Chronicles of Ubo: Diddie’s garden

Here is a quick early morning dream I had under the influence of the waning moon: My grandmother Diddie (that’s Virginia Culpeper Wellendorf Creely to the rest of you) was a major influence in my life, a trite phrase that does nothing to capture the importance of our relationship. If I was Harry Potter shivering under the stairs, she was Hedwig. If I was Taran, swinging a sword stupidly while making brash statements about who I was and who I thought I could be, she was Dalben, looking up from her book and offering dry and precise utterances about the truth of the matter. If I was— excuse me,  when I was— lost, confused, frightened, unaware, self-hating, doubting and imperfect, she was there inside my personal ecology, which was characterized by a horrible isolation from myself that I barely survived.

She was the golden woman in the center of my darkness, stern but very human, ameliorative, authoritative and loving. Betsy dear, she would say, have you considered, are you thinking about, have you seen….Betsy dear, she would say, do you know? Usually I did not know.

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990 When Diddie died in 2001 I had a dream about her, a common dream for people to have about a beloved who has died. You may know the one: they appear looking healthy, whole and happy. Perhaps they have a bit of a glow to them. If your mind whispers to you, this is not possible. This person is dead, you may still comprehend that they, somehow, still exist.

Diddie showed up a week after her death. She was leaning against my parent’s kitchen counter, clad in a crisply ironed white shirt dress, the type she favored (Betsy dear, she told me once, trousers do not suit women. She meant short-waisted women like she and I. And she was right. I look better in a dress.) I noted that she was carefully groomed: she was wearing Estee Lauder frosted apricot lipstick, and her blonde hair was waved. Her face was relaxed and radiant with happiness and good humor. Although I knew she was dead, I also knew that she lived, that she still was. Death is not the enemy, my dad told me.

Diddie contented herself with that one glowing appearance and then took off for parts unknown, until two nights ago when she re-appeared. In the dream, I was wandering around aimlessly in a garden bordered by mucky, swampy mud and filled in the center by two small pools. They were configured like a figure 8 laid down flat. The first pool had some water in it; the second pool had almost none at all. The water was quickly percolating out of it, causing the mud to quiver and shimmer. I didn’t like being in the mucky garden: the mud felt unclean, too organic, too busy with small insects. Putrefaction was afoot in this garden and although I felt I was there on some mission, I was— of course— completely confused about what the mission was, exactly. And then in the middle of my puzzled disgust, Diddie showed up.

Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

It was a dramatic appearance: she stood before me, visible against a dark background with her hands extended toward me. Do you remember the upper garden, she asked and suddenly I saw pink gladiolus, and other flowers bright and blooming and colorful: pink, orange, all illuminated by the sun and as vivid as life itself. Do you remember, she asked again, insistently. I said yes, Diddie I do. I remember! I remember the upper garden! And then I did remember, in one quick moment: there was a garden I had known once and then forgotten.

Get the bulbs, she said. You have to get the bulbs of the, and the words she used to describe the bulb of the flower were words of deep meaning with no equivalent in English or any spoken language on this earth. I repeated the unreal word in hopes of understanding more. Get the bulbs, she said again with some agitation, her hands in front of her, palms up, in the manner of an urgent plea. Get the bulbs. You have to….

It went on from there in much the same manner. She told me more, but I was engrossed in my conversation with her and didn’t remember to remember her directions. I fall into lucid dreaming very easily, but find that when I do, the mythic content of the dream becomes compromised. It’s your consciousness or the dream’s consciousness, I find. The two don’t co-exist.

The next morning I told my friend Tarin about the dream, and she asked, what did she want you to do with the bulbs? I couldn’t answer. I didn’t remember what she said; I only remembered Diddie’s entreaty: the position of her body against the dark and her hands held out that way urging me to get the bulbs and…

Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990
Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

What did she want me to do with the bulbs? Plant them in the muck and mire of the Lower Garden? What happens when you take vibrant life and put it in relationship with putrefying death? Death is not the enemy, my dad told me as he choked back tears while his father, my beloved grandfather Bunster Creely, Diddie’s husband, was loaded into an ambulance after suffering a Transient Ischemic Attack in my parent’s backyard, one sunny Christmas day.

