Finding Alice

What I Can't Help But Say

July – Half a year gone as I try to get used to our altered reality. My bread machine is taking a well-deserved break. Finally I have plenty of T.P. and disinfectant. But there will be no 4th of July parade or potluck this year. Even worse for families sick and tired of being home, many summer camps were cancelled, including Four Winds*Westward Ho in Washington State.

Gypsy Queen Alice, circa 1970-something

My siblings and I were campers and counselors there in the 1970’s, as were many of our children years later. When anyone says, “Go to your Happy Place,” my mind goes to the carved wooden bench overlooking that camp bay.

When I saw the video of the camp director delivering the sad news online, I could hear hearts breaking all over the world. In his post, Paul Sheridan sits on the lodge railing with his back to the blue waters off Orcas Island’s Puget Sound. He looks devastated. He says they tried all spring to figure out how not to record that video. He says, “We live in extraordinary times… For the first time since 1927, there will be no camp this season.”

Social distancing at camp would be impossible. They hug, share everything (including germs), and when they gather in the old lodge there is not one square inch of floor space between them. Regular handwashing? Have you ever seen a duffle bag of dirty laundry come home with a camper?

For those unfamiliar with Four Winds, a bit of history:

Ruth Brown, Image courtesy of Saltwater People Historical Society

Ruth Brown, a spinster affectionately known as “Miss Ruth” founded the camp in 1927. Her 4th Grade essay from 1906, “My Ambition,” could serve as the camp’s mission statement.

“When I grow up I am going to have twelve children, six girls and six boys. I will like my children very much and will let them read anything they want and will always let them finish a chapter. Even if they are not beautiful I will not tell them so. If they want to sing I will let them sing no matter how they sound. They can all take violin lessons instead of piano if they want to or I will not care what they do as long as they are doing something interesting. I’ll have a cupboard full of pads of paper and lots of pencils … I will never send them to their rooms to punish them and I will not keep telling them how well behaved their sisters are … I will pick a nice father for my children. An author would be nicest except that sometimes they do not make enough money to take care of so many children. You may think twelve children will not be a very big ambition but we will have a very good time and a happy life and if we do not find a good father who wants twelve children I will have to find twenty four to adopt and then I will paint pictures and write books which I think would be a very good thing to do when I am not busy with the children anyway.”

Miss Ruth never did find that good man. But she fulfilled her ambition, and I consider myself one of those children.

Boon Bird by Emily Brock Lewis, Copyright 2020

I was twelve when I met her. She was legend. She was an ancient goddess, living at Hilltop – her home on the camp property and had sent for me to join her for tea and cookies so I could tell her all about my day. I was awestruck, honored and uncharacteristically shy.

The carved bench was the unofficial boundary between Girls’ Side and Boys’ Side. Most of the girls stayed in cabins, boys in platform tents. Girls wore bloomers (don’t knock ‘em ‘til you try ‘em – very comfy!), matching sailor ‘middies’ and colored silk knotted ties to identify them as camper, apprentice or counselor.

Alice with Annie the camp goat, 4th of July, Deer Harbor, WA

We took swim tests off the barnacled dock in water so cold you kept your head above water to avoid an ice cream headache. You could spend your day on the dock, in the barn, or on the craft courts. Or you could skip activities altogether and sit in the lodge composing songs and reading poetry.

This Old Lodge by Emily Brock Lewis, Copyright 2020

We were children of the ‘60s and ‘70s with more freedom than rules. There was only one rule, and it was unbreakable. You could do anything you wanted providing your actions did nothing to harm yourself or others.

We held tea parties in an old maple treehouse, ate breakfasts of eggs and oysters cooked over an open fire on a rocky beach. My first summer I spent hours canoeing, a result of a killer crush on a counselor. By the end of six weeks I could paddle a straight line fighting a strong current and earned my canoeing medallion. I sailed aboard the 86 ft. schooner Martha through the Straights of Georgia. Completely soaked in saltwater and clinging to the bow, I saw a pod of killer whales off to port. To date, the best adventure of my life.

Goon Bird by Emily Brock Lewis, Copyright 2020

Artist Ernest Norling (1892 – 1974) carved statues and signs that remain throughout the camp.

Sign Post Crow by Emily Brock Lewis, Copyright 2020

We would lie on our backs on the red woolen rug and stare up at the flowers painted on the lodge beams, trying to find the two matching ones. We whispered scary stories about ‘Hatchet Annie’ and ‘Creosote Sadie,’ fried donuts in a cast iron kettle, and made lopsided pots as gifts for our parents. We paddled war canoes and sailed little boats into the paths of oncoming Washington State ferries. A group of kitchen helpers formed a band called, ‘The No Jive Five.’ We played at being cool, smoking rolled madrone bark while listening to someone learning “Stairway to Heaven” on an acoustic guitar.

