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Home, Sweet Mobile Home

After Inheriting Her Grandfather's Topanga Trailer, She Envisioned a Life of Communal Bliss. So Why Did She Feel Like a Party of One?

October 18, 1998|TARA ISON | Tara Ison is the author of "A Child Out of Alcatraz" (Faber & Faber), for which she was a 1997 Times Book Award finalist for best first fiction

I was distraught, adrift. Too much was gone. I'd just walked away, at the first serious wrinkle, from my first serious love affair. I'd graduated from the cocoon of UCLA two years earlier and still had no real career. My landlord of several years was kicking me out to turn his Beverly Hills duplex into a private-care center for ladies post-opping from plastic surgery. And my grandfather, the patriarch, our captain, suddenly died. My family decided that until life smoothed out and I was on my feet, I should live in his mobile home in Topanga Canyon.

For several years my grandfather had lived in Palm Desert, the Southern California equivalent of staking out an ice floe--his way of drifting off so as to be, at the end of his life, no burden. While visiting late one night, I'd seen him sitting alone at the head of the dining room table (oh, those Passover dinners for 20, those obstreperous family barbecues!), with a pink disk of canned salmon overturned onto a plate before him and a pile of saltines. His few hairs, stiff with Vitalis, were tousled; he wore a tank undershirt, gray and thin with wear. He sat, an old man with a can of salmon, gazing into space, chewing a stale saltine. When he saw that I saw him, he was embarrassed.

He was ready to get back to life, we'd thought. He'd suddenly announced the sale of his Palm Springs place. He'd informed us, moreover, that he'd bought a mobile home. Near us. He was going to live in the Woodland Park Mobile Estates in Topanga Canyon.

This seemed odd. My grandfather was conservative, a Reagan Jew. He always drove a Cadillac (bought used, yes, a man who liked getting a terrific deal, but still). He was a man who navigated his spotless, gas-gulping boat through the flat and linear San Fernando Valley with lordly ease. Topanga Canyon was bohemian, winding. And a mobile home, to us, meant bickering, alcoholic neighbors and mangy dogs. We couldn't see it; he must, we figured, have gotten a terrific deal on the place. At least he was coming home.

He moved in on a Wednesday in late December. My sister-in-law and I had planned to help him unpack and settle in over the weekend, but on that rainy Thursday night, not feeling well, he drove himself in his Cadillac from his new mobile home to a hospital in Panorama City, suffered a heart attack on admission and died early Saturday morning. We buried him next to my grandmother, in a nice double vault at Groman-Eden Mortuary he'd purchased 30 years ago--a terrific deal, really--overlooking the San Fernando Valley. He'd steered his ice floe back to us; he'd wanted, we realized, to come home to die.

Topanga Canyon. This would be good for me. The legendary floods and mudslides and fires aside, it promised healing crafts and brown rice, a land of hippies and herbs, a utopia nestled between the gleam and salt of the Pacific Ocean and the safe familiarity of my parents' house in Woodland Hills. On long, scent-filled walks through the chaparral I'd discover, and be befriended by, an artists colony; we'd tie-dye sheets, make cheese and crushed-ice candles, pound silver wire into jewelry and pose nude for each other to the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar or the bubbling sound of a redwood hot tub. Neighboring musicians and I would hang out at the Topanga Corral, get stoned, get in touch, astral project. The Byrds would be forever posing for album covers near the canyon's stables and horse trails. I would be a Lady of the Canyon--yes, I knew, the wrong canyon, but still. I would grow my hair long and ripply, wear Indian cotton, drink goat's milk, stop shaving under my arms, dance like Stevie Nicks through a Renaissance Faire life of incense and mandolin music. Everyone I met would have a horse. I would become a regular at the Inn of the Seventh Ray. I'd fall in love with a man both burly and sensitive, whose sweat would smell of patchouli and wild mustard. I'd discover an artistic tendency, discover meaning deep within the canyon's nurturing embrace. Topanga--"where the mountains meet the sea."

I drove blithely past the Woodland Park Mobile Estates at first, heading deeper and farther into my canyon. A mile later I arrived at the "Top o' Topanga Estates" and, remembering my grandfather's descriptions, realized I'd gone too far. I headed back toward the Valley. Just past a "guest ranch" where city people could rent, breed and groom horses by the hour, I found the entrance; the circular gravel driveway, a tiny three-tiered fountain and a sign warning "No Solicitors--Private Property" led to my new home. I was a mere mile from Ventura Boulevard.

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