GIFTS

 

It’s my birthday! And two days ago, the proof of my fairy tale collection The Poof! Academy arrived in the mail, just as I’d hoped—the best birthday gift ever! At long last I’m able to hold my first book in my hand.

At noon Ella took a lunch-hour break, and we went over to my godkids’ home, three blocks away. Leia, their mom, had invited us over to see the transformation of her formerly cluttered back yard—and her new vegetable garden. We arrived to find Happy Birthday balloons bobbing in the breeze and her large patio table laden with bouquets of flowers, birthday cards, and a gift bag. My first surprise birthday party ever! The patio chairs were pulled back so we could all keep our distance—Leia was eager to reassure us that she’d disinfected them—and the five of us, including Michael (age 20) and Emerald (17), chatted through masks for over an hour. I’m afraid I did the lion’s share of the talking, I was so eager to tell them the saga of how my book had finally come to be—almost—published.

Then, in the late afternoon, Ella and I made lemon jello cake from a recipe I’ve had since I was as a teenager. We poured lemon syrup on it after baking—and ate it while it was still warm.

SISTER ACT

Yesterday as Ella and I were walking up the hill in our masks, past the Normandy Village, I said, “If my books turn out to be wildly successful, let’s move into one of these apartments.” I was only half joking—because I no longer feel good about our place. For one thing, it’s too small. For another, it has become too full of eyesores like the bathroom floor—put in by unskilled workers—with big gaps between the linoleum tiles and a mess of caulking around the tub that looks dirty even after being scrubbed. Once upon a time, however, I felt very differently.

In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

Ella moved to Berkeley while I was working part-time as a secretary at Tiburon College. She’d wanted to relocate to the Bay Area for years, but anxiety about finding a job and an apartment kept holding her back. I finally convinced her to leap before she looked, then had a hard time persuading her not to snatch up the first shabby apartment she checked out, she thought everything was so quaint, even in the worst part of town.

Through a friend I heard about an apartment in an upscale neighborhood that was about to come on the rental market—so we clambered up the fire escape one morning and peered in the windows to scope it out. Then when Ella was down in L.A. finishing up some business and it suddenly became available, I made an emergency call to her to grab the next flight back.

The apartment was dilapidated, but had a floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace (though the mortar was crumbling), hardwood floors that were warped in gentle waves, old-fashioned fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom, which I’d always been partial to, and a living room window that faced a vacant lot with a coast live oak, where squirrels cavorted and jays squabbled—just the kind of fixer-upper I’d always had a hankering for myself. I only wished that ­I’d had the money to lay down.

Though I’d planned to spend only a month or two at Ella’s after my breakup with Ross—more about that later—I wound up staying…er…longer. When I arrived, she still had towers of books stacked on the floor—so dusty now you couldn’t read the titles—from when she’d moved in three years earlier. I convinced her that she could fit a tall bookcase in the corner by the table, then engineered a kitchen counter out of plywood and contact paper—supported by the old stove and a standing cabinet—so she actually had space to attempt a recipe without half the ingredients winding up on the floor. Next I went out and bought colorful plates and place mats to set a festive table…and we were off and running.

                                                                          …

Well, the sun put in an appearance for a change—this has been the soggiest winter ever—and I still had to leave the oven on all morning and take two hot baths to remain thawed. Actually, I’ve been averaging two or three baths a day for weeks now; I expect I’ve already shrunk several inches. Meanwhile, the clanking continues below as work on the busted boiler progresses (I trust).

Incidentally, while I was simmering in the tub, I counted five rips in Ella’s shower curtain, stuck my finger through one of them, and had to curb an impulse to rip it bigger in order to convince her it really is time to buy that pretty striped shower curtain we saw at Hinks Department Store.

                                                                          …

I bought six-foot sheets of cardboard from a local art store and built full-scale mock-ups of desks, dining tables, and wall units to determine the optimal size and shape for each, given the limited space, and piece by piece Ella replaced her motley assemblage of flea market furniture with handsome Danish modern. We had to wait nearly a year for a wall unit to arrive from Denmark—the shipment kept being postponed—and when it was finally delivered, we were aghast to see how dingy it made the yellowing walls look by contrast (it was white) so, of course, we had to paint the living room.

Needless to say, the whole project was fraught with aggravations. Like the sofabed Ella had custom-made that arrived with a gash in one of the cushions. Over the next nine months she reordered the cushions four times. The second set looked like the seamstress had needed a Breathalyzer test, the way the seams meandered, the third had a flaw—a dark band—running through the fabric, the fourth was too small—loveseat size—the fifth was fine except for some dirt smudges the store manager tried to get off with cleaning solution and a green rag—which stained the cushions green. So Ella finally settled on the gashed originals, just turned them over.

