By the next spring I had to agree—the house was too small. Just before we left, I bought Christopher Isherwood’s latest book, Kathleen and Frank, a collection of his parent’s diaries and letters. I took the book in a plastic bag outside with me each time I worked in the front garden, hoping he would come by. I scattered wildflower seeds and felt a sweep of sorrow when I pictured them blooming without me.
I wanted Chris to sign the book so that we would have a keepsake from a time my daughter might not remember. Finally, after days of waiting, I saw him coming down our sidewalk.
“Mr. Isherwood.” I waved and walked across the lawn, meeting him at the driveway. “I wonder if you would mind signing this. We’re moving to a larger place. It turns out, four people can’t be squeezed into this cottage no matter how hard I tried.”
He smiled and took the book and pen from my hands. “I know your daughter’s name, but I don’t know yours.”
“It’s Barbara,” I said, feeling that blush again coloring my face. He had the kindest eyes I think I’ve ever seen.
“With all best wishes, Christopher Isherwood. I shall miss you and your daughter,” he wrote.
“Thank you so much. We’ll miss you too.” I took back the pen and the book, looked quickly into his eyes for one last time, and then turned before tears rolled down my cheeks. I had a sense that I would never again live in a more tender union of sun and people than our days in the canyon.
Less than a year after we’d moved away, the girls and I drove down our old street on the way to spend the afternoon at the beach. As we neared the familiar whitewashed wall of the yard, the commode and bathroom sink were sitting in the driveway for pickup. The seat and lid of the toilet were up, making it look like a rude, yawning mouth. The house had been demolished, and a small truck was parked under the Loquat tree. We rode in sad silence and decided to go to the library instead.
My father died before I could resolve the hurt and the anger I felt about him that lived just below the surface of our stiff but cordial relationship. He often brought up the topic of AIDS as though to confirm his judgment of the men he had observed in the canyon.
After his death I watched my mother, now free of his narrow opinions, move through the same progression of curiosity and acceptance of a larger world I had undergone years before. We grew closer and loved reminiscing about that “gay summer.”
I would manage to return to college and grad school and continued to read more of Christopher Isherwood’s work. Learning that he wrote nearly every day, I wondered if he ever looked down at us, if he ever journaled about the mother and the two little girls running through the sheets.
In Katherine and Frank, I discovered the extraordinary love between Isherwood and Don Bachardy, who was thirty years younger. He must have been one of the men I had seen on the patio. I often thought about my husband’s definition of family that night at dinner twenty years before and how our marriage had died from lack of love and respect while Isherwood’s relationship with Bachardy had lasted a lifetime.
Despite the 30-year difference in their ages, they lived together in the house above our rental cottage until Isherwood’s death in 1986.
In 1998 I wrote an early draft of a memoir piece about our time in the canyon and on a whim mailed it to Don Bachardy. I just wanted to honor Christopher in my own way and never expected anything in return. He replied almost immediately with one of his postcards of an acrylic on paper portrait of Gore Vidal.
Dear Barbara Clarke,
Thank you for sending me “The Canyon.” I enjoyed it very much—it has atmosphere and mood and an intriguing oblique quality. By “oblique” I mean that it suggests something under what it is you are telling the reader, a subtlety of meaning, an inner, somewhat mysterious richness. And it has real atmosphere of place, which meant a great deal to Chris. I think that he would have liked your story, too. I am curious to know how you will expand it.
I have only two minor points to raise. One page 5 the rental agent is mistaken. The friend Greta Garbo visited, Salka Viertal, was a Hollywood film writer (not director) who wrote scripts for several of Garbo’s movies. And Chris’s robe, which was a birthday present from me, was a zebra-stripe (not leopard) print, black stripes on a bright yellow ground. Yellow was his favorite color.
Please keep me posted on your development of this material. You write well.
P.S. – In 2007, an award-winning documentary was made about the life-long love of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. You can see a clip on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hb5pFoAh-U