I come from . . . two other people. They met when the guy who would become my dad opened the door of his apartment on Sacramento Street, across from Lafayette Park and met the woman who would become my mom, a girl from home. They were married six weeks later by the Justice of the Peace and moved into a room in a huge white house on Dolores Street that I walk past slowly when I see it, looking in the windows from the sidewalk, wondering about how they lived. Did they have a private bathroom and kitchen? What was their furniture like? How far did they walk and ride to work? They were so excited the day they were married that they forgot their key and found themselves locked out. My future dad shimmied up the drainpipe to break into their new place through the window. I have forgotten which window it was, so I’ve decided it’s the pretty one on the east side.
The babies came, four of them in six years, delivered by the same doctor at the hospital on Parnassus Avenue. I was the second one and the only girl.
By the time I had two little brothers, we lived across the street from an apricot orchard on South White Road, around the corner from Holly Oak Preschool and Kindergarten on Rossmore Way. My mother let me walk alone once, because I asked, supposedly. I saw her peeking and watching me and then dashing so I wouldn’t see her and would think I was a big girl.
We made marker designs on paper plates that were turned into melamine plates that I still have in my camping box. I liked Nap time and Blocks time but I didn’t like Scotty. He was the only other kid in class besides me without dark hair and beautiful olive skin and dark eyes. We were both light-skinned and freckly and he drooled, so I was embarrassed for us.
Before I finished Kindergarten, we packed up a U-Haul and a massive, leaf-green Dodge van and moved to a tiny farmhouse on Rural Route 2. We became who we were in that place.
There was a drawer full of books underneath the bedroom closet. My brother sat me down in front of it that first year when I was still four, gave me all his patient attention, and taught me to read. We were put in hats, gloves, coats and two to a bed one night when there was no heat. We used the clothesline in the back to stage circuses and the apricot tree was my playhouse. My parents raised Samoyeds and grew all our food. I collected eggs and was chased by turkeys and slid down the barn roof on the hill side of the barn, launching off the edge with makeshift wings to catch air to try to fly. We dug a hole on the side of the hill mostly to China and ran for hours and played cops and robbers on our bikes. We threw rocks at one of our goats that followed us to the bus stop to try to make him go home. I learned to play the piano and I learned to sew and I didn’t learn to cook. The same brother who taught me how to read taught me how to drive a stick shift on the hill and we all stood at the top of the hill and saw the Northern Lights. I dug tunnels in the cool alfalfa in the fields in front of the house and when I was older I hurdled track-team-style over the bales after it was cut and when I was even older I watched cute boys move sprinkler pipe through it.
I went to elementary school on Eagle Road where I reveled in being a good student, ruled the monkey bars and the tetherball courts, loved the smell of the cafeteria and the mimeograph machine, and wanted my own metal push cart with rolls of yards and yards and yards of colored paper.
I went to junior high on McMillan Road where I learned to play volleyball and was called Chicken Legs by the boys and I decorated my locker before it was popular but I couldn’t imagine not decorating it and wished the older boy from church with a locker beside mine would act, just once, like he knew I was alive and that I had a locker beside his and wished my big brother wouldn’t ignore me and was glad that my little brother didn’t. I sang in the choir and wasn’t allowed to accompany on the piano because I didn’t play well enough and got bloody noses and wouldn’t wear my glasses because I thought I wasn’t pretty when I wore them. I got to start going to church dances and went to one in a church building also on McMillan Road where I saw the boy who would become the man I married. I didn’t understand the hype from the other girls because he was wearing a yellow V-neck sweater and I was unimpressed.
I went to high school on West Pine Avenue and I was bad at math and dropped out of chemistry and took fantasy literature so I didn’t learn much, but I loved civics and drafting and my history teacher who was also my volleyball coach because he held me accountable and I liked the way he taught and he took us seriously. I loved my volleyball team because we played hard and practiced harder and sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot in the locker room together and when we traveled. I met Leif, the boy in the yellow V-neck sweater, who became the man I married, but I didn’t understand the hype from the other girls because he hung out with the popular kids and sang in the jazz choir and he had a cigarette hole in his shirt and he leaned over my desk to get my answers which made me mad because I knew he was smarter than me. He would walk up behind me outside and put his face into my massive hair and I would swat him away. If I was in the library and he came into the library, I left. If I was on the grass talking with my friends he found his way onto the grass to talk with my friends. He knew all my friends and all my friends loved him. He got the combination to my locker and put his books in it. He was relentless. He was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
When my mom and dad couldn’t tolerate any more time together, or something like that, I went with my mom to Colt Drive and I didn’t like it there. The latitude of the place felt odd and the hollow core doors felt cheap compared to the tiny farmhouse on Rural Route 2. I splatter painted my room and watched my mother deal with angry teenagers and then load up another U-Haul and, with two months left of my high school experience, we drove back the way the first U-Haul and the green Dodge van had come, to Highland Boulevard and I didn’t like it there either. Someone told me later that I might have liked it if I’d been “in the hills”. I did live in the hills, at the top of the bus route, beside the university. A group of men from the church came to move my piano—a full upright. There were six of them and they were idiots who picked it up and dropped it, shaking the harp and breaking the smoked glass on the front that was never replaced.
My dad never dropped my piano.
My mom remarried and I went with her to Waverly Court where my little brother and I were tasked with clearing the overgrown ivy out of the back. It was so thick that over the course of the summer we uncovered a park bench, fountains and statues, four sheds, and a swing. The doors in the house were hollow core, the carpet was ugly, and there wasn’t enough light in the front from the shade of the Mulberry trees. My mom and I watched ER on Thursday nights but real-life drama happened there. More people than I can count were arrested outside in the cul-de-sac that was also the entrance to the park—their butts parked on our curb while the police lights flashed. Once I came home late at night to digging sounds in the park. My friend and I were sure it was a criminal burying contraband (or a body). One night a car crashed through the freeway wall on the other side of the cul-de-sac and Leif, who was visiting, held the driver’s head together while the ambulance came. Another time it turned out somebody was in the house when I came home, hiding in my closet. They tore the closet door off its rails on the way out while I was in the kitchen. I didn’t care for that house and cared for it even less after my mom died in it.