At the end of our session we sent driftwood boats lit with candles into the bay. We climbed the trail to the bench to see the dark bay twinkle like the heavens, then watched until the waters snuffed them out.

When our daughters were old enough, we gave up family trips and budgeted so they could go to Four Winds. I am so grateful that my husband understood how much it meant.

Over the years due to insurance requirements and common sense, there were more rules at camp and less freedom, but Miss Ruth’s spirit remained. In the camp songs, harmonies became melodies and melodies harmonies, but they are the same songs. The younger generations love it just as much, if not more.

Garden Gate by Emily Brock Lewis, Copyright 2020

In a letter to campers, Paul Sheridan wrote, “Your generation is being asked to make a tremendous sacrifice. Nothing in our lifetimes compares to it. You are missing out on friendship, school, activities, sports, milestone moments, and now camp. It takes our breath away.”

Four Winds*Westward Ho Camp will survive. It survived The Great Depression and World War II. In a log Miss Ruth kept during a tour of Europe on the eve of war, she wrote,

“Munich: One last visit to our favorite bookshop where I tried in vain to buy a red leather edition of Heine to match my Goethe but, alas, Heine is banished from Germany. I hope he too will return with the old gaiety. All deep, beautiful things will somehow survive.”

The Promise Well by Emily Brock Lewis, Copyright 2020
Painting by Linda Weinstock

Once upon a time there was a grandmother who lived one long nap away from her two adorable granddaughters – a big sister who was almost old enough for Kindergarten and a little sister who was only two but could ride a scooter really fast.  

Grandma would drive through heavy traffic to see those girls, even for just a short visit. Sometimes the sisters and their parents would drive through heavy traffic to spend the night at Grandma’s house, go out to morning coffee, then swing and slide at the park.

Then everything changed.

The grownups called it a pandemic. The big sister called it ‘The Germ.’ Scientists said it looked like a pokey ball with crowns on top of lots of little arms. But to everyone else it was invisible. It lurked on doorknobs, counter tops, shopping carts and even on the swings and slides at the park.

The boss of all the scientists, Dr. Grouchy, said that until they invented a medicine to keep everyone safe from ‘The Germ,’ families who didn’t live under the same roof shouldn’t hold hands, kiss, or even hug.

Not even hug.

Dr. Grouchy said they could visit at a “Social Distance” of six feet or more. Whose foot? Grandma’s? Certainly not the little sister’s foot. Not even the big sister’s foot, even though she was almost ready for Kindergarten and her feet had outgrown her shoes.

Grandma was very sad. She hated the words, “Social Distance.” And not even hug? Grandma loved hugging more than pizza from Giorgio’s on Clement, even more than morning coffee made by someone else. Grandma was not sure she could visit without hugging.

That would be hard.

Grandma lay in bed at night dreaming of ways to be near the two sisters. She could buy twelve purple balloons and some green tissue paper from the Dollar Store to make a grape costume, then hide in the vineyard near their cottage.

Maybe she could transform herself into a small yellow backpack, her arms strapped snug and tight around the big sister’s shoulders. Or maybe she could turn into a pink and purple floatie buckled around the little sister’s tummy to keep her safe in cool water on a hot summer day.

Oh Wait! A dog costume! Dogs disobeyed the six-foot rule all the time. That was so crazy, it just might work.

Grandma decided to share her ideas with the girls. The big sister was very smart, so smart that she could count all the way to 100. She rolled her eyes, smiled and said, “Oh, Grandma! You’re kidding!”  The big sister knew they had to follow the rules. They would need to wait a hundred sleeps before they could hug again.

The little sister was also very smart but could only count to 12. When Grandma, Grumpy and wonderful Aunt Emmy would come for an outside Social Distance visit, the little sister would run fast toward Aunt Emmy. But her mother would scoop her up before she could get there.

This made the little sister so sad that she would go stand in a corner all alone, her back to the family. This made everyone sad, even though the grownups knew the little sister would not even remember ‘The Germ’ and Social Distancing once the pandemic was over, except for in the memories that come from family stories told again and again.

That night Grandma dreamed about being a handmade quilt the family could use for a 4th of July picnic or to wrap the sisters’ mother tight like a burrito when she was tired at the end of a day and needed a mother’s hug.  She dreamed about hiding in a big cardboard box with a red bow and popping out to surprise the big sister on her birthday. She dreamed about a candy costume at Halloween. (A witch might be too scary.) A feathered turkey costume for Thanksgiving? A red Santa suit?

Out of the question. Grandma knew the little sister had been afraid to sit on Santa’s lap.

