I have been enrolled off and on in a memoir writing class over the last year or so. During that time I have written several vignettes, dealing with various subjects, parts and times of my life, working off of whatever popped into my head in the days before the next class assignment was due.
Throughout that stressful process I had been struggling with how I wanted to organize those stories in a way that might make them interesting for my audience, which essentially means my two daughters. They both know a lot about my immediate family, mainly my mom and my sister, as my girls have spent a lot of time with both of them over the 25 years of their own lives. They are both acutely acquainted with my own self-image and my cynical sense of humor. However, as young women of the millenial generation, I don’t think they, like many of their peers, have much appreciation for or understanding of the struggles and challenges faced by their foremothers, especially those like myself of the baby-boomer generation.
In the end, at least for the time being, I’ve decided to organize my stories chronologically as much as possible. Fortunately for me, then, I have already written the first story I wanted to tell about the beginning of my life, which took place in Gardena, which is thus also one of the Places of My Life. Here it is…
I have a lot of good, but hazy memories, of my childhood in the small town of Gardena, California. Those memories include a range of the usual neighborhood activities, though my childhood home was situated in an unusual location which was not ideal when compared to current standards and preferences for raising a family in safety.
Gardena is a city located in the South Bay (southwestern) region of Los Angeles County. Some believe the city was named for its reputation for being the only “green spot” in the dry season between Los Angeles and the sea. Gardena officially became a city in 1930 when it incorporated itself as protection against a heavy county tax imposed on a planned park project.
Gardena is bordered by two cities, Torrance and Hawthorne, that big beautiful park developed by the county that Gardenans didn’t have to pay for, and two neighborhoods, Athens and Harbor Gateway, that are officially part of the city of Los Angeles. Athens (and I didn’t know till now that it had a name) is a predominantly black, heavily Hispanic, relatively prosperous unincorporated community. All the schools in Gardena were part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest public school district in the nation, with a reputation for extremely crowded schools, large class sizes, low academic performance and incompetent administration.
Harbor Gateway (as it was renamed by the city of LA) is a narrow north-south corridor situated approximately between Vermont Avenue and Figueroa Street north of Interstate 405, and Western and Normandie avenues south of I-405. The territory was acquired by the city of Los Angeles in a shoestring annexation, specifically to connect San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and the Port of Los Angeles with the rest of the city. Despite being part of the city of Los Angeles, some parts of Harbor Gateway have a “Torrance, CA”, “Gardena, CA” or “Carson, CA” address because they are serviced by those cities’ post offices. This is where I lived from my birth, on Wednesday, April 26, 1955, until we moved (a whole ten miles and ten years later) to Torrance, so my sister and I could complete our early educations in a better school system.
We lived at 503 W. 157th Street, on the corner of a busy main street, Figueroa. Fig ran along the side of our house and the street in front of our house was the entrance to the neighborhood. Fig was on the side of the house you can’t see in this photo, which I can’t believe I was able to find today online, so maybe the house still looks like this, as it did when I lived there! No matter what they’re called today, like subdivisions or some such other high-falutin or modern terms, I will always associate happy memories, wherever I live, as having taken place in a neighborhood.
Kitty-corner from us across Figueroa was the Spanish American Institute. I guess I really never knew what went on there, I just knew, or at least I think I can recall, that a small herd of cows may have been housed or stabled there. I had no idea at the time what function the cows may have served at the institute but we could smell them and touch them and I think maybe even ride on them, unless that was just a figment of my childhood imagination that I choose to hold on to, among others.
Our neighbors, both close by and farther afield, encompassed a variety of family sizes, arrangements and ethnicities, during the first ten years of my life that my own small and homogeneous family lived in this little house with the carnations (which had a beautiful smell) and geraniums (whose smell made me want to puke) that grew in the ground along the non-busy side and the large fig tree that anchored the far corner of the brick enclosed back yard.
Gardena, like many of the suburban areas of Los Angeles, now probably falls within the category of urban sprawl but, back in that idyllic time, it was one of the new bedroom communities rising out of the rich California farmlands that were initially cultivated by Japanese and Mexican families. I know that my family, Dad and Mom, added a master bedroom and bath, with a fashionable walk in closet, to our house, probably around the time my sister came along, about 4 ½ years after me. I also know that two very different families, in almost every possible way, had lived next door to us in that ten year period, on the other side of those flowers and brick wall.
The first family there was the Millwees and oh my god! They were four typically rambunctious blonde and freckle faced boys. Mom was Esta, an unrefined woman who spoke with maybe a slight Okie accent and had the dusky dark skin tone and long lanky physique to match. Dad was Don, Sr., a construction worker or some other outdoor manual laborer of that time and place, like maybe an oil field operator. I don’t think he was around very much; he had to work a lot to support that large and active family. I remember the two older boys, Donnie and Brad, and how I would halfheartedly chase them around the grass and the yard and up the fig tree, sometimes even walking dangerously balanced along the brick fence that separated our ordered backyard from their chaotic one. Most searingly, my most ingrained memory of trying to act like one of the boys is the one where I stepped off the fence into their backyard, in my rubber go-aheads, only to encounter a nail sticking up out of a block of wood there that ended up with its point embedded in my foot.
On the other end of the spectrum was the second neighbor family, a pretty traditional Japanese one. Theirs, like ours, was composed of a mom and a dad and two little girls. I don’t remember a lot of details about those people, but image of the beautiful, colorful, large and sort of exotic Japanese dolls, encased in glass, that were prominently displayed in that home, made a long lasting impression on my by then expanding and inquisitive mind.
I think the neighbors across the street were Filipino, with a grandma who nurtured a beautiful rose garden. I remember proudly bearing a few of those fragrant colorful blooms to a favorite teacher, with the stems wrapped in a wet paper towel to preserve them, surrounded by aluminum foil to preserve my fingers from the thorns.
I don’t think I have ever again lived in such a relatively small geographical area that encompassed a similarly large diversity of neighbors. This early exposure to the variety of colors and languages of America’s citizens probably, especially in retrospect and in comparison to the places we lived while my kids were growing up, opened my mind and my heart to appreciating all of our wonderful differences!