Late one afternoon last year, during a troubled time in my life, I took a long walk on the beach.
A day of rain was ending. Watery sunlight shone on glossy streets. It was a brief lull in California’s unrelenting winter. To the west, a layer of cirrus clouds announced another storm approaching. A high wind chased the departing rain, churning the sea into a tangle of waves.
I had been here—the Redondo Beach shoreline at the southern end of Santa Monica Bay—many times before. I spent most of my childhood in a small house about a mile away. Even after moving to Long Beach as a teenager, and eventually leaving California altogether to raise my family in New York City, I never stopped returning to Redondo Beach.
Why do some people return again and again to the places they grew up? Not everyone does. Some leave and never look back. Others never leave at all. Regardless, I think everyone has a place like this beach—a place where they go, even if only in their mind, when they are hurt, or lost, or lonely. A place where memories feel particularly vivid, and where the landscape is charged with an enduring goodness and rightness that is hard to put into words.
A need for such goodness and rightness had drawn me to the ocean on that winter afternoon. Earlier that day, my younger brother and I had moved my mom, who is 81, into a memory care facility.
It happened to be in Redondo Beach. We hadn’t set out to return to the place where our family started. It just worked out that way. This facility was one of the few memory care places we could find in Southern California that would accept my mother’s two beloved dogs. Now we were here at a time of endings.
My mom has dementia. She was diagnosed in 2018 and lived for several years in an assisted living place in Orange County, until her memory loss required a higher level of care. In her prime, she was a newspaper reporter with a generous heart, an observant mind, and a wised-up take on the world. My dad, until he suffered a massive stroke when I was 9, worked in newspapers too. He was more bookish and ruminative.
My mom supplied the energy, the fun, and a lot of the volatility in our household. After my dad’s stroke, she raised us singlehandedly, worked full time, and cared for my dad. She kept the house running, took us on vacations, and taught us to respect and be curious about other people, no matter who they were or where they came from.
To cope with caring for my dad, she also turned to drinking. Our childhood was a careening mix of love and chaos.
All caregiving is hard. Caregiving for a parent with whom you have a complicated relationship is harder. My mom’s dementia, doctors say, is caused in part by her drinking. She was like a storm that churned through our lives. Now we’re surveying the damage and doing our best to clean things up.
Given all those complicated feelings, you’d think I’d want little to do with the place I was raised. Yet that afternoon, after moving my mom into her room with just a few possessions so she didn’t hide or lose them, I knew exactly where I needed to go. I drove straight to the beach, parked the car, and started walking. I went in search of memories.
I am now the keeper of my family’s memories. All of my grandparents died when I was a child. My dad died in 2005. One of my cousins is delving into family genealogy, but I am the oldest one who remembers the days and years of that Redondo Beach childhood. It’s an unsettling responsibility. I tell stories to my own kids, but even as I tell them, I recognize how much the stories leave out.
The memories I sought walking along the beach were something other than stories. Memory, on its own, is not particularly reliable. It often takes the form of stories, which edit and package reality. Places are different. On their own, they tell no stories. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say they tell all the stories. At every moment, they are featuring in countless people’s experiences and memories.
If you return to the same place enough times, during every stage of your life, layers of memory accumulate. Viewed as a whole, those layers can begin to reveal truths deeper than any story. It can feel like stepping outside yourself and seeing the entirety of your life stacked like a pile of snapshots. There is no obvious connection between the snapshots, except that the same person and the same place are in each one. You could arrange them into a pattern and tell a story. You could just as easily mix them up and tell a different story. At a certain point, you give up editing and packaging.
The deeper truth that emerges from all of that has something to do with continuity and change existing simultaneously, not canceling each other out.
Redondo Beach has changed a lot in the decades since I was born. Its average home price is now close to $1.5 million. My parents bought their house in the early 1970s for $35,000. You could see a sliver of ocean from my bedroom but our street was not high class. Our neighbors were a biker gang, a family who worked in pest control, some retirees, and a guy who grew pot in his backyard. We duct-taped our shoes to make them last longer. The kids at my school were mostly stoners, metalheads, or, from the nicer part of town, children of Japanese aerospace engineers. There weren’t a lot of playgrounds, so we sought out construction sites, where we improvised BMX bike tracks and staged dirt-clod battles.
Because a zoning change in the 1970s lifted density limits throughout the city, there were many construction sites. Peeling bungalows gave way to glossy multistory complexes, school enrollment shrank and campuses closed. Redondo has never been as upscale as its South Bay neighbors, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, in part because the northern part of the city abuts a big oil refinery. Its pier, despite many attempted improvements, remains seemingly unalterably dilapidated. But Redondo Beach has grown more expensive, and more international. Today, a fifth of residents are foreign born. A bare majority are white. It’s like the rest of L.A., riding economic waves and growing ever more defined by a kaleidoscope of cultures.
So much change. And yet, at the same time, just as I remember. That winter afternoon last January, I parked at the southern end of the beach. Parts of the bike path were still submerged in pools of water. I walked to the sand, which was cold and wet. I took off my shoes and let the waves come up and around my legs.
There were sand pipers. Sea gulls. A few intrepid surfers rode the storm swell. The wind blew so hard, I could hear nothing but air and water. Walking along like that, I could have been five years old, or 50. The sea, the sand, the waves, and the wind were the same. Along the bluff top, I recognized most of the condo buildings. I had watched them go up as a child. There they were, unchanged.
People grow older, everything changes. And yet, inside, we peer out from the same place we peered from as a child. My father, near the end of his life, barely able to stand, shook his head and said, “You know, inside, I still feel like I’m in elementary school.”
I find such thoughts immensely comforting as I watch my mom decline. Her story, and maybe the story of our family, is not all that happy. It helps to see her life not as a story but as a totality, too complicated for stories. At the heart of all the change and loss, there remains a singular person, whom I love.
I return to Redondo Beach because it teaches me a great redeeming fact about life: That what is good and right about a person—maybe about the world itself—endures even as everything else changes and fades away. I need to be reminded of that, especially now. I hope you have a place that does the same for you.