It’s blueberry season in Michigan. They are plentiful and inexpensive, so our fridge at the cottage was always full of them during our two-week vacation to the shores of Lake Huron. Every day our thirteen-year-old grandson, Timothy, stood on one side of the kitchen counter and fed sweet little blue orbs to his baby sister, Gracie, who hovered in her little counter seat on the other side. Gracie is not likely to remember these particular Michigan blueberry days, but she will know, viscerally, that her brother is an ally. There is a sacred bond between this boy on the outer edge of adolescence and his sister who cannot yet say his name. I think perhaps she allows him to hang on to that thin thread of childhood he is generally trying to stretch his way out of. It’s an interesting and tender thing to watch.
We left our kids and our cottage three days ago and flew to San Francisco for my husband’s semi-annual American Bar Association conference. When I get to join him on these trips I sleep in and laze around while His Honor attends judicial meetings, then we are off doing some adventuring together. It’s been a hectic summer for us. I know there was a June and a July in 2016, but I can’t remember where they went. Though it is now August, typically the hottest month of the year, we were shocked when we walked out the doors of our hotel and shivered in the cold summer fog that crept in from the bay. Familiar goosebumps rose on my skin. DejaVu goosebumps, on aging skin.
Later, sitting on the bed in our room at the Marquis, I searched online for suggestions about how to spend our days under the Golden Gate. As I scanned various top ten lists of things you shouldn’t miss in San Francisco, I realized I had already done nearly all of them. I haven’t been to SF for years, probably decades even. It struck me that what I know of San Francisco I owe, almost entirely, to my sister. Sharon is the oldest of seven kids. I was kid number six.
Sherry was about Timothy's age when I was born. It was Sherry who stood on the other side of the high chair and nourished us. When our family moved to Pittsburgh PA from the small town of Shelly, Idaho, Sherry had just graduated from high school. I was five years old then. I remember climbing the steps up to the airplane and looking back at my sister, who stood on the tarmac bravely waving, smiling through her tears. It is one of my earliest memories; sitting on that plane in 1963, weeping as we flew away from our dog Schatze and my oldest sister.
Sherry put herself through college at Utah State and Idaho State, ending up with a degree in Speech Pathology. Through a series of fateful events she ended up working in the Bay Area of northern CA. By then we “three little girls” at the tail end of the seven kids, were swirling into our teenage years. Sherry had remained connected to our mom and us through long distance calls (in the days when those calls cost a pretty penny) and love packages she sent home. Matching dresses; Diamond almonds in assorted flavors (before they were available in local stores); super sized taffy suckers from the Lemon Tree; deep red dyed pistachios and salty white ones (the kind that left evidence on your lips when you snuck them from the marble bowl on the dining room shelf.) Books, and jewelry and other tokens of love, Sherry sent from across the country.
When Sherry was settled and working full time, with a place of her own, we extended our summer trips to Idaho further west… over the High Sierras and all the way down to the salty shores of the Pacific Ocean. We camped out on the floor of her apartment. Swam in her pool and flirted with the guys. Ate Franco American spaghetti and white bread with butter, or ramen noodles we purchased from Cost Plus, before ramen noodles were available in local stores.
Sherry introduced us to Cost Plus, the birthplace of my addiction to unique bargains, a haven of magical finds unavailable anywhere else in America. She drove us to Berkley and the outlet shops, when they really were shops attached to factories, where seconds and over runs were sold at bargain prices; where your sisters had to hold up a sheet around you when you tried on your Gunne Sax dress because there were no dressing rooms. Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, and Fisherman’s Wharf, when the piers were full of real fish and fresh Dungeness crab that was so fresh it didn’t smell fishy. The tiny little pockets inside our cheeks tingled with the taste of Boudin’s warm, fresh sourdough bread. We nearly hyperventilated inhaling the combined scents of salty sea air and rich chocolate at Ghirardelli Square. We were haunted into the foggy night by the echoing bark of sea lions and crashing waves on the rocks along the shoreline. Sausalito and Monterey Bay and the beautiful green landscapes of the wine district. The lunging motion sickness brought on by a trip down Lombard Street. San Francisco, I realized today, is nestled in the cells of my senses, planted there years ago by my oldest sister, and the one just younger than her who followed her to this place.
Today Dave and I decided, on a whim, to hop on a cable car. The driver stood behind me, leaning the full weight of his body back against the lever, his deep voice calling to the riders as they hopped on along the route “Move away from the door”. My eyes lifted from the rising and falling of the steep streets to the top of the trolley car, with its layers of white painted wood. The familiar metal bell clanged as we went. Metal screeched against metal as I imagined the massive cables running under the streets pulling us along like the cables that pull an elevator. We rode the California line, up past China Town, where a symphony of drums panted under a long yellow dragon floating through a sea of people. “Fisherman’s Wharf”, he called as he pulled the lever and rang the bell. If my arthritic knee had not reminded me otherwise, I could have sworn I was fourteen years old!
Except for the evening spent in the police station, reporting my stolen phone and wallet, this has been a beautifully reminiscent trip for me. It was here, against these waters, that my husband proposed to me over forty years ago. Here, I found the world a much broader, deeper, more vibrant place than the little potato farming town of Shelly and the brown necked mill worker city of Pittsburgh. Here I got my first whistle from a passing fella. Here I found by dreams expanding, and my world unfolding; all under the safe wing of my sister.
Today Sherry texted me, on the phone I no longer have, and asked if I had found the heart she left here (cue Frank Sinatra). It think it's a lost cause. A part of her will always remain here, even though the rest of her is planted in Utah one house away from us.
Tomorrow, with a little luck and a case number from the police station, they might allow me to board a plane and go back to Utah. But for tonight, one last night, I think I’ll turn off the hotel air conditioning and crack open the windows on this high rise, hoping as I drift off to sleep that I can go back to that place where the magic sifts in like summer fog under the great Golden Gate.