No. Grandma would have to wait. How many sleeps? More than 100. Even more than 200. Before Grandma could dream about bunny and basket costumes, she heard Dr. Grouchy say that ‘The Germ’ might stay until after Easter.


But Grandma knew for sure that one day, many sleeps from now, she would hear Dr. Fauchi (turns out Grandma had been hearing his name wrong this whole time) say, “It’s ok! We have the medicine! No more Social Distancing. Permission to HUG!”

And on that day Grandma would drive through heavy traffic as fast as was safe, jump from her car, run faster than a scooter, open the gate and scoop up both sisters at once into her arms. She would squeeze them so tight they would wiggle and try to get down. She would hug even tighter and tell them she was going to squeeze them until they popped!

The little sister would laugh out loud. The big sister would smile, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh Grandma. You’re kidding!”

The End

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Words. My building blocks and none of them behaving. Refusing to line up neatly and obediently at my command, marching themselves into sentences, then paragraphs.

So for now, I will surrender and leave them be. I refuse to force them to my will.

  • Privilege
  • Injustice
  • Oppression
  • Equity
  • Grief
  • Divided
  • United
  • Acknowledge
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Connect
  • Action
  • Reform
  • Accountability
  • Understanding
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Self-awareness
  • Respect
  • Healing
  • Change
  • Meaningful
  • Tangible
  • Now

Just words. I heard that when all is finally written, said or done, one good sketch is worth a thousand, right? An artistic daughter continues to teach her parents well.

Graphite drawing of George Floyd by Emily Brock Lewis


Good Evening to My Viewers in the West

I have a crush on the most trusted man in America. Obama? Good guess. Dr. Fauci? Well now that you mention it, yes. Him too. But I’m talking about NBC’s Lester Holt.

Earnest, dimpled, empathetic Lester. I am a total Lester groupie. We even have a shiny black coffee mug with an NBC peacock on it.

On regular weeknights our adult daughter, Emily, comes over for a visit. We chat over cocktails as the half-ignored soundtrack of COVID-related statistics, stock market losses, and worldwide tragedy plays from the small flatscreen mounted above the kitchen counter. Then just before 6 pm we mute our conversation and turn our full attention to what we call, ‘The Happy Thing.’

My husband, Si, wants our 39-year marriage to survive the Great Shelter, so he stays out of the kitchen until after 6 pm. If he dares interrupt the ‘Happy Thing’ my glare cuts deeper than any handmade weapon on his favorite show.

Emily and I can always tell when Lester likes the ‘Happy Thing’ and when he’s just reading from his teleprompter. His dimples say it loud and clear. And those amazing eyes encircled by round frames repeat the chorus. When he misses his mark his face says, “This one’s not my best, Lewis Ladies. Terribly sorry! Tune in again tomorrow and I’ll try harder.” No worries, Lester. We will.

Just for you!

So here is your very own ‘Finding Alice Happy Thing,’ and you didn’t even have to suffer through twenty-five minutes of evening news to get there.

Back Story: My husband ordered a TV for a customer and asked the vendor to deliver it to our house. He let me know it was coming and that they needed a signature.

I felt trapped for weeks by the extended lock down. No nonessential outings. No dinners out, hair coloring or impulse shopping at favorite local stores. But a FedEx delivery requiring a signature? I couldn’t even walk the damned dog.

Poor Sugar Bear

On delivery day, we got a call on the home office line from the FedEx driver. Of course, I didn’t pick up because every unidentified caller is an evil robot. He left a message, then followed up with a text to my cel saying he was nearby.

From the reassembled fragments of our dropped conversation I learned his freight truck was too big for our dead-end block. Day wasted. They would need to reschedule.

Here comes the ‘Happy Thing!’ The driver said, and I kid you not, “What if I come to Encinal Avenue? Big street nearby? I park my truck and walk the TV to you on a hand truck?”

For those unfamiliar with our Island City of Alameda, that means single-handedly unloading a 55” flat screen TV from a big rig, strapping it to a dolly, then wheeling it up the middle of the street for several blocks while dodging bicycles, dog walkers, and exercise enthusiasts all trying to avoid each other six feet apart at a time.

No way. They would have to reschedule. Another waste of a day.

Minutes later as I sat frustrated at my desk in our nice cool basement, the driver texted that he was out front. I sprinted upstairs, relieved. I would have bear-hugged the fellow if Governor Gavin had given his ok.

Pushing the heavy boxed TV up the length of our driveway, the driver said, “What a beautiful neighborhood!” Sweating from his efforts, his eyes said he was smiling wide beneath his mask as I signed for the delivery. I handed him two water bottles and a good tip, then thanked him repeatedly as I watched him roll his dolly down the block into the proverbial sunset.

