My parents just bought a second home in a Phoenix suburb. When they announced this plan on a recent family vacation, it surprised all of us. Why Arizona? We’d never lived there as a family; none of my sisters live there now; and as far as I knew, my parents hadn’t spent much time there. I’d never heard them say, “Ah, when we retire, it’s Arizona or bust.” In fact, just a year earlier, they had purchased a motorhome with plans to stay mobile half the year. After driving one winter to Florida and the next to Arizona, they suddenly decided to sell the motorhome and buy a home in the desert.
Last week they flew me out to cater their housewarming party.
Goodyear is a snaking network of blacktop roads paved onto the desert. Something about it feels precarious – like one big dust storm could wipe it out. It’s not hard to imagine the place post-apocalypse because it wouldn’t look that much different.
As we drove up the road to my parents house, they pointed to the shrubs that lined a small gully in front. “We’re having those removed,” my mother said. I looked around the neighborhood and at the surrounding hills. There weren’t many other shrubs or bushes – mostly cacti and dry rockbed.
“Why?” I asked.
“So people can see the house,” she answered.
Why Arizona is heating up
The next morning we drove down to the Estrella Yacht Club. The place reminded me of the retirement village where my grandparents lived until their deaths in 2009. A group of men sat clustered around a table beside an unlit hearth, waiting for a fourth golfer. Retired couples like my folks filed past the welcome desk and got in line for the weekly continental breakfast of microwaved sausage biscuits, yoghurt cups and Folgers coffee. I took some fruit and cottage cheese and joined my parents and their friends. The crowded table was abuzz with people talking about recent travels and the upcoming city-wide garage sale.
Later on we took a Hobie Cat out on the lake (which should be called a pond). As the guy who manned the boathouse rigged the boat, he gave us the backstory on Estrella. Apparently, Charles Keating was the community’s original mastermind. He had a vision for a utopian community where pornography and abortion would be illegal. He bought up acres of land in this desert, then padded the pockets of local government officials to get water to fill the ponds. His visionary community came to a halt when the Arizona housing rush dried up in the late eighties. Estrella was one of the risky investments that factored into the collapse of Keating’s company, American Continental. The development was sold off by federal regulators while Keating was doing prison time in the early 90s.
When housing prices plummeted in 2008, Arizona hit rock bottom for a second time. But now, five years later, the community where my parents bought their home is filling up with retirees – snatching up their dream homes for far less than they would have paid a few years ago. New home sales are up over 18% in the Phoenix area and home values are increasing.
Today Goodyear, though nowhere near Keating’s projection of 200,000, boasts the third fasted-growing population in Arizona. The irony of course is that Keating’s vision is alive and well. I can’t help but wonder if Keating would be reaping the benefits of his investment now, had he not played so fast and loose with his and other people’s money.
It wouldn’t be a good story without good food
The party was on Saturday. My mother just finished reading Under the Tuscan Sun, so I riffed on Frances Mayes’ simple Italian recipes. Clean flavors; light yet filling.I marinated chicken drumsticks in lemon rind, lemon juice, salt and pepper. I tossed them in olive oil and baked them for 15 minutes then let them cool. The next day I pulled them out, let them return to room temperature, then rolled them in parmesan cheese and baked them again until the cheese formed a crusty exterior on the chicken. These were a hit.
We made a roasted pepper salad, crostini with tomatoes and basil, and some with garlic and white bean. I grilled shrimp and then let them sit overnight in a pesto made with walnuts and arugula. I made an artichoke dip with parmesan, cream cheese, and lemon juice that I found highly addicting. The pasta salad was a riff on a dish I had at Franny’s in Brooklyn years ago: ricotta, mint and chilies. And for dessert, cups of vanilla panna cotta with strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar, sugar and pepper – topped with pecan crumble.
The house is still mostly unfurnished, so guests sat facing each other in the living room like a giant game of musical chairs. There were a few people I recognized – my high school math teacher; friends from my mom’s bunco-playing group back home. They, too, had come here fleeing winter. They, too, had bought into Arizona’s appeal.
During a conversation with a few of the guests, I realized what was getting me down about Goodyear: this was my parents’ version of a retirement village. While it lacks the elder care component of the place where my grandparents spent their last 15 years, it has everything else: sun, golf courses, manicured yards, a social scene, less traffic.
The odd part about it is that my parents are in their early sixties. They aren’t old yet. I was much more comfortable with the image of them actively touring around the country. Inside I was thinking: it’s too soon for this!
Where we are
The last night of my stay we ate dinner early, and with another hour before the sun set, my mother suggested we hike a nearby hill. We headed in the direction of the county park that backs up to their property. We drove up a long, winding road and parked behind some rodeo grounds. Then we walked through a ravine and up onto a little saddle where we watched the sun make its final dip behind the mountains. It had been a long time since I’d been hiking. I looked around at the scorched earth and watched it turn a hundred shades of red and purple the way desert landscapes do at the end of the day.
As I watched my parents walk arm-in-arm down the path, I realized the other thing clawing at me was the confrontation with my own mortality. Here I am, almost forty, and still without someone to grow old with.
“Let’s stop at the Star Tower,” my mother said as we exited the park. The Star Tower is a staircase rising 50-feet above the desert floor, a kind of gateway to the Estrella community. At the base of the tower is a backlit panel that talks about the Fibonacci sequence, how this pattern is played out in basic biology, and here, in the architecture of the shell-shaped spiral.
I set my camera on long exposure and took a photo while my parents walked ever-so-slowly across the foreground. In the photo their images appear ghost-like, barely there, the tower glimmering behind them. Then we climbed to the top, past the 3,000 subtly blinking fiber optic lights on our way to a view over the Valley of the Sun.
“I’m so glad we did this,” said my mother, beaming. Turning to my father she said, “I’m so glad moved here.”
At that moment, so was I.