Sonoma County is about 55 miles North of San Francisco and to a large degree it remains a farming community which has never provided a lot of support for it’s mostly middle income workers. Many residents commute South to the more moneyed counties of Marin and San Francisco in order to afford to live in Sonoma County.
It is bordered to the South by Marin County, the haven of San Francisco executives who commute to work by ferry and their families with their attendant up-scale shopping malls.
Napa County, renowned for world class wines, hot springs and spas lies to the East.
To the North is Mendocino County, well known for the lovely little oceanside village of Mendocino, where lived the imaginary author in the television program “Murder She Wrote”. It is just as famous for wide open spaces, mountains, valleys and pocket canyons that hide acres of marijuana farms. This beautiful county remains enmeshed in a triangular struggle between the law, local pot-growers, and the cartels who want to take over these businesses.
I live in a little town in Sonoma County, a bedroom community that provides Marin and San Francisco Counties with many “drone” employees. The salary disparity is commanding and keeps many of us on Highway 101 for hours every day.
I was an Escrow Officer at ABC title company, hired by the office manager and soon to be dear friend, Gwen. I had a private office, and one morning our secretary knocked at my door to see if I could take some clients. I was free and told her to bring them in.
Two youngish men came into my office one Spring day. Both wore neatly pressed blue jeans. Alex, tall and handsome with deep blue eyes wore a long sleeved blue checked shirt tucked neatly in. Andy’ grey eyes were behind wire-rim spectacles. He was a little shorter, a little edgier, very slender, almost fragile. He wore a white long sleeved shirt beneath his grey knit vest.
I figured they were around my age, maybe younger, in their late thirties. They were bright-eyed and expectant as they told me they were moving from San Francisco and wanted to open an escrow on a beautiful cottage in West Sonoma County, in the hamlet of Graton. They were obviously a couple, and they chose the right place. West County to this day remains known for welcoming men and women of different ages, cultures and persuasions. Alex and Andy would fit right in.
In the eighties Graton was rustic, worn and welcoming but a little beat up here and there, not yet “charming”. That would come later.
The real estate boom of the 1980s was in full bloom, and newcomers sold homes in Southern California migrating north to become gentlemen vintners on private estates where they often constructed enormous and architecturally stunning homes. And they entertained old friends who generally followed their lead to live in “The Wine Country”.
West County, historically a haven with artists, writers, sculptors, hangers-on, pot-heads, architects, environmentalists, lesbians, gays, transgenders, and slackers: a hodge-podge of welfare families, dopers; artists and wealthy business retirees of all ages creating a culture as welcoming as it was stimulating.
Entrepreneurs established new businesses of specialty bakeries, commercial vineyards for their new “vintner” status, and cottage industries of weaving, making candles and Panama Hats, beekeeping, honey sprang up. Alex and Andy were going to be very happy in their new home.
During the course of their purchase escrow they drove up from The City for weekends, and stopped to visit with me and Gwen. They always brought a little something: sometimes pastries, sometimes flowers, and if we had the time, they just sat and visited with us. They told us how welcome they felt in their little village of Graton, how Sonoma County in general felt like a personal Shang-ri La .
They held a housewarming party when escrow closed, and invited Gwen and me to join them. It was a lively party, a mix of their old friends from San Francisco and their new neighbors, the “Gratonites”.
Over the next year or so, “the boys” as Gwen and I came to call them, continued to drop in for a quick chat, sometimes with friend, usually straight. I never quit got it until Gwen, safely married, explained that they were bringing in suitable swains for me: I was single, and she suspected Alex and Andy were trying to introduce the “single mom”, to a manly “someone nice”.
One day Alex and Andy stopped by the office with their Perpetual Powers of Attorney. My heart sank as I looked at them, suddenly aware of the weight loss, deep purple shadows under Alex’s eyes, how Andy’s hand shook. Alex answered my unspoken question. It was Aids and they didn’t know how long Andy was going to last. There were new drugs to try. He wanted his PPA done too, one never knew.
