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The First Snowflakes of Paradise

My earliest memories are fragments; old black and white snapshots with scalloped edges where there should be movies.  I remember my father and his youngest brother throwing a football on the beach at La Jolla while I sat on the sand with a tin bucket as my mother held my baby brother in a towel. I remember putting a playing card into the spokes of my Schwinn to get a sound like an engine, a very feeble engine. And, as a child born in Los Angeles, I certainly remember the first time I saw snowflakes.

I was born only about three months after the end of World War II in Los Angeles and into a full-blown housing crisis as the troops returned and the nation began to adjust to the new normality that soon became the new prosperity. Housing wasn’t part of this prosperity for new families in LA. In fact, I’m told that my first home with my parents was in a roughly converted garage. Then we lived with my grandparents who soon, I was told, went away to Paradise. A couple of years after that, when I must have been at least four but certainly no more than five, we went to visit them for the Christmas holidays. We had not seen our grandparents in over two years.

I remember being in the back seat with my younger brother and falling asleep on the rough almost horsehair upholstery on the two days it must have taken to drive up the spine of old Highway 99. Other than that nothing remains in my memory of what must have been an early epic family expedition. Perhaps some scrim of pines blurring by as the day waned and the car climbed up the two-lane road that even then was known as the Skyway; then I drowsed.

When I woke up I was lying on my back looking up at the rear window of the car. Drifting down from the sky I could see fat white flakes that I didn’t recognize. At some point, my mother’s voice told me it was snow and that we were in Paradise.

I sat up and looked out into a landscape that held a small house by a small lake that was dusted white in all directions. Up the driveway from the small house, two small people were walking to the road. As I watched they became the people whose pictures were on the dresser at home. They were my grandparents. They came up to the car and I remember they looked into the window at my brother and myself wrapped in a couple of car blankets and waved at us. The door opened and my stern Dutch grandfather and my rolly-polly grandmother gathered us both up and carried us down the gravel driveway to my grandfather’s homemade house by his homemade lake with his homemade rowboat that always leaked and was never repaired.

Then I was given a cup of hot chocolate made even more memorable by a large marshmallow melting inside it. Then there was my grandmother’s apple cobbler made from the apples from their own small orchard by their own small lake. I took my hot chocolate and went outside on the porch on what must have been a cold winter evening. The porch rail had white snow on it that I remember touching and tasting. It was cold on my tongue and tasted of distilled water.  Everything around, the house, the apple orchard, the lake, was dusted with a snow “falling softly and softly falling.” Behind me inside the homemade house, there was, in my memory, a shadow of a Christmas tree and my entire family. I’d been a baby and now a young boy who only knew Los Angeles and the sun and smog that were its trademarks in those years. Now I was somewhere in some mountains far to the north and I saw around me what I had only seen in books about Christmas. I saw snow.

This was my first Christmas in Paradise, but not my last. That would come later, by about 68 years, but what remains, in the end, is the memory of my grandparents’ faces framed in the old car’s window and backed by the slow falling flakes of my first snow.

I had a boyhood once in Paradise long ago.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Sam L. December 27, 2018, 8:27 AM

    That’s some GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD writing!

  • Dirk Williams December 27, 2018, 9:03 AM

    Wonderful, these are the memories we should all cherish. I have mine, their in my special place.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    DW

  • Mike Anderson December 27, 2018, 9:30 AM

    What a wonderful Christmas memory, reminiscent of long-ago winter family trips to Mt Lassen to play in the snow. Apparently this is the year for a bumper crop of stories; I just discovered this one: https://www.joannejacobs.com/2018/12/a-christmas-present-from-faisal/

  • Patvann December 27, 2018, 11:02 AM

    Dammit! Dusty in here AGAIN!!!

  • Steven Curry December 27, 2018, 2:05 PM

    Two days ago family members sat around the dinner table and attempted to recall their very earliest memories. Everyone had a difficult time describing how fragmented and incomplete the memories were. Your description of them as black and white snapshots with scalloped edges that should be movies is perfect and all that needs to be said. Writing skills like that are what separate authors and poets from minions such as I.

  • ghostsniper December 27, 2018, 2:35 PM

    Excellent!
    How those memories start like that.
    A first drop of water, then a few more, scattered, then more, and more, eventually a stream of drops, then a creek and the roaring river, and finally an ocean of memories.

