rhizomes.05 fall 2002

The Glass House: A Tale of Extreme Collecting
Carolyn Krauss

[1] I'm standing by the side of the road on a hot summer afternoon, trying to disappear within the folds of my mother's long purple robe as she thumbs a ride on Van Owen Boulevard in North Hollywood. I'm five years old, almost six, in this picture that often rises up in my mind sharp and clear--my earliest memory. My face feels hot and red, though we hitchhike somewhere at least once a week. Today is a special occasion. My mother and I are going to the circus. I'd rather be dead.

[2] "Lighten up," my twenty-two-year-old mother, Gracie, urges me cheerfully. "We're going to have fun." It's 1950. Gracie is dressed festively, a glowing flower child of an era still nearly two decades off. Embroidered rabbits frolic on her velvet robe, and she's woven a peacock feather into her straight, honey-blonde hair. My mother looks like the fairies in my picture books.

[3] I can't bring myself or my own costume into focus, but I know I've refused to wear the small matching robe that Gracie stitched herself and longs to dress me in. I've devised a method of resistance that never fails: latching onto a table leg, I kick until she takes the rabbit robe away.

[4] Usually, few cars will pass us by as we stand at the side of the road, my mother's bright hair flowing in the breeze unlike my own dark tangles that fall over my face and that I never allow her to brush. Today a few minutes pass before a truck with a middle-aged driver screeches to a stop in front of us and the door swings open. Maybe drivers are wary of the thick rope coiled around Gracie's arm.

[5] "You know there was that fire at the circus," my mother explains as the flirtatious stranger eyes the rope. We have cheap seats at the top of the stands, and she wants to dangle the rope from our seats to the floor as an emergency escape route. Gracie and the driver laugh at her ingenuity.

[6] "Cat got your tongue?" the truck driver inquires, turning to me. People are always saying such things to me. My mother does all the talking. Sometimes I wish I could be like her. Sometimes I wish there was some other way to be.

[7] "She's a quiet one," Gracie says.

[8] At the circus my mother ties the rope to the top bleacher and drops it through the maze of metal struts to the floor. The circus itself is blank in my memory, but I can see the empty stands afterwards as we prepare to leave.

[9] A worker below us on the floor is about to dismantle the bleachers. He yanks on the rope that Gracie still holds, half-coiled, on her arm. There's an impassioned tug-of-war.

[10] "Can't we just leave?" I whisper. But Gracie's not going to relinquish the rope. Barely out of childhood herself, disowned by her family for running off and having an illegitimate child with my father--"that damned German Jew," as they called him in her prosperous Virginia household--my mother has transformed survival into an elaborate game

[11] She yanks once more and wins the match, then turns to me with a triumphant smile: "Why can't you ever have fun?"

[12] We were on an Adventure, Gracie always said, but I couldn't share her impossible lightness of being. There was no way for either of us to know how other mothers raised their children, protecting them, guiding and nudging them toward a civilized state. Gracie was a motherless child. To Gracie, having a mother meant having everything. "Why can't you ever have fun?"

[13] Gracie had grown up in a regimented household where her father, once a captain in the Great War, then a chemist developing poisonous gas for the government, ordered his four children to line up for inspection each morning and insisted that they address him as "Sir." Will Robinson, known locally as "Injun Robinson" because of his copper skin and his skill with a bow and arrow, had hoped his wife would present him with his own football team. His two daughters were a disappointment. After his wife died, poisoning herself with arsenic from his laboratory, Will ran the household like a boot camp. If you were tired or hungry or injured, you didn't complain. If you were sick, you disappeared, just as, in a story Will Robinson once told his children, the Indians wandered away from their tribe to die.

[14] My mother's childhood home seethed with barely submerged passions--seemingly unrelated but converging in something unresolved at their center: The Event--always present, always unspoken. Gracie had been a toddler, two years old, when she'd pushed open a towering wooden door to behold a stream of light falling on a woman's face. In her memory, the face was pink and green and red and yellow, the colors dripping and oozing into one another like deliquescent sea creatures. The floor where the little girl stood buckled beneath her, and suddenly she was poised atop a spinning globe of the world, about to slip, yet paralyzed. She stood frozen there a long time. And then she began to slide in slow motion down the steep, curving earth, the colored continents, the dark blue ocean into darkness. She hid in the back of a cluttered hall closet. Nobody came to find her.

