Driving south on Highway 395 toward the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California, the Grateful Dead and Dire Straits blasting from the speakers, I felt the curve of the mountains reach out to me like an embrace. The pull intensified as my husband and I passed the turnoff to Yosemite and the barren beauty of Mono Lake.
Ahead of us, across the high desert, remnants of the Long Valley Caldera – Glass Mountain, Mt. Morrison and Mammoth Mountain – came into view. I felt the power of the place, an ancient volcanic hot spot that straddles the boundary between the High Sierra and the Great Basin.
Like the tug of family, the mountains always lure me toward them as a place of comfort, reflection and occasional confrontation with unwelcome truths. That’s the edge I felt, mixed with the joy of the road and the anticipation of spending a few days in one of the most spectacular places in California.
Once we turned off the highway into the town of Mammoth Lakes, the scale changed, as if we had zoomed in on Google’s satellite view in real time. We passed the Vons and Starbucks. We saw girls in pigtails on pink training bikes and boys clutching skateboards. As usual there was a long line at The Stove, a restaurant popular for more than 30 years. Here at least, the wilderness had been tamed, the grandeur softened.
My destination that day was a short but sturdy wooden footbridge that crosses Mammoth Creek. Situated at the edge of town, halfway between the rugged high peaks and the vastness of the desert, the bridge connects well-worn fishermen’s trails on either side of the creek.
I came to stay a while, to linger on the bridge and watch the riffles in the rocky creek catch the sunlight. I came to stare into the placid late summer pools.
It was the bridge itself — not the path — that drew me. It is the Barbara Diamond Memorial Bridge, given to the city of Mammoth Lakes in 1989 by the people who loved her. I am one of those people. Barbara was my big sister.
The girl who loved to wade in mountain streams
We built the bridge because Barbara always had a thing for creeks. On family trips to wild places, from Yosemite to Banff, she would doff her shoes to wiggle her toes in streams.
She loved to hop from stone to stone, boulder to boulder, sure-footed and confident. Preteen Barbara still grins from black-and-white snapshots, inviting us to join her fun.
Barbara, born in Brooklyn in 1931, became a California girl as soon as the family moved west so our dad could take a job in Depression-era Hollywood. By the time I came along just after World War II, Barbara was a golden girl who posed for glam shots at Universal Studios and had boyfriends lining up around the block.
She married Allan Diamond when I was eight, and they settled into a Dick-Van-Dyke-Show-life in Los Angeles with their daughters, Fredi and Lynn. Barbara’s world was filled with teaching – she was a reading specialist – car pools and family.
From the outside it all looked bright, but underneath the busyness lurked the residue of our mother’s early death, more tension at home than she cared to admit, a perpetually strained relationship with our stepmother and her own breast cancer.
Although home was Los Angeles, Mammoth Lakes became home to Barbara’s best self. It was where she felt at peace, at one with herself. It was her refuge. She played tennis, fished, hiked, walked by the creek and fished some more. Home base was a vacation condo, just steps from the creek, perfectly placed on the meadow.
An intimate pilgrimage
I had visited Mammoth Lakes and Barbara’s bridge many times since she died in 1986. But this visit was different. For the first time we rented a unit in the same development as Barbara’s condo. I was anxious lest the memories be too strong. Instead it was comforting to stroll the fishermen’s trail and bike path down to the bridge. The week before our visit I had gone to shul in San Francisco to say Kaddish for Barbara, surrounded by people who never knew her. It wasn’t an empty gesture, exactly. But it wasn’t complete. In saying Kaddish I memorialized her loss. I wanted to remember her life.
From the bridge I watched willow leaves glow golden in the late afternoon sun. Dappled light played on the water, etching patterns on the pebbles below. Quaking aspen tinkled like temple bells in the breeze, and leaves cast gentle shadows on the rocks. I listened to the creek gurgle its way from the mountains to the Owens Valley under Barbara’s bridge.
I sat down on a boulder near a small pool just above the bridge. A cozy, intimate space, it reminded me of a comfortable den, a place for quiet conversation, for relaxing, for gathering one’s thoughts. I stared into the pool, not sure what I hoped to find.
Riffling through memories, golden and dark
Big thoughts on the meaning of life competed with simple, sometimes distant, memories of my life with Barbara. Sparkles in the creek made me smile as I recalled how, at three years old, I thought Barbara’s sequined prom dress belonged to a fairy princess. I saw us drying dishes in many kitchens over many years as we dished long and loud about our family. I chuckled as I remembered Barbara teaching my then three-year-old Ben to fish in a nearby lake.
I tasted the salmon salad sandwiches we ate in the car as our family left Yellowstone in a pounding rainstorm, and I giggled at the memory of going to the drive-in in Barbara’s hot red Chevy convertible while I was in high school.
