The Watchman

May 2010

Walking in the Old Neighborhood — Livermore, California

How far they let us walk, and alone. We went everywhere, on foot or by bicycle. It’s not that a ride wasn’t available. On rainy mornings we’d be crowded, five or six of us, in the car, throwing off the steam of wet wool coats. But otherwise – to school, to the park, to scout meetings and visits with friends, to the pool, to the library – we were on our own. And it made this small town our own, block by block. How what was seeded here has grown.

Now I am an adult, on foot, on a day of brilliant sun and clear sky, It is an almost Mediterranean climate that sits hot and dry over this valley, the hills still green at the end of spring, the acres of grapevines sloped upward behind the wineries east of town

It is our old neighborhood. It is just a block or so away from the Senior Living complex where our stepmother now lives, across the railroad tracks and that’s literal train tracks, not a metaphor. My sister and I walk it together. She is still, after all this time, eight years younger than I am. On this long street of pastel colored stucco, ranch style houses, she has years of memory that I don’t have; and even in the years that overlap, different moments are frozen and kept forever.

el rancho
This was a brand new subdivision in 1959, when we moved here from Alameda. I was nine, she was just a year old. I remember the weekend drives we took over several months, to look at model homes, before this one was settled on. It was our first owned home. Till then, we had lived in a series of rented apartments, and most recently, a small shingled house. The birth of my sister, the fifth child of six, pushed us out of the zone of that place being big enough, And our dad had a job at the new Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, an employer so huge that it transformed this sleepy cowboy and vineyard town into a suburban creation. Years later, many of us growing up here would have reason for concern that radiation exposure contributed to the deaths of our fathers.

The houses are variations on three or four floor plans. One plan might be reversed left to right for variety, and there were a few different patterns of trim. Ours, an unfortunate sort of biological yellow stucco in color, had a two by four decorative box frame around and over the front walk and driveway. On this day in 2010, it is for sale again; It’s changed hands many times; been someone else’s home. In the real estate listing we learn that the kitchen has been updated; the floors redone, it’s described as having midcentury charm. Must the 50’s be remembered as midcentury charm? And if so, can I have some too? 1100 square feet – how spacious that seemed after cramped apartment living – it housed eight of us for ten or more years, but it is way smaller than the home my husband and I have made for four of us. Today, it’s the same color, the same 2×4 decorative framing is still there. Had a tree not grown out front, which now shades the entire house, it might look quite the same despite 50 years of wear.

I remember somewhat less of the human world of the neighborhood, and more about the wild open land, such a wonder after city life. Downhill at the end of the cul de sac, there was no further development, just open land that had once been ranches. Several hundred feet away was an old creek bed. If you followed it downstream, you’d come to what was called in legend “Boot Hill”, though officially named “Pioneer Park”, an old settlers’ cemetery with all the lore one might expect only kids to know and transmit. How sometimes, in the eroded side of the hill, coffins would be revealed, and there would be old bones to find. During the rainy season the creek would fill and teem with life. My cousin and I caught frogs and tadpoles. I took home a jar of creek water and watched the amoeba in a single drop of it under the lens of my new microscope. The scientist in me was awakened, and in some ways it has never gone away. We were literally within sight of home, yet lost in the natural world. Then, with the end of the rainy season, it was dry as a bone again. Everyone knew that there were rattlesnakes in the valley, and dry hot summer days brought them out. But it was never enough of a concern that we were forbidden from spending hours in the creek bed without the faintest hint of adult supervision.five

My sister is the fifth of six children, born into a complex web of existing relationships, and she has always had the unique capacity to connect with everyone; to balance and harmonize. She remembers who lived in most of the pastel variations: Bannerts, whose child died young; Helgens, with their fierce and Germanic mother in her housedress and apron, white socks and lace up shoes. The Voelkers, with a mob of little blond boys, we think four or five of them; and one older sister. And the one we called the ‘Bimbo House” where a lonely divorcee liked to come outside, raise the hood of her car, and bang on the air cleaner with a hammer till a man stopped to help. And the Lelands, with their rhyming daughters Karen and Sharon. After the Leland parents divorced, their dad, already out on the singles market, got our dad to go with him to a Parents Without Partners event, where he met our stepmother. And that thread brings us to our presence here on this given day, the stepmother living just the other side of the tracks.

There are sensory details that flood back, step by step, reawakened in the exact same context in which they were stored so many years ago. My sister stops and points. “50 years ago, that house had a red door.” Notable because a dog had charged out from behind it and bitten her. The door is not red now, but it is red in memory, so powerful, that even now we are glad to be across the street.

“And there, she points, “ is the corner where one day, dad waited for me as I walked home from Kindergarten .” A boy along the way home had been bothering her. She’d told our mom, who alerted dad, and there he was: vigilant, silent, but concerned. And my sister says, “Mostly I was afraid of dad growing up.” He was so easily irritated by the chaos of family life.

But now our view of him must include this way in which he was watchful, but silent, in ways we might never have noticed. On the corner, we stand in the present but see the young father of six across the intersection – the watchman, worried man, with the crowded home, the dangerous job. There were so many things about family life that he just didn’t know how to do. This, he knew how to do.


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