The neighborhood ladies didn’t quite know what to do with me. Their discomfort over my job was apparent, but I was friendly, and I wore Laura Ashley dresses, pearls, and cardigans on the weekend.

Nonfiction by Kristin Lieberman, Winter 2016


The house we bought in Pasadena was not my first choice. It was small, overpriced, and had a tiny backyard, no pool. But it was charming, so when we went through our options, I remembered its garden and the lion’s head fountain in the postage-stamp yard. “Look at it this way,” I said to my husband. “It’s already renovated. We’ll stay a few years, sell it, and then move to a bigger house. By then we’ll have a family.” It was a perfect house for two people, maybe three.

“Okay,” he said. He looked down at the floor. He gave in too quickly. He was silent. It was not the way a lawyer—a big lawyer like he was—makes an important decision.

“What is it?” I asked

“Nothing,” he said.

“Can we afford it?”

“Yes,” he said.

Something wasn’t right, but I didn’t push it. All I thought was this—the houses along the street were lovely, the yards plush and flowered. Jacarandas lined the street—their purple flowers blossomed, and when they fell, the sweet, sticky petals twirled like lilac snow all along the road and in the yards.

I remember sitting cross-legged in my faded jeans and crisp white linen shirt alone on the cold brown Mexican tiles in the family room, waiting for the moving van to arrive—the wall of French windows where outside the lion’s head fountain spilled water into the koi pond—the quiet sound of trickling water, and the deep breath I took in the January air. I knew—I just knew because of that room—I’d be happy there. I was hopeful then.

In 1991 you were an acceptable resident of Pasadena if you were a professional or the senior executive of a prosperous corporation. You were welcomed if you were a Catholic or Episcopalian. You were embraced if you were conservative or Republican. I was a liberal Democrat, but I was a lawyer—I drove a BMW. I had joined a local Episcopal church. The neighborhood ladies didn’t quite know what to do with me. Their discomfort over my job was apparent, but I was friendly, and I wore Laura Ashley dresses, pearls, and cardigans on the weekend. I was expecting a child.

I didn’t know my life was suspect. I was happy, busy, about to become a mother, and I was the newest partner in a successful law firm. I was oblivious—I was a fool.

I was tanned, in my thirties, and happy. During the week I wore sharp business suits in navy, camel, and black. I walked among the beautiful gardens and library of The Huntington; lunched at Julienne, the gorgeous café on Mission Street; gloried in the sumptuous Sunday brunch at the stately old Huntington Hotel; and enjoyed gracious Lacey Park, all within walking distance of my little house. My house was only a place to sleep, a place to have parties, and a safe neighborhood for my hypothetical children. Moving to Pasadena was not a political decision. There was no ideology to my geography.

On a Sunday afternoon when our son was one month old, my husband came to me in the nursery. “I have something to tell you,” he said. “I was convicted of intentional failure to file my income taxes in January. It’s a felony conviction, and I’ve been placed on parole. I have to pay a fine and pay the last seven years of my taxes with interest. I have to perform community service.”

“How did you keep it from me?” I asked. If the entire house had fallen down around us at that moment, I couldn’t have been more shaken. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

His hands were in his pockets, and he paced the room. “I had all of the documents sent to the office, and I placed all of them in a locked drawer. What came to the house, I put on top of the refrigerator where you could not see it.”

He told me that his felony conviction was reported to the bar, and they had chosen to suspend him. The law firm found out, and there was a meeting scheduled at the firm, and he thought, correctly, that he was going to lose his job tomorrow. “That is the only reason I’m telling you now,” he said.

“Why didn’t the other partners tell me anything?”

“I told them not to tell you. I told them that I was working it all out.” He added, “Also, I haven’t had any money in years.”

I thought that this had to be a joke—because he made so much money as a named partner in a lucrative law firm—but the joke was on me. We had always kept our finances separate; I had always filed my taxes alone. I checked all of my accounts. Checks I had not written had been drawn on each account—small sums, just enough to cover a credit card bill or make one mortgage payment, but consistently, for as long as we had been married.

