By Robin Gerber
These are the stories of three young women and their mothers. These daughters left Ojai, where they were born and raised, for the larger world. But they returned, each for their own reason and in their own way. Each of them found what they were looking for by coming back to the place where they grew up. As Robert Frost said, ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ For these women, home is Ojai.
BETH BURKE & CATHY ZACHER
Beth Burke’s strong beauty shines through her big quick smile, and serious brown eyes. She’s the oldest of three girls, all born at Ojai hospital. Beth, born in 1978, went to Topa Topa Elementary, then San Antonio school, Matilija and Nordhoff. All of her grandparents were Ventura High School graduates.
“I thought my cousins and I would always live in the same town,” Beth says, “and we’d have kids together and all that, but in high school, my eyes started getting bigger every time I went to a big city like L.A. or San Francisco. I thought, ‘Oh man, it would be really cool to live in a big city.’’’
Beth’s mom, Cathy Zacher, winces at the memory. She’s a quiet, contained woman, whose intense love of her daughter can be felt in every word. “Beth was my most adventurous child. She left Ojai the weekend after she graduated from Nordhoff for a month in Mexico, and never lived here after that, other than summers during college.”
It would take twenty years, and a tragedy to bring Beth home again.
Beth went to college at her mother’s alma mater, UCLA. By her third year, Beth was ready to go to Madrid for the whole year. “I was so excited for her,” Cathy remembers, “but it was hard. We didn’t see her from August to July. We talked on Sunday mornings but if her call came late, I was frightened. I’d never been to Spain. I didn’t know what might happen there.”
Beth missed her family but loved her year away. After graduation she moved to San Francisco for eight years, then on to get a Master of Social Work degree from Smith College, where she had an internship in the Bronx. She savored everything New York had to offer, and soon fell in love with Chris, an aspiring actor.
“I had guilty feelings at times,” Beth remembers. “I thought about whether I should move back home, but Chris and my careers were in New York. I was at Mt. Sinai Hospital doing clinical social work, and specializing in treating transgender and gender non-binary youth. It was fascinating.”
After five years, Chris and Beth got married, and in 2015, their daughter was born. “Now we’re talking hard,” Cathy says. “We wanted to be with our first grandchild.”
Life in New York was hard for Beth, too. She went back to work after three months, and Chris became the primary caretaker. They had a lot of friends where they lived in Brooklyn, but their apartment was a tiny walkup, everything was expensive, and between work and the baby they were exhausted.
Then, after two-and-a-half years, Beth was pregnant again. Some of their friends had moved, weakening their support system. Beth and Chris talked about moving to Ojai, but Beth’s pregnancy, and the needs of a toddler made moving seem too hard. A sudden, terrible heartbreak changed their plans.
“I had a miscarriage,” Beth says. “It was medically complicated, and happened just before Christmas, and when Chris had hand surgery.” Beth needed care. She needed consoling. She needed her mother.
Through the sadness and loss, Beth realized what she and Chris had to do. Chris, who had grown up in a small town in Illinois, agreed. It was time to move to Ojai. “It was so hard to be away from my mom after I lost the baby,” Beth remembers. “I felt so far from her, from my family, from home. I needed my mom for myself, and for my daughter.”
Beth, Chris and their daughter now live with Beth’s parents in Oak View. Beth landed a great job at Casa Pacifica helping at-risk kids, and Chris is a trainer at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club. “Her father and I were so elated,” Cathy says. “They’re such good parents. What a joy, truly what a joy. It’s heaven to have them in our home. We eat dinner together. Chris is a great cook, and so is my husband. We are so darn lucky, I don’t have words for it.”
Beth offers that big grin. “I’m not sorry I left, but I’m so glad to be home.”
LILLY MCDOWELL WALTON & MARY STEENBURGEN
Lilly McDowell Walton, an ethereal, large-eyed beauty, talks about her Ojai childhood with thoughtful reticence. Growing up in an old farmhouse on Reeves road, surrounded by the nurturing of an Oak Grove school education, she has great memories, including meeting one of her dearest friends at pre-school in the early 1980s. “I loved the emphasis on outdoor education.” Lilly says, “Making pancakes from acorns, foraging, and camping trips. I’m still super-grounded by hikes and nature.”
Lilly’s parents’, Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell, divorced when she was nine years old. It was a time when Mary appreciated that “Ojai was a nurturing, lovely, tender valley.” Then Mary fell in love with Ted Danson, who also was divorced, and lived in Los Angeles with his two daughters.
Lilly was twelve the first time she met Ted’s daughter Kate, who was her age. Lilly was apprehensive about how they would get along. She smiles through tears, remembering that day. “It was amazing. We had the same music, the same sneakers, even the same underwear. It felt like the Parent Trap.” Mary smiles, too. “Ted and I had a huge love, and we had in common that we adored our kids, and were open to adoring each other’s kids. Some of it is just magic and instant connection.”
When Lilly was fifteen, Mary made the decision to move in with Ted in L.A. “It was hard, and exciting,” Lilly remembers. “I straddled two worlds, desperately missing my Ojai friends. But it made going to college easier.”
Lilly went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Mary remembers crying when she went into Lilly’s room at home, but she “wanted her to do whatever would make her heart sing.”
