My Calistoga in the Age of Covid

We did not know what to expect. This was our first post-Corona hotel stay and we were apprehensive. We had booked two nights in our favorite go-to place, the Calistoga Spa. Calistoga, a little town, nestled in the Napa Valley holds a huge place in my heart. Calistoga  is rich with  memories of my youth. It is the only place we went to for family vacations when we were kids. For my parents, it was not far from San Francisco (around two hours depending if my father got lost), and we were guaranteed wonderful, usually hot summer weather. My mother’s goal was to get her little brood out of the fog belt of San Francisco, and we would get tan like browned chickens

We stayed at a no-frills resort, then called Little Village, for around $60 a week, running in to the same families every year. My mom did all the cooking and  managed to make the best meals for us. The kids had a ball playing hide and seek and shuffleboard. We entertained ourselves with comic books and cut out dolls. The highlight of every afternoon was swimming in the huge geyser-heated public pool, Patchateau’s. We would trek over there through a  field with prickly weeds holding our inner tubes. When we got to the pool,  my mom paid the maybe fifty cent admission. She would coat us with Sea and Ski, and then we were off for a glorious afternoon playing and splashing in the tepid water. My dad would join us on weekends driving up from San Francisco on Friday afternoons. Those weekends were rejuvenating for him. He could look forward to taking a hot mineral bath in our own cabin. The sulphur in the water smelled like rotten eggs.  In later years, Little Village put in their own pool which had cold water so we preferred swimming there in the heat which could reach over 100 degrees.

 Jeff and I continued our family tradition and brought our children to Calistoga as well. We have also had some terrific times with our grandchildren there too. The magic is the same, lazy days in the swimming pool. Patchateau’s now is Indian Springs, very upscale and not open to the public as it once was,  when it was a veritable international swim party on Sunday afternoons. We currently go to the Calistoga Spa, bring our own little barbeque and I manage to whip up great food in the tiny kitchen. When my grandchildren are there, I am like a short order cook making five different breakfasts from French toast to omlettes, to scrambled eggs.

at the Patchateau’s pool with my sister, around 1960

This time when we had made the reservation for the spa, we were almost reluctant to go with the new rules and restrictions. We could not arrive until 3pm where we had always been able to use the pool early in the day. We had to check out at 11AM where we had hung around the next day until maybe 2PM. Masks were required to walk around the resort though we did not need them in the pool area if we were sitting at a lounge chair. The rooms would be rather bare and no maid service available. The chairs around the pool would be spaced, and the rooms would be vacant the day before we came and the day after we left. Of course, the spa would be closed so no massages. We never did mud baths anyway, but an occasional massage was a special treat. Whew…this was the new reality, take it our leave it.

Initially we canceled then thought about it and said if we stay for two nights and bring most of our own food we will avoid the grocery store. We decided to give it a try. It was sad to see how many restaurants  and businesses had closed in town. In some cases a favorite restaurant had moved out, and a new name had taken over the space.  Calistoga had previously suffered the effects of the huge Napa Valley fires which spared the town thankfully but had also affected the tourist business. We walked around wearing our masks which was really strange and felt suffocating. We had dinner one warm night out at a patio restaurant with masked servers. It was a lovely creekside setting so it was pleasant.

One of our mornings I was out at 7AM getting us coffee and slipped off my mask. I breathed in the delicious air. This was the Calistoga I remembered. How do you describe the smell of a place? I don’t even know the right words, but that early morning took me back to how  it had always been. We really enjoyed our two days there… lazily floating around in our noodles in the pools, reading and relaxing. It was good to get away from the constant barrage of scary news. The best parts of Calistoga are still the same, the sweet air, the total relaxation, the warm sun. We will go back again and pray for when we can be there without masks.

the upside down sign at this restaurant which was closed somehow felt like a metaphor for everything else…


I Would have Called you Oma

I would have called you “Oma”

You would have called me “Little Doll”

I would have cuddled in your lap

You would have told me your stories

I would have gone to you when I was hurt

You would have kissed away my tears.

