Early this morning I learned one of my photographs of San Francisco was chosen for inclusion in the Schmap online guide to the city. It’s a picture of Union Square, the heart of the city’s upscale shopping district.
I took it on a trip to the Bay Area last March. My mom and I went down there to scatter half of my father’s ashes in the Bay. My father, who was born here in Montana, lived in northern California for nearly 40 years. Every summer he and my mother, also a native Montanan, took me along as they drove the thousand-odd miles to spend a week or two with family back in Big Sky Country. Our route never varied; on the way up we would take I-80 to Wells, Nevada, turn north on Highway 93 and follow it straight into Missoula.
On the way back we always turned off the highway at Challis, Idaho to follow the final miles of the Salmon River up to Stanley, over Galena Summit and down into Ketchum just in time for lunch. When I was a child I knew every milepost of this journey by heart. I knew when we would pass the Shoshone Ice Caves north of Twin Falls (no matter how much I begged, they never stopped).
I also knew we would always eat breakfast at the Commercial Casino in Elko, and I resigned myself to the long hour I would have to spend in the “children’s room” at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks while my parents gambled on the main floor. Back in the 70s, children had to stay in a single dimly-lit room. A harried casino attendant checked in on us slot machine orphans from time to time and, even though the television mounted high on the wall was never tuned to cartoons and the plastic chairs were incredibly uncomfortable, we had a Pong machine to entertain us.
Last year, we stopped at all of these places, including the Nugget. (Every place we went brought back so many memories of my Dad, I had a really hard time keeping it together, especially when we passed the “Welcome to California” sign just below Donner Pass.) Unlike my parents, I don’t have a gambling bone in my body. However, following tradition my mom and I turned off the Interstate and pulled into the multi-level parking garage. We brought him into the casino with us for good luck.
I put the box that contained his ashes in my bag and casually draped my windbreaker over it so we wouldn’t draw attention. It failed. My mom and I thumped him every time we sat down at a new machine. “Okay, you rascal”, we said, “at least pay for our gas money.” Believe me, this isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. He had an incredible sense of humor. I inherited only a fraction of it. Even though we didn’t win anything, we knew he would love the fact we brought him to one last game in the Nugget.
All seven of my father’s children were born and raised in the Bay Area. My sister Randie, her husband, their three children and six grandchildren still live there. We had plenty of chauffeurs on hand to take us to all our family’s old stomping grounds: Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Golden Gate Park, the Sausalito Marina, North Beach and the Palace of Fine Arts.
Union Square wasn’t one of those hangouts (I wouldn’t have been caught dead in Saks when I was in high school; it wasn’t Goth), but we walked through the neighborhood on our way from the Ferry Building Marketplace to the new-ish Westfield San Francisco Centre. I’m normally not a shop ’til I drop kind of girl–unless the shopping in question is in that beautiful Ferry Building–but my mother and my sister had time and money to kill, and they were determined to spend their afternoon slaughtering both.
I scored a small victory when I got them to temporarily abandon the high ground of expensive boutiques in favor of Rasputin’s on Powell. With the exception of one rainy, cold, foggy day (which is the rule and not the exception this time of year), the weather was glorious while we were in the Bay Area. Everything was in bloom. The branches of the lemon and orange trees in my sister’s backyard were so heavily laden with fruit they nearly touched the ground. She sent us home with over 100 pounds of citrus; I feasted on fresh luscious Meyer lemons for months afterward.
My favorite memory of our trip is the morning I woke up early and sat in bare feet and pajamas on my sister’s deck drinking tea, eating an orange from one of her trees, and watching the ships on the Bay. A gentle breeze off the water caressed me while I sat in the sunshine, and despite the sadness of the occasion, I felt as safe and content as a baby in her mama’s arms.
This summer the California branch of the family tree is coming up to Montana, and we’re going to scatter the other half of my father’s ashes down a local waterfall he loved to visit years ago. Since we mixed flowers from the Japanese Tea Gardens and oranges from my sister’s backyard with his ashes in the Bay, we’ve decided to send Dad off this time with native wildflowers picked along the trail to the falls and some of last summer’s huckleberries.
Huckleberry pie was my father’s favorite dessert; when he moved back to Montana in 1989, he made sure there were enough berries in the freezer at the end of each August to be able to eat pie all winter long. Because the Forest Service discourages people from scattering human cremains in our National Forests, be sure you look the other way when you see us coming up the trail. We’ll be the group picking Indian paintbrush, Jacob’s ladder, and yellow violets, and also carrying a picnic basket, bottles of wine, and a box. It will be obvious it’s us, because we’ll be thumping the box and talking to it along the way.