Creative Mindfulness: Claraboya’s odd leftover lot

by Janice Hoffmann

Never anyone’s first choice, 35 years ago we fell in love with an unusual, long narrow lot that only nodded to the street in front, but lavishly embraced the valley to the sides and back.

Decades after Claraboya was developed and the avant garde use of concrete was featured in “Life” magazine, enough time had passed that the original houses already needed facelifts. Yet here was this empty space on Mountain Avenue, only prized by amorous teenagers after football games, or so we’ve been told on more than one occasion.

Our previously unwanted incapacious piece of dirt with minimum frontage suited us just fine, as we adjusted our perspective, building a house which only glimpsed the main thoroughfare, the length being the true facade, taking full advantage of the canyon view beyond and below.

Having both grown up in uninteresting boxes, crowded with possessions to attempt aesthetic redemption, my husband in crowded Queens, son of Jewish immigrants, and me, born amidst the Midwestern Plains to fourth-generation farmers, Larry and I had the common sense to build a simple Mediterranean floor plan and to not put very much inside it. Halfway through our fourth decade in this house, we still treasure the serenity and peace that comes from classic lines, adequate space, and an abundance of glass that blurs the lines between inside and out, allowing us to live with lavish florae, some of which come with stories attached.

Welcoming you to our front door is a huge pot of Christmas cacti, its girth as big as Santa’s middle. When I migrated to Southern California in the late 1970s, the only friend accompanying me on my journey was a few sprigs of this from my cousin’s yard, a long way from anywhere cacti grew naturally.

I wasn’t the first to give this beauty an opportunity to hitchhike: the genius Schlumbergera was named by the French taxonomist botanist who identified it in the Amazon jungle in the late 1800s. Christmas cacti come in several color combinations and I am thrilled each year as their audacious juxtaposition of colors bring smiles to my face. One starts with vivid coral orange buds that day by day become a startling fuchsia. Another has white blossoms tinged with an exquisite pink reminiscent of something rendered pure as the inside of a conch shell.

At the other end of the house, standing sentinel over the valley, very special pots of cacti nicknamed Zulu Giants reign supreme. On the afternoon of his second grade elementary school fair, Larry walked home from P.S. #107, proudly carrying a small milk carton full of dirt, top half cut off, and in it was a precious phallic treasure: one stalk of a cactus. The name Stapelia gigantea seemed out of place for such a tiny offering.

Seventy years later, this one stem has propagated prolifically, fathering veritable jungles of succulents that cascade over the edges of their pots. They annually grace us with parachute blossoms, and are an excuse to once again tell the story of how small dreams, and odd leftovers become savorable pleasures.



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