Heroes among us! I still had his number, so I texted one more thank you and asked for the name of his supervisor. When I called, the grumpy voice on the end of the line must have thought I was going to lodge a complaint. He lightened up when he realized I was happy and put me through to a supervisor.

The supervisor picked up, just as grumpy as the first until I filled him in. I could feel his smile right through the phone as I sang my song of praise. The actions of one man made the day for all of us. Random act, above and beyond, hope signed for and delivered.

Back in the good old days of restaurant dine-in, you would get the rare waiter like that. One that treated you like their personal favorite. I would get that rare waiter and I would say, “I want to bottle you up and take you along to every other restaurant so you could be my forever waiter.”

I don’t have to tell you our world has changed, and it’s understandably overwhelming. But the way we treat others gives us power. Take your hand truck to the high road. If most of us do it, most of the time, we will all have our ‘Happy Thing’ at the end.

*This is not an ad for either FedEx or NBC, although if they made me an offer, I wouldn’t turn it down. Timely feel good commercial, right?

Mother’s Day 2020 and I am so ready to party!

No lectures, please. I don’t mean reckless abandon “Grandmas Gone Wild” kind of partying with blowing raspberries on bare tummies. Certainly not this year. And no hugging.

(Aside to self: Now Alice, don’t go down that rabbit hole. For this weekend, promise no hyper- focusing on pandemics, politics, and dire economic predictions!)

Out of all the descriptor hats I wear, ‘Mom’ and ‘Grandma’ are my favorites. My husband Si who goes by ‘Grumpy’ says, “Every day should be Mother’s Day.” True to his word. He brings me flowers, peanut M&Ms and lottery scratchers on arbitrary occasions all year long.

I know certain husbands who when asked if ready for the holiday reply, “Why should I get my wife anything for Mother’s Day? She’s not MY mother!”  No judgment, here, guys. Just saying.

Another ‘Si’ truism: We are made immortal through our ancestors – not just their DNA, but their stories, behavior, and values. My mother, also Alice, has been gone for over thirty years and I still miss her, not just on Mother’s Day but at random and unexpected times throughout the year.

Mom with her dog, Bobby

Mom was born shortly after the 1918 pandemic. (There you go again, Alice!) A branded spinster, Mom didn’t marry Dad until 1955, then managed to pack a steamer trunk-load of memories into what remained of her life. She gave birth to four kids in less than four years. I remember lots of hollering but by comparison much more love and laughter. When I became a mother for the first time, my mother said, “Oh, I’m so jealous of you! She’s going to make such a good companion!”

She was right. We became such good companions, Mom and me.

And my daughters are definitely incredible companions. My granddaughters, too. Pretty amazing little girls, and everything, even right now when everything is not fine, everything is fine.

So I will silence my internal, italic editor and speak directly to all the mothers right now who are confined with children – toddles,adolescents, or teenagers, the moms who wish that if Costco can’t manage to keep Clorox wipes and TP on their shelves, they would at least stock twenty pound bags of patience. To those moms on Mother’s Day 2020, I say, Hang in there! You are strong. You are powerful. You are a mother, and one day, if you remember to breathe deeply to a count of ten and lock yourself all alone in the bathroom when necessary, they will indeed become such good companions.

Mark my mother’s words.

Original art by Brooke Lee Towne MacDonald 2019 and 2020

A few years back our family watched Alone – a History Channel show in which ten survival experts competed by camping solo on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.  Winter was coming. And indeed, their nights were full of terror.

Safe in our cozy living room we settled in with cocktails before a warm fire. On the glowing flatscreen it was, as sailors say, ‘blowing stink.’ Cold wind ripped tent flaps open. Tree limbs whipped sideways as rain turned to sleet.

The video feed turned to night vision. The exhausted twenty-year-old stared vacantly into his camera and said, “Time to Hunker Down!” Twigs snapped just outside the tent as the silhouette of a bear’s shadow loomed on the wet nylon. The wide-eyed contestant sunk deeper into his down mummy bag and yelled, “HEY BEAR!

And if any contestant said either ‘Hey Bear’ or ‘Hunker Down’ it was our prompt to clink glasses, cheers to each other and drink.

Fast forward to the present: We no longer drink when someone on TV says, ‘Hunker Down.’ Also banished? ‘Social Distancing,’ Unprecedented,’ and ‘Out of An Abundance of Caution.’As small business owners during a pandemic, the rehab expense at Betty Ford or Mountain Vista Farms is simply not in the family budget.

To those who know me it will come as no surprise that during a recent block party Zoom, I told on myself. And for the remainder of the conversation, ‘Hunker Down’ came from every un-muted neighbor on screen. I toasted each for the laugh and by the end of the hour was feeling much better, and yet worse. I believe the correct word for it is maudlin.  