[15] At fifteen, Gracie had tried to distance herself from The Event by running off with my father Otto, her older sister's philosophy professor. She'd met Professor Kraus during trips she made with her father and two older brothers to visit the college in Florida where my mother's uncle was the president and her sister, Mary, was a student. Otto, then nearly forty, was Mary's favorite teacher. In fact, she once confided to her little sister, Mary was in love with Professor Kraus with his unruly curls, his awkward manner, his unshakable convictions about the malevolence of human institutions, and his passionate green eyes. Mary's love was unrequited, however, and turned to bitterness when "that damned German Jew" began sending letters to her little sister Gracie. These letters were fraught with reminders that her family had been blighted by The Event. "The seeds of mental disorder are ready to bloom in you," he'd written. Otto exhorted Gracie to escape, be reasonable, have faith in him. They'd meet in New York and travel together to the warm, inviting West. "You will go mad if you stay there," my father wrote to the fifteen-year-old Gracie. "You have all the potentialities to go insane."

[16] A year later I was born in California, but before I turned two, Otto had wandered off to begin a life as a street-corner philosopher with a fresh flock of young disciples, leaving Gracie and me to fend for ourselves. That was the beginning of our Adventure, Gracie told me.

[17] By the time The Adventure took us to the circus, Gracie was active in liberal causes and dated exclusively black men. One summer afternoon she'd invited local civil rights activists along with a troupe of Nigerian dancers and drummers to a picnic in the flower garden belonging to the owners of the three-story San Marino mansion that loomed above our rented gardener's cottage. Even at six, I was aware that multicultural gatherings and inter-racial dating were too advanced for San Marino, the most prosperous and conservative white enclave in Southern California. The neighbors must have been frantic over the parade of dark strangers passing through our wrought-iron gate.

[18] Gracie appeared in the garden that afternoon decked out in a dress she'd fashioned by gathering a purple-striped Indian bedspread around her, fastening it with safety pins and a yellow ribbon at the waist, and completing her outfit with dangly turquoise Zuni earrings and long strands of sparkling plastic beads. When the party was well underway and the dancers were whooping and jumping and clapping, my mother spotted me standing alone by the cottage. The festivities were too much for me, but inside there was no place to hide, since Gracie, an indiscriminate scavenger and hoarder, had crammed our closets and three small rooms to the ceiling with cardboard boxes and bewildering heaps of possessions.

[19] "C'mon. Join the party!" Gracie shouted to the growing crowd in the garden as much as to me, and she launched into a few bars of Alexander's Ragtime Band: "Come on along. Come on along," she sang. Set apart by her blonde beauty and colorful costumes, Gracie also had a peculiar way of speaking. In public, she addressed everyone in the room, on the street, or in the grocery store checkout line as if from a stage. She didn't actually converse; she proclaimed. Gracie might signal her entrance with a loud and tuneless chorus of "Hail Hail the Gang's All Here" and her exit with a few snatches of "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" --old cavalry songs that her soldier father had sung to her. She sometimes delivered winding, excited torrents of words, monologues full of homilies and nursery rhymes, marked by switchbacks, leaps and bridges of thought or word associations. The matrons of San Marino would stare, their jaws gaping.

[20] "C'mon," my mother shouted to me. "Don't be a party-pooper!" The brick wall of our cottage pressed harder against my spine through my thin cotton dress that was several sizes too big, as Gracie hiked up the skirts of her bedspread and twirled among the applauding crowd, singing a song that my dour expression must have inspired: "Every party has a pooper that's why we invited you--party-pooper!"

