Gardena – First entry of my WIP memoir

I have been enrolled off and on in a memoir writing class over the last year or so.  During that time I have written several vignettes, dealing with various subjects, parts and times of my life, working off of whatever popped into my head in the days before the next class assignment was due.

Throughout that stressful process I had been struggling with how I wanted to organize those stories in a way that might make them interesting for my audience, which essentially means my two daughters.  They both know a lot about my immediate family, mainly my mom and my sister, as my girls have spent a lot of time with both of them over the 25 years of their own lives.  They are both acutely acquainted with my own self-image and my cynical sense of humor.  However, as young women of the millenial generation, I don’t think they, like many of their peers, have much appreciation for or understanding of the struggles and challenges faced by their foremothers, especially those like myself of the baby-boomer generation.

In the end, at least for the time being, I’ve decided to organize my stories chronologically as much as possible. Fortunately for me, then, I have already written the first story I wanted to tell about the beginning of my life, which took place in Gardena, which is thus also one of the Places of My Life.  Here it is…

I have a lot of good, but hazy memories, of my childhood in the small town of Gardena, California.  Those memories include a range of the usual neighborhood activities, though my childhood home was situated in an unusual location which was not ideal when compared to current standards and preferences for raising a family in safety.

Gardena is a city located in the South Bay (southwestern) region of Los Angeles County.  Some believe the city was named for its reputation for being the only “green spot” in the dry season between Los Angeles and the sea.  Gardena officially became a city in 1930 when it incorporated itself as protection against a heavy county tax imposed on a planned park project.

Gardena is bordered by two cities, Torrance and Hawthorne, that big beautiful park developed by the county that Gardenans didn’t have to pay for, and two neighborhoods, Athens and Harbor Gateway, that are officially part of the city of Los Angeles.  Athens (and I didn’t know till now that it had a name) is a predominantly black, heavily Hispanic, relatively prosperous unincorporated community.  All the schools in Gardena were part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the nation, with a reputation for extremely crowded schools, large class sizes, low academic performance and incompetent administration.

Harbor Gateway (as it was renamed by the city of LA) is a narrow north-south corridor situated approximately between Vermont Avenue and Figueroa Street north of Interstate 405, and Western and Normandie avenues south of I-405. The territory was acquired by the city of Los Angeles in a shoestring annexation, specifically to connect San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and the Port of Los Angeles with the rest of the city.  Despite being part of the city of Los Angeles, some parts of Harbor Gateway have a “Torrance, CA”, “Gardena, CA” or “Carson, CA” address because they are serviced by those cities’ post offices. This is where I lived from my birth, on Wednesday, April 26, 1955, until we moved (a whole ten miles and ten years later) to Torrance, so my sister and I could complete our early educations in a better school system.

503 w 157 realtorWe lived at 503 W. 157th Street, on the corner of a busy main street, Figueroa. Fig ran along the side of our house  and the street in front of our house was the entrance to the neighborhood.  Fig was on the side of the house you can’t see in this photo, which I can’t believe I was able to find today online, so maybe the house still looks like this, as it did when I lived there! No matter what they’re called today, like subdivisions or some such other high-falutin or modern terms, I will always associate happy memories, wherever I live, as having taken place in a neighborhood.

Kitty-corner from us across Figueroa was the Spanish American Institute.  I guess I really never knew what went on there, I just knew, or at least I think I can recall, that a small herd of cows may have been housed or stabled there.  I had no idea at the time what function the cows may have served at the institute but we could smell them and touch them and I think maybe even ride on them, unless that was just a figment of my childhood imagination that I choose to hold on to, among others.

sai cattle being examined by bob  kathy hedges
There really were cows across the street!

Our neighbors, both close by and farther afield, encompassed a variety of family sizes, arrangements and ethnicities, during the first ten years of my life that my own small and homogeneous family lived in this little house with the carnations (which had a beautiful smell) and geraniums (whose smell made me want to puke) that grew in the ground along the non-busy side and the large fig tree that anchored the far corner of the brick enclosed back yard.

