I am dancing to the sultry sounds of salsa. A handsome man clutches me close, and I wrap my leg around him as I lean back, way back. Above me the stars are beginning to pop out of a velvety sky. In the distance fading daylight spills over the foothills and canyons, lending a warm glow. My partner releases me, and I twirl away until just our fingertips are touching.
Suddenly I hear a loud yawn, and—poof—my daydream vanishes as quickly as it came. I’m with my mom and her sister Margie at Francis Ford Coppola Winery near Santa Rosa, listening to salsa music in a beautiful outdoor setting. I’m having a wonderful time, but Mom is yawning and Aunt Margie looks tired, too. No wonder. It’s nine p.m. and past their bedtimes. I reluctantly get Mom’s walker and glance once more at the dancers, wishing I could be on the dance floor, twirling among them.
But this trip is not about me. It’s about my 86-year-old mom, who’s here to visit her 90-year-old sister “one more time.” Four years ago, I brought Mom out to Santa Rosa for a “Last Hurrah” trip—when Auntie Jeanne, the oldest of the three sisters, was still alive. At the end of our wonderful time together, the three sisters agreed it would be the last visit. But recently when Mom said she missed Margie, I said, “Let’s go!” I knew it would be an ordeal—a labor of love—but it would also be a gift unlike any other.
FIELDS OF WILDFLOWERS
Airports are a pain under the best of circumstances, but traveling with an elderly person can make things worse. Fortunately, wheelchairs and friendly attendants are on hand help whisk Mom to our gates. We even have time to grab a beverage and celebrate the beginning of our trip.
Hours later as dusk falls, I find myself behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car zipping along California’s crazy freeways. It’s nearly midnight—East Coast time—and thankfully, Mom and I only have to go as far as Tiburon, where I’ve booked a night in a charming property called The Lodge at Tiburon. After arriving, Mom and I happily collapse on our comfy beds.
A stunning view greets me the next morning when I awaken at the crack of dawn, my body clock still on East Coast time. I look out of our balcony and see a small white church on a hillside and decide to hike there. Mom’s happy to sit in the room while I explore this picturesque town.
Tiburon is located on a peninsula that juts into San Francisco Bay close to Angel Island. To the south San Francisco’s skyline rises up, and down at the Tiburon dock folks are boarding a ferry to the city. This town is one of those too-perfect places that you never want to leave. But when I ask the clerk at the drug store if you have to be wealthy to live here, she laughs and says, “You have no idea.”
I’m just thrilled to be here on this stellar morning and love my hike up to the cool little church I saw from my balcony. Turns out Old St. Hilary’s is an historic Carpenter Gothic church built in 1888, one of few that survive in their original setting—now used for weddings and community events. Surrounded by sloping fields of wildflowers, the church offers incredible views across San Francisco Bay. I’m glad I climbed up here to have a look.
Back at the Lodge Mom and I make our way out to the pool and relax in the morning sun. I love the vibe at this resort—very hip and trendy yet it’s not pretentious at all and maintains a cozy charm. Outdoor fireplaces, water features, and landscaped gardens provide a lovely setting for relaxing, which is just what Mom and I need after our hectic flight from the East Coast the day before.
We lunch at the adjacent restaurant, Tiburon Tavern, outside under bright orange umbrellas. The warm sun shines down from a clear, azure sky, and the air from the bay smells fresh and clean. It’s a perfect temperature, and Mom and I are ravenous. Tiburon Tavern, which serves locally sourced products, does not disappoint. In fact, our lunch is as perfect as the weather.
To start, we share the tavern’s take on caprese, which stars slices of a local heirloom tomato served with burrato, a semi-soft, creamier version of mozzarella—yum!—enhanced with peaches, basil, and smoked olive oil. I can’t get over how fabulous the smoked olive oil is—earthy, smoky liquid gold—and our waiter tells us it’s from nearby Sonoma. Our next course is grilled Monterrey calamari served with more of the decadent smoked olive oil, as well as kalamata olives, fried capers, and toasted garlic. We practically lick the bowl. Three juicy lamb sliders are next—served with goat cheddar, harissa yogurt, and roasted tomatoes, and Mom and I are done. We relax a bit in the sun, finishing our wine, and then it’s time to go see Margie!
THE PEANUTS GANG
Every family has its unique dynamic, and Mom and Margie are polar opposites in many ways. Margie is always elegantly coiffed, dressed in tailored clothing, and likes to enjoy life’s finer things. My mom, on the other hand, is much happier in comfortable attire and doesn’t cotton much to fanciness. Yet, as they say, opposites attract, and when we meet Margie in her apartment at the retirement community where she lives, the sisters embrace and start catching up.
Later Mom and I check into our hotel, Best Western Wine Country Suites, where we have a two-room suite and a pretty patio overlooking landscaped grounds. Then back to pick Margie up for dinner at one of her favorite restaurants, Kenwood on Rt. 12. We sit on an outdoor terrace overlooking vineyards and enjoy Caesar salads and a cheese and fruit plate. Wine is a given, and as we talk over dinner, I think about how beautiful this part of the country is. Mom and her sisters grew up in Illinois, and after their folks died, Margie couldn’t wait to move out to Santa Rosa, where their older sister Jeannie had lived for years. It’s been hard for Mom being so far apart from her sisters, and now that Margie’s all she has left, I’m so happy to have brought them together “one last time.”
