Not a Flying Duck.
Sometimes it feels right to play hooky from work, and this week was one of those times. My cousin Karin from Scotland was visiting LA with her friend Linda, so Mark and I decided we’d play tour guide for a day.
For us, tour guiding in LA generally involves something Getty-ish, because -not known for being short of cash - the Gettys have a couple of places dotted about.
There's the Getty Villa by the sea in Pacific Palisades which has loads of old Roman and Greek stuff, and the Getty Center - a modern building perched on top of a hill in Brentwood with completely spectacular views over the city and beyond. The Getty Villa is fine and everything - especially if you like old Romans or fancy a wee bit of ancient Etruscan in your life - but the Center is my favorite.
The building itself is like one giant exhibit - full of corners and curves and gardens and walkways, built in a kind of sandstone that changes mood according to the light of the day. And there is a fountain at the end of the esplanade in the middle of the Getty Center (maybe referred to as the Getty Center center) that I’m very fond of. Though admittedly, it is beside the wee tea truck, and anywhere you can get hot tea gets my vote.
It’s not a big fancy sculptured fountain - like those ones with stone cherubs on, which frankly I frickin’ hate. Even though it’s in a courtyard surrounded by priceless works of art and fairly breathtaking architecture, it’s quite a simple fountain of just rocks and water -pleasing to the eye and calming to the ear with the sound of a bubbling brook.
So the Getty Center, at some point, was a given.
Karin and I aren't blood relations, but as her parents and my parents were such close friends, she became a cousin by proxy. We grew up together. We used to be the youngest rung of the family, and we still like to think we are - though facts clearly state otherwise.
Mark and I drove Karin and Linda through Malibu and stopped off at Zuma Beach. While the waves crashed on the shoreline with filmstar beauty, Karin and I talked about her Mum (my Aunty Jan) who had the best laugh on the planet, and a singing voice that could curdle milk. Karaoke with Aunty Jan was what could only be described as, ‘an experience’, and the world has been infinitely much less fun since she left it.
We’d talked about the difference in weather between California and Scotland, and I’d said that at some points in Palm Springs it was so hot, you could supposedly fry an egg in the street. Karin said Aunty Jan tried to do that one Summer in Cumbernauld. Admittedly in a heatwave. I laughed. If ever there comes a time when it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the street in Cumbernauld, the human race will already be too fried to know about it.
Over lunch, Karin talked about my Mum and how strong she was, and how she’d overcome such terrible physical challenges. I smiled. I’d almost forgotten that about her. I have pictures of my Mum in my head making dinner, or wearing her dark green jumper as I headed off to school and she headed off to teacher training college. I have memories of her standing at the window waving me off as I’d get in a car to take me to an airport, reminding me to phone her on Sunday. I hadn’t really remembered how sick she’d been.
Grief is a strange old thing. In my work I talk about it being the place where all rivers meet. It's not sorrow. It's not anger. It's not joy, not love, not melancholy, not regret. It's all of them together building to form a picture of someone who is no longer - yet is always - here. Like colors in a painting.
15 years ago on December 1st, my mum died.
Then, my grief meant pain. Acute and angry. Deep and sorrowful. I felt orphaned. The oldest orphan on the planet, but an orphan nonetheless.
Then there followed the year of firsts: First Christmas without her. First birthday she didn't send a card. First time you reach to phone her about something stupid in your day, because for one blissful moment you forgot. Then the sucker punch when you remember.
Grief has a permanence, yet is forever changing. The years go on, and the rage turns to yearning, then to melancholy, and then somewhere to a whole catalogue of random recollections - like wee postcards of a life before.
And 15 years later, here I am talking about her with my cousin and I smile. Laugh even. I miss her. I’ll miss her forever. She’d be pleased to know me and Karin were hanging out. Aunty Jan would be pleased too.
Karin and Linda looked at the Getty Center just as Mark and I did the first time we set eyes on it: Beautiful. Striking. Odd. Surprising. A bit overwhelming in places. Almost space-shippy. Real but not real. Too big but just right. The weird-colored sandstone that seems like the building changes shape in the shadows and the light.
We pottered into an exhibition about Medieval graphic design (who knew there was such a thing?) and an exhibition of bronze sculptured Gods - where Mark made everyone chortle as he reacted to the penis sizes of each individual God with interest, sympathy, surprise, or disgust.
And then we wandered out onto the esplanade and to the fountain. Two fat Mallard ducks were pottering about in the fountain like they owned it. They looked pretty happy, like they'd just landed the best duck home in the area.
I wasn’t sure what the Museum’s policy was on ducks. No doubt at some point they’d be forced to move on. But then we all get forced to move on eventually.
I never thought I'd get to here, where I can think of my Mum with a kind of wistful sorrow. Where I can accept what is, and still be ok. Where I can laugh out loud at a facial expression about a bronze sculptured penis, or the idea of trying to fry an egg outside in Cumbernauld ever. I can breathe deeply and feel sun on my skin, I can sleep and wake with such relative normality. I can talk freely with family about what used to be, and not fall apart.
And it dawns on me that all around this courtyard are galleries full of exhibits from lives that once were and are no more. People leaving messages in bronze or clay, etched in bibles, or painted in canvas - saying this is what I knew, this is what I saw. This is how the world was when I was here.
Every single one of them a reminder that all we really have is now.
I thought about saying as much to Mark and Karin and Linda. But instead, hearing them laughing at the tea truck, I just took a photo of the ducks.