Millbrae: Train Tracks of my Youth

DSC00068I just read an uplifting post at Teddy and Tottie, a family enjoying themselves and the holidays.

Color me green with envy.  It’s not that I had a bad holiday.  To the contrary, I have two great sons, four adorable cats and a husband who is all you could ask for in a partner. I have extraordinary friends and a comfortable life.  I want for nothing.

Depression, however, colors things grey.  It tosses a blanket over the light and strips your energy.  It paints things with a lackluster brush.  We’re well acquainted, depression and me, but we’re not friends.  Regardless, it shows up each year and settles in for a while.

The triggers are all too familiar, but since I can’t change the past, cancel the holidays or renegotiate the date on my mother’s death certificate, I simply work at remaining aware and try to be kind to myself.

We headed to The City for a family outing this week on a train that travels through Millbrae.  When our train made the scheduled stop at the Millbrae station and without a hint of diplomacy, my old acquaintance took a seat in the invisible row of my past.  Depression cozied up to my cerebral cortex and made himself comfortable.

And so it goes.

I wrote the following piece in long-hand while riding the same train several years ago.  It flowed out of my pores and helps explain the sorrow.

If you suffer seasonal depression, my heart goes out to you.  Let’s continue together to toss that blanket aside once and for all.

Train Tracks of my Youth

Standing on the Millbrae platform of a train bound for San Jose, memories dribbled out of me like a wound that won’t quite heal. The longer I stood, the sadder I felt, heavy, burdened, questioning as I stared down the train tracks of my youth.

Our family moved to Millbrae in 1968. My father succumbed to lung cancer a year later, victim to his habit of smoking hand-rolled, unfiltered Player cigarettes. He was 54. What should have been a temporary residence on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks became our home for 7 years.

After our father died, Mom found work in the City and rode those tracks north each day. We waited for her to come home at night, listening for the evening train. Having lost one parent, it suddenly seemed feasible that we could lose the other. The relief was palpable when she walked in the door. I remember the smell of her suede cape, her cool, soft cheek and the undeniable release of fear for another day.

We crossed those tracks daily to attend school, the not-so-subtle border between the slums of Millbrae and the mostly white, affluent hills of this small community. A boy named Dwight once caught up to me as I walked home alone on those tracks, charming and polite, he was tall, dark-skinned and interested in me, a potent combination at any age . But he was to appear a few weeks later at our bus stop, arms bleeding, flogged by his father for some unknown infraction. Confused and horrified, I felt very alone. Shortly thereafter his family moved.

We spent our summer on our side of the tracks playing kick the can and hanging out at an apartment pool reading discarded issues of Mad magazine. I was at home with our crowd on Garden Lane, the have-nots who didn’t need to explain. I played with a boy named Robert, our champion player, his friend Scott and my sister Sharon among others. There was a girl from Puerto Rico named Teresa who exuded sex appeal from every pore. She knew a lot more about boys then I did and got to kiss the one I had a crush on.

We survived those years dodging drugs and unwanted pregnancies and went on to graduate from college. But I would be lying if I said we made it through unscathed. For in that rough-and-tumble neighborhood on a street called Garden Lane I saw things that I still don’t really understand: the cries of a woman beaten by her boyfriend; the squawk of her parrot, also agitated and scared; the sight of a father beating his four-year old with a switch; and the cruelty of a boy exploding a frog with a firecracker before my devastated eyes.

Garden Lane was a place of loss and violence, pain and sorrow, first crushes and the dawning sexuality of a shy, freckle-faced girl. The train tracks remain but Garden Lane is gone, obliterated by tractors and wrecking balls to make way for a BART station in its place. Plowed under but not forgotten, it continues to parallel the train tracks of my youth.

35 thoughts on “Millbrae: Train Tracks of my Youth

  1. Alsy, this is so beautiful and sad at the same time. Tears started flowing as soon as I read “without a hint of diplomacy, my old acquaintance took a seat in the invisible row of my past” I know this feeling so well. Love you and cannot wait to see you soon. Be kind to yourself. XOXO


  2. Oh Alys! You know I empathise and understand! We are none of us unscathed and all have our unwanted companion – and it seems zero control over the time of the year it chooses to appear. I don’t know if it will help – or even if it is wanted, but I offer what I have learned.

    I have learned to be kind to this visitor – I say – ‘Ah, there you are again!’ and I allow myself to feel the pain. Then I apply myself to slowly remembering who I am now purely because of those events in my early life. It is quite hard to do sometimes! If it takes time, it takes time and I do my life on auto-pilot until the sadness lifts. The more I practise, the easier it becomes and the quicker it lifts. In my 30’s it was 3 or 4 times a year for 3 or 4 weeks at a time – a big black hole that was impossible to claw my way out of – I spent my time curled up in a fetal position and experienced physical pain when some well meaning friend pulled me upright and ‘took me out for some fresh air’.

