Call of the child
An artist returns to her first family neighborhood
1952-1962, ten years lost and found
By Randee Fox ©2019
The land where I grew up. Los Angeles. The City of Angels. On the edge of the Pacific Ocean, a rich multicultural metropolis filled with the arts, the historic Hollywood motion picture industry, sunshine and citrus fruits and the legacy of both of my parents’ birth home in the 1920s. A place that both sets of grandparents relocated to, with the promise of a better life where they could raise their young families. I left LA in my 20s and headed up north, eventually settling in Seattle, Washington.
|View of L.A. coastline from my plane seat.
I have enjoyed a wonderful, creative and fulfilling life as an artist, living with my soulmate/spouse of 30 years this year and our niece, now 16, who we are raising in Sammamish, Washington - a suburb of Seattle. Still, the sudden loss of my mother at age ten due to Schizophrenia, caused the loss my family of five as I knew it the first ten years of my life. Her mental illness also caused a sudden move out of the family home I had known since the year of my birth – a loss that had left me in somewhat of a state of suspended animation. That early ‘small me’ part of my life remained protected, neatly packed away like a dormant seed, quietly waiting for my return.
For years, reoccurring dreams of me reliving memories of being in my first neighborhood visited my subconscious mind as altered state fantastical dreams. In overexposed misty technicolored imagery I’d revisit the side walk routes my brothers and I took to school or went trick-or-treating with our mother. There was no sound, similar to being inside of a reel-to-reel Super 8 home movie. The Southern California trees were exactly the same and I’d return to and visit my pretty little Spanish style school and the nearby park’s playground. All of this seemed to await my sleep state visits. Over the years I had grown accustomed to the re-occurring dreams as part of my reality and I never questioned them. They warmed me and I truly enjoyed them when they happened.
Yet still, something always felt just ‘out of reach’ for me. When I woke up, I barely remembered the dreams and only snippets, if at all. Sometimes something would stimulate my memory and I recalled later in the day that I had had one of them…again. The memories locked in my dreams would leave me straining to hear a faint and distant call wondering if I could return to hear it.
For 57 years a very young part of me longed to go back and see the same trees, walk the same routes, hear the familiar sounds, smell the night jasmine, taste the sweetness of the neighbor’s honey suckle along the route to school and the tart tangerines from the abundant tree in our back yard. I yearned to rediscover what had been torn out in the early 1960s of my life.
My father died in his sleep at almost 96 last year on May 22ndafter a long and fulfilling life. Returning for his headstone unveiling opened a door for me to stitch-by-stitch, patch-work-quilt the missing swatches of my memory at symbolic time, the final goodbye to my father. We gathered on a Sunday morning to celebrate, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. A new relationship was born and honored with his memory now literally etched in stone, next to his parents and alongside most all of our Russian-Jewish immigrant Fox family relatives. Quiet, beloved souls resting together on a lush grassy hillside.
Hands of my family members as we
unveiled and honored my father's headstone.
Seven miles from my father, on the opposite side of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign my mother rests in the cold stone Hall of Solomon, the oldest Jewish mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery with her parents and other family members and, as well, many famous celebrities such as George Harrison, Jayne Mansfield, Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Mel Blanc, Douglas Fairbanks and so many more. Such a fitting final place for my mom, who, before Schizophrenia overtook her mind, was a stunning beauty who gave us an artistic and romantic Hollywood upbringing, exposing us constantly to the rich cultural opportunities that Los Angeles offered.
As I planned this trip, I asked myself, where do I want to stay? With both parents gone now, I was free to choose. There was no questioning. I heard my childhood home in Mar Vista calling me. What were the chances to find a place? There were no motels or hotels there. I went online to Airbnb and immediately found a charming cottage in the yard one of my old neighborhood homes. It was magically situated centered, a block from the home in which I grew up, one block from the elementary school I went to and right next to the neighborhood playground I rode my navy blue girls 3-speed Schwinn bike to, spending summers with my brothers and our friends, playing in the park and swimming the public pool and learning to play tennis with my father. Here was my chance to make the 57-year old longing dreams become a reality and finally return to the land of my first ten years of life - 1952-1962.
|The exterior of the sweet Airbnb in Mar Vista.