In the meantime, as I was finding out, the apartment had its hazards. One day I leaned on the French door in the kitchen with my hand—and it went right through, the panes giving way because the wooden struts were so rotten. Then the freezer door of the old refrigerator was—still is—irreparably broken, and more than once it has dropped on my head with a resounding thwack when I was reaching down for something in the vegetable bin, causing me to see a few stars. Also, the front door is supported by only one hinge, so you have to lift the door to open and close it. Oh, and later, after stowing my drawing portfolios in the basement, I discovered, to my dismay, that the resident termites had a taste for art; they’d chewed my sketches to tatters.

Nevertheless, we managed to create a space that was livable for two people. We’d been best friends, despite the 500 miles between us, for fifteen years. With the absence of men in our lives, we became each other’s family, the sisters neither of us had had.

 

The Polaroid above was taken when we first got our ash table—with an extra leaf if we needed to seat six.

NEW NORMAL

It’s a beautiful spring day, preternaturally clear and bright—or so it seems to me, since the sky is freer of smog than at any time within memory. I’ve opened the back door and bathroom window, creating a gentle cross breeze as I work at my desk. Because it’s been cold recently, Ella and I have been cloistered—with windows closed and curtains drawn, both of us working so hard that we’ve barely been aware of our surroundings, which have gotten especially cluttered. Some days, we forgot to change out of our nightgowns until our evening walk. But now—at last!—I feel I can relax, having finally sent the pdf of The Poof! Academy (via Ruth) to Kindle Direct Publishing. A proof should be in my hands within the week. Gee! I’ve only waited fifteen years to get this book published!

Not only do the skies have a rarefied clarity, but they say on the news that animals not normally seen are venturing out onto the otherwise vacant city streets all over the world— and dolphins are swimming up the canals of Venice—while we humans listen to the mounting death toll from the cornonavirus—as of noon today, over 51,000 in the U. S. and 194,000 worldwide.

And what is my new normal? Instead of house-made granola from Fat Apple’s restaurant, and fresh salads from Ladle and Leaf, and deli favorites from Market Hall like Moroccan chicken and fresh raviolis, everything I eat is pre-packaged or frozen. (Ella hates to cook, and I, with my bad back, can’t.) Almost daily, I eat a chopped salad of raw broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage from Trader Joe’s, partly because its lemony dressing is the only one I’ve found that I actually like. I’ve had to go spelunking in the back of the freezer for ancient entrees, covered in frost—inside, under the cellophane. Meanwhile, endless trails of cars are lining up at food banks around the country. I know I have it good.

I mindfully wash my hands throughout the day, and swab down my keyboard and mouse with a wipe each morning. (The latter is only possible because Ella was finally able, after five weeks, to procure a canister of Clorox wipes at CVS—by ascertaining the delivery day and showing up when they opened.) Washing my hands in the bathroom involves soaping the faucet handles at the same time, since my hands might have been contaminated when I turned on the water. In the kitchen, where there’s a single movable handle, I have a different solution. I turn on the water by pushing the handle upward from underneath with the back of my hand in order to keep the top of the handle uncontaminated at all times. Also, I have a rule: if I’m washing my hands to touch food directly, I dry them with a paper towel; otherwise, I use the hand towel hanging on the refrigerator. (When Ella arrived at Trader Joe’s at 8:00 a.m. yesterday, they were out of paper towels.)

The worst part of sheltering in place for me is not being able to swim and do water aerobics, which have been my main form of exercise for decades because, with my fibromyalgia, I kept injuring myself when I tried anything else. Now I’m having to explore new ways of working out on our Aerobic Rider, which had been gathering dust, also for decades.

And how do I feel about all this? Well, maybe my leg says it best: I often find it swinging back and forth with a fitful energy, as it’s doing right now.

THE NICASIO RESERVOIR

Yesterday I was feeling so restless, I decided to take a long drive to a place I knew few people would be. After days of grayness and rain, the sky was clear and bright—an irresistible invitation to visit the spring hills before they turn dun and dry.

As I approached the Lucas Valley Road exit, however, I saw that cumulous clouds were piled up directly over the route I intended to take, casting a dark shadow over the landscape. So much for dazzling green vistas. Seeing a deer on the first slope cheered me a little.

Lucas Valley Road winds through a valley between high rolling hills, though they’re mostly hidden by the woods that shoulder the road. A creek runs companionably alongside for as long as the road remains level.