I would have looked like you

You would have laughed when people said that

I would have slept on your shoulder

You would have sung to me about geese and rabbits

I would have made cut out cookies with you

You would have taught me your recipes

I would have run to you with my report cards

You would have been beaming at my graduations

I would have helped you when you were sick

You would have held me when I had the chicken pox

I would have told you my secrets

You would have kept them forever

I would have brought around my sweetheart

You would have welcomed him into your arms

I would have stood under the chuppah

You would have wept tears of joy

But they shipped you on the train to Auschwitz

our precious spirit extinguished forever

And when I hold my own sweet grandchild

I think about you… I would have called you “Oma”

My grandmother Ethel Bernstein with two of her five sons, Marcus on the left and Leon on the right who were twins. She perished in Auschwitz.

Cardboard Cemetery

“someone’s empty place at a family dinner”

excised by the cruel scalpel of racial injustice

their hollow voices cry out

to not be forgotten

Oskar Grant, Elijah McLain, Botham Jean, Alton Sterling, Brayla Stone

someone’s lost child,

someone’s missing lover,

someone’s empty place at a family dinner

their legacy deserves to be  so much more

than signs that will wash out

when the  first rains come

I stop my car and pull over for a moment

drawn to this ersatz cardboard cemetery

a curious squirrel scampers among the “graves”

I pay my respects, say a silent prayer

sad for young lives cut short

and sad for our country

Super Nova

dedicated to Amanda Gorman

Yellow breasted, red crowned

“descended from slaves

raised by a single mother ”

she overcame a speech impediment

to stand tall at the podium

not intimidated by Presidents, Gaga or J-lo

she captivated a spellbound audience

reciting with a pounding pulse and lilting rhythm

even echoes of Hamilton could be discerned

her hands speaking too, like an ethereal conductor

and with verses of reconciliation and consolation

she brought solace to a broken country

deeply in need of healing

as we watched  and listened awestruck

she streaked across the sky

like a super nova

leaving contrails in her wake

of possibility and positivity

declaring “we will rebuild, reconcile and recover”

and once again the power of poetry

rising transcendent

forever endowing our ailing nation

with a lasting, empowering gift

A Winter’s Day

Taking a walk

 on a stunning Northern California winter’s day

a teasing, tantalizing morsel of spring

the sky a flawless blue,

the sun inviting and healing

a day begging for short sleeves and sunglasses

barren tree limbs practically stretching

like purring cats basking on a window seat

I pull down my mask stealing a breath

treasuring this break from reality

seeking to forget the incessant news stream

as our country poises precariously

on an inflection point

haunted by the recent events in the Capitol

will they remain a tear in our fabric

which can never be mended

or can we as a nation unite

striving in common purpose

a time to reflect and pray

for our country

for our future

dangling over a precipice

on a sunny winter’s day

This was the Year

This was the year we will always remember but not with photos or mementos. It will be forever marked by pages left blank in photo albums and on line collections which used to chronicle our most important life cycle events and the mundane ones as well. All the celebrations and important events that never were from birthday parties, weddings, graduations to funerals and memorial gatherings. And the ordinary stuff…that fills our days when we are with other people enjoying bbqs, sporting events and just plain hanging out.. It was all missing or diminished in our lives in 2020 from when the virus struck.

This was the year we won’t be able to remember what we did in the summer because we did not do anything. Gone were the lazy carefree days at the beach and pool. Gone were the family get-togethers, the reunions and picnics. Gone were the big trips writ large on bucket lists. Gone were the little getaways too. Passports stayed in the kitchen drawer or file cabinets and the suitcases stayed in the garage or closet. Bucket list travel dreams were not checked off. They remained distant pipe-dreams to ponder over when we could not sleep at night… and there were many nights like that.

This was the year of our undoing when worry and stress burrowed in to our hearts and minds and took a room and didn’t pay rent and decided to hang around as unwanted visitors.  Daily corona virus tolls and death counts were overwhelming.  It became almost too much watching the rolling statistics or hearing the individual stories of the ordinary people lost to this virus, cutting across all ages,  ethnic, and social lines, from a senator to a greeter at Walmart. The corona, the spiky invader, showed no mercy.

 We learned how to fear everyone and became experts at dodging our neighbors on the street, masking up to go to Safeway. We could no longer see a smile, just troubled, worried eyes rushing through the aisles. We learned to fear an enemy  we couldn’t see which stole lives and livelihoods every day. We had to surrender to this enemy following the guidelines we heard repeatedly  from the experts. In an Abundance of Caution dot dot dot became our every day mantra.

