Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
“Anthem”, Leonard Cohen
Midway between Venice Beach and Santa Barbara, where I grew up, I drive past Point Mugu where the naval base orchestrates the Blue Angels fleet of stunt planes – I track them from a mile away, arching and looping in tight formation, their con trails creating knots that vaporize inside one another magically. It is all I can do to keep my soul from escaping through the open window and leaping skyward with them. I’ve made it through an hour of beach traffic, which along the Malibu coastline ranges from weekend bikers to hard-core surfers to a five mile long marathon to raise money for cancer research. Enthusiasts, including an enormous man in a wheelchair, clap, throw water, and cheer the runners on. There is a woman who regularly jogs in tight pink shorts and bra along Zuma Beach, her enormous breasts causing a bit of a stir amongst drivers. Her blindingly blonde hair whips at her back as she lopes along like a runaway extra from “Baywatch”. I want to say to her, “Quick, jump in! we’ll escape together – you don’t have to do this.” But I speed past her, my little car pulled by a maternal string, onward.
I’ve made it a ritual the past twenty years to stop in the strawberry fields in Oxnard at a fruit and vegetable stand to buy flowers and berries. The same Mexican woman has worked there for years, and yet her face remains implacable and without a trace of recognizing me. On special occasions, there are roses of the most astonishing colors: pale coral, buttercup yellow, white tinged with green. The floor is uneven and always damp, like an earthy cave. I buy two or three bouquets and pass the time up the coast imagining how to escape a life split by conflict, inventing a new one where magically there is none. I’ve decided not to return to the lives at either end of this trip, I will remain in the strawberry fields, become a migrant worker, wear a green bandana and then a straw hat on my head and spend my days prying the soft, sweet berries from their stems. They cannot be picked by automation. They are too delicate, so migrant workers come here, bent over for hours in the hot sun to harvest them. The evenings I would spend trying to rid my hands of the faint red stain and smell of strawberries. It would not be an ideal life; simply one that is not this one, where misgivings circle like vultures in the dusk.
A stretch just past Ventura, called the Rincon, cups the ocean close enough to almost feel the sea spray traveling southbound. Train tracks run close by. It is along here that I can go at top speed, windows down, as I eat strawberries and toss the hulls through the window. The Pacific, ever present, glitters and undulates at my elbow, and if I would allow it just once, I would stop here, park my car, and make my way along the jagged rocks to the seashore. I would throw off shoes, peel off sweaty shirt and shorts, and throw myself under the waves and there I would live like the silkies of Ireland and Scotland did a millennium ago. I’ve been fascinated by these mythological creatures ever since I lived in Dublin as a younger woman, in love with an Irishman almost twice my age. It is here along the Rincon that I most strongly feel the presence of my grandmother, Silvia, dead now thirty years, because just after she died I was driving back to Los Angeles, a train came around a corner, blasting its horn and letting forth a full head of steam, as if to shout to the world, though my body is gone, my spirit lives on! I have since then associated the lifting of Silvia’s spirit with that runaway train on the Rincon. . And what would the police think if they found my car by the roadside, my clothes twisting and turning in the surf? With no body washed up like a rag doll on shore, (because I’d have turned into a seal by then), I would simply become a missing person. Sadly, I cannot live in the ocean because my mother is expecting me and I have a trunk full of strawberries and strangely colored roses to deliver and a week-end of cleaning and shopping to do.
I have come to delay my actual arrival upstairs by hours because the moment I step across that threshold, my heart becomes heavy with the anticipation of her old age and all that it brings with it. So I stop at Super Rica, the best place in Southern California for authentic Mexican food where the corn tortillas are as soft as pillows, served hot and chewy. I’ve been coming here since high school and it seems the same staff has worked there all these years. The kind-eyed Mexican man who owns the place still takes orders with a radiant smile. It is more a large shack than a restaurant and there is always a line of tired, hungry people around the corner. Middle-aged bikers, their greased hair in ponytails, young couples, families, and Aussie tourists who have heard of its reputation – they all come here, melting in an unforgiving sun awaiting the food because it’s just that good. I eat my lunch thoughtfully and slowly, even though the gnawing in my stomach has plagued me since I left home. Now, the guacamole, now the chorizo with melted cheese. In this way, ritual files away the sharp edges of sorrow.
