My Aunt Marcia's house was the first really magical place I'd ever encountered outside of books. There were other places I'd seen that seemed to be magic -- Disneyland, for instance, or Children's Fairyland in Oakland -- but these places were more "plaster magic" than real magic. As cool as it looked, nobody really lived in Fairyland. It was all artificial. Everything was made of plaster over chicken wire, or concrete painted to look like a Chinese dragon or Alice down the rabbit hole. But Aunt Marcia's house had true magic to it, because it was real. The magic had an almost casual matter-of-fact quality to it -- not mundane, but accepted as part of daily life -- that delighted me.
It wasn't even really a house -- well, not a whole house anyway, but part of one. In the Piedmont section of Oakland where Aunt Marcia lived, old mansions were routinely subdivided to create smaller apartments for families who could afford them. I'm not sure how much more "affordable" this really made them -- Piedmont, after all, remains an affluent community -- but I do know the division of these huge houses created the most marvelous living space, all on a single floor.
To reach the front door, one had to climb a slightly rickety wooden staircase attached to the side of the house. The owner seemed to have slapped on this separate entrance to the second floor as an afterthought, but Aunt Marcia turned it into a grand entry, brave with plants and flags and wind bells.
The apartment was rectangular, more or less shoebox-shaped. The hall ran the long way down the center of the space and was covered in diagonally-slanted wood paneling, full of knots and spirals. Just left of the front door was the kids' room; to the right was Aunt Marcia and Uncle John's room. A bit further down, the hallway opened up into an all-purpose hub where Aunt Marcia kept her fridge -- there was no room for it in the tiny kitchen. To the left of this hub there were two doors, one leading into a storage space and the other a set of stairs to the apartment on the next floor. Aunt Marcia used this stairwell as her personal closet, with dresses strung on clothesline and shoes paired up on the stairs. To the right of the hub was a long, skinny bathroom, sleek with black-and-white Art Deco tile, and just past it was the long, cramped galley kitchen, which at one time might have been a walk-in closet.
After all this, one walked through an archway into the showpiece room of the house -- a combination living and dining room, with a huge bay window to the right, looking out on the sunset and other grand homes further down the hill. Before the bay window was a cozy window seat, covered with luxurious cushions in various shapes and sizes -- an opulence I thought of as Turkish -- and hung from strings in the window were scores of crystal prisms, like a rain of solid tears. At sunset the whole room came alive with shimmering rainbows.
Aunt Marcia's house was a house of ice cream and incense, of homemade borscht and brass candlesticks, of washing one's hands with Bee & Flower sandalwood soap, of taking elegant cups of herb tea from orphan china cups fetched from the glass-fronted wood cabinet to one side of the dining table. My cousin Josh, all of four years old at the time with a raspy-sweet little boy voice, would play superhero games in the huge terraced back yard, his homemade Batman cape streaming out behind him. On cold and foggy mornings we'd play the Muppet version of The Frog Prince on an LP record in the living room. (The phrase "If I could only bake the hall in the candle of her brain..." got stuck in my head, and remained there for years.)
That summer was the first time I ever read Dandelion Wine. I'd already fallen in love with Ray Bradbury in school, but this was something new to me, different from his tales of Mars and burning books and fantastic European uncles with green wings -- this was written from the point of view of a twelve-year-old, which I happened to be at the time. Reading the book seemed to reignite the life in me, something I needed desperately after the previous six months or so of sleepwalking through existence, taking little interest in anything and subconsciously waiting for Dad to return and make everything all right. He couldn't, of course, but the linked tales of the Spaulding boys and their varying summer adventures in Green Town, Illinois were just the thing I needed to start knitting the ragged edges of my heart back together.
One Sunday my aunt took me to the Berkeley street fair, which was filled with rainbows and soap bubbles and diverse marvels for sale. I loved it. I had no money to buy anything; in a single-parent household with six kids, there's no such thing as allowance money, so the only cash I had came from the occasional babysitting job, where I typically made between $1 and $2 an hour. But I breathed it all in, knowing full well that I couldn't buy any of it, but content just to see what amazing things people were selling.
|Bookbag image by Kim Laustrup. Used with permission.|
It was at the Berkeley fair that Aunt Marcia surprised me with the gift of a black canvas bag screen-printed with gold unicorns, which I used as a school bookbag from junior high onward. I was convinced it was lucky, and wouldn't part with it. By my senior year of high school it was severely tattered, with holes in the bottom corners, and the handles had been replaced twice. I ceremonially burned it in the fire pit of a city park on the morning after I graduated. (I would often burn formerly cherished things as a way of separating my life into neat compartments. Once I burned a whole manila folder of unfinished stories just before I got married, knowing I would never complete them.)
It's been thirty years since that summer. In the time since I've been fortunate enough to see a great many more marvelous things, a fair share of which I'd recognize as magical. But whenever someone describes something as "magic" now, from somewhere in the back of my head comes a cozy memory of a twelve-year-old girl curled up in the cushions of the window seat, reading delicious stories, while old jazz standards play in the background and the afternoon sun shines through to fill the room with rainbows. That's my magic.