I grew up in California, in a place that in some ways was amazing. My grandfather and great uncle, born to Sicilian immigrant parents in a tiny farming enclave south of San Francisco, worked their entire lives for the 1,200 acres they turned into Arata Brothers Ranch. During the Depression they grew pumpkins and started what can only be described as a craze. (Seriously...google it. There's even an annual festival now. I'm not going to post a link here because I sort of hate it). When the United States entered World War II, they expanded dairy operations, milking more than sixty cows twice a day, every day, by hand, working side-by-side like they did most things. My father was born in 1948, and by the time I came along he was farming hundreds of acres of hay, wheat, and barley while my grandpa and great uncle continued milking a few cows twice a day, every day, by hand still side-by-side.
Some of growing up there shaped me in the best of ways. Grandpa loved horses, and with 1,200 acres at my disposal riding all day was an option. I explored canyons and trails that sparked my imagination, collected arrowheads that hinted at a much older history, and watched a hundred sunsets over the Pacific Ocean from the back of a horse. In the summers the hills bloomed with honeysuckle and sage, blood red Indian Paintbrush and delicate orange Poppies. There were old barns where we stacked hay bales thirty feet high, and sometimes when exploring them I'd find the worn initials of some earlier visitor carved into their timbers. It was picture-perfect and beautiful, and it inspired me.
That was part of the story. There was also the part where my father was a hoarder, and the house I grew up in deteriorated severely as I got older. There was the reality that despite my grandfather and his brother remaining partners in all of their work until my grandfather's death in 2005, the rest of the family didn't always get along. But most of all there was the somehow sickening knowledge from an early age that this place would never really be home. No matter how much I might have wanted to stay there was no future for me there, so when I was eighteen I left. And somehow I knew then that no matter where I ended up (Oklahoma, I assure you, was not on the radar, but God's sense of humor deserves its own post), I wouldn't be back. Befitting the size of this property, it's not all going to fit into one blog post, so I will leave this one at the set up:
Before my grandfather and great uncle died, they sold the development rights to the ranch to an open space trust. They wanted to preserve the place they spent their lives building something. Each of them left their heirs a trust with partial rights to the land. Ironically, the ranch stayed together, but in doing so it tore the rest of the family apart. My father spent his last ten years of life unwillingly engaged in numerous legal battles over how to part with it, with few good options. My grandfather and great uncle each owned half of the ranch, but because the development rights contained a legally binding clause about the property remaining in one piece, it had to stay together. Between the property taxes and the inability to make a living farming there, it was impossible to keep the ranch, but equally impossible to sell it, because that requires both parties who took over the original trusts to agree on things. Even the California court system has now officially ruled is impossible and we have been legally declared incapable of coming to an agreement...this is the most boring family feud in the history of family feuds and formally known as Arata et al vs. Arata et al (2014). Basically, neither of can afford to buy the other out, and neither of us can afford to stay there, so the state of California has armed us with a court-appointed mediator who gets to make decisions for us. He's a nice enough guy, and definitely deserves all the money we pay him to be a reasonable human being and put up with us.
A recent mediation over the property forced me to go back for the first time in about a decade and got both historian-Laura and grew-up-there-Laura thinking about how the places where we experience life shape us. I have avoided going back for a lot of reasons, but most significantly because there's the punch-in-the-face reality of what happens to a place when it's basically abandoned. I can't really explain what it feels like to see the literally shattered pieces of your childhood in that condition, but I will share it in a later post (please try to contain your excitement and/or morbid hoarders-style curiosity). It's a place that has impacted me in the best and worst of ways, and maybe that's why I feel oddly ambivalent about it. I knew it wouldn't feel like home anymore, and not just because on this trip I was surrounded by lawyers (it turned out to be a bonding experience) and communicating in mostly starkly legal terms. ("Yes, I do see that intensive environmental remediation work is needed at Assessor's Parcel No. 081-270-020. Can this be accomplished without threatening the designated Conservation Easement Area recorded as Document No. 2004220330 in the Official Records of the County?"*)
After two full days there it's still not really clear what I accomplished, but it did affirm for me that sometimes you really can't go home. Sometimes the place you came from just isn't home anymore, and it's a done deal. It's a place that you walk around with your lawyer and in between other people fighting about things, you point out the field where you remember riding on a tractor with grandpa and great uncle what feels like a hundred years or another life ago. Or it's a place where you unexpectedly find something that reminds you of something else, a memory you'd stored away, and it makes you cry. (If your lawyer is super nice he will tell you it's okay to be sad at this juncture. If he isn't...find another lawyer**). It's a feeling you won't be able to explain, but whatever it is, it definitely isn't something you're going to come back to except in pictures. It will be okay that you feel relieved knowing that isn't the worst thing.
(*Those are real numbers and things but none of that is actually correct. My lawyer might be amused, but definitely not impressed. Sorry, Sullivan).
(**Sullivan qualifies as a "super nice lawyer").