Stepping into my Mother’s Memories from Living in SF, 1979
Have you ever been a part of someone’s memories, not because you were physically there, but because someone has shared their memories with you so vividly and so often that you inherit them as your own? Memories that put you into rooms you’ve never seen, walk you down a street you’ve never been on, or let you share a drink with someone you’ve never met?
My mom lived in San Francisco in 1979. In many ways, her memories have become my own.
My entire life I remember her talking about her apartment, about her landlords who grew pot, and about walking around her neighborhood in the Marina/ Cow Hollow districts of San Francisco. Her sharing was so vivid that it seemed like these memories became my own, as though I was there alongside her. Then there are memories that, luckily, I am actually a part of. See, long after she left San Francisco, we’d still visit frequently, and she still had her favorite places. Even when The Cow Hollow/ Marina district transformed from DINKS to “Bro Hollow”, it was still her favorite area to visit, so we still went. Some of my most special memories with her are in that city.
As a kid and young teen, I used to look through my mom’s old photo albums. There was a dress that always stood out. It’s a jean dress with a rainbow collar. She wore that dress around the same time she lived in SF. As a teenager obsessed with peace signs and all things hippy, I remember asking her “WHERE IS THIS DRESS!?”. She told me she no longer had it and said that at the time of owning the dress, she didn’t want kids and didn’t think to save it for one. I remember being annoyed at the answer, thinking “HOW COULD YOU NOT SAVE A DRESS LIKE THIS!?” Eventually I let it go, there was nothing I could do.
That dress never left my memory, though. It is the most “Joan” dress I’ve ever know: fun and sort of funky, but when paired with the right jewelry and shoes, actually quite stylish. I’ve always wondered who the lucky owner of the dress was, and if they loved it as much I would.
A year after my mom was killed, my sister was going through a box in the garage and she found it — she found what is now known as “The Dress”. It had sat hidden and forgotten for decades. When I moved to San Francisco a few years later it was partly because I wanted to have my own SF experience like my mom. One that, if I have kids, I can tell them about. While living there, I had the idea to go back to her old neighborhood, visit her apartment, and explore the city through her eyes. I never did, though — it felt too soon. Too hard. Too heavy. Too close. But the desire to do it was still there. Last summer I met Bradley of Giant Eye Photography and I knew I wanted him to help me. He is both calming, serious, and silly — the perfect combination for this project. And damn is he good with a camera.
This photo project is about memory. It’s about asking myself: what happens when I put on my mother’s dress — not just any dress, but the dress that sums up my mother with mere cloth — and step into her memories of living in San Francisco in 1979? What happens when our memories merge, as some of the places she visited before I was born are the same places I have shared my most cherished memories with her? I told Bradley that I wanted to immerse myself in the memory and the experience, with him there to document — that the photos were secondary to being in the story and wandering around in my mom’s memories.
We started out walking the Marina. Because I was stepping into 1979, we ditched our cell phones and used a map from the 70’s that I purchased on eBay. We took a few moments to get our footing, as I hadn’t been back to that neighborhood in awhile. There were parts I recognized from the visits to SF I took with my mom, and other parts that looked completely new.
I had this vision for awhile — even before the photoshoot was ever an idea — to go to my mom’s apartment and leave her purple tulips (her favorite). As we walked through the Marina, we came across a flower shop. I asked for purple tulips. They had one bunch left. (And in true Marina fashion, I paid a truck load for them. #momyou’reworthit).
My mom lived on Green and Fillmore, and even in all our visits to the city, I don’t recall her ever showing us where she lived. Her apartment was alive in my imagination, though. She’d talk about the stairs leading up to her apartment, about the pot plants that lined the walkway and how she would tell her [more conservative] sisters to just not pay attention to them. She’d talk about how she rented a room from two gay men. They were nice, but she rarely saw them. There’s a distinct way I saw her apartment based on her memories. I got to her apartment and giggled. It was NOTHING like the images in my mind. Still, I felt overcome with emotion. This is where she lived. This is where she walked. I felt like I was visiting a place that I knew, without ever having visited.
I left a flower for her on the stairs and as we were about to leave I pressed on the gate… It was unlocked. We crept up the stairs ever so quietly, and I felt immersed in the space, taking it all in. At one point I sat on the stairs and closed my eyes. My mom lived here. My mom walked these stairs. This is the birthing ground of her San Francisco memories. And mine.
