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Spirits of Christmas Past (Dec. 24, 1997)

This is the time of year when soggy, foggy winter days in Anderson Valley rarely give way to sun sightings. Inspiration enough for many of the local populace to plan a trip south, either during or after the holidays. Perhaps to the pink and pooled villas of Acapulco’s Las Brisas. Or, maybe to the beaches of Baja, or to art-decoed South Miami Beach. I’ve a brother who’s heading for a super-posh place above the sea in Costa Rica. As for me, I’d rather be presently exploring warm Patagonia instead of staying here struggling to protect my plants from frost on the Valley floor. I’ll be fortunate if I can make it as far south as Laguna Beach to inflict with playful relish the role of wicked stepmother upon my late husband’s daughters.

This is also the season we tend to travel in our minds, not necessarily to madness, sadness or regret, but back in peaceful memory to the people and places of past holidays. It was a good time to open morning windows and air the soul’s night blanket, to remember where we have been, with whom, what we have had, whom we have lost, whether to distance or death, and what part of our past remains to sustain us.

Because I really love to cook, I tend to remember not only people and places, but also kitchens, which have always functioned as the focal point for daily living in each of my homes since childhood. There have been so very many kitchens in my life, hubs of warmth and camaraderie. Regardless of the occasion, everyone always gravitates to the kitchen, if the room is worth its salt. Kitchens are the setting for the theater of everyday life, for me what the stage was for Will Shakespeare.

One of the quirkiest, most theatrical of all my kitchens came along during the late 60s. Our home was a sandy-pink mock-adobe anvil shaped wedge that perfectly fit the corner lot on one of the narrow palm-lined lanes that criss-cross southern California’s Balboa Peninsula. Bougainvillea climbed the exterior walls. Giant ferns and old camellia bushes skirted the small, meandering strip of yard that was a lawnless garden. 

The kitchen was as kitschy as the rest of the California mission-style homes. Previous owners had totally tiled the triangular space in the shades of burgundy and black. Then they overly-adorned the area, including concrete block-thick window recesses, with wrought iron filigree fancies, from wall sconces to huge hooks, curtain rods to chandeliers. A mammoth wrought iron bell-pepper green pot-and-pan holder hung from the dusty-rose ceiling. Our old refectory table was lost among the ornate Mexican made wood work. The cavernous black stone fireplace held the ubiquitous black iron soup pot on the outstretched arm of a gargoyle. It was a monk’s nightmare… or wet dream. The room perfectly lent itself to the frivolity of Christmas, my favorite time to be there.

Winter weather on the Peninsula consists mainly of mists; it’s another country in remarkable contrast to the color-blown gaiety of the seaside resort it becomes during summer. We often spent winter nights after dinner strolling bayside beneath electric lanterns haloed in the golden glow of tiny raindrops.

A half block from the house was the wide swathe of a walkway-cum-bicycle path, a community promenade, on the banks of Newport Bay that stretched the length of the Peninsula, overlooked Balboa Island across the Bay, and trailed into downtown in Newport Beach. There was no need to use an auto; everyone bicycled around. We rode our battered second-hand Schwinns everywhere, filling the tandem wire baskets with food, gifts and fir boughs to carry back to our maniacal kitchen.

On a day closest to Christmas Eve, we would leave in early morning and bike to breakfast on the bay. An old rickety sea shanty whose long ago denim blue paint job was but a dim memory housed a restaurant. Inside the now bone-gray, chipped and splintered, peeled and flaked nearly skeletal facade, food was served forth in trencherman’s proportions. A mountain of housemade corned beef hash topped with three eggs arrived accompanied by a short stack of Swedish pancakes. In the crowded, noisy atmosphere, aromatic of salt air, baking cinnamon bread and sizzling bacon, my husband savored his favorite breakfast while I filched his thin crispy pancakes and wrapped them around a shredded salad of lettuce, pepper, carrot, onion and cucumber bathed in vinaigrette, over which spilled the runny yolks of steaming poached eggs. Coffee was tongue-treacherous hot and severely black, served in thick off-white Woolworth mugs. Sometimes, Bernard would forego the hash and settle for coddled eggs with thick slices of toasted cinnamon bread which came with miniature fondue pots of melted sweet butter and warm strawberry jam for dipping or slathering. Rich City! Obviously, we could not dine there often and remain for long among the living.

Gastronomically satiated, we cycled to a deserted beach on the ocean side of the Peninsula. Deserted, that is, except for a queued line of locals who braved the misty chill waiting for the dorys to arrive. Twice weekly, fishermen of Portuguese descent brought their catch to this stretch of sand across the street from seasonally shuttered shops and cafes. Their wives, daughters or mothers, swathed in black from head to toe, gathered shortly before the men, who, after retrieving the fish-filled nets from the water, beached the small wooden flat-sterned skiffs and dragged the dorys up onto the sand near the road. There, the women set up tables equipped with primitive cutting boards; buckets of fresh water waited underneath. As the men passed them wriggling red rockfish, the women rinsed them, then gutted and cleaned each. The anxious customers waited to choose the succulent, glistening specimens that would be piled on holiday platters. We made our purchase, wrapped in waxed butcher paper, tossed them into the bike basket and took off down the beach toward home, stopping at the Clam Kettle for fresh shellfish.