I went to college on College Oak Drive and studied graphic design and journalism. I made lots of friends at the Institute across the street from the school and I hit a guy on a motorcycle one day when I turned to drive into the parking lot.
I missed Leif so I left mid-semester one year and moved to the place he found for me eight hours away on Rancho Santa Margarita Parkway. A small apartment on a big road where we were excited to have a hand-me-down dining set, a hand-me-down bed, a 12” TV, an unframed poster of Paul Simon’s Graceland, dollar store dishes, and a couch we bought on credit. I met Leif at the firehouse on base during his breaks and we went to the beach after work every Tuesday when he was home. When he wasn’t home, I went, at the designated time, to the phone booths in the basement of the PX to get his calls. We laughed and loved and we made our way and we made a life and we liked it there.
We were on Twin Peaks Drive when we decided to get married and sealed the deal on Walerga Road with Leif’s very angry parents and grandparents in attendance and snapshots of their very angry faces to prove it. Leif’s navigator training took us to Zinfandel Drive where we were able to visit my mom and two of my brothers and Leif stood at the front door on the second floor and shot water balloons with a slingshot at the rabbits in the field across the road. We made our way to Manteo Circle during Leif’s final training where I named the tiniest tree frog in the world, embroidered the top of a baby quilt, and I walked, nine months pregnant, into the Atlantic surf to get close to a school of dolphins.
The babies came, both of them within three years, assisted into the world by the same nurse in the same room at the hospital on West Stewart Drive. They were the best things that had ever happened to me.
From Marguerite Parkway I pushed Zach, the first baby, in a little umbrella stroller, every week, to Medical Center Parkway for the doctor to check his eyes, and pushed him in the little umbrella stroller to the mall on Shops Boulevard because it was somewhere to go. We walked and walked until that little stroller couldn’t walk with us anymore.
Brittan, the second baby, came in 100 minutes and then Leif’s time in the Marine Corps ended so we took the now-familiar U-Haul route to West Cherry Lane and Zach told me he hated apartments.
We built a house on Shoveler Way. We dug holes for fence posts and trees and flowers and pathways and a beautiful garden. We adopted a puppy and painted murals on the kids’ walls and invited people over. We had barbecues all summer and the kids slept with their friends on and underneath the trampoline (and saw aliens). They walked to school and were Citizens of the Month and they practiced fly-casting in the back and built things in the garage and did homework at the table without being told. We laughed and loved and we made our way and we made a life and we loved it there.
Then work took us back the way of the U-Haul to Redwood Shores Parkway. My dad said, “Honey, there’s nothing there but a landfill.” He didn’t consider that decades had gone by and the landfill had been covered with a housing development. That explained the ants–the ants so pesky that they covertly snuck into my lipstick plant and built a nest that killed it and the kids and their classmates stored their lunches outside their classrooms in sealed bins. The wind blew so hard it pushed me on my rollerblades down the pathways along the marsh. The pathways went almost all the way to the bridge and you could see the city and a woman walked her goose on a leash and I walked the kids to school and walking under the electrical wires you could hear them vibrating with sound. I learned that Zach skipped daycare after school and nobody bothered to tell me until my dad came to town and found him climbing flagpoles outside the school. I was horrified but Dad told me life was all about the survival of the fittest and he seemed to be surviving. Zach started to play the trumpet and I would let him sit in the backseat of the car and play the trumpet out the window while we drove down the Bayshore Freeway. For the first time nobody questioned Brittan’s name because Brittan Avenue was the next road down and she felt famous. We learned the train routes and schedules and went into the city. We walked four flights up a seedy joint on Waverly Place until we smelled the wacky weed, indicating we had one flight to go, where we shook bamboo sticks in a can to get our fortunes at the Buddhist temple. We got quiet to walk the labyrinth on California Street, drove the 99 to the beach, decorated the graves at the Veterans’ cemetery on Sneath Lane, went to the eye doctor on Ellis Street, got too close to the Monet on 34th Avenue, bought crickets for pet frogs from the shop on South El Camino Real and played in the parks on East 5th Avenue and Taylor Street. We laughed and loved and we made our way and we liked it there
I wanted to stay there for a long time but life didn’t go the way I expected. By this time I could definitely load a U-Haul and knew the route back. The renters were asked to leave early and I went home to Shoveler Way. The neighbors said a landscape company spent three days cleaning up the yard before I got there.
Eventually we ended up on Cornell Court where we dug holes for fence posts and trees and flowers and pathways and a patio and a pergola. We planned parties with friends and had people over and the patio became the place where important conversations happened–about school and boys and religion and politics and girls and growing up, and life was planned and lessons were learned. We had teenagers–angry ones and happy ones, our own and others’, and we taught them to drive and we taught them to be brave and kind and honest, and they grew up so fast it made me dizzy.
The kids left, both of them within three years, one on his own, with bravado, and the other tentatively, escorted by her parents. Their stories are a continuation of my story and in six years I’ve visited them on Sutter Street, Bush Street, SW 12th Avenue, South 15th Avenue, Villard Street, East 18th Avenue, Peasley Street, and Mimosa Avenue.
Leif and I laugh and love and we make our way and we make a life and we love it here. I don’t want to load another U-Haul but I feel a change in the air and I wonder what’s down the road.