My Mother’s Feet

lor2It’s shaping up to be a beautiful Indian summer in the Bay Area, which means lots of trips to the beach for me and my rowdy little dogs. Now, since I spend a healthy portion of my hard-earned cash on beautifying my feet, one would understand that I generally protect my investment, meaning that I, you know, usually wear shoes, even if my toes are almost always peeking out.

But the beach presents just too great a temptation. Maybe not so much in wintertime, when it’s wet and just nasty, but on a beautiful September afternoon under a warm blue sky, well, who can blame me for taking off my sandals and going barefoot, even if it does mean tracking sand into the house? And the last couple of times I’ve left the beach, I couldn’t bring myself to put my shoes back on, because of my San Diego summer childhood memories of walking barefoot almost everywhere…..I remember, as a kid, we had this weird sense of pride in seeing how leathery you could get your feet over the course of the summer, so that you had a protective layer to shield you from the scorching sand and parking lot asphalt. A far cry from San Francisco in my 30s, where I protect the delicate constitution of my soles come hell, high water, or overdrawn checking accounts. But sometimes, you just have to say f*** it.

So yesterday I left the beach and decided to walk home up the Great Highway, behind a row of quintessential beach houses with back gates (which I love), and in the course of goading my little boy dog along, looked down and saw the dark sand and street dirt on my toes, and it hit me like a ton of bricks: my mom’s feet. The last time I saw her was in 1998, and I remember looking at her sitting cross-legged in a rocking chair in our living room and realizing that I totally have her feet. And hands. My face is mostly from my Dad’s side, but my body, all Moms.

I can’t tell you how many people I know with crap Dads. Mean Dads, drunk Dads, absent Dads, inappropriately touchy-feely Dads, cheater Dads, workaholic Dads, shady Dads, incarcerated Dads, beat-ya-within-an-inch-of-your-life Dads. But almost everyone loves their Mom. It’s almost socially taboo to not get along with your Mom, and the fact that I haven’t seen mine since 1998 or spoken to her since 2001 is a sore subject.

But here’s the deal: I don’t get along with my Mom. There, I said it. As a child I idealized her. Then, at 15, when I got to lor1move to San Diego and live with her full-time, I got a big reality check. When she threw me out of the house at 17, the day after my junior year ended, I told her I’d never speak to her again, and I meant it. Of course I did speak to her again, but only out of necessity. After that, things between us were always broken. I’ll spare you the dozens of stories, with the exception of this one: she once frogmarched into my workplace and demanded to see me in the back of the store and accused me of having a huge bag of cocaine in what had become a sober household and threatened to throw me out on the street (again). When I got home I saw that she and my stepfather had mistaken a Ziploc bag full of Victoria’s Secret bubble bath for blow. And she refused to apologize. Yeah. For reals. I mean, with a bag that size I could have quit my job. Anyway.

Over the years I let her back into my life periodically, only to be disappointed, finding myself on the receiving end time and time again of her manipulative behavior. And as I struggled to pay the rent and get through school and create some kind of life, I resented her more and more for being a woman who was quite intelligent and talented but always preferred to rely on her looks and charms to get some guy to take care of her. That, I just could not, and can not, get down with. So in 2001, after she sent me a letter so cruel that I termed it ‘Kryptonite,’ I gave up the ghost and cut off contact. That’s me, the big Deep Freeze.

Since she’s a gyplor3sy by nature (with a shockingly ordinary name), moving from San Diego to New Mexico to Texas to Arizona, I wouldn’t even know how to find her if I wanted to, except to look up one of her (and, ok, my) relatives, an interesting pool of upstate New York country types and Southern California Jehovah’s Witnesses and white trash. I thought I had pretty much come to peace with my decision to 86 her out of my life, though it did become an occasional subject of awkwardness when new acquaintances would ask.

I started dating a man a year ago who lost his mother to breast cancer shortly before. He was her favorite and they were incredibly close, and so her death was beyond devastating. His Dad fell into one of the categories above, but even so, he continued to see him and try to have some kind of relationship. My estrangement from my Mom was just unthinkable to him, and he badgered me – if gently – about it.

And then in the last year, I started to notice things – every time I saw a horse, I thought of her, as she practically grew up on their backs. My childhood memories of sailing all come from her. And I realized some things about my mother: she was the kind of person who would get a little catamaran and sail it alone across San Diego Bay. She never met a horse she didn’t like or couldn’t ride. She was a phenomenal artist. She loved animals, and we always had a Siamese cat. She’s the one who taught me the virtues of leathery soles, lor4and who gave me my priceless memories of 1970s Southern California beach life. I got my taco recipe from her. She was an unwed teenage mother (of my older half-sister, whom she eventually gave up for adoption to a relative) whose own mother was terribly cruel and jealous of her. She grew up in an era in which girls were raised to be pretty and get married. I think, now, looking back, that she was sad. She might have been manic-depressive. She truly was a victim, too, even if I will forever be uncomfortable with her embrace of the role.