    Now it is once or twice a year, and I acknowledge it, clear my calender of any ‘duties’ and set about caring for myself in the way the child within needs. It seems nowadays to take 2 days from the time I catch it. Catching it early is also quite important I find – being cross with myself for not feeling right doesn’t help. Fighting it off makes it worse.

    I have come to the conclusion that my depression reminds me to pan for hidden gold.

    It asks for acknowledgement – Yes, I was once there. Now I am here and I have overcome … and I list the things I am now that my mother told me I would never be. I list who I am despite what was done to me. I mostly look at all the love I have in my life despite those loveless beginnings. And I say to my friend Depression – look how far we have come – look how fortunate we are that we know about these things. Look at us now baby!! [I usually break into song at some point …”If they could see me now ….” This is my sign I am sane once more :-)]

    You will pass through this phase, may have already perhaps? And it will return again when the trigger come round once more. Just remember these things: this too shall pass; you are more than this, you are more than just those experiences. But, conversely, it is just those experiences have contributed to the depth and delight of the person the world knows as Alys – you are who you are because you have taken that life, those experiences and turned them to gold.


    Feel free to delete this if it doesn’t help 🙂


    • My sweet Pauline, I would never delete your comments. Further, what may not help one, may be incredibly helpful to others. The best part of blogging is the conversation that follows.

      I teared up when reading your comments, knowing the agony you’ve been through. You too, had some rough years and it all shapes what we are and who we become. I admire you greatly. You have overcome and went on to raise too wonderful daughters, launched a successful career and found the courage, too, to pursue your art and craft and to share it with all of us. Many gifts. Out of the ashes of our youth, we’ve gained strength.

      I can relate to the comment about auto-piloting your life. In a way it helps to keep the visitor at arm’s length. I’ve been cleaning, sewing, crafting, walking, watching funny movies, and hugging the people I love around me. (As an aside, I had to stop myself from hugging someone this week who is going through a really rough patch, as she had shared earlier that she doesn’t like being touched). Glad I dodged that bullet.

      I appreciate your words, your wisdom and the mere act of you showing up. xox


      • There you go, you have the right recipe for you – and it’s not that different to mine – I tend to close the door, watch things that make me laugh, play music that uplifts and clean………. I think the external cleaning is symbolic of the internal cleaning – but then I tend to over think things 🙂

        I am always so touched when I see how many people love you – there is an outpouring of love that seems to scatter itself around your every public post that is simply wonderful. This is huge testament to the woman you are. Let it enter.


        • Thank you for saying so. I have so many wonderful friends. I’m rich beyond belief.

          Yes! I think the external cleaning is a manifestation of that, too.

          You always manage just the right words to say. Thank you for that.


    • I like what thecontentedcrafter had to say and she said it so well. I wish I could say I don’t know what you are talking about. I’d be lying. I’ve always done battle with that same constant companion. I was introduced to how to tame it recently and I’ll expound more later if anyone is interested. Seasonally, it hits harder for most of us. Lack of light and strong hard memories are contributors. We are hanging in there with you.


      • Thank you, Marlene. It seems many of us suffer the same way. I agree, too, that both the season and lack of sunlight contribute as well.

        I am very much interested in hearing more about your recent ability to tame the depression beast. Please link back here if you decide to share on your blog. xox


  3. Dearest Alys, I, too, understand and wish I could give you a big squeezie hug right now! Yes, my Christmas Day was lovely and I’m very grateful for that, but the lead-up to Christmas and our summer holiday is always very tough for me. I generally put all socialising on hold in the month of December because I find the list of things to do quite overwhelming. Some friends understand, others don’t – but that’s how it is. A few close friends struggle in Winter – and strange me struggles in Summer – quite odd! But I am determined to thoroughly enjoy every second of this holiday – we really need it! Take care my dear friend and know there is lots of love coming your way when you eventually make that trip to Australia! xoxoxoxoxoxoxox


    • I’m so glad you are finding a way to enjoy your holiday. I think you’re smart clearing your calendar and making time for yourself. It’s crazy when you think about it. We all have busy lives, then suddenly we add in finding or unpacking and decorating a tree, buying and wrapping gifts, parties, perhaps travel. I try to simplify more and more each year, but even the constant mail solicitations for charitable giving can feel overwhelming. It makes me acutely aware of the suffering in the world, and my own limitations that I’m just one person and can only do so much. That, coupled with the loss can really feed the depression monster.

      I’m sure the fact that you struggle in the summer relates to something from your past. I’m glad you’ve made it past the worst of it and hope the camping trip has been splendid.



