Thursday, August 30, 2007

Losing Claremont

This summer I must say goodbye to my childhood home in Claremont, California. My father has sold his house and will move away forever in two weeks. I feel like I'm reading the last few sentences of a cherished novel.


My parents and I, along with my two younger sisters and brothers, moved to Claremont from Rolling Meadows, Illinois soon after the Chicago blizzard of ’76. It was a record-breaking storm that left snow piled so high you had to dig yourself out of your front door. For a kid my age, playing outside was like navigating an alien planet. You’d go out in your puffy astronaut attire, and your feet would begin to sink all the way down to your waist. If you weren’t careful, you just might be sucked into a cold white, endless void and disappear.

So Claremont was a foreign, but welcome place. As we arrived at the airport and headed toward our new home, the California palm trees beckoned us like pillars along a palace entrance. Dad had purchased a new house already, and it was empty and waiting.


Claremont is a college town, with Harvey Mudd, Scripps College, and others. The colleges give it both an educated, stately air, and a secret hint of rebellion. Every street in that town is named after a college and lined with a different species of tree. Yes, trees are an important part of its appeal. Old Claremont has enormous trees that umbrella the street, and charming homes that hint of both the old south and beach front property mixed in one. Our house was in a newer section of town, on Occidental Drive, exactly where Occidental intersected Scripps Avenue. So you could see it peering at you for quite a distance as you approached. It had an enormous princely tree in the back yard, lined with noble subject trees on both sides, and I named every one of them.


Claremont was a friend to me at a shining time of my life. I quickly left my awkward pre-teens behind and entered a realm of self-assuredness. In Claremont I learned to drive, date, and dance. I got my first job at the Danson CafĂ© downtown. It reeked of bread, wine, and steamed scallops. There were chocolate cakes in the window, made by the owner’s wife, decorated with chocolate candy leaves and raspberries. On weekend nights, a saxophone player piped out “Misty.” I learned to cut tomatoes properly and to count back change.

My years at Claremont High School were “glory days.” Everything was golden then. As a freshman, I was a performer in Mrs. Allen’s award winning dance team. The Band and accompanying drill team participated in competition half-time performances all over the state, and won the “Sweepstakes” trophy nearly every time. We were unbeatable. In my remaining three years I was a junior varsity cheerleader and then a songleader for a football team that won every game and eventually claimed the C.I.F. Conference championship. I still envision the opposing players dropping to their padded knees and sobbing as those final seconds ticked away and victory was ours. We had Dan Mcguire as our quarterback, brother of Mark Mcguire of baseball fame. I had a tight group of girlfriends who were adventurous, hilarious boy-magnets, and we re-wrote adolescent history. Glory days.


My parents had two more children, making a total of six younger siblings who I secretly adored and openly tolerated. I had a feisty younger sister who I thought I hated but was in reality my best friend, and the only one to stand up for me when rumors flew and friends turned their backs.

I remember my mother in Claremont. She was alive and well in those days, with a knowing laugh and a gentle, wise demeanor. She made apple spice cake and macaroni shrimp salad. She always wanted to do the right thing and had a giving spirit. She and my father taught me to love God and to approach religion with a desire for truth. Mom rescued me hundreds of times, but mostly from my own stupidity. She died of breast cancer, and we buried her in Claremont’s Oak Park Cemetery. Over the years, when I would return to Claremont, that cemetery became a spot for private contemplation and remembering. Even though my mother wasn’t physically with me, I could rummage through my feelings while I sat on a bench engraved with her name, under a tree that looked like the open palm of a hand. I remember my mother in Claremont.

Eventually Dad remarried, and his new wife at first brought confusion, then courage and peace. She redecorated the Claremont house. She reinvigorated the dying garden and breathed hope into my broken father. He became healthier and renewed. It was a testament that change carries along some good if you give it enough time. But change has always been hard for me to handle. Over the years I faced many painful changes: Divorce, single parenthood, remarriage, step-motherhood, and raising children with special needs. But Claremont was my anchor, my familiar retreat, my link through time and space back to the excellent days of my youth. On a few occasions I came back alone or with one small child, and found myself exploring the familiar streets downtown where despite growth and renovation, Claremont’s charm has survived.

After thirty years, I am losing Claremont. Even mother’s body will be respectfully relocated to a cemetery closer to Dad, so my connection to her there will vanish. I will now have easier access to my parents, and this is a positive thing. Yet I am heartbroken over losing Claremont. There will be nothing in that town to call my own except my memories. Can a person retain a small sense of ownership through recollection alone?


If Heaven exists, and if I’m fortunate enough to ever find myself there, then somewhere in its vast setting of splendid landscapes is a place that looks and feels a little bit like Claremont. That’s where my home will be, if you care to visit. I’ll have a fire burning brightly in the fireplace. Come stop in for a while.