This was the year we craved being with our families because we were told not to. We missed human contact the more they told us to stay away and keep our distance. We waved at mail carriers and UPS delivery men. We got in touch with distant cousins and long lost friends. I reconnected with several friends from grammar school. We missed hugs and touches and kisses on the cheek.

This was the year going on  Zoom became as ubiquitous as  taking a shower, between zoom classes, synagogue services and zoom parties; kids on zoom for school, zoom zoom zoom. My sister even got married on Zoom. We became mavens at Zoom get togethers and birthday parties. I zoomed my book launch and celebrated my 70th birthday with my family on a Zoom call. We have to be grateful for this technology because that is sometimes all there is keeping us tethered to other people, warding off loneliness and depression.  

This was the year we got down to basics learning way less is more. I learned to explore my own neighborhood, walk in the redwoods, see the magnificent trees that were so close but I was too busy with I don’t know what to notice. We let our hair go natural, learned to do without mani/pedis…all the little things we took for granted that we can live without. This was the year we re-discovered cooking….eating at home became easier, safer, less hassle.

This was the year we learned that the integrity of our sacrosanct election system, the foundation of our democracy,  could be questioned and maligned.  This was the year when truth was so beaten up it had to go on life support. This was the year that racism reared its ugly head on too many occasions and the rest of us had to take a hard look at our attitudes and our conscience. This was the year democracy was rent and torn.

This was the year we had to face ourselves in the mirror  because there was no place to run and hide, and nowhere to go. We had to learn how to grasp time and spend it wisely because even though we had all the time in the world, it felt like time was speeding by like a runaway hourglass. This was the year we had to face reality and look our own mortality in the face because especially as seniors there were no guarantees of anything.

I so look forward to putting this year behind me,  being with my grandchildren and not worrying about kissing them from head to toe, reuniting with my family in Israel, having normal family events and holiday celebrations all the little and big things we have been missing but hopefully be able to do once again.

This was the year we will never forget.

Thanksgiving Reflections 2020

Thanksiving 2020 for all of us will not business as usual. Who would have ever believed that this beloved holiday as so many other milestone events and celebrations in the last months  will be curtailed. I have already gotten over mourning my favorite holiday which is not going to be the same this year for my family. For me, Thanksgiving has always been special for several reasons. First, my birthday falls on Thanksgiving or around it. This year, it is a big birthday ending in a zero. I’m used to being surrounded by family to celebrate the holiday and my birthday at the same time. My daughters are planning a virtual Zoom birthday party on Thanksgiving morning. Oh well….I know it will be fun, and I am swinging with this new reality.

Thanksgiving was also a holiday where I felt, as a first generation American, part of the mainstream. My parents had immigrated to the United States fleeing Nazi Germany and met in San Francisco at a dance for servicemen. They had much in common and got married while the war was still raging. Fortunately it ended before my father could be shipped out of the country. They settled in San Francisco. My mom wanted us four kids to be “good Americans.”

Pilgrim tchotchke

My mother went all out for this holiday, setting a beautiful table with decorative tchotchkes  little pilgrims and ceramic turkeys, flowers and baskets with fruit. It was a holiday we could fully participate in which made us feel like full fledged Americans. We always had east coast cousins staying with us on Thanksgiving. They loved my mother’s wonderful cooking which included a big turkey and all the trimmings, stuffing, sweet potatoes and four or five desserts, though she never made pumpkin pie.  She was a great listener and they could talk to her and get her advice, and she loved to spoil them with her cooking.

I didn’t have to act “dumb” which I did when I was in a grocery store after Thanksgiving and well meaning ladies would ask the cute little blond kid what Santa was bringing me. I knew Santa wasn’t going to be stopping at our home. We had a brass menorah on the mantle, no tree,  and celebrated Chanukah, but it was not a major holiday for us.

Over the years, as my mom got older, I took over the holiday. I have my own box of  cardboard decorations I’ve accumulated which I would put on the tables and hang on walls;  pumpkin-shaped candles, brocade  tablecloths I  save just for this holiday. I have a binder with a Thanksgiving recipe section. I make some items every year like my squash soup, my mashed yams with crushed pineapple and try to add a few new items to the menu. Where I used to buy cooking magazines, now I scour the internet. Though my parents and in-laws have long passed away, our immediate family has expanded now with grandchildren and my daughters’ and their husband’s families. It is always a festive occasion with lots of good food and lively discussion. Thankfully the election will be over.

