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March, 2010


I've driven up to the front gate several times in the last two and a half weeks, but the guard on duty isn't one I recognize: a man—not much older than I am but a lot larger—who looks cramped in the small booth.  There's California summer sweat on the guard's forehead, and I can’t blame him for being laconic.

"Winger." I try to look polite.


Getting to my driver's license is a bit of a hassle since I haven't taken my seatbelt off, but I'm pretty sure this guy has a taser and he looks like he has to take shit from geriatrics all day, so I don't argue.  The guard holds an arm out of his sliding window and I drop my license into his palm.  The arm retracts slowly, coiling into the booth, and I can feel my face being scrutinized.  The license picture was taken at fifteen and a half, and I don't look anything like it any more.

A car—a big, gold Oldsmobile like the kind I thought only retired Mafiosi in Florida owned—pulls up beside me.  The bottom corner of the windshield is emblazoned with a yellow "Leisure Village" sticker, and the guard waves the eighty-year-old woman hunched over the steering wheel through the gate. The bar rises, seems to stretch to accommodate the Oldsmobile, and the grandmother in the gold car is gone.

"I have a Marc Winger on file."

"What?"  I look back over, and the guard is scrolling through something on his computer.

"Marc Winger.  You related?"

"Yeah, that’s my dad.  Am I not in there?"

"Doesn't look like it.  And I can't let anyone through that gate"—the guard gestures with my license to the bar blocking my path—"if their name's not on this list."  He points my license at the computer.

"I should be on the list.  Everyone should be on the list.  They told us anyone could visit this month."

"Unrestricted bereavement visiting ends after two weeks."  I can hear the cover of the employee handbook slamming shut.

"Look, I'm just trying to visit my grandpa.  Can't you just call him or something?"

With a sigh, the guard slowly hands me back my license and then reaches for the phone in his booth.  He punches the buttons methodically as he reads them off the computer screen.  The phone rings, and the guard comes to life with saccharine alacrity.

"Hi, Mr. Mann?  This is the front gate.  The front gate.  Yes, the gate, sir.  I have a Seth Winger here to see you; is it all right if I let him in?  Yes, Seth.  Great.  You have a nice day now.  Well thank you, I will."

Any trace of his previous personality vanishes with the faint click of the receiver, and the guard sizes me up one more time before silently raising the gate.  I thank him and accelerate slowly, trying at once to steer, roll the window up, and escape.


•    •  •  •    •


The drive through Leisure Village, the senior community my grandfather lives in, is slow and methodical.  I'm careful to keep my speed under twenty-five miles per hour, the speed limit on every road weaving like strands in an asphalt web through the gated community.  I'd ignore the signs, but my dad told me this morning that he already got a ticket from a twenty-hour patrol car for hitting thirty-five with no one else around.  I haven't ever gotten a speeding ticket, and I'd rather not start with a low-speed pursuit in the middle of a giant senior resort.

The Santa Rosa Valley, where Leisure Village sprawls over 440 acres, is really just like any one of the hundreds of other little valleys in California, but it does have a nice view of the Santa Monica mountains.  The sky is dazzlingly azure today, like every other day, and the perfectly manicured and perfectly green lawns that line the perfectly tarred, abundantly wide, jet black stretch of road glisten in the sunlight.  Smiling senior couples stroll down the sidewalks.  Bluebirds may or may not break into a charming rendition of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" as they flit around my car.

There are two named streets in Leisure Village.  I'm on the imaginatively named "Leisure Village Drive," but somewhere in the labyrinth of homes is supposedly a "Mountain View Drive" as well, though I've admittedly never looked and so have never found it.  All of the other streets are named with numbers—"Village 12" or "Village 41" or "Village 23"—and every home on the street has as its address a number like 12006 or 41011.  It would make sense in a grid, but Leisure Village is about the farthest thing from a grid possible: a weird, vaguely triangular blob sandwiched and squeezed between one of Camarillo's main roads to the northwest and agricultural fields to the southeast. The village-roads snake away from Leisure Village Drive like ivy tendrils, curling in on themselves and filling every available inch of land that's not already taken up by the eighteen-hole golf course, the swimming pool, the recreation center, the spa, the tennis courts, the paddle tennis courts, the extra-wide sidewalks, the gym, the giant chessboard, the main office, the park, the shuffleboard courts, the horseshoe pits, the RV parking, or the bocce courts.

