The narrative of our first days in San Francisco is something like the hills themselves—rising to peaks before falling into crevices and rising to peaks again. Yesterday, I left off at a peak, but we were just rounding the top on the way downward, and, although it has little to do with my promised “point,” I thought it might be worth recording our first morning in the new house.
We woke well rested and ready to explore. Most of the children, as admitted yesterday, were pretty much dressed and headed directly downstairs to watch Daddy scramble eggs and brew coffee (the familiar Saturday tradition putting a smile on everyone’s face). Every few seconds brought a cry of interest or elation, “Look! They have the complete works of Shakespeare, annotated!”--“That horse on the mantel must be Bucephalus!”-- “Our room has a terrace!” It was quite thrilling, really, and would have been perfectly magical for them if Mother had not been there to repeat continually, “Careful with that book—the binding looks delicate”--“Don’t touch that, it could break!”--“I don’t want the baby following you out to the terrace—come on back in.” [Do you ever wonder why authors always kill off the mothers in books? Well that’s why.]
The small city yard visible through the back windows was a miniature wonderland, with a classical gazebo and steps meandering through ornamental onion and hibiscus. Perfect, I thought, we’ll go outside where we can’t do any damage. Holding the baby on my hip, I stepped gingerly upon the brick patio, with Theresa and Margaret at my heels. The sky was gray, but nothing could detract from the perfectly planned and tended little garden, a sea of blooms without a square foot wasted or unadorned. To our delight, an impossibly small black hummingbird—the size of one of our wood bees at home—capered and flitted among the bell shaped blooms. The girls darted up and down stairs, with exclamations of wonder at every turn.
Surveying the back of the house, I noticed a basement door down a set of stone steps. Being the paranoid type and eager to see that all the entrances to our new domain were secure, I sent Theresa to try the door. To my surprise, she found it unlocked and called out to us. “It’s open, and there is a running fountain inside!”
Margaret and I followed her down, Eileen still leaning contentedly onto my shoulder in spite of the cool day. I hastened to wrap my shawl around her bare legs, realizing we would need to re-learn how to dress for June in San Francisco. Inside, we found no dingy old basement, but a pleasant breezeway lined with tastefully salvaged architectural ornaments surrounding a trickling fountain. (Funny that the fountain is turned on, I thought to myself.) “Look, it leads to the street,” Theresa observed, “Let’s look at the front of the house.”
The second glass door shut behind us, and we found ourselves outside on the front landing. Roses cascaded down a trellis over our heads, while a troupe of hollyhocks and marigolds danced at our feet. An old world iron fence rose to gold tipped points, giving the place the feel of a gilded fortress. If the house were a venerable old woman, she would not be one of those ladies who looks worse in the unforgiving rays of morning. No, this grand dame was more glorious now than ever she was at night, her gold leaf fleurets and finials rising up to salute the sun, and her stately three stories standing erect and timeless as the very hills at her feet.
I stood a while, craning my neck in admiration and reminding Margaret not to climb on the fence, when Theresa remembered that the eggs must be ready, and we ought to head back to the kitchen. The first glass door to the breezeway had locked itself behind us, and we could not retrace our steps, so I made my way round the building and up the front stairs, holding Eileen tightly in my shawl to keep the morning chill from reaching her bare legs. I stood ringing the bell for about five minutes to no avail, when it occurred to me that Theresa and Margaret were being awfully quiet. I called to them, but heard no answer. This was strange, I thought, descending the steps to see what had become of them. Rounding the bend to the side of the house, I was surprised to find that they were not there. Peering through the glass door, I caught a glimpse of an adult—I could not tell if it was a man or woman—inside the breezeway and hastily re-entering the basement of the house! The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Here I was in a strange city, and there was an adult clearly avoiding me, and my two children were gone without a word.
I tried the door again, but it was locked securely, so I began to pound on it and call—no yell—“Margaret!!! Theresa!!!” I pounded and pounded, calling out over and over, but no one came. Still clutching Eileen, I raced round the front of the house and bounded up the wooden stairs, buzzing the bell emphatically, when Agnes came to the door, looking surprised to find me out front. “Have you seen Margaret and Theresa?!” I greeted her, without explanation. “They’re in the kitchen,” she answered, looking confused. “Are you sure?” I asked desperately.
By this time, Theresa was coming up behind her, and I demanded, “How did you get back through that locked door?!” Theresa looked surprised by my wild tone, saying mildly, “Marie let us in.”
It turns out Marie had come outside to join us in the yard. Looking through the breezeway, she noticed Margaret and Theresa. They had waved her forward, and she let them in. When pressed for an explanation of why they didn’t call me, Margaret and Theresa said they thought Daddy must have let me in through the front by then.
At this point, I made my way back to the kitchen, my heart giving itself permission to slow down. Daddy was still tending to the eggs when he said off-handedly, “There’s someone living downstairs. I think it is the owner of the building.”
For the first time, I looked at the clock and saw that it was not yet seven in the morning. (I was still on New York time and felt as if it was the middle of the day.) It was horrifying to consider that I had just been screaming and pounding outside the owner’s door at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, but that was not the worst of it. Entering the breakfast room with a plate full of steaming eggs, I found that the tablecloth on the kitchen table was almost identical in pattern and shade to my shawl, complete with a fringe around two ends! If the owner had caught a glimpse of me, did he or she think that the summer tenant was a mad woman pounding and shouting and wrapped in the tablecloth?!
And what would my odd behavior do for the reputation of New Yorkers?
Confirm it, most likely.