When I was a child in Southern California during the Depression, my family moved from the valley to the sea, from Alhambra to Los Angeles to Santa Monica, and back again to Los Angeles, from houses to apartments to rooms behind stores and over stores. For all the places where we lived and left, only once did I feel grief for loss of place.
In the early ’30s, the repeal of Prohibition allowed for the opening of liquor stores, which led my parents in search of a store. We moved—from Alhambra, where I had started school—to Los Angeles and a little white house on 39th Street. Though barely 8, I understood the difference between the two-story, four-flat building my parents had owned and lost in Alhambra and our new single-family home in Los Angeles. In the four-flat, my father had demanded quiet for the sake of the tenants—he couldn’t afford to lose them. In our new home, he said I could make noise.
The house looked like a picture in a book: white ruffled curtains at the windows and the greenest lawn in the world, with a red brick walkway leading to porch stairs flanked by two columns. I believed the columns, with carved leaves circling from top to bottom, protected the fairy-tale house.
Built-in glass-doored cabinets stood inside between the living room and the dining room. My mother used this special place to show off her stemmed pink dessert glassware she used for company when she served fruit cocktail with red cherries.
I loved the backyard, where a fig tree in the middle of the lawn had purple fruit waiting to be picked. Its branches reached out with wide, flat-fingered leaves. At the very back of the yard, red hollyhocks stretched high into the sky. My dad put up a swing set and a teeter-totter to make the backyard perfect.
Even school was perfect—third grade, then fourth grade, when we could be in the school chorus, where Miss Winkler, the pale, gaunt music teacher, led us in melodies that taught us about harmony and happiness and sadness—”Bendemere’s Stream,” “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” “Danny Boy.” And what a thrill when a radio station invited us to sing as the youngest chorus in the city. We gathered in the broadcasting room, where bluish lights made Miss Winkler look paler than ever. But when our voices rose in response to her expressive hands, her face glowed.
In the fourth grade, our teacher, Miss Dunne, brought nasturtiums to class. What a discovery, these plants with their bright, rambunctious flowers, their large seeds, their edible leaves. Miss Dunne told us how to plant the seeds and gave them to us from packets with pictures on the front. I knew exactly where mine would go—in a large circle at the base of the fig tree. My stomach jiggled with excitement—for the first time, planting seeds for my own flowers. Miss Dunne had told us how to loosen the soil, how deep to place the seeds, and how to water the ground for the seeds to grow.
“And, children,” she said, “you will have to be patient for quite a while before you see the little plants poke out of the ground.” I didn’t know what “quite a while” meant, but Miss Dunne said she knew we would be good at waiting.
All I knew that year was my happiness at home and at school, getting good grades, loving the singing, playing in the back yard with the grass tickling my bare feet, reaching up for soft, ripe figs, waiting for my nasturtiums to show themselves. And the red hollyhocks, somehow always there, always vivid and vigorous high above my head.
I knew nothing about my parents’ plans for the future.
It turned out that plans for the future meant leaving the fairy-tale house. My parents had finally found a place for a liquor store, far from where we lived. We would have to move. I would have to change schools.
At that time, children didn’t question their parents’ decisions. Parents did what was necessary for the family to survive, and where they went, the children went.
I finally understood that I would never see nasturtiums emerge from the soil and bloom like in Miss Dunne’s pictures, with the yellows, oranges, reds dancing on the ends of wiry stems. Nor would I ever persuade my mother to cut up the leaves for the salads and add the flowers for decoration as our teacher had said we could do. And I would never sing on the radio with the chorus again.
Saying goodbye to the class and to Miss Dunne at the end of the semester marked an ending. On my last day in the classroom, Miss Dunne hugged me. Then she gave me a note written in her perfect teacher handwriting on blue stationery in which she wished me well and said how much she and the class would miss me the next semester.
Only much later could I speak of displacement, of uprootedness. But in my sadness at age 9, I only knew that I had lost something—a place, a time—neither to be retrieved nor repeated.
Anne Fox is a copyeditor for writers of fiction and nonfiction and has had her own work published in hard copy and online.