I pass Village 44 first. It branches off to the left, and might be a little shadier than some of the other villages, but it's hard to tell.  The addresses are about the only way to differentiate between houses—every village has the same suburban look, and even if they have different floor plans, all the houses are painted the same identical shade of beige.  Some residents go so far as to hang potted plants or wind chimes from their porch eaves, though I assume the homeowners' association has approved this practice.  My grandmother used to hang bird feeders from the roofs of her houses—she loved the hummingbirds they attracted—but the feeders were swallowed up by cardboard boxes during some move and have yet to reemerge.  I think the iridescent birds with ruby bellies and emerald wings may be gone forever.

My grandfather lives in Village 35, in the left half of an "El Dorado" model duplex.  At twenty-five miles an hour, it takes a couple minutes to get from the gate to his driveway.

"We don’t want a duplex," I can remember my grandfather saying as he sat in the green armchair he'd sat in for as long as I paid any attention to these things, the one that had followed him from home to home.  We were in his living room in an apartment in Simi Hills, late afternoon, and the sun was just beginning to set.  There was sunlight flooding into the room's big windows and reflecting off the cream-colored carpet, so that the entire room looked blindingly white.  My grandmother was standing at the miniature kitchen counter, sorting pills into compartmentalized plastic containers for the week ahead.

"But there're only a few openings now," she said. "We have to take what we can get."

"Why not just wait until something bigger opens up?" I asked.  Naiveté.

"People don't just move out of Leisure Village."  My grandfather said the last two words with a sort of reverence.  "And we're not going to wait for someone to die."


•    •  •  •    •


The earth that Leisure Village sits on—the land that all of Camarillo sits on, actually—used to be Rancho Calleguas, an 1837 land grant by the Mexican government.  I've thought a lot about how different the land was then, how different California was then.  About how Adolfo Camarillo, sixteen when he inherited the ranch upon his father's death, would sit in the fields on horseback for hours watching his cattle graze in the mountainous bassinet of the Santa Rosa Valley; about how Rancho Calleguas, rechristened Rancho Camarillo, became one of the nation's leading lima bean ranches; about how Adolfo would have had to watch wildfires descend from the mountains every summer to threaten his crops; about how, eventually, Adolfo's adobe home was devoured by the ravenous tongues of those same flames, collapsing with the terrifying crash of dreams rent asunder; about how, ultimately, the land was segmented, divided, and sold off to the California government.

California was quick to incorporate the rancho into the small communities already blossoming quietly in the valley.  What became the city of Camarillo, isolated by its geography, saw little growth between its inception and the Second World War.  But when a newly prosperous America emerged from the dusty rubble of Berlin and the acrid smoke of Hiroshima, when my grandfather returned from the ruins of Europe at the age of twenty—my age—to forget what he had seen and to learn how to be a college student again, when Eisenhower's highway system began to steamroll its way across the nation in post-war affluence, Camarillo's population exploded.  Orchards were razed, houses were built, and people followed the path blazed so many years ago by wildfire over the mountains and into the city.


•    •  •  •    •


I suppose now is as good a time as any to explain why, exactly, I'm going to my grandfather's house alone.  Two and a half months ago I got a call from my mom while I was at work, saying that my grandmother's cancer, long in remission, had resurfaced.  It was multiplying rapidly.  The prognosis was grim.  She was made comfortable.

I flew home to visit that weekend, spent hours sitting by the hospital bed that had been wheeled into my grandparents' bedroom, talking to my grandmother over the crooning notes of a Joan Baez CD, the constant drone of C-SPAN, and the hum of some sort of machine busy invading her body with tubes.  My grandmother—who had had no symptoms the last time I saw her, who walked and cooked and danced until just days before I got the call from my mom, who I secretly thought would outlive us all—looked small and fairly well drugged, but brave.  We hit the same topics we always covered: how's school, how's work, are you enjoying yourself, I'm so proud of you, have you met a nice Jewish girl yet, are you eating well?  But then my grandmother asked me what I wanted to do with my life.  Tell me your plans, she said.  Show me the future.  Show me your future.  I'm so proud of you.

The second phone call—the one I was expecting but not, of course, prepared for—came two months later.  I left my summer job four days early, flew home again, and the next day stepped out of my dad's car and into the gravel parking lot of Eden Memorial Park.

I was greeted by family members I knew from across California, family friends I hadn’t seen in years, a stooped man of almost ninety—one of my grandfather's friends from the days when he played handball—who stood barely five feet tall, walked in inch-long, shuffling steps, and shook my hand firmly while apologizing for his "handballer's strut."

I gave the eulogy for my grandmother.  I don't remember what I said.  I do remember calling her the Energizer Bubbe.  She would have liked that line.

