Above left to right: My mother, JoAnn, at 11 years old; 13 years old, with her younger brother, Jerry (my uncle).
When Mr. Peacock’s mother was 13 years old, she lived with her family in Lincoln, Nebraska. One day my mother and her best friend decided to leave the sleepy cornfields of Nebraska and hitchhiked together to California. Mind you, this was at least 10 years before Jack Kerouac's On the Road was even published. They ended up in San Diego, hitchhiking up the coast, stopping through Los Angeles, and ending up in San Francisco. They befriended and stayed with two gay sailors when they arrived in the city by the bay. These were the first gay men my mother met in her life, but not the last. The sailors showed the girls around San Francisco and took them clubbing at night. Meanwhile back in Nebraska, my grandmother was worried sick, and my mom’s best girlfriend’s father hired a private detective to track them down. My mother’s California adventure lasted only a few weeks, until the detective found them and brought them back to Nebraska—but San Francisco left a permanent spell on my mother. Years later, when I lived in San Francisco, she still remembered the address of those gay sailors, and wondered if they were still alive.
Above: Christmas, 1991, at Mr. Peacock's place in San Francisco.
Mr. Peacock has lived in both Manhattan and San Francisco. My mother would usually visit me twice a year wherever I lived: once in July, to celebrate her birthday; and then again at Christmas or New Year’s Eve. She liked New York, but had a soft spot for San Francisco. She often said, “The minute I get off the airplane and smell the air in San Francisco, I feel different…”
About 8 years ago, my younger sister noticed that my mother’s checking account wasn’t balanced, which was unheard of for my mother. We convinced her to go to a doctor, and she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. People with this illness are very crafty at hiding their symptoms, so neither my sisters or myself knew the extent of her memory loss or her ability to do everyday activities. She told me she wanted to come to San Francisco one last time, which was very heartbreaking for me to hear. My mother was an extremely independent person and usually would spend her daytime visits alone exploring the city, while I was at work. She loved The Castro Neighborhood and usually made fast friends during her daytime jaunts. At night, when we would be out and about together, we would frequently run into guys and gals yelling and waving to her, “Hey JoAnn!”
Above: My mom loved going to events at The Castro Theater—in the background.
On her last visit, against her wishes, I took the entire week off from work, which was a good decision because she could barely remember her way around my neighborhood. After she arrived, she began compulsively organizing and sorting the contents of her suitcase and kept complaining about her shoulder length hair. Everyone has “bad hair” days, but with Alzheimer’s it becomes an emotional trauma. My mother usually sported short hair in her life, however, as her illness progressed her hair got longer. I think it was sort of a stress release to fiddle with her hair. Her shoulder length hair looked casually elegant, with some flattering gray streaks, and I told her it looked great.
Above: My mom's drivers license photo, at around 40 years old. One of the few times in her life, when she had shoulder length hair.
My mother became completely fixated on her hair for the first few days—questioning whether to get it cut or go get curlers and curl it, or to tie it back. I kept telling her it looked fine, but she wouldn't believe me. I finally lost my patience and snapped, “Then let’s go get your hair cut right now!” She went in the bathroom, closed the door and cried. I felt awful and realized the Alzheimer’s was making us both crazy. To console her, I suggested we go out to dinner in The Castro, and then dancing at a big dance club. Her mood immediately changed, but then she took hours to decide what she was going to wear. She finally decided to wear a vintage off-white men’s smoking jacket with a black blouse, black tuxedo style slacks, black heels. She loosely parted her hair on one side, and let it gently cascade down around her face. I complimented her, but she didn’t believe or listen to me. We went to dinner and while we waited at the bar, she made fast friends with some hot guys, and began repeating herself in succession. The guys joked with her, not knowing she had Alzheimer’s, “Somebody’s had a few too many cocktails!?” And we all laughed.
Above: Posing in front of Stars restaurant in the late 1980's. My mother liked polka dots too.
After dinner, my mother and I went to the dance club. The club was super crowded and the music was thumping, and my mom was beaming. We made our way to the bar and ordered drinks and meandered through the club. I had to go to the bathroom, and unfortunately the crowded bathrooms at this club weren’t unisex. I instructed my mother to wait outside of the men’s room and not go anywhere. She defensively replied, “I’m not a child, where am I going to go anyway?”
Above: San Francisco in the late 1980's, my mom loved jazz!
When I came out of the restroom, my mother was nowhere in sight. I panicked for a split second, but I quickly pulled myself together and thought she has to be in here somewhere. I quickly scoped out the two bars and smaller dance area—with no luck. I then entered the large sweaty and dark dance floor area. It was extremely crowded with countless shirtless men, and some Madonna re-mix loudly thumping on the giant sound system. Occasionally the spotlights would illuminate the dance floor enough so I could see people’s faces. I finally spotted her dancing with a group of good-looking young muscle guys. She was dancing like a go-go dancer in some 1960’s psychedelic movie, throwing her hair back and forth. She was in complete euphoria at that moment, lost in the music and the dance floor—completely forgetting all of her worries and her illness. I grabbed her arm when they exited the dance floor and she shouted to the guys, “This is my son!” It turned out the guys were all hairdressers and had approached my mother outside of the men’s room to compliment her on her hair and outfit. She explained that she was visiting her son and one thing led to another and they all ended-up on the dance floor. The hairdressers hugged her good-bye and told me what a great person my mother was, and complimented her again on her hair. We laughed about it after they left, and the next day she quit worrying about her hair, and her illness. The duration of the trip flew by, and we had a wonderful time. She purchased handfuls of little glow-in-the-dark Buddhas in China Town, which she gave to everyone as a souvenir of her last trip to San Francisco.
My mom is now at an assisted living facility, and doesn’t remember what I look like, but she still recognizes my voice on the telephone. I can simply say “San Francisco” and she laughs with joy, and I know it still makes her happy. My little souvenir glow-in-the-dark Buddha (see photo above) sits in my medicine cabinet and each time I open it, I’m reminded of my mother’s last stop to her beloved city of San Francisco, and how much I miss her.