Thursday, February 21, 2008

History explained

I went and saw my great aunt Fran last Saturday.

In my mind there is a great memory that looms over my childhood of traveling to Santa Rosa and visiting family there. They had house with a pool! It was in California! They had a lemon tree outside their front door! It all seemed so glamorous like a TV show!

I was 14 when I got to visit all by myself. I was spending a few weeks with my grandparents in Sacramento and we we drove over to Santa Rosa to see the family. I was allowed to stay with my great aunt and uncle for a week, then they drove me back to my grandparents.

What a whirlwind of excitement awaited me! We played board games in the evening. I swam in the pool every day. It was so hot I wanted to fry an egg on the sidewalk, but my aunt made me use a pan so I wouldn't make a mess. I got to visit the junior league thrift shop my aunt volunteered in. My uncle golfed at the same club as Charles Schultz who drew my favorite comic strip "Peanuts" and even had a autographed card celebrating his golfing Hole-in-One framed on the wall. We drove to "THE CITY". Which could only have meant San Francisco.

I remember being in the backseat of their car as we returned over the Golden Gate Bridge when traffic slowed to a complete stop. I know my eyes were wide with amazement. We were at a dead stand still in the middle of the bridge.

Is this a TRAFFIC JAM?
Yes (heavy sigh) it is.
THAT'S SO COOL! - and I got out my camera to take pictures.
My aunt and uncle made reference to age and perspective making all the difference in how you view things like traffic jams, while they shook their heads at my naiveté.

I loved being with them, their family, their pool, their California-ness.

But they lived far away and they were all grown-ups by the time I started making my way around the world and grown ups were intimidating. So I didn't see much of them as I grew up.

My Grandmother sent me an email in October telling me that my great aunt Fran had a stroke. It was minor, she should recover. Perhaps I'd like her address? But I didn't write. I had no idea what to say.

Then my grandmother sent me my aunt's phone number. Told my great aunt she was going to and that Fran would love to hear from me. But I didn't call. I still had no idea what to say.

Last weekend we were going to be is San Francisco and I knew I just needed to go see her. I called on Friday to see if she would like a visitor on Saturday. She said that would be nice.

I rented a car Saturday morning (it was so civilized and adult like, I asked for a car at the concierge when we checked in, they arranged everything, and the car was delivered to the hotel the next morning) and drove by myself to Santa Rosa.

I was panicking. I couldn't go empty handed. I couldn't find what I wanted in THE CITY. I think I was filling my time afraid to go and see her. I stopped at a Target just off the freeway and found a couple of terra cotte pots and put some potted bulbs into them. That's what I had been searching for in San Francisco but had no idea where to look.

Back on the road I sped North. I was surprised how quickly the congestion of the land falls away as you leave THE CITY, but the traffic remained pretty consistent. Soon enough I was at my exit. I had mapquest directions that took me straight to her door.

After her stroke she was getting better right away, but a few weeks ago she fell and injured her leg so that's been a bit of set back. She has a full time live in assistant who let me in.

I was surprised how familiar every detail of the house was. Looking into her eyes, my aunt looked exactly as I remembered. As my gaze pulled out I could see her hair was now white and she suddenly looked like a little old lady. Sort of like one of those optical illusions where you can see two different things depending on where your eyes focused.

My aunt was always a stylish woman and I teased her that the solid soled black shoes she had on were a far cry from the shoes I remembered her wearing.

We chatted about stuff and junk. A couple of times I could see her stroke was affecting her speech. I think she has all the words were in her head, but she couldn't make her mouth spit them out. Then frustration set in and the words got pushed out of her mind by the emotion and she lost her place. But just a few times. She's definitely fully present.

I had no idea if she knew I was gay or not. I also knew I wasn't going to pretend I wasn't gay. She asked me what I was doing in San Francisco and I told her my partner, Lyle, had a seminar to attend and I had traveled with him. (Usually he's my husband, he used to be my boyfriend, if I'm being cautious I go polite with partner.)

She didn't flinch and then we started talking down that path. She asked more about him and I said how long we'd been together and that we'd even gotten married in Canada. She said that she'd heard about the wedding and that it sounded quite nice.
Yep, already gay.

She also told me that she knew I was gay when I was at her house when I was 14. She said she told my grandmother. I said I guessed every body knew except me. (Okay, I knew, but I wasn't telling anyone when I was 14) But she thought that no, not everyone was so certain. But she was. And the reason she told my grandmother was to reassure her and remind her to look after me because my life might be harder because of it (uh, hi, it was the late 70's or some such) and that it wasn't so easy back then. But she always knew I was unique and that I was special.

Then we talked about what an impression she and her house and her family had made on me, I pointed out that there were probably still board games in the cupboards right behind her, that I knew the reason the TV was moved into the living room for her was because there was one step down to get into the family room off the kitchen. I commented on the lemon tree at the front door and the lime tree by the pool.

I reminded her to tell me when she got too tired because I was there to visit and enjoy, not wear her out. At about 45 minutes, she said she was sorry, but that she was about worn out.

I gave her a kiss on the cheek and told her I loved her and left.

As I drove back to THE CITY my mind just swirled and swirled. I pulled off at an outlet mall in Peteluma to get out of the car and get air. I parked the car and cried. I went back to the hotel and laid down for a nap to give myself some time to process it all. It made me melancholy to think that at 90 years old, if my great aunt lives to be 100 I may not get back to Santa Rosa again to see her.

I realize now that perhaps the hold that she had over me from such a young age was that she knew my secret before I did and loved me just the same. At 14 I didn't know what was going on, but I obviously knew what unconditional love was and where it was coming from. I felt bad that I hadn't made more of an effort previous to the visit. I felt validated that she had been watching out and over me all this time.

I now have a better appreciation for the time I was given when I was young and I'm very thankful I made the time this last weekend to get to know my aunt and myself a little bit better.


Michael Guy said...

Jim, truly a beautiful slice-of-life post. Gawh...wet eyes here.

And that 2nd to the last paragraph got me: "she knew my secret before I did and loved me just the same."

Absolutely beautiful.

Lewis said...

Fantastic trip down memory lane, my friend. Loved your reconnection story. And I like that word California-ness! I'm sure you made her day complete. And youre was, obviously.

peter said...

All the way down memory lane... next time you will call her and/or send a card.

In a way I envy you, my favorite aunt is so demented she can't rememember a thing fromay back when.

Frontier Psychiatrist said...

I love this post.

It reminds me of the first time I got to visit my grandma by myself. Her friend had a pool and used to be life guard. She let me pretend to drown and rescued me over and over. It was so much fun.

Rachel said...

I know you said it had been hard. I had no idea. She sounds like a beautiful person.

Carolyn said...

That was lovely. I think the things that move me the most are when you write about the things that move YOU the most.