“This is my Harley,” says Junior with pride. He hovers over the motorized kiddie motorcycle, which sits in the living room of Chris and Laura’s Santee home. Junior is five; his sister Lizzie is three. They both had their birthdays last month.
He gives a tour of the bike, starting with the controls. “This is fast; this is slow. These lights go on. If you press these two buttons…” The familiar unmuffled growl emanates from the toy. “That’s the sound of a Harley.” He rests his hands on the plastic saddlebags. “This is Lizzie’s; this is mine. It opens, so you can put stuff in it. Lizzie puts dirt in hers; I only put toys in mine. Want to see what’s under the seat?” “Sure.”
Junior lifts the seat to reveal a substantial square battery.
“Batteries,” I observe.
“That’s not batteries.”
“What is it?”
“It’s something that dads know.”
“When did you get that?”
“Remember from Christmas? Remember, you came over at my grandpa’s house and you joined us for presents?”
“Who do you think he is?” asks Laura, Junior’s mom.
“I don’t know, but…”
“Who did he come to Grandpa’s house with? Do you remember?”
“Did he have a wife?”
Junior’s confusion about my Christmas presence is understandable. Explains Laura, “He met a lot of relatives he didn’t know recently. We took them for a vacation for almost four weeks, driving around the country and visiting relatives. My family is from Ohio, and then my husband has grandparents who live in New Jersey.” That’s a lot of driving with two kids five and under, but Laura says she doesn’t mind doing it. “I feel like I moved out here, away from my family. My dad and brother are there, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins. I moved away from them, so it’s my responsibility to make sure the kids get to know their families.”
Laura moved to California from Ohio because “it was January. And I was really itching, like a lot of people who grew up in the Midwest, to get out of there. I was going to college back there, but I enrolled in a travel school out here — I picked the school because San Diego was as far away as I could be from my hometown and still be in the United States.” While she was here, she met Chris, who was in the Marines at the time.
They started dating, and Chris managed to impress her with his powers of silent endurance. “He ate the most awful meal I have ever cooked; that was when I was trying to figure out how to cook. My dad had told me that you could use Italian dressing to marinate chicken breast. I didn’t have Italian in the fridge, but I had red wine vinaigrette dressing. I said, ‘It looks kind of like Italian dressing…’ But that makes really bright, psychedelic-pink chicken. And I made a spinach salad, and I wasn’t aware that when you put the dressing on the spinach, the spinach will start to wilt. I made it about six hours before he came over and thought I’d chill it. He had pink chicken with a droopy, really nasty, looked-like-it-came-from-a-can spinach-type thing. But he ate it; he didn’t ask for seconds, but he ate it.”
“You didn’t grow up by your mother’s side in the kitchen?”
“No. My mother is a very fine orderer at restaurants; she knows how to order very well.” Instead, Laura learned to cook on her own — “asking people, figuring things out,” getting this or that recipe from the person who makes it well. “Red potato salad from our friend George’s wife, beans from his sister…” But not cookbooks. “Cookbooks don’t really offer meals you would cook on a daily basis. They do have a Woman’s Day cookbook that I use kind of often, just in case I get hesitant about stuff. They’ve got some pretty basic recipes in there.”
Laura managed to get a job with Amtrak before the financial leash dragged her back East, and after a couple of deployment-induced delays, she and Chris were married and living in an apartment in Clairemont. The prospect of children had them house-hunting soon after, and Laura began wondering if maybe the grass hadn’t actually been greener back in Ohio. “My husband won’t go on vacation with us, because he hates how I sit there and say, ‘What? This house is only $100,000?’ Every time I go, I bring the Home Trader from back there and sit here at night and look through it. I’m saying, ‘Five acres? Are you sure we don’t want to?’”
Laura’s lust for space is attached to its attendant freedom, which in turn is attached to her thoughts for her children. “I can compare my childhood to my husband’s, since he grew up here, in Clairemont. I think his sucked. I had freedom and space. My neighbor had horses. Chris was riding his bike in traffic to get to a friend’s house. I took my kids back, and they’re at my dad’s house, and there are no fences, and it’s open, and they go out for a walk in the woods in the back someplace. It’s a good place to be raised, I think.”
They ended up in a three-bedroom ranch home in Santee. “Chris liked that it wasn’t that far from all of his family. I liked that it was away from the city, but close enough. I like that on my days off, I don’t have to leave town if I don’t want to, although when they used to have the movie theater here, it was nice. It just seemed more like home, the place I tried so hard to get away from. It was in the shopping center; they closed it a few years ago. They said for a while that they were opening one there at the Santee Trolley Square Shopping Center; Old Navy and Target and all these new stores are coming in, and then I noticed that they stopped listing the movie theater with the list of stores that would be there. Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have noticed, but that’s what was promised years ago, I’m sure of it.”