corporate wife who had raised me. I surmised that she was off her rocker. This was the scene at my mother’s house every Christmas for 40 years, minus the red velvet jumpsuit and the Afro. Shortly after that first Christmas, I was commenting to a friend about my mother’s strange behavior, and she replied, “Julie, I hate to tell you this, but I think that your mother is actually happy.”
When they decided to renovate my mother’s house, they removed the floor. The house was supported by large, rotting pillars. It was a house with dead man’s bones. Mushrooms abounded everywhere in the dank underbelly of the structure. It was its own ecosystem. It made me wonder how long the dilapidated floor would have held in place unattended before the whole thing caved in. One day after the renovations were completed, my mother was vacuuming on the ground floor and she noticed mushrooms sprouting out of the carpet. They had to re-demolish and re-construct.
The new version of the house was less than stellar. It was obvious that my mother and step-father had designed and engineered the whole project. The walls were painted a tacky beige color that was accented with lighter colors of tacky beige. Over the entryway to the kitchen, they hung, off center, an incongruous American Eagle plaque. Various childhood art projects of the kids were hung on the walls of the kitchen. One painting of mine said, “When I am happy to just pick lint balls from the carpet, I will no longer consider myself too ambitious.” The wisdom of a buffoon.
In the master bedroom of my mother’s house were built-in fluorescent ceiling lights that looked like they had come from a used car dealership. The small-sized living room housed a gargantuan slate fireplace that dwarfed everything else on the bottom floor. Nautical art and objects from the sea were disbursed in no logical design throughout the house. My mother’s many Mexican rain and fertility god statues, from her Mexico City trip, were everywhere. Nothing in the house hinted of feng shui.
The kitchen window in the house was gossip central. My stepfather would sit there in the mornings drinking his Dr. Pepper, watching the world go by on both sides of Pacific Coast Highway. He kept up with the comings and goings of the meth house across the canal, the hidden affairs at the Heartbreak Hotel and the son of a townsperson tromping to the market at the same time every morning to buy his mother a pack of True Cigarettes. My step-father was the Mayor of Bayview Drive.
The garage was my step-father’s Holy Mecca with its lathes, drills, welding tools and a life-sized poster of Alfred E. Neuman with a George Bush Face. He spent a fair amount of his adult life tinkering in that garage.
My step-brothers and I lived in the house at various intervals, mostly between apartments, and after break-ups and divorces. The house was always adjusted to accommodate us. I recall sleeping on the bottom bunk of my stepbrothers’ old bunkbeds. Looking up from the bottom bunk, I could see stick figures carved in pencil lead by my step-brother, Kirk, on the plywood bottom of the bunk above.
The dog lasted for a long time, but he never stopped hating me. He was a Dingo dog, bred to herd. If you stepped out of line, he would nip you back into formation. Sometimes his nips were actual bites. One day, when he had bit me one time too many, I dragged him into the bathroom, closed the door and beat him with a rolled up newspaper. Every time I came into his presence after that, he would flip over on his back and urinate straight into the air. He never bit me again.
My mother and step-father grew old in that house. When my step-father passed and then my mother, the house went into mourning. It was cold and sad. It seemed to be dying too. The soul of the house had left, its ambience had trickled away. It was a shock to realize the extent of disrepair that the house had fallen into. It correlated with the decline of my mother and step-father.
Cleaning out the house was a Herculean task. My husband and I dragged layers and layers of my parents’ lives out of their house. Their possessions were packed into the house so tightly that it gave up the items unwillingly. The cleanout was never-ending. My step-brothers talked about helping, but actually contributed next to nothing.
All of us met to discuss the estate, and I was the executor. With feigned cooperation, my step-brothers were very interested in when they could get the money. Later, they convinced themselves that I was going to swindle them out of my mother’s cash. One of them even retained an attorney. My penniless, unemployed stepbrother declared that he wanted to buy the house and said that he had a backer. None ever materialized. We sold my mother’s properties for three million to be divided between the three kids and their children. Some of the grandchildren joined in the parade. None of them thought that they were getting the amount of money that they deserved, and they wanted it now. But, time means nothing to a hog.
I had hoped that the people who bought the house would love it as much as my mother had. But we sold it to an investor for the highest price. It still sits empty. I speculate that they may raze the property and build something new on the lot. My mother’s house has reached the end of the line. It had a long, happy run and now stands alone. A shell of its previous self, it will never be the same again.