So this year, how are we going to manage? The warnings of Dr. Fauci resonated,  and we definitely did not want to take a chance on spreading Covid within the family. We decided to limit the dinner to just my daughters and their children. We are also going outside in my daughter’s yard so it is not going to be at my house. Living in California, this is doable and we will start earlier and tell everyone to bring jackets. We will pray for no rain! The little ones will have an area they can go off by themselves, and we will do what we can to be mindful and stay safe.

 I know, it won’t be the same but I tell myself just get over it. . We will start our meal out going around the “yard” saying why we are grateful. I am grateful my husband and I and my family are healthy. That is the bottom line. So many families have suffered or are still dealing with the virus. I am hopeful that there will be a vaccine available soon on the horizon in 2021. Maybe this year will be a time to really take stock, to hone in on what is valuable, meaningful, and important in our cluttered lives. That is what will give new meaning to Thanksgiving 2020.   

Flo at the Diner

Flo Strauss, compact and efficient in her spotless pink uniform, strides briskly to the lone burly policeman sitting in the last booth on the right. She’s in a good mood. It looks like it is going to be a beautiful May day, pink clouds crowding in the sky visible through the plate glass windows in the front of the restaurant, the usual morning fog absent. Officer Joseph Douglas is here for his favorite, lox, eggs and onions with a poppy seed bagel, and she always remembers to bring strawberry jelly to the table which they get from an orchard in Sebastopol.

Flo has been working in this same restaurant for thirty two years. At sixty-two, it is getting harder mornings when the throbbing arthritis in her left hip acts up. Even though she could, she doesn’t want to stop working. It’s all she has and everyone in the restaurant feels like family. Outside of poker two nights a week, she isn’t much for hobbies. Retirement terrifies her. Edgar died four years ago; they never had kids, and she can’t imagine herself watching daytime soaps and crocheting blankets.

Flo is surprised Joseph isn’t with his partner Eric. They come in together after their shift one or two mornings a week. Flo notices everything. He sits slumped with red eyes, the weariness pouring off him, in his regular booth facing the front door, ever watchful and on alert no matter how worn out he is. It is 6:25am. The staff is used to police walking in through the back door to the kitchen when they get off shift. Harry, the original owner, now his son David, gladly accommodates San Francisco’s finest. They in turn routinely monitor the restaurant.

“Hey Officer Joey.” Flo never calls him “Joseph.” “ What’s shaking? Ready for your LE and O.”

The young officer shakes his head, “I don’t feel much like eating.”

“Bad night?”

“Yeah, you might say that.”

“Let me get some coffee.”

Flo returns with two mugs of freshly brewed coffee in old, thick, cream-colored mugs. She sits herself down opposite the police officer and grimaces from the twinge of her touchy hip.

The young officer looks at Flo intently. “Why do you still take this early shift Flo? Don’t you want to sleep in?”

Flo frowns then softens her face. “Ahhh officer. Not that it’s your business, but I love this job and the people here and my customers too. What else am I going to do? Take Zumba classes?

Flo takes a sip of coffee. ”Joey, Where’s your better half, the matzoh brei guy? I have a bet going with him that the Giants are going all the way. He’s going to owe me.”

Joey puts down the steaming mug and hesitates little too long before speaking. “Eric got shot last night. He’s out of surgery, and he’ll be OK.”

“Thank God. What happened? I haven’t seen the news.”

Joey speaks like he is giving the report about the incident all over again. “ It was a 10-16, uh..reported domestic violence call from a neighbor. Came in around 7PM. We thought we were going to be breaking up an argument. Address in the Castro.”

Flo chews on her thumbnail.

“We assumed it might be a gay couple since that neighborhood is…well you know heavily gay. When we got there, it was one of those Victorian’s, meticulously restored and worth a fortune.”

Flo nods, “Yeah. Real estate in that neighborhood is through the roof.”

“We were joking that maybe they were fighting over paint colors, but we learned in the Academy that domestic violence calls can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable.” Joseph toys with wrapped the sugar cubes on the table.

