Lady Bird, the new movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is getting fantastic reviews for its depiction of a teenage girl in her last year of high school, in the unpromising setting of Sacramento, CA. And so it should. But I am not an unbiased reviewer, and so this is not a review. This Brit, like the titular main character, came of age in Sacramento.
Sure, my story is different: I went to Sac High (mentioned in the film only as the place where Lady Bird's brother witnessed a stabbing, so triggering her parents' decision to send her to Catholic school). I arrived in Sacramento twenty years before the 2002 setting of the movie. And far from living with my family, I was five thousand miles from them, living with Californian host parents as an exchange student. While Lady Bird tests her incipient adulthood in her home city, most of my teenage wildness had already taken place in England. Now, I was in search of something else. But what? I wasn't sure.
I was starry-eyed but not stupid when I applied to go on exchange to America. "Where would you like to go?" asked the British interviewer. "Ohio," I said without hesitation. He gave me a curious look. "Why Ohio?"
I had thought it through: "Because that's the real America," I said. "The heartland."
"Is there anywhere you don't want to go?" he asked. Again, no hesitation. "California," I said. "They're so superficial."
The compromise, of course, is that I was sent to the city that the character of Lady Bird shrewdly describes as California's Midwest. And there, I found what I had what I had been looking for, without even knowing it: Sacramento.
Few of the people I met in the city, and especially teens, could understand my enthusiasm, flattered though they were because all their lives, they had believed Sacramento to be a "cow town", its chief attraction its position halfway between San Francisco (the real city) and the Sierra Nevada mountains. None of that mattered to me. For me, Sacramento was instant acceptance and understanding, as if this community had been waiting for me my entire life.
I had never felt quite that way about anywhere except my Scottish hometown, nor have I since. My family had left Dundee when I was four, for the "New Town" of Stevenage, the older part of which inspired "Balesworth" in my books. "New Stevenage", built as a sadly unsatisfying postwar working-class utopia had been a lonely place for me as a child: Not truly working class, not a Cockney descended from Londoners bombed from their homes, I was keenly aware that I didn't fit in, even among my playmates and nominal friends. This changed, happily, when I started my secondary school and met my wonderfully diverse group of best friends at the age of 11. Of Welsh, Indian, German, Scottish, and Norman English ancestry, my group was united by its middle class values, or, in my case, aspiration to them. The "Balesworth" parts of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When owe much to these friends and a couple of memorable adults, for they played Verity and Mrs. Devenish to my time-traveler Hannah and evacuee Eric.
But nothing compared with what I encountered now, at 16 years old. From the very first day in Sacramento, my life was absurdly happy. Wrapped in the huge blue skies and blazing heat of the Sacramento Valley, I lived a movie, cast not only with teenagers happy to include me in their lives, but with diverse, principled, and kind adult characters who liked me as they found me, and told me so. There are so many more than I can mention. My journalism teacher, an extroverted Japanese-American woman with an acerbic sense of humor, set about nurturing my interest in newspaper work, even quietly entering my weekly column into a state contest, in which it took first place. The kindly vice-principal tolerated the small Brit charging into his office every day to tell him of her latest idea or adventure. The retired neighbor, who took me to lunch with his World War II veteran buddies, and introduced me to his friend, an English war bride recently widowed after a long and happy marriage to a vet who had a lifelong obsession with Churchill. These people all expanded my historical awareness of America beyond my own generation.
They were a demonstrative lot, these Sacramentans, a revelation to someone who grew up in the emotionally austere Britain of the 70s. Theirs was a vastly different culture, but one in which I felt as though I fit perfectly. Thus the movie scenes of Lady Bird with wise and caring adults, even her friend's grandma whom she had just met, resonated fiercely with me.
I returned to England at the end of my year full of purpose and confidence. I would come back later to my beloved Sacramento for college, probably not the wisest decision intellectually, but a good one personally. I spent a few years enjoying 15 minutes of fame as a beg-a-thon host for the local PBS station, edited the campus newspaper, launched Doctor Who fever in Sacramento as one of the first members of the local fan club. I became a local celebrity, Sacramento's own Brit, even mentioned occasionally by a Sacramento Bee columnist. And then, still in my early twenties, I left Sacramento again, this time for good, in pursuit of dreams that my beloved city could not fulfill.
The Sacramento slide show through which the movie flits briefly but lovingly is full of places laden with meaning for me, a reminder of how much time has passed since that bucolic period in my life : Cookie's Drive-In, a burger joint in a shack near the levee bearing the railroad track at the top of H Street; The Tower Theatre (home of real butter on the popcorn, and once the home also of Tower Records, one of the city's few claims to international fame, and a favorite hangout, along with the less well-remembered Tower Books.)
But the movie's national success astonishes and delights me: The city is not remarkable to the uninitiated, and I have often said that Sacramento is a lovely place to live, you just wouldn't want to visit. I suppose it stands for every hometown that a young person has longed to leave behind, and hated to leave. But Greta Gerwig also writes a love letter to Sacramento that I would happily co-sign.
In the end, it was the people who made Sacramento the most magical place of my life. I saw Lady Bird the day after I returned from a visit "home" (where even the vice-principal and his wife, at 86, are still happy to see me), and the day before I had a delightful lunch in Atlanta with an old Sac State professor I hadn't spoken with in thirty years. The charm of the city that made me was and remains fresh in my mind, invisible to outsiders but warmly carried on in the lives of all who have known what it means to be from Sacramento. How thrilling to know that I am not alone in my love for the city, or in my nostalgia and regret.
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Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com