The Moongate House

In me, and in my brothers and my sister, this tiny house of huge memories recalls a depth of longing. Many times we drove there from Whittier as children, taking different routes around or through the hills. My favorite ways were over Turnbull Canyon or east through Brea Canyon, but we usually drove Workman Mill Road and, in those pre-smog days, caught the diamond glint of Mount Wilson Observatory on its high mountain ridge.

The journey took forever, and you had to let yourself be shut up in the encasement of a car. Hours it took to get there and to get home again—it used to seem—as we stared drearily out of windows, or fought among ourselves.

We had all the other cars to look at, my mother used to scold, the fields , or the groves of orange, avocado, and walnut trees. Could observe the trains, count their cars. Watch the great wall of the San Gabriel Mountains gaze down on us severely as we crawled along.

Sometimes my father, as he drove, led us in singing songs, My favorite:

“Over the meadow and through the woods,

To Grandmother’s house we go…”

For we were headed to Grandfather and Grandmother White’s house in Upland, and their place seemed a fairyland to us. As we drove up Central Avenue, nearly there, tension would build in the car. When? When? Then, finally, we would turn right on Arrow Highway, right again at the next block, and Hurrah! There stood the huge eucalyptus trees, mountain-high in themselves , and soon we actually stopped beside them at the walkway that cured up a slight rise the Chinese moon gate.

The moon gate, a full, round opening in a wall, stood beside the doorway to my maternal grandparents’ home. Two acres of garden and orchard also lay before us to explore, fruit and nut trees to see in abundant bloom in spring, to rob of peach or apricot in summer, and to climb. Wild flowers, as well as an English garden—something blooming almost every season of the year. Lupine and violets, masses of iris and roses in their time, and primroses embracing the green softness of the lawn where we could play also, and a pond for fish—but we must never touch that.

My grandparents’ property was on alluvial soil washed down from that wall of mountains—sand, mostly, but also rocks. Rocks now piled into walls at the property line, rocks for the foundation of the house and to form its fireplace and chimney, rocks that lined the tiers of all those flower beds. I loved every one of them, thought of them as my jewels, made up stories about them, or say in the dirt and built them into castles. To add the the garden’s mystery, a mountain of them had been heaped up behind the pond in an imitation waterfall the spilled down to a guardian statue of the goddess of mercy, Quan Yin. Across the packed dirt driveway on the other side of the house stood the old gnarled pepper tree, our favorite fort.

On the dark, cold days of winter we played indoors, although there wasn’t much room for four of us children in that house, and there were only certain things we were allowed to do. Reading, mainly. My grandparents had lots of books, not many of them interesting to a child.

My favorite thing to do was get down the photo albums from their shelf in the front room and leaf through them. What mysterious pictures they held of curious people in foreign lands. People I barley recognized: my mother, her sister and brothers as children, my grandparents on their trip around the world. The places where they had lived and traveled in that far-off country, China, where my mother had been born. Fascinating picture they were then, and when rediscovered fifty years later a miraculous discovery once again.

The house had been built around the screened porch where my brothers usually played. My grandparents had a set of large blocks, and I remember first my older brother, then my younger one getting tired of building forts, and making lines of soldiers fall down instead—something my grandmother wasn’t quite sure was nice.

Sometimes we got to listen to the radio at our grandparents’, a treat because we didn’t have one at home. But I found most radio shows too scary, and one we heard in Upland, about how our sun would vanish in a huge explosion 10 million years from now, gave me nightmares for years.

We always had our best family dinners at that house when I was young. Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter we’d crowd around a couple of tables pushed together to make one. Then we’d eat mashed potatoes with the appropriate vegetables, gravy and meat that had been roasted, usually chicken. My grandmother talked about white and dark meat, but wasn’t afraid to say breast, either, or thigh—her favorite piece.

Amazing the meals that came out of that kitchen at grandmother’s. You You could barely turn around in it, and it had a fascinating cabinet, like a wall with doors that opened on both sides. You could pull its silverware drawer out from either side.

But the most exciting place in that house—for me—was the library. Two ways led into it. From the outdoors you walked straight through the moon gate, along the terrace right up to its door of red, which was always locked. From the inside you entered in the back down short dark hall and through a curtained doorway. Grandfather had to brush past the Japanese swords hanging there, but when visitors came he went into the library through that hallway to unlock the red door for them.