Next, I stop at Suzanne’s house. She and I have been friends since our early teens. She is a tall blonde woman with the most astonishing grey blue eyes. She is an interior designer, the daughter of a German professor, fluent in seven languages, who died while she was still in high school. Suzanne is also a breast cancer survivor, as well as that of a very serious car accident that left her with a slight limp and an aversion to the news. We speak easily, though decades passed since we were in touch. There are things I half knew about her while we were growing up: that her father kept an intercom in her bedroom to monitor whether she slipped out at night, that her mother held teas and socials almost every week-end where she had Suzanne and her sister prepare the most sumptuous foods (served with white gloves) for the guests while they choked on meat and potatoes in the kitchen. Children in her family were struck with rulers, but also took European vacations.
My envy of her extended to the assumption that she had an orderly family, a complete family where people spoke to one another in civilized tones and had orderly meals together and there was never any question about unconditional love or lack of trust between parent and child. I was wrong.
I always envied Suzanne her poise and beauty. Compared to my own shorter, dark-haired presence, she was an ethereal light that beckoned to men wherever she went. I tried to emulate how she walked (regal, as though balancing a book on her head), how she spoke (with a charming, breathy hesitation), but within minutes gave up. Now, we sip herbal tea and nibble on dark chocolate concoctions she’s made as we talk about our daughters and mothers and the time passes and the black bird outside in her palm tree hops about; I could stay longer, but I’ve yet to reach my own home and it is getting later.
During the summer, the berries and flowers bake in the trunk of my car, so that when I open it, the smell and the heat waft lazily out. The flowers droop a bit, as though about to faint. The air here is vibrantly fresh, carrying the sound of neighbors’ horses whinnying at the bottom of our orchard. Coyotes howl nearby and hoot owls visit in the fall. At night, because there are no street lights and we are far from the city, the sky is just awash with stars, sharply punctuated points of light that seem to flutter and waver in the sky. I have seen satellites, the occasional plane. They are distant intrusions outside the glass globe of this home. It is almost mid afternoon. Cradling the bouquets in one arm, the bag of strawberries in the other I lean against the oak tree whose mighty trunk thrusts up through the deck and spreads across the roof in an imperious gesture of authority. It is her tree.
If I could linger here a minute, an hour, a day longer, I would. This suspension between the life I have made for myself down south and the life here, where secrets still swell in the shadows and my mother, now 89, her mind swept away by dementia and demons, keeps tragedy at bay.
I am in the dark wings of the theatre now, the audience mute and anonymous, just moments before the curtains part, the lights go up, and I step onto the stage where the drama of my life with her unfolds, scene after scene. The intention is to care for her in her last days, no matter what. It will take me half the day to coax her out of bed, where she has been sleeping, curled up with her dog, Ollie. I will sing “If Mama got married I’d jump in the air/and give all my toe shoes to you/I’d get all those hair ribbons out of my hair/and once and for all I’d get Mama out too/If mama got married” from Gypsy and throw back the curtains and let the light and mountains and fresh air in. I will tell her, “Mama, you have to bathe. You smell,” and she will pretend to cry and call me cruel, bossy, and domineering (I am all these things and worse). When I finally get her into the shower, she will lean against the wall, the water cascading all around her like a wedding veil and weep for real.
“I’m all wet, all wet!” Her dog, Ollie will look at me with his big brown eyes as though I am torturing my mother. I will try to give her some privacy, although I’m worried about her slipping and falling. This is how Silvia died, hitting her head on the shower door. She wasn’t discovered until two days later when the newspapers piled up outside her door and friends missed her at meals. The abandonment of advanced age after a lifetime of camaraderie and friendship seems a cruel joke. I will wrap my mother in the biggest towel I can find, coax her back into clean clothes, dry her hair, and let her slip back into the nest of her bedclothes, where she will sleep again.
Curtain draws to a close, except where they meet in the middle.
The crack then, is where the light still gets in.