In 1948 I moved with my mother and father from her parents' light-filled and substantially-built Pasadena home on a block-deep lot near a drugstore, Chinese restaurant and coffee shop with malts, to a new subdivision in Baldwin Park. My brother was born later that year.
Harlan Street had no trees, no sidewalks, no lawns, no fences. At one end of the block was a working dairy - cows and all - and at the other the hard and dusty scrub land that reminded everyone Southern California was simply a desert in disguise. Nearby was a gravel pit with the trucks that came to carry the gravel away, and a drive-in movie where the program changed a couple times a week.
We were late-comers to the tract, those already settled having arrived seemingly as soon as the paint dried. While at age three I was young, I was a very good listener and heard the gossip the neighbors shared about each other with my very young mother. Compared with Pasadena where she had grown up, it must have seemed an outpost - Fort Apache from some western - and the smudgepots from nearby orange groves left us with sooty nostrils when we awoke on cold mornings.
The greatest attraction for me - the only attraction - in our backyard was the clothesline, two metal uprights with rows of rope strung between. My dearest cloth doll, named Checkersocks, was frequently pinned there as she dried, having been washed following - probably - being dragged through the Baldwin Park dirt that passed for a yard day after day. I remember sitting under the dripping doll, talking to her, waiting for her to be ready to play again.
It was the absence of fences, and the fact that our little neighborhood had been, not that long ago, just like the land around it, that inspired me to make friends with the tumbleweeds. I can't say the friendship went in both directions; I captured them, kept them around for a while, then turned them loose. Since they blew through our yard and every other yard in the region, stopped only by the houses, I began to catch them and tie them to the clothesline pole with the leftover rope. I gathered them in bush-sized, prickly bouquets and would talk to them as I did to my doll. We had a cocker spaniel named Ginger who only barked and jumped on me and they made better company; at least I had some control over them. Ginger never stopped jumping on me and finally "went away" which I assumed to mean back to the people who had given her to us. It was many years and a few dogs later that I caught on to that old parents' tale about sending Fred or Duke or Lobo to live with a nice family who had more space.
Eventually I would free the tumbleweeds, picturing a windy day so they could really make a break for it, then begin to collect a new batch. What I don't remember is how I managed to wrangle such dry, sharp and hostile relics and how I arrived at the place of considering them friends. When released, they raced west, eventually piling up along the chain-link that surrounded the power lines.
Lawns and fences did come to Harlan Street, about the time I started kindergarten, walking to school past the dairy and a road full of squashed frogs whose swampy home had been built over with two-bedroom stucco. As more families arrived, they had to add a second session of kindergarten and a bus carried me past the frog bodies but the sense of waking nightmare never quite left. When my brother was still less than a year old, we moved back to Pasadena for the smudge pots made him ill and the doctor said he couldn't live in such a place.
What caused me to think of Baldwin Park and my strange collection of skeletal, botanical friends was a conversation this morning, a suggestion that perhaps I might be able to let sad and unwelcome thoughts pass through my mind rather than allowing them to pitch their tents and suck the joy out of all I used to love about Christmas - the lights, the music, making cards and gifts, surprising my son, cooking. I saw myself stubbornly, but intentionally, grabbing hold of something that was meant to breeze on past and binding it fast in a place where it didn't belong. I acknowledged that I might find a way to observe the arrival of the tumbling thoughts and the feelings they brought without giving them energy and floor space. I imagined that I could nod at their passing, know they were just part of the territory and let them go.