I used to drive to Santa Rosa once a week, a journey of about three hours from my home, to look after my Great Aunt Ella. I only met Ella in 1998, and even though she was my grandfather’s sister, I didn’t know she existed let alone lived only three hours from my home. I was attending her sisters funeral in Scotland when her niece told me of her whereabouts and asked if I’d ever met her. “No” was the extent of my curt response. I made a point of contacting her immediately upon my return to the US in the summer of ’98 and we became great friends and lunch buddies. She was an amazing person, with some incredible friends, some of whom I had the pleasure of getting to know rather well. One of her closest pals was Esther, a petit 80-year-old, at the time, and someone I grew not only to respect, but to love and admire.
Esther lived in the same complex as Ella, but in a house situated at the top of a hill about half a mile from the golf course that split this retirement paradise in two. I say paradise because all along Highway 12, where the complex lies, there are some amazing wineries, fabulous hotels, and tremendous restaurants, some of which I have had the pleasure of frequenting over the years, and most of which were above average in all their ‘Napa/Sonoma’ decorative splendor. The thing I loved most about going to see Ella and Esther was the lack of noise whenever we ventured outside. No planes, hardly any car noise and certainly no screaming kids. This was retirement at it’s best. You had to be 55 or over to live there, and most of the residents had been there since that tender age and were now pushing into their late 80′s and early 90′s. Some of the sights were just too funny to describe, such as the two ladies in the golf cart, who I saw every week, driving along with a dog leash dangling from the passenger side of the cart, and a brown lab, tethered to the end of said leash, enjoying his walk while they drove and chatted. Exercise for the !
As I got to know Esther, and some of the other ladies, such as Rosemary, Joan and Joe, I found it fascinating just to sit and listen to their stories, tales of times gone by, a different era altogether, and one that sort of made me yearn for the opportunity to have experienced the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s. Esther related countless memories of her times living in Seattle, Los Angeles and parts in between. How she’s met her husband whilst on a business trip with her father to Seattle. How she’d grown up in LA when traffic jams were just something in one’s imagination. How Santa Barbara was a fishing village with one or two large homes and a never-ending stream of billionaires trying hard to make their dreams come true.
Sometimes when I was headed back to Los Gatos, Esther would ask me to take her to San Francisco, where her daughter lived. Esther stayed with her daughter at least once a month, and unable to drive herself there, I substituted regularly for this drive who she hired to shuttle her down to the city whenever I was unable to oblige. We had some super conversations on these journeys into town, when Esther would relate her safari experiences, (she was 80 when she went to Africa), her fitness tips, (she was a yoga maestro) and her recipes to make the perfect Coke float, (one which I enjoyed every time I went to see her at her home). Yes, a true lady. She spoke so eloquently, she was a really lady and she never thought bad of anyone, other than my Gt Aunt Ella, whom she scolded constantly for becoming a hermit as the years rolled by.
Esther always reminded me of the movie Driving Miss Daisy. Me as the driver of course and her as Miss Daisy. Her character was just straight out of that particular era. And so, as time went on, my aunt died and Esther grew too old to live in her house all alone, she moved to San Francisco into a retirement home, where, instead of driving her up and down Highway 101, I continued to visit her for lunches and dinners. I used to say to her, “Esther, you are 95 and are the only hope I have of knowing someone who can live to be 100!” Her health was in great shape, her mind even greater. She hated growing old and still feeling like she had a mental age in her late 30′s. She attended regular lectures, traveled to Palm Springs once or twice a year and worked out in her gym every day. Miss Daisy was super it! Nothing was going to stop her. I brought her chocolate, and she reciprocated by buying me the same. We told jokes, she reminisced, I sat and listened.
I had lunch with her two weeks ago, and I took this picture, the one above. I’d never taken a picture of her before. Something inside told me I should. I mad a dinner date to see her on May 16, and then on May 13, I canceled because I had another commitment. She died on the morning of the 16th May, age 96 and a half. A stroke, sudden, quick, painless, and now she’s gone.
I lost a friend, a hero of sorts. RIP Esther, you were special. I shall remember you fondly for the rest of my days on this planet and no doubt we will one day meet again in a better place.