They both said they were grateful they found their way to Sonoma County. Here they found an extended family of friends from all walks of life. He said they both included Gwen and me in that family.
I filled in the document dates, signed and stamped their final documents in a daze.
But Andy was not the first to go, it was the younger and more robust, the beautiful Alex. A shock to everyone; a disaster for Andy.
I was devastated, could not imagine life without those bright blue eyes, that playful fun-loving spirit of Alex. I could not imagine Andy going on without him. The boys were a part of our lives now.
Andy and their many friends held a celebration of Alex at the cottage. Friends and neighbors brought a banquet of foods, barrels of wine and flowers. Someone brought a Japanese Maple, Alex’s favorite tree, and several men got busy getting it planted .
So many people gathered that they spilled out of the boy’s garden, overflowing into neighbors gardens. And the neighbors quickly put out chairs and tables for the over-flow.
I was rather conspicuous in my work clothes: suit, heels, pantyhose, full makeup and probably hair-spray on my hair. I milled around introducing myself to strangers. We shared how we knew the boys, how we were going to miss Alex, and how friends had already aligned to support Andy.
A tall man in a dark suit slowly smoked a cigarette in a corner of the the boys living room, observing this gathering. This had to be Alex’s father, so tall and handsome. He looked my way and his brilliant blue eyes proved it.
I approached him and introduced myself. He wiped tears with the back of one hand, took a deep draw on his cigarette with the other. Exhaling, his words came out a little high-pitched, in staccato bursts.
“I didn’t know he had friends – like you, you know. People, people like me. I thought he was someone to be ashamed of.” He paused, then said “I ran my son off!”
A thick silence rose between us. I was at a loss witnessing such raw agony from a stranger. I breathed in his pain and ammonia shot up my nostrils, cauterizing them, leaving a dull ache behind my eyes. When he finally spoke again his voice was angry and condemning, raspy with held-back tears.
“I never gave my Alexander a chance! I never got to know him, the real him. He will never know how sorry I am right now”
I needed fresh air. I asked him if he would like to go out to the garden, so we could sit in a place that Alex dearly loved. Before he could answer I grabbed his arm.
I might have jerked him outside.
In the warmth of sunshine and the fragrance of Alex’s flowers I told him just how happy Alex had been. I told him how full of hell he was, that he was a prankster and continually pissed Andy off, that Andy grew to enjoy this. I told him I thought Alex was searching amongst his straight friends for men to match me up with.
I told him he was the spitting image of his handsome father, and that he surely had a heart as big as the heart his Dad was showing me now.
He listened when I said Alex spoke of him often, sometimes sadly, And I told him Andy’s version of stories from his childhood: how Dad taught him to ride his bike and they both ended up in the swimming pool, and Mom captured it all on film!
I told him Alex loved that memory and always roared telling it! Alex was okay with who he was and accepted the way his father was: “They didn’t understand homosexuality: they thought this was choice and choice is always reversible,”
“In the end, all is okay, all as it should be: you are born, you live, you grow, you love, you lose, you die, but not necessarily in that order. And sometimes in your dying, you make others grow again.”
He looked at me strangely and wiping his eyes asked “How do you know all that?”
I stood up and felt my face turn red, embarrassed by my audacity to spill such weighty words to a grieving stranger. But before I could reply, he stood up and gathered me in his arms, He hugged me tight, then held my face and kissed me on the forehead, like a daughter.
“Thank you, my dear. Thank you for letting me know he doesn’t hate me. My Alexander had no hate in him, bless him,” With a sob he let me go and excused himself.
“I really must speak with Andy now. He has been such an important part of my son’s life for a very long time. I need to let him know I to be there for him if he needs me.But more, I need to tell him that I thank him for loving my son so well.”
He strode purposefully back into the cottage, an executive on the move to straighten out a glitch in his system.
I sat back down, exhausted in Alex’s garden and thought about my pre-teen daughter and eight year old son. I prayed we would never have such an estrangement.
Thank the stars I couldn’t see what lay ahead.