The Belvedere Lagoon was a body of green water surrounded on all sides by luxurious homes, each with a dock from which you might swim or launch a small Sunfish or rowboat. My best friend from second grade on was named Shelly. She was blonde, pretty and had a sister one year younger, whose best friend was a girl named Pammy; she lived at the other end of the lagoon.
Shelly's mother was a Christian Scientist. My father thought the Christian Scientists were so crazy that they actually made the Catholics look good. I was no longer close to the Catholics, as we had moved by this time into an old stone castle on Raccoon Straits on the San Francisco Bay. The castle had been built a hundred years before by a German man who wanted to make his new bride feel at home in California. It had trapdoors, a dungeon and two caves in the back. My parents had bought it for twenty thousand dollars the year Kennedy became president. My parents campaigned for him, my father looked like him, my mother quivered for him. She was like the preacher in "Cold Comfort Farm" whenever she talked about either of the Kennedys, trembling with indignant passion -- "I'm quivering for you, Jack" -- as if the rest of us didn't also love him.
We lived in this marvelous castle, but things were not going well inside its stone walls. My parents' marriage was not a very happy one, and everywhere you looked as the '60s traipsed along there was too much alcohol and infidelity. But Shelly's parents did not drink at all, and their house was full of stability and warmth. Pammy and I were drawn to it like moths. Pammy's mother was an heiress and an alcoholic who weighed no more than 80 pounds and who usually passed out at least once before breakfast. Her father was doing time in various California prisons for killing his mother's best friend.
So we came to this house on the lagoon where everyone looked so good and where the mother gathered her children (and any other loose kids who happened to be there) into an armchair, like Marmee in "Little Women," and read to them from Science and Health or the Bible. She told you that you were a perfect child, that you were entirely good and that everything was fine, all evidence to the contrary. She was kind, lovely, funny, an early feminist who wore huge Bermuda shorts and her husband's shirts and did not care what people thought of her. And she believed two of the most radical ideas I had ever heard: One, that God was both our Father and our Mother; and two, that I was beautiful. Not just in God's eyes, which didn't count -- what's the point if Ed Sullivan was considered just as beautiful as Julie Christie? She meant physically, on the earth, a visibly pretty girl.
Now, I had skipped a grade, so I was a year younger than everyone else in my class, and at 9 and 10 and 11 was knee-knocking thin, with sharp wings for shoulder blades and wiry blonde hair that I wore short. All my life men had been nudging my dad and saying with great amusement that there must have been a nigger in the woodpile, I guess because of both the hair and my big heavy-lidded eyes. And my father, who never once in his life would have used the word nigger, would smile and give an almost imperceptible laugh -- not a trace of rage on behalf of black people, not a trace of rage on behalf of me. I didn't even quite know what this phrase meant -- I knew it meant that a black man must have been my father but I couldn't figure out how a woodpile figured in, since a woodpile housed only the most terrible things: snakes, spiders, rats, vermin, grub. The one time my older brother used the word nigger, he was grounded for a week. But when men whispered it to my father, he let it go. Why was this? Why would old lefties make this joke, and why would my dad act amused? Was it like spitting, a bad-boy thing? Did it make them feel tough for the moment, like rednecks for a day, so they could briefly sport grossness and muscles?
Lee, the Christian Science mother, smoothed my hair with her grandmother's boar-bristle brush, instead of tearing at it with a comb. She said that half the women in Belvedere would pay their beauticians anything for my hair's platinum color, and the roses in my cheeks, and the long skinny brown legs that carried me and her daughter into endless victories on the tennis courts.
Shelly was my first doubles partner. We were tennis champs.
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It was so strange to be with families where they prayed before leaving for school each day, before leaving for swim meets and work and tennis tournaments. Pammy would step over her mother on the way out the door and arrive at Shelly's house just as I did. At my house, no one had passed out on the floor, but my mom was scared and Dad was bored and my little brother was growing fat and my older brother was being called by the siren song of the counter-culture. Pammy and I would walk in together and find Lee with her brood piled like puppies on top of her, in her armchair, reading the Bible. And Lee would pray for us all.
Shelly's house was the only place I could really sleep. At my own, I'd try but would feel a threatening darkness hanging over the castle, as if my parents' bad marriage were casting shadows like giant wings -- shadows of alcoholism, shadows of people at my parents' frequent parties who necked in our rooms with people who were married to somebody else. If I told my mom or dad, they said, Oh, honey, stop, that's ridiculous, or they explained that everyone had had a lot to drink, as if what I'd seen didn't count since it had sprung from a kind of accidental overdose. At Christmas there were Fishhouse punches so alcoholic you could have sterilized needles in them, and on hot summer nights, blenders full of frappéed whiskey sours. The kids were given sips or short glasses of drinks, and we helped ourselves to more. By the age of 12, all three of us were drinking with some regularity. My mother did not drink very much and so was frappé herself a lot; she was trying to earn the money for law school, which was her dream, and trying to get my dad to want to stay, and she looked tired, scared, unhappy. But Pammy's mother made mine look like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music."
Many of the houses on the lagoon held children who by 13 were drinking and using pot, LSD, cocaine and heroin. Five children I knew well from school or the tennis courts died in the '60s -- three of overdose, one by hanging and the boy who lived directly across the lagoon drowned drunk in its cool waters.
I remember how disgusted my parents were whenever they heard that Lee had taken her kids in to see a practitioner, instead of an M.D., when they got sick, as if she had entrusted her kids to a leech specialist. They were hardly ever sick, though. I don't think they even got poison oak. I was sick much more often than Shelly was. My mother was always basting at least one of us kids with calamine lotion. I remember being sick with chest colds and croup, sitting on her lap on the toilet seat while hot water from the shower filled the room with steam, characters in a misty fairy tale, breathing together till I was better.
Pammy and I basked in Lee's love like lizards on rocks. Lee lay beside me in bed when I couldn't sleep and whispered the Twenty-third Psalm to me: "'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want' -- I am not wanting for anything, Annie. Let's find a green pasture inside us to rest in. Let's find the still waters within." She lay quiet for a while beside me, and we listened to the tide of the lagoon lapping against the dock. Then she'd go on: "'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,' Annie, not 'Yea, though I end up living forever in the valley ..."' And she prayed for the Good Shepherd to gather my thoughts like sheep. I did not quite believe in the power of her Mother-Father God, because my frightened lamby thoughts seemed to be stampeding toward a wall, piling up on each others' backs, bleating plaintively while their wild eyes darted around frantically. But I believed in Lee, and I felt her arms around me. I could hear Shelly's even breathing in the next bed, sense Lee's younger daughter and Pammy asleep in the next room, and the whole house would be so quiet, no shadows at all, and Lee would whisper me to sleep.