One entire wall of the library was bookshelves that Grandfather had had made specially in China so they could be taken apart for shipping here. The thick, dusty books stuffed into them also came from China. In a space in the middle of the books sat a green jade bell, three inches high on its wooden stand; on the shelf above a foot-tall silver pagoda rested, tiny bells dangling from its tiers of eaves; and over all a ceramic Buddha smiled, beaming happiness down on everyone.

The lamps, Grandfather’s desk and chairs, the smaller cabinets and carved chests and everything stored in them came from China also to the museum room, its air musty as if from incense. Only Grandfather could guide you through its treasures, but he wouldn’t if a mere grandchild asked. He’d only do it for a special visitor, a Sunday School class, or a club. Even then a grandchild had to get permission to watch.

Surely I got to listen more than once, enthralled by Grandfather’s solemn manner and voice as he dipped carefully here and there into his Chinese collections, but only one occasion comes to mind. As I played out in front of the house that day, I saw a car come hurrying down the street, brake and back up to stop. They’d seen the moon gate, and surely this was the Latimer house?

The Latimers, who had also been in China, lived nearby. “Farther down the street in the yellow house,” I pointed out to the man who was driving. He and his wife frowned, not believing me, and got out to ring the Chinese bell that served my grandparents for a doorbell. They, poor things, were finally roused from their naps to confirm what I’d said.

The couple soon came walking back up the street with Mr. Latimer guiding them. “Dr. White left China early enough to bring some things back with him,” he explained to his friends. “The Japanese did let us do that.”

When Grandfather consented to show these rude people his Chinese library I was righteously offended, but asked if I could please watch, too?

With the unnecessary reminder that I sit quietly, not interrupt and not touch anything, permission was granted and I slipped into the room. Grandfather put on his long blue Chinese gown and his black satin skull cap with the button on top: his scholar’s apparel. Suitably attired, her unlocked the red door from the inside.

Then, standing with great dignity, he said, “Welcome to a little bit of China,” as the visitors came in.

I sat on one of the Chinese stools. Once the others had taken chairs, chests and cabinets opened, scrolls of pictures came out to be unrolled, gowns emerged, while the rich aromas of the East wafted around us from the camphor-lined chests. Last of all Grandfather picked up and lovingly caressed the pieces of ceramics from his special, carved shelves.

Each painting and vase had its story or explanation.
Scholars of old had been depicted with find strokes of a brush. Dainty handstichery created gowns or wall hangings. Metal brads mended a plate so it could be put back into use. Grandfather would speak of the firing that could ruin of improve a glaze. How it had taken him three years to bargain for one particular vase; how a grateful student had presented him with another, particularly ancient one.

The glamour of Grandfather’s orient wealth never ceased to thrill me, but I thought the deep, all-pervading aroma of the library was lovelier still. Two or three times, without asking, I snuck in through that dark hallway, just to drink in its smell.

Once I was left to stay with my grandparents for a summer—at least it seemed that long a time to me. I couldn’t sleep, or eat, until my grandmother had a cot set up for me in the library. I felt so honored that Grandmother allowed me to sleep there that I never touched anything in the entire room the whole time.

My grandmother—always a frail, ethereal woman in my memory—died not long after the summer I spent there. Grandfather sold the orchard and garden and the little house, and moved to Whittier to live with my parents the remaining fourteen years of his life. During that time he shipped his collection of Chinese art work to his alma mater in Kansas, Ottawa University.

The change was a huge one for all of us. No more longs, boring rides in the car, but no more adventures in the grove, or in the garden. No more privilege of welcoming spring’s flowering abundance there, no more noting of winter’s first snows on the neighboring mountains. My younger brother had to roam the hills of Whittier to capture his snakes and toads after that.

When I was older I drove by that house many times. Over the years the garden looked progressively worse. Once I took my mother’s childhood friend, Helen Proctor Padelford, past to see it. Helen wanted to get out and look.

“There used to be a rose trellis stretching from here thirty feet out toward the mountains,” I told her as we stood under the now stodgy moon gate.

The young man who lived in the house at that time offered to show us around. I immediately declined. I cold already see that the grove was gone, and in the garden lumpy soil and weeds spoke of years of neglect. One remnant of a jacaranda tree in straggly bloom remained, that was all.

After all, who would invest the same treasure of love into it that my grandparents had put into their China home away from their China heart?

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