Eleanor Moments

By Charles Hodgkins

I was born near the end of 1971, around the holidays. I've been told my mom brought me home in a Christmas stocking.

I can't say I remember that, but there's a slew of other Eleanor moments I'll always carry around with me.

* * * * *

It's 1976 and my Mom is saving me from explosions in the sky.

It's a huge 4th of July crowd in Old Sacramento, especially to my kid self. It's the national bicentennial. This is a big deal.

Soon after nightfall, the big booms begin. I don't know what to make of the continuous blasts that seem to have something to do with all the sparkling colors over the Sacramento River, again and again. I do not grasp the concept of fireworks at the mere age of four. I completely lose it.

I turn away from the river and see Aunt Anna Rose right behind me, smiling and enjoying the show. She catches on right away that I've had the daylights scared right out of me; she helps me find my mom right away.

The next thing I know, I'm wrapped around my mom's leg. For all I know she may have only been five feet away among all the tall trees of grown-ups, but it felt like five miles.

The fireworks continue, and soon enough, I get it. Or maybe she explains that the world is indeed not ending tonight after all. In any event, everything is better now.

* * * * *

It's 1982 and my mom's toll house cookies are in major demand.

The problem is, I've only got a few of them in my lunch.

At this point in my youth, I'm frequently chided by friends at Browns Valley School for having a "deli chef" for a mom. One of my usual lunches might consist of a turkey sandwich — invariably with fresh lettuce, mustard, and a glorious slice of American cheese-food, all wedged inside some kind of roll — along with several slices of apple or perhaps a few pretzels. And of course, a handful of my mom's world-class toll house (aka chocolate chip) or oatmeal raisin cookies.

You and your fancy deli sandwiches, Charles, they say, usually while nibbling through some sort of faceless concoction made with sliced bread. I don't know how to respond. I'm thinking, Are sandwich rolls that sophisticated? I'm not looking at my lunch as a status symbol. These rolls are more presentation than anything, right? I just figure my mom likes going the extra mile on the lunch-making relay.

Sorry your sandwich is lame, Ronnie, I reply.

My mom's cookies, however, are the daily coup de grace. Mario Moreno wants one. Matt Jessell always wants one. And now, Ronnie Felthoven wants one. They pull assorted items from their lunch bags as potential trade bait — unopened juice-box drinks, corn chips, those silly little 'Cheez-n-Crackerz' disasters — but I'm savvy enough to recognize the astronomical value of my dessert stock here. Anyway, I'm not much of a wheeler-dealer.

So whichever kid is lucky enough to end up with that golden giveaway cookie, I'm their best friend for a couple days.

* * * * *

It's 1986 and my mom and I like a few of the same songs.

My dad drives for a living and often works peculiar hours, and it's a few years yet before I'm old enough to get my drivers license. As a result, my mom often acts as my local taxi service around Napa — to and from basketball practices, school dances, friends' houses in other parts of town.

Our relatively new Honda Accord is conveniently equipped with a cassette player, and as much as I'd like to say that my growing collection of tapes offers an opportunity to bridge the generation gap separating my mom and I, the truth is I just want to listen to Men At Work and Bryan Adams on the way home from hanging out at Mike Hanna's house.

But thanks to her admirable patience with my nascent music obsession, she usually gives me run of the stereo when we're in the car together, and the gap is unintentionally bridged, at least occasionally. For a 51-year-old Peter, Paul & Mary fan and 13-year-old Police fan, this is a real hands-across-the-water moment. Still, her authority lies in the occasional invocation of the so-called Too Frantic! Rule: She reserves the right to turn the volume down — or even off, a veto power she invokes a couple times I foolishly take things a step too far and play Night Ranger's "You Can Still Rock In America" or Van Halen's "Girl Gone Bad."

At one point, she says she likes the Cars' "I'm Not The One"; another time, Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown." And if Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" comes on, she even sings along: "A bottle of red / A bottle of white..."

* * * * *

It's 1991 and my mom is in the stands.

During my early college years, I join four friends I work with at Christian Brothers Greystone Winery in St. Helena on a Napa City League basketball team. We call ourselves Air Greystone, and it's an only half tongue-in-cheek name, at most. After the regimented style of high school ball, which never really suited me, this is just what the doctor ordered: five young guys, no subs, no coach. It's 100% fun — run-and-gun basketball straight off the suburban playground. And the icing on the cake is that we rarely lose. We even play at one of my former haunts: Redwood Middle School's musty, hideously lit gymnasium, which lends the whole experience a kind of retro-new feel.