    My oldest memories are of my dad’s parents, my grandparents, as I spent a lot of time over there. When I was 4 they took me to Fantasyland in Pennsylvania and I remember a very tall Mother Goose, and she talked to me. She knew my name, which mystified me, but assured me she was really talking to me. It wasn’t until some 50+ years later when I was reminiscing that memory with my mother that she broke out in laughter and told me it was my grandfather throwing his voice as he was an amateur ventriloquist. I was sort of disappointed.

    I used to put a blown up balloon on my spokes and it DID sound like an engine. A 1 cylinder engine. wump-wump-wump Then I put 2 ballons on it and it sounded like my dad’s Harley. wumpa-pah, wumpa-pah, wumpa-pah…

    The best memories are the ones you haven’t recalled for a long time. Out of know where they appear like a little brain dessert, so you sit there and enjoy it, then it fades away again, back into it’s own private pigeon hole til next time . Aren’t our memories the essence of who we are? They never die. They just get passed on to the next in line. Sometimes.

  • ghostsniper December 27, 2018, 2:37 PM

    That mother goose was a 20′ tall painted concrete statue and Fantasyland is gone now, so all that’s left are the memories.

  • Mary Ann December 27, 2018, 4:23 PM

    Gerard, this could be a scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life”. (Original non colorized version.)

    Thank you. Thank you.

  • David December 27, 2018, 4:27 PM

    Despite your recent troubles, you have been blessed. Best that the New Year can bring.

  • H December 28, 2018, 6:11 AM

    I was ten when my family exiled up north from South Texas and I saw both frost and a bit later that winter, snow for the first time. I had no boots yet so Mother put plastic bags on my shoes and sent me down town for a newspaper. Got home and they’d kicked the dog out of the house to go do her business, and she was standing by the front door with snow piled up on her nose like a scoop of ice cream and looking around, trying to figger out what in the Sam Hill had happened to her world overnight. No school that day, and it was glorious. About ten years later, I was serving the last year of my enlistment in Alaska and had a less positive view of snow, having to ruck up and wander around in it at well below zero for a week or two at a time. Screw that!

  • Johanna Donovan December 28, 2018, 6:59 AM

    We are blessed to have your memories and your gift in sharing them. Prayers for your mother’s steady healing and of course, for yours as well.
    God bless –

  • Nobody Atall December 28, 2018, 11:25 AM

    Beautiful!

    As I age, and think on these things, I become more and more melancholy with the ache of knowing how very much that I will never know. I will never know my great-grandmother’s earliest memory — her father left the farm to her (not her brothers), in her maiden name, in which it remained until the day she died and her son inherited it — was she always a favorite? I will never know my 3rd great-grandfather’s favorite color — he died falling off a barn roof, did he think “oh shit” just before he died or something more profound? I will never know whether my two eleventy-great-grandfathers who served at Valley Forge had shoes that winter, or if they did, did they pinch. I will never know anything, not even names, about my European peasant ancestors from the year 12xx AD, not to mention my ancestors from how-some-ever far back in origins. And they were all real people, with real lives, who bore and raised children, had daily work to do, looked at the same sun, stars, and moon that we all see. Never know the treasures of their lives or visit their graves or even have the makings of a bit of story about them that I make up in my own head. Dust in the Wind.

  • Mary Ann December 29, 2018, 6:38 AM

    Nobody Atall, I wonder about those kinds of things all the time.

  • Vincent Tombrello November 10, 2019, 9:51 AM

    G.V. That was a wonderful story. You have a God given gift .

  • Terry November 10, 2019, 10:49 AM

    My memories of early life are becoming more vivid by the week it seems. Gerard has such a talent for expressing himself that it makes me wish I could be just 10% as good at it.

    Thank you Gerard!

  • Carol November 10, 2019, 3:57 PM

    Beautiful story…what wonderful memories of such an incredible place called Paradise.

  • jwm November 10, 2019, 4:18 PM

    I saw “Big Loo-Your Friend From the Moon” for sale on e-bay. Asking price was just over $1800.00. One thousand, eight hundred dollars for a forty year old plastic robot from the Marx toy company. Big Loo was a “Christmas toy” from the early 1960’s; kin to the likes of Great Garloo, Odd Ogg, Robot Commando, and Thinkatron.

    Big Loo was the most desperately wanted toy on my 1963 Wish List. He could shoot balls out of one hand, and bend over and grab things to destroy with the other. He had blinking eye lights, and a crosshair sight for the dart shooters, missile launchers and water squirter. He could talk too. He had a crank operated voice with ten different sayings. Not to mention the warning bell, a two-tone whistle to further terrify the bad guys, and a compass and Morse code clicker in case you were lost in the wilderness and needed to send a message in code. Not only that- Big Loo was huge. 37” tall to be exact. He was just about everything I wanted in life that fall.

