Much of my fiction is set in a place that resembles my hometown of National City, California and some of my characters live in a house that resembles the National City house I grew up in. I’ll argue that these similarities are due not to writerly laziness or lack of imagination, but to an emotional attachment to a place that inspired a deeper connection to the characters I was creating.
In the backyard of that National City house, my father built us kids a playhouse. The character Johnny in my novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced also built his kids a playhouse, which aged like ours did.
The playhouse eventually became the repository for all things broken and superfluous, mostly rusted garden tools, cracked planters, coils of old hoses, and crumbling statuary. The curtains had come down long ago. It was a toolshed. But Johnny knew that in the dusty corners and in the cracks of the floorboards were lodged a tiny Barbie shoe or a peeling rubber ball or some other long-discarded relic of childhood.
The front yard of the National City house went through various phases of earnest and inexpert landscaping. At one time it resembled this description from When the de la Cruz Family Danced:
He lowered himself carefully into one of the faded redwood-stained chairs on the little square of lawn. Plastic deer grazed around him and ceramic squirrels posed in mid-scamper. Orange monkeyflower, red geraniums, and something yellow and bitter-smelling struggled from bulky planters that tilted on a jagged quilt of rocks—white, gray, and baby-girl pink. A hibiscus next to the driveway twisted on itself with unpruned growth. Down near the sidewalk, a small tree dangled its thin limbs that shed sticky red filaments on passers-by. He and this anemic garden were enclosed by a chain-link fence, flimsy protection in a neighborhood that had grown vulnerable over the years.
My mother decorated the interior of the National City house with ceramic roosters, birdhouses that housed no birds, and potted plants, most of which were fake. In the story “When Danny Got Married” in my story collection Hola and Goodbye, there’s this description by the character Julia:
My mother cultivated a plastic garden of ivy and fern—not from pots or vases, but from the heads of shepherdesses or the bellies of trolls, various body parts of ceramic figurines she painted and glazed herself at the community center adult craft classes.
I wanted to convey how these characters put their dreams and desires into their surroundings and, in a sense, became their surroundings. Like them, my parents worked hard to buy the first, last, and only house they would ever own and to make it a home that even with time and inevitable decline would cling to its original promise of shelter and protection.
Recently I had been thinking about no longer placing my fiction in the fictional place of Kimball Park or in the fictional house across from a park and next to a ballfield like the National City house my siblings and I grew up in. It was time to move on, I thought, to another residence in another locale. And because the universe likes to play mind games through bizarre coincidences and quirky correlations, it decided to remove the house from my life. My older sister who owned the house and lived there with another sister decided to sell it. It was time for them to move on. I’m the outlier sibling, the only one that left Southern California and I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to the house. But over the years, every time I left after a visit was a small goodbye, and I suppose all those small goodbyes can be strung like a necklace for some semblance of closure.
Someday I will write about the National City house —about the grandfather clock that interrupted my sleep on the quarter-hour when I visited, about the bars on the windows that became standard neighborhood décor, about the removal of a bedroom wall to form an extension to the living room, a space that years later accommodated my mother’s rented hospice bed.
Weirdly, I have few photos of the interior of the house. It was my mother’s front yard that fascinated me the most. And I have pictures of the details but not one of the yard in its entirety. For a while, until the memory fades, my brain will readily conjure the pieces into a whole. But of the details, these are among my favorites: the statue of the Virgin Mary accompanied by two dogs, one real and one ceramic, and the statue of St. Francis gazing heavenward paired with a googly-eyed gnome in the background.
After my mother had the yard cemented over and a gazebo installed, I often sat in its hot shade, my elbows and feet poking at the dirt and cobwebs that collected in all the corners and crevices. I basked in the company of ceramic gnomes, religious statuary, and plastic deer, ducks, and frogs scattered in various buddy combinations around the yard. Here are my siblings on the day they left the house forever, posing in the gazebo stripped of its cramped patio furniture, denuded of its debris, and absent the surrounding artificial fauna. That house that anchored me to National City is no longer part of my life. Now when I visit my sisters, I’ll head to a neighborhood in South San Diego, just a little over three miles from the old house that is someone else’s now. I’m looking forward to seeing their new smaller, yardless surroundings, to sitting on their porch to take in the vibe. I’ll miss the gnomes and saints and pretend wildlife. Yes, there’s gnome place like home, but there is life beyond gnomes. There will be new things for me to observe and contemplate and imagine into fiction.