And then I carried my grandmother's plain pine casket up the hill, to the gravesite next to the plot where my grandparents buried their youngest daughter decades ago.  The six pallbearers paused every ten feet while the rabbi leading the procession said a prayer.  We hauled the coffin past dozens of graves, each marked by a tombstone flush with the ground—no fields of upright crosses in a Jewish cemetery—doing our best to dance around the names, to step on the lattice of grass that framed the plaques and not on the memories interred by them.  My grandmother was a small woman, but our arms burned under the weight of the heavy coffin, and the two or three minutes we carried my grandmother in the hot southern California sun lasted into eternity.

The rabbi pinned a strip of black cloth to my mother, aunt, and grandfather's chests at the gravesite. They tore in unison. The coffin was lowered into the grave by six Hispanic men dressed in grimy work clothes, their calloused hands sliding expertly over the leather belts that supported the coffin.  My family took turns pouring dirt onto the grave with an upside-down shovel, each pile of dirt stippling the pale pine until the earth had swallowed my grandmother.  Unto dust thou shalt return, I believe the saying goes.


•    •  •  •    •


I'm at about Village 39 when my phone rings.  It's illegal in California to drive and talk on the phone—and I know the Leisure Village police will nail me if I do—but it's not technically illegal to check who's calling.


That makes me pause.  It always does.  My grandfather's phone died two days after my grandmother, and he's been using her phone since.  I haven't gotten around to changing the address book entry from "Gram" to "Pops."

I realize I'm about to sideswipe a golf cart driving on the side of the road and swerve around it.  The old man behind the wheel of the cart is oblivious.  If there's a cop around, he's going to get me for that, but since I don't hear sirens I figure it's probably safe to pick up the phone.


"Heeeeeyyy, kid.  It's Pops.  Where are you?"

"I'm on my way—I'm in Leisure Village.  Almost to your house," I say as I turn into Village 35.  I don't mention his conversation with the guard.  "I'll be there in one sec."

"Oh, that's great.  Just great.  See you soon."

He hangs up, and I park my car alongside the curb outside his house.  I guess I could park in the driveway now that my grandmother's copper-colored Lexus is gone—my grandfather sold it three days after the funeral, saying he didn't want it around the house anymore—but I don't.  Old habits—well, you know.


•    •  •  •    •


Tradition in Judaism—the oldest of habits—dictates that the immediate family of the deceased actively mourns for seven days, a period of time known as shiva.  The first night we sat shiva was a Friday, and so my family spent the night with my grandfather, mom, and aunt, accompanied only by a few close friends, each other, and our memories.  On the shiva's second night, the two local Chabad chapter rabbis, who had apparently visited my grandparents often since their move to Leisure Village, came to my grandfather's house with six other orthodox Jews in tow.  From the window I watched them drive up to the house, careen wildly around Village 35's cul-de-sac, and climb out of their van: first the thickly bearded Israeli driver, then the two rabbis, and finally two fathers and three sons, tumbling out onto the pavement like well-dressed clowns, faces set in the forced somber expression of people going to mourn for a stranger's death.

Rabbi Yitzhak was the first through the front door of the house, bowing slightly to make it under the threshold in his large black hat.  My mom was the first to greet him, but Yitzhak remained silent.

"Eileen!" Rabbi Zev burst through the screen door, pausing only to place a hand quickly on the mezuzah nailed at an angle to the frame.  He asked how my mother was coping, made small talk, but volunteered no hand to her in greeting.

Rabbis Zev and Yitzhak were complete opposites save for their identical black suits, black hats, and black drawstring belts—Zev short and slight, with the scraggly five-inch beard of a man who had just had his first child; Yitzhak well over six feet tall and easily 250 pounds, with a dark brown tangle of a beard that draped over the corners of his mouth and hung down to his solar plexus.  Both were New York Hasidim, dressed for nineteenth-century Polish winter and then uprooted, whisked off for miles and decades to the California summer, to my grandfather's doorstep.

My family stood frozen, staring at the mourning task force.  Zev talked nonstop, chattering about deli or babies or my grandmother or maybe all three while the rest of the group filtered into the house; Yitzhak just stood in the corner like Zev's golem.  Finally, Zev announced how sorry he was for our loss but how happy he was to be able to share in the great mitzvah of honoring Doris' memory.  My family defrosted, the buzz of conversation drowning out whatever Zev was saying.  My grandfather stood near Zev, leaning heavily on his cane, nodding.

I watched as Zev banked away from my grandfather and wheeled through the crowd, searching for a new target to talk at.  We locked eyes, and I turned away an instant too late.

"You know, Seth," Zev said as he walked up to me, "I'm the head of Chabad at Cal State Channel Islands.  You've heard of this school?"