From Wesleyan, Lilly went to New York City to study acting with Mary’s teacher, the legendary William Esper. “I worked in a restaurant,” Lilly says, “took classes, auditioned, but the winters were a battle against the negative wind-chill factor.” One day when she was home in L.A., Lilly told Ted how hard it was in New York. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come back? It’ll be OK,’” Lilly remembers. “I was worried about my lease, and my job, but I realized that he was right.”
Back in L.A., Lilly kept auditioning, and made some small films, but she started to feel that acting wasn’t the right fit. “It didn’t bring me joy,” she says, “and I felt like I was swimming upstream. I like structure and routine.” Mary laughs, “Lilly was good at acting, but she didn’t like the craziness of getting to the work. Acting is insane-making, and she didn’t have the screw loose.”
Lilly had also fallen in love with Charlie, a paramedic on his way to becoming a therapist. With Ted officiating, and Malcolm walking her down the aisle, Lilly got married.
Soon, she and Charlie were living in Venice, with a baby and a toddler. “Life was so much harder in L.A. with two kids,” Lilly recalls. “It was a forty-five minute drive to get to gymnastics. The stress level was so high. Charlie was studying at Pacifica, so we’d stay at Mom’s house in Ojai, and I’d feel so much better. I kept thinking, ‘why don’t we live in our happy place?’”
One day, a dear friend who had moved to Ojai from L.A. called Lilly and said she’d found the perfect house for her. Lilly and her family are now comfortably relocated with a yard adjoining her friend’s. Lilly says, “I love motherhood, even though sometimes our house is crazy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Mary adds, “I’ve only had two years of non-Ojai living in thirty-six years. Now I have my grandkids here, and they’re like all the ice-cream you can eat.”
After working at Rooms and Gardens, Mary’s former home store in L.A., Lilly discovered an interest and talent for interior design. Mother and daughter even designed a line of French-inspired candles. Now, Lilly’s starting “Lilly Walton Design” (online at lillywalton.com) in Ojai, the place she’s happy to call home again.
JEN KEELER & LIZ OTTERBEIN
Jen Keeler is the ideal model for her Ojai hair salon Rise. She has a ready, million-watt smile and a picture-perfect blond cut. She’s come a long way from her first four years growing up on a commune in a remote part of France and riding a donkey to school.
Jen’s mother, Liz Otterbein, is a free-spirited French woman who married a skier from Corona del Mar. They left France, and landed in Ojai with four-year-old Jen, who only spoke French. She started at Oak Grove School, where her father became the French teacher and athletic director.
After graduating in 1998, Jen headed to Santa Barbara City College. She was a talented gymnast with big dreams that were ended after a terrible car accident. She tried dance. She tried acting, and got a part in a college play, “Greater Tuna.” A cute guy named Joel played the lead, and Jen played a little boy with an imaginary puppy. “I was eighteen,” she says, “and I’d accidentally found the man I would marry.”
Jen tried a move from SBCC to University of California at Santa Cruz. She found it cold and gray, with huge classes. She missed Joel, so she moved back to Santa Barbara and took a job at De Cut hair salon. Jen had dreams of being an actress, but the salon owner, Hans, had other ideas. He told Jen that she would make a great stylist.
Jen realized that she had liked cutting hair since she was eleven-years-old. She saw how much joy the stylists were getting from making the customers happy. “I thought, there was something to it,” Jen remembers.
When Joel moved to Long Beach for a film production degree, Jen followed and enrolled in beauty school. “I was still convinced I could be an actress,” Jen remembers, “but my acting teachers had always said ‘this has to be the only thing you could fathom doing. If there’s anything else you can imagine doing, then do it,’ and I started imagining doing hair. I loved beauty school.”
Jen got hired at a fancy salon on Melrose Place, where many celebrities came for hair cuts. She learned a lot from the stylists, but she didn’t feel like it was her “true vibe.” Jen says, “I wanted to do regular people’s hair.”
Jen and Joel lived in North Hollywood for seven years. “We loved the music scene,” Jen remembers, “and the restaurants, and the fact that there was always so much to do. Then we had our first baby girl, Charlotte.”
Having a baby made Jen realize all the things that she didn’t like about Los Angeles. “The traffic, the air quality, the seemingly endless power lines everywhere. I remember having my new baby in the stroller and realizing that the only place I could walk to with her was Target! There were no parks nearby, or anywhere I could take her and feel safe.”
Weekend trips to Ojai to visit Jen’s mom, Liz, were a stark contrast to life in the City. “I could walk to so many places,” Jen says. “Hike with Charlotte. Take her to the park. The air smelled so good. And all around I just felt so much more at peace. And my parents were here to help out with the baby.” Jen and Joel started to talk about moving.
There was also a deeper reason that drew Jen back to Ojai. Liz had been a psychiatric nurse at Hillmont Psychiatric Hospital. In 2010, she and two other nurses were brutally assaulted by a patient. Jen’s baby had just been born. “Having a new baby to focus on was a blessing,” Jen says. “My mom often says that she feels like Charlotte saved her.”
After the assault, Liz took the train to L.A. two days each week to help with the baby. “I realized that I needed my mom,” Jen says, “and my mom needed me, and my baby.” Later, Liz wrote a book about her work with psychiatric patients, including the one who ended her career. “That’s the only chapter I haven’t been able to read yet,” Jen says.
Jen and Joel found a home in Ojai, and soon they had their daughter Josephine. “My girls are seven and nine now, and best friends,” Jen laughs. “It’s an honor to be their mama.” Jen recently got another honor. She was voted best hair stylist in Ojai for the seventh year in a row. ≈OQ≈