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Francisco Examiner, August 17, 1997
How often already
you've had to be told,
So I flew to San Francisco a year ago last April, rented a car, and took a look around. On my second day here, I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in my life, and into Marin County.
It was the Headlands that got to me first. Also the way a person in Marin County could stand, surrounded by green, and look across the bay to a city skyline. I want to live here, I said out loud, though no one else was in the car.
No doubt this place is full of people who can tell a similar story. A person's likely to live in Nebraska or South Dakota because of her past. She lives in the Bay Area because of her dreams for the future. More than any other state, probably, California represents -- at least to those of us who have spent our lives elsewhere -- the promise of a new and better life. Ever since we were children, we saw images of California on our television screens, heard the Beach Boys sing about it (also Woody Guthrie), recognized the streetcorner where Haight and Ashbury met, even if we'd never been west of Poughkeepsie. California Dreamin'. Nobody needs to explain that phrase to a New Englander.
With the exception of distant relatives I'd met once, years before, and a longtime association with a San Francisco-based magazine that was in the process of relocating back East, I knew nobody here. The terrain, the quality of light, the plants in people's gardens and the trees beyond, were all utterly unfamiliar. The Pacific Ocean didn't even smell the same as the beaches of Cape Cod and Maine. But if what I wanted had been what I had already, I wouldn't have contemplated moving in the first place.
At the end of three days here, I flew home and put a For Sale sign on the front lawn of my beloved house, that I had painted -- pink -- just the summer before. Let me guess, one of my neighbors said, the next day, when she saw the sign. I bet you're moving to California. You always seemed like that type.
You might ask what I was running away from. In many ways, my three children and I had a pretty good thing going back in New Hampshire: We lived in a beautiful big Victorian house in a town where, if our dog Opie got loose, people always brought him back to us. Every year at Thanksgiving I'd open our house to 25 or 30 friends, and we'd bake pies for our town's soup kitchen, and at Christmas we'd carol from house to house. Within a few miles of our block were half a dozen swimming and skating ponds, and ski slopes close enough that my sons could go snowboarding after school. My children could ride their bikes home from Little League, even at night. I had good friends in that town -- some I'd known 20 years. I never locked my door.
I wasn't one of those New Hampshire natives who attend Fourth of July family picnics, with so many relatives present it takes a couple of roasted pigs to feed them all, or the ones who can show you where their great-great-grandfather is buried (which is probably where they'll be buried, too). My parents, both transplants, were dead. Still, I had deep roots in my home state and four decades of history there. Every time maple sugaring season rolled round -- followed by mud season, black fly season, strawberry picking, summer band concerts, first corn, first frost -- I was reminded of all the other times -- some good, some terrible -- when I'd lived through the cycle before. But as satisfying as it can be to live surrounded by one's history, it can trap you, too, and leave you in the position of forever looking backward. I figured I'd done enough of that.
In the year since making my decision to move, I have offered a lot of specific reasons for choosing to leave my lifelong home: Often I mention the dark and brutal New England winters, my many car accidents on icy roads -- and my fear of sending three teenage drivers out onto these roads -- the absence of ethnic diversity, the isolation of being single in what was, predominantly, a world of couples. As a parent of three teenagers, I'm likely to cite the great bargain of the California state college system. Sometimes I even invoke Patrick Buchanan's victory in the Republican New Hampshire presidential primary of 1996 as the moment the bell rang in my head, telling me it was time to get out.
But what really made me leave New Hampshire and head west was a more generalized longing for openness: open sky, open minds. I wanted to locate my family in a place where we'd be surrounded with new experiences. I knew who I was in New Hampshire, and where virtually every road would take us. I was curious to know what, of myself, I would bring with me and what we might all actually reinvent.
If it sounds easy, it wasn't. I felt as though I were witnessing my own death, as I got to work dismantling the life I had so lovingly constructed in that town -- digging up perennials for my friends' gardens, boxing up my children's old toys to give away, scooping the goldfish out of our goldfish pond, saying my goodbyes to all the people I was unlikely to meet again. I knew I'd stay in touch with my close friends. But what about the 80-year-old man down the street, Elmer Hoag, who used to stop by my house at least once a week, to tell me a joke? Or the kids in our neighborhood who'd come over after school to jump on our trampoline? Or Frank, the one-armed harmonica player who liked to stop by my porch and play me the blues? Or Judd, at the post office, who recited his poetry to me when I came in to buy stamps?
My history in New Hampshire wasn't all good: This was the place where I was married, but also the place where I'd experienced a long, bitter and costly divorce. My three children were all born in the 200-year-old farmhouse I'd bought more than 20 years before with the proceeds from my first book. But that house -- with its 50 acres of lilacs and apple trees and swimming pond -- belonged to their father now.
