Marco Polo Mother & Son
Paula and I live above the semi-industrial flats, with their small, once-affordable homes and dusty, horizontal light, and below the Berkeley Hills, where twisty streets without sidewalks snake past storybook homes costing unimaginable millions.
Our 100-year-old house sits in a neighborhood of otherworldly gardens and tree-lined streets. The first time we saw it we knew it was perfect. Or could be. There was an office and work room for Paula. Lily’s bedroom had a converted sunporch playroom. Our bedroom was large with windows on two sides and a door that led to a second converted porch that could be my office.
But of course, we would have to add a second bathroom and a deck and remodel the kitchen and remodel the upstairs bathroom and turn the bare-dirt yard into a lush garden. And, before any of that, we would have to burn sage and chant prayers in every room, to dispel the lingering sickness, mental decay, and overall feeling of grief left behind by the previous owners.
Only then could we crack open the paint and get to work obliterating every inch of white and off-white and beige that reminded us of their sad, dissipated, lives. We painted the living room mustard yellow. The dining room mossy green. Paula’s office tangerine. The entryway and stairway blood orange. Our bedroom lemon yellow. And Lily’s room turquoise.
Our aesthetic was old-world hippie chic. We paired boomer tchotchkes with family heirlooms. A huge macramé wheel, with an antique butter churn; a Polish theater poster with a 19th century cherry wood cabinet; a German witch mask with a knock-off Ames chair.
Lily was the first one to fully embrace the house. She filled it up with her dolls and magnet tiles, and rolls of white paper, and colored pens, and tubes of paint, and toy animals; and an entire three ring circus that fit inside a suitcase. That three-ring circus became our life. And we did everything from take the tickets to feed the lions.
Lily was a running, climbing, jumping, spotlight-hog of a two-year-old who thrived in the chaos—while Paula and I floundered, confused and in shock. Remind me again, we dolefully asked each other. Why did we leave San Francisco? And pay all this money for a fixer?
Fortunately, Berkeley turned out to be a special place. Making so many things easier than they might have been somewhere else. There was a preschool a few blocks away where Lily could hammer nails and saw wood and jump around in the mud like a gleeful piglet. And there were four or five playgrounds within walking distance. New playgrounds with safe climbing structures and padded surfaces. Old playgrounds with concrete slides banking around old oaks, dotted with bloody evidence of scrapes and falls. And there were parks with overgrown trails to explore and trees to climb and creeks to splash around in. And later there was the German International School up the hill.
Paula couldn’t believe her good fortune. San Francisco didn’t have a German school. Suddenly, there were German mom’s and dad’s in our life; German holidays and German songs; and most importantly, German attitudes regarding child raising. It was clear, Paula finally felt at home in Berkeley, once Lily started going to the German school. I, on the other hand, had a much harder time adjusting to the life of a German expat in California. In part, because I wasn’t German.
My sense that Berkeley was the right place to live was all about Lily. I had been a bachelor well into my 40s. For many years, I said I wanted to be a dad, but I wasn’t sure I meant it. Nevertheless, when the moment of truth presented itself, when Paula showed me the pregnancy test strip in her bathroom in San Francisco, and looked up at me with hope and apprehension, I said yes. YES, in all caps.
So, if Lily liked Berkeley, I liked Berkeley. It was that simple. And Lily loved Berkeley. And she particularly loved the German International School, which was housed in a grand Tudor Revival building built in 1925—just two years after a wildfire raged over the summit, stopping a couple of blocks short of what would become our house.
Lily said going to the German school was like going to Hogwarts—without having to worry about the dark arts. I had read just enough Harry Potter to know what she meant. It was a fine old school, elegant and comfortable, like an English country lodge, with a steep slate roof and a large auditorium that had huge arched windows overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
I wondered what Lily would have thought about the schools I went to in Fresno. Cheap, flimsy structures. Fenced in blocks. Bored and angry kids. Helpless teachers. All I remember is hanging out along the fence line at recess and sitting in the back row during class. I was a sarcastic and unimpressed student until a couple good teachers got through to me.
One morning when I dropped Lily off, I asked her, do you have any idea how lucky you are to go to a school like this, in a city like Berkeley?
She paused for a second, then chirped, yes, before popping open the car door, swinging her polka-dotted backpack over her shoulder, and dashing across the street to where her friends were playing.
I watched her blond ponytail bounce away from the car and felt stupid. What was the point of asking a question like that?
I had just returned from visiting Mom in Fresno. The contrast between life there and life in Berkeley was stark and unsettling. Fresno felt like the urban equivalent of a disposable advertising supplement. While Berkeley felt like an oasis where high-quality versions of everything you’d ever want for yourself or for your family could be found no more than a couple miles away.
How did I get to live in Berkeley? I wondered. I’d been to Spalding Nebraska, the shrinking farm town where my father grew up. Population 592 and dropping. One main street, three bars, a pizza parlor, and a half-empty hardware store. I’d taken my mother to Detroit for her 60th High School reunion. I’d seen her wooden house on Burt Road, near the Rouge River, simple as a cardboard box. And her grandparent’s modest brick house on Northlawn, with its sturdy iron fence enclosing a well-kept bed of roses. I remembered my father’s parent’s red house near Radio Park in Fresno, with its small, stuffy rooms and the dank, sour smell of cigar smoke.
Being there made me feel good, in a complicated kind of way, which had something to do with my grandmother Resa cooking dinner in a double boiler, and her collection of plates commemorating each state of the union hanging in alphabetical order along her dining room walls.
When I think about all those houses now, including my childhood home on Brooks Ave., what strikes me is how similar they are. Ours had been a tenuous middle class to lower-class existence for generations. How did my life become so different from theirs?
After dropping Lily off at school, I drove around the corner and parked. I was in no hurry to get to work, so I got out of the car and started walking. I past alpine chateaus, Mediterranean villas, Tudor lodges, brown shingle bungalows, log cabins even. Of course, they were all fake. Or at least copies. Fantasies transplanted to the Berkeley Hills where they took hold and multiplied.
I passed a wise old apple tree, a demure cherry tree, gangs of London plane trees—equal parts Asian, American, and European. I passed disinterested redwoods. Rebellious oaks. Upstart eucalyptus. And many other trees I didn’t have names for.
Wealth breeds wealth. Abundance breeds abundance. Having a lot makes it easier to get more. The gaudy display of money in the suburbs had repulsed me when I was younger. How was this highbrow show of success and taste any different?
I sat on a stone bench in a leafy nook and stared through the trees at the glistening bay. My phone rang. It was Rosa. My mother’s next-door neighbor. She apologized for calling, then told me that an ambulance was at my mom’s house and that they were taking her to Emergency.