Gardena, like many of the suburban areas of Los Angeles, now probably falls within the category of urban sprawl but, back in that idyllic time, it was one of the new bedroom communities rising out of the rich California farmlands that were initially cultivated by Japanese and Mexican families.  I know that my family, Dad and Mom, added a master bedroom and bath, with a fashionable walk in closet, to our house, probably around the time my sister came along, about 4 ½ years after me.  I also know that two very different families, in almost every possible way, had lived next door to us in that ten year period, on the other side of those flowers and brick wall.

The first family there was the Millwees and oh my god!  They were four typically rambunctious blonde and freckle faced boys.  Mom was Esta, an unrefined woman who spoke with maybe a slight Okie accent and had the dusky dark skin tone and long lanky physique to match.  Dad was Don, Sr., a construction worker or some other outdoor manual laborer of that time and place, like maybe an oil field operator.  I don’t think he was around very much; he had to work a lot to support that large and active family.  I remember the two older boys, Donnie and Brad, and how I would halfheartedly chase them around the grass and the yard and up the fig tree, sometimes even walking dangerously balanced along the brick fence that separated our ordered backyard from their chaotic one.  Most searingly, my most ingrained memory of trying to act like one of the boys is the one where I stepped off the fence into their backyard, in my rubber go-aheads, only to encounter a nail sticking up out of a block of wood there that ended up with its point embedded in my foot.

On the other end of the spectrum was the second neighbor family, a pretty traditional Japanese one.  Theirs, like ours, was composed of a mom and a dad and two little girls.  I don’t remember a lot of details about those people, but image of the beautiful, colorful, large and sort of exotic Japanese dolls, encased in glass, that were prominently displayed in that home, made a long lasting impression on my by then expanding and inquisitive mind.

I think the neighbors across the street were Filipino, with a grandma who nurtured a beautiful rose garden.   I remember proudly bearing a few of those fragrant colorful blooms to a favorite teacher, with the stems wrapped in a wet paper towel to preserve them, surrounded by aluminum foil to preserve my fingers from the thorns.

I don’t think I have ever again lived in such a relatively small geographical area that encompassed a similarly large diversity of neighbors.  This early exposure to the variety of colors and languages of America’s citizens probably, especially in retrospect and in comparison to the places we lived while my kids were growing up, opened my mind and my heart to appreciating all of our wonderful differences!

Brentwood, Tennessee (not California)

Brentwood is an affluent neighborhood in the Westside of Los Angeles, California.  As a member of a group of nearby neighborhoods that are affluent, it is known as one of the “Three Bs”, along with Beverly Hills and Bel Air.  This Brentwood is now most famously known as the site of the 1994 stabbing death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, by her ex-husband, the now infamous, O.J. Simpson.  Brentwood is also a city and an affluent suburb of Nashville located in Williamson County, Tennessee.  This Brentwood is little known outside of the Nashville area, unless you’re an already wealthy local celebrity or an aspiring country music star.  I certainly didn’t know anything about the Brentwood in Tennessee, until we made the difficult decision to Relocate there in 2006.

Husband had been working for the same large company for 25 years.  We were both in our very early 50’s when husband’s employer told him they were moving from the L.A. area to the Nashville area.  At first, I didn’t want to go.   My entire family lived in California, I had a good, cushy and flexible job, and I was spoiled by the whole situation, but knew we would not be able to stay in California unless husband could find a good new job that he might like to do for the next 15 years at least.  In 2006, I had been working for a small company for almost 10 years, and for the last five years of that part-time, which gave me a lot of flexibility as a parent.  Our two daughters were of high school age; one about to enter and the other with two years to go.  We reluctantly decided that a move at that time would be the least disruptive of our looming unsavory options.  After all, Tennessee’s climate is relatively temperate.  We thought there would not be too much snow in the winter, compared to the far northern US, and not too much heat and humidity, when compared with the Deep South.   There was no state income tax and the overall cost of living in the Volunteer State was low compared to the Golden State.

