The snowy egret is just inches above the water, its wings extended in an almost shockingly straight line, the tips poised, mid-stroke, directly over the shimmering S-curve of its neck and its head. It’s a sunny afternoon in Berkeley; a soft breeze from the South whispers through Aquatic Park, wrinkling the water beneath the egret’s elegant, feathery descent, and the wheeling gulls seem to cry out in answer.
Above, and to the east, a corrugated metal warehouse looms, its bleached walls deflecting the afternoon light back toward the bay. A Mercedes sedan from the mid-1970s is parked in the lot between the building and the water. The sign above the building proclaims: Montali! The year is 1984.
(1984. Finally, the idea has begun to emerge, in some small measure, at least, in the public imagination. Ongoing war. War without end. War is peace. Ignorance is Strength. Freedom is Slavery. The comparison has begun to register. The commentators have begun to permit themselves to remember. 1984 is making a comeback; poor Mr. Orwell is surely sleepless in his grave.) I was in the toolroom at Audubon Cellars, formerly Montali. The toolroom, at that moment, was the only place in the building where it was quiet enough to think, and to write. Just outside the toolroom door, my press had begun to squeeze the season’s last wine from the Syrah grapes from Bassetti Vineyard. The compressor in that machine was, as ever, deafening when it was engaged in inflating or deflating its membrane. When the press wasn’t producing that racket, the steady clanking of glass on the bottling line around the corner, and the intermittent sounds of the forklift accelerating in the back of the warehouse prevented silence from becoming an even remotely viable concept. “Maybe in the next lifetime,” as someone once said, “I’ll be able to hear myself think.” It was Hallowe’en; in a few hours the dead might just be coming back to give us a chance, once again (bless them), to hear what they might have to tell us.
Looking at this image (the egret) on the toolroom wall, I remembered that in 1984 I didn’t operate a winery. I worked part-time (one evening a week) at a small wine shop on the “Miracle Mile” at the West end of San Rafael, but my day job found me walking the sidewalks of downtown San Anselmo, delivering the US Mail. I rose each morning at quarter to five, showered, dressed, made coffee and a bit of breakfast, kissed Cornelia, and headed from Berkeley to the Post Office. In those days, my oldest daughter Heather rose (these days, since last Fall, she is Heather Rose!) each morning and went off to Aptos middle school; her sister Erin went to Douglass elementary. Cornelia’s daughter Maria was at Brown University, her brother Ben, just back from a year in Belgium, was a senior at Berkeley High. Younger brothers Matt and Nick were freshmen at Berkeley High.
Barry Bonds was in college. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The San Diego Padres were in the World Series. It was a good year in Pouilly-Fuisse.
I made my first real visit to New York, saw a play, went to the museums. Had tea at the Plaza. Ate dinner in little Italy. Went to the top of the Empire State Building. Saw the World Trade center, from far away.
I celebrated my 37th birthday at Auberge du Soleil, in Napa Valley, with a group of close friends, all of us ending up in our birthday suits in a swimming pool at a B&B in Calistoga, then playing “Charades” far into the night. It was a different lifetime.
Now it’s Saturday morning: All Saints Day. All Souls Day. The Day of The Dead. Last night, in the company of Cornelia, my daughter Erin, my granddaughter Olivia, (and a couple of Olivia’s cronies for the evening, and the cronies’ parents (friends of ours), we visited the neighborhood where I lived between 3rd grade and my senior year in high school. (I moved into that neighborhood just in time for… Hallowe’en!) We have friends who live just around the corner from the house I lived in there, and they’d invited us over because their own kids (too old for trick-or-treat) were out for the evening.
It’s a great neighborhood for trick-or-treating. Families get really carried away about pumpkin-carving, decorating, greeting kids at the door in costume, all that. And, in the neighborhood, everyone knows everyone, pretty much. It’s not so true in a lot of places, these days, but even when I was a kid, this was a great neighborhood to go door to door, and have fun, and feel like the neighbors were keeping an eye out for you.
I hadn’t been in my old house on Rose Avenue since the summer of 1964. My mother moved us into an apartment near Lake Merritt in July that year, a few months after my father died. (While that move was taking place, I’d gone off to visit my sister, who lived in Junction City, Kansas, near Fort Riley, where her husband was stationed in the Army. While I was back there, LBJ managed to scare Congress into passing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. A different lifetime–but not that different.) It’s a house in which my life was shaped in powerful ways, and among my memories of it there aren’t many good ones, but it’s part of me now, like some broken bone that never quite healed up right. So going back to visit was something I’d thought about doing for years, but never quite got around to. This was the perfect opportunity.
