Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: Goodbye to Berkeley

As we prepare to leave Berkeley, California and return home to Vermont, here are some Berkeley stories from the past five months of our family’s sabbatical:


It’s late January. We are a few weeks into our homeschool curriculum, and for science I’ve been taking my daughters on nature walks around our neighborhood to observe West Coast flora and fauna. This particular morning, we’re squatting on the sidewalk sketching a Bird of Paradise plant, when a nearby house’s door opens and a man emerges. I’m concerned that he’s about to chase us away, but he asks what we’re doing in a friendly manner.

Then he says, “My wife sent me out here to offer you some lemons.” He gestures towards the lemon tree in his front yard, laden with lemons bigger than my fist (he tells us they’re Eureka lemons.) He cuts down four lemons, one for each of my daughters. We thank him and take the lemons home; later, we will use a recipe from The World of Little House, a companion book to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of pioneer memoirs, to make delicious lemonade from these lemons.


I am running errands in downtown Berkeley, which requires nerves of steel and money for parking. I have just exited the post office, where I avoided the 30-minute wait for the windows manned by actual people, choosing instead the 10-minute wait to weigh my package at the computerized self-service checkout.

The sidewalk outside the post office is teeming with students from Berkeley High School (enrollment: 3,204), who have just been dismissed for the day. High school students make me nervous under the best circumstances, because they are usually bigger and cooler than I am, but these Berkeley High students make me especially nervous, because they look bigger and cooler and tougher than I am: The girls walking right in front of me sport multiple body piercings and purple hair.

Then I catch a few words of what they’re saying. Familiar names. Without quite realizing it, I am eavesdropping.

“Mrs. Hughes! I LOVE Mrs. Hughes!”

“Aw, yeah! And Mrs. Padmore? She’s the s****!”

“But that O’Brien? I can’t stand her! What a b****!”

That’s when I realize that they’re discussing Downton Abbey, the British period drama that recently concluded a six-season run on PBS. Not only are they discussing the show, but their character assessment -- albeit profanity-laden -- indicates that they are squarely on the side of good.


My daughters and I are walking past the original Peet’s Coffee shop on the corner of Vine and Walnut, when a man outside the café accosts us. He is, at first glance, the kind of person about whom one might say, “He’s not quite right:” His eyes are a little wild, his beard is shaggy, his pants are dirty and unzipped. Perhaps he’s homeless, but he’s not asking for money.

“They all yours?” he yells, pointing at my daughters.

“Yes,” I say, stopping. I’m not big on ignoring people, no matter how questionable they appear: Everyone deserves a chance to say their piece.

“They going to college?” he asks, again at a shout. My eldest daughter grips my arm tightly.

“Maybe,” I say, “If we can afford it!”

He nods. “Yeah, yeah. She going to Cal [local parlance for the University of California at Berkeley], she going to Cal, and she going to Cal.” He’s pointed out my three oldest daughters. Then he spots my two-year-old in the stroller. “But she – she going to Stanford!”

At this point, my second daughter (the spunky one) can’t hold back any longer. “If they let her in to college; she bites!”

The man pauses a moment, then doubles over in laughter. “That one!” he wheezes, “That one, oh yeah, she can talk!”

He sends us on our way with a lot of “God bless.”


I am walking up Russell Street. It’s a quiet neighborhood of 100-year-old bungalows mixed with more modern multiple-unit buildings. Just past Shattuck Avenue, between a single-story Craftsman bungalow and a duplex, is a small vacant lot surrounded by a cyclone fence, beyond which a cement foundation is barely visible in the weedy grass. A large sign on the fence reads: “NOT FOR SALE.”

Such a proactive statement is necessary only in a place like Berkeley, where the current housing market defies logic. Friends here -- employed friends, who have been hoping to buy a house for over a year -- tell us that every house they’ve bid on thus far has sold for at least $250,000 over the asking price. All cash, no contingencies.


I take my two oldest daughters to Stonemountain and Daughter, a fabric store that’s been a downtown Berkeley fixture since 1981. We spend a magical half-hour picking out fabric for a sewing project. There is more fabric here, in every pattern imaginable, than we have ever seen: unicorns, mushrooms, constellations and planets, children’s book characters, and even bacon and doughnuts, are beautifully printed on the cloth surrounding us.

While I’m paying at the counter, a woman enters the store with her dog. I don’t know the dog’s breed, but it’s a small one, about the size of a large rat. And it’s getting a lot of attention: from my daughters, who love dogs and miss the one we left back in Vermont, and from employees and customers in the store.

As we prepare to leave, my daughter (the spunky one) tugs on my sleeve and whispers, “Mommy, that dog just peed on the carpet! And the people here didn’t even care; they gave the dog a biscuit!”

She is incredulous. This same daughter has been scolded twice by strangers in Berkeley for offenses far smaller than peeing on a carpet. For the next couple of days, she repeats the story of the dog to anybody who will listen.


I suppose that these moments could have happened anywhere, but there is something about each of them -- and about them taken together -- which seems to me to be quintessentially Berkeley.

Berkeley is where you find Bird of Paradise plants and bursting lemon trees in late January. Berkeley is where purple-haired teenagers discuss passionately the characters of an early-20th-century British period drama. Berkeley is where vagrants concern themselves with my children’s higher education. Berkeley is where vacant lots are real estate treasures. Berkeley is where children are scolded and incontinent dogs are rewarded.

Berkeley is where we have spent five months longing for Vermont, only to discover that our feelings are complex.

My daughters miss their Vermont friends, family, schools, and dog. But last month, when their Vermont grandmother exclaimed joyfully, “Six more weeks!” I caught a glimpse of my eldest daughter’s face.

“We’re only here for six more weeks?” she whispered to me. I nodded, and her expression moved through the shadows of all the goodbyes that lay ahead. Goodbyes to her California grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; to new and rediscovered California friends.

Later that night, I said to her, “We’ve been missing Vermont, but now we’re going to miss California, aren’t we?”

She nodded. When I continued, I was talking to myself as much as to her.

“It’s funny, but life is like that: You’re always missing something.”


Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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