[21] Much later, I'd conclude that Gracie's performances--her insatiable appetite for noise and festivity and color--were whistling in the dark, assaults against the night that had descended long ago when she'd opened the towering wooden door and discovered her dead mother. But at the time, I saw Gracie's habits of speech, dress, and behavior through the eyes of a child and concluded that they were elaborate mechanisms to embarrass me, the daughter Gracie considered dangerously straight-laced and conservative. I was far too concerned with what people would think, she'd tell me as I begged her one more time to lower her voice, secretly accepting her analysis and another dose of shame.

[22] "C'mon along, C'mon along," Gracie shouted again, whirling toward me, arms outspread, sparkly beads flying. I pulled my socks up out of my shoes, straightened my baggy dress, took a deep breath, and stepped forward just as Gracie grabbed my hand and shouted to the other revelers, "Here's my beautiful daughter. Come meet my beautiful daughter!" I clenched my fists.

[23] All through the day of the multi-racial picnic, as the drums reverberated and dancers with their turbans and hoop earrings issued joyous shouts over the hibiscus bushes and trampled the acid-treated blue hydrangeas, I eluded my mother and hid beneath a lilac bush, imagining the Webbers glaring down from behind billowy, drawn curtains in the upstairs windows of their mansion. The Webbers owned our cottage, and Gracie always associated them contemptuously with Webber's Bread, a popular brand of bland white sandwich slices that my luckier schoolmates all carried in their lunch boxes.

[24] When my mother spotted me crouched beneath the lilacs, she squealed with joy and dragged me out to reintroduce me to the crowd: "Come meet my beautiful daughter!" While we ate a potluck supper in the garden, a little boy, the son of one of my mother's beaux, circled the courtyard on a beat-up tricycle and chanted, "I hate Webber's Bread. I hate Webber's Bread." My mother must have put him up to it, I thought, my eyes darting from the garden to the Webbers' upstairs windows. We'd already been kicked out of two apartments in Pasadena.

[25] Order, comfort, respectability--to Gracie these were dangerous middle-class obsessions. "Republicans!" she'd sneer as if that word explained everything, explained why my clothes didn't fit, why children never came over to play in our impossibly cluttered rooms, why the neighbors peered at us with disapproval from behind their lawnmowers. I knew my mother was right, But there were moments of terrifying guilt when I glimpsed the other side of the argument.

[26] Despite the joyful noise that summer afternoon, no neighbors appeared on the parkway that ran between the ivy-festooned mansions. As the sun was going down, the guests formed a vibrant, multi-colored procession. With Gracie in the lead, they went whooping and yahooing and swaying down the street, through enemy territory, all the way to the manicured azalea gardens of the Huntington Library, the local bastion of propriety.

[27] There would be consequences, I knew. Gracie knew it too, as she gave me that familiar look that said, "Why can't you have fun?" That look always reminded me that I veered dangerously close to collusion with the enemy. But along with her genuine commitment to peace and freedom and interracial harmony, Gracie embraced the grand gesture. Being penniless and living by one's wits and ideals in a stodgy world was how my mother defined The Adventure. When, after the Nigerian dance concert, we were evicted again, I knew we'd been turned out of our garden cottage in a noble cause. Secretly, though, I feared we'd have no place to go.

[28] But we always found something. Although my mother and I lived close to poverty, Gracie was never actually broke. There was the ten thousand dollars she'd saved from the olive ranch that she and my father had tried to make a go of up in Napa just after I was born. Otto had insisted on giving away most of the first year's crop rather than link arms with the capitalists. After the ranch had failed and Otto had wandered off, Gracie and I would save on bus fare by hitchhiking and dodge the landlord when the rent was due. But the ten thousand dollars mustn't be touched. It was going to buy us a house of our own.

[29] Shortly after the eviction notice arrived at our gardener's cottage, Gracie and I were hitching a ride home from somewhere, when she looked up and spotted our future gleaming from atop The Cliff May Prefabricated Homes Building above a busy street in north Los Angeles. It was a rooftop model: a house made of glass. Grabbing my hand, Gracie dragged me across the street through honking, screeching traffic, her blond hair streaming.

