She left us only recently, and already San Mateo has gotten way too leafy.
As I drove through that Bay Area city on the way to my grandmother’s memorial service this month, the bushes off Hillsdale Boulevard were growing far bushier than they once dared. The trees along Alameda de las Pulgas flaunted branches that hung much too low. Flowers breathed too easily.
Frances Mathews, who passed away a few months short of her 100th birthday, was generous and unthreatening – in almost every respect. She was a loving wife, beloved mother, popular schoolteacher, proud UCLA alum, leader of parenting classes, churchgoer, wearer of the color purple, and such a klutz that her grandchildren called her Grandma Oops.
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But, now that she is in a better place outside the reach of California authorities, I can speak frankly: There was a Hyde to this kindly Jekyll.
Grandma Oops was a harsh pruner, unrepentant about cutting back plants to the nub. If a bushy bush were to appear in her line of vision, she would not let it go untrimmed. It never mattered if the plants were hers or whether she had any legal sanction to prune. As a boy, I was brought along on pruning raids on Laurel Elementary and Abbott Middle schools, church gardens, street trees and countless private homes.
The only other Bay Area figure who ever came close to matching her vigilante’s passion for mowing down living things was Harold Francis “Dirty Harry” Callahan, the cinematic San Francisco cop played by Clint Eastwood.
At my grandmother’s memorial service, her friend, the Rev. Kibbie Ruth, observed that pruning was spiritual for my grandmother, a way to get to the core of life. Because, as Grandma Oops once wrote me, “if you don’t prune, you can never really grow like you should.” And she erred on the side of pruning more rather than less. Relatives from Los Gatos to Long Beach cried that she had reduced beloved plants to their stubs.
She was unapologetic – and for a reason that should resonate statewide. Cutting back – whether your target is a plant or a government program – is so extremely difficult that one must be a pruning extremist.
California could sure use more of that extremism. Hollywood is overgrown with TV shows we never have time to watch. Silicon Valley is a jungle jammed with pointless startups. Warehouses across our state have been repurposed as storage facilities for all the things we won’t throw away.
In Sacramento, our state Legislature adds hundreds of new laws a year, and rarely eliminates old ones. Our budgets are incomprehensible thickets of formulas. Our state constitution, with all its guarantees, makes thoughtful pruning essentially unconstitutional. Take for example the “California rule,” a guarantee – being challenged in court – that public employees’ pensions can never be reduced in any way.
Lack of pruning can be costly. At the heart of our mounting shortage of housing is regulatory overgrowth that makes construction expensive. And the state’s righteous fight to protect people and programs from the Trump administration may leave little time and space to jettison those pieces of California government we no longer need.
If Grandma Oops is reincarnated, maybe she’ll come back as one of those consultants rich people hire to help them get rid of their stuff. Near the end, I marveled at how she disposed of almost everything in her small house. I wish I had her pruning discipline. Maybe I could simplify our home life – a mad scramble of children’s classes and sports.
In her later years, Grandma Oops expressed frustration that she had lived too long and was hanging on past her prime. I respected her opinion, but I couldn’t agree. Sometimes in a family tree, you get one branch so special that you can hardly bear to see her go.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.