I nodded.  

"Good.  Beautiful school.  Your grandfather tells me you go to Stanford.  Also a beautiful school.  You've been to Chabad services?  Do you know Rabbi Dov?"

"Uh, no, I haven't been.  I haven't met him."

"Oh, that's too bad.  He's a good man, Rabbi Dov.  You go to Hillel?"

"No, actually, I don't really—"

"Well, you would like Chabad.  Give it a chance.  You should introduce yourself to Rabbi Dov.  Tell him Rabbi Zev says hello."

"I will."  I haven't.

"Good.  You're a good grandson, Seth.  Your grandfather is very lucky."

I thanked him and excused myself to get a glass of water.  My aunt was on the phone in the kitchen—my grandfather's landline, an oversized handset with bold print for tired eyes, large buttons for arthritic fingers, and prodigious speaker output for deaf ears.  She was talking in the hushed, rushed tones of someone clearly upset but not wanting to disturb the guests in the other room.  "Guests" is a strange term for mourners, I suppose, but such is a shiva with catered food.

"We were told the deli spread would be here by five," my aunt hissed, "and it’s almost six."  She turned, saw me and smiled, and I smiled back before turning around and leaving the kitchen, faint sibilant sounds echoing off the tile behind me.

Back in the living room, Zev was shaking a tin can about a third full with coins and extolling the virtues of tzedakah—charity—as a way of commemorating the deceased. The can had his Chabad chapter's logo on the side.


•    •  •  •    •


I enter my grandfather's house through the screen door, too, but much more quietly than Zev did.  The Chabad visits lasted two more nights before my grandfather shut down the shiva, both because he was thinking about my grandmother all of the time anyway and because he was tired of having his house invaded by orthodox Jews he didn't know every night.  I can't even imagine how the phone call to Rabbi Zev went—how do you tell someone his solace is more aggravation than consolation?—but my grandfather carried through, and Zev and Yitzhak haven't been back to the house.

The house itself is back to normal.  Zev's tzedakah can sits, half-full, on a coffee table.  The dining room table has been pulled back away from the wall, where it previously served diligently as a buffet line.  The mirror in the entrance hall, hidden by a draped white sheet during the shiva, is uncovered, and my reflection in it catches me off guard.


"Heeeeeyyy kid!"  My grandfather walks out of his study, limping heavily on his cane.  He doesn't have the handballer's strut yet, but arthritis and an artificial hip are conspiring to get him there.  As per the rules of bereavement, he's letting his gray hair grow—or at least not getting it cut—but other than that he looks the same as always: large-framed bifocals, thick silver mustache, plaid shirt with three pens and his weekly schedule in the breast pocket, blue jeans, white Nikes.  He holds out his hand to shake mine, a stilted action he's fallen into since I left for college.  I give him a hug.

We sit in his kitchen to eat leftover deli sandwiches and talk about my summer job.  I worked in an engineering lab, and my grandfather, and ex-electrical engineer, is fascinated.  At three p.m., my grandfather stops the conversation.  It's time for "Judge Judy," a post-retirement afternoon ritual for him, so we relocate to the living room and turn on the television.  Today's case is as absurd as any other—someone lent a car to someone else and someone else returned it with the spare tire missing, or someone tried to make off with the contractor's money from someone else's half-dug pool, or someone's dad bought someone's girlfriend breast implants—and my grandfather insists repeatedly that he watches this show only out of sheer amazement over the litigants.

"Who are these people?" my grandfather asks.  We both chuckle.

After "Judge Judy," Pops has had a full day, and he says he's going to take a nap before dinner.  My aunt is coming to visit when she gets off work, so I tell him I'll stay until she gets here.  We both know this is the last time I'll see him until I come home again for Thanksgiving.

"When do you get back?" he asks.  "November twentieth?"

"I don't know. Something like that."

"Well, I'm going to see you when you get back, right?"

"Yeah, I'll be sure to come visit."

"That's great.  Let's get the video chat working, okay?"

"Sure thing.  Sundays are still good?"

"Absolutely."  There's a pause as he looks up at me.  "How tall are you now?  Six-one?  Six-two?"

I laugh. "Pops, I'm almost five-ten."

"Really?  Jesus.  You know, I used to be five-ten and three-quarters.  That was a while ago now, I guess."  He moves next to me and stands up straighter, trying to compare our heights.  "Yeah, a while ago.  Sure you’re just five-ten?"

He's at least two inches shorter than me.  "Pretty sure," I say.

"You get back here November twentieth?"

"Something like that."

"Come visit, okay?"

