Coolidge Avenue exotica: Growing up with Barbara

#264 in a series of true experiences in real estate
November 1998, Hills Newspapers

When we were girls growing up in Oakland, my friend Barbara and I spent a lot of time together. We lived just a few houses from one another on Coolidge Avenue in similar houses and circumstances, but at Barbara’s house was some exotica unknown to me anywhere else.

For one thing, her parents had arrived from Germany not long before Barbara and her sister were born. They frequently spoke German and referred to things by their German names, cooked German foods, and did many everyday things differently – in German ways, I suppose.

Everyone in the family worked very hard. Like my own father, Barbara’s father went off to work every day, but he also worked at home preparing income taxes for clients, plus he sold by mail order little novelties such as redwood burls. Unlike my own mother or the mothers of other friends, Barbara’s mother had a job too, as a nurse at an “old folks” home. Barbara and her older sister Irene did their part: they tended the family chickens (I knew no one else who had chickens), weeded and watered the vegetable garden and rolling green lawn, and they studied hard and got excellent grades.

On school mornings, I would stop by to get Barbara to walk with her to school. The house smelled of whole wheat toast and soft boiled eggs that Barbara’s mother had cooked. At every table place was an egg cup and a knife for cracking the top of the eggs off in a stroke, something I greatly enjoyed watching. The clock on the breakfast room wall was set ten minutes fast because Irene said (and she was exasperated that she had to explain to me something so plain), it was the only way she could get anywhere on time.

The girls rushed to make sandwiches, packed them with apples in lunch boxes, then laced up their shoes. Jostling one another, they reached for coats and scarves from their closet. In the bedroom they shared, neatly made up twin beds were pushed against the side walls. The girls’ dolls lay on the chenille spreads. Between the beds a small desk and chair just fit, and opposite, on the closet wall, was a dresser with a mirror hanging above it.

Each girl had use of half the dresser drawers and half the dresser top but Irene frequently complained that her portion was inadequate. The dresser was covered with an embroidered dresser scarf and an array of each girl’s hairbrush, comb, and barrettes, small bottles of perfume, a jewelry box and a hand mirror. Tucked into the edges of the wall mirror were friends’ school exchange photos, ticket stubs, and church programs.

The one small closet contained the sisters’ shoes, skates, coats, board games, and their train cases. I had a train case too, and on occasion in summer when we were allowed to go to the swimming pool at Dimond Park, Barbara and I packed them with swimsuits, rubber swim caps and towels. We’d lay out our towels in the sun at the edge of the pool and bake our bodies hoping for tawny tans. We’d study our faces in the mirrors in our train case lids for imperfections, sigh, change clothes and return home.

Often on hot summer days, Barbara’s family ate dinner in their backyard dining “room”. At my house, we did roast “weenies” outside occasionally, but even that was rare. At Barbara’s outside the kitchen, they had poured a concrete slab and built sides and roof of open trellising. Grape vines grew over the whole. It was Barbara’s job to set the table with silverware, tablecloth, cloth napkins (and always napkin rings) and to carry the large ceramic pitcher of iced tea and the tray of cheese and fruit to the table.

In the basement of Barbara’s house, next to the garage, was a small, roughly finished room with a piano and a Victrola where Barbara and I, anxious to stay out of Irene’s hair, often spent time after school. Barbara was studying violin which I was interested in learning, and she would patiently show me the fingering, the bowing, and how to apply rosin to the bow strings. Or we would play records and sing and dance. Once we entered the school talent contest and spent weeks rehearsing a lip synch version of “Side by Side”. Another time we worked up a little Christmas skit in which we were green-clad elves, and presented it to the residents at the home where Barbara’s mother worked.

When we were in seventh grade, our school had a paper drive to raise money. Prizes were offered for collecting certain poundages of newspapers. Barbara and I decided that we could together collect a ton of paper. Everyday after school and on Saturdays we pulled a wagon from door to door in our neighborhood asking for papers. We pulled them home to Barbara’s garage, tied them in bundles with twine, put them back into the wagon and hauled them to school. It took a lot, but we laughed a lot, had fun doing it, and we did receive blue ribbons stamped in gold “One Ton”. I think I still have mine.

At Christmastime at Barbara’s a large bowl of mixed nuts in the shell appeared each year in the living room, several of which were unfamiliar to me. I remember using their heavy metal nutcracker to open hazel and Brazil nuts. I was also offered large ginger cookies with colored paper Santas glued with frosting to the tops.

The girls’ stockings were hung from the mantel, and when filled, always contained an orange. The Christmas tree was placed in front of the arched front window, decorated with ribbed glass, pointy-end lights in green, red, white, blue and golden yellow. There was a silver and pink paper angel on top and spun glass angel hair was swirled between the branches. You had to be careful not to get the glass in your fingers. The final decoration was meticulously draped, silvery tinsel, hung strand by single strand from every branch tuft.

Around the bottom of the tree was my most favorite of the family’s possessions: a miniature village sparkly with “snow” and a tiny white fence laid on a white sheet and sprinkled with mica flakes.

Years later, at our 25th high school reunion when I saw Barbara again, I remembered that village and asked her if she still had it. She could barely remember it, she said, and was amazed that I did. She was sure that it had vanished long years before.

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