Of grapes and wrath
I arrived in wine country in the middle of the afternoon and it was harshly bright and hot and even a little dusty and I was, I am sorry to say, not in a mood to enjoy it. I wandered around downtown Sonoma for about an hour, looking for a place to let Rennie be himself, but all the No Dogs signs were making me think they did not want such a thing to happen, so I finally gave up and found a shady spot to park the car, where I could leave him for a moment, while I went to get a bite to eat, before driving us both over to my friend Pomona’s place.
My mom is, as Pomona puts it, her oldest living friend. That is: the friendship, not my mom, has seen some years. They lived in Paris, France, at the same time for about two years growing up, when both their families were in the military. Then they reunited back in Virginia sometime around high school age and managed to stay in touch ever since, despite Pomona’s moves to Maine, Colorado and British Columbia, because my mom has pretty much always stayed in the South. The first time we met that I can actually remember, I was about eight years-old and she and her husband at the time came to visit us at our home in Jacksonville, Fla., parking their camper in the driveway and sleeping there at night, after they had sat at our kitchen table inside and entertained us with stories all evening. And I remember someone had on a bright yellow T-shirt and there was a warm glow and lots of smiling and laughter.
I never saw her again after that night, though, and for the rest of my childhood, I grew up just hearing the name of Pony, as she is called by close friends, and seeing her handwriting on the beautiful homemade cards she would send my mom several times a year, and then there would be phone calls to catch up every once in awhile, but it was not until this past May that I actually saw Pomona again and it was because I had just flown into Atlanta, Ga., to pick up Marco, and Pomona was flying in about two hours after me to meet up with my mom for a girls’ trip to Paris a few days later, and so my parents came to the airport and scooped us both up and took us out to eat and then back to their place in Athens, where I spent one night before heading out the next day in my new wheels, West bound again.
Now the Paris trip has since been completed and Pomona, widowed last year for the second time in her life, has returned to her old home on Vancouver Island, packed up her things and moved south to California, which is where I found her, standing at the end of her driveway and gazing up the road in the direction from which I was coming.
Before Pomona left Canada, her students put together a packet of gift certificates for her to use when she arrived in Sonoma and so the first thing she wanted to do was use one of them at a local winery. We drove over and shared a wine tasting, and after deciding the Pinot Noir was the best of the lot, we took a bottle back home to split in the garden, where we ate homemade vegetable soup with tofu on toast, and I listened to stories about the men she’d loved and the ones she had not loved, and how motherhood will change you in ways you can never predict, and how she had lived for two and a half years in a commune on the sea outside New Haven, Conn., with a fluctuating cast of 12 adults and her young son. During the summers, she said, they had to move to the vacated student housing at Yale, because the family who owned the house on the sea came to vacation, and so she saw a grittier side of life that a friend from those days would, years later, call a war zone.
“The police against the poor people against the black people against the hippy people. Then the blacks against the whites and there was, in that city, a lot of drugs. They were everywhere visible, people shooting up, selling on the street,” she said. “There was, I would say, a lot of degeneracy. A lot of social breakdown.”
But what fascinated her, she said, was that despite it being the ghetto, things still functioned, neighbor to neighbor.
“They actually were caring and held up social structure,” she said, “even though the culture at large had fallen apart.”
At the Chinese-Jewish delicatessen where she worked, she said, she would be alone, closing up at 10 o’ clock each night, and druggies would come in.
“And I would have people come in and, like, pee in the tofu, they were so completely out of their heads,” she said. “And that was common. I’m not kidding.”
Did she learn anything about herself? No, she said, because she was too busy getting by, which is what she said is true of anyone living in a marginal or dangerous community.
“Individuals don’t get to develop,” she said. “They’re too busy surviving.”
And so she moved to Maine with Russell, the man I would one day meet, who would become her second husband, and she said she found an entirely different culture, one where the individual was supported.
“Everybody was valued and everybody knew the same language, culturally,” she said, “so it was a place where I could rest and look at myself instead of always running down the street, looking over my shoulder.”
It was an old way, she said— one created by our Founding Fathers of this country, one where community comes first.
“But I think anytime you have a life that’s hard by nature, not by human politics, but by nature, you get a very strong person— you know, whether it be Northern Scotland or any of those places on Earth where you have to mind your Ps and Qs to get through the winter,” she said. “It makes for intelligent people, who must care about each other because their survival depends on each other. Even the town drunk.”
There were a couple of brothers in their town of Surrey, for example, and to her, she said, they were repulsive.
“Pig-headed, drunk all day long, sort of aggressive, arrogant, stupid— just stupid men. Stupid,” she said. “And I looked down on them, personally.”
That was when she first got to town, before she ended up staying for 20 years.
“And as the years went on, I realized that my neighbors didn’t look down on them,” she said. “They understood who they were. I wouldn’t say they respected them. But they valued them, because they were human and they were their neighbor and they had a place in the community. The drunkard has a place in the community, because he might save your life one day.”
I said that when I lived on Isla Mujeres in Mexico, I had that same sense of not being able to hide from anyone and having to face myself, because there, you have to go to the grocery store and expect to see all these people you know, and you have to go to the bank and expect it to be a big social affair, and you have to say Hi when you are not always in the mood to say Hi to people.
“And it just has a big effect on community,” I said. “And it has a big effect on your social skills and just living outside yourself.”
“Exactly,” she said. “It’s being not selfish, being disciplined. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be cordial. It’s being responsible.”
I said that in the suburbs, you get away with a lot.
“Yeah, and it’s unfortunate,” she said, “because when you get away with it, you don’t grow.”
A few days later, I was talking to my mom on the phone and she wanted to know how my visit with Pony had gone and I said that it was great, that I had loved hanging out with her as an adult and that we had gone to the winery and the next day, we had taken a picnic to the park with Rennie.
Then there was a long pause on the line as I tried to think of the word to describe her.
“Not calm,” I said. “That’s not right but she’s very spiritual.”
“Centered,” my mom said. “She’s a very centered person.”
Yes, that was it. That was exactly the word I was searching for.