[30] The glass house turned out to be a novelty advertisement for a brand of "prefab starter homes" that were sprouting up all over Southern California during the early fifties. The company was going under. Soon, they'd dismantle the rooftop model and call it a day. When my mother heard this, her blue eyes grew wide and she launched into a looping, excited attempt to persuade the builder to salvage the fourteen glass doors for her, along with one of the prefabs that lay in a warehouse in twenty-foot sections and were offered for sale in a sort of kit. From behind his metal desk, the builder gazed at my mother, a garlanded creature of light, her slender arms dancing as she spoke. He was bewitched.

[31] The glass house was Gracie's stake, the homestead that finally brought an end to our string of evictions. A boxy ranch-style house, it was the smallest in a neighborhood of nondescript houses. Ours was set apart, however, by those fourteen glass doors--seven double French doors really, but it felt more exotic to Gracie to tell people we had fourteen glass doors.

[32] "Fourteen doors in that tiny house?" they'd ask.

[33] "Fourteen glass doors and all on the outside," Gracie would whisper mysteriously, implying that there were reasons.

[34] My mother had located a parcel of land in the San Gabriel foothills on the outskirts of the little town of Sierra Madre. As the house rose from its cement slab like a giant aquarium, my mother, characteristically, insisted on preserving the raggle-taggle yard in its natural state. She dragged in pieces of sun-bleached driftwood scavenged from the beach and plopped them down like limbless carcasses among the weeds and boulders the size of pianos that had long ago rumbled down the mountain--propelled by a volcanic force that was long extinct, Gracie told me. Our transparent house would be a monument to something Important. A natural extension of the mountains, trees and boulders reflected in its glass walls, it would minimize distinctions, blur edges, altogether dispense with boundaries. Gracie wanted neither curtains nor shelter. Gracie wanted scope. But the new setup shattered my own dreams of a safe harbor after our itinerant life. The piece of land my mother had found was, to my dismay, located on the town's northernmost outpost at the windy foot of a mountain, where the subdivisions petered out and the ragged chaparral took over.

[35] "There's wolves up here. There's coyotes," I sobbed, eyeing the mountain between the slender trunks of eucalyptus trees that crowded our new yard. In a matter of days the builder had assembled the new house with its fourteen glass doors, its transparency beckoning whatever lurked in the ominous dark mountain.

[36] Light poured through the glass walls of the finished house and sparkled across its pristine interiors. But the builder was still packing up his truck, when Gracie pulled up with one of her beaux and the first of many carloads of her bewildering possessions. Mystifyingly, she set about digging herself in behind a complex network of interior barriers that blocked the view.

[37] Those inner barricades impressed me even more deeply than the glass walls. The pass-through between the kitchen and the dining room was promptly plugged up with shoe boxes of arrowheads, rocks, and feathers salvaged from Gracie's childhood. The passage was further obscured behind wobbly stacks of pink paper supplements to the Sunday newspaper, bundles of wires, boxes of bathroom tiles, cords snaking off to who-knew-where, and cartons of children's clothes sent over once a month from a family in the Quaker meeting that Gracie and I occasionally attended.

[38] The interior of the glass house became a maze of ill-sorted, haphazard piles that rose halfway to the ceiling like eerie stalagmites growing from the sediment of our family's past. The piles were stratified with birthday wrappings, old coats, dried flowers, paintings on Manila paper by Gracie's young charges at her part-time nursery school teaching jobs, boxes of Christmas bulbs, straw hats, French dictionaries and faded Mexican piņatas--souvenirs of The Adventure. Hands and bare feet jutted from one such heap, the remains of old mannequins that my mother had rescued from a bankrupt department store.

[39] You couldn't think in Gracie's house. There was no room for thought. You could only stare dumbfounded at its elaborate inner geologies.

[40] One sunny day, my eyes idly following the path of light beaming through the glass, I spotted a rainbow of colors and, lifting up a layer of a pile with one hand, I slid out an armful of folded flags from each of the seventeen Soviet republics. In that same stack were rolled-up posters and placards we'd carried at Democratic Party Rallies ("We Need Adlai Badly"), Civil Rights marches ("We Are All God's Children"), and anti-nuclear demonstrations ("Please Let My Protons Decay Naturally").