"I will."

"Okay then.  I'm going to lie down.  Have Wendi wake me up when she gets here?"

"Can do.  Bye, Pops."

"Bye, kid."

I watch him shuffle into the master bedroom.  I don't have a book with me, and I'm not as much of an avid daytime television watcher as he is, so I head to the study, towards the internet connection.

I always used to think of my grandfather as extremely technologically literate—almost dangerously so for a man of his age.  Before his move into assisted living, he taught computer classes in senior centers and elementary schools, and he had three working Apple computers and a laptop in his study.  He gave me my first computer—a big, gray Macintosh manufactured around the year I was born, complete with an auxiliary external floppy drive for 5¼ inch diskettes.  Now, his study has one working Mac and one broken laptop, and he struggles to check his voicemail.  I get emails in all capital letters.

The blinds are closed and the lights are off in the study, but I'm too lazy to let in light.  I turn on the working Mac's monitor—a big, glossy, twenty-seven inch iMac—and am greeted by a blown up picture of my grandmother smiling back at me from inside the screen.  She's wearing the purple sunglasses and red lipstick she always wore, her bangs curled as she would do meticulously every morning.  I think it's a picture from the last time I went to lunch with my grandparents at the assisted living apartment they lived in before Leisure Village—I can hear my grandfather asking for a hot dog with sauerkraut and my grandmother rolling her eyes behind those sunglasses and saying, "Marty, the salt!"  Files are strewn around her face in no conceivable order: detritus that seems to stem from not fully understanding how to find anything on the computer that's not placed on the desktop.  The Mac's screen illuminates my grandfather's desk, covered in piles of receipts and forms: detritus that seems to stem from the legal and fiscal consequences of losing a loved one.

I open up Safari thinking I'll check my email or browse Facebook for a while, but I never make it that far.  Safari paints a tableau of frequently visited pages on the blank canvas of a new tab, and between some YouTube video of a skateboard trick that I'm sure my cousin is responsible for and my grandfather's Gmail account, there's something jarringly out of place:

I minimize the window quickly, and meet my grandmother's stare again.  The house is still hers in so many ways—the walls are covered in pictures of her and pictures she took; her desk sits as she left it in the sunroom; her hair curler is still in the medicine cabinet above the master bathroom's sink.  But her car is gone, and her smell is gone, and it's close to four and she's not in the kitchen starting to cook the lamb chops.  And I realize what I think my grandfather must have realized: he's alone in paradise, which makes it rather indistinguishable from hell.


•    •  •  •    •


I'm happy to leave when my aunt shows up—mostly because it's almost five, and five o'clock anywhere near Los Angeles means it's going to take me two hours to get home, half of which will be spent on one ten-mile stretch of the 405.  I say my hellos and goodbyes at the same time and hurry out the door, leaving my aunt to the leftover deli food and the not insignificant task of waking my grandfather for dinner.

In my car, I slump into the polyester seats, turn the key in the ignition, and listen to the radio roar to life with the engine before swinging around the cul-de-sac to head back to the main road.  The sprinklers are on and it strikes me that this seems like an incredibly stupid time to be watering the grass but then again something has to keep it green, I guess.  The water droplets sparkle in the late afternoon sun.  I flip down my sunshade.

The freshly mown lawns remind me of Death with a capital D, probably because people tend to talk about Death's icy scythe that doth reap the cornstalks of our lives.  That's a ridiculous metaphor.  It's quick, clinical, precise, when obviously death is none of these things.  The Talmud instead describes the Angel of Death as being "full of eyes."  I think I like this image better.  We watched my grandmother for two months—watched, observed, studied—but now we see her.  We see her around the corners of the empty house, by the unruffled half of the king-size bed, in the faraway sheen of my grandfathers eyes when he tries to talk about her and simply says, "She was a good kid."  I hope I can live up to the same epitaph.

There's no security to leave the community, just a California roll of a stop as I wait for the guard booth's automatic arm to open fully.  A different security guard is stuffed into the stall this time, and he nods slightly at me as I drive through.  Is the gate staffed for twenty-four hours a day?  How long's this guy's shift?  And who gets shafted with the ten p.m. to six a.m. shift in that little booth at the front of Leisure Village?  But then I'm through the gate and it lowers behind me, shutting in my grandfather, shutting in the impressions my grandmother's hospital bed has left in the carpet, shutting in the deli food and the rabbis and the patrol cars and the lawns and the golf carts and wrapping it all up with the sign hanging along the wall that separates Leisure Village from the rest of the world.

"Leisure Village: Safe.  Quiet.  Affordable."

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