The home above is not the actual home where this story took place, but is similar and from the same San Francisco neighborhood.
It was a cool November, 1973, Friday night. I was fast asleep – finally, after several weeks of brain-knocking work at trade school where I was studying electrical engineering. Circuit formulas were sloshing around my head with notes reminding me to gas up the car and eat.
Mom and Dad were out with friends. Middle sister, Linda, was out with the boy friend. Younger sister, Cheri, was home with me also fast asleep when the phone rang. Through thick mental fog, I picked up the receiver next to my bed.
“Gary. Your parents had a terrible car accident. I’m coming to take you to the hospital”. It was the boy friend and those few words triggered an adrenaline dump and I was instantly awake – confused and groggy, but wide awake at the edge of panic.
My trade school had kept me in San Francisco most of each day, then after a dinner break, two more hours for a night class. I’d aced several exams by studying hard. My commute between Petaluma and San Francisco was almost useless as real rest. I really needed some uninterrupted sleep.
Instead, I found myself setting in the boyfriend’s car, next to my sister as we drove to the Petaluma’s Hillcrest Hospital at close to 1am Saturday morning.
I sent Linda and her boy friend home to stay with Cheri and then ran down a deserted hallway thinking, where is everyone? to the emergency rooms where I found mom first, in a room by herself. She was pretty banged up, lots of small cuts, but, Thank God, she looked likely to survive. “Where’s dad?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she moaned, clearly in shock.
“Don’t worry. I’ll go to find him. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Sit still.”
Dad was only next door. I found him sitting on an examination table, with most of his clothing cut off, looking stunned and beat up — but no doctor! ! He had a few cuts bleeding just enough to be dripping out through a hole in the table into a bucket on the floor. Seriously – this is how we deal with bleeding patients?
“Dad, it’s me. Are you okay?” He could only mumble incoherently. I stepped closer and looked him in the face. His black and blue eyes were pinched closed and I wasn’t sure he heard me. I knew almost nothing about the accident so I was looking for clues. His face looked as if someone had hit him between the eyebrows with a bat. I looked closer, where’s all the blood , I thought, but all I could see was a small trail of faded yellow fluid slowly draining down one side of his nose.
Lymph is clear, I thought, so what is this yellow fluid from his forehead? From high school biology I recalled seeing diagram showing the small bladder of fluid surrounding our brain and and spine.
Yea, it has to be spinal fluid, but, if dad took a hit to the face, sharp enough to shatter through his scull , bone shards could easily have penetrated that membrane. If true, what are the chances that his brain is hamburgered ? Oh – no. . .
I drew back, tried and failed to disprove this conclusion.
Mom,is going to be okay, but dad is in trouble. And where is the damn doctor? There had been no one in either my parent’s rooms except for me. Was everyone on a smoke break?
Finally, the doctor came back. He was arranging transport for dad to Memorial hospital in Santa Rosa because his needs exceeded what was available here. I told the doctor who I was and that I’d be going with my dad then I went back to update mom.
After a quick ambulance ride, I stood stand near by as the emergency room team worked on dad. X-rays happened and intravenous fluid bottles were attached — dad was stabilized. He wasn’t going to die tonight, but according to his doctor, “This injury to his head might be serious, we need some more tests and time to study his x-rays. The injured area of his brain could cause personality changes or memory loss.”
Okay, mom and dad were as safe as I could get them. I called home to brief my sisters. It was now around 3:00 am and other than the activity around my dad, the place was quiet. I walked the halls for a while to calm down and think. I circled back and verified that dad was being attended to but finally realized that I really – really needed to get some sleep. I found a vacant patient room far from the nurse’s station, went in, closed the door, pulled a blanket loose and curled up on the bed. It took quite a while to wind down, but finally slept for several hours.
Looking back, I have to say how thankful I am for my extended family who jumped in to help us, great medical care for my parents and given how things could have gone, my dad and mom both came through fine.
Dad had lost his sinus’ (sheared them right off beneath the skin) so he loss all sense of smell which, of course, I leveraged when it came to cleaning the dog pen. “But dad, you can’t smell it. It’ll be easy for you.” My favorite stunt was to pull something out of the fridge when he was nearby, take a careful, thoughtful smell of it before handing it to him and saying, “This doesn’t smell okay, what do you think?” and watch as he forgot reality for that second and took a sniff – only to realize that I’d duped him again. His normal response was not repeatable.
