Walking the streets from my childhood home on Fenley Avenue to Cypress School is different now. I’m taller, and I’m not carrying schoolbooks. I walk alone, my best friend Sherri moved to Texas, most of the other kids on the block gone, too. New people, mostly young Silicon Valley workers, live in the homes I pass. Some of the early 1950s houses have been replaced by mini-mansions or apartments. Cars line the streets and fill the driveways.
The dozens of baby boomer kids who walked to Cypress every morning are senior citizens now. So is our school. Cypress became a senior center in the early 1980s. My late husband, Fred, helped supervise its development and oversaw the staff as a supervisor in the San Jose Recreation Department. Where once the space was full of children, now it welcomes seniors for lunches, stitchery classes, concerts, and other activities.
People rent the big multi-purpose room for private events. We had my 50th birthday party and the celebration of life for my aunt and uncle there. That room has so many memories: tumbling and trampolining, eating cafeteria spaghetti on long fold-down tables, playing a wicked stepsister in a Girl Scout production of Cinderella, singing with the school choir, sitting through assemblies and movies. I can feel the dusty green linoleum under my bare legs as we sat on the floor playing jacks or doing lessons in our skirts and saddle shoes.
Much later, when it was a senior center, I sang and played guitar for the seniors. I did concerts in that room with the Valley Chorale. I played music at my birthday party, too, which was the last event my mother attended before she died of cancer.
While the multi-purpose room is still full of life, more than half the school was demolished years ago, replaced by a senior apartment complex occupied by elderly Asians. Only the front wing with the offices, kindergarten, shop and home ec classrooms remains. The other classrooms and the field where I used to run and play are long gone.
I walk to Cypress now for exercise and respite from taking care of my dad, who still lives in the house on Fenley Avenue. On this particular day, there’s a warm breeze. I hear Lee Greenwood’s “IOU” playing on someone’s stereo. I hear hammering and voices from the apartments going up across the street. An elderly Vietnamese man shuffles by as I sit on the bench outside the multipurpose room. Through the window, I see chairs lined up facing the stage. A sign proclaims “Happy Thanksgiving.”
It’s so quiet I hear the dry leaves falling from the trees. I wish I knew what kind of trees these are. Liquidamber? I know they’re not cypress. I know they weren’t here when I was a child lining up in this parking lot for red and yellow alerts in anticipation of nuclear attacks. With a yellow alert, we supposedly had time to go home. In a red alert, we were to take shelter under our desks or under a bench outside. More than half a century later, we know those moves wouldn’t have done us any good if the bomb hit, but we diligently gathered while our teachers took roll and assured us we would be all right if we followed instructions.
I attended Cypress School from first through eighth grade. A red line across the playground separated the big kids from the little ones. All those years, it was a safe place filled with children’s voices, the smells of paste and pencil lead, and sun shining through the big windows. It feels odd to be here now and realize I could walk in and sign up for senior citizen programs. No one seems to question my being here, my wrinkles and graying hair all the qualification I need.
Like my father, I feel driven to share my memories. I want to tell people: This is where we played four-square, this is where we lined up for lunch, this is where the P.E. teacher tried to teach us the foxtrot, this is where I got my first period, this is where Mr. Blackwell encouraged me to be a writer . . . I expect our longtime principal Mrs. Blyther to come out of the office. I can almost smell the spaghetti, the best I ever tasted. I expect to hear the bell ring any minute, calling me to class.
But the hammering continues. The leaves fall. The light is fading, and my father will be wondering where I am. I snap some pictures on my cell phone, and start walking home.