Soon I began glimpsing patches of brightening green through the trees as the road began to ascend. At its highest point, I passed two lookouts and got out of my car, briefly, at a third one, having outstripped the clouds—and felt myself enfolded by the verdant world around me.

Once I was underway again, the twisting road descended in more hairpin turns, and at the bottom, I drove through the twilight of an ancient redwood forest, wisps of sunlight filtering between the massive trunks and striping the black macadam with occasional bars of brightness.

On the far side, I eventually came upon the town of Nicasio, with its one-room schoolhouse, single church, and a tiny roadside market where I used to buy Cherry Garcia yogurt bars when they’d disappeared from the rest of creation. (Actually, if I’m being honest, there’s a bigger school beyond the quaint one.) 

A few miles later, I reached the Nicasio reservoir, one of my favorite scenic spots on the way to the ocean. (I’m always thrilled to see water in any landscape, perhaps because I grew up in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes). Today I wouldn’t be driving on though—through Inverness and Point Reyes Station and past my dune—to Drake’s Beach, because it was closed.

Instead, when I reached the steep wind-swept hillside with the dark green striated canopy, I turned back, heading for home, a two-and-a-half-hour round trip.

Because I didn’t take any pictures, I’ve decided to create a little montage of snapshots from past years, when Earl and I made the drive in his MGB.

 

The vistas are varied because the reservoir is as serpentine as a two-headed dragon. I know because I looked at it on a map.

Like much of California, the hills are green for only the briefest of seasons. This is a side road we explored on one of our outings.

Here the hills are already starting to turn brown.

Seeing the reservoir on the way home is part of the magic.

HAVEN

There had been one bright spot in my life in California:

My very first day of eighth grade at Garfield Junior High—now Martin Luther King Middle School—my homeroom teacher asked the girl two desks in front of me to help me find my classes and show me around the school. Her name was Linda, and though we were both redheads, we couldn’t have looked more different. At lunchtime she introduced me to two of her friends, Daryl and Nikki—all three of them children of divorce, though Linda was the only one who lived with her father. (In St. Anthony Park, I hadn’t known any kids whose parents were divorced.

It was Daryl I was drawn to from the beginning, both for her gentle manner and her sense of humor, which jibed with mine in a way I’d never experienced with anyone before. She began asking me over for dinner on Fridays, and her home became a haven for me. She lived with her writer mother, Nancy, who walked with a limp, and who, like Daryl, had a gentle way about her. Their house was in the Berkeley Hills. From their picture window, in the evening, you could see a panoramic view of the bay, a sea of twinkling lights in the foreground, the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. A typical dinner was steak—which my family couldn’t afford—and red leaf lettuce salad, which seemed very elegant to me because all I’d ever eaten was iceberg lettuce. They had a tiered yard and garden in back and their living room was spacious enough for us to do modern dance in. Nancy even hired a dance teacher to give us lessons. In Minnesota, I’d started going to the Unitarian Church in Minneapolis in seventh grade with my friend Mary and her family. In Berkeley, Daryl and I started going to the Unitarian Church in Kensington, a modern gray stone structure with an atrium, rubber trees, and an even more spectacular view of the Bay Area cities because it was on the very highest ridge of the East Bay hills.

From my mom, who got to know Nancy, I learned that Daryl’s father was a musician and that Nancy’s lameness had been an issue in their marriage. Though it would be years before I knew I was meant to be a writer, I felt a comfort and affinity with Nancy. What I didn’t know was that, unlike my own mother, she recognized who I was and understood that my life was likely to be a difficult one. Only as an adult would I learn that my mother had always viewed me as so talented that I “would never want for anything,” including—apparently—understanding, empathy, and encouragement. Nancy, on the other hand, had expressed to my mom the opinion that I was an artist and would suffer. “Talents aren’t assets that lift you above want or need,” I would eventually tell my mother. “They’re hungers—and if they’re not nourished, you’re likely to become as emotionally blighted as a starved child is physically blighted.”

What I couldn’t foresee, as I headed back to California from Minnesota at the end of my summer with my father, was that my safe harbor with Daryl and Nancy had only been a temporary one.

In ninth grade, Linda’s father decided to send her to a home for delinquent girls in Oakland. He’d recently remarried—a woman with two daughters—and believed that Linda was trying to sabotage his relationship with his new wife and stepdaughters. So beginning in ninth grade, Daryl invited Linda to live with her—and I don’t remember ever visiting her house again. I also know from my mom that Nancy found Linda difficult and was deeply distressed about her staying with them, but Daryl remained staunchly loyal to our mutual friend, and she and I were never close again.