First Chapter: Stairway to Paradise: Growing Up Gershwin by Nadia Natali
Title: STAIRWAY TO PARADISE: GROWING UP GERSHWIN
Author: Nadia Natali
Publisher: RareBird Books
Growing up as Frankie Gershwin’s daughter, the sister of George and Ira Gershwin, was quite a challenge. I didn’t have the perspective to realize that so much unhappiness in a family was out of the ordinary. But I knew something was off. My mother was often depressed and my father was tyrannical and scary, one never knew when he would blow up. I learned early on that I had to be the cheery one, the one to fix the problems. Both sides of my family were famous; the Gershwin side and my father who invented color film. But even though there was more than enough recognition, money and parties I understood that wasn’t what made people happy.
As a young adult adrift and depressed I broke from that unsatisfactory life by marrying Enrico Natali, a photographer, deeply immersed in his own questions about life. We moved into the wilderness away from what we considered as the dysfunction of society. That’s when we discovered that life had other kinds of challenges: flood, fire, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and bears. We lived in a teepee for more than four years while building a house. Curiously my mother never commented on my life choice. She must have realized on some level that her own life was less than satisfactory.
Enrico had developed a serious meditation practice that had become a kind of ground for him. As for me I danced. Understanding the somatic, the inner body experience, became my way to shift the inner story.
We raised and homeschooled our three children. I taught them to read, Enrico taught them math. The kids ran free, happy, always engaged, making things, and discovering. We were so sure we were doing the right thing. However, we didn’t have a clue how they would make the transition to the so-called ‘real world’. The children thrived until they became teenagers. They then wanted out. Everything fell apart for them and for Enrico and me. Our lives were turned upside down, our paradise lost. There was tragedy: our son lost his life while attempting to cross our river during a fierce storm. Later I was further challenged by advanced breast cancer.
It was during these times that I delved deeply into the somatic recesses of myself. I began to find my own voice, a long learning process. I emerged with a profound trust in my own authority. It became clear that everyone has to find his or her way through layers of inauthenticity, where a deep knowing can develop. And I came to see that is the best anyone can offer to the world.
Enrico and I still live in the wilds of the Lost Padres National Forest, a paradise with many steps going up and down, a life I would not change.
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On December 8, 1980, my husband, Enrico, our three-year-old daughter, Francesca, and I finished our cross-country journey to Ojai, California, where we planned to make a home on land we had seen only once but had long been dreaming about, away from city life and, especially, away from my difficult and powerful family.
We’d caravanned in separate vehicles, hauling all that we could carry in and on top of our cars, in addition to a foldout trailer hitched to Enrico’s Toyota jeep. At the end of a long, winding two-lane road that followed Matilija Creek, a brown metal gate barred our way. Beyond the gate lay the Los Padres National Forest, wilderness, and a mile farther up a dirt road through the canyon, our property. We had to wait for a key to open the lock, a key that a forest ranger was going to hand over—the key to our new life. I gazed toward the jagged and intimidating mountains that leaned over the canyon. Inhaling the sweet smell of the dry chaparral, I couldn’t help but compare it to the lush, green landscape of my childhood home in Connecticut. This is going to be a very different life, I thought. My privileged upbringing seemed the polar opposite of this place, and maybe that was what attracted me to it. Observing the struggles of my family and seeing that money and fame had failed to bring happiness, I’d learned I needed to find my own path. I had not fully formulated my goal, but it was something unique and original, and I had to find it on my own.
A moment later a forest service truck pulled up by the gate. “You sure found yourselves a beautiful piece of property out here,” the ranger said, as he offered his hand to shake. “I’m Dave Brown. I suppose you know there are some pretty dangerous natural conditions you’ll need to look out for.”
Enrico shook Dave’s hand as he asked, “And what does that mean?” Dave took a big breath. “Well, you should know about this if you guys are planning to live here. There’s the flood. That’s real serious this time of year. There’re two creeks you have to drive through that rise fast and wild when there’s a lot of rain. The water turns black and fierce. You could get trapped in here for weeks.”
Enrico and I exchanged worried looks. We had not known about this. “Also,” he continued, “as you probably know, there are rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and black bears. The bears won’t bother you much if you keep your food well covered. But the mountain lions . . .” Dave trailed off, as he looked at our young daughter. “If you suspect there are any about, better keep your little girl close by.”
I glanced at Francesca to see if she was listening. She was busy poking the dry dirt with a stick, her red corduroy cuffs turning brown with dust. I wasn’t sure I wanted her to hear all this. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. I imagined grabbing a stick of my own and drawing pictures in the worn shoulder of the last bit of paved road.
“The thing that would bother me more than anything though,” Dave continued, “are the kooks that come out here.” That was all he said on that subject, as if he expected us to know just what he was talking about. Then we noticed a large parking area at the side of the road for vehicles, and figured that must be where people parked who were going to walk in.
I hoped he was exaggerating. Kooks? Francesca continued to prod the ground, making scratching sounds that in my mind echoed off the hard landscape and the ranger’s words. Suddenly a sweep of fatigue from the packing, driving, and camping for many nights hit me. I was beyond tired.
