Picture six girls, twelve and thirteen and fourteen years old sitting at a wooden table on a mild Southern California winter day eating lunch. Listen in while they talk about school and teachers they like and those they don’t. Hear them rattle on about band and choir and drill team. They laugh about boys they have crushes on, slumber parties that always end with frozen bras and pancake breakfasts, and the friend whose dares lead these good girls into trouble.
|My spooky 12th birthday party|
Notice their references to parents and siblings and the beach, the constants in their lives.
Now picture these girls as women in their mid-fifties comfortably ensconced at their host’s dining room table, together in their hometown for the first time in forty years. Faces and voices, personalities and smiles are instantly recognizable, preserved perfectly in changed bodies that still embody the essential spirit of each old friend.
Their chatter bridges the decades spanning then to now. Each remembered name and place, each adventure and foible recounted adds flesh and blood to bones of memory that rise up and dance among them.
This is the portal I stepped through just over two weeks ago.
An afternoon with woman I knew as a girls—girls who, with the exception of my host, disappeared from my life in the span of single ride in the cab of my stepfather’s truck that transported me five hundred miles north and inland from Seal Beach to the Sacramento Valley where I spent my high school and college years.
The last time I was "home" I attended a reunion at a hotel in neighboring Long Beach one night with my husband in the early 1990s with my young children in tow on our way to Disneyland.
My host visited me once in the late 1990s, and we exchanged the occasional Christmas letter over the years, knowing only patches about our adult lives until (praise technology) Facebook. She is on it less than I, but that “friend request” a few years ago made our lives more accessible to each other, and led slowly over the last year or so to me reconnecting with other friends from childhood.
My father moved away from my hometown several years after I did, and once I no longer made trips there for holidays to visit him and a few old friends, I lost touch with the places and people from that long formational decade.
As time passed and my own children were growing up secure in their Santa Cruz mountain hometown a world away from my own, my early life felt imagined even to me, lacking in materiality to confirm it.
I began writing in my late thirties, attempting to recreate my childhood with keystrokes, typing stories from my first school (now a shopping center), the abandoned railroad tracks the neighborhood kids and I crossed on our way to the beach that have long since become a linear park, and run-ins with teachers on the verge of retirement, who must now be dead.
There are decades when one naturally looks forward, creating a life too new to look back on, and yet once we reach a certain age, or stage, the desire emerges to visit where we’ve come from—whether it is in celebration, or in relief. And I, at least, want company on my journey into nostalgia.
Some of those “remember when” conversations take place on a Facebook page made anyone who grew up in our town, some decades before us, others decades after, but I do not want to confirm my memories, or offer up my losses for comment by scrolling strangers—an odd decision since I do exactly that as a writer.
I signed up for a writing conference in Los Angeles in late February, bringing me within a half-hour of home for the first time in over twenty years, and when I mentioned the possibility of visiting, my friend offered not only to host me overnight, but to organize this small blessed reunion.
|My host's home: our time travel capsule|
We toasted with champagne, we leafed through old yearbooks and photos, and took group photos on our phones and cameras, posting them to Facebook and our hometown page.
|A 40 year reunion|
They say you can't go home again, but that's exactly what I did. I went home, thankful for these dear women who made our afternoon of time travel possible, grateful and amazed by my host, whose family has resided in Seal Beach for generations, whose memory astounds me. Firmly rooted in place and time, she remembers more about certain details of our childhood than I do myself.
The next day I walked to all the places I’d traversed as a child, the once vast spaces reduced to mere blocks as I looked to the horizon, and not at the world beneath my feet as I used to. Nearly all the old businesses are gone, those whose buildings remain sport different names.
I carried my camera and snapped photo after photo:
I once lived here.
I went to school here.
I watched the lifeguards play baseball on summer nights here.
My father and stepmother lived here.
I finished my trek on the beach, remembering those long summers of sunning and bodysurfing, and of the lives of my old friends fresh in mind from the day before, including the honest revelations about ourselves as teenagers that we never knew about each other then.
My shutter clicked: I walked this pier, stood on this shore, my feet in this water.
I returned home with hundreds of photos to sort through, along with memories of conversations with my host and personal historian, and the handful of sweet souls she gathered together, vivid in my mind.
These words are my homage to the beach town that calls us each of us home and to the girls and their families who welcomed me into their homes and lives then and now.
A history of fading fog and bright friendships.
Here’s to us: past, present, and future.