  4. I got chills down my arms reading your blog! So honest & transparent. Thank you for sharing your heart & soul. I can relate; my “Garden Lane” is still here, in Santa Clara, screaming at me every time I frequently drive by. That is where we 4 kids lived with my mom, the house my sister now owns by default. It will be 5 years this Sunday since Mom died, 4 years since I have spoken with “that sister”. The holidays bring it all up, not pretty, not happy, not what I want to be feeling at the most blessed time of year.


    • Wow! I’m stunned by the similarities in our lives. My mom died December 28th of 2008, just a week before you lost your own mom. I too, have an estranged sibling. My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry you have to face your “Garden Lane’ with so much more frequency. I hope the dawning of the new year helps to lessen your emotional load.


          • Thank you! I spent time with my best old lady friend and it was a nice afternoon of hot tea & toasted nuts. The “blues” never came, but I did have a nice cry the night before remembering her and thanking God for my mom even through all her crazies. She lived loud…literally! 🙂


  5. My heart just breaks to read the angst you’ve been going thru your whole life and especially at this time each year, since your dear mom passed away. I’m so thankful that you found a way to persevere thru those difficult years. Because you grew up and found me. That sounds so selfish and maybe it is. Truth is, I’ve come to feel like I waited my whole life for a friend like you Alys. By reading your other visitors, I’m a little astounded at how prevalent depression is. I always used to feel alone, different and even guilty about it. Like, “what’s wrong with me?” I always thought I should ‘will’ myself to resist those feelings and be thankful for everything good in my life, and I surely do. Like you, I have plenty to be thankful for. Yet, even when anticipated, (and you think you’re ahead of it this time) that darkness can arrive right on Que, just like high tide and if you don’t have some tools in your back pocket, you can drown in it. Everyone manages this in their own way, and I’m getting better at it. Just know ((( Alys ))) that you are loved deeply, respected tremendously and thought of endlessly. xox I sent a paper clip to Laurie B a bit ago that said ‘be still’. I was speaking to her heart and head, not her body in motion. It’d be my wish for you too hon. Meanwhile, I’ll be right here. I love you


    • Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly, Boomdee. I think we all wish we could ‘will it away’ and I also know that people who don’t understand or have never experienced depression, think you can just ‘cheer yourself up’ and it will all go away. Like you, I’ve learned ways to manage it, but would just assume keep it at arms length. If only it were so.

      What I should try to do more of is practice my deep breathing, get more rest and meditate, all proven to help a bit. Writing helps too, and being able to share this with others.

      Thank you for your love and friendship. I’m so glad we found each other, too. What a gift.

      Thanks for being here, for understanding and for your care. I wish the same for your too: ‘be still.’


  6. “I want for nothing” … the words I hear from so many women who suffer with depression, whether it be seasonal, hormonal, or others. Women often wonder why they can’t just be happy all the time when they are blessed with goodness in life.
    Alas, we are a product of all that came before, and of genetics as well.
    Here’s to you for surviving the rough and tumble and for accomplishing so much despite the scars.
    You will inspire many this day, Alys. Truly …


  7. Such a moving piece Alys, it’s good to understand how blogging friends tick and thank you for opening up as you have. Depression is certainly not a friend – just a colleague that we have to learn to get along with.


  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I used to live in the same row of apartments on Garden Lane. We were about two or three buildings to the left of where Rollins Road intersected Garden Lane. I used to deliver the San Mateo Times along Garden Lane….back in the days of afternoon papers. I remember the pool was at the freeway end of Garden Lane. I remember a guy jumping from one of the apartment roofs into the pool. Memories of walking along the tracks to Taylor School, putting quarters on the rails for an oncoming train to flatten them, going steady with a girl and kissing in the parking lot of Lincoln Lanes after our Saturday bowling league, matinees at the Millbrae Theatre, mom grocery shopping and taking us to Lyon’s for dinner on Wednesdays. Walking to Ken’s Pancake House at corner of El Camino Real and Millbrae Avenue. Some of my strongest and fondest memories of my youth are from my days and nights of living on Garden Lane.


    • Clark C. I’m glad you found my post and that much of it resonates with you. Our memories of that time are so aligned. Did you stay in Millbrae to attend high school or did you move after your time at Taylor? Millbrae is a small town. I’m amazed when I hear from someone who lived in our tiny neighborhood.


      • I lived there from around 1977 to late 1979 when I was in sixth grade at Chadbourne then on to Taylor for seventh and the first half of eighth grade.
        There used to be a small aquaduct that ran the length of Garden Lane behind the apartments. Of course we played in there when the tide was low and it was full of sludge.
        After my paper route was finished, I would treat myself to a candy bar and soda at the Chevron station by Aviador and Garden Lane. Most of my friends lived in the apartments along Garden Lane.


        • Wow. I feel like I’m in a time warp. I remember that gas station (and I also remember using its pay phone).I’m a few years older than you. I attended Chadbourne in 1971. We moved away from Millbrae in 1974, just three years before you arrived.


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