Of course, this being a city league venture, crowds at these contests are less than capacity. Friends, girlfriends, and co-workers from Christian Brothers turn up to watch here and there. And on occasion, my mom, hooting out a Yay, two-five! amid scattered clapping after I sink a free throw or outside shot.

You never outgrow hearing your mom cheer for you.

* * * * *

It's 1997 and my mom is aghast at my hair.

After a few years in Berkeley, I'm back where I grew up and not too excited about it, courtesy of a sharp case of post-collegiate cluelessness. I used to live at home; now it seems I'm just staying at the house. I'm managing a small record store in Napa, not making much money. My longtime girlfriend and I are in the midst of a slow fade. Even my 19-year-old cat is on the way out.

Times aren't so rosy for my mom, either, so we bond ever more tightly. We take evening walks up and down Partrick Road; we make trips to the local Baskin-Robbins for lemon chiffon ice cream; I help her learn her way around our Macintosh computer so she can begin writing her long-percolating family narrative.

By late summer, my boredom and angst reach critical mass; I react by getting my hair dyed really blond at the salon downstairs from my record shop.

Guessing correctly that my mom won't greet my radical cosmetic change with great enthusiasm, I walk into the house gingerly that evening. She's on the phone at the dining room table. Even before she spots me, there's a look of grave concern on her face.

Her dear brother Bill has died suddenly today. Another Defazio man taken by a heart attack. She'd just seen him in Sacramento a few days before.

Still on the phone, she looks over and sees me. She drops her forehead onto the palm of her right hand. I don't think I've ever seen my typically bright, cheery mother ever more disgusted. My timing could not be worse.

She doesn't even have to ask. By the time the day of the funeral arrives, my hair is back to a slightly lighter approximation of its natural color.

* * * * *

It's 2004 and my mom is the hit of the party.

As is her lasagna.

Sonja and I have a relatively small wedding at Stern Grove in San Francisco. My immediate family, including all the next-generation Hodgkins, comprises nearly one-third of the entire guest list.

A couple months later, we throw an informal, take-all-comers party at our house. It serves as kind of a second wedding reception, only without all my Soul Train-ready dance moves.

My parents arrive in late afternoon armed with a couple of huge casserole dishes, along with another container or two of surprises. Local friends of mine — many of whom have never met my mom, let alone enjoyed her legendary cooking — gather like moths to lamplight as this cute little gray-haired lady places the enormous soft tin containers on cooling racks on our dining room table. The guests dig in.

Candace: Charles, is that your mom? She's adorable.

Howard (chewing): Dude. This lasagna rules the school.

Brolin: I'm getting seconds.

Peter: Hey, are those chocolate chip cookies that your mom brought fair game?

* * * * *

It's 2007 and my mom is reluctant to leave my house.

My dad's gone off to England with Christopher, so my mom's been staying with us since Wednesday. We've had a nice few days: a stroll in the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park; making pasta fagioli together at home; an afternoon in North Beach and Russian Hill; even burritos at La Parrilla.

But her health has clearly deteriorated the last couple years. Her fast walking, always an Eleanor staple, has turned to an increasingly fragile shuffle.

I give her a hand up and down our stairs. I wipe her runny nose from time to time, always remembering to crack a joke about it so she won't feel self-conscious. I worry about her getting in and out of the bathtub and shower.

She still picks up on my silliness, but not like before. She calls me Craig every now and then, then gets frustrated when she realizes she's got the wrong son.

And she cries so easily now, whether at the sight of a photo of the two of us from just a few years before, or one night seemingly out of nowhere when I help her get into bed. She feels guilty for these soft outbursts, explaining them away by remarking, I guess I'm just an old softie.

Now it's Sunday afternoon, and it's been an eventful morning. Catherine and her husband Chris are here to take Mom with them — Catherine says they're going to look after her for the next week or so. But Mom's got cold feet about it. I sense it; so does Sonja.

I collect Mom's things from our guestroom and put them in Catherine's truck. We say our goodbyes in my driveway. I'm told we'll all get together again next weekend.

* * * * *

It's 2010 and the place isn't the same anymore.

Most everyone in my mom's generation had a favorite I Love Lucy episode, and hers was the candy factory one. The sight of Lucy and Ethel stuffing their faces with bunches of chocolates flying by on a conveyor belt sent her into hysterics every time. If you've ever seen me laugh so hard that my eyes start to tear up...this tendency has a source line that leads directly back to my mom.