Each day I encountered another lie, another hidden debt my husband had accrued. Someone said that he was a gambler—I never knew the truth. The warm, generous, responsible man I thought I knew was someone who kept a secret life away from me. I was numb, not at all certain I could stay in this marriage—it didn’t feel like a marriage anymore. I locked up my checks and credit cards. I put passwords on all of my accounts, and I made an appointment with a divorce lawyer.

I took the rest of my vacation time because I was told I had no more maternity leave by the firm, and I cried for the entire week, rocking my son in my arms, while my husband paced the floors downstairs. On Monday, with shaky hands, I put on my sunglasses and returned to work.

The neighborhood ladies invited me for breakfast shortly after I returned to work. I welcomed their company—any solidarity or friendship was a comfort because I felt so lost, so overwhelmed. We met at the local café, and as I sat down, I knew something was not right. They told me that it was time for me to stay home with my child. I reminded them that I was a working mother and that I had responsible childcare. “Maybe your husband should stay home for a while. Someone needs to bond with this child,” one finally said. She said it to be cruel, and my heart closed up.

“Maybe he should,” I said. I knew that by saying that I would no longer be invited to lunch, tea, or to baby showers, or even greeted in the street, but I did not care. I could not let them know what I was going through. I was vulnerable, and my trust had already been breached.

I left some money for the check, and I drove to work. I thought about their intentions. Did they want to steer me in that direction for their own comfort or to shepherd me into the herd? Charity work, volunteering for schools, hosting dinners, and child-rearing were the only proper callings in life for a Pasadena matron. This was never the life I intended for myself. I wondered for the first time in three years why I had moved there.

I didn’t have much time to wonder or make alternative plans either. Two months later I was admitted to the hospital for brain surgery. After suffering from headaches, balance issues, and finally one-sided weakness, I discovered that I had a congenital midbrain cyst grown to the size of a golf ball paralyzing my right side. A day after surgery I had a hemorrhagic stroke. I was in speech, physical, and occupational therapy for the next year. When I recovered enough to walk, talk, and care for my 18-month-old child with help—when my husband had finished his community service, his suspension was lifted, and he had another job—I told him he could go.

It wasn’t until five years later, after I had divorced and remarried, and my new husband and I wanted to move with my son into a new house, that I found out that the tax authorities still had a lien on my house in my ex-husband’s name. It took five years to sort it out and to remove the lien. By then the housing market plunged, and I was diagnosed with leukemia. We enrolled our children—along with my son we had our own boy-girl twins—into private schools and bided our time. When the oldest graduated from high school, and the housing market rose, we decided it was finally time to move.

I lived in the same house in the same neighborhood for twenty-two years, and I survived it. I can count the things that I miss about it. I miss breakfast at Julienne, martinis at Smitty’s, dinners at the Arroyo Chop House, and lunches at the Parkway Grill. I miss the Pasadena Playhouse, the Norton Simon Museum, and the Pasadena Symphony. I miss the eclectic shopping along Colorado Avenue and the Rose Parade. I do not miss the mute neighbors or the parent cliques in the expensive private schools that my children attended. I do not miss being the sick, awkward mom, getting sicker. I do not miss Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Armani suits. I definitely do not miss Chanel bags.

In the end I was never part of the clan. I wore pearls, but I was through wearing pearls. I was tired of dressing up. When my husband was offered a good job out of state, I said, “Yes. Give me Oregon.”

I visited Oregon only once before I came to Corvallis to choose a new home. I had flown to Portland with my oldest son on a college visit two years before. He had liked the college, and the meandering branch of the Willamette River beside our hotel made him smile. “You and Dad should move here,” he said. “I think the twins would like it.”

I laughed. “I can’t see Oregon happening in my life.”

I couldn’t see it happening in my life until it did.

I endured two painful surgeries within one month before my husband was due to start his new job in Oregon. “It will be two hard months. Will you be okay?” he asked.