We left my mom’s apartment after an awkward interaction with the mail lady where SHE knew we weren’t supposed to be there and WE knew we weren’t supposed to be there and we both kind of pretended the other didn’t exist. We walked along Chestnut Street; she always talked about walking along Chestnut Street. My dad said they’d go to Lucca’s Deli for groceries and it was the street she’d take to get to work. Chestnut Street holds a special place in my heart and memory, too, no matter how many rich tech dudes move in. I remember coming to the city the day before Mother’s Day in 2011 with my mom and not having a gift. I couldn’t sneak away until after she was asleep, and by that hour the only store that was open was Laline. I remember taking day trips to the city and visiting Papersource and Tacolicious. I remember going into stores like The Gap while my mom pointed out stores that where there when she lived in SF and places that were long gone. My mom and dad were married by the time she moved to the city, but my dad didn’t move with her because he was farming in the Central Valley. He would come and visit her in between irrigations; everyone remembered how tired he was on their visits. He talked about how they’d go to Perry’s and drinking white wine, and he and my mom shared stories about eating clam and garlic pizza that burned the top of their mouth. My aunts remember going to the King Tut exhibit and recall often how my mom would parallel park her Ford pinto on gigantic SF hills as they witnessed in amazement. But that was my mom — she just made shit happen and made it look easy.
Long after she moved away from San Francisco, she’d still visit often, only now with kids in tow. We’d stay at Cow Hollow Motor Inn. When she first moved to the city she stayed there while she looked for apartments, and that solidified Cow Hollow Motor Inn as “her spot.” So much so that it became mine too — any time we came to the city, this is where we stayed. I remember one visit we took to SF my mom was worried about money. She said “YOU GUYS, we’re not spending a ton of money this trip, OK!?”. We were fine with that. We went to the Musee Mechanique on Pier 41 and then walked back to our car. It was gone. For a second we thought it was stolen, and then we realized it was towed. While in the taxi on the way to get our car my mom kept saying how she couldn’t believe she did that. She kept reminding us she’d NEVER had her car towed. She was so embarrassed that we were sworn to secrecy. It cost almost $400 to get her car out, and we went straight to Cow Hollow Motor Inn to the safety of free, non-metered parking. There’s a tiny restaurant next to Cow Hollow called Parma where we went for dinner. When we sat down my mom reminded us that since she just spent $400 on getting her car out, we DEFINITELY couldn’t spend any more money. She told us to we’d only drink water and that we would share dishes.
At some point in the night, something changed. It was as if my mom realized how silly it was to spend money on her car, but not on her daughters who were usually away at college. In a moment of YOLO, she ordered expensive wine for us to share, and we got more food for us to eat family style. My usually frugal mom was going wild, but in the best kind of way. I can’t tell you how long we were at Pama because that night, time stood still. All I can tell you is that when I look back on it, everything is surrounded by the warm glow of candlelight and the mellowness of the wine sitting in our bellies. It was a night where my sister and mom are in full focus and the hustle and bustle around us — waiters, customers, hosts and hostesses are blurred on the edges. It was a night where every moment was worth savoring. It’s as if we were all thinking the same thing without having to say it: shit happens — cars will get towed and sometimes things don’t go as planned, that will never go away — but we had each other, and that was so special. That night, nothing mattered more than our togetherness.
When I was thinking about this photoshoot I had originally wanted to eat at Parma and re-live that memory, but the closer it got the more I realized I couldn’t. Going back to Parma would mean touching that memory, but it’s too special to touch or change. I can only look in at it and long for it.
I told Bradley the story of this night. He suggested we get some wine and get a picture of me holding it up in front of Parma. In true Marina fashion, we couldn’t find cheap wine anywhere. As we were looking at $25 bottles of wine, I turned to him and said “Fuck it — let’s get it.” Buying that wine was in the same spirit of our night at Parma, where my mom went from “water only” to “let’s get a bottle of wine!” (because YOLO, right?). I drank the wine later that night with one of my best friends whom I met when I moved to San Francisco, and who is the only person I know who shares the same birthday as my mom. It felt right.
The whole idea for putting on my mom’s dress and walking through her memories began out of curiosity, a “what would happen if I…?” It turned into longing. Walking around those streets, I wished I had her to walk alongside. What was surprising about the experience was how it also became a study on time. There were so many places of my mom’s memories that are now gone. I had even enlisted my dad’s help to find some of them, with many of searches showing up blank. Buildings torn. Facades changed. When I was drinking white wine at Perry’s I asked the waitress where to find gelato. It’s something my mom had talked about endlessly when she recalled her time living in Cow Hollow/ the Marina. The waitress came back and said there was nothing in the area. She added “It’s been interesting to see how this area changes. There used to be a lot of gelato. Then there was the cupcake trend. Now those are almost all gone for new trends.” It ended with the hard, almost comforting truth that nothing is permanent. Instead of getting gelato, I found chocolate ice cream — another one of my mom’s favorites— and made a new memory. I enjoyed the hell out of that ice cream, knowing that my day wandering inside my mom’s memories will forever be one of the more special days of my life.
Want more? See what I’m up to on my website, Death Dialogue.