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About Karen Kao Family ghosts Los Angeles

Montebello

Montebello, California: once upon a time the home to Franciscan monks intent on Christianizing the local Indians. From ranchos to citrus farms to oil fields, Montebello is a microcosm of how Los Angeles developed. Even William Mulholland, the infamous water developer, had a hand in naming my hometown after its beautiful hills.

Our hill

In my mind’s eye, I see a towering mountain range as ominous as any of the Rocky Mountains. It looms over our house. Its shadow reaches into my bedroom window. But shade is a good thing in Southern California and this hill is the place to which my brothers and I escape every chance we get. This is our hill.

Cactus covers the side that faces our house. The cactus conceals a cave among the thorns from which my brothers and I launch daring raids as pirates, cattle rustlers or gangsters. The back side of the hill is smooth and bare. Perfect for sliding down in cardboard boxes. There’s an abandoned car at the foot of our hill and next to it reeds and a bit of shallow water which we dub Crash Car Lake.

Montebello hill
Dad, Mike and Phil in front of our hill circa 1965. Photo credit: must be Mom

In my memory, our hill is vast and untamed. This photo tells me our playground was more like a bit of scrub. This is Dad and my brothers standing in the driveway of our home in Montebello. Behind them, you see an empty piece of land. It’s just panting for developers. Soon enough, they arrive.

Today, our old hill is covered in McMansions. The old neighborhood looks a lot nicer than I remember it. The houses are freshly painted and the gardens are neat. There are no junk cars staining the driveways. It’s awfully quiet, too. Where are the kids popping wheelies on their banana seat bikes?

In the wilds of Montebello

When I was a kid, Montebello was so far out of town that no freeway reached it. I can remember walking on the Pomona Freeway while it was still under construction.

My brothers and I had a penchant for construction. As our hill transformed into a suburban tract, we played among the skeleton homes. We dumped out bags of cement, broke windows and ripped the wiring. This was no protest against the loss of our playground or urban creep. We were just bad kids.

bougainvillea
Bougainvillea. Photo credit: Karen Kao

When we weren’t out destroying public property, my brothers and I played in our backyard. Our house backed onto a slope covered in ice plants. The name refers to the shimmer of these succulents as if covered in ice. We broke off leaves to write on the retaining wall or the concrete patio. The words would gleam briefly before evaporating in the Southern California sun.

I had forgotten that ice plants produce daisy-like flowers. The slope must have been beautiful when the ice plants were in bloom. I remember instead the wall of bougainvillea that separated our home from our neighbors, the Dawdeits. Wherever I see bougainvillea — be it Capri or Saigon or Alhambra — I think of home.

You can’t go home again

My parents moved from Montebello the same year I left for Amsterdam. In the 30 odd years since, I’ve rarely ventured to the old place. There didn’t seem to be much of a reason to do so.

But now that Dad has died, Mom will be leaving the Southland. Once she moves, I cannot foresee returning to the LA area anytime soon. So this is my chance to revisit Montebello and the memories it holds for me.

Smell is a powerful receptor of memory. Rain on hot asphalt will always remind me of my maternal grandfather and Taiwan. For the restaurant critic Tejal Rao, cardamom reminds her of her favorite grandfather who used to chew the pods to freshen his breath. So now you want to know, what are the smells of Montebello?

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Montebello
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Photo credit: Karen Kao

To put my brothers and me on the right path, my parents enrolled us into the local Catholic school rather than any of the public options in Montebello. Marian School belongs to the parish of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

Today, an iron fence closes the school grounds to the public. The classrooms look like bunkers. The church is closed due to Covid so all I’ve got left is the parking lot.

There, my nose entertains memories of its own. Menudo on Sunday after church, taquitos in a runny guacamole sauce on Thursdays and Sloppy Joes on Fridays. On the other days, my brothers and I ate baloney sandwiches or PBJ on Wonder Bread.

At Amy’s Pastry, I ask for a dream cake like the one we had for every birthday: chocolate cake, fresh bananas, tons of whipped cream and shaved chocolate all over. No luck. I guess all good things come to an end.

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