One day, when I was 11, I got into my mother’s minivan at the train station—at the time, I made the 15 mile journey to and from school via Caltrain—and saw that she was straight-faced and solemn. My brother and sister and I paused, remained silent, and awaited Very Serious News.
“Grandpa passed away this morning.”
I spotted a newspaper on the floor of the car and read the headline.
“Look!,” I pointed, “Joe DiMaggio died, too!”
I had been obsessed with the Forrest Gump soundtrack, particularly of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” and often dwelled on that line:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.
As far as I was concerned, he was a mystical overseer of America, a god, though I knew little about his baseball career or relationship with that era’s gilded Lindsay Lohan—Ms. Monroe.
My sister turned to me. “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you hear Mom? Grandpa died.”
He was my third grandparent to die, but even on the starting line of puberty I couldn’t really fathom what that meant. I couldn’t grasp that he was my father’s father, one of the four fountains from which my blood was poured.
Unsure of why I felt embarrassed, I looked down. “You’re messed up,” my sister sneered. “Grandpa died, and you’re talking about Joe DiMaggio. Who cares?”
The next few weeks were tense. Father was quiet and dark, and started smoking again after a two-year hiatus. There was suspicion that Grandpa’s sinister girlfriend had poisoned him (she had apparently lied to him about her age and about the existence of her three adult children, so there were red flags) but it eventually cleared. I was accustomed to the Irish funerals on my mother’s side, which were about as upbeat as death can be, but my father’s Jewish sensibilities were far more morose. But eventually, the gloomy dust cleared and we were left with one thing: Grandpa’s condo in Palm Springs.
We had never had a vacation home. The condo served as both a silver lining and a constant reminder of the absence of our grandfather. I felt a bit like a ‘tween graverobber, sunning myself on Grandpa’s dead dime.
At first, I detested Palm Springs. The snail-slow pace of life, the old-people smell, the quietness. I begged my parents not to make us go, but to no avail. Time passed quickly and with an unstoppable stream of family escapes to the white-carpeted bungalow.
After three years, I shifted from hating it to tolerating it after finding a punk rock combination boutique and tattoo parlor not far from our condo, and after three more, I found it almost likable after glamorous Uncle Henry began taking winters off from New York to tan there in a minimalist mid-century house in an adjoining neighborhood. I converted further when I appropriated Grandpa’s place as a hub to post up and bake pot brownies for Coachella when I was a high school senior.
Now even that was nearly ten years ago, and the closets are still filled with his clothing, the cabinets contain bottles of whiskey that are older than I am, and the towels are strangely stiff from lack of use. When the house lies dormant and empty, it can be 80 degrees, 90 degrees inside, a giant Easy Bake oven preserving desert-toned pastel bedspreads and half-empty bottles of Vidal Sassoon from a pre-internet Earth.
Palm Springs—although it has become hipper and younger due to arrival of the Ace Hotel and the aforementioned music festival’s annual takeover of the valley—is where I would go if nuclear war or zombie apocalypse dawned on society. It feels as though no one there takes notice of the outside world—only of the Jewish delis, antique stores, Mexican cantinas, and hair parlors lining each of the blacktop streets. There are abandoned malls that no one is concerned with renovating. When I awake and step outside of the condo at 10am, I can walk onto our street in my underwear and see no one, hear nothing except the buzz of cicadas clinging to the palms and the occasional Cadillac passing two blocks over.
Maybe I’m getting old, but having spent the past five years staring into computer screens, toggling apps and virtual windows, circling city blocks looking for parking, and concerning myself with the silly intricacies of 20-something relationships, I am glad to have access to this small and strange corner of the world and embarrassed that I ever took that for granted.
Thank you, Grandpa, and I’m sorry that I said that thing about Joe DiMaggio. I was 11 years-old and knew no better.
It is so quiet and so hot here.