Let me set the scene:
Chaucer’s Books, Loreto Plaza, Santa Barbara. 7:07 p.m. Wednesday, August 11. I’ve begun my reading with three pages from “Free Fall” that describe a pleasant visit I had with my father two years before he died. A nice audience has gathered amid the tables of books and I stand and read to them.
And now, the story:
I look up now and then and see, watching me, a man who had positioned himself just slightly away from the rest of the crowd. He was well dressed and fit and had a look on his face that told me he carried a secret, something important. I would have to be patient and wait.
After the reading people came forward, one at a time, picked up a book and we chatted as I wrote personal notes and signed the title pages. The last one to approach was Alastair, the man with a secret.
“You and your mother wrote me a card, do you remember that? It was addressed to “The Lepidopterist.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I was your brother’s best friend. We used to hunt butterflies together.”
“Oh! Scott taught me how to hunt butterflies.”
“And I taught Scott.”
Thus…The Lepidopterist. A man who brought some beauty into the lives of a family bent on ruin.
Alastair was one of several who approached after having read an essay I had published the previous Sunday in the Santa Barbara News-Press. They came because they had some connection they wanted to share, some memories about our distant past. I had to tell every one of them: I don’t remember.
“I understand,” said Alastair. “I saw what was going on there. I had some idea.”
People were kind. “I am the gardener’s daughter.” “Your father could throw a ball, I must say.” “You moved to my neighborhood just when your father…he was a Marine?...came back from the [Korean] war.”
They never mentioned the neglect, the doors kicked in, the little girl who crawled out of her window in the middle of the night to get away, the police – six at a time – showing up at 2 a.m., or even that they, probably, were the ones who called. These recollections are like shadow memories – not inscribed in great detail but cast in broad dark strokes.
I took their email addresses and phone numbers. “Can I write?” I asked. “Can I call?”
Can I remember? Will you tell me?
Afterward Jim said, “You should come back for a couple of weeks or months. Interview everyone.”
I see that the city I ran away from, Santa Barbara, was also the city that saved me. “You were such a free spirit, running around on the grass, playing in the park by yourself, doing whatever you wanted to do.” The gardener’s daughter told me that.
That’s the Santa Barbara I come home to. She gave me joy and beauty and companionship. So lucky I connected back then. Now that I’m back, that’s the part I remember most.