After trick-or-treating our way up Greenbank Avenue, and around the corner, by the time we got to my old house, most of the lights had been turned off. There were a couple of jack-o-lanterns lit in the driveway, near the in-law cottage in the back. And a light in the window of a room upstairs, near the back. My old room.
We’d been talking, on our way down the street, about going to this house again; I could feel myself getting both excited and a little apprehensive. But when we saw the ground floor mostly dark, there were some murmurings of disappointment. My daughter Erin said; “Oh, too bad; I guess we won’t be able to see it, after all.”
Olivia quickly insisted “They’ll have to let us in; this is Grampa Steve’s house!” (Olivia is 5) “But he doesn’t live there now, honey.” Erin answered, but Olivia was undaunted; “I know,” she replied, “but I’m sure they’ll still recognize him.”
We did finally get to see it, but there were, it seemed, three tasks to be performed before we could gain entry. Despite the darkness on the porch, and in the house, Cornelia insistently knocked at the door. A woman’s face, at last, peered through the glass from within. In a few seconds she turned on the porchlight, came out, and, after closing the door behind her, began to chat with us. Cornelia explained that we were trick-or treating with our grandchildren in the neighborhood, at the suggestion of friends who lived around the corner, and that I had, in fact, grown up in her house, so we hadn’t wanted to go away without making contact.
The lady of the house seemed very friendly, but she gave no indication whatsoever of being interested in having any ghosts coming into her house. After perhaps ten minutes of sharing stories about the house and the neighborhood, the conversation seemed to begin to falter, and I could feel that we were getting very close to turning back toward the street. Then Erin noticed her doormat, on which were the words: “We only serve the finest California wine here. Did you bring any?” (Earlier in the evening, when the idea of visiting the house came up, Erin had suggested bringing the occupants a bottle of wine. It was a perfect idea, and I didn’t pay enough attention to it.) We quickly began to let her know about Edmunds St. John, and, just as quickly, she let us know that she and her husband were partners in another East Bay winery, in Alameda. (Instantly I remembered a conversation several years ago with one of the principals of that winery, in which I’d been asked where I grew up, and, in which mention was made of a partner in that winery who just might live in the house I’d lived in!) The conversation seemed to open, again, and a few seconds later, the door opened again, and she called her husband to come and greet us. He did so, and the energy level seemed to double at once. But after several more minutes we were still on the porch, and it was getting colder out there.
Then Olivia told her mom she needed to go to the bathroom. I quickly turned to the husband and asked if it would be alright if my granddaughter used the bathroom. “Of course!” he said, swinging open the door, “why don’t you all come in?” He began, right away, to talk about the ways the house might be different from when I’d last seen it. I resisted the impulse to tell Olivia where the closest bathroom was, but very shortly he directed her to it. It was right where it had always been.
Just like in the fairy tales, the three tasks had been performed, and I got a tour of the downstairs part of the house. Except for the window on its North wall, the kitchen was completely different. It was a surprising shock to see it, especially after walking through the front door, and the foyer, seeing the front room on the left, the dining room on the right, and the stairway straight ahead all looking so hauntingly familiar. My host invited me to see the wine cellar, and, of course, I knew the way. But I think my last memory of going into the basement had been from when I was, perhaps, ten, and I could stand upright in it without banging my head. I’m much taller, now, and the ceiling was surprisingly low. When his wife asked me, after we re-emerged, what I’d thought of the wine cellar, I think she was wanting my opinion of the interesting assortment of wines they’d collected, but my response was to mention the low ceiling, and what a surprise it had been. It took me awhile to recognize that during the ten or fifteen minutes I’d been in the house, that I’d been, physically, in one lifetime and world, yet mentally and emotionally I’d been in a world and a lifetime that no one else could see.
And it had taken the ingenious help of the three female relatives who accompanied me, to find my way from one world to the other, and it was their presence and love that brought me safely back.
I went back today to taste the Syrah from Bassetti that I pressed out such a short time ago. It shows, at this early stage, the structure and substance to suggest that it may become something special, in its span of years. It’s so hard to know for sure when wines are at this stage, what they may become. But my experience over the past 19 seasons suggests to me that this wine will very likely be coming into its own at about the time I become (if my luck holds out)…70, …maybe 75? I wonder what stories we will have to tell then?