People who had a good childhood always remember it as sunny---or so I once read. Some archetypal confluence of morning with childhood and sunlight with happiness? A transposition of nature to the emotional weather of human memory? Whatever the case, news of this widespread trope punctured my sense of uniqueness. I belonged to a subset of the human family: the lucky tribe of sunny childhood.
I should have been suspicious about all this sunniness and trope potential. Where I grew up---a hillside in southern Marin County in northern California---the weather was often cool and gray. The area was called Almonte, named for the train stop below on the flat, marshy land near Richardson’s Bay.[i] It was an unincorporated district outside the city limits of Mill Valley.[ii] In the 1950s it was a territory of volunteer fire departments and septic tanks (often backed up). From time to time pioneer-spirited residents would take up a collection to pave the dirt and gravel roads.
Half and quarter-acre lots carved out of large tracts of land meant that hardly anyone lived “next door.” Our house was on a quarter acre of clay soil on a steep slope that was hard to garden, but my mother persisted. Sometimes in the summer she would disturb a rattlesnake; she would shriek for Werner, a German Swiss neighbor, who would trudge across the road and kill it with a shovel.
When I was seven years old and a second grader, I was old enough to walk down the hill to the Almonte stop where the school bus picked up us hinterland kids.
I walked down to the bus stop with another kid, Billy Harker, who lived higher up the hillside. Grown-ups called him “BillyHarker,” as if the name Billy alone were insufficient. He was prone to tears and whining when in difficulty.
For the start of this school year my mother had made me a new dress. The cotton material was distinctive: a black background flecked with small, bright yellow flowers. A festive change from play clothes, pants and checked shirts from Montgomery Ward. The dress was a simple pattern that she mastered and replicated in different materials for different occasions: polished cotton, dotted Swiss, and white piqué.
Walking down my backyard hillside Billy and I stretched out our legs to reach the steps---redwood rounds, slick with morning moisture and the silvery slime left by snails. The steps ended at Lark Lane, a gravel path that turned downhill again at a steep, semi-paved street called Wisteria to the school bus stop. Toward the bottom the hill we broke into a run, racing to set our lunch bags down in a line that ruled who would get on the school bus first.
My grade school was in Homestead Valley, another unincorporated area but more densely settled because it was sheltered and warm. The last leg of the bus route wound along Evergreen Avenue to the end of the narrow valley where the school was. The oldest houses looked like summer cottages, with redwood shake exteriors and front porches, glassed in with small panes and shaded with vines. A few newer houses had begun to appear, ranch style and modern.
Two buildings comprised Homestead school.[iii] The older of the two had been built against a hillside so we had to walk upstairs to the classrooms for grades five and six. A modern, low slung building, added for the postwar boom, followed the contours of the land, its single story sloped downward and formed an L-shape which housed the kindergarten and first four grades. Here too was the nurse’s room with pictures of Yosemite on the walls above the couch. Once when I was sick the principal, Miss Grimm, drove me home in her trim Chevy sport coupe, her short white gloves clutching the steering wheel.
And then a cloud appeared.
After sixth grade, I would leave Homestead and go (a different bus ride) to the new junior high school for seventh and eighth grade---a catapult into high school, the anteroom to 1950s pre-teenage life. My parents were alarmed.
Why they hadn’t seen this event coming eludes me, but suddenly my father mobilized. Recalling his formative years of Catholic education in New York, he sought out the nuns.
Half an hour away in a larger town, San Rafael, Dominican sisters had a convent and boarding school.[iv] Since 1890 wealthy San Francisco families and some Marin County locals had entrusted their daughters to the genteel and capable nuns. Many of the sisters themselves were products of this educational process.
We had to be interviewed, my parents and I. Our appointment was at the convent motherhouse, the first term learned in the language of this new environment. The vanilla-colored Victorian frame building with towers, gables, and red-brown mansard roof rose four stories above a curving gravel drive. At the top of a central flight of steps awnings shaded the front door flanked by della Robbia medallions. Climbing the steps to the main entrance on the second floor, it seemed as if we rose up between massive celestial wings of the building. Someone ushered us into the dim coolness of the foyer. A round mahogany table with a bowl of flowers filled the central entryway that opened to parlor rooms on each side. We stood waiting.
A swish of robes and Sister Kathleen greeted us. My father leaned forward to introduce my mother and me in turn. He warmed to the nun’s pink and slightly freckled face, her cheeks plumped by the taut white wimple around pale skin protected for decades by the habit. From beneath the front layers of folds and panels of creamy material a hand extended gesturing us into the parlor on our left. A sunlit room it seems---or is this the trope talking?
Offering stories of the Jesuits back east and references to the faith---my dad beamed in his Irish glory with Sister Kathleen. My mother, a Catholic convert, without the ease of the Church’s native born, passed muster with her manners.
No discussion about how such schooling would be paid for, as I recall. The critical factor was my suitability to become, in sister’s words, a “Dominican girl.” Another deft movement of folds and panels of creamy material and Sister rose. Would we like to see the Convent chapel? She guided us from the bright parlors into a dark hallway. Dim outlines of console tables against the walls in the gloaming high-ceilinged corridor. A right turn and then at the left an open doorway. We glanced in and then sister skillfully steered us round and back along the hallway and to the parlors again. The interview was over. I would begin the sixth grade in September.
Until now my religious instruction had been weekly sessions at the Homestead Valley clubhouse. We few Catholic kids sat on wooden folding chairs and repeated the Baltimore Catechism with unappealing and unintellectual sisters recently imported from Ireland to begin a new school attached to the Mill Valley parish.
I don’t recall fear or apprehension. I was eager to please. Sensing the rise in status, I was game to master the protocols and proprieties in a new world of daily uniforms with aprons before me. The days of skinned knees and checked shirts were over.
In July 1990, the motherhouse of the San Rafael Dominican sisters caught fire. While stripping the exterior in preparation for repainting, a worker’s blow torch ignited wood on the top floor of the building. Nearly one hundred firemen from San Francisco and surrounding communities responded to a major alarm. Thirty sisters were evacuated, but the Victorian building burned beyond repair.[v]
The Dominican sisters rebuilt their convent. The building that opened in 2005 was designed to environmental specifications. The two-story design is relaxed and modest like the life of the sisters there, open to the world outside and the social issues that engage the sisters now.[vi] They no longer teach; the old convent education survives in their students’ memory, and in my case, bolstered by the tribal trope.
I am embarrassed to say that the people embedded in my childhood memory exist as attributes of place and atmosphere. My recollections swing on the hinge of the physical---buildings and houses, yards, streets, the out-of-doors. Perhaps that’s the work of a human trope rooted in the physical world.
Nothing unique here, I suppose. Just another story from the lucky human tribe of sunny childhood.
[i] Virginia Smith, 1982 http://www.almonteclub.org/districthistory.php “The Almonte (‘to the mountain’ in Spanish) Train Station, which used to sit on the marsh directly opposite the existing bus stop, was an important transfer point on the Northwestern Pacific Electric Railroad.
[iii] The first school was built here in 1908.
[v] The Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse, designed by San Francisco architect Thomas J. Welsh, was a monument in the Bay Area. http://www.marinnostalgia.org/portfolio/dominican-fire/ and
http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/70559022/ and http://mohurley.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-mother-house-at-dominican.html