We started house hunting in Brentwood in late 2005.  We’d decided to settle there since it was touted as having the best public schools in the Nashville area.  I might have known right off the bat, though, that this city would end up being not my kind of place, when the realtor made a point of emphasizing that it was only a day’s drive from the beach, by which he meant Florida.  Blind and overwhelmed fool that I was, I assured him that this fact was unimportant, since I’d lived near the beach all of my life but didn’t go there very often anymore.   More so, I should have taken a clue as to the pending uncomfortable affluence of the place when he showed us houses in a private gated golf course community and a home formerly owned by a current country music superstar, on that first visit.   It’s amazing to look back on it now, but the golf course homes were “too much” and Trisha Yearwood’s house was not enough, maybe because she didn’t have kids, I guess.

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Snowfall in February 2006, when we signed the purchase contract

On our second trip, we finally settled on the purchase of a home The Highlands of Belle Rive, the third or fourth subdevelopment in one of the town’s older subdivisions i.e. after Belle Rive I, II and III.  Passing the signs with fancy-shmancy subdivision names, like  Carondelet and Concord Hunt, Fountainbrooke and Fountainhead, The Governor’s Club, King’s Crossing and Princeton Hills, should have been my second clue that this city would end up being not my kind of place.  This was also the first time I recall ever hearing anyone use the term “subdivision” and we’d always lived in usually unnamed and untitled i.e. anonymous neighborhoods that, if anything, were identified by the closest major intersection.

The HOBR (Highlands of Belle Rive, the very fancy title of our swanky and exclusive-sounding “subdivision”) and our new house, on a quiet interior corner, and steeply pitched, lot, did have beautiful views, ready access to Brentwood High (3.5 miles down the hill) and the Deerwood Arboretum (1.5 miles up the hill).

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Photo of view taken from our patio, the only flat spot in our backyard!

When we completed the second of our two moving trips in the early summer of 2006, we made two startling new discoveries, both courtesy of my mom who had come out to help us settle in, inspect the place, and prove to herself that it wouldn’t be too hard to visit us in the future:  (1) Two of our new neighbors were also California transplants due to relocation by the same employer and (2) summers in Tennessee, even if it wasn’t Florida, could still be extremely hot and really humid.  It was so uncomfortable to be outside, even in the evening, that none of us felt like going to the park down the hill to watch the July 4th fireworks.  Mom was also the person who bestowed the title “The Beverly Hills of Tennessee” on fair Brentwood, after she found out what it would cost to finish the basement.  This ended up being nearly a third of our purchase price, mainly due to the city’s requirement to have a bedroom window for egress and where our classy and meticulous contractor found a boulder that required a few weeks between storms to remove.

School started in August and in September the HOBR HOA held a Labor Day get to know you potluck supper up the hill at the closed end of my new short cul-de-sac block.  By then, the weather was closer to comfortable and I met some of my more-established neighbors on that socially level and financially egalitarian playing field, including some young transplanted (from Seattle and New Orleans, I think) entrepreneurs who took pity on my lonely soul a few years later by employing me to write some of their press releases on contract.  Found out when I was working for them that they were also Emmy winners who kept a condo in a downtown Nashville high rise as their office space.  Still pretty fancy for this California bumpkin!

By now the reader may have an inkling that, as noted in Wikipedia, Brentwood, Tennessee, is also known for its rolling hills as well as being one of the wealthiest cities in America relative to the average cost of living, and is also Tennessee’s best educated city, proportionately, with 98.4% of adult residents (25 and older) holding a high school diploma, and 68.4% of adults possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher (2010 Census).  On top of that, Brentwood is located in  Williamson County, which is ranked among the wealthiest counties in the country. In 2006 it was the 11th wealthiest county in the country according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but the Council for Community and Economic Research ranked Williamson County as America’s wealthiest county (1st) when the local cost of living was factored into the equation with median household income.

As I set out to “find myself” in this strange new place, this atypical California girl encountered many unexpected roadblocks, which proved frustrating to my pursuit of new friends in real time, i.e. in my five year residence there, but, in the comfort of my current and comfortable 20/20 hindsight, I now find them to be oh so understandable.

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