I grew up in San Diego, California, on a cul-de-sac in an older part of the city. Suburban houses rim the finger canyons throughout this Navy town. Ours was one of thousands, but we kids were a lucky few, growing up in a time that wasn’t nearly as jaded as the world, and parents, must be today.
My brother and sister and I walked to school – a mere ten minute jaunt – and our dog ran loose in the neighborhood. Nobody complained. It was a different time, almost a galaxy away. No computers, no video games. “Get outside and blow the stink off you!” my mother would say, and shoo us out into the sun.
In the summer, we built forts and played in the canyon with the neighborhood kids. Sweet peas grew wild in our playground. We’d pick them by the armloads and cart them homeward. My mother’s life was hectic then, and I think a good part of the motivation to pluck the gorgeous buds week after week was to see her smile over the blooms, breathe in that pungent sweetness.
We always knew when to come up for dinner, because the doves would begin to coo at four o’clock every day. It was a signal: Pick as many sweet peas as you can carry, and climb the hill. It was a luxury for my mother to have fresh flowers in the house, and we were proud to be the purveyors of happiness, if only for the weeks they were alive.
Mom is 82 now and we haven’t been near a canyon for a good twenty years, but no matter. In a flash, I can be right back in our old family room. I can see the couch and the windows overlooking the fruit-tree-lined terraces that descend into the small ravine below. That’s where I first learned the impact of a gift, as well as the present that is a garden. And seeing it in my mind over and over again, I’ve learned the power of a memory.
I can go back whenever I wish, and I do. And every time I return to my life – this life, this world – I use the innocence of who I was and write those joyous moments into the people I create. My characters all have a piece of me, in more ways than one.
I’m not convinced we must always “write what we know.” I believe it’s closer to the truth to “write what you want to know.” I think as authors, we can pen whatever we want, as long as we’re able to bring the characters in our chosen stories alive by building into each of them the feelings and memories we hold inside. It’s cathartic, it’s creative.
I believe that’s much of the reason why I write: The hope that someone else will smell the sweet peas, and feel the pinch of nostalgia over a childhood long gone.