Westdale, Mar Vista was originally known as Steven’s Ranch, once only citrus orchards and bean fields, was developed in 1947 by real estate developer Paul Trousdale (1915-1990). He built 450 single story tract stone and stucco homes. Early residents were soldiers back from World War II using the GI Bill which was created to help them buy homes with low-interest mortgages. Over time two more additional tracts were added to Westdale. Its boundaries today are still National Boulevard on the north, Palms Boulevard on the south, Bundy Boulevard on the west, and Sepulveda Boulevard on the east. There are now 900 homes in Westdale. Most were built in the 1940s, and many gardens still have the same old citrus trees dating back to the original orchards.
In 1951 my parents paid $16,000 for a 3-bedroom 1,800 square foot home with a large yard, just a few blocks from Mar Vista Elementary School and Mar Vista playground. This gentle, sweet and modest neighborhood was still the perfect place to raise a family and for some, grow old.
|The home I spent the first ten years of my life in on
Federal Avenue in Mar Vista, California.
The discreet homes with large yards, still seemed loved, unharmed, and proudly kept up. The same elm, magnolia, citrus, avocado and palm trees were still standing, but much bigger, some growing into the others to create a beautiful canopy on our street, Federal Avenue. The Thriftmart turned into Westward Ho Market at Colonial Corners where we used to shop is now a Whole Foods and has a free-standing Starbucks however the historic buildings are the same.
The return proved to begin a new chapter of my life. At age 66 I settled in and ventured out to explore the romantic and lost landscape of my past and to literally walk the earliest pathways of my memory in a neighborhood protected and magically preserved, 57 years later.
|An alleyway between streets in Westdale,
Mar Vista neighborhood seems the same as
it did in the 50s and 60s...with bigger trees.
I spent five days there, alone. It proved to be immensely joyful and deeply all consuming, much more than I imagined. My days were filled with love, friendship, family and also a chosen solitude. I seemed to be in a state of hovering, my grounding wire uprooted, waving about.
THE TENNIS COURTS:
After the unveiling and a family gathering, upon returning to my Mar Vista guest cottage, I took a long walk at sunset and found the very tennis courts where my father first taught me to play in the 1950s. A nice man waiting for his friends to arrive and play tennis with him offered to take my photo on the court after I shared my story. He and family were from an India and he lived just a few blocks away and teaches his son to play here too. I let him know that after 57 years, I will never forget the good memories of my early years playing with my Dad and that his son will also remember their times together. We shared a meaningful moment and shook hands goodbye. As I walked off, a car with four Indian men arrived to play. His friends. I reflected on my Dad’s Jewish tennis buddies, all of whom he played tennis with for over 30 years and all of whom he outlived. He sure loved the game.
|Me on the Mar Vista Playground tennis court where
my father taught me to play tennis in the 1950s.
I could barely sense my feet at times as I circled through the familiar paths off my neighborhood. The earth seemed to be in a constant rocking, a gentle quaking beneath me. I felt dizzy. Vulnerable. My nights were restless and in the wee hours, the silent scents of the quiet nights haunted me awake. The dawn’s light calmed me and finally lulled me back to sleep. I was a bit inside out inside of some sort of a literal re-awakening.
|The bedroom in the
Mar Vista Airbnb
where I spent five
days revisiting my
The third day was the most rattling. Over stimulated and fueled fires of loss seemed to burn all around me and the only way out was through. I surrendered. After a wonderful lunch with old friends in nearby Santa Monica, I slowly drove my rental car, which felt like a ship rocking wildly at sea, blinked and breathed my way back to the cottage and spent the rest of the afternoon lying on the bed resting, with the doors and windows open. I called my spouse Paula and just hearing her soothing voice settled me. It would all be okay.
and me visiting
School, where we
met at age six.
