California holds me. Berkeley holds me. I arrived there at the age of four and went to Thousands Oaks Elementary School for years, and then to the Franklin Elementary School when integration began, for one. My family lived in three houses. These were large, rambling, chilly homes. The first was oppressively dark: a rental. It rested on a sharp hill on the Arlington. The second was on the flat section of Yosemite Road. Yosemite Road was and is flanked on each end by small parks with rocks and trees. I climbed both often. We lived there for several years. Our final and last house was on Thousand Oaks. This house was the largest and most ominous of all three; it resembled a castle, and it had a long spire of a staircase with small stained glass windows. When we first purchased this house, there was an electric chair attached to the banister of the stair well. It was a reminder of a disabled inhabitant of the past. The slow and vibrating movement of the electric chair was creepy. The front lawn dipped steeply down to the house. There were many dark corners inside and out. It was not a place in which I felt safe.
What drew my parents to purchase the house on Thousand Oaks was the view. From the living room and my parents’ bedroom (directly above) there was and is a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay.
Mine was not a happy childhood and this house, in particular, is emblematic of that dark time. The structure contained all the unappealing-to-a-child drama of the 1960s: wild parties, ranting political activists, angry teenagers, drugs, and one helluva miserable parental marriage. From this mess, I retreated to my bedroom and menagerie of animals: birds, turtles, fish, dog, and Bitty the-tabby-cat.
When I drive through Berkeley and the Bay Area, the watery air fills my lungs with memories of my father and mother, and of these not-so-happy, yet compelling memories. Each sight, smell, and touch reminds me of something so viscerally specific that my body literally pauses in a chemically definitive way as I encounter familiar sights and locations. I sense the salty fog in my chest and recall my father driving past the large green road signs on the freeway, the trash sculptures near the water on the bay (no longer standing), the sidewalks with their cracks and uplifted cement, the schools and parks, the stones and knotty trees. I think the same thoughts about the cracks in my mother’s back as I step on crooked sidewalks and suck on the sour grasses.
So it is as if I’m whisked back into the 1960s.
This time, my daughter is with me. She’s twelve and old enough to (somewhat) enjoy a trip down the memory lane. It is true, Olivia prefers the idea of Disneyland, or at least a San Francisco cable car, but I tell her this is so much better. My story is part of a very important point in the American cultural past. I’m her mother and not a school textbook. So it is real. My life as a child took place when the world was shaking apart. Two miles (or less) from my houses tear gas exploded and the National Guard bombarded the streets. Timothy Leary spoke and they all took acid. Sit-ins, marches, live concerts, Gestalt Therapy, the taking over of university buildings, free love, flower power. Heroes and angels were assassinated and minor heroes were assaulted. It was a time of revolution, of death, of chemicals formerly uknown.
It was no place for a child.
I wanted to show my daughter the old houses I lived in. We drive past the first two uneventfully, but it is the last one that had the most dramatic impact on me--the huge house on Thousand Oaks that haunts me to this day. I have been there a few times over the years, just to look. The man who purchased it from my father was an ornery professor who loved to torture my brother and me (on previous visits) with my father’s foolish act of selling this house for $60,000 in 1969. My dad sold it then for a small profit and with this profit took the family on a romp through France and Israel for three years.
It is a huge house on Thousand Oaks. It has a spectacular view of the bay and the bridges and San Francisco. It is in a very swanky part of Berkeley. The old professor whose name I don’t know, loved to recount (on my last visit) how the grassy area outside of the window and door from the lowest floor—outside my brother’s past room in the basement, smelled badly of urine for years. My brother had many parties down there, unbeknownst (or perhaps known) to my parents. There was no bathroom in the basement, and my dad, who looked like a hell’s angel, scared the teenagers, so they never came upstairs. The stoned and high teenagers must have used the backyard as their restroom. This was an unsavory memory for me—-to say the least. Between the sticking it to me about the great financial loss we had suffered as a result of my father selling the house (my mother always said we should have rented it out instead), and the stench of bodily waste left behind, I was not excited at the idea of running into the owner. Still, I wanted my daughter to see this unique and formidable piece of my past.
This past week, however, when my daughter and I stop by, all signs of the gloating old man are gone. The house has been remodeled and the finishing touches are now complete. A few men put up some shelves in an open garage. There is a small trim sign advertising the landscape designer. The glorious house looks better than ever. I point to the windows of my old bedroom and tell my daughter it was once mine. I ask one of the men moving a few things around in the garage if the house belongs to him. He says, yes. I tell him I grew up there. He smiles and asks, “Would you like to come inside and look around?” “Really?” I exclaim gleefully. “Really?”
The basic structure of the rooms remains the same, but the stucco walls are freshly restored—and smooth, wooden mission trim has been added here and there to all doorframes and hall entrances. The floors are impeccably sanded and stained. There are new and built-in cabinets throughout. Everything is stunning, simple, clean and spare. But it remains my house, exactly as I remember it. Exactly. I enter through the kitchen. There is the breakfast nook where we ate steak and lamb chops and I remember my mother looking straight at my brother and asking “did you drop acid tonight?” (this resulted in my father chasing my brother madly about the house and a lot of screaming), there is the open dining room, there is the living room and the TV room where I watched Dark Shadows every day at three. There is the stunning view of the Bay from the living room picture windows where the Panthers and peace activists hung out while drinking French wine and smoking pot and talking with passion about the Viet Nam War, Communism, civil rights, black power. It is there, in that living room, where I danced/swayed to the Beatles, Cream, Aretha, and Oh Happy Day. Sometimes I managed to squeeze in some Monkeys if my older siblings, who thought the infant band was moronic, were not around.
Upstairs—the rooms are much the same, only cleaner and shinier than I remember, but still so much as they had been. A significant and important difference has taken place—the bathroom that once linked the two childrens’ bedrooms (mine and my sister’s) with doors on each side has been altered. The interconnecting doors have been replaced by solid walls. There is only one entrance to the bathroom now—from the hall—which means that the two bedrooms retain their privacy from each other. If only it had been that way then. I had too easy access to a teenager’s bedroom as a small child. Oh the things I would have been saved from witnessing, if only there had been solid walls between us!
The biggest difference of all rests in the bottom floor. It is no longer a dark and forbidding basement but, instead, a beautiful and completely finished space with wide-open windows, new wooden floors, wide stairs (how I remember nearly falling on the steps of the narrow, dark, musty old one that led into a cement tomb). This new space has a gorgeous family room, playroom, wet bar, and out door terrace with stunning views of San Francisco. Gone is the scary basement with endless dirt crawl spaces, and drugged-out corners where young lives were ruined. It was the darkness, the layers of underground tunnels, that terrified me most of all.
I expected to feel sad and unnerved seeing this house—to be entrapped in difficult and complicated memories. Instead, my last crazy Berkeley house, where physically violent fights between family members erupted daily, where what my daughter would now call “inappropriate” adult behavior took place (more than I care to delve into now)—is now a clean, bright, happy, well designed place.
A truly shameful amount of money has been sunk into the immense structure. Probably, a small nation of starving children could be fed, housed and educated with the money this young couple has spent to buy and renovate this posh Berkeley house.
I shouldn’t be happy to walk in such a gloriously opulent place, but I am.
Although I am not one to covet wealth and am not wealthy myself, money, in this particular case, has cleaned up an important of my past. I don’t even know the last names of these people. Yet they have healed me in some profound way. The years, hard work, and dollars spent to restore my family’s former home have paid off.
I have walked back into a frightening time, and it doesn't scare me anymore. The dark corners are gone.
What a gothic tale!