When you've lived in New Hampshire all your life as I did, you actually get the feeling of knowing everyone in your state. You don't, of course, but not a week went by that I didn't run into someone who'd been a student of my father's at the state university where he taught English for 30 years, or someone who'd worked with me in the campaign to keep a nuclear waste dump out of our area, or the midwife who delivered my daughter. Until last fall's election, I could tell people I used to babysit for the wife of our governor. Then a new governor was elected. I knew her, too.
In a small New Hampshire town, you come to know every bend in the road; every spot reminds you of other times you've been there, other moments in your life. In California, nothing would remind me of anything, except maybe some movie or other. I didn't know anyone in California, and no one knew me. That also meant there was nobody I might run into, and feel a stab of pain, no one who had broken my heart, and no one whose heart I had broken.
If what I were trying to accomplish was change and adventure, I knew there was no sense hauling my precious but cumbersome baggage across country. So I gave each of my children a trunk and told them to fill it with whatever they wanted to keep from our old life. I packed up just a very few personal possessions for myself -- mostly paintings by my father, my collection of 1950s collector plates from nearly every state in the union, CDs and records, books. Easier to part with most everything else, I decided, than try to choose among my nearly 50 teapots, my half-dozen rockers, my childhood bed, my mother's sewing machine.
I announced we were holding a yard sale and hung a sign on the front of our house: Everything Goes. For two days I watched friends and strangers tromp through the rooms of our house, picking through our stuff in such numbers that the police had to rope off part of our street. At the end of the weekend, the house was empty. I had $7,000 in a shopping bag, mostly in one-dollar bills, and I didn't even own a bed anymore. My teenage daughter Audrey's room, which used to be filled with posters and feather boas, CDs and other kids, was stripped bare, except for the garden of dried roses (every one she'd ever been given, and she'd been given many) hanging from her ceiling.
Standing there in the near-darkness in a house so empty now the sound of my shoes on bare wood made a hollow sound, it was the sight of those upside-down roses that finally made me cry. Out the window I could see a handful of neighborhood kids -- the old trampoline crowd -- picking through the pile of rubble in our yard that I'd left for a junk man to haul away. My children and I had made a good life for ourselves in New Hampshire. I believed we would make another one in California. But at that moment, we inhabited neither the new life nor the old one.
A few weeks earlier, when I'd returned from that first exploratory mission to the West Coast, I'd brought home a postcard of San Francisco and a couple featuring Mill Valley and the Marin Headlands. I kept those pictures in my pocket, and several times a day, during those last hard weeks before our move, I'd take them out just to remind myself what I was doing. Beautiful as those images were, they didn't show what it was I was moving to find, of course. No picture could. Still, alone in my empty house that day, last summer, it was comforting to study the outlines of Mount Tam and the fog over the Golden Gate Bridge, and even that corny rainbow painted over the tunnel into Marin. I am not the first person, or the last, who moved west with the idea that the end of the rainbow might be located in California.
We closed the door to our old house for the last time on the first Saturday of July, last year -- the weekend farmers in New England traditionally reserve for cutting hay. I remember the sight of men on tractors and the smell of freshly cut hay as, just past sunrise, we made our way through the New Hampshire countryside to the airport. It was nighttime when we landed in Oakland, and rode by cab over the Richmond Bridge, up into the hills of Mill Valley, where the air smelled of jasmine. My son Willy craned his neck, pointing out cars we never would have seen back home. We must have looked like the Clampett family, heading into Beverly Hills. Minus the oil wells.
You can't talk about moving to the Bay Area -- Marin County in particular -- without addressing the question of money. In 1989, when my marriage ended, I had moved from our home deep in the country to a place that seemed to my children and me like a city: Keene, New Hampshire, population 20,000. For $140,000, I'd bought a huge six-bedroom house on a beautiful tree-lined street with a big yard and a wraparound front porch. Eight years later, I sold that house (with its jacuzzi, gourmet kitchen, darkroom and leaded-glass bay windows looking out over the garden) for $145,000. When I returned to California, a month after my first visit last spring, I took a deep breath and told my realtor I'd be prepared to increase my indebtedness and spend twice that for a house out here. She laughed.
I am a single mother and self-employed writer, who makes a chunk of money every now and then, without ever knowing whether it has to last one year or five. But I had been saving money for my children's college educations. And I'd recently had the experience that is a writer's equivalent to finding a winning lottery ticket in your pocket. A book of mine was sold to the movies, and the movie, To Die For, actually got made.
Originally, I'd pictured To Die For as paying for my children's college. But a large part of what the California move signified was the willingness to enter into unknown territory and trust myself to take care of things as they happened, without the security that comes from having money in the bank.
The move required me to divest myself of more than my belongings. Months later, a new Mill Valley friend would comment to me that a significant portion of the people I saw driving around in their BMWs were maxed out on credit, without a nickel of savings. Maybe it's the absence of the kind of winter I'm used to that allows people here to live like that -- an optimism born of cloudless skies and endlessly mild weather. It's the first West Coast trait I picked up, I think. Because I did the same.
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