Death is not the enemy: these are plain English words spoken on this earth, words that have been spoken to me urgently in waking life. This sentence, this communication is also gestural and Diddie showed me what that gesture was: hands outstretched, and the urgent repetition of the name of a unknown flower. Maybe I’ll somehow discern and say the name of this flower— correctly and often— and find and plant its bulb. And then I’ll start asking this question: What is this ecology?

Written under the influence of the Waning Piscean moon.
Great for dream-work; not so great for work-work or business communications about non-existent MOU’s and contracts.
By the by, Gladiolus symbolize remembrance and are associated with August according an entirely non-scientific Google search.
 
Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.
Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.

 

Chronicles of Ubo: Private Road, Newport Beach

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA
Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

There’s a road named “Private Road” in my home region of Ubo which, appropriately, I never noticed much or at all until I came back to live there for four months in the fall of 2012. I was in a sleuthing and investigating mode then, à la Nancy Drew. A secret lake, a lost Indian spring, the provenance of my brother’s illness, mysterious culverts that crisscrossed the two cities of Ubo: all of these things pre-occupied me with their unknown origins. And when I thought I could neither discover nor query anything else, I found a street entitled “Private Road”. How stupid, I thought irritably. Who names a road “Private”?

A real estate developer, working in the frontier of early suburban development in Orange County, that’s who. It’s likely that it was this kind of guy (it was probably was a guy) who looked over the bluffs of the neighboring estuary and saw a view, which was, and is, a prized feature. The view was public and thus un-monetized, a situation that could not stand. It was transformed into a private view, on a private street, something rare and exclusive. (How do you make money from the intangibles of space? Ask any Newport Beach land developer. They’ll tell you.)

The name worked like a charm. I had never noticed the road. Had I noticed, I would have obeyed its finger-wagging admonition to Stay The Hell Out. Private Road stayed off my radar of the many locales, destinations, spaces and sites that, when assembled, created the geographical and social space I called home.

Private Road is on a grade, and curves up from Irvine Avenue, a long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which symbolizes the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic: heaven-bound and unapproachable for those of us with no money.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road is in a wealthy neighborhood, like most neighborhoods in Ubo. The median house prices are stratospheric and the spatial dimensions of the houses are similarly unbound: they’re large and getting larger. The pseudo-Eichler houses built after the Second World War with their modest square footages are being ripped down as their original owners die and the property is sold. Bigger house with more square footage and ersatz French Chateau-like exteriors are replacing them.

This is an old complaint and not a very interesting one: I came home and everything was different, cries the adult, who left while they were young, and so inadvertently imprisoned the place they left in an inflexible memory.

I don’t know, exactly, how a road that was built and maintained with state and county money could be considered legally private. It’s protected from my memory by the simple expedient of naming it “Private”. Perhaps this name-as-inoculation was the most important magic to be worked. I, like many others, had knowledge of other spaces, some of them very different, like Santa Ana, for instance. It has small pink and blue houses with many people living in them and chickens in the front yard.

I lived on Croftdon Street as a small child. When I was 7, my parent’s friends brought their children with them on a visit, thinking we would get along nicely and play well together. Sadly, their children were total assholes. There was a South East Asian family across the street, and a Mexican family living next to us, and a Japanese family further down. This unsettled them. “What does it feel like to live in a ghetto?” one of them asked us sneeringly.

The developer of Private Road would never have asked this question because he wanted never to know. His query was more complex, his concern different: how could any space in Newport Beach— well on its way to attaining the sort of agonized and self-conscious air of exclusivity it has today— co-exist both in my consciousness and the consciousness of the well-heeled Newport Beach homeowner, given that I played with Raj, the brown-eyed boy whose mother was from Ireland and whose father was from Gujarat? The road was less than half a mile from the Costa Mesa City limits! Borders needed to be set. Privacy accomplished this.

