When my parents weren’t tanked, we had plenty of fun family times. We drove up to the Russian River and canoed around, carried kites and hiked up into Tiburon hills, straight up from our house, crossing rusty barbwire fences through pastures on the way. My father loved hiking, and we made up funny songs while we walked, poems and skits for each other, gut busting laughs. It almost seemed to make up for unpredictable drunk ugly.
My mom knit us long and stretchy Christmas stockings, perfect for oranges and tons of candy. She was really good with her hands, and thought nothing about taking a chainsaw to some livingroom drywall or putting in a new window, Sunday afternoon remodelling.
My dad wrote and produced radio commercials in our livingroom on the weekends. My mom usually read the woman’s voice copy, and I was the kid’s voice. He’d let me choose special effects, like squeezing a box of corn starch to sound like snow, or tinkle ice in a glass. My father’s white Wollensak portable tape recorder was his main business tool, and he used it every day. He taught me how to use it and I loved that Wollensack.
I read books, and bought the the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prarie series with my birthday money. I remember coming home from the Mill Valley book store loaded with seven hard back books covered in colorful jackets. My favorite illustrator, Garth Williams, drew heartfelt images of Laura and her family, and I stared long and hard at one sketch of Laura and her sister Mary playing with her father while he pretended to be a growling bear. That drawing seemed so real to me. I wanted to be Laura and live with her sisters in a sod hut like olden times.
My mom ’s family had owned a hardware store business in Washington D.C. and her father taught her how to work with tools—drills, wire cutters, pliers. Despite beer and gin episodes, my mom was ‘on deck’ most of the time, and she managed real property, bought other Bel Aire neighborhood homes, roofed and painted them herself during her land baroness years of the 1960’s and 70’s.
My mother caulked grout, replaced floor and bathroom tile, changed electrical fixtures. Sometimes my Dad and I helped her. He could paint and I was learning. My father didn’t act comfortable around tools besides a shovel, but when he was sober, he knew how to dig fenceposts and put in a sprinkler system that mostly worked. My dad sat agonized on the kitchen floor, looking for a screwdriver, a washer in our messy junk drawer. He was proud ’to have never been under the hood of his Rambler to check the oil level.” My dad wrote good songs with beautiful lyrics, but he couldn’t fix a stopped drain to save his life. Sober or drunk, though, my daddy sang to me almost every day, and he taught me everything he knew and loved about music. I loved to listen to him sing.
Tiburon hills were my real livingroom. BelAire’s main road is the base of hills; a gully creek flows into Richardson Bay, below steep non-native eucalyptus and native bay laurel hills. Dozens of little cow paths meandered in rings around hilltops behind the old dairy.
Before third grade and the ‘Marin County Unit” we studied that year, nobody taught us about indigenous people in our region. We made up everything we thought the Miwoks did, what they ate, how they fished, their shell jewelry, acorn harvests.
Our house was built over a historic Miwok site, exactly the same place where tribes lived and fished a hundred years before our subdivision. I found pieces of stuff in my backyard, and my friends and I hunted for artifacts near a lower corral. We uncovered mounds of clam shells, tiny, round white circle shell beads, found a stone grinding bowl, half of a broken mortar the size of a pumpkin Miwoks had made, and used it, pressing into its deep worn circle pocket, broken as it was. We didn’t understand desecration of Earth, and just thought it was cool to find things.
Imagine what a small Miwok child might have carried that stone to her firespace, with a dozen mothers and daughters pouring water over the ground acorns through a grass woven basket, releasing bitter tannin. Clam shell mountains full of artifacts were next to a non-native blackberry thicket covering a creek whose real name we never knew.
Hundred year-old large limbed eucalyptus trees Miwoks never saw were planted later.
Pretending to be Miwoks gave us safe, natural protection that sheltered us from anything bad happening at the house. They left behind a tangible gentleness that we all felt, a sense that the land was good. We heard beauty in the wind, the rustle of leaves, saw it in flickers of daylight, smelled it in bay salt. We wanted so badly to be unified, free and wild, with no parental problems, and we stayed outside all day long.
Barefoot, in the same saltmarsh grass oozing with muddy bay silt, we made acorn soup from metholated eucalyptus nuts, even though it wasn’t true Miwok food. We dropped acorns into creekwater and stirred with no fire, wishing to hear the click of decorative shell-lace dancing skirts.
We discovered a large polished circular dance floor above our house, timeless stamped shiny earth. Developers built a new house right on top of it. They really danced there, nothing like the times we lived through after WWII. My generation watched TV shows with Nazis and concentration camps, and planned nuclear bomb escape routes home from school.