By the fourth day the fires had cooled and the sensations in my feet were slowly returning. A new foundation was rebuilding upon the embers and ash of my past. A dear old friend I have known since kindergarten at age six picked me up and we drove the familiar neighborhood, visiting our first school, taking pictures of it, visiting our favorite fourth grade teacher’s classroom – getting out of the car for photos which a sweet mom visiting her daughter’s school offered to take of us. She could have been one of our moms.
We texted the photo to our fourth grade teacher, our favorite teacher, now 80, living in Texas, who we both are still in touch with. We drove past our old homes and pointed out the homes of friends, some living, some passed. We ate lunch by the sea and spent the afternoon catching up in her Marina Del Rey home. We thumbed through old photo albums at times sharing comfortable moments of quiet.
Elementary School today.
LAST NIGHT - WALKING IN MY MOTHER’S FOOTPRINTS:
It was my last night in Westdale. As a sort of personal ritual ceremony, with shadows growing long, I walked from my Airbnb to the sidewalk outside the house I grew up in. I stood there, aware of my breath and consciously slowed it down, as if I was meditating. I sensed the ground under my feet and gazed up into the old front yard trees remembering how we played in the front yard with our friends, more and more, as we grew older. The old magnolia tree’s branches, grew right into the old elm’s branches, creating a shady canopy in front of our old house. I guessed that both trees were well into their seventies.
|Walking my mother's
Federal Avenue in
Westdale, on the way to Mar Vista
I then took a short walk to our piano teacher, Mrs. Sylmar’s house, who lived five houses from ours. “Every Good Boy Does Fine. F A C E. Good Boys Do Fine Always. All Cars Eat Gas” Rang through my head as treble and bass cliff notes. I looked down and my fingers were moving. I stood in front of her house. Still pristine. I imagined her welcomig six year old me at her front screen door.
I turned back and slowly traced the steps I took with my mother, walking back to our house. I paused again. Then I took the route down the easy sidewalk to school with her and my and older brother then later with our younger brother - the three of us eventually marching to school alone, together. I guessed that she walked this route with all of us in a baby carriages and then stroller and at four, five, six years old, holding our hands, teaching us to look both ways when crossing streets, learning to recognize a green light vs. a yellow and a red light and what each meant and on to kindergarten.
My fourth grade teacher,
Cris (Cochrane) Francis'
classroom at Mar Vista
Elementary School, remains the same.
We are happily still in touch.
I passed a grandma swinging her toddler on a front yard tree swing hanging from a huge old elm. I passed several people walking their dogs. I was comforted to see that the neighborhood had become racially diverse when in my day the neighborhood was mostly white.
Some neighbors walked alone like me on the new and safe concrete scored sidewalks. I wondered how many times they had been redone?
I passed by the same little homes with big yards barely changed but loved and kept up, the magnolia trees on the grassy strips between the sidewalks and the street curbs were now huge, nearing 70 years old.
Some neighbors walked alone like me on the new and safe concrete scored sidewalks. I wondered how many times they had been redone?
It was truly a blessing for me to be there. Much of the sadness from both parents departed had seemed to wash away from me, carrying with it the hazy, dreamlike, longing memories which, miraculously, returned for me to fully sense with clarity and re-live; hearing the same small planes circling from the nearby Santa Monica Airport; the distant drone of the same jets over LAX; the same dogs barking ; the same lawn mowers; the same perfume scent of jasmine blooming in the night; the same chirping robins singing their songs of spring, making nests, laying eggs of more future robin generations; the same refreshing and constant Pacific Ocean breezes; the same oranges, lemons and avocados hanging like ornaments from mature trees; the same children playing, laughing, running about at the Mar Vista Park and school playgrounds; All the same, all so different. How lucky I felt to have found such a quiet and sweet place to have immersed myself in all that once was and all that so sweetly still is.
|The sweeping view of Seattle skyline,
Puget Sound and Olympic
Mountain Range as I returned home.