Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Tour of my Childhood Home in the Berkeley Hills

I grew up in this house in the Berkeley Hills. I'd always heard it said that our house was "built in 1906 by an eccentric San Francisco judge," but I never really knew what that meant until I left Berkeley and its distinctive old Craftsman style houses and went to college in Southern California, where something called the "ranch style home" prevailed.

Tom was normal because he grew up in a ranch style house. But me? I grew up in a house that had a ball room and a sun porch and a fresh air pantry. It was downright weird to the rest of the world (or maybe just the rest of California), but to me it was home -- and I miss it greatly, even now.

Hundreds of aged red brick steps led from Tunnel Road, through our front garden (a holly tree, a Japanese garden, a bay laurel tree, and paths winding this way and that) and up to the front door -- or rather, the outside front door, which led to the sun porch. The real front door, the one inside the sun porch, was three times as wide as I was lying down flat. Only guests were allowed to use the front entrance. Kids were required to use the rickety wood back steps which led unceremoniously to the narrow door which led into the kitchen.

Let's say that you've come to visit my childhood home. Let's just say.

You're obviously a guest, so you're allowed to approach from front steps and ring the doorbell at the outside front door. You could have come into the front porch and rung the doorbell to the house itself but, like everyone else, you're not sure of the proper etiquette with such things, so you ring the outside doorbell.

I fly down the staircase -- because I'm eight and excited that you're coming to visit me. I answer the door, throw my arms around your waist and invite you in.

The first room you stand in is the large, square entry hall. The carpet is dark burgundy red. To your right, just to the side of the sliding glass doors which disappear into the wall when open (as they are now) is my favorite brass heater register. I have spent many hours laying on my tummy with my feet against the metal bars as the heat warms all of me. There's one of these in every room, but this one's my favorite -- probably because it's in the middle of everything and when I warm myself here, I can know exactly who's coming and going. Or which adults are coming and going, anyway.

The "big living room" is just beyond the sliding glass doors. It's by far the largest room in the house, stretching all the way from the front sun porch to the outside back walkway. A majestic marble (no, maybe porcelain or maybe something else completely... white and cold and hard, like a stone) fireplace occupies the back wall, between two windows (that's Mom and me in front of the fireplace, circa 1958). Directly across from the sliding glass doors is a huge picture window and on the wall opposite the fireplace there are French doors leading into the sun porch. I don't think I ever saw those door open, though -- not in the entire 12 years I lived in that house. Between the large window and the French doors sat our piano, the same piano that sits in my home now -- the same one my son plays almost daily. That's me playing (well, tinkering on) the piano when I was about ten.)

On the other side of the entry way is the dining room, with our big mahogany dining table which occupies almost the entire room. Except for eight large white overstuffed dining chairs, there's no other furniture in the room. There is, however, a built in hutch and cabinet. Below waist level (grown-up waists, not mine) are six drawers, three on each side. Above the drawers is an alcove with a mirror on the back wall, and above the alcove are cabinets with glass doors, where we kept our white Rosenthal dishes -- the same dishes that are now packed into boxes in our garage. The ceiling of the dining room boasted a decorative sconce (?) which dipped about eight inches into the room and lined the ceiling in a square pattern. A large picture window overlooked the brick staircase leading to the front door and through this window we could see visitors as they rang the "first" front doorbell!

Next to the dining room is the "little living room" which is... well, a smaller living room -- probably more of a family room. If we'd owned a TV, it likely would have been in this room. But we didn't own a TV. Instead, the built-in book cases, one on each side of another large picture window, were filled with books, old leather books with gold engraved covers, parchment pages and a musty smell, even then. The front of the little living room faced the street and on that side of the room was one huge floor-to-ceiling window. I remember it being curved, but I believe my memory fails me; what was curved, I think, was my brother's perfectly round mattress that occupied that space in the year just before we moved, when he lived in that room for a reason that I can't make sense of, even today!

Through a small door from the little living room, we access the "maid's quarters" which consists of a bathroom with a free-standing bear claw bathtub (which is where I learned to love baths, when my dear friend Kristin lived here-- and no, she wasn't a maid!), a small hallway, and a bedroom. All of this is separated by another door from...

The kitchen. Our kitchen was on the dark side of the house, with one small window that looked onto a dark pathway. I remember three things about the kitchen: the walk-in pantry with the cabinet which had a latched door and inside had a screened wall which allowed air from outside into the closet! We kept apples on the bottom shelf, but I can't remember what we kept on the other shelves. I could only reach the closet by jumping up on the counter on which it sat -- and I can, to this day, hear the sound of my foot hitting the lower cabinets and my knee landing on the counter!

I also remember our huge (or did it just seem that way?) porcelain sink. I'm sure my memory plays tricks on me, but I swear that sink was two or three feet wide! Next to the sink were three drawers. Rats always found their way into the top drawer where we kept our bread and I recall this being a problem for as long as we owned that house!

The house I grew up in had two staircases leading upstairs -- the dark, narrow "back staircase," which was made of unfinished wood and sat just outside the door from the kitchen to the dining room, and the "main staircase," the beautiful majestic one, which was the main feature of the entry way. The main staircase had a banister that was, of course, perfect for sliding -- but only when parents weren't home or not around!

Leading down from the entry hall was yet another staircase. It led to the basement, the sub-basement, and the boiler room where a huge round heater with FIRE in it occupied the entire room! Emanating from the boiler were eight large round pipes, making the whole thing look (to a kid, anyway) like a huge spider. Also in the basement was an entire apartment with a kitchen and bedroom... but it was all dominated by the massive boiler spider -- which our boarder painted all sorts of bright psychedelic colors, appropriately enough, sometime around... oh, 1967!

Most of the basement, however, consisted of the ballroom. When I was very young, I actually thought that all houses in America had ballrooms! My parents had costume parties in the ballroom, with people dressed as clowns and jesters and knights milling their way around the room or seated on the bench that was built into the wall and circumvented the entire room. There was a fireplace in the ballroom, too, and although my memory seems to recall it being massively huge, I have a feeling it was of average size, but blown out of proportion by a child's memory of what was certainly a massively large space. In later years, my parents rented out the ballroom to another boarder, so I rarely had a chance to see it since I was very young, and surely my memory has played tricks on me!

It's late now, so our tour will be continued tomorrow when we'll head upstairs and visit my bedroom with the attached porch from where I had a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I'll also show you the "angry bedroom" and the ping-pong/train room -- another room I was sure everyone had!

Till then!

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blackcrag said...

My parents live in a rancher. As part of my father's continuous home projects, he enclosed the fornt proch with its brick planter, tiled the cement floor, and added a "front front door".

Though that door is never locked, no one ever comes in, but rings the outer doorbell (and not the inner doorbell, by the real front door) and stand on the top cement step waiting for someone to answer the door.

I, however, do not throw my arms around anyone when I answer the door.

I think it is cool you had a ballroom. Can you waltz? Foxtrot? Tango?

Jen said...

My sister lived on Tunnel Road in the early 70s! And her house was very similar to the one you described. I believe 6 or 8 students rented the house together, though.

Shriyansi said...

What a wonderful home... though I can't tell (and neither can you!) where your imagination ends and reality begins! ;)

It made me think though, about all the houses I've lived in (22 I think!) and I realised that I have these beautifully romanticised memories about nearly all of them! What a wonderful surprise it is, when you realise that your memory creates more beauty and poetry than the reality that existed... I think I like my mind a little more now, thanks to you!!

Anonymous said...

You grew up in a castle! Does that mean you are a real princess???

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