“But,” Ranger Dave went on relentlessly, “the fires are the biggest threat. This is the most dangerous canyon in California, if not the whole country. It hasn’t burned in fifty years, and it’s real serious when it does.
There’s only one road kept open, to get in and out.” The ranger stopped.
My heart skipped a beat. He must deliver this information routinely, I thought. That was why he seemed unaware of how scary it sounded. Maybe the reason that no one else lived up here in the Los Padres National Forest is because of the danger. I didn’t know what to say. This was not how I’d imagined our arrival at our new home would be. Was I being irresponsible and risking the safety of my family? I felt numb. I wondered what my mother would think, though I knew she wouldn’t want to get involved. She couldn’t handle challenging situations.
A warm, peaceful breeze sighed through the chaparral, along with the high-pitched buzz of tiny flies that Dave kept sweeping away with his hand. Enrico was silent, typically slow to react. I suspended my negative thoughts. What could we do at this point anyway? “We’ll figure it out,” a voice in my head whispered. “It’s the cold season, and we won’t have to worry about rattlesnakes, bears, or fire for now.”
Francesca’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Mommy, let’s go,” she said, gently tugging on my hand. Her smile pushed my worries away.
I picked her up, gave her a fat smooch on the cheek, and brushed off her pants as best I could. Looking around at the dusty terrain, I had to laugh at my futile attempt to keep her tidy.
Dave handed Enrico the key. We said good-bye and closed the gate behind us. Enrico crept along in the jeep, his tires stirring up dust in the clear winter air. Francesca and I followed in the faded-blue Renault. Only one more mile to go.
Rugged mountains surrounded us, and then a graceful valley emerged before us. Its colors were muted, everything brown and dry. The chaparral and meadows were sunburned to a pale sage green. The tangled grasses were still yellow from the dry heat of summer and fall. The rainy season had barely started.
As I followed the jeep, I heard the ranger’s words in the noise of the tires on the dirt road repeating over and over, “Floods, fires, rattlesnakes, and bears, oh my!” And yet the pronouncement of these threats couldn’t diminish the beauty we saw on our first day.
Our vehicles splashed through the shallow water of the first creek crossing, bumped over stones, and labored up the steep bank on the other side. The dirt road was narrow and densely shaded by spindly red alders. Then the landscape abruptly opened and again revealed the mountains and a bright blue sky.
A quarter of a mile farther ahead we met the second creek crossing, a broad convergence of three streams. There was so little water flowing that winter day that I could not imagine it as a raw, roaring flood. The slow- moving water gently murmured around the rocks, serene and harmless. I recalled Phil Kern, who had sold us the land six months earlier, telling us that this was a special site of the native Chumash who had come to Ojai and into Matilija Canyon thousands of years ago. “A chief and his tribe used this area where three creeks meet—the Matilija, the North Fork, and the Murrieta— as the site for spiritual retreats and shamanic rituals,” he had said.
Once beyond the crossing, I told Francesca the little I could re- member learning about the Chumash. I could almost sense the imprint left in the canyon from when they lived there so many years ago. The earthy color of the chaparral with its sages and scrub oaks was a visual echo of the color of their skin and of the animals they used for clothing, while the wind rushing through the dry grasses could be their distant voices like a welcoming presence, leading us to our property. Something was definitely special about this place, something alive within the landscape. Francesca opened the window, and we excitedly inhaled the fragrance of a wilderness and life new to us.
I had made this rash move with no thought to its consequences. Six months earlier, without considering the details, I’d impulsively decided to buy the property. But I wanted to be in Ojai so badly that the decision felt like it had to be right. The risks I was taking in this drastic move were prefer- able to my previous life in a family with a history of deception and false promises of happiness.
I knew how well Enrico had handled rough living during the years when we lived at what had been his family’s cabin at Sackets Harbor, New York. How he thawed out our hand pump every cold day to get water, how he blasted out a well, cut firewood, tobogganed in the snow to and from our car, and repaired the rustic cabin to make it livable. Amazingly, he did it all with little prior experience, having only watched his father make do and create from very little. But he had the gift of confidence. He had a conviction that he could do just about anything. It was Enrico’s self-assurance and my belief in his abilities that allowed me to move to this wild land.
Bumping along the dirt road to our new home site, I felt the conditioning of my privileged past dispersing with the plume of dust kicked up behind us. Watching Enrico’s jeep lumbering ahead with our foldout trailer bobbing and bouncing behind him, I felt like a kid on a new adventure.
That trailer was to be our dwelling while we built a house. I knew I could handle a simple life because I had become expert at making a home in temporary primitive campsites. But it could be a year before we had a real house. Could I last that long? One thing I did know: this was going to be a life very different from my childhood.
Enrico parked the jeep in a small clearing on the edge of our forty acres, the national forest surrounding it on all four sides. I jumped out of the Renault and tried to find a larger clearing, but the dense chaparral blocked my way. I knelt down to peek through the undergrowth, its strong, tangy scent unfamiliar. The undergrowth was so thick that it kept the sun from reaching the ground. There was no chance of getting farther onto our property until we cleared a long wide path. Perhaps a week, I thought.