Someone can make me cry simply by asking how I’m doing. When I’m being a drama queen my brother Bob says, “Honey Bun – It isn’t always all about you.” I know that is true. Believe me. I watch way too much news. But whatever you are experiencing at this ‘unprecedented’ time, doesn’t it seem that way?

Scary, right?

When can we hug again? I once hugged complete strangers. Now even my friendly smile is buried beneath a homemade mask. When will it be okay to hold our eldest daughter, Sarah, in my arms? Or hold our granddaughters, Brooke and Grae, on my lap for a story? And when it is finally safe, will those little girls want to be held, or will they be afraid?

For now I don’t know that I have the requisite will power to keep at a safe distance, a “Kangaroo Hop” as Sarah calls it. I considered ordering a hazmat suit from a friend’s safety supply company. But it’s not practical. We need to save them for the front line personnel. Also, if a Santa suit terrorized two-year-old Grae last Christmas, can you imagine the ensuing nightmares from seeing a 60-year-old woman in a face mask and hazmat suit?

So, we FaceTime when Sarah has both a moment and the peace of mind to call. Grae monopolizes the phone. She asks for our younger daughter, her “Aunt Emmie,” her grandpa Si who goes by “Grumpy”, and our dog, “Sugar Bear.” When she realizes it’s just me on the line, Grae drops the phone in a wicker basket and carries me through their house. By now I know every inch of Sarah’s ceiling, Grae’s soft pink cheek and the closeup of one beautiful eye.

Her sister, Brooke, is off screen and doesn’t often participate in a virtual visit. At age four she is often glued to another screen or out back floating wine cork boats on a garden hose mud puddle. She connects with me by texting lines of emojis ranging from winged fairies to steaming poop.

Sarah sent a text last night that Brooke said, “When the Germ is over, I want to go to the zoo.” They have several tourist brochures, once real but now for play – Monterey Bay, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars, trains, and out of all of them, Brooke chose the Oakland Zoo.

In pre-Germ time and missing us one Sunday, Sarah brought the girls down from Napa Valley to meet us at the zoo. We sprang into full grandparent “spoil you rotten” mode and bought the girls cotton candy and glowing bubble wands. We rode the new gondola up to see the bears and bison at the California Exhibit. I stood beside Brooke on the carousel while she went up and down on a rainbow-colored pony. The five of us rode in the train’s caboose as it circled the property, glowing wands trailing a bubble stream out the back. Brooke made the height requirement to ride a red firetruck all on her own. It was a perfect day. A treasured memory of a happier time.

When the Germ is over, Brooke, we will do it again. Together.

Drawings by Emily B. Lewis on vintage maps

In the Chronicle a month ago, Connie Schultz wrote a column about what five things she would grab if she had to flee her home. I hadn’t thought about it since 1991, when several friends lost everything in the East Bay Firestorm.

I remember taking a box of spare mixing bowls and cookbooks to a young single friend who lost her condo next to the Caldecott Tunnel. When I got home, I filled the empty box with family photo albums and put it by the front door of our Burbank Street bungalow.  After months of tripping over it I realized I couldn’t live day-to-day life in flight mode.

             When Sarah was home the other night, I told her about it. “If I packed a ‘grab’ box today,” I said, “I don’t think I would pack albums. I have digital pictures so losing an album would be sad, but not as devastating as it would have been back then.” We stared into the fire for a few minutes, each of us thinking about things we would put in a ‘grab’ box.

Our house is full of precious things. (Now, don’t go hiring someone to case the joint because my definition of ‘precious’ might differ from yours.) I have collections of petrified sand dollars, battered boat models, rusty vintage coffee cans, and countless Emily masterpieces from preschool on up. There’s a treasured yardstick stamped with the name of my grandfather’s wholesale paper company, and I could host tea for more women than our house could hold and serve each one from a delicate porcelain cup.

In the years following my mother’s death when the girls were little, one of them dropped a teacup, and I cried. “That belonged to your grandmother!” Seeing shards scattered across the hardwood floor felt like losing her all over again.

Something else broke a week or so later, and a third something days after that. From another room, I heard a very young Emily say to Sarah, “Uh oh… Was it Grandma’s?” Both girls were wide-eyed and heading toward tears. As I swept the pieces into the dustpan, I told them it was no big deal.

Things break. I made my daughters paranoid by overreacting to something as insignificant as broken china. In that moment, I realized my mother is gone and a teacup is just a teacup. Having it safe in a cupboard won’t bring her back, and I don’t lose her again if it breaks.

So I won’t grab the teacups if I flee.

            As we sat comparing thoughts (assuming that all the loved ones – two legged or four – were fully capable of unassisted fleeing) I realized the things that matter most to me are memories.

