The Canyon ChronicleBy The Canyon Chronicle

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Returning Home
Rendering by Amelia Sophie, Owner of HelloAM on Etsy.
My name is Jennifer and I grew up in Topanga with my brother, Jonathan, and sister, Jessica. We moved there in 1971 from deep in the San Fernando Valley when I was 10. It was so strange and wonderful. Our house is at the end of a non-county maintained dirt road in Old Canyon. We lived and thrived there with my mother until we left for college and our future endeavors. My mother, Susan “Susie” Ellman, however, continued to live there for many years, until 2021 when it was necessary for her to move into assisted living. She passed away November 1, 2022, but her house and Topanga are intertwined with her in our memories and those of all her family and friends. She was one tough lady working full time, raising three kids, and living in a house built in the ’30s with all the wonders and trials of living in special Topanga. My cousin, Lyn Heller-Altoona, wrote this beautiful tribute to my mother and to Topanga that was read at the gathering at the house. It is inspirational to read about the way people who don’t live or grow up in Topanga feel about coming here. It helps us who did, appreciate it all the more.... Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Jennifer Ellman Jenkins
By Lyn Heller-Altoona
Today I found out my Aunt Susie, one of the “moms” of my childhood, has inoperable cancer, and her time with us is limited.
Of course, I want to reach out to my Aunt Susie, who won’t want the reaching, to tell her what an amazing presence she has been in my life, in all of our lives. To remind her that she is so important to all of us. To let her know how strong and good the memories are of all the days spent at her house when I was young, how visiting her there these days always feels like returning home for me, especially in these last few years, when I have had no childhood home to return to. With my parents gone, her place in my life, like the rest of my aging aunts and uncles, has become elevated. They are the last of the elders that knew me, loved me, encouraged me, when I was young. They were always around and the bond is strong. Visiting any of them is always a way to return home. 
My aunt Susie, in particular, has a magical home, a small wood and stone-covered house reachable only from a single-lane, unpaved road in the heart of Topanga Canyon. Driving down that road, entering onto her bit of land, always felt like stepping into another time for me when I used to visit there when I was young. The house is old, ancient really, even back then, and there is a history about it that felt rich and important and of the earth. The structure was built into the side of a small boulder-covered hillside at the edge of a creek. The creek separates the house and the hillside from the road that leads to the house. 
There is a rustic footbridge connecting the house side to the roadside. The current bridge that stretches over the creek in between my Aunt Susie’s house and her private road is one in a long line of bridges that have held court in that space over the years. In years when the rains were heavy and frequent, more often than not, the bridge would get swept away. Aunt Susie tried out many bridges. One of them was specially engineered to be detached and left to swing open during torrential down storms. I don’t recall that any of them ever lasted for long. But I do remember that all of them had railings. All of them, that is, except the most current bridge, which stretches from bank to bank, without rails. More likely not to get swept away I think is what my Aunt told me when I commented on its apparent lack of safety.  She has carried herself and her groceries over that bridge without rails for many years now. 
Trees line the road and surround the home where my Aunt Susie lives. These are not your typical backyard trees, but old, gnarled, wild, and majestic specimens, sturdy and almost wise in their evident longevity. They stand tall and proud, providing a protective and comforting shade over most of the land about the house, trickles of sunlight streaming through here and there amongst the thick coverage of their quivering leaves. When we were young, there was a tire swing tied to one of the outreaching branches of one of those trees situated at the edge of the creek. I can remember the rush of feeling as I spun around and around or back and forth on that swing, or the heady anticipation as I stood in line with the rest of the cousins, waiting my turn. 
We spent endless hours roaming about the land that surrounded the house. There was the remnants of an even older structure and stone wall that we would hike to along the creek. There was the opportunity for rock climbing on the hillside behind the house. Old abandoned chicken coops that were converted into playhouses for us where we could practice our skills at mothering and housekeeping and what we considered adult living. In the afternoons during early summer, as the day would wind down, my brother would capture lizards with one of my cousins, while my other two cousins and I would kneel down at the edge of the creek and rescue tadpoles that had got caught up in the shallow edges.
At night, there was always the promise of one of Aunt Susie’s signature dishes. I have strong memories of all of us sitting at the kitchen table in the corner of her small kitchen, laughing and talking about our day, all the while scooping up piece after piece of Aunt Susie’s freshly baked cornbread that we ate dripping with butter and honey. We would consume until our stomachs could hold no more. Until the pan was empty. Cornbread was often served after a meal of casserole or pasta. Aunt Susie had a special trick for cooking pasta. She taught us to throw it up against the wall behind the stove. If it stuck, it was ready to eat. If it fell, more boiling time was needed. The wall above Aunt Susie’s stove was always covered with bits of pasta. She never seemed to mind leaving it there. In my house, we didn’t throw pasta at the walls, and we certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to let it stay there if we had. I can remember always looking for bits of pasta on the wall when passing through her kitchen. Seeing it there gave me a real sense of pleasure and peace. All was right in the world when there was pasta on the wall at Aunt Susie’s house. I still look for those pieces of pasta now, at every visit.
When it was time to go to sleep, I would climb into bed with one of my cousins. They had a large bedroom with three beds, one for each of them. Aunt Susie’s room was just a stepped-up piece of the same room, a small half-wall separating most of it from the rest of the space. There was no door. So, in essence, they all slept together in the same room. Magic. Pure magic in my youthful mind.  More often than not, I would start to drift off and then notice a bounty of daddy long legs on a wall above my head. While I and the rest of the cousins would shriek and hide behind our covers, my Aunt would come stomping over and swoop up a handful of spiders and take them outside, never once killing one as far as I could tell. 
“They won’t hurt you,” I can still hear her say.  To this day, I still don’t kill spiders in my own house, but rather scoop them up and release them outside.  It is my own special offering in honor of Aunt Susie. My grown children are always complaining about the spiders in my home. I find them to be welcome and necessary inhabitants of our household.  “They won’t hurt you,” I hear myself telling my kids, even as they offer up the evidence of spider bites on their various limbs. In my mind, it is just necessary fallout. You can’t keep everything out if you truly want to experience the magic of living.
And that is a reminder for me. The loss of my Aunt Susie will take up residence soon within the space that houses the rest of my losses. I don’t struggle with that anymore. The losses belong. Just like everything else that has formed the build that is me. I think that is the ultimate gift of staring into the truth that is formed when those who came before us take their final leave. They offer us a glimpse into what it is to live, and they leave us with the spectacle of the magic of building a life with all of its joys and pitfalls intact.
The magic of pulling together everything you have seen and learned and experienced into a uniquely crafted living that ultimately feels just like coming home. 
The Canyon Chronicle

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