“I have to be,” I said. He kissed me and held me close. I was shaking—I wasn’t sure I had the strength to survive so long without him. Day by day I went about my business—I drove the twins to school, I went to the grocery store, I directed the stripping and staging of my house, and I interviewed and hired our movers. I sorted through photos, clothes, furniture, and every item of our collective lives. I threw out some, gave away more, and kept the cherished items. During this time I couldn’t bend or lift. Sitting for any length of time was almost unbearable. It took a full month for me to sit upright comfortably and to eat solid food again. I kept moving forward to Oregon and my new life. I found strength in leaving that I had not known in staying.

I found a secluded sofa where I rested while the house was being shown, inspected, and finally sold. At night I took pain medication, chemotherapy pills, and whatever else my medical team prescribed. After homework was done, the dinner dishes were put away, and the twins were showered and safely tucked in bed, I slept and dreamed of cool Northwestern summers.

We remained in our house in Pasadena until June, long enough for my oldest son to come home from college in Connecticut to say good-bye to the only home he had ever known. I said good-bye to the medical professionals who knew me, who had seen me through years of therapies, surgeries, titrations of medications, and all of the intrepid clinical trials. I said good-bye to my true community and four real friendships I had forged or serendipitously come into over the years. I would miss them, but it was not heartbreaking to let go. I just let go. I had learned that life and love were centered in just letting go.

The day I left the house in Pasadena for good, I sat cross-legged in black yoga pants in the family room on the same cold tiles after the movers had left. Our children were running from room to room, checking out the empty house one last time. I stared out at the old lion’s head fountain, and the tired, sick woman I had become spoke to the hopeful, foolish girl that had moved here so many years ago. “You survived,” I said.

I’ve ended up in the kind of town I grew up in in rural California. It was a community graced with cherry groves, cattle ranches, and swaths of fields peppered with poppies, perennials, shrubs, and trees. Apricot, plum, and persimmon trees surrounded our white cottage of a home. Mint grew by the dripping water faucet in the backyard, stalks of rhubarb, and rows of grapevines tangled into one other, avocados and lilacs, and roses of every variety and color. A tall elm tree regally shaded me from the hot sun, and I practiced my saxophone with a makeshift music stand under those enormous branches. On Sunday mornings the white church across the way rang its bells loudly while I turned over stones looking for bugs in the green grass yard.

Everyone in that small town knew each other. People worked hard and helped one another as best they could. Many of my classmates were content to stay in this town for good, or find another small town somewhere else, while a few of us ventured out to the city. I bounded off to college and beyond, to the noise and excitement of everything a small town didn’t offer me. I lived in one city after another until I married and planted roots in the cracks of suburban cement in Pasadena.

Along the rural highway leading to the Northwest forest where I now live lie acres of grassland, bales of harvested hay, forested mountains, horses, and sheep. Next door to me there is an old farm, grandfathered into the gentrified neighborhood. The farm raises alpacas for their wool and goats for their milk and cheese.

A slight breeze fans and sways the trees—strange trees I have never seen before. While we had a postage-stamp backyard in Pasadena—we now have two acres of land surrounding our house, an outside fireplace, and a covered wooden swing. I watch a small herd of white-tailed deer amble through our backyard in the morning, and I receive an email warning of cougar sightings and slaughtered fawns and doe. Owls hoot in the trees late at night.

The days are longer, quieter, and the northern light is brighter in summer, and Oregon grass awakens in early autumn rain. Every green grows greener, and all of the trees, the various trees—deciduous or coniferous—acquire a slippery sheen as the water lubricates their trunks and branches. In October it rained hard. Thunder and lightning ripped through the sky for hours. My children came home drenched in their tennis shoes and sweatshirts. They laughed, astounded by the downpour, and went to their rooms to change.

I watch through the front door window as cyclists, wearing muddled raincoats, nylon pants, and helmets, pedal up a steep road in the rain. I wonder for a moment where they keep their rain gear and why they are riding in the rain. Then I realize that, even on a cloudless day, they must be prepared for an unexpected storm. They do not let rain, thunder, or even lightning keep them from getting to their destination. I know then that I am like them and that I will grow roots here, deeper than any I grew in Pasadena. I will pedal insulated with warmth and good humor through the rain of medication, infusions, and time. Sometimes the sun will come out, and I will bask under warm and cloudless skies in this wild and tender land.


Kristin Lieberman received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee.

Image Source: AdamKR

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