            “Sarah! What if it’s not objects, but memories? What if someone was stealing your memories and you could only save five?”

            She started with our trip to Hawaii years ago – thatched huts, bug-eating geckos in the rafters and stingrays flying through a dark blue cove under the moon. She said another favorite was her first date with Graeme, her true love. He took her wine tasting in the Napa Valley. (He knows people. From first hand experience, I can say it’s pretty cool…) They rode bikes through the vineyards, bought sandwiches from the Oakville Grocery, hung out at a local biker’s bar, and then biked back across the highway as the sun went down. The day went so well that he invited her to stay for dinner.

He said, “I need to warn you first – my family is here.” (Graeme lives in a caretaker’s cottage on his grandmother’s vineyard. On their first date, Sarah met not only Graeme’s doting grandmother, but his mother, aunts and an uncle to boot.) The good news is that it went swimmingly, and their evening ended under a starry Napa Valley sky.

I told Sarah she reminded me of my first date with her father, sitting in the weathered bleachers at an Oakland A’s game. I still remember the coarse cream-colored wool of his fisherman knit sweater as we sat beneath a plaid blanket drinking cheap red wine from a hand-me-down thermos. Not Napa Valley, but definitely romantic…

At this point, Si came into the living room to join us and put his arm around Sarah’s shoulders. He said, “I remember the day you were born. I walked out the doors of Alta Bates Hospital into the sunshine on Ashby Avenue, knowing I had just witnessed a miracle. I couldn’t believe that all the other people at that intersection were going about their days as if nothing extraordinary had happened. I couldn’t believe it! Still can’t…”

            My husband trumped me. I’ll have to spend more time on my memory list. It’s good that I plan to store family memories in virtual “grab” boxes. I won’t limit myself to just five. And when that thief comes to steal my best ones, at least our girls, and their girls, and theirs, will have a spare set stored in a cloud somewhere, to reread long after I’m gone.

            Want to know the best thing about inherited memories? They’re unbreakable.


At the bottom of a musty box of family memorabilia, I found a letter written in fountain pen, ink fading between blue and black. It was dated September 21, 1965, sent from my maternal grandmother to my mother who was in Europe with my dad and eldest sister. Mom ‘abandoned’ (…my word…) my twin brothers and me at home in the care of distant older cousins and beloved housekeepers.

I was in kindergarten at the time, and my inner child still stands in the back of Mom’s closet, nose buried deep in a rack of hanging clothes, straining to get a whiff of Elizabeth Arden’s “Blue Grass” – her signature fragrance.

(But I am over it. Really.)

 3333 Pacific Avenue

San Francisco

September 21, 1965


Dear Traveling Trio –

             Received your very welcome letter – written in London and mailed in Paris. I hope Beth’s cold is better – it is so difficult to avoid sniffles when getting overtired.

            Now – News from your San Francisco home – I telephoned early this a.m. and talked to your youngest daughter. (…that would be me…) She was very excited about school. (That doesn’t sound much like me…) Today she gets her own desk! Pat, Townie and the Moses’ are carrying on beautifully so have no anxiety there. Kelly will be well behaved and trained when his beloved master and mistress have returned. (…I think Kelly was female but I’m not sure. I do know that Kelly bit the next-door neighbor’s boy, then eventually bit my mother in a tug of war over a chicken bone. Unfortunately, I don’t think that dog saw my mother as his/her beloved mistress…)

            Alice was over to see me and we made out the list for Thanksgiving. It was all her own idea and I hope will meet with the approval of all. When we had finished the menu, Alice rubbed her stomach and smacked her lips and said, “I can hardly wait – How long is it before Thanksgiving?” (…Now that sounds more like me! And it’s a safe bet that spooned corn bread with butter and syrup was on the menu…)

            Jim (…my older 1st cousin…) came in before returning to college and gave me a play by play description of his trip – how he is back at U.C. and studying business administration. He is not looking forward to it but “life is real and life is earnest,” n’est pas mes chéries? (Turns out Cousin Jim must have applied himself at Cal. He did quite well in his career…)

            The weather here is perfect – real Indian summer and in the a.m. flights of quail fly out of the tops of the cypress trees and forage among the weeds and dry grass for dainty morsels. (…Ok, this sentence made me fear that the art of letter writing is either dead or dying. I hope it inspires you to write a letter to a loved one – in cursive, maybe even in fountain pen. Make it poetic! Then put a “Forever” stamp on it and drop it in one of the few remaining blue metal boxes in your town. Maybe we can save poetic letter writing and Saturday delivery! Two quails with one pen!)