The gap in my memory is a deliberate and purposive act of segregation, frustrating not only my physical presence, but preventing me from making a commons in my memory, an association of Private Road as a part of the place I lived, with the images of Raj or Mr. Leon, an elderly Mexican man who lived next door to us on Croftdon.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Today there is a white, slightly rusted sign affixed to the neatly trimmed hedge that marks the entrance to the road. I want to be alone, the sign seems to sigh in an exhalation of weary ennui. The streets that border Private Road don’t have this attitude. They’re friendly tree-lined streets that I traversed as a child, going here and there between the beach, or the dentist on Balboa Island, or my grandparent’s house on Aliso, or our bookstore on 17th street. Santiago Drive, 23rd Street and Tustin Avenue: I know them and love them all, especially Tustin where, in the dusky evenings of the nineteen-forties cars would speed recklessly and sometimes crash into the swamp at the end of the street.

Anyone with a computer can look at Private Road now. Go ahead. Type in the words “Private Road, Newport Beach, CA” into the Google search field, select the little Google manikin and drop it squarely on the entrance to Private Road. See the cunning little red bridge next to the private pagoda? It’s adorable— a wonderful example of the Orientalist decorating craze so common in Newport Beach back in the fifties. Please notice the stand of bamboo just to the right. Click some more and proceed. At 2317 Private Road, two women stand chatting in the driveway, having what could have been a private conversation, were it not for the omniscient gaze of a Google camera.

Hey! Yeah, we just thought we’d drop in! Where’s your icebox? Where’s the punch?

Moving on, you can see the house next to them, with its cute rose-bedecked bower and small grove of aspen trees. Swing around sharply to your left and look at the kidney-shaped pool. Legions of happy, sun-tanned Newport Beach children grew up in this pool, safely shielded from the public gaze which would surely have burnt their tender skin with all that avid public curiosity.

Have the inhabitants of Private Road given up the battle to maintain their privacy? The space opposite them, the Upper Newport Bay, isn’t private. Through the efforts of Frank and Francis Robinson, the bay was rescued from the same obliterating vision of private development, and was instead restored and opened up to public access. Not so for the historic site called “Cherry Lake”. What used to be a spring — a democratic place, surely— that provided fresh water for the Tongva, the Native American tribe who had been in residence since they sprang into being as a people, is now a private lake.

What were the inhabitants of Private Road rejecting? What did they think was being kept at bay? What did they want to keep hidden, shielded from scrutiny? Was Precious getting bombed?

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

The other day, as my mother and I were out, I told her I had something new to show her, in a familiar neighborhood she once lived in as a young mother. I turned down Irvine and made a left, heading up the road and into the secret cul-de-sac. My mother gaped at the pagoda.

“My god,” she said. “I never knew this was here!”

“You weren’t meant to, “ I replied. “It’s private.”

Diddie’s house

From a 2001 entry in my dream journal: “Diddie died last October. On the weekend that she died, Emily and I were at Orr Hot Springs. We drove back Saturday morning to meet our sister Anne at my house on Alvarado Street. Our poor sister had to tell us that our grandmother was dead. 

I dreamt about Diddie’s house two nights ago. She was my Grandmother. Her real name was not Diddie. The dream was produced under the influence of a few things: a late night conversation with my sister who was describing her house to me –“It reminds me of Diddie’s,” she said excitedly- and also the vivid dreams I often have after not sleeping well. (The dream was not a happy return to a beloved place: there was strange man warning me that I might well have to leave California.)

The house was hard to describe even in the first few minutes of waking consciousness. It was inchoate; mesmerizing.

Diddie’s house is a recurrent theme in my dreams. It’s usually a different shape or in a strange location. Secret rooms appear, which I never knew existed. These rooms give me hope that the house is has grown, is living. I explore them curiously, tenderly. There’s the backyard, always. The interior of the house- the painting, the large medallion of Shakespeare, the picture of the geraniums, the small watercolor of Charity Farms, the farm in Hogsthorpe, England where her Grandfather grew up- these do not appear.

Bunny's desk with painting of Charity Farms
Bunny’s desk with painting of Charity Farms

The missing objects prevent this dream from becoming my own personal version of the children’s book, Goodnight Moon. These items, which catch and snag my memory, are still around. Two of the paintings hang in my house. They are not lost. But the house is. I watched it go: watched the insides get taken out and disposed of (a terrible process that provoked an scary and unprecedented fight between my beloved Aunt and myself. And my poor Father.)

