Travel: Staying at My Sister’s

Last week I drove down to Berkeley, CA — approximately 130 miles from my house — to water my sister’s orchids. This was not the original plan. When Sarah decided to go diving in Bali, she offered me her apartment as a refuge, writing retreat, change-of-pace place if I needed one. Which sounded great to me. As the days unfolded, however, this proved to be hard to accomplish.

Me in non-retreat mode in a local cafe, using someone else’s laptop.

To make a long story short, I ended up not being free to go until the precise moment when her plants were going to be in serious trouble without water, so I jumped in the car. A promise is a promise, and sometimes you can’t delegate things. I haven’t asked her permission to show you her place, but I took some photos of things I loved seeing there, like this slate carving by our cousin Michael Updike (he does gravestones, too, if you need one).

My sister is a fan of octopuses and other sea life…

And a painting by our cousin Miranda (Michael’s sister).

The view from living room into bathroom of our old family house in Moretown, Vermont, by Miranda Updike

Another reason to love visiting Sarah’s house is that it’s one block from the Elmwood Cafe, where I sat on the sidewalk drinking coffee and eating breakfast on a very blue sunny Berkeley morning.

A four-way stop where people didn’t always stop.
The quiche was delicious (drawing, lower left).

Next door to the Elmwood is Mrs. Dalloway’s, a bookstore that I somehow had never entered before. I got out only a little bit lighter in the wallet, and had my eyes and imagination wonderfully filled up.

You probably know that symbol on the front desk is called an ampersand.

Around the corner from the bookstore is a specialty store — there’s really no good name for the genre, it’s so unusual — called Tail of the Yak, a place I’ve been frequenting for decades. I’m afraid my wallet was quite a bit lighter after I left this place, but in the service of Xmas, so we make allowances. My eyes and imagination exploded.

After hauling my packages back to the car, I had the quintessential urban experience. Mine was the only vehicle parked on that side of the street, which seemed strange. Somewhere in my memory banks from the years I lived in Cambridge and Chicago, a phrase stirred and then took shape: “Street sweeping day!” Ack! I hopped in and drove off, just in front of the meter-person. About seven blocks away I finally found a parking place, and sat in the car breathing heavily. Tickets in Berkeley are nothing to sneeze at. They can be the size of a mortgage payment, depending on what your transgression is.

So it pleased me greatly to see this sign in front of someone’s house. And the ladder leading to safety, in case I needed it.

The capital P is missing, but you get the idea.

When 20 minutes had passed, I took a chance, and drove back to Sarah’s block. It was extremely clean, with the marks of those funny brushes they use under the sweeping trucks still visible on the pavement. Whew! By this time my nerves were so worked over, I walked back to the Elmwood for a second caffeinated beverage to calm down. I had just enough time before my phone date with a client from Berlin, after which I was going to get on the freeway and drive home.

One could, if one were rationalizing heavily, argue that not getting the street-sweeping ticket paid for the Xmas presents, the books, the breakfast out plus another latte, and also the gas to get to Berkeley and back from my home in the Sierra foothills, and then some. But no one we know makes those kinds of mental trade-offs, do they? No, I didn’t think so.

I’m a writer. This is my work.
If you found this post valuable, please consider
sharing it with your people and supporting my work
through Patreon or Paypal (mollyfisk at gmail).
Big love and many thanks.

8 thoughts on “Travel: Staying at My Sister’s

  1. Dear Molly,
    I loved this piece. For most of my young life I considered the Bay Area my home. Whenever I left and then finally moved away, crossing the Carquenez Bridge signaled, I had come home. Thank you for sharing the richness of your visit.

    1. I thought of you and your memoir, Ruth, when I was sitting at the café, and how much time you had spent in the East Bay (and all those Woolworths!). Very happy you liked the post. xox Molly (And PS, got your phone message. A book will be on its way next week.)

  2. Candence, Ruth and I were in a writing class with you recently (How to Speak Good). I so enjoyed meeting you and spending some time talking, learning some of your ideas and techniques and sharing lunch together. I so enjoyed this photo walk through Berkeley. I lived there in the 60’s and return like a homing pigeon every opportunity that I have. It is delightful and I am passing it on to some of my Berkeley friends. I hope to see you again.

    Happy holidays.

    1. I’m so glad you liked this, Norma, and that was a lovely class we had, wasn’t it? I felt like a country mouse in Berkeley, I’ve lived in the hills for so long now! It was very fun to explore. xox Molly

  3. JoAnna Robinson is My best friend from high school, except for a few years while she was married to my x-boyfriend. We still manage to get together every few years. This time I was in SF and she had read your blog so we visited the Yak. I enjoyed meeting the proprietriss. Ifthat isn’t alreadythe best,i have trade off to report. After prepaying 2018 taxes and making the final payment on his mother’s cruise, my partener said it had been an expensive night but how nice it felt to have such expenses and be able to cover tem. Yak, yak.

  4. I love being featured in absencia (was that a word before I made it up?) in this lovely piece and I am so glad you enjoyed your visit and did not get a ticket! Please forgive me for bringing up this small detail, but the painting of the house in Vermont you featured and attributed to Aunt Mary, is actually the work of our cousin Miranda Updike. The one on the wall above it – of the winter marsh – is Aunt Mary’s, as are quite a few others in the house. I just thought I should mention it.
    love, Sarah
    PS – The (probably too long) backstory: I bought a small painting from Miranda long ago which was part of a larger painting she hadn’t been happy with so she cut it in half. It was a painting of the old piano in Vermont which had an ornate carved music holder with curly cue spirals on it. I loved that she thought the halves would be so much better than the whole – and she was right! I bought one piece (at family rates) and brought it home to my partner’s house in Oregon. When that house burned to the ground in 2007, it was one of many sentimental losses. So I asked Miranda what had become of the other half of the painting and if I could perhaps buy it from her. Well, she said I could not because you had bought it already! It hangs by your front door. She then sent me the painting you posted in this essay as a gift. She also sent a watercolor of the house in Vermont painted by our mother, Antoinette, when she was a teenager, that she had given to our Great Aunt Net (her namesake) before any of us were born. Miranda thought I should have it after the fire.

    1. Wow, I didn’t know the other-half-of-the-piano story!! Just that she’d cut it in half, and I bought a half. Sorry to have misidentified her painting as Mary’s, I’ll go back into the article and change it. We both have samples of her pigeon arts thesis, too… Great taste is clearly heritable. And btw, you didn’t make it up but it’s spelled “in absentia.” xoxo

Leave a Reply