            I read in the papers that Mary Martin was not allowed to bring her company in “Hello Dolly” to Moscow so she went to Tokyo instead and made a great hit. Remember I am saving my two tickets for you November 3rd with the original Dolly. (Mom didn’t take me to see Mary Martin, but my sister and I did see Carol Channing play ‘Dolly’ at the Curran Theater several years ago. She waved at us from the stage as we cheered and waved back from our cheap seats up high in the ‘nosebleed’ section. Still makes me proud…)

            Alice’s “Night Night” has been rebound and needs washing. I wonder will that spoil the aroma… (…”Night Night” was my ‘go to’ security blanket, made by the loving hands of this very same woman. It had rows of bunnies with cream-colored pompon tails, web-footed paddling ducks, nubby baby lambs and a thumb-sucking satin border. My trademark technique was left thumb inserted in mouth with left index finger hooked over the bridge of my nose while right hand fingers stroked the cool silk binding. Currently, a shredded version of ‘Blanket-Formerly-Know-As-Night-Night’ remains in the dark abyss at the top of a ladder in our attic crawl space. Those women laundered him – yes, him – all my bedtime cuddly companions were of the masculine gender – too frequently. And, between you and me, Grandma did spoil the aroma…)

            The boys look so very smart in their Cathedral School outfits. (Ok – Watch for it, dearest brothers – It’s payback for all those years of teasing. She said you looked smart. You know that old line about judging book covers? Don’t let Grandma’s kind words go to those darling twin heads.)

            Of course I am not at all proud of my grandchildren! (Runaway pride runs rampant among grandparents. I know they are out there, but I have never heard a single grandparent say aloud that they are ashamed or embarrassed by their own grandchildren. Although I have no grandchildren – yet – don’t get me started about my grand-puppy, grand-bunnies and grand-chickens. I have pictures on my phone. Plenty. And I probably know where you live…)

            You have already been gone over one week and soon you will be flying homeward. It will be so good to see you and hear of your adventures. (My mother was gone for a total of three weeks, seemed like three years, and I missed her with the same intense inconsolable mourning as when I lost her for good almost 25 years later.)

            Hugs and kisses all round,

             Mother and Grandma

A mother, a grandmother, and family memories captured in blue-black ink on fragile yellowed letterhead. I will hold onto them as long as possible. Think about sending a letter to someone you love. If they keep it long enough, it will turn to gold.

Gma letter001



Sandy&Kris3Our friends, Kris and Sandy, are on their way home from D.C. today and I bet they’re exhausted. I know it’s depleting most of my spare energy just keeping up with them on  Facebook and the news. This post is in their honor, and in honor of all couples across our nation fighting for their civil rights. Some of you might recognize the following from seeing it previously in one of my Middle Ground columns on Alameda Patch ( because the times, they are “a-changing” fast:

Our friends, Kevin and Rick, were married at San Francisco’s City Hall on June 27, 2008. (For the record, they consider their true anniversary to be their first date, more than 22 years ago.) Their small family ceremony was beautiful and memorable, and we were honored to be included.

I spun in circles on the polished marble floor of the Rotunda, taking in the grand staircase, shining brass elevators and warm layers of early evening light in the carved dome high above our heads. Every City Hall cove, staircase and balcony was filled with other wedding parties — tight family clusters and close friends accompanied by either black-robed judges or city clerks shuffling pages of vows and marriage certificates.

Every so often spontaneous applause erupted as a ceremony ended and lights flashed from assorted cameras across the hall. A little girl twirled in pink silk, taffeta and brand new shiny patent leather shoes, swinging a basket of rose petals. (A cautionary sign near the glass door forbade her to throw them…) Two tall handsome men in dark suits smiled for a camera while struggling to hold a wiggly dark-skinned toddler in layers of petticoats. Tired and cranky, she had no idea how lucky she was that these men chose to make her part of their extraordinary family.

Up in our designated alcove, the ceremony began. Rick wore a jade green shirt with a blue silk tie, and Kevin wore a blue shirt with a green silk tie. Rick surprised Kevin with custom wedding rings in red boxes that snapped crisply open and shut. His sister brought a bouquet of stargazer lilies and hydrangeas wrapped in blue tissue and cellophane.

Rick’s father’s eyes were just like his son’s — the color of a lake twinkling blue in Sierra sunshine, the curved eyes of a painted German Christmas angel. They were moist at the edges as he watched his son marry a man who had become another son to them over time. Rick’s petite mother reached up to embrace me, and then thanked me for accepting them and being “good enough to come.”

Good enough? Even years later, I’m still unsure I was worthy.

What I really want to say is that everyone should have the right to take a shot at “happily ever after.” Everyone who wants one should have a beautiful and memorable wedding, surrounded by supportive family and friends.