The next day Mom and I pick up Margie and head to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. I’ve been wanting to visit this attraction and pay tribute to the creator of the Peanuts Gang for a long time, and it’s everything I thought it would be. Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and the whole bunch are so much a part of our national psyche, and this museum celebrates the man behind the beloved cartoon series. Charles Schulz, who died in 2000, spent his final 30 years in Santa Rosa. An avid sportsman, Schulz built an ice skating rink in Santa Rosa, which is still in operation today and sits across the street from the museum.
Near the entrance is a Snoopy-shaped labyrinth, perfect for getting in touch with your inner Snoopy. It’s said that Schulz created all the Peanuts characters to reflect different aspects of himself. Snoopy is the fantasy of who we want to be, said Gina Huntsinger, the museum’s marketing director, who showed us around.
Inside the museum, we’re surrounded by the world of Charles Schulz. On one side of the main hall, there’s an exhibit of all the Peanuts characters lined up according to when they made their appearance in the strip. A giant ceramic tile mural of Charlie Brown running to kick the football held by Lucy covers one wall. Upon closer inspection, the mural is comprised of 3,588 comic strips.
We’ve borrowed a wheelchair for my mom, so we stroll though the galleries, which include exhibits of original strips, Schulz’s biography, and a replication of Schulz’s studio. The temporary exhibit on view is called “Mid-Century Modern” and depicts décor and design trends of the 50s, which is when Peanuts first appeared. There’s also a temporary exhibit about Snoopy’s siblings. You might remember Spike with the moustache, but there were others, even a sister named Belle. I could linger for hours at this museum, but Mom and Margie are getting restless. We pay a quick visit to the kite-eating tree in the garden and then say goodbye to Gina and the Peanuts Gang.
Later that afternoon we drive up to the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Healdsburg. It’s a stunning attraction—what do you expect from a movie mogul? Besides wine tastings, there’s a restaurant, movie gallery, outdoor seating, and a pavilion for concerts and dancing. There’s even a swimming pool. Pool passes sell out far in advance, I’m told, but I promise myself next time I visit the area I will spend a day at the pool. Mom, Margie, and I dine at Rustic, the Italian-themed restaurant, and enjoy hearty fare and of course delicious wines. After a couple appetizers—stuffed mushrooms and a plate of charcuterie—we dig into our main courses: lamb for me, pasta for Margie, and salmon for Mom. Our waiter is superb, and the food is sublime. I love the Old-World vibe in the restaurant and can’t wait to come back with my husband one day.
RAILS TO TRAILS
I claim Saturday for myself and drop Mom off at Margie’s that morning before dashing off to meet a Sip ‘n’ Cycle tour offered by Getaway Adventures. Unfortunately, a mix-up occurs, and instead of a tour, I end up by myself with a map, biking toward Sebastopol through an emerging wine area that stretches west of Santa Rosa. Thankfully, the terrain is flat—it’s a rails-to-trails route—but temps are in the 90s. My cousin Fred tells me later that September in Santa Rosa is like August everywhere else. I stop in Sebastopol and briefly consider abandoning my biking plans to go to a zydeco festival taking place in town—a cold beer sounds mighty good—but I hop on my bike and continue.
The idea, of course, is to visit wineries, but since I didn’t research the choices, I’m clueless and keep pedaling, hoping the winery of my dreams will appear before me. It never does. I enjoy the ride, nevertheless, and decide on my way back to stop in Taft Street, the only winery I passed by. It’s a family-owned business that started in a garage in Oakland and makes handcrafted wines in limited quantities. The wine tasting room is simple, and the pourer a friendly fellow. I love the wines, especially the chilled rosé made from pinot noir grapes. The chardonnays are also fine. Turns out this region is perfect for growing chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
That evening my cousins Fred and Jim, Jeannie’s sons, along with Fred’s girlfriend, Debra, join us for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Santa Rosa. We sit outside and eat, drink, and tell stories until long after the sun goes down. I’ve never been close to Fred and Jim, my West Coast cousins, but it’s amazing how much we have in common.
Jim joins Mom, Margie, and me the next day to do a little wine tasting. I take them back to Taft Street Winery, where we enjoy more of their fine wines, and then we stop in another winery up the street called Balletto—also family run. Chardonnays and pinot noirs are prevalent on the tasting menu along with a pinot gris, a gewürztraminer, and a zinfandel. We like them all!
That night Mom rests at the hotel, and Jim picks me up to go hear a band at the Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa. I’ve always liked Santa Rosa. It has a cozy, walkable downtown with a central tree-lined square and lots of restaurants, shops, and businesses. Jim and I drink a few beers and listen to some old-fashioned rock and somehow manage to carry on a conversation in spite of the loud music. He’s a bit older than I and came of age in the 60s when San Francisco was the place to be. We share stories about growing up, and both wish we could have lived nearer together. But it’s never too late to become friends with distant family members, we agree, and drink a toast to keeping in touch.
Too soon the trip is over and we are saying goodbye. Mom and Margie hug tight—a poignant sight to see. We all know there probably won’t be a “next time,” but no matter what happens, the sisters have had a chance to reconnect and add a few new memories to the many they already share.