[41] In one corner of the living room, dozens of rag dolls were propped against a basket piled to the ceiling with empty Quaker Oats containers. Strings of origami birds festooned the whole mess, as if to contain it, render it weightless, lithesome, like a Christmas tree.

[42] Suspended from the ceiling, a flock of dusty marionettes grazed your head, along with hanging gourds and plumes and broken-stringed instruments whose shapes Gracie admired.

[43] "I love hanging things," Gracie always said. "I get it from my Indian ancestor. You know how Indians have all those things hanging on them?"

[44] One day, when I unrolled a map of New Guinea and tried to tuck it back into the mailing tube it shared with half a dozen other maps, I realized the skill and care with which Gracie had packed things in. There was a method to it all, and a theme even to the hundreds of newspaper clippings stuffed into the hollows of cinder blocks that supported shelves. Like the labyrinth itself, these clippings were coded bits of my mother's survival plan.

[45] One of the collected articles inspired Gracie's scheme to mortgage both our bodies to the UCLA medical school for $200 apiece in a buy-now-pay-later arrangement she'd spotted in the Pasadena Star News. For several months when I was ten, Gracie talked up the scheme incessantly. I was pretty sure she'd never follow through, that she'd probably gotten the whole offer kind of wrong anyway. I tried not to be a party-pooper about the new money-making enterprise. But I was haunted by the prospect of walking around in a body that didn't belong to me. "You won't care when you're dead," Gracie would joke.

[46] Maybe this memory sticks in my mind because, simultaneously, as if on cue, the Body Snatchers arrived. The little town where my mother had built our glass house at the foot of the San Gabriels, provided a backdrop for the fictional Santa Mira in the 1955 horror movie, The Body Snatchers. Like everyone else in Sierra Madre, I watched the film with proprietary interest when it settled in for a month at our fifty-cent theater.

[47] The body snatchers are an alien race. Determined to take over the earth, they grow replicas of Santa Mira's townspeople within giant seed pods and drop them off in basements and glass-covered backyard solariums. Heartless, but otherwise fully-equipped, the robots emerge from their pods and replace their human twins with emotionless impersonators as the film plays out an ominous McCarthy-era metaphor, spliced with a Cold War hymn to the limitless possibilities of science for good as well as for evil. These political metaphors eluded me. I read the film as a personal fable, molding the story around my own secret terrors.

[48] Back home in the glass house, with its transparent walls, I imagined that something might come for me, something amorphous and nameless that lurked outside in the mountain. But inside felt equally threatening. Gracie's house, with its hopeless clutter, sucked the life out of you, hollowed you out--as if the body snatchers had gotten you.

[49] Sometimes I'd try to clear a space for myself by hauling an armload of moth-eaten blankets or National Geographics out to the curb, whereupon Gracie would carry them back in and, as if to restore some invisible balance, replace them in the towering labyrinth that grew wider each day until we had to maneuver sideways.

[50] The multi-angled shelves constructed of bricks and boards extended from the living room to the bedrooms, forming a tortuous path along which I moved with tucked-in elbows. The shelves were crammed with rock treasures flecked with mica hauled in by the pocketsful from the San Gabriels that glowered in the distance, framed by the glass doors.

[51] The myriad other treasures on those shelves that my mother called "the divider"--she never failed to name things--have blurred in my memory. I have sharper images of cinder blocks, boards, and treasures all in a heap on the floor when my new stepfather, Tony, whom my mother acquired just two years after we moved into the glass house, would kick them over during his periodic rages.

[52] Tony was a handsome, slick-haired bookie from Watts. He'd courted Gracie by taking us to the horse races at Santa Anita, clueing us in about race-fixing, and activating some romantic notion Gracie had about lovable felons--a fantasy gleaned from her adolescent reading of Damon Runyan. One night when he and Gracie returned from a day at the beach, some nine-year-old remark I made infuriated Tony. He beat me until I collapsed, shattering a pane of a glass door that remained broken until, at seventeen, I escaped the glass house for good and went off to college, traveling light with a few clothes, my cat, and a toothbrush.

