When I tell folks I did some of my growing up in Sonoma -- a handful of years just before and after I turned five and a steady scattering of summers through junior high and high school -- they say "oooohhhh – Sonoma!" and it's that instant recognition that makes me suspect strongly that they're thinking wine country and tony tasting rooms and gourmet cheeses.
PR machine Sonoma.
Not my Sonoma.
My Sonoma is a hard working rural dusty pick up truck kind of place. Not that anyone in our family owned a pick up -- we were (and still largely are) VW people with a few leftover limos from the funeral home. But the neighbors did, including Shari's daddy who lived next door and delivered Shasta soda all over the Valley in his.
My Sonoma is my very first library -- the old Carnegie that's been converted to the visitor's center since -- on the central plaza just a block from our old home. My Sonoma is sleepy enough (or my hippie mother was just that unaware enough) that I walked the block alone when I was somewhere between 4 and 5 years old and tried to check out a stack of books of my own -- only to be told I needed to get myself a library card to get that done. Or bring a grownup with me next time.
My Sonoma is the sundial in the little rosette of a rose garden next to the library with the strange roman numerals that amazed me every time the sun was shining and I happened by because someone told me you could tell time with that thing. Of course, I couldn't. Didn't mean I was any less amazed.
It's the Sebastiani movie theatre with its classic marquee across the street, which thank god is still open and running; and it's the thick crusty loaves of sourdough that they made in the bakery next door (which, regrettably, is no longer there) that we ate with cheese and salami until it grew stale and my mom sliced it up for French toast on Sundays.
My Sonoma is the little house on East Napa with the porch flush to the foundation and the white picket fence with the gate ripe for standing on and swinging in endless repetitions whenever grown ups weren't around.
It was during one of those steady silent swinging meditations that I sorted out in my four year old mind that there were three kinds of humans: men, women, and babies. I racked and racked my brain expecting to find more, expecting people to be as varied as bird species. Looking back I can't figure out whether I was cloistered in a white world and wasn't exposed to other plumage, or if this was me at that age figuring out the sexual creature -- men and women being the mature and sexual, babies being the immature and asexual.
My money's on the sexual creature, because the house we lived in was ripe with sex, even though I wouldn't know it if I saw it, but you could feel it everywhere. Two other hippie couples lived there with my mother and the three of us kids. We were downstairs; they were in the upstairs rooms and the attached mother-in-law apartment out back. The memory of that house is what I insert whenever I come across a reference to "free love": soft and languid and a little bit lonely.
During that time my mother was exercising her 1970s post-divorce freedom with some, but maybe not enough, discretion. My memory of her pink birth control pill compact (with the bas-relief cameo) is crystalline, as is the conversation we had about it. My kindergarten self: What are these for? Her dewy soft still so beautiful self: Women take them so they won't have babies, which made me think too, for too long, that babies appeared like blisters unbidden, or aliens erupting, and had to be staved off like a fever is with baby aspirin.
My Sonoma is Shari's house, the old quasi-Victorian next door, with the garden out back where a nameless grown up (her mother, maybe?) coaxed me (I didn't want to do it) into eating a dusty cherry tomato warmed by the sun right off the vine and it exploded hot in my cheeks, sweet and unexpected, leaving me smiling and surprised. The same garden where we took turns behind her daddy on his motorbike racing the length of the lawn, and I scorched my naked calf against the hot pipe so that it turned red and blistered. Where her daddy dressed the injury and his strong tender hands made me ache for my daddy, who was far enough away to be a fiction to my friends.
Shari's house is a boutique now called être -- "to be." And our little clapboard house is a dance and art academy. The white picket fence is gone. I know because I walked past it this morning, a pit stop on my way to SFO, after burying my grandfather in Napa, after receiving hugs so tight and long and good from my nieces and nephews (ages almost 5 through 10) they left me with a weepy spot square between my breasts.
I wanted to walk through my Sonoma with a camera, giant woman that I am so many years since and so many more feet tall than I was then, and try to take pictures of what I remember it being; of what I remember I was.
And so I shot the sundial and the library and snatches of the mission and the barracks. I shot St. Francis Solano where my mother went to school before she married my father there, and I shot the little clapboard house where we lived after their divorce. I shot the lawn behind the courthouse in the central plaza where I tried to turn a cartwheel at my 5th birthday party.
And I shot the Creamery, which isn't the Creamery anymore, but was for a long time before it wasn't. It was an ice cream parlor -- more like a cavern -- owned by the Italian parents of a man my mother dated who would later marry her sister (such is a small town), where I stepped into the cool room from the heat of the summer and crossed the cold tile floor (in my memory I'm barefoot, which as a hippie kid was not an impossibility, and I can feel the cold tiles under my toes), and where J scooped me my first coffee ice cream cone, marking the moment from which I would forever forsake chocolate as my favorite.
This morning I shot it all quickly, feeling hurried and unsatisfied because I knew snapshots wouldn't capture the rush of emotions I feel in that town; the feeling of being small and alive and curious and full of excitement in a world full of warmth and light and deliciousness.
I swung on my first big kid's swing in this park, my aunt pushing me high and dive bombing beneath me, thrilling me with my first taste of danger. Hungry for more I tried a big kid move on the merry-go-round (the contraption is gone now), running to push it with the other kids and slipping as I jumped on board. I can still remember the chaos of light and shadow as I was pulled beneath it, the hot metal spinning overhead. The fear.
My first artichoke happened here; my first avocado; the slices of salami with the peppercorns that burned my mouth until I learned to pop them out before I rolled the fatty slippery slice and chewed it down.
I stopped short of shooting the golden hills lined with grapevines that roll around the valley because my wide angle lens isn't wide enough to capture their embrace, and it's the one that I want to really get right. Want to capture the way they warm you and hold you during the day. Want so much to capture the way they seem small while at the same time expansive when the night comes and the fragrance of the eucalyptus reminds you that the sun was just here a short time before.
Want to, but know I won't nearly ever be able to recapture the night I was five and felt wholly alive, hustled into a VW bug with crazy happy high school kids (my aunts and an uncle, all of them high on acid, I'd learn a lot of years later) and we chased down the harvest moon that hung heavy and ripe in the sky, so big and close you could touch it.
Chased it through the hills down the old highway, bouncing over railroad tracks where we held our hands to the roof to keep it up (a crazy tradition that I maintain today), laughing, speeding, never quite reaching, the moon warm to bursting, that moon that gives this valley its name.
video: Me at 5 in the backyard of the clapboard house »
 valley of the moon, part one