A few neighbors had gathered. A bald-headed man holding a yappy dog came up to us very excited. He told us he had made the call because of the ruckus. It sounded violent.”
I pounded on the door, heard loud voices and breaking glass. After we identified ourselves, we were ready to kick in the door, but when I tried the handle, it wasn’t locked. We came in to a stairway and ran up. We had our hands on our guns but didn’t pull them. Two women stood in the living room facing each other The place was fancy, but there had been a major scuffle; an overturned chair on its side, a broken lamp, a glass of red wine shattered and spilled on the hardwood floor.”

Flo sips her coffee and sighs. She has heard her share of too many bad stories from young cops like Joey.

“They were maybe in their early forties. One was dressed in a gray pantsuit. I noticed a briefcase on the hardwood floor. The other woman had a short spiky hairstyle and an elaborate tattoo of a snake on her upper arm. She wore black cargo pants and boots and a leather vest. She was small, wiry and muscular. They were breathing hard and standing apart.”

The pantsuit woman said, “we’re OK. Had a little disagreement. She had a raised welt under her eye and a fat lip. You can go.”

The other woman glared at us, “Get the fuck out of here.”

My partner answered her calmly.” Uh, we’re going to take a report. Need your names…”
He had just taken out his notepad when the woman with the spiky hair pulls a small revolver out of her baggy pants pocket and shoots Eric in the shoulder, completely unprovoked. He shouts, and clutches his shoulder, bleeding badly.

I pulled out my gun and shot her. It happened so fast. She fell on to the sofa, her partner screamed, and it was chaos. I called it in requesting two ambulances and back up. Paramedics took them to San Francisco General. It was too late for her. I nicked her carotid and she bled out. After I left the hospital I went to the station to give my report. I’m on leave pending an investigation. They told me my shooting was most likely justified but…I shot on instinct, the way we’ve been trained. ”

He shook his head.“ First time I ever killed someone. Why did she pull a gun?”

Flo tsk tsks, then pats the young officer on his hand. “Rough Joey.” The silence is broken by customers coming in and the morning rush starting up, the front door banging.

Flo calls to one of her regulars. “Morning Tommy, your shirt is wrinkled. Don’t you own an iron?” Everyone expects her sassy remarks. She winks at Joey.

“Let me bring you some matzoh ball soup. My bubbe… uh, my grandmother, taught me that matzoh ball soup has magical healing powers”

Joey smiles. A tear rolls down his cheek. “OK Flo. That sounds real good.”

Interlude in Trader Joe’s Parking Lot

A man playing a sax
sits on a makeshift stool
in Trader Joe’s parking lot,

scrounging for his three kids
his sad story splayed
on tattered cardboard,

his reedy notes
a brass confession
soulful, plaintive,

squandered in this shitty parking lot
with the bouquet of urine
drifting in from dark corners.

I’m pulled in by the music
like a rogue wave,
and he has no idea I’m drowning
in long-forgotten memories…

Two kids under the spell of young love,
slow dancing under swaying palms,
rum and cokes with paper umbrellas
a pony-tailed sax player spewing pure honey.

I’m still clutching my cart,
loaded with organic what-evers
lost in sweet reverie.

I give him a few dollars,
carefully placed in his open case.
He nods, I quietly clap
in this ersatz concert hall.

Don’t stop playing sax man,
take me with you
somewhere, anywhere,
to when the promise of our young lives
was still dancing in front of us.

This poem appeared in California Quarterly, Spring 2020

This poem appears in My Runaway Hourglass

The Cuervo Gold and Clorox Blues

It’s not a good sign when you’re
mesmerized by the Westminster dog show.
Got to get out of this place.
Yes, even a well-planned foray
to Safeway will suffice.
I know I shouldn’t go, but I can’t relinquish
this last vestige of my old life.

Grocery list clutched in my gloved hand,
mask in place, fogging my glasses,
cart wiped down.
I try to keep myself from weeping.
We are all actors in a bad dream,
that doesn’t go away in the morning.

Will we ever get back to before?
Oh, the little joys I took for granted,
like my grandsons sleeping over.
I’m frenetic, rushing through the aisles,
cowering behind my mask.
I don’t look anyone in the eye.

I score a big win, paper towels.
But do I really need four more cans
of tomato bisque soup?
The masked man in red sweatpants
joyfully unloads big bottles
of Cuervo Gold and Clorox on to the belt.
He makes me smile.

This poem appeared on the Editorial Page of the San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 2020

This poem appears in My Runaway Hourglass

Photo: Vox Efx from Baltimore, United States / CC BY