Part 1: The Acorn
In Carmel, I learned how to play Balderdash.
On Sunday morning we stood at a lookout point on 17-mile drive, a famous stretch of highway that contours the ocean – or does the ocean contour the land? – and discussed what to do after dinner on our last evening together.
“Balderdash,” said Caroline, squinting over the water’s rolling glint, “I think you’ll be good at it.”
I nodded in anticipation; who wouldn’t love to play a game they’d be good at?
The night before we had watched a terrible Taiwanese movie about young gangsters – they crossed and double-crossed each other mostly in Taiwanese, which most of us didn’t understand. And on Friday, the night we arrived, we played Charades, parents included, girls vs. guys. The girls lost, but it wasn’t a terrible loss. Some things take practice.
And so our weekend passed in a sprawling, ocean side paradise. My cousins rented a rustic house – some family’s home, filled with their history, their lore – to celebrate their father’s retirement. It was called “The Acorn,” though more fittingly it might have been called “The Hive.” Single story with four bedrooms and a separate cottage, the Acorn was designed decades ago in a labyrinthine style for a large family with many children and a constant stream of guests. Built of dark, paradoxical wood that seemed both sturdy and slight, the house creaked ceaselessly, yet was quiet. At night it required dozens of lamps to light yet in the mornings, was flooded with pale, seaside sunlight, the kind that hesitates to emerge from behind the clouds, like a shy but beautiful child hiding behind his mother’s back.
The house was, as my cousin Andrew noted, like a “little museum,” filled with old books with fascinating titles (Principles and Practice of Butter Making by McKay and Larsen, and The Science and Practice of Cheese Making by Van Slyke and Publow – apparently it takes two to write about such subjects). The oldest volume was a Rutgers yearbook from 1928, strangely titled The Scarlet Letter. It left a dusty red mark on my pajamas when I set it in my lap to scan the pages for one Mr. Whisler, the grandfather or perhaps great grandfather of the family who owned the house. But he was nowhere to be found. Yet around me, the Whislers and their friends were everywhere. They hung from the walls in faded photographs and pencil portraits, stern-faced gentlemen with white hair and stiff moustaches, somber-faced children sitting cross-legged before their clapboard schoolhouse, and soft-looking women with high collared dresses and tight braids. They stood atop mantles and bookshelves in trophies of contests past, the most amusing of which was a stout bronzed cow set atop a gleaming onyx column, awarded to T.F. Riley in 1950 for Highest Butter Fat Increase Per Cow: 59.5 lbs. In the front cover of the oldest books were inscribed the names of people – some visitors, some relatives – and, on the underside of a wooden duck, a gift to the Whislers “From George, 1970.”
My uncle Louis, nearing his mid-seventies, lumbered around The Acorn like a happy child with too-big shoes. Though a former aerospace engineer whose daily work involved pages and pages of algorithms, an hour long commute into the heart of Los Angeles and top-secret trips to top-secret destinations (to this day he is still unable to discuss the nature of some of his projects) he was immediately at home in the Acorn. He found a favorite chair in the living room and developed a routine that included consuming a large brunch, followed by a walk along the ocean if the weather permitted and if the wind was not too strong.
My aunt Joannie wore a red parka and new, old tennis shoes for much of the trip, smiling softly at her children all around her and her husband, for whom retirement was long overdue. It was a special occasion, she said, when I complimented her shoes. The shoes were nearly a decade old, a gift from her youngest son, but she had saved them for such a trip. They contrasted nicely with the house’s dark floors and against the vivid green grass of the garden, through which she traipsed with my mother.
My parents loved the house too, but for different reasons: my mother gathered parsley from the small herb planter next to the kitchen to sprinkle on our eggs and disappeared for what seemed like hours at a time to stroll around the gardens, which were green and lush and smelled of the nearby sea. She sniffed each blossom and gingerly stroked the wisteria hanging from the trellis, trying to remember the English names of other small, pretty faces.
“Rho…” she would say on her way in, wiping her feet on the mat outside, face flushed from the chilly air, “Rhodo…” And I would finish for her, “…dodendron, Mom. Rhododendron.”
Like me, my father found the house a perfect place to read, though not because it was filled with books. He brought his own – a thin but dense Chinese paperback with a severe-looking emperor on the cover – and read in one of two padded wicker chairs with their backs against a large window overlooking the garden. In the mornings, my cousins still sleeping, I would wake and walk into the kitchen to see my father fully dressed with hair combed, breakfast eaten long ago, reading in the chair, George’s duck sitting quietly next to his right shoulder. Occasionally my mother’s slow figure would appear in the window, her upper body curved towards a bush or tree, and for a brief moment their bodies would align, my mother standing behind my seated father, the only division between them being a large pane of glass, translucent yet impenetrable.
Compared to the walls and shelves of all the other rooms, the bedrooms were the sparest; closets emptied and dresser tops cleared for strange guests and their strange, anachronistic things: smart phones, laptops, iPads. Faded paintings and old sports equipment hung from the walls, though like a lingering smell or an intangible albeit vivid memory, one could still feel the aura of visitors past. Being one of two single people on the trip, I volunteered to share a small room with my cousin Darwin (together we made a two-spoke third wheel) thinking it would spare him sharing a room with my father, whose snores I often compare to a jackhammer. Even two rooms away however, my father’s snores impinged upon our late night conversations. We wondered how my mother slept at all. Though in the morning Darwin would accuse me of snoring softly, like a “little bear,” at night, tucked into our narrow twin beds, the ceiling slanting close above our heads, we talked about relationships – his, mostly. What makes a relationship work, we wondered, certainly not snoring like a jackhammer. Yet all around us, married couples old and young slept and slept.