    But late in that summer of 1963 we had returned home to Trenton Michigan after visiting friends who had moved to California. My younger brother had asthma; the pollen laden eastern summers were killing him. He had done remarkably better in the dry southwestern climate. Instead of spending time in the emergency room he had been running around, swimming, and skinning up his knees and elbows riding a steel wheeled sidewalk surfboard. Sometime around Halloween a ‘For Sale’ sign appeared in front of our house. My folks announced that we too would be moving to California. We were going to a place called La Habra- sort of near Disneyland, and sort of near the beach.

    The house sold in November, and one Friday afternoon a fragment of broadcast broke across the loudspeaker in sixth grade Music class. The teacher turned directly to me. “John. Get down to the office right now, and find out what happened”. Against all school rules, I ran down the ramp, through the lobby, and into the main office. “What Happened?” I asked.
    The secretary looked at me for a moment and said in a flat, stunned voice,” Someone shot the President.” That was Friday, November 22.

    Three weeks later, Friday, the Thirteenth of December was cold, and wet. The moving vans had gone. After school we said goodbye to our friends, finished packing, and took a last look at our home. The tree out front was a bare stick. The lawn was brown, the windows black, and everything else drizzly and gray. It was dark by the time we left. Mom piled my two brothers and me into the car, and my Dad drove south that night, into Ohio.

    Many days later, our bedraggled family pulled up to the door of our friends’ house in La Habra California. It was after ten o’clock at night when we got there. The moving vans had been delayed, so we spent several days sleeping on the floor in their living room and everyone got the flu at once. One of the moving vans arrived Christmas Eve with half of our furniture and goods.
    We spent that Christmas Eve moving into a shabby sprawling ramshackle house right off Whittier Boulevard. There were avocado, persimmon and loquat trees all overgrown in the huge shaggy yard. There were real poinsettias, too. Somehow in the midst of all that confusion my parents managed to get a Christmas tree set up and decorated in our otherwise empty living room. My Dad explained that Christmas might be delayed this year. At eleven, I understood what he meant, but my younger brothers still believed in Santa. He took my brothers and me to “Freight Outlet” and gave us each a few bucks to spend so we’d have gifts to give. My brothers and I never knew how broke we really were then. We got dinner that night from Burger Q, which was right across the street from our new home.

    And the next morning my brothers and I woke up to Christmas. The house was half empty, and strange. Stranger still, it was warm, and sunny out. But it was still Christmas. I don’t know how my parents did it, but they did. We had presents. All the silly, wonderful Christmas-toy junk that my brothers and I had coveted, wished for, and figured we just wouldn’t get, appeared beneath the tree that morning. Including my talking 37” tall, ball firing, dart shooting, missile launching, water squirting eye blinking, waist bending, thing grabbing, bell ringing whistle blowing “Big Loo Your Friend From the Moon” robot from the Marx toy company.

    That was Christmas 1963. By the spring of 1964, I had discovered car models, surf music, and then the Beatles. Big Loo went the way of most real toys, which is to say that I don’t know when or how it disappeared. And now there’s one for sale for eighteen hundred and some odd dollars on e-bay. There’s not a chance I’ll bid on it. Nonetheless, if it were mine I wouldn’t sell it.

  • ghostsniper November 10, 2019, 5:29 PM

    @John, that was a cool little read. You must be about 3 years older’n me. 67?

  • Joe Krill November 10, 2019, 7:45 PM

    I believe the following information adds some light to the uniqueness of Paradise . Home of the first “flying saucer club” in the United States. The membership was obsessed with contacting the Venusians and the membership conducted skywatches throughout California looking for Venusian spacecraft.

  • ghostsniper November 11, 2019, 7:24 AM

    The This Old House video dealing with Paradise was on 20-3 this morning at 10-10:30am.
    Season 39, Episode 06, you can view it here:
    https://www.thisoldhouse.com/watch/return-to-paradise-westerly-ranch-house

  • David Smith November 11, 2019, 6:34 PM

    Read your story of Uncle Gerard again today, Veterans Day, as well as S
    now in Paradise, while we received 4″+ early snow in lower Michigan . Listened to John Denver’s Season Suite, and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song For a Winter Night”. My family was lucky, 4 sons returned from WW2 unharmed.

    My Veterans Day song is Arlo Guthrie, “When a Soldier Makes it Home”.

    Still appreciate word pictures of your writings.

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