March 31, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Lisa Witz
As a child, my father told me about living in the one-story house in Owl Canyon, just up the road from the modern house where I was born. He’d light a fire with newspaper in the woodburning stove, and he’d show me where his mother set the pot used to cook every meal. They had no electricity, no running water, he told me, his long fingers pointing to the outhouse that served as their bathroom for his entire childhood. He’d talk about the cold mornings, about the way the eucalyptus trees protected them from the winds, about the owls perched in their branches and how every spring the bulbs his mother planted would bloom: pink lilies, naked ladies they called them, their stems erect and their scent blossoming along the small stream that meanders in front of his childhood home.
And then there are the stories I didn’t hear, from my mother, that I still yearn for. She kept them inside: the story of the almond farm where she grew up; the story of her brothers and sisters and parents that I tried to get out of her in fourth grade, when I had to bring in a family tree to school. My Dad’s side of the tree was full, but for my mother’s, I couldn’t get her to tell me much more than the names and birth years of her parents. It wasn’t until much later that I learned her dad died unexpectedly when she was eighteen, and her mother six weeks later of what I think was heartbreak. Unexpectedly parentless as a young adult. By the time I knew her story she was gone. I could not ask the questions; I could not find out about the stories I wanted to know. I thought I had time.
As a teenager, my stories nestled into the pages of my journal, the colored pens, the big letters, the desire to express the things that were happening inside my body and my heart that no page had enough space for.
In college, the stories changed because I was reading so much more. Anaïs Nin. Henry Miller. May Sarton. Tim O’Brien. Spanish authors, reading in another language, at times dreaming in Spanish. The Dirty Wars in Argentina and the Chicago Boys in Chile, the way I became enamored with other places, other histories, the way learning their histories taught me more about mine—and made me realize how little I knew about the world.
My stories now tend to be hidden. I think of them as caterpillars in their chrysalis. They need the safety of the darkness before they can be birthed. They contain beauty, but it is fleeting. It may or may not arrive, it may or may not make it out of the chrysalis, it may spread its wings for just a day or a few weeks. The stories burgeoning inside me carry weight but fly lightly, once released. Once in a while a story emerges with clarity, but most of my stories hover like the hawks circling a dead animal in the fields of my childhood farm, poking, prodding, turning the carcass over to examine from another angle, diving and then swooping back to the sky to take in the longer view. I try to not be like my father, telling too many stories of childhood hardships. I try to not be like my mother, holding on to my stories too tightly.
My youngest son tells me about artificial intelligence devices that can read your mind, about glasses with the world at their fingertips—or rather, eyelids—with the internet accessible from the lenses, not unlike my readers. He has his eye on a future of rapid stimulation and YouTube videos and devices with the capacity to control everything. He envisions a world foreign to me, a place where I find myself more dependent to understand the way things work. To decipher the stories. I want to take him to the woodburning stove; I want to show him the meandering creek and the way the pink lilies bloom each spring, even though there is no gardener, no sprinkler system, no artificial intelligence device keeping them alive. I want to see his fingers get dirty in the soil and pull carrots from the garden and walk on the paths of his ancestors. I want to fill him with my past and I want to make space for his future. And I want to have the sense to be present to hear the story that is playing out right now.
Lisa Witz grew up the youngest of nine children on a sheep and cattle ranch in western Marin County. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, but often returns to the rolling hills and trails of her childhood. She lives in the California beach town Carlsbad with her husband and their three children. Visit http://www.lisareginawitz.com/ for her work.