I had started trade school with a scholarship which was fast running out. My parents had offered to help, but now they were both laid up and just starting what had to be a long recovery.
Bottom line, I now had money concerns, so I approached anyone I thought might be able to connect me with a part time job. Apparently, I asked at the right time. Someone had just requested a referral from my school for a student to help around their house in San Francisco which would be easy to reach after classes. I called the number and we agreed to meet.
The address took me up into the hills of San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood. I was welcomed by a single elderly woman I’ll call, Mrs. Logan who invited me in for tea and a sit down get-to-know each other. She was dignified and charming and after tea and a good chat, she declared that I was hired and we arranged a schedule.
Thus began my life as a student and part-time retained handyman. She pried out of me the story of my parents accident so understood why I was working. I was up at her home as often as I thought homework would allow. She enjoyed insisting that I keep my grades up and we often had tea together and became good friends.
A new quarter at school began and I continued to spend three afternoons a week with Mrs. Logan, weeding, repairing or moving her furniture around. Soon, it was December. Mom was back at work. Dad was was still mending. I had almost drained my savings to pay tuition and realized that I had a small problem. I wanted to get some kind of Christmas present for Mrs. Logan but: I’m broke and can’t afford anything she would think was nice. I need a clever idea.
Here’s what I came up with.
San Francisco still has a famous import store named Cost Plus. It was a destination for my Petaluma gang and I because they always had lots of unusual things to look at.
Just for fun, we’d pile into my big old Chevy and make the drive up down to the North Beach district to see what weird stuff we could find. On one of those trips I had seen some cool carved wooden jars.
Cost Plus still had them and they were inexpensive so I picked one up. Next I drove out to one of the forested areas in west Marin County, north of San Francisco, where I’d often gone bike riding with friends and knew I could find Bay trees. I harvested a couple of small branches with fresh new leaves and headed for home.
Finally, I pulled out my typewriter and typed up a short little ditty that read like a hallmark card about what to do with fresh bay leaves, cooking with them or breaking them open in small rooms to perfume the air with a rich smell of bay. I trimmed, signed and rolled up the note to fit into the jar which I then filled with washed and dried, fresh bay leaves. I wrapped it up and brought it to her before Christmas.
She was so cute as she opened the package, and politely commented about how nice the little jar was. Thanks, but we both know it’s not that nice.
“Don’t stop. You have to open it”.
She did, and was intrigued by the leaves as she pulled out the note. As she read, her smile grew to take over her whole face. She put down the note and lifted one of the leaves with the excitement of a 5-year old. The bay scent burst out as she ripped the leaf. She set the pieces in a tea cup plate after rubbing them between her hands and took a deep smell, like she was smelling fresh warm bread. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes as she filled the room fresh forest scent.
Holding up the note again, she asked, “and I can cook with them too?” The idea of adding bay leaves to spaghetti sauce delighted her and I heard all about it the following week.
She was still telling me about the fun she was having with that jar of bay leaves each time I came by until one day in mid-February. A strange woman answered her door when I knocked.
“Hello. I’m looking for Mrs. Logan.”
“I’m sorry but she’s not available. Can I help you?”
“I help her with chores a few times a week. I can come back . . .”
“You’re her handy man, Gary?”
“Um, yes. Should I come back later?”
“No – no, please come in. I’m her daughter, Corina,” she said offering me her hand.
I sat in my favorite chair and Corina said, “I’m sorry, but Mom never told me your last name and I didn’t know how to get a hold of you. I regret to tell you that my mom passed away just two nights ago.”
“What?! Oh no. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Please, you couldn’t have known, but I hoped to find and tell you that we’ve heard all about you.”
“Did I do something wrong, because I . . .”
“No – absolutely no! You gave her that wonderful jar of leaves and it made her so happy. She’s been having more fun with it and telling all of us about your kindness.
I was humbled as she told me how her mom showed off my little wooden jar and made them a pasta dinner over the holidays with the bay leaves.
“Wow. It was just an inexpensive jar.”
“Gary, that little jar touched her in ways you never could have imagined. Thank you for being such a good friend for her.”
I was dizzy with contrasting emotions as I drove home. A special friend was gone. The wooden jar had more than succeeded as a gift and I never would have met her except for my parents accident. Regret and thankfulness combined like oil and balsamic vinegar; not really joining, but working well together.
Mom and Dad both recovered and normal life resumed but now I can’t recall their accident without also recalling Mrs. Logan and this story.