by Ellen Girardeau Kempler
December 2021 began with a surprise call from our Laguna neighbors. We were driving home after ushering South Coast Repertory’s first live performance of A Christmas Carol since 2019. As we got nearer, our sense of post-pandemic normalcy gave way to anxiety. They had something urgent to tell us. What could possibly be up?
Over the past several years, Pennsylvania natives Gail and Jonah, the young couple across the street, had adopted us as their two sons’ “California grandparents.” Unfortunately, their landlord had informed them only 90 days earlier that his mother would need to move by December 15. With Gail five months pregnant, the family was being forced into a nearby rental for $2,000 more than the astounding $8,000 per month they currently paid. While Jonah’s executive sales job seemed to provide the means to cover this kind of price gouging, we wondered at what point it would make more sense to buy a million-dollar-plus tract home.
It was already dusk when we dropped by. The two boys, ages five and six, sat grinning on top of the kitchen island as their parents stood sharing Gina’s straight from a box placed well out of their large poodle’s reach.
“Thank God you’re here!” said Jonah. “We’ve made a last-minute decision to move back to Pennsylvania. We rescheduled our Christmas flights to leave in three days, and we’ve booked a place near Gail’s parents until we find another.”
Apparently, a moving van had already come and gone. Soon, a driver would arrive to whisk them off to a dog-friendly hotel near LAX.
Jonah asked if we would help tie up a few loose ends. First, they’d need us to coordinate with the company driving their car back east. They also hoped we could store the kids’ soccer gear for another family to pick up, and also ship a few things they couldn’t pack (like the big Buddha statue in their courtyard). Finally, could we take their house plants and all the food in their fridge?
“Of course,” I answered, wondering how to box up the Buddha and looking apprehensively at their Sub-Zero. Our fridge was probably half the size.
A peek inside revealed a grocery haul rooted in denial, as if stocking up would’ve eliminated the need to move. This was the handiwork of a pregnant shopper feeding two amped skater boys and an ultramarathoner.
As I began to load food into shopping bags, I marveled at the array of pork products (shoulder, extra-thick bacon and three kinds of sausages). There was also a whole chicken, bagels, cream cheese, two tubes of ready-to-bake cinnamon rolls, real maple syrup, whipping cream, two gallons of milk, two quarts of yogurt, a pound of Irish butter, two dozen extra-large brown eggs, pears, apples, lemons, a bin full of veggies and much, much more.
When the family’s ride arrived, we hugged quick goodbyes. We’d miss them, but we got it.
I stayed up late solving the food problem, finally roasting the chicken and firing up the downstairs minifridge to contain the overflow.
Fortunately, our grown daughters arrived that week. Despite recent boosters, we all caught Covid. It rained most of the break. In between naps, we sat by the fire in our pajamas, talking, reading, streaming music and movies, cooking, eating, cooking—and eating some more. The Christmas Scrooge delivered was bittersweet.
A twenty-five-year Laguna Beach resident, Ellen Girardeau Kempler has watched many neighbors come and go. So far, she’s managed to stay put in the same (now livable) house that once smelled like a cat box and leaked like a strainer.