The home above is not the actual home where this story took place but is similar and from the same San Francisco neighborhood.
This story spans five months that included both Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1973.
It was a cool October Friday night. I was fast asleep – finally, after several weeks of brain-crushing 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 boyfriend. Younger sister, Cheri, was home with me and both of us were fast asleep when the phone rang. By this time, I had already jury-rigged a phone into my room, so through a thick mental fog of a brain struggling to stay asleep, I picked up the receiver.
It was the boyfriend.
“Gary. I’m calling from the phone booth at South City Market. Your parents were in a terrible car accident near the bowling alley. Your sister and I are coming to pick you up so we can meet them at the hospital.” His few words triggered an adrenaline dump, and I was instantly awake – confused and groggy, but wide awake and at the edge of panic. Both Mom and Dad were injured. Was I suddenly responsible for the family?
My classes 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 Petaluma’s Hillcrest Hospital at close to 1am Saturday morning. I’d only been there a few times and somehow none of those visits were happy ones. This time I was both anxious to get there and dreading our arrival.
As soon as I got there, I realized this could take a while, so I sent Linda and her boyfriend home to stay with our sleeping youngest sister, Cheri. I couldn’t leave her alone while trying to help Mom and Dad.
This left me in a near silent hospital. I don’t recall that I even found a receptionist to direct me. Hillcrest was not large, so I decided to just find them on my own. I ran down a deserted hallway thinking, where is everyone? I found 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 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 started 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 spine.
Yea, that has to be spinal fluid, but, if dad took a hit to the face, sharp enough to shatter through his skull, bone shards could easily have penetrated that membrane. If true, what are the chances that his brain is, Oh – no! hamburgered?
I drew back, tried and failed to disprove my 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?
I was running out of ideas on what to do next when the doctor finally appeared. 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 nearby 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.”
This whole experience was a nasty version of things happening almost too fast to keep track of to painful waits for some next step to happen, but things finally settled, and I could tell that for the moment, 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 had started this effort fast asleep because I was exhausted and now the adrenalin, I was running on was gone.
I really – really needed to get some sleep because passing out in the hall was starting to sound pretty good. Instead, I found a vacant patient room far from the nurse’s station where hopefully I’d not be discovered or disturbed, went in, closed the door, pulled a blanket loose from what appeared to be a bed made up to snap-tight military specs, and curled up on it. It took only a couple of deep breaths to wind down, but finally I slept for several hours and slept so deeply that I wondered where I was when I awoke.
Looking back, I have to say how thankful I am for my extended family who jumped in to help us, the great medical care both hospitals gave my parents and given how things could have gone, my dad and mom both came through fine.
I’d underestimated how bad dad had injured his sinus’ (sheared them right off beneath the skin) and way overestimated the damage to his brain.
Dad lost all sense of smell in the accident, of course, I leveraged that 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 watched him closely for months afterwards for any change in his personality but if anything, he was even more happy and jovial with his life. It was hard to imagine him even easier to live with, but he was.
Now I could return focus to my studies.
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. This might be more perfect than I could have hoped for.
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. She asked about my parent’s recovery and made sure that we had good plans for Thanksgiving. She became that new friend who I felt I’d known my whole life.
I was beginning to think this was more than an odd relationship because while she paid me for all the time I was there each day, she insisted on spending a lot of that sitting in her living room enjoying tea and conversation about all kinds of things. She seemed to love hearing about my life and schooling. I was really enjoying getting to know her but was beginning to worry that I wasn’t earning my keep.
It was likely just as well. I took on anything she gave me but didn’t have the experience to always know what I was doing. I didn’t destroy anything, but the window reglazing attempt – um, I just hope they sold the house before anyone checked that very close.
A new quarter at school began. Mom and Dad continue to improve, and I continued to spend three afternoons a week with Mrs. Logan, weeding, repairing stuff or moving her furniture around. Thanksgiving left me with more things to be thankful for than I ever recalled having. Top of the list was that I still had both parents, and they were doing fine. I wasn’t getting rich, but my needs were being met and my studies were going great.
Soon, it was December. Mom was back at work. Dad 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 needed a clever idea and 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 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 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 which I let sit because I didn’t have any need of one. Now I did.
A visit confirmed that they 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 (remember those?) 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 aromatic scent. 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,” I told her. “You have to open it”.
She smiled and twisted off the lid. A politely confused expression took over her face as she found and began reading the note. Her next expression was that of being intrigued by what the note said. A big smile grew to take over her whole face as she read the note again. She reached in to lift out one of the leaves and now radiated with the excitement of a 5-year-old. She examined the leaf then couldn’t wait any longer and broke it in half and drew in a deep sniff. Her eyes lit up with near disbelief. She really was like a child with a new toy as she rubbed those leaf fragments between her hands and renewing her deep smell of their fumes. Her face was like she was smelling fresh warm bread for the first time. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes as she filled the room with the fresh scent of bay leaves.
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 weeks.
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. Instead of my familiar friend, a strange younger woman answered her door when I arrived for work.
“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.”
“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! She loved having you here and you gave her that wonderful jar of leaves. 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 simple little wooden jar and made them a pasta dinner over the holidays with the bay leaves.
“Wow. She told me about some of this and I really enjoyed her company. I suspected she enjoyed my company more than my work, and I really wanted to give her something special, as a friend, but it really was just an inexpensive jar. I’m a student and . . .”
“Yes, she told us about your parent’s horrible accident. But, Gary, that little jar touched her in ways you never could have imagined. Mom hadn’t played with anything for a long time, and she clearly played with that jar of leaves. She had us all laughing about it. I suspect you gave her a few more months of happy living. Thank you – thank you for being such a good friend and that great gift idea”
We talked a bit more and she left me embarrassed by all her fuss over that little jar of leaves that cost me less than five dollars.
As I drove home, I was dizzy with conflicting emotions. 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. It really had been a Thanksgiving and Christmas season to remember.
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.