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THE GENERATIONS ISSUE / Things Handed Down: Sometimes
the most precious gifts passed on to us aren't trust
funds or jewels but everyday objects that evoke the
richness of family


Leilah Bernstein finds there's almost no better future than being able to live in your past

April 30, 2006|Leilah Bernstein | Leilah Bernstein is an associate editor for West.

My sunny yellow kitchen is a room of reminders--of burnt toast and spills and laughter and stories, stretching back four generations.

More than 70 years since my great-grandmother leaned against this same sink washing dishes, I'm standing in her footsteps, soaping and sponging by hand. When I look up, the thick row of bamboo my grandfather planted waves at me beyond the window.

In the cupboards are my grandmother's pots and pans, her mixing bowls and trays. On the countertop sit my father's bottles of wine. Then there are the etched-glass pitchers, fine china and silver serving dishes--the best kind of hand-me-downs--that were left by my great-grandparents.

Now I'm filling this kitchen with my memories. And though I want to preserve a family legacy, I dream of establishing a home of my own--in another house, making a fresh start. That may happen someday. For the time being, my conscience tells me to stay.

My great-grandparents, Charles and Sarah Bernstein, bought the Spanish-style house near the Fairfax district in 1935, two years after it was built. They had moved from the small, snowy town of Marquette, Mich., to the East L.A. neighborhood of City Terrace before settling in this new Jewish community.

By the '40s and '50s, their son, Morris, and his wife, Lillian, needed the space to raise their three boys, and my great-grandparents left for a small bungalow in Ocean Park. Back then, the house was thrown open for Cub Scout meetings, birthday parties and barbecues. The backyard filled with landmarks that remain today: my grandfather's fruit trees, my grandmother's rose bushes, a wooden clothesline post built by a great-great-uncle.

As it was for my father, Leonard, this was my first home too. I remember romping through that overgrown backyard with my brother and sister and the smell of antique furniture and books. Later, even when I lived in an apartment a few miles away, I never really left; the house had long since become the place for family gatherings.

The first two generations are gone now, and I've moved back, living in rooms that blend past and present. In my bedroom, among my things, are my great-grandmother's dresser, my grandmother's carved wood rocking chair and my father's bookshelves--simple comforts still in good condition.

But it's hard not to miss the signs of wear and tear. The wrought-iron front gate and Art Deco-inspired mirrors have lost their luster. The foundation needs repair, the driveway should be repaved, the walls deserve new paint.

Still, the memory of my grandmother lingers in the kitchen doorway, where her pencil marks recorded my height as a child. They're smudged now, but I can't imagine ever painting over those.

Ghosts appear unexpectedly. I recently opened a hallway drawer and found old letters, sewing patterns and silverware. What is the story behind them? What more is there to discover?

Until I know for sure, I figure I'm as rooted to the house as the great Chinese elm that my grandfather started as a seedling. So last summer I planted a lemon tree with my father in the center of the backyard, and I can't help but wonder if, one day, a fifth generation may see it flourish.

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