Dream journal entry from June 2001: “Last night I walked into Diddie’s bedroom. To the left hand side of the door was a hole with a rickety staircase descending down. I stared into the hole, wondering what was down there. It wasn’t dank, dark or scary. It was, instead, illuminated with the light of the mid-afternoon sun. I began to weep, hugely, almost athletically, pulling energy up from my diaphragm and shoving it out the front of my face. I pounded the ground, I hugged my knees and crouched and howled and when there were no more tears, I still tried to cry…”

Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918
Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918

The house was too valuable to keep. It was located in Newport Heights in Newport Beach, a sleepy seaside town when my grandparents arrived there in the early forties. Diddie’s house was on Aliso Street, just east of a bluff that overlooked Pacific Coast Highway. When the weather was clear, you could walk down the street and look at Catalina, crisp and clear, and smoky blue in the distance. Developers, looking to monetize the perspective of bluff-ocean-island, built huge homes on the edge of the cliff and privatized the view.

The city of Newport Beach grew and asserted itself. Ranch-style homes and pseudo-Eichlers started to appear alongside the square little bungalows. Still bigger homes were built. Skyscrapers appeared to the south. Fashion Island, the modernist outdoor mall, was built.

The house, screened by a pepper tree and a hedge of toxic and fragrant white oleander, didn’t call attention to itself. None of the houses on Aliso Street did at that time. They were smaller, low-slung, relaxed. It was Newport Beach. The outdoors was the attention-grabber. The sun set, it seemed, just forty miles away over the long spine of the submerged mountain range that is the Channel Islands. The winds blew calmly over that small white house with the redwood rafters.

From the dream journal: “I dreamt that Diddie’s house, with the knowledge and connivance of Diddie…had been blasted to make way for a new structure. ..somebody had cut down the ancient pepper tree in the front yard. That is what sent me over the edge. The tree had been ripped asunder, torn apart. It was a horrible dream… I screamed at Diddie…”

The house was torn down. I knew it would happen. My father and I made a last tour of the house, shortly before it went up for sale. I took pictures of the house and the grounds it sat on. I took pictures of the glassware that still sat on her dining room table, the way the light hit it.

I ran water in the sink and remembered a time when I was an eight, washing dishes next to Diddie. The water flowed over my hands and the sunlight that came in through the window above the sink illuminated it.

“Look at this!” I said to Diddie. I  meant: look at this incredible element in your house. Look at the liquid light running over my hands.

Diddie nodded and said, yes. I see. She saw the light, too.

Diddie's house is full of light.
The table in the dining room

Here is a summary of a dream that all the other dreams made, the logical end point to the ripped-out pepper tree and the wailing and the snarling rage of my dream-soul: My brother Jim and I stand looking at Diddie’s house, which is pale green. It stands on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There is a narrow path that borders the sheer drop – one misstep, and you’re over the edge, falling to your death. The house is very old and loved and beautiful. I am aware of a stained glass window- old and English in an ecclesiastical way.

The house is condemned. It is going to be destroyed. Jim and I walk around the house looking at the decay: it is slick with moisture. Green vegetation shoots out the windows, slowly covering the wooden boards. The house is being reclaimed not by mechanical forces, but through natural means: it is slowly re-enfolded in verdant green vegetation. I start to cry as the ground crumbles under our feet and the house begins to fall.

And then Jim and I push the house and help it fall, down into the ocean, which is bright blue and sparkling.

****

It seems that the death of Diddie and the destruction of the house hasn’t foreclosed the possibility of someone still living in it.

I think I go there more often than I know.

Have the people who live in the new, modern house heard the quiet sound of a door being closed? Muffled conversations in a living room that isn’t there? Do they hear the sound of running feet? Are the secret rooms in Diddie’s house passageways into the new house?

Have the current occupants seen a elderly woman with blonde bobbed hair who walks briskly from room to room? Do they sense my presence? Hers?

The house that used to be there?

Virginia C. Creely  in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990
Virginia C. Creely in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990