And now I wonder about things: wasn’t her paternal Grandmother half Irish and half Native? Isn’t that where our butter-cutting cheekbones come from (not a cheekbone to be found on my Dad’s side)? What was her mother really like? Did she ever have reason to believe I was a twin in utero (I totally think I have a vanishing twin)? Didn’t she crave watermelon when pregnant with me? What was really her story? I have questions now, at 37, that I didn’t at 17, or 25, or 30.

I don’t know that I’ll try to find her. Part of me says just let sleeping dogs lie, that if I open up the door to her again I’ll just find myself disappointed. I’ll never get the apology I deserve. Then again, maybe I’ll get the answers I do, at least.

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A Terrible Beauty

Icrane‘m a bitch for beauty. I think it’s what’s kept me here in San Francisco for 17 years, long after it morphed from a diverse, mostly affordable, really fun town into an icy, monocultural playground for the rich and overly educated. As depressed as I get by the sea of vanilla faces I encounter when I go out, one gaze out to sea from the Presidio keeps me enraptured and fixated, not unlike a moneyed old geezer at a strip bar, unable to tear himself away from Amber or Taylor or Pebbles, swearing that ‘she really likes me.’ Like a crafty lapdancer, San Francisco wags her sublime beauty in my face and I open my wallet to pay for the rent, the parking tickets, the $9 burritos, the $40 mani-pedis, and any other overpriced, beautiful little thing she throws at me.

 

Years ago I made my first visit to Manhattan, which I expected to be a soulless concrete jungle, devoid of greenery and overwhelmingly postapocalyptic – a ‘terrible beauty.’ Instead, I found a charming red-brick wonderland of stoops, secret gardens, basketball courts, and newsstands. A few months later, driving back with a friend to West Hollywood from a wedding in lovely Diamond Bar, making our way over a tangled-spaghetti mess of nighttime skyways cutting through a maze of radio towers, dry riverbeds, and billboards, it occurred to me that L.A. is the city of terrible beauty. And while I have toyed with the idea of moving to L.A. off and on for years now, the recent visits have hammered home the visceral reality of eight-lane boulevards, lung-scorching smog, and freeways that are a special circle of Dante’s Inferno, leaving me not-so-keen on the idea of a southward relocation.

 

By contrast, San Francisco long ago divested itself of its working-class, Union-town flavor, eschewing heavy industry (happily handing it over to Oakland and Richmond) and cultivating a more genteel, rarefied white-collar economic base built on banking, tourism, and now, high tech. You’d be hard-pressed to find a strip mall within the city limits, and as rents and the cost of living have spiraled upward, the amount of working class, poor, nonwhite, artistic, or just plain not rich folks has plummeted, living a more glistening, if less interesting, city behind. There is no terrible beauty here, just beauty – majestic bridges, dizzying hillsides, quaint dollhouse architecture, Mom & Pop stores (want Target? or a graveyard? Get thee to Colma!), and a growing sense of exclusivity. In th past few years, almost everyone I palled around with has moved – to Mendocino, L.A., Oregon, Oakland, Pacifica, Philadelphia, or moved on – leaving not that many people left to have a leisurely brunch with.

 

In Janet Fitch’s novel of an prisoner’s girlchild ping-ponging through L.A.’s foster care system, White Oleander, the protagonist, Astrid, does turns in a trailer park purgatory in Tujunga, an elegant but hellish home in Hollywood, and an idyllic, blissful haven in WEHO. When that, too, goes horrifically awry, she turns her nose up at a benign bourgeouis couple longing to house her and opts to move to Frogtown, the gritty ‘bottom’ of L.A., into a busted-up house full of hard-luck girls run by an amusingly pragmatic Russian immigrant. Her rationale is that she’s finally landed where she belongs – next to the freeway, in a part of L.A. no one comes to or cares about, amongst the rusted hulks of cars, the weedy lawns, and the permanent saccharine vapors from a nearby industrial bakery. It’s not that Astrid feels sorry for herself or has grown cynical; rather, it’s a case of her surrendering her dream of ever having a ‘normal’ family, of living behind a picket fence, and coming to terms with what is. She takes her place among the detritus by the river and makes the best of it until she’s ‘18 and out.‘ There is an odd sense of belonging on ramshackle Ripple Street that she never found, with any legitimacy, anywhere else.

 

This came to me a few Sundays ago, as I was seized by a spell of particularly virulent existential ennui. Driving though an almost impossibly beautiful stretch of Marin County backroads, bucolic scenery everywhere, I heaved a deep sigh and thought, I don’t belong here, amongst all this beauty. I feel like a spectator. When I think of where my heart lies, it’s with my friends, and the hub of that wheel is L.A. My best friend lives in New York, but swears he’d move back to L.A. if I finally made the move. And the idea of the absurd freeways, the nuclear-orange sunsets, the cheap plastic surgery ads, and the jumbled apartment buildings felt, for a moment, eclipsed by my longing for home, for parakeets in palm trees and having breakfast with my homies on Sundays, and I had this weirdest, almost wordless sense of surrender, of handing myself over to the offshore oil rigs and the burning air and giving it up, this denial that I’m anything other than a SoCal beach girl who’s been living too long in this ivory tower we call the Bay Area, and of crying uncle and turning the key on a U-Haul headed down to the bottom of the bowl, where the sky might be toxic but the love is real.