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My parents bought the property in 2003. They had tried to buy the house down the street, but put in an offer 45 minutes too late. Defeated by their loss, they drove out to see the house one last time, a way to memorialize what could have been. Driving down a dirt road tucked 10 miles inland from the coast, they drove past a 3-acre lemon grove with a FOR SALE sign. My dad looked at my mom. “We’d be insane to build a house, right?”

Insane they were. Within a matter of months the down payment was made, the permits acquired, and a portion of the grove cleared to start building. Despite a shady contractor, a season of roaring wildfires and evacuations, and living out of a trailer with three kids, a dog, a cat, and four guinea pigs, my parents built their dream home. One story, three bedrooms, a living room with nearly floor to ceiling glass doors and a view of rolling hills you could stare out at for a lifetime.  They named the property Rancho Salida, combining their three children's names, Sara, Liam, and Daniel.  Life within those walls was often far from a dream, but those views, even when shaped and shifted over the years by neighbors and fires, seemed too good to be true. Quixotic, even. It takes a specific perspective to look at a mound of lemon trees and see only your family's future. 

Now, let me make one thing clear. An outdoor man my father was not. It shocked us all how well he took to the grove. He bought a John Deere Gator and spent his weekends driving up and down every row, surveying irrigation issues, pulling weeds, clearing out dead branches, watching for rattlesnakes and cursing at the deer who sucked life out of the citrus.  Our Australian Shepherd, Kobe, always running alongside. The two of them would spend hours in the grove every weekend. He rarely spoke of it, but I could tell it was his safe haven

Ironically, we almost never made lemonade. Perhaps we outdid it when we first moved in, and the novelty wore off. Or maybe it was my health-conscious mother avoiding the sugar intake. To this day, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  I’d watch my mother sprinkle the sugar into the pitcher. “You don’t need that much, it only takes a little.” For years I assumed that was fact. It wasn’t until my best friend, Elissa, came over one day in middle school, and while unsupervised, bored, and roasting due to my parents' refusal to ever turn on the AC, we made lemonade. Elissa, as if to foreshadow her now thriving career as a pastry chef, dumped more sugar than I’d ever seen in one place into the lemon juice. This girl is crazy, I remember thinking. We each poured a glass and went to sit in the backyard. I took a tiny sip, expecting to hate it. It was divine, quenching more than just thirst in a heatwave. 

After my dad died in 2019, the house felt foreign. Familiar, but no longer mine. Every trip to see my mom felt forced, and upsetting. I watched her give it a new shape, as she had sole control over a space for the first time in nearly 40 years. Every wall changed color. She cleared out his possessions as fast as she could. “I just need to get rid of it,” she’d say over the phone every week. The house became a shell of a home. No longer filled with the warmth and earth tones I so heavily felt held in as I watched TV with my father on the worn leather couch. The couch was the first thing to go. He wasn’t even six feet under and my mom ordered a whole new living room set. “His sisters can’t see it like this,” she shook her head, embarrassed by the torn and stained throne my dad fell asleep watching TV on every night. His family would be in our home in a matter of days to unwind from a weekend of catholic funeral atrocities.

“When I think of lemons, I think of Uncle Dave” were the words my cousin spoke as she sat solemnly in the backyard overlooking the grove. Everyone nodded in agreement with her statement. I’d never realized, but I thought the same. When I moved to New York and made my first trip to the grocery store, I chuckled as I bought lemons, realizing I’d never bought them from the store before. Every time I see a “grown in California” sticker, I like to think they made it all the way from a tree my father once tended. 


I’ve always been an autonomous person. My home is my home. My space is my space. I have a strong belief that our homes are a physical representation of the inner workings of our minds. When life throws something my way that is so undeniably out of my control, you can find me cleaning the kitchen, decluttering a closet, or clearing off a desk. I move furniture quarterly. I vacuum daily. When the universe laughs at my internal jurisdictions, I control the physical things in front of me. Place lamps in corners crying for light, turn the bed to face the window, build shelves to keep the clutter off the floor. I feel empathetic for spaces. Is that a thing? Sense memory doesn’t feel right. But I guess it’s a start. Physical places strike a chord emotionally. The bad, the good, the light, the heavy. 

It hits me like a brick when my mom tells me she’s selling the property. I’m gutted. Grief resurfaces in unexpected ways. As she hikes up a foreign hill overlooking the Pacific and casually says these words, I get the urge to run down the cliff and disappear. Swim to Catalina in the distance and hide from the inevitable pain of not returning to her home. Of not returning to my home.

Is that why she brought me here? Why she was so adamant on meeting me for a “birthday hike” to celebrate a year I’d rather forget? I carried disdain in my steps as we finished the loop back to the car. The conversation switched topics, and I blew up about something unrelated. Something I felt more in control over, growing angry over petty shit. It’s easier to focus on the trivial. We got into our cars and drove away. I didn’t speak to her for a week. 

The living room is now white, with an accent wall of slate on the fireplace. She tried to “modernize” it. I can’t help but laugh as the house slowly begins to reflect the cold and frigid feelings the space holds without him.  I find myself grasping onto the memories of my father, the only ones I’ll ever have. I can already feel them growing blurry as the timestamp of a loss so large becomes normalized as part of my “story”, molding a life so far off from what I would have imagined for myself.  For 16 years, the grove was kept alive by my father. Now in his death, the grove keeps him alive in unexpected and comforting ways. I fear if I lose the property, I’ll lose him too.

But every time I sit on that new couch, now adorned with pillows, the sight of the grove peeking out those tall windows sucks me in, grounding me from feeling like a complete alien in my childhood home.  The last time I walked the grove barefoot with a bucket, picking lemons to take to my own home, I thought about how much my dad silently loved the grove. How that FOR SALE sign all those years ago molded a life for him so far off from anything he’d ever imagined for himself. 


I sit in the back of my car, unloading the weight of the citrus, and ponder: Can you make lemonade out of lemons?


Only with a whole lot of sugar. I’ve learned it takes quite a bit of sweetness to lessen the bitter. 

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