June 21, 2018

My Corner of the Canyon: Diamonds and Rust


Almost every day I pass a cabin-like house just a bit up a hillside on Old Canyon. It surprises me how cavalier I am about driving past without giving it even a fleeting thought, never glancing over, zooming by preoccupied with my varied musings and obligations. I offer not the slightest nod to a family that used to live there. It seems odd not to think of them, for they were us.

Upon first moving to Topanga from Venice, the Canyon seemed so remote, so far away. I feared driving the winding roads and twisting turns. My parents were concerned about the questionable parking at the house we had found that necessitated a rather abrupt, unsafe turn, which I admit I found challenging. I remember arguing with them about our move, trying to assure them my husband and I knew what we were doing and I felt as if I were 16 again pleading for a later curfew.

“And what about the fire danger?” my loving parents also questioned.

Actually it was partly because of the fire we moved to Topanga. In 1993, after the flames were finally extinguished, there was an incredibly strong community feel to Topanga. Everywhere along the roadside were handmade signs reading, “Thank you Firefighters,” and “Bless you Station 69” and “Thank you for saving our home. We love you.”

I persuaded my parents the Canyon had been purged, that the community was diligent about fire watch and on high alert. “We’ll be fine, don’t worry. Did you see the little alcove for Riley’s crib?”

So in 1993, amidst the ashen, charred hillsides, with a phoenix rising trust, we moved our six-month-old son to Topanga. This month he turns 21.

Though not young when Riley was born, I was younger. It was springtime and seemed quite correct and seasonal to bring forth my firstborn at a time shared with all those little lambs and bunnies and chicks. I felt in tune with nature and so delighted to be having a son.

Little did I know that the birthing experience would not be as easy as dropping a foal in the meadow. But somehow, at last there he was, my own Easter duck! When we moved to the Canyon the season had turned to the golden glow of autumn. And, yes, I can still remember something about that hopeful, happy family (Mike Anapol still had hair and a few bucks in his pocket) who lived in that little funny house for their first year and a half in Topanga.

One night, driving up Old Canyon under a full moon, I glanced over and there, behind some trees, in the middle of a corral, glowing in the night, stood a white unicorn. I took note of the location and the next day with Riley on my back in some carrier contraption, walked across the street and down a little ways coming to the magical property of the Woods family who were Topanga artisans and royalty. I didn’t know that then. At the entrance to the eclectic estate is a beautiful decorative, handcrafted, wrought iron gate, open, on which was the design of, yes, a unicorn and an inscription across the top which said…ah, here my memory fades. They were beautiful words, too. Oh, what were they? How could I forget? I can’t live another moment without knowing. Whom should I call to quickly ask, “What does it say on the Wood’s fence?” What Topanga expert would know? And wouldn’t it be a great question in an all-community scavenger hunt? But maybe that would be cheating. I had better get dressed and, like any reporter worth her salt on the margarita rim, go find out for myself.

So I go, park and cross those old planks of wood, vaguely familiar and stand looking at those enchanted gates. Strange to have forgotten them for so long. I read anew the wondrous words. And over to the side I see the old corral where Riley and I encountered that first day, a rather dusty white donkey with a comical, honking bray. Of course, I knew Snowball to be truly a unicorn simply disguised as a donkey by day and I told my son so. I wonder if he remembers? And on my way back I am moved to stop for a moment in front of the old house and pay homage to the family who used to live there. I can almost hear Lobo bark.

I peer through the slatted gate, (new since we lived there) and see the little winding stone steps up which we so joyously carried a small boy. And above is the balcony facing my mountain on which he frolicked wearing but a diaper and a few first teeth. Oh, dear boy, we love you so much.

The year and a half lived there was overflowing. Literally overflowing as we became acquainted with the inadequate septic tank. There was a cozy Christmas and an earthquake where the electricity went out and we couldn’t find the flashlight. There was a first birthday and a ­party in the little garden. There was my first Topanga job at Cali-Camp where I was the oldest camp counselor ever. We saw our first Topanga Nutcracker, ­discovered Children’s Corner and met Chester Hoover, Riley’s first and fine friend. We experienced our first Topanga Days and the parade. I became pregnant and had an early miscarriage. I remember a pink dress.

One morning there was a scorpion in the living room. On a cold weekend we sold something called Psychic Socks alongside the road where my husband dressed as an old lady named Mrs. Pole.

For his second Christmas Riley got a guitar and we watched the squirrels outside the window. There were new stars in the sky and an old boxcar called, Topanga Homegrown. During a big rain the kitchen flooded. We lost the cat. We celebrated an anniversary and went to see Joe Jackson. We read the Messenger.

There were deer in Topanga State Park. My mother died.

A constant leak occurred in the stairwell and we had to move.

We packed it up and headed down the road. Goodbye, 929 and to that once new family who lived there.­­­

Riley is home briefly for Spring Break. Racked with questions about life and his future, he ponders the meaning of things as he is poised, just there on the verge of his 21st birthday. “Sometimes it just seems to be all about money,” he laments. And, oh, of course, at times it does seem so but I know it’s not.

As with “Diamonds and Rust,” the Joan Baez song Riley and I listened to in the car on his final day here, I know it’s about memory. I know it’s about houses you share and rooms and doors you walk through and little boys who grow up to be nice to their sisters and become fine men and maybe remember, just a little bit, a unicorn who looked like a donkey.

It’s about coming into this world and just doing the darn best you can with what you’re given. And it’s adhering to a simple legend placed across a magical entrance in Topanga, which just as well applies to all travelers in life, and should not be forgotten:

Enter All Ye In The Spirit Of Love and Leave Enriching Your Lives And Ours.

Happy 21st Birthday, Riley