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125 YEARS / A SENSE OF PLACE

Spanish stucco and common dreams

April 30, 2006|Carolyn See | Special to The Times

I'M thinking of a dark wood dining table, highly polished, adorned with a bowl of gleaming fruit. Outside the bright sun glares, but the room itself is cool and dim; the fruit appears to float in twilight.

I'm thinking of flowered couches, two of them facing each other in yellow lamplight. Of watercolors from the 1930s up on the walls, of the smell of jasmine on warm summer nights blowing in from the Hollywood Hills through open French doors. Of Catalina pottery, reds, greens and lemon yellows, stacked up in kitchen shelves or on sideboards. Of sheets dried outside on clotheslines, then tucked over mattresses in strict hospital corners. Of mourning doves humming in the soft summer dawn, of the owl that swoops down on a telephone wire at night and gives an awful shriek. Of sloping lawns, as green as emeralds, and sprinklers whirling, throwing up drops as bright as diamonds....

Oh, come on, Ma! Not another sloping lawn!

It's my daughters' voices, lodged securely in my mind.

Well, I ask them, can I at least have a buckling sidewalk, a cracked cement retaining wall that kids walk along, balancing precariously as they walk home from school?

And how about a raggedy line of eucalyptus, or an ancient orange tree left over from when all this land stretched out for miles, as far as a car could drive for four hours? And some ceanothus, that great California lilac?

If you must ....

But then I get a little defensive. I'm a California novelist. And I'm a woman. I'm not going to go on at length about baseball or spies or shooting rapids in the Italian Alps. Most of my stories occur inside houses; most of my characters do much of their living at home. I love them, so why would I want to stick them in a roach-infested 50-floor walk-up with a window on an airshaft?

Instead, they're probably going to live in a carefully maintained workingman's Craftsman from the first part of the 20th Century, -- or a Spanish-style stucco three-bedroom with tile floors that click when the dog walks on them and a picture window that opens up across the hills to almost half of the city, so that on a clear day you can see downtown to the left, and -- over to your right -- all the way to the mesa of Baldwin Hills and its curve into the ribbon of the ocean. And if it's a really clear day, Catalina.

And let's not forget Cecil Brunner climbing roses, whole banks of them drooping in the summer sun. And rye grass. Plenty of rye grass, growing damp green in winter and then turning a dry peppery gold. And back in the kitchen, some oilcloth on the kitchen table. Mom's made a sponge cake with chocolate butter frosting. Can we take some of it out into the backyard?

My mother got on my nerves more than anyone I ever knew, but my ideas of home come directly from her. Spotless, maybe a little spartan, with plenty of books and watercolors, Catalina pottery and flowered couches. When my stepfather moved in, he brought wimpy white china with gold edges -- ugh! And blond '50s furniture.

I moved out when I was 17. And then lived with a well-meaning stepmom who spray-painted couches bright red and put black wallpaper with pink-cabbage roses on the kitchen ceiling and bought 37 identical cookie jars, just in case she ever decided to make a cookie.

Time passed; it seemed like forever. My first and second husbands and I were poor, dirt poor, graduate-student poor. My first husband has said in an interview somewhere that once I came home with an end table in poor taste and he felt sorry for me, but answer me this, Richard! Where did I get the money to buy the end table? I thought so. Nowhere. That's where.

In our life together, it was mattresses strewn straight on the floor and glasses purchased a pair at a time and a mirror with a beveled edge that cost $5 and a Salvation Army dresser. I still have that. Cost $15.

And after a couple of decades, I found myself in a house that had flowered couches facing each other, a dark-wood dining table that never seemed to get the polish it needed, Catalina pottery accrued piece by piece. Something, spookily enough, almost exactly like what my mother had put together, something that -- at 3 in the afternoon -- meant tranquillity and stillness, perfect, precarious peace.

I really don't get minimalism, the modern look. Sheep wool and chrome excite my scorn. Those big pieces of "art" owned by the very rich make me giggle. I'll stick with Frank Romero and Carlos Almarez -- paintings of bright colored freeways, palm trees, public parks, shootouts. French country makes me a little crazy, like listening to a bad piano recital. If you want French country, go and live in France, is my thought. And I don't like houses that are too large. You rattle around in them. You get lost in the bedrooms. You find yourself alone.

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