In Sun City the houses and streets mostly all looked the same to me. Single story. Whites and tans. Citrus trees out front.
In Nana and Grandpa’s living room was an oversized couch in front of an enormous TV that played the Price is Right at a significant volume level. They sat and watched, while reading the newspaper. There were always dishes of mixed nuts on the end tables.
In the kitchen there was fresh squeezed orange juice and something simple but divine that Grandpa cooked up. He was a chef. For most of my life I didn’t know much about wine. My parents didn’t drink. As an adult I started buying wine to cook with. The first time I opened up a bottle of white wine to put in the Risotto, I breathed it in and said “Grandpa.” That smell is Grandpa. So, I concluded, Grandpa liked and drank wine. (As I described this anecdote to my mom, she recalled, “yes, and toward the end of his life he smelled like expensive Brandy.”)
All the plants in the house were Grandpa’s doing, too. I think probably my mom’s affinity for house plants came from him, and so mine goes back to that heritage as well. He was always a bit ornery, and could make you feel small, but he was brilliant and good and generous.
During the day my dad would take me and my siblings to do the recreational things one does in Sun City. I was crazy for the miniature golf. We watched white-haired women wearing visors, and brightly colored Bermuda shorts compete in Lawn Bowling. (No wonder I loved The Golden Girls so much.)
Grandpa would always treat us to Chinese food and order approximately everything on the menu.
Nana took us shopping and bought us anything we wanted. Gorgeous, elaborate Sunday dresses, new books. She loved nice things and loved to be generous. Again, my mom followed suit and so did I. Certainly we can attribute our retail interests to her legacy. (If it’s in your DNA then why deny it?)
Nana was tall and elegant and regal. She legitimately looked like Queen Elizabeth II, only a foot taller. She called you “my dear” in her Irish accent and I can hear her voice saying “oh buzz off” in my mind on repeat.
Most of my annual childhood visits to Sun City are a blur. They morph into one vague memory. Always in March, during Spring Break. We loved the bit of sunshine in the middle of Winter and understood why they spent only half the year in Nova Scotia, preferring the snow bird way of life.
I remember the Sun City trip my senior year in high school. We flew down the day after Taylor kissed me for the very first time. We’d been standing in his parents’ entry way. I was wearing my yellow Roxy t-shirt with the hula girl on it. He kissed me before I walked out the door and on the flight to Phoenix the next day I closed my eyes and relived it over and over again.
On that trip I was more antsy to get home, but I remember sitting on the bed in the guest room, on the phone with Taylor, positive that he was the best human on the planet.
I remember a trip at some point during my time at BYU. My brother, Steven, was there, and my cousin, Sarah. We went to the Grand Canyon with my parents and I was in awe. There’s no other way to be at the Grand Canyon. Sarah took me to the mall in Scottsdale where I felt like a fish out of water. When you’re from Medford, Oregon, you feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when you walk past a Gucci store. Sarah doesn’t bat an eye at that kind of thing. She exudes confidence and doesn’t shrink. She took me into Tiffany and Co where we tried on diamond wedding bands. I love people like Sarah who are bold and confident. I think she got that from Nana.
A few months before I became a missionary, Nana passed and we celebrated her life in Halifax. It was devastating and I sobbed uncontrollably throughout the service, which my dad, then a Bishop, conducted. It’s an interesting thing for me to think about that nearly two decades later, because she was not an integral part of my life, as measured by time or geography. And yet, though I could not have professed to know her well, she impacted my life deeply. There’s something to that.
While on my mission my mom sent me pages and pages in her cursive, describing the process of helping my Grandpa sell the Sun City home. He took what he wanted and moved back to Halifax permanently. My mom and her sisters stayed for a week, managing the belongings that had accumulated there for years. Some of her most beautiful China came from that week. And my favorite swan-shaped, ceramic planter. (She eventually gave it to me and it met its maker when an errant basketball bounced up and broke its neck. Of course I cried.) In the letters Mom described the week. The tedious tasks, the exhaustion, the memories made with her sisters as they examined the material remains of their mother and father’s desert life together.
Arizona became a part of me, bit by bit. I love the arid air. The cloudless sky. The sun on my face. The Prickly Pear, Saguaros, Palms, Bougainvillea, and Agave. They’re all so different from the conifers of my Pacific Northwest wonderland. I guess that’s why they excite me so much. The purple and orange sunsets are unmatched. The Southwest textiles and turquoise jewelry being sold by various artists at the Grand Canyon spoke to me. Their rich colors are everything that makes me happy.
Taylor was born in Scottsdale, an AZ boy until he was 5. His parents moved to Oregon when they decided that 114 degrees is excessive in October. (Side note: when I think of all the things that had to occur for my parents and Taylor’s parents to end up in adjacent, tiny Southern Oregon towns, my heart skips a beat or two.) Much of Taylor’s extended family is still based in Phoenix and so my tradition of escaping to the desert in the Winter went on long after my visits to Sun City. It thrills me to have people I love to visit while I get my Winter thaw, and thrills me even more that Arizona evokes tangible childhood happiness for both Taylor and me.
I don’t make it to Phoenix every Winter. Sometimes it’s Orange County or Palm Springs. For a girl who thrives on sunshine and whose soul goes to sleep a little in the Winter, there is something about those showy Palm Trees and the desert air that keep me alive until the blossoms come up back at home.
My soul’s longing for the desert is spirit and body. Every glance of an orange tree is a thought about how much Nana loved me and made me laugh. The dry air and sun on my face evoke a visceral reminder of my heritage.
Every cactus is a memory.