[53] Hearing the commotion and running in from the bedroom, Gracie was aghast. But despite my bruises, I was more stunned than injured. Physical violence was foreign to The Adventure.

[54] At first I thought that I was the cause of Tony's chronic red-faced anger, but later I got the impression that Gracie and her house, with its impossible clutter, had worn my stepfather down, that he raged against the frustration of living in a house where you could scarcely take a step without bumping into something, knocking things over, having something land on you, bruising a bare foot. For the two years he lived in that house, Tony moved like an alien through the heaped-up artifacts of another world.

[55] Exhausted by the barriers within barriers, we threaded through the house as if through a minefield. Yet everything mattered--every component of these bulwarks that embodied Gracie's survival plan.

[56] If Tony or I pleaded with Gracie to clear away some of the clutter, if we moved anything, she'd launch into an exegesis on the significance of that particular newspaper clipping, textbook, broken plate or scratched-up Burl Ives record. The bedraggled hawk feathers were fragments of the Indian Heritage she insisted on claiming. They linked Gracie to the Virginia woods and to "Injun Robinson," the father who'd taught his daughter to shoot with a bow and to hunt for arrowheads in the unmarked Indian burial grounds near their home. The tightly-rolled maps pictured lands Gracie dreamed of visiting: Bali, Afghanistan, the island of Tristan da Cunha-- midway between Cape Town and Patagonia. Sometimes, when I tried to clear a space, Gracie would forego any explanation and simply weep. Eventually, I learned that it made more sense to leave things alone.

[57] And so the piles grew until it was impossible to enter any but one of the fourteen glass doors, and that one door would budge only a couple of feet, enough for me to squeeze into the kitchen and crabwalk toward my bedroom at the back of the house.

[58] One Christmas I asked for a lock and got it.

[59] All this threading in and out, this tyranny of things, took a toll on our nerves. Jagged holes appeared in all the inside doors where my stepfather had kicked them to vent his fury at someone on the other side. Behind my locked door was a white bedroom, although the thin layer of skim-milk paint, ineptly applied by a child, couldn't conceal Gracie's touch--the gaudy purple paint job underneath. A bowl of guppies on a table. A cat's sandbox on the floor. A girl on the corner of a bed clutching a gray-and-white cat as the kicks resounded from the hallway where holes accumulated at foot level on each of the four hollow doors--a geometric motif.

[60] Finally, there appeared a jagged bloody gash on my mother's forehead, and I heard her crying week after week as she lay surrounded by her possessions on a sagging, legless living room couch. She'd sawn the supports off because, she explained, "I like to be close to the ground." Tony had disappeared, taking with him Gracie's romantic notions of gamblers and lovable miscreants, but at night a blue light would flicker through the glass and across the rabbit warren of piled-up stuff as police cruised by to check on the neighborhood trouble spot. For many more weeks, I tried to comfort Gracie, bringing her bowls of Kraft Macaroni as she sat slumped on a cleared-off corner of the couch wearing one of her velvety, gauzy costumes, among her boxes of rocks, dizzying stacks of record albums, batholiths of rolled-up carpet, forests of dried eucalyptus branches--the whole muddle spilling over and climbing up to a ceiling reefed with peacock feathers, Japanese masks, vintage mandolins, and dangling tom-toms. She was sad, Gracie said, that no one visited her. She didn't seem to understand that there was no place to sit, no place to stand.

[61] All through that summer of my twelfth year, huddled deep in her stuff, my mother held on as I lay in my bed at night imagining the house's contents seizing up, congealing around us. As Gracie's sobs faded, the night noises rose. The screech of a branch on glass was wolves outside sharpening their claws against the thin membrane of the house. Amorphous dark forms growled and whooshed through the shaggy eucalyptus branches and thumped down onto the dry, packed earth of our yard. Wind whistled through boulders I knew were about to break loose and smash the glass wall of my bedroom. Yellow-eyed creatures, maybe body snatchers, slithered into the broken living room window, through the holes kicked into the hallway's hollow doors.