And everyone who thinks that same sex marriage is a bad idea should get to know people like Kevin and Rick, or Sandy Stier and Kris Perry. And if they aren’t fortunate enough to know them, or someone like them, perhaps if they stood quietly in an alcove at City Hall for just a short time, surrounded by simultaneous weddings — love emanating from every shadowed corner, off every limestone balcony — they might just change their minds.

After over 30 years of marriage I can tell you that there’s a reason they make you take those vows — “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” Being married can be damned hard, and no one is guaranteed a happy ending. As a matter of fact, it’s a long shot.

But everyone should have an equal chance for a shot at it. That’s all.

On Wednesday, January 30th I sat in a metal folding chair beside a wooden kitchen island, listening to my beloved carrot-topped cooking mentor, Weezie Mott, begin her evening class. “Before I start,” she said, “I need to let everyone know Howard is in the hospital. When he started acting strangely I thought he had suffered a stroke, but that wasn’t it. The doctors found a small tumor causing fluid on his brain. So please hold him in your thoughts. Now, onto the first recipe…”

I don’t know why it surprised me that Weezie carried on with the evening as if her almost 94-year-old husband was off at the dentist. When the phone rang part way through class recipe, she dropped her dishtowel and bolted from the kitchen.

We waited for heartbreaking news, glancing sideways at each other in apprehension. She returned in minutes with a broad smile and said, “Good news! Howard is alert and improving! All his nurses adore him.”

Of course they adored him. When you look up “adorable” in the dictionary it should read, “See Howard Mott.” Personable, charming and humorous, Howard was a clear favorite for a Best Husband in Alameda contest. He minced onions before we arrived, acted as sommelier for our wine, and scrubbed pots and pans after we headed home to bed. All of us agreed we could master any recipe with Howard by our side.

Howard wasn’t just model husband and charming host. Born in 1919, he was an Ensign in the Naval Reserve and survived a tour of duty in the Aleutian Islands in a patrol bombing squadron. In 1943, he served in the Central Pacific Ocean’s Marshall-Marianas Islands and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the US Air Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal along with several others.

When he returned stateside in 1945, he trained pilots in San Diego where he met Mary Louise (Weezie) Tully, a Navy nurse, at a Hotel Del Coronado tea dance. After a whirlwind courtship, they married. In their warm kitchen sixty-eight years later he still behaved like her smitten suitor.

After the war Howard served in D.C., Morocco, Italy, Greece and Turkey. He completed Naval Post Graduate School in Intelligence and German Language Training, followed by an assignment as a Liaison Officer for the Commander in Chief, European Forces attached to the Naval Attaché’s office for the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. The Motts came to Alameda when Howard became Staff Intelligence Officer with the Commander Fleet Air Pacific, then left again for D.C., then Italy, finally retiring with the rank of Commander.

Howard’s second career involved public safety emergency communications. He planned Walnut Creek’s 911 response system – basically unaltered ever since. He created a combined police/fire/local government radio system and dispatch center for Redwood City that became a model for many other communities. He retired a second time after 14 years of local government service.

For an intelligent and accomplished man accustomed to following orders, I don’t think he learned to obey the command, “Sit still.” For the next 18 years, the Motts spearheaded “Motoring with the Motts” – providing personalized food and wine tours in Italy, France, Greece, Spain and Turkey. When they decided to end the tours, Howard continued his post-retirement partnership with Weezie by keeping her cooking classes running smoothly.

In our  February 20th  class, Weezie said, “Before I begin, I need to let you know that Howard is in intensive care. The doctor reconnected him to life support because he wasn’t doing well on his own. Thank you for all your kind words and notes. Please continue to keep him in your thoughts. Now, on with the recipes…”

I swear, they made the USS Hornet from scrap Weezie steel. Her strength amazed us all.

A few days later, a friend called me to make sure I had heard the news. Howard James Mott passed away on Thursday, February 28th. He requested there be no services and donated his body to UCSF for research.

Weezie didn’t cancel our one remaining class. At the start of the evening she announced that she intended to make a donation to KQED in Howard’s memory on behalf of all her students. If we contributed we could take home one of the cookbooks laid out on her dining room table. When I asked her to select one for me, she gave me one on the origins of the “Slow Food” movement. It wasn’t a cookbook, but an almanac on a subject dear to them.

I am neither a “foodie” nor an accomplished chef. Quite frankly, I am an admitted “cooking class voyeur” – insecure in the kitchen. But I might just try a recipe or two from the 2013 Weezie Mott Cooking School winter series.

Knowing Howard’s spirit might be there by my side, it’s bound to turn out well.

Author’s note: For a sample of a Weezie evening, please read my piece published on Alameda Patch – Cooking with Weezie.