My O.C.: Searching for Normal Amid the Tract Homes of Orange County

As a kid growing up in an O.C. tract house, I felt the lure of other people’s homes. Not in a perverted-peeper sort of way; I just needed to see how other families lived so I could answer my most burning childhood question: Is my family normal?

My 9-year-old brain had convinced me that other kids lived in beautifully appointed homes with reserved, decorous mothers, like TV’s Barbara Billingsley, while my house was horribly tacky, and my mother an alien being who delighted in devising original ways to embarrass me.

My idea of how other families lived came mostly from the only homes I could peek inside—the Beaver Cleavers, the Ricky Nelsons, and the “Father Knows Best” Andersons. From these TV homes, I believed other kids lived in tasteful bastions of quiet and calm, with dignified mothers who bought matching furniture off showroom floors. Weren’t normal mothers supposed to obsess about keeping their furniture clean? Didn’t normal mothers stay at home in pastel shirtwaist dresses and pearls, quietly ironing?

My mother, by contrast, invited every kid in the neighborhood over to play and never worried about our eclectic mix of chrome, vinyl, and early-American maple furnishings—a style she called Thrift Store Colonial. She demonstrated Rockette-style high kicks and tap routines on the speckled kitchen floor, and she spontaneously broke into show tunes or ditties such as “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” Far from calm and quiet, our house was a cacophony of kids yelling, Mom singing, the TV blaring, dogs barking, screen doors slamming, cap guns popping, jump ropes slapping, and rubber balls bouncing off the garage door.

At an age when conformity is the path to popularity, I truly feared my home fell outside the normal range, which meant it was not quite as good. I wanted to eat off real china, not Melmac. I needed to know if other mothers got their towels from inside laundry soap boxes, like mine did, or if their walls were adorned with real art or paint-by-numbers sailing ships.

My family’s norm-o-meter ranking obsessed me.

 

I was finally invited to a slumber party, thrown by a new scouting friend who lived in Huntington Harbour, and got my first glimpse at untelevised home life. On that July night, the differences in our lifestyles astonished me. My friend’s mother mixed sweet pickle relish into her tuna sandwiches and toasted the bread, a culinary revelation. She put club soda in the Hawaiian punch so we could pretend Champagne bubbles were tickling our noses. Their bathroom towels were fat, fluffy, and all the same color, and the light switches perfectly matched the wallpaper pattern.

That sleepover reinforced my most desperate childhood fears. My mother’s inability to reach that level of refinement vexed me. Didn’t she care if I was popular in fourth grade?

 

On a hot august afternoon that same summer, while on one of my adventurous solo bike rides, I discovered an abandoned farmhouse in Westminster. (Yes, they still existed when my family moved to that city around 1960.) A weatherworn picket fence with missing slats surrounded the modest dwelling, and a crumbling concrete walkway fought off encroaching weeds. The front door creaked as I entered, held in place only by the rusty top hinge.

The house wasn’t completely abandoned; some furnishings had survived the years. In the living area sat a dusty and decrepit sofa, and beside it a three-legged table held an empty humidor that still smelled of tobacco. In one corner, the floor was covered with red bricks, and above them, a blackened chimney where a cast-iron stove once stood. All that remained of the kitchen was a chipped porcelain sink, a worn linoleum countertop, and two shelves that hadn’t held home-canned peaches in decades. Yellowed, water-stained newspaper was glued on the rough wood walls. As I looked closer, I realized the paper was from 1922.

A faded photo tacked to one of the walls offered a glimpse of the people who once lived there. I studied the smiling faces of a man, a woman, and a small child. But their house felt lonely and neglected, and its dead, unearthly stillness made me uncomfortable. For once my home came out on top by comparison.

I hadn’t thought of that old farmhouse in years, at least not until I recently took a good look at the 1960s-era house across the cul-de-sac from mine in Huntington Beach. Its absentee owner has left it empty for a decade, and the years haven’t been kind to it. The roof sags, the foundation is cracked, and panes of glass have fallen out of the glazed windows.

I understand trespassing laws, and so I haven’t dared venture inside. But I wonder if that house has original fixtures like the ones I remember from the house where I grew up—faux-marble bathroom sinks, a speckled linoleum kitchen floor, a board that pulls out from under the linen closet to aid with folding towels. I wonder if its cupboards ever held Melmac dishes, like my mother’s, or if a mother there ever sang to her little girl.

If the passing years have taught me anything, it’s that a house that’s empty and silent—a house with no barking dogs or blaring TV, no arguing kids or singing moms, a house that has no life in it—well, it’s just not normal.

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