On their honeymoon, Grace Marvin’s grandparents came to Los Angeles and never left. In her essay, she examines her family’s California origin story, how history is passed on from generation to generation and the deep roots planted in the place where we grow up.
I am often reminded of how we became Californians.
I say often because my grandmother, Sylvia, has a penchant for repeating the same stories and that particular tale is one she enjoys telling. Her repetition doesn’t bother me. There’s a reason these stories are the ones that stuck. They are moments that informed her, shaped her. There’s the one about her Jewish friend Lois giving her a bagel for the first time. If it is a hot day, she’ll tell us how when she was a young mom in the 1950s and the San Fernando Valley’s summer heat became too much, she’d strap the neighborhood kids into the station wagon and drive the curving roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, not stopping until they reached the sand. Sitting on a clogged freeway in Mission Viejo, she’ll recount working as a secretary at Saddleback Community College during the student anti-war protests of the early 1970s. They told the secretaries to lock the doors, turn off the lights and hide. After 90 years on earth, these are the things she remembers.
There’s one story that precedes her, but she tells it anyway. It is the account of how she came to be born in California and—consequently, the rest of us were too.
The way that tale goes, my great-grandparents came to California on their honeymoon and never bothered to go home. It was the late 1920s when they arrived in Los Angeles and the city bore little resemblance to what it would become in the second half of the 20th century—a sprawl of city, suburbs and browning lawns, filling the basin to its smoggy brim. In a few years, the stock market would crash and droughts in the Midwest persuaded thousands of Americans to go West, in search of work and maybe a little luck.
What did a honeymoon one hundred years ago look like? Surely there was no all-inclusive resort. No snorkeling excursions or couples massage. Were their pockets stuffed full of cash from well-wishers as is the norm today? Modern-day honeymoon perks aside—as they basked in their freshly vowed love for one another, I imagine my great-grandparents saw California for the first time through the rosiest of lenses. Lenses that made the hills more golden, the ocean bluer and the sun that much brighter. Or maybe that was their youth. The fleeting years when you are old enough that your decisions hold weight, but young enough to feel as though everything can be done over.
I’ve wondered before what it was that made them stay. Was it the weather? Perhaps it was seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Could they have had the foresight to imagine how the San Gabriel Mountains would rise above downtown and become snow-capped in the winter? Four decades before The Mamas and the Papas convinced a generation to do some California dreaming, they decided that having citrus year-round was something to write home about.
They decided to stay and two generations later, I decided to leave. Decide is a strong word. Do we really decide anything at age 18? It felt more like I got caught in a breeze, and when it stopped—I landed. Packing up my childhood closet on a scorching September day, I frowned at the piles of shorts and T-shirts, all of them too lightweight for Seattle. Sitting at home on a Friday night in high school, discouraged by my lack of extracurricular plans, I had stumbled upon the movie Singles. It chronicled the lives of a group of 20-somethings all living in the same apartment building during the heyday of 90s’ grunge. It made Seattle seem moody, messy and immoral. At 18, I was eager for all of that. Seattle looked like a place where I’d have plans on a Friday night.
By my mid-20s, the idea of home creeped in and I began to feel I should be rooted. My string of shabby apartments and moving from city to city had always been a conversation starter. Now it was a stopper. I used to pride myself on how easy it was for me to leave. Once a positive, it was now a negative. How could you have nothing to leave behind? I began to think that I may never feel rooted. That unless I was in California, the roots just wouldn’t take. The honeymoon was over.
There are many things that are difficult about California. Juxtaposing landscapes, politics and people. Nothing really comes easy, contrary to every pop song written about the state. Things are simpler in Washington than in California. I make more money, pay less in rent and I’m not stuck in traffic as often. The fires aren’t as bad, and there is a season in between summer and winter. It is called fall and it’s glorious, nothing like an Indian summer. It also does not occupy a slot on the list of phrases waiting to be renamed something politically correct. And yet, when I lie in bed waiting for sleep, visions appear. Gnarled oak trees nestled in the crevices of straw-colored hills and spring fog burning off over the Pacific interrupt the still, dark night. My great-grandparents passed down more than their genes; those rose-colored glasses must be hereditary too.
My grandmother’s quip isn’t entirely true. Her parents didn’t set out on their honeymoon and fail to return home. They did in fact go back to Somerville, Massachusetts, to get their affairs in order and pack for a cross-country move—but they were newlyweds and didn’t have much. Probably didn’t know much either.
They knew that in Los Angeles, oranges grew in the orange groves all the time and the air smelled sweet like the jasmine, and also a bit spicy from the eucalyptus. They didn’t know that nearly all their grandkids would move out of Los Angeles County by the 1980s and some of them can hardly stand to spend a day within city limits. My father will sit in traffic, grimacing and cursing, until he reaches a beach in Orange County and surfs until the sun goes down.
And that is why we are Californians, she says.
We are in her house in San Clemente sitting together in her living room and she’s telling me about the honeymoon again. She looks the way that I think I will remember her always. Linen pants, a crisp, white crew-neck sweatshirt—occupying her corner of the couch with a large stack of newspapers and sketchbooks on the table next to her along with a cup of coffee, a large glass of water or a small pour of white wine depending on the time of day. The windows behind her look out at tiers of 1980s ranch-style tract homes sitting upon palm tree-laden bluffs. A freeway wall is visible at one end of her small back patio, a sliver of ocean at the other. Commerce versus climate. As much a part of the state’s legacy as the people who have, one way or another, come to call it home.
Grace Marvin grew up in California and now lives, works and writes in Seattle. She is a graduate of Seattle University.