[62] Later that summer, the Santa Anas swept through, parching the air and withering the chaparral into oily tinder. One night the mountain's menacing face wore an angry slash of fire. By the next night the line had grown into a "v." Within a week fire had jumped the bulldozed trails at the summit and scrawled a flaming "w." Leaping first one barrier, then the next, the fire zigzagged on. Firemen, like dusty ants, rushed to and fro. A troop of them camped in our yard, their sweat mingling with the smoke and the medicinal scent of eucalyptus.

[63] While our downhill neighbors hosed down their roofs and fled in their station wagons, my mother studied the scene--first with indifference, then with mounting attention. Finally one day, she rose from the legless couch like a blonde Valkyrie to defend her glass house, her daughter, and her nest of possessions.

[64] Soon Gracie was weaving with feverish excitement among the tired but attentive firemen, her blue eyes darting, blonde hair flowing. She relayed messages and weather reports. She distributed iced Kool Aid and vast pots of soup.

[65] Besides ministering to the firefighters, Gracie also studied their art. This new adventure rekindled her scientific curiosity that strangers found at odds with her exuberant style. Mingling with the men, she learned about backfires and trenches and sand bombing. She explained to me how the Santa Anas had lifted the flames across the defensive fire trails. How the elaborate grid of trenches being cut through the brush would starve the flames. The fire would ultimately rejuvenate the forest, my mother told me, by clearing out strangling underbrush and making room for new trees.

[66] Her fervor, her intoxication, her resilience were my mother's gifts to her daughter, but gifts I couldn't appreciate. It was as if our family's allotment of youth had been used up by her. With a sense of doom, I stared through the glass toward the flaming mountain, smoke burning my eyes along with the sting of my tears. Blinking hard, I watched the smoke and ashes thicken. Feathery eucalyptus leaves yellowed and drooped. The tree bark grew mottled. My cat Willow panicked and hid in the garage. Rabbits fleeing the mountain huddled in the nearby brush. Long after the fire was extinguished, ash blew like doom through the screens and the still-broken window I'd once been dashed against, drifting over Gracie's piles.

[67] The following winter, rain tore across the burned-over bare mountains, loosening mud and rocks that plunged into the canyon, setting up a clatter like giant castanets. Gracie drew on her Wellingtons and joined the sandbag crews along the canyon road. Together with a handful of sturdy men from the fire department, she and I worked for three days building dikes. Gracie stayed on the line all through one rainy night, intoxicated by the crisis, the front-line camaraderie.

[68] Then suddenly the next morning, the entire mountain appeared to break loose and thunder toward our house with its fourteen glass doors. Only then did my mother abandon the barricades, shoving me into the bubble-topped 1945 Pontiac she'd just learned to drive. As I clutched Willow, we careered down the hill; to Gracie's delight, we were the last holdouts to arrive at a makeshift shelter in the Sierra Madre Elementary School gym.

[69] Our house survived, miraculously undamaged though several others were destroyed. By springtime my mother, like the forest, was rejuvenated. She'd clamber up onto one of the boulders in our yard to gaze at the mountain, now carpeted with green, her gauzy skirt fluttering against the worn face of the rock. After the fires and floods, those boulders always spoke to me of the angry god in the mountain, but to my mother they were rough badges of courage. The boulders evoked in her an elemental compulsion toward resistance. At fifteen she'd been cut off from everything she knew: a home, a school where she'd excelled, friends, a demanding father and the rest of her troubled family. A motherless adolescent, she'd turned to the pale warmth of my philosopher father's luminous ideas. But one by one, my mother's heroes had abandoned her.

[70] When one of her missions or heroes proved hollow, Gracie would retreat through the transparent facade of the glass house and into her intimate lair where everything touched her, brushed her leg as she passed, leaned in as if to embrace her, envelop her, reconnect her with all she'd lost. But inevitably she'd return to the front lines to bask in the sunshine, defiant--her chin set against the mountain.