I visited my childhood home

My parents bought it for $240k. Today, it's for sale for $1.3 million

I visited my childhood home
My once upon a time backyard, from a fire lane

We’ve been visiting California for the month of July. It’s been so nice to be home. 

Riley and I are both from California. We planned on living here for the rest of our lives. It’s our home. After my dad died, my mom moved in with us. We had another baby. We couldn’t afford California housing for all of us on his startup salary and my writer’s income. I always feel guilty for being a writer, for so many reasons, but especially because of that move. I couldn’t help us stay home because I just don’t make enough money.

If Riley was reading over my shoulder right now, he’d tell me I was being foolish. He loves that I write. And. He misses California too.


Our home state has always been a hard place to find and keep a house.

Me and my little sisters, 1993. At my grandparent’s Palm Springs timeshare. (another story for another day)

I spent my childhood moving from rental to rental across Orange County, California. We moved when the landlords raised the rent or decided to sell. Sometimes we had to move to make room for another baby. I remember living in nine different homes before I turned twelve. I know I am forgetting a few.

I don’t remember each house in its entirety. A bathroom from this one, a hallway from that one. Pieced together, the memories of those nine homes might make a floor plan. There’d be two staircases, one from each apartment complex I remember living in. One set of stairs would lead to a shared laundry. I loved when my dad let me sit on top of the clothes in the laundry basket when he went down those stairs to do the wash. Another set of stairs would only appear in the middle of the night. I can only remember that buildings stairs at midnight, when my mom held me and walked down them quickly because there was a fire in the building.

There’d be the sunroom that we used as a playroom. Not huge, but big enough to run away from the girl my mom babysat on weekdays. She always pinched me when my mom wasn’t looking. I slept in many bedrooms but the one I remember best had rats in the walls. I got to have a cd player in my room so I could play music to cover the scratching. I didn’t love the rats but I did love that cd player. The kitchen would come from the house where my dad made chocolate chip pancakes for the first time. There’d be a TV room with a shabby chic couch from Tom’s Farms. The living room would be empty because furniture was expensive. But all that space meant room to twirl, so I didn’t mind.

In the backyard, there’d be a citrus tree. Like the one we had in a city called Orange. That was my first backyard. And my first big tree. It provided great shade for my mud pie kitchen. I remember looking up to see grapefruit hanging from the branches. My mom remembers oranges. Whatever the fruit was, I wanted desperately to pick it. Picking fruit from a tree was something I saw in movies. But here was a tree, with fruit, in my own backyard! I could reach if my dad put me on his shoulders.

We weren’t allowed to pick the fruit though. The landlords said the fruit belonged to them. I guess we could’ve picked just one without anyone noticing, but my parents were never willing to risk it. It had taken them a long time to find a house they could afford. They liked having a backyard too.

When the landlords came to pull the fruit from the tree, I’d watch from inside the kitchen. The husband stood on a ladder while his wife pointed from branch to branch. After he’d picked everything that was ripe, he’d climb down the ladder and stand next to her. They’d both lean back a bit and look the tree over to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. Then the woman would pick up the bag of fruit and walk to the car. The man would put the ladder back on the side of the house. I’d go back into my backyard - well, their backyard - after they left.

What made that fruit theirs? The landlords didn’t plant the tree. They’d only bought the house a few years before they rented it to us. And they didn’t nourish the tree. It drew in energy from sun and soil beyond their property line. The tree probably outlived them. Citrus trees can live for 60 years. I don’t think it’s possible to own a tree. I wonder who picks the fruit now?

As a kid, I thought those landlords just didn’t know how to share. And I guess that’s true! But I can see now how it all must have felt for my parents. They were young parents, with a couple children and more to come. They were far from buying a home in a country where home ownership is one of the only ways create security. Their rent payments nourished equity for each of their landlords, while exhausting my parents savings. I guess it’s fitting that we weren’t allowed to harvest anything from that tree. Renting in America rarely bears any fruit.

My parents bought their first home when I was in the sixth grade. It was $240,000 dollars. They had to borrow their earnest money. They barely scraped together enough for the loan. The house was a tract home at the end of a cul-de-sac. The backyard was mostly a big dirt hill. My parents planted palm trees, tall grasses, vines and flowers. I asked if we could plant an avocado tree. I still wanted to pick fruit from a tree in my backyard.

My husband and I grew up together. I remember showing him that avocado tree as it started to grow. It takes a long time for an avocado tree to fruit for the first time. My parents moved before the first avocado hung from my tree’s branches. I’ve still never picked fruit in my backyard.

Last week, I took my kids back to that house. There was a For Sale sign in the front yard. A list price of $1.3 million. Too much. I don’t feel very happy in the suburbs. So I wouldn’t buy our old home even if I could, I guess. But I can’t. And there is something in that can’t that feels…like another loss. Maybe it’s one more proof that I’ll never be able to make my home state my kids’ home, for good.

The kids only groaned a little when I made them walk up the fire lane that runs along a big hill behind the house. I just wanted to see the backyard. We were too high up to peer through the fence, but what I could see made me happy. The things my parents planted grew.

The palm trees are twice as tall as the house now. The flowers, vines and grasses are thick on ground and up the fences. I couldn’t see the avocado tree. But it should still be there. Trees take root so much easier than people. It should be at least a decade into its fruit bearing years. Avocado trees can live for over 200 years. I hope it outlives me. I hope someone is enjoying its fruit.