We always took part of the catch to Phoebe, our eccentric tenant who lived in the apartment above us. Phoebe was a wealthy widow in her 80s, of spare stature and unlimited strength and integrity, whose implied stoic mannerisms could not conceal her outrageously mischievous whims. Her naturally platinum silver hair framed a pointy elfin-like face. Her daily dress was more of a costume change; she covered herself in silks, lots of lace and Tiffany’s diamonds by the yard. She drove one of the first BMWs ever imported to this country, a burnt beige, caramel-colored plush leather-lined sedan she bought in Germany and had shipped over. It was a breathtaking auto, much finer than today’s chrome-encrusted snazzwagons.

Phoebe kept a mynah bird who perched on the railing of her small deck. He loudly mimicked Marine-barracks obscenities as people passed by. When I, or one of our nearby neighbors, unceremoniously raised our female derrieres while bending to pull weeds or plant primula, the mynah would pipe a long-drawn, lewdly suggestive wolf-whistle. Always startled, we either would plunge headlong, laughing into the camellias or stand ramrod erect to look around and find who on earth?… Until we remember the mynah.

Always an annual day of Christmas shopping on quaint Balboa Island came around with my friend Maizie. During my first summer there, Maizie taught me how to sail. Theretofore, my “sailing” had been confined to getting drenched in a yellow sou’wester on a friend’s Columbia 50 under the Golden Gate Bridge or watching Opening Day ceremonies from the dining room of the St. Francis Yacht Club.

John Wayne had nothing on Maizie. In her early 70s, she was the true grit of all sailors. When Wayne’s over-sized motor yacht, a lavishly converted mine-sweeper, bullied its way into Newport harbor headed to his home, Maizie and I took to our 14-foot sloop, tacking back and forth in front of the behemoth, figuratively thumbing our noses — sailboat lovers traditionally hold motor launch slackers in officious contempt.

We terrorized the dazzling entrants on opening day of the Newport to Ensenada race by threading in and out, teasing all the way down the bay out to sea, a tiny David among an armada of partying Goliaths. We were very annoying: they feared we’d be crushed and cursed us. But Maizie, who taught sailing daily and could get you out on the water on your own after an hour’s lesson, amazed them all with her dexterity and talent. In retrospect, we were the bay’s bad girls, the brats of boating.

Mid-Peninsula, by the handsome Pavilion outlined in white lights, there is a ferry dock where you wait for the short, snail-like crossing to Balboa Island. More of a floating-box-with-railing than an actual ferry, it is adequate to fetch a few cars and pedestrians with bicycles in either direction. I witnessed what was probably the lame system’s greatest claim to fame on a hot summer afternoon when Jimi Hendrix vamped across the bay, sitting in his crash-and-burn-kaleidoscope van.

About ten days before Christmas, preferably on a day of light, steady rain, Maizie and I would meet at the dock in the dark of morning. When we reached the Island, we cycled in the blue rain, past deserted gingerbread summer cottages which hugged the tiny streets. On these winter sojourns, we were alone and silent, just the sound of our two-wheelers swishing through the water.

Even at this early hour the village shops were beautifully lighted and festooned. We ducked into the Danish bakery, lingering over coffee in the muted glow of a window table, waiting for the shops to open. 

Entering each dollhouse-like establishment was like finding something more mystical than Santa’s workshop. We approached in gleeful awe. The treasures of the world were hidden away in tiny candlelighted cottages on a tiny avenue on a tiny island in the eye of a Pacific storm.

On our way home in the dusk of late afternoon, a bay full of boats sailed by the ferry, each decorated for the annual Christmas Light Parade. Towering majestic sailing vessels outlined in glowing color swept past in silence. Intentionally clownish boats of all types, wildly decorated, crowded the harbor. 

We left eventually to return to North California domiciliage. Maizie had stopped writing letters to me when, years later, Bernard and I finally found time to slip back to Balboa. As we crossed the bridge in Newport that gives a clear view of the bay, we saw a small skiff far down the estuary, in which a calm figure in a blue windbreaker and white cap was gesturing, pointing in the way Maizie always did as she taught her pupils how to rule the waves. We rushed down Balboa Boulevard to find her. We searched the whole of the bay; she was nowhere to be found. Her home on the Boulevard, a two-story bit of wonderful strangeness, completely disappeared. No trace of Maizie; no one remembered her or knew what happened to her. The woman with the sea-blue eyes, freckled face and red curly ringlets was gone.

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