Friday, March 28, 2008

A Tour of my Childhood Home: The Second Story

I’ve been a bad friend. You’ve been waiting all day and night for me at the bottom of the staircase because I promised that I’d be back soon to show you around the upstairs of my childhood home in the Berkeley Hills (the one that was “built by an eccentric judge in 1906”), and then I stood you up. My apologies!

Yesterday was extraordinarily busy because I’ve taken today off work to fly back to the Bay Area (Berkeley, in fact) for the memorial of Beate, our dear family friend who died suddenly last November. In fact, I’m sitting at SeaTac airport as I write this, trying to wrap my head around the fact that it’s snowing outside at the end of March! Weren’t we just planting beautiful Spring flowers in our front yard?! (And damn – the flight is even delayed because we need to be de-iced!)

So now let’s head upstairs.

As we ascend the U-shaped staircase with another big picture window at the half-way landing, I can hear the distinct creak of the wood in very particular places on the staircase – once when I first step on the landing and again about halfway up the second flight of steps. At the far end of the landing is a door that leads to the back staircase, the one from the kitchen area. Eventually my father split this staircase with a wall; the bottom half became a guest closet and the washer and dryer occupied the top half. I don’t remember having any feelings about it either way at the time, but now I shudder to think that he could virtually destroy this distinctly wonderful part of our old Craftsman home!

As we reach the top of the stairs, we find ourselves in a wide hall that runs the width of the house. On the left end of the hall are two doors, one leading to my parents’ bedroom and one leading to what became known as “the angry bedroom.” I’ll let you guess how it got that name! The two bedrooms are separated by very tall floor-to-ceiling double doors made of beautifully carved wood. I remember my dad being excited about finding these doors, but I have no recollection of him tearing down the wall between the two rooms or installing the beautiful doors.

I know the large closet of my parents’ bedroom well because this is where I did two things in secret: I’d “steal” dry spaghetti noodles from the kitchen and bring them up to this closet to eat them. (Someday I’ll write a post about my parents’ strict rules about food and why I felt the need to sneak dry spaghetti noodles.) I also came here to sneak a look at the sealskin after-ski boots I was going to get for my tenth birthday. I had begged for them and couldn’t resist “checking” whether my request had been granted. I remember concentrating very hard on acting surprised when they were finally given to me, and I wished and wished that I hadn’t ruined my own birthday surprise.

There are two bedrooms off the hall near the top of the steps. The one straight across from the top of the steps was mine. The best thing about this room was the small square porch that was connected to it through a narrow glass door with a purple glass handle. From this porch we could see the Golden Gate Bridge which sat directly across from our house, and behind which the sun set in a concert of reds and oranges to match the deep orange of the bridge itself. In addition to the Golden Gate Bridge, we had a glorious view of the Bay Bridge and we could have seen the San Mateo Bridge if some of the neighbor’s trees had been shorter or sparser. I loved my room and I took great care to fill it with as much pink as I could. Even my clock, which came from Germany and had a different wooden animal for each number, had a light pink background.

My brother’s room was next to mine, much darker and with nothing as cool as a porch. At one point I shared this room with him (though I can’t remember why) and my father built a wall out of pegboard so we’d each have our own space. My most poignant memory of my brother’s room involved his closet, into which I’d sneak early in the morning when I was in fifth grade. (What was it with me and closets?!) I had just begun sprouting breasts and decided that I definitely didn’t want them – and I especially didn’t want to wear that awful bra thing that could be noticed under my white blouse! So I’d sneak into my brother’s room while he slept and took not one, but TWO t-shirts out of the built-in drawers in his closet. No one could see my bra strap when I wore boys’ t-shirts. I don’t know why I so resisted developing a womanly figure. My daughters certainly welcomed it, as did all their friends, but when I was their age I was mortified at the fact that I was developing breasts and I wanted nothing more than to be completely flat again.

At my brother’s room, the wide hall narrowed into a smaller, darker hall. The tiled bathroom with the old-fashioned pedestal sink was on the right. One night, around the time that I was sneaking my brother’s t-shirts, I was taking my evening bath. My bath had always been my refuge (still is), and on this particular evening I had decided to run the water, submerge by head, and sing the newest Herman’s Hermits song, Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. I was lost in my own world, singing my little head off, when I hear a loud CRASH. I bolted up in the tub, splashing water everywhere, and was absolutely mortified to see my father bolting through the bathroom door – and by “through,” I mean through the middle panel; the door itself was still closed and locked in the frame! It seems that Dad had been knocking and knocking and, unable to hear my singing above the pouring water, he thought I was drowning! So there I was, stark naked in front of my father, who had just ruined the bathroom door (he later replaced only the center panel with harvest gold plastic!), and who was both furious and relieved.

At the end of the narrow hall on the right was a teeny-tiny room which belonged to my teeny-tiny brother, whom we called “Tootsie.” This room was barely big enough for a bed and I’m quite certain that it was never meant to be a bedroom at all. It, too, had a closet – one that was so narrow that even a slim ten-year-old had to slide in sideways in order to stand in it. The room was L-shaped, with an alcove that could almost (almost!) be hidden in. The light switch in this room was higher than in the others, and I had to stand on my tippie-toes to reach it.

At the end of this narrow hall was a glass door leading to the “ping-pong” room – even though we had a model railroad and not a ping-pong table in it. This room had full panels of windows on three sides, and was probably more a sun porch than either a ping-pong or a train room! It wasn’t heated due to all the windows, so in the winter it was very cold and in the summer it got very hot. My parents had found old fashioned classroom desks somewhere – the kind with bench seat attached to the front of each desk – and we lined these up in the ping-pong room and played school. Of course, I was usually the teacher and my little brother was usually the unruly student. Or my biggest brother was the teacher and the three of us siblings were his unruly students!

I think Shryiansi, my dear new friend/co-worker in India, who left a comment on my first post about my childhood house, saying we tend to remember things as grander and more spectacular than they actually are, is probably right. The livingroom might actually not have been as big as a jet hanger and kitchen sink probably was no wider than the average sink of the time. But in my memory, this house is grander than the grandest house on any historic register.

I’ve lived in many different houses since my childhood – split-level, Mediterranean, brand-new, and even ranch style – but none of them compare to the happiest home of them all, our Craftsman home in the Berkeley Hills that was built by an eccentric judge in 1906.

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