Since we lived sort of in the country on the outskirts of Napa, I learned how to entertain myself at an early age: lots of one-on-none football games on our long driveway, lots of armchair road trips while looking at maps, frequent trawling around in the sunken creek below our backyard, reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. But there were some things I couldn't do on my own, and one was batting practice. When I was 12, I was in the midst of a heavy Wiffle Ball phase. Given the lack of playmates in my un-neighborhood, I persuaded my southpaw mom to pitch to me a time or two. Probably only once, because she was a much better fan than pitcher. She didn't enjoy it much...but to her credit, she gave it a shot.

When I was about eight, I got a subscription to Sports Illustrated. Soon the day came when the vaunted swimsuit issue arrived in our mailbox, with none other than the impossibly beautiful Christie Brinkley gracing the cover. But my mom stole my prepubescent thunder by taping together the most crucial pages so I couldn't get a look at what all the hubbub was about. I think I eventually went over to Chris Lamson's house to look at his copy of the issue.

My mom liked Johnny Cash. You wouldn't think so, but she did. The Man in Black, the guy giving the camera the bird on his way to the stage at San Quentin, singing in that inimitably subterranean baritone about the poor, the downtrodden, the murderous, the incarcerated — themes alien to our lives on mild-mannered Partrick Road. But I guess she appreciated the threadbare honesty in all those songs.

In 2006, my website and I were the subject of a Q&A feature in San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, distributed with the Sunday paper each week. The day before the piece officially published, I was visiting my parents in Napa. My mom and I were out and about in town that Saturday afternoon, and I stopped by a store to pick up a few early editions of the Sunday paper. I hadn't said a word about the feature to anyone (not even Sonja), so I gave my mom the magazine when we were at a cafe and suggested she look at page four. She opened it, saw my picture and the article, smiled, and said very understatedly, Oh look, now my son is a celebrity. Then, still smiling, she looked up and said, Hello celebrity.

My mom would regularly drive Catherine to San Francisco for ballet classes during my early grade school years, and I often went along. While my sister was at ballet, my mom and I would find things to do around the big city, like see The Rescuers at the Alhambra or get ice cream at Clown Alley on Columbus Avenue. One particularly memorable day, she and I rode the glass elevators at the Hyatt Regency. Up and down, up and down. Then we went to the St. Francis Hotel and did the same thing. I think we may have also hit up the Fairmont as well. For years afterward, this became an epic, Oscar-winning film in my mind called The Day We Rode All the Glass Hotel Elevators in San Francisco.

You couldn't get my mom on a roller coaster for, in her own words, all the peanuts in Georgia. She and I took an overnight trip to Santa Cruz when I was 11, and while visiting the Beach Boardwalk, I could not persuade her to ride the Giant Dipper with me, no matter how hard I tried. In fact, she wrote in her memoir about an ill-fated ride on this same coaster in the mid 1940s. (I passed on riding it alone, so I guess I wasn't so brave at that point, either.) I was able to get her to go on the sky tram, which crosses over the amusement park at an ear-popping altitude of perhaps 40 feet. But this was no enclosed carriage; rather, the ride was a ski lift-style contraption, all dangling legs and open air right under us. We got on and instantly white-knuckled up, both of us. A very slow five minutes later, we disembarked onto terra firma, got our bearings, looked up at the relatively wimpy ride that had terrified us so much, and shuddered like a couple of sissies. I later went on to a successful roller coaster-riding career; my mom stuck to the merry-go-rounds.

Did you know my mom once had a non-speaking cameo on nighttime soap Falcon Crest? You can look it up: prime time, CBS, 1983. She answered a casting call in the Napa Register, went to the shoot at the old County Court House in downtown Napa one Saturday, and ended up walking right behind Jane Wyman in one of the season's climactic scenes.

The day I graduated from college, my mom hosted a party at our house. A good crowd of family and friends turned up that warm spring evening; so did a lot of mosquitos. In our backyard, her brother Bill kidded around by calling her his "movie-star sister," more for her perennially radiant glow than her brief onscreen career 13 years earlier. It was nothing more than a tossed-off comment — my Uncle Bill always seemed to know how to say the right thing — but as she smiled and was rendered speechless, I realized I'd never seen her look quite like that before.

My mom was never one to hide her true nature, but right there she was at her best, in the crosshairs of her oldest brother's kindness. That is probably my favorite Eleanor moment of all.