California

Castle

My grandparents used to live in a castle. A 1970’s track home in Irvine (someone once told me that Irvine is the Jewel of Suburbia) situated on the inevitable cul-de-sac in a planned neighborhood with greenbelts that ran for miles–the one behind their house led to a park that did have a literal cinder block castle. You could see the Disneyland fireworks on summer nights. On the Fourth of July, we’d set off firecrackers in the street: Chinese lanterns, glowing snakes, whirling tops, cindery worms.

This house was from an era where you had both a formal dining room and a sunk-in formal living room plus a garden tub in its own room off the master bathroom. They had a wet bar that separated the wood-paneled den from the casual living room, and my grandparents kept it stocked with tequila, gin, rum, and whiskey. My Papa’s pipe sat in its stand on the mantle of the nearby brick fireplace next to the tintype of my Great-Aunt Blanche.

Surrounded by a forest of houseplants, my brothers and cousins and I would float in their giant tub, mermaids lost at sea; we’d gaze at the crystal decanters filled with golden liquid at the wet bar, marveling at their glistening mysteries. My Nana’s giant cedar-lined walk-in closet held treasures . . . a stole made from seven minks sewn together, a child-sized (literally the size of a child) Strawberry Shortcake doll, strings upon strings of pearls and gold chains that she bought by the foot on one of their many cruises. The staircase to the second floor ascended high into the ceiling of the formal front room (if you let go of a balloon too far away from the stairs, it would be lost to the ceiling until it lost enough air and sunk down). I would stand on the second landing (which often my brothers and I used as a stage for our puppet shows) and gaze through the railings. Puffy valences in avocado, bronze, and gold topped heavy gold and cream curtains that framed giant picture windows which looked out onto the wall of boxed privacy ficus trees. The light in this room–like many rooms in my Nana and Papa’s house–was filtered green. I wasn’t allowed in the formal living room, but I snuck in whenever I could.

My Nana kept her treasures in this room. She had a little porcelain egg that sat on a wooden pedestal with orange blossoms painted on its side. Next to that stood miniature marble replicas of David and the Venus de Milo. On the glass and oak coffee table, a basket of artificial roses perpetually bloomed. Nearby, two rose buds, encased in a box of glass, rested on a bed of moss. Tiny granite animals–fish, elephants, a cow, a bull, a whale, and a multitude of turtles and tortoises–milled about on a shelf. A carved mahogany chair nestled between two walls of full-length mirrors; its red velvet cushion issued a constant invitation to sit down and pretend to be a queen adored by her Lladro subjects.

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The backyard of the house was a tri-level cement slab that my grandmother transformed into a verdant jungle of ficus, fuschias, succulents, citrus, stag horn ferns, hibiscus, impatiens, gardenias, and mosses. Small “box turtles” roamed freely, feasting on snails and banana slices; my Nana knew each one by sight and would cheerfully call out their names. A hot tub hid behind the foliage in one corner of the yard; a gas fire pit filled with black lava rock beckoned from another. I would spend hours playing in that yard, picking fuschias and pretending that they were little ballerinas.

Staying at Nana and Papa’s house was an adventure. An exploration where so many surprising and wonderful things awaited. Here my imagination for what could be and what might have been was developed as I learned to tell stories and invent histories for things that seemed so ancient.

They moved in the early nineties to a small condo that they made no less magical in the course of the years that they lived there. Then they moved again to a large condo in the same complex and transformed that space too. Yet neither place was a castle. Perhaps I was too old to find wonder anymore. Over time, the David and Venus de Milo disappeared. The egg was forgotten. The roses replaced by more current (and realistic plants). Color schemes changed from avocado to forest green. Brown-grouted tile was replaced by granite. Furniture changed hands (I have some); plants have moved up and down the state and sometimes to neighboring states as my Nana gave them to her kids and grandkids (I have some of those too). So many little bits of my imaginary life fallen along the wayside. I didn’t even know I was missing them.

Now my grandparents are moving for what we all hope is the last time. And in the course of packing them up, I am finding bits of childhood I forgot I even lost, stuffed in drawers, hidden in chests, boxed away. I found the egg in a perfumed-soaked drawer where we learned that the egg was actually an Avon perfume bottle. David and Venus were wrapped together in another drawer. I carefully rewrapped them and placed them in a box labeled “fragile/valuable.” In this same box, I put the stone animals and other sundry childhood treasures I found around the house.

Once again, my Nana and Papa’s house became a treasure trove of delightful surprises–I never knew what I’d find in the next cabinet. Surprises made all the more delightful because they restored to my memory those moment of magic I’d lost to time. I can see now what these treasures actually are: knick knacks from a different era. But to me they shaped in so many ways how I see the world. I will forever associate Michelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo; when I saw her in Paris a few years ago, she looked so lonely with her mate so many miles and centuries away. To me, they are a soul-mated couple. Fuschias always make me smile as I remember my ballerina girls.

Even though my life could probably benefit from fewer knick knacks of my own, I realize that, for me, they are just things but points of departure for my flights of fancy. They are moments of wonder.

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