Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When it's all gone in an instant

I'm supposed to be in heavy revision on Wild Iris today. But, instead of revising, I'm revisiting. I grew up in Southern California, where wildfires are an ever-present threat in the fall. Here it is, fall, and SoCal is on fire again.

My mother's house was deep in a canyon, surrounded by foothills, every piece of earth covered with dry brush and oak trees. My father's house was high in the San Bernardino Mountains, tucked into a pocket called Cedar Glen. I've been evacuated from both places, more than once. Evacuation is a tricky business. What do you take? How much time do you have?

At my father's house the danger was being too leisurely and getting cut off. There are only so many ways off a mountain, you know. He was a confirmed bachelor so trying to decide what to take was easy. Hunting riffles, fishing poles and photo albums. The second-hand dishes and cheap appliances could burn. At my mother's house evacuation had a logical order. Every car was loaded, precisely and efficiently, with a pre-determined list of items. We prioritized based on the distance of the flames. Close? Ourselves and photos. On a high ridge? Silver, paintings, books, photos, jewelry. With some time to kill? Anything not nailed down. We never bothered with clothes. Those can be easily replaced. Except prom dresses – those were always included.

We were lucky. At least, for a long time. The Old Fire in 2003 finally claimed my dad's cabin. He'd passed away in 1996, but the cabin had been in our family for over thirty years. Both my sister and I lived in Atlanta by then - our only connection to the terror of fire came through long buried memory as we watched CNN. The fires were horrifying - filling every ridge, every foothill, and every valley - all across Southern California. You can't imagine it unless you've seen it. I think I know what the end of the world might look like.

We knew the fire was raging through Lake Arrowhead and Cedar Glen. We could only hope it didn’t reach Hook Creek Road. Then, the truly unthinkable happened. Right before our eyes, CNN brought us an image of our beloved cabin burning. There is nothing quite so surreal as seeing a place of memory and love destroyed on national television. Just one more "structure" lost."

The fires this year are bringing up all those images. Just a while ago my sister found a still shot of the cabin burning. A Riverside County newspaper had old photos up in a sort of horrid retrospective of infernos through the years.

Nothing you own safely belongs to you once you've faced evacuation and loss. I'm going to write about it. Someday.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Modern Mother

I’ve given birth to a Puritan. My daughter cries and grows upset at any hint of anything sexy. We went to a nice Italian restaurant on a street that is known for three things: Italian restaurants (authentic ones – you’re sure the waiter is packing heat and the guy in the corner with the slicked back hair is taking a “meeting”), upscale antiques stores, and strip clubs. It’s a wild mix, but hey, that’s life in the city. She saw a billboard advertising "Naked Ladies!!" and proceeded to cry for two hours. I dug out my art books and showed her how the female form has been celebrated and depicted since the dawn of mankind. “See that little stone statue, that’s the Venus of Willendorf. See how she’s naked and has breasts – like all women?” More tears.

She’s very bent out of shape that I write books she can’t read. Not even over my shoulder. As she did attempt once. My bad luck that it was a love scene and she reads well and quickly for a third-grader. More tears.

Until I had children, I always thought they were hedonistic little things. Maybe some are. Not my darling. I adore her, of course, and would never do anything to upset her equilibrium. Like cutting my hair, which I am not allowed to do. Or, heaven forbid, dying it red. Which I wanted to do for my fortieth birthday. I had to be satisfied with a trim. Not the life-changing event I had planned.

I wanted children. Even in my twenties I tried. I thought I’d be a young mother. But ex-husbands and personal story arc’s sometimes go wobbly. I was thirty-one when she was born and thirty-four when her younger brother came along. That’s long enough to have lived. A lot. And now I find myself having to put on a persona I never imagined to be the restrictive falsehood it is. I’m a MOTHER.

My babies nursed at a tattooed breast. I swung a hammer restoring our beat up old Victorian while gestating. I’ve drag raced driving a Jaguar, a Corvette and a Plymouth Valiant. I know how to speed shift in a Karmen Ghia. I’ve been married twice. I’ve had love affairs that were mind-blowing, multi-continent and terribly illicit. I’ve drunk many a man under the table – including her father. I’ve spent enough time on construction sites to be able to use every bad word in a single sentence.

Sure, I was also in a sorority and I know how to write a thank you note for any occasion. I understand cutlery and can set a table for a six course meal. I can brew tea for thirty and make finger sandwiches out of delicate little bits of this and that. What can I say - I’m a brassy renaissance woman.

And that’s the problem. This whole mother-as-sole-identity thing might have worked in the fifties. Maybe even in the sixties. But what happens to those of us born after the sexual revolution? How do you stop being who you are so you can successfully raise a happy Puritan?