Moving Day [memoir]

It was Martin Luther King Day in LA, January 17th, 1994. It was a Monday. 

We’d moved back to LA with our not-quite-one-year-old son after a year of living in Redondo Beach, in an apartment just across the street from the Pacific. It’s where our son was 
born and I spent my days taking him on long, quiet walks along the Esplanade that bordered the oceanfront. During the week, the sand and the sea were beige and blue stripes that stretched forever with only the seagulls, and a stray beach goer here and there, breaking the pattern. Riviera Village, a few blocks inland was full of sleepy stores, hushed boutiques just out of my price range, and cafes where I had no one to join me for a cup of latte. 

In the early days right after my son’s birth, my friends found their way down to Redondo to pay their obligatory baby visits. After that it was mostly just the baby and me, and often my mother who was in the habit of visiting a couple of times a week. My father had died the year before and in response, she suddenly threw herself headlong into our lives. Afraid of the freeway, she still insisted on driving all the way from the valley at least two to three times a week. Taking only city streets it took her an hour and a half each way. Grateful for the gift of her visits, I remained an anxious first time mother at forty and I felt lonely, isolated from life back in LA.  

Our place in Westwood was a sea change from all that. In the heart of the westside, a few blocks from Century City where people bubbled noisily through the shops and restaurants constantly, I felt as though Id rejoined the real world. It was easy for friends to meet me at the mall for lunch. I knew the layout. It was home. 

It wasn’t just the location, which was ideal, the apartment itself felt like something out of a movie. A terraced building on Beverly Glen, it dated back to the late 1940’s and boasted hardwood floors, big beautiful French windows, an expansive white wooden deck—oddly covered in green outdoor carpet—and a sunken living room with a funky round fireplace and metal chimney in its center.  

I had a work desk overlooking the busy street where instead of the sound of the surf, I could hear—and see—the traffic thrumming by while my baby slept and I painted clay pots or tried to write. We still took lots of walks; now that he was sitting up well, I could easily grab hold of him along with the lightweight folding stroller as I climbed down the white wooden stairs to the street. 

Ralph’s supermarket was to the south, Century City, a block to our left; the street was lined with quirky old buildings like ours, with decks built over their garages, striped green & white cushions on wrought iron chaise lounges and giant pots of pink carnations recalling Hollywood of old. My boy would point at the red flowers —camellia? hibiscus?—nestled in the shrubbery as we passed and I’d pull off blooms for him to hold. I’d take him to Century City, pushing him through the old Broadway department store, often just window shopping, seeing what other women were wearing, checking out the new lipstick colors in the cosmetics department, breathing in the fragrance of life.

Even at the time, I wondered if I’d ever been so happy. Those first quiet months were over and my boy was starting to show his curious, funny personality. My husband was home earlier now that his commute was shorter. I loved our apartment, filled with charm and character. We had my family over for Christmas, my husband’s parents had lent us a dozen of their own red metal folding chairs. After dinner we all wore our silly paper hats from our British Christmas crackers and played charades. My three nieces were all crazy about my husband, the way he clowned around. Everyone loved our little boy, his smile lit up our lives. 

And then came January 17th, Martin Luther King Day that year, the day the Northridge quake hit. Twenty five miles from the epicenter, at 4:30 in the morning, the jolt woke us too, shook the pictures off the walls. We both sat bolt upright in bed, screaming “The baby!” and I watched as my husband rushed to our baby’s room, the room swaying around him and the crashing of glass coming through in stereophonic sound. They say it lasted for 10 to 20 seconds, but I still cant believe it wasnt longer. The swaying, like being on a boat in a storm without railings to grab onto, felt like it would never stop. Barefoot, in underwear and t-shirts, with Russell between us, locked in Marks arms, we tumbled down the old wooden stairs that threatened to tear away with every step we took. Taking refuge in our car parked in front of the building, I cried with relief, holding our son close as the sirens blared in early morning blackness. When the quake quieted, my husband braved the inside of our apartment, bringing down shoes and clothing. It took hours for me to go back inside where most of my collection of blue glass lay shattered on the floor, along with the glass from some of our hanging pictures, and a broken TV. We were the lucky ones.

The next days and weeks were like a horror show. We learned almost 60 people died, the second level of an apartment building in Northridge smashing down on the first floor units. After-shocks rolled through on the hour. All over the city people took up residence in parks, too terrified to return to where walls might topple in on them. Many more eschewed their bedrooms for pillows and sleeping bags in their living rooms, families sleeping together, huddled in a crowd for safety. There was no place like home.

My mother, without my father to give anchor, fell fully apart and moved in with my sister in the valley. Still the aftershocks kept coming, and with each shock she became more and more frightened. I was scared too. Our terraced apartment suddenly felt like a crazy contraption perched precariously on stilts. There was a huge fissure in the garage wall directly beneath our unit, the whole floor had bowed. I would never live happily there again. 

A month later we took off across the country; my husband, our son, my mother, our cat, and me; a two car caravan, both vehicles loaded to the gills, heading to North Carolina, desperately seeking safety. 

We didn’t know that sometimes they had earthquakes in North Carolina too.


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