But other, less welcome memories intruded. Like many sisters, we had unresolved resentments that refused to dissipate, to soften with time. Sitting in that calm and beautiful place, old hurts bubbled up like hot gasses from the volcanic zone under Mammoth Lakes. Some, sadly, have never healed because it really is too late for apologies to be offered or received.
My thoughts were interrupted by a bunch of flies darting over the creek. They seemed to have materialized from nowhere. I imagined happy trout and happy fishermen. Suddenly a blue dragonfly zipped across the creek. I had always envisioned dragonflies as enchanted creatures inhabiting enchanted places. But as I watched I learned the truth. Like a lethal weapon, the dragonfly nabbed those flies, one by one. Once again I was reminded that life is short.
With a sigh I picked up a handful of stones to place on the bridge above the plaque, a Jewish mourning practice that tells strangers that this bridge was dedicated to someone long departed but still loved. It was a sign that we stopped by, we visited, we had a conversation.
As a family we turned memory into a memorial so we would have a place to remember the girl who loved to wade in mountain streams.
Postscript–a bouquet for Barbara
In the photo album Barbara’s daughter Lynn compiled to commemorate the opening of the bridge in 1989, she included this quote from Barbara:
“Perhaps in every life there’s one special place. Mammoth is mine. I walked in the meadow every day and renewed myself just being there. I sat on a rock for a long time and cried. I was so moved by the beauty around me. The snow glistened on the mountains; the sun shone brightly; the creek trickled by quietly–most of it was frozen, and I wished I could stay forever.”
For us, Barbara will forever be in Mammoth.
Ellen-I am moved beyond words at this ode to your sister and to Mammoth and environs. I salute you for sharing your thoughts and memories.
Susan, thanks so very much.
I made sure to have some quiet, uninterrupted time to read this beautifully written ode (as Susan says) to Barbara. I was amazed at how alike the two of you looked when you were young and how absolutely beautiful Barbara was. Building a bridge to memorialize her was a stroke of genius. Thank you so much for letting us in to your inner thoughts and feelings. You have an unbelievable ability to describe and share your emotions.
Thank you Laura. What’s really interesting is that we really looked alike when we were little. David and I have found images that we had to figure out whether it was Barbara or me. It was fun to go rummaging through my dad’s old photos and combine them with our newer ones. I think Barb would be pleased.
I’ve read this piece dozens of times as it evolved, and it still gets me every time. I shared many of those moments with Barbara at Mammoth, and I know how much she treasured her time there. I remember playing tennis with her at the condo — not very well because the altitude made us winded and the balls super-lively. And, yes, washing and drying dishes and dissecting the evening — still a family tradition.
Comment. Thanks for giving us another intimate family story, which was revealing to me as a relative ! What a great tribute to Barbara with the idea and realization of a bridge that I don’t remember knowing about and in this testimonial to what she loved in nature and about your relationship. I wish I had known her better as well as Mammoth Lake , in the years I lived in California .
Such a fine circling back to an important person and to your own sense of time and memory. Incredible that Barbara provides a physical and spiritual bridge.
Ellen this is a moving tribute to your sister, whom I never met, but whom I feel I’ve gotten to know a bit through your beautifully written testimonial. She was lucky to have you as her sister; now I know why you are so close with her children. And they are lucky to have you as their aunt. Thank you for sharing Barbara–and you–with all of us.
Ellen, I was so touched by the beautiful tribute you wrote for Barbara. We were fortunate enough to have shared the magnificent scenery with Barbara and Alan as well as many years later walking on the memorial bridge. You write so beautifully with so much feeling and emotion that it brought tears to both my eyes as well as Jerry’s. You and David are very special family members always remembering your East Coast family and we are so thankful to have you in our lives.
Love you and hope this New Year will bring us all peace, love and happiness.
Carol and Jerry
I am stunned and deeply moved by your tribute to your sister, Barbara and your visits, especially the most recent one, to her memorial bridge at Mammoth Lake. Thank you for uncovering all this. It was a beautifully written tribute and certainly not easy. I’m sure you know it’s time to release all the past hurts. Do you do this in meditation or in visits to the Lake? For all the years we’ve known each other, I don’t know anything at all about your sister. I’m glad she got to spend some time with Ben. It’s wonderful that you and others built this perfect memorial for Barbara. May it heal you each time more and more till you feel what was joyful about her and in you.
Ellen – thanks for sharing this beautiful memorial to your sister, along with wonderful photography (from you? And David?). Just belatedly reading your post which I had saved to read at a quiet moment. Happy Hanukkah for the holiday coming right up!
Just first catching up to read this beautiful, intimate love poem to your sister. Your words and photos evoke a very special place and a sacred relationship. Thank you for the glimpse into your heart.