A few years feel like a decade when you’re a kid — a collection of months, one after the other, when life is fragrant, summers are endless and the green, green grass of every front yard in the neighborhood is every child’s playground.
Having lived in a modestly sized three-story dwelling among San Francisco’s post-war row house neighborhoods, as kids we never knew what hit us when our father got transferred with his job closer to Sacramento, California, an easy hundred miles away from the Golden Gate. My brothers and I had spent our first few years of life only a few blocks away from the city’s chilly, foggy beaches, surrounded by sand and streetcars amid a colorful array of other ethnic groups like our own, only a generation removed from the old countries that lent them their names. An exciting day was taking a streetcar ride to bustling Market Street, emerging from a dark tunnel near the San Francisco Mint, or visiting Playland at the Beach, where an enormous Fun House found us squealing with delight as a huge clown-like figure in its rafters never stopped hurling recorded laughter to tourists along the Great Highway below.
In blissful ignorance at age six, I knew something special was happening, but I also understood that saying goodbye was sad. I clearly remember the sweet girl next door, with whom I had spent my formative years, had cried when we were told by our mothers to hug one another in a farewell gesture, leaving me sad but expectant all at once.
Then, as if spirited into a Disney cartoon, we awoke in a sprawling ranch-style home with a backyard that looked like a golf course and a mimosa tree that dropped its delicate blossoms on our hedged back patio. The aroma of ripe lemons wafted through clean sheets drying in the mild Central Valley breezes. And off in the distance, the delicate smell of burning rice fields lent a pungent scent to our new world.
Our house boasted mid-century modern grass cloth walls, a streamlined kitchen, and endless expanses of gleaming hardwood upon which our crew-socked feet could glide for miles down a long hallway. An elegant, formal dining room stood vigil, used only for special guests and dinner parties. And my brothers and I could, for the first time, hear the sound of crickets as we fell asleep amid the kind of silence lacking from our former city neighborhood.
Children our age were everywhere, tanned, wild and boisterous. And they had the run of the neighborhood as they flew around on bikes, glided by on clamped-on rollers with skate keys dangling from their necks, and jumped into the crystal-blue swimming pools that dominated the backyard landscapes of Arden Park. It was a fantasy and a reality all at once, the freedom we had to roam as we rolled down neighborhood streets, explored tropically sweet backyard grottos and performed cartwheels on one another’s front lawns in our bare feet. And instead of tiny, plastic animal trinkets from the San Francisco Zoo, trophies adorning my friends’ walls consisted of blue ribbons from swim meets and horse statues populating strategically placed shelves.
But all was not perfect. Oblivious to the adult world, my brothers and I barely noticed that as my father rose up the corporate ladder, he was absent from home more and more. Mom, unaccustomed to her children no longer needing her as much throughout the day, grew lonely – something my brothers and I never knew about until we were much older. Eventually, decisions were made that would rock our lives once again, when Dad decided to quit the corporate world and open his own business back where he was born in the Midwest.
Just as my siblings and I had entrenched ourselves in our idyllic surroundings, we found a “For Sale” sign hanging from a wooden cross on our front yard. Another change, more friends to leave and an unexplored new world lay ahead thousands of miles away. As we grew older, after experiencing steamy Midwestern summers and slushy, cold winters, our few years in Sacramento would eventually count among our most treasured childhood memories, a fleeting time when the most important decision was when to pay attention to our mother’s call to come home for dinner.
Much of the world can be a cruel place for children, but I’d like to think most of them have some wonderful memory of even a brief magical time in their lives. And although my family and I were all to move back to northern California in our own time, nothing will ever take the place of that tiny slice of youth we spent in Arden Park, where streets meandered into cul-de-sacs like rivers in an endless stream of childhood fantasy.