San Francisco and beyond

May 12, 2008

My mother never made it west of the Mississippi. Until now. As I write, countless specks of her are in San Francisco Bay and the Pacific, bound for who knows where on the lunar whim of tides.

She’s used to the water. When she died in 2003, my two brothers and I scattered some of her ashes in Apalachicola Bay a few steps from her house on St. George Island in the Florida Panhandle and in the lake where we grew up in Central Florida. The rest she wanted deposited in San Francisco. But she waited patiently in Portland, a protracted layover in a plastic container hidden away in my office cabinet. Atop the cabinet rests her senior class photograph (class of 1948, Bosse High School, Evansville, Indiana).

My mother – her friends called her Joanie – loved sentimental songs. When I was a kid, she played Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” over and over. This was her only connection to the city, and the images and emotions evoked in the 1962 song touched her in ways I don’t claim to understand.

She left it up to me where in the city to assign her cremains. In a fit of creativity I settled on the Golden Gate Bridge. On Saturday, Suzame and I headed for the bridge, anticipating a solemn farewell in one of the world’s most scenic spots.

We didn’t know the city was hosting 7,500 Girl Scouts, or they’d be crossing the bridge that day in their own rite of passage. Throngs of them surrounded us as we made our way out onto the span. Cars whizzed past. The wind swirled in gusts. Would the ashes fall like mist to the water or blow back onto the scouts?

I imagined the headlines: “Panic on the Bridge! Mystery Dust Coats Girl Scouts.” Or: “Girl Scouts Inhale Woman’s Ashes, Feel Suddenly Wild.” My mother, you see, wasn’t easily tamed.

We gave up and took Joanie on a bonus trip up the coast to isolated Kehoe Beach on Point Reyes. Kehoe is where Suzame and I were engaged (Friday was our 10-year anniversary, the other reason for our trip). At the water’s edge I sprinkled some of my mother on the sand. Waves carried her out to sea, except for bits that blended into the seashells. But I saved most of the ashes for another San Francisco excursion the next day, Mother’s Day.

Narrow Pier 14 (random YouTube video here) extends about 200 yards into the water from The Embarcadero near Mission Street, next to the Bay Bridge. At 11 a.m., the pier was empty. A few boats eased past Treasure Island, their white sails taut and bright in the sunshine. I heard Tony Bennett’s voice in my head:

My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco,
Your golden sun will shine for me!

From the end of the pier, Mom wafted north, a shimmering curtain setting slowly on the water. I could still see her beneath the surface, embarking on countless journeys into the world.