THIRTY one years ago this November, when we would do almost anything for adventure and our bodies were still capable of astonishing abuse, Harriet put herself on a Greyhound Bus in New York and arrived in San Francisco just before Thanksgiving. I knew who she was because my friend Craig had written from Spain that he had met this girl, that they had hit it off, and that they were going to travel together across North Africa.
There was clearly something special about her, but at some point the story took a surprising turn. Craig had trouble with the idea of settling down at the time, and was preoccupied with the notion of going to his home town and making good, so they had parted company. Just another vacation romance, I thought, a flash in the pan.
One day the phone rang, and the caller was this girl Craig had told me about. She knew who I was, too, and could I come pick her up at the Greyhound Bus Station? How transparent, I thought. She’s chasing after him, but can’t very well camp on his doorstep in Tacoma, Washington, so she’s going to try to get at him through his best friend. I’ll get rid of her.
By the end of the first bottle of wine that first evening, we were already old friends. Craig, I decided, was clearly a fool, and this great lady ought to put her energies into somebody who appreciated her. As far as I know, she knew nobody in the Bay Area but me. I got her a place to stay with my friend Linda, in the Haight Ashbury, and we began to build what I would later come to call my chosen family. Linda and I would be joined by Jerry and eventually Karl, soon after by Mike and Carla, later by Anthony and Jason and others, and before long the chosen family, along with the Buchanans and the Arants would grow into what you see around you today, a villageful of people whose lives intertwine and help define home and the center of things.
Things have changed considerably since that circle began to grow. If we could have looked ahead thirty years, our eyes would have had trouble taking in what you see here today. In those days we were rejecting the familiar, and looking to build the world from scratch. Harriet might be a little surprised to find her mother here and her brother Johnny, her sisters Neel and Lizanne, and learn that the years would bring them this close together. And would she believe it when we told her that not only did Craig come back to say, “I’ve had time to think it over, and you’re the one I want to live my life with,” but that along with the two of them, somebody named Amy would join them at the center of a large and loving chosen family.
We never thought we could actually have it all. Harriet said to me once, at a low moment in her life, “The only thing I’ve ever done competely right was have a daughter. That’s the only thing in my life about which I have no doubts.” Actually, she did much else that was right, and if that had not already been evident to all of us who loved her, it would be made clear when it came time for her to die and her house spilled over with neighbors from over the years, with colleagues who would mourn her passing, and with more friends than we could ever get into the house at any one time, including, perhaps especially, a powerful testament to her identity as a women-centered woman, her friends Valerie and Gigi, Kay and Elly, Monique, Amy’s friends Tara and Cata and Jacinda, Craig’s sister Jane, and Marta, and Carla, all of whom would put their own lives on hold to care for her at the end.
I saw one of those nasty greeting cards recently which carried the message, “Be good to your kids. They will get to tell the world who you were after you are gone.” What is missing there is that the story will be told not only by your children, but by a whole bunch of others as well. In the end, you are destined to become what your friends and family can remember about you as well.
When Craig died, nearly five years ago now, something quite remarkable happened. We gathered at the house, quite spontaneously, after the memorial service and toasted his memory. And then, one by one, people began telling stories about him. We laughed and cried, laughed some more and cried some more, and this image of the man emerged from our stories that none of us had ever seen in its entirety. Until that moment I thought the phrase, “lives on in our hearts” was something said only to take away the pain, an illusion to make it possible for us to go on. But as I saw this collective personality come out from the stories, I realized that I really would always have him around, as long as people could be made to talk about him.
Last Christmas, at another of the many occasions when the house was full of the life that Harriet could create with her dinners, at one point Amy spoke up. “Would anyone mind,” she asked, “if I proposed a toast to my father?” “Mind!? Are you kidding?” we thought. And we did it again. We started the stories, and once again this man, whom I thought I knew better than almost anybody else in the world, rose from the story-telling and came alive. And the nicest part of the whole thing was the realization that this picture of him, the most complete picture I had ever seen, was possible only when we came together, all of us who loved him. Because no one of us had the whole story. We had to work together to get it. The life that Craig had built was here in us, but his friends had to stick together after his passing if we wanted the full benefit of his presence. It was a remarkable discovery for me that, unlike his presence in my memories, his presence in our collective story telling was still growing and changing.
Now it’s Harriet’s turn. Her passing is cruel to us. We will grieve and mourn and there will be an ache to contend with for a long time. Of that there is no doubt. But the stories will start, and this wonderful lady will be around as long as any one of us here today says to any other one of us here today, “Tell me what you know about Harriet.”
A couple weeks ago, when I was sitting at her bedside, she said to me, “Is there enough food in the house for everybody?” “Yes,” I said. “There’s plenty.” “Good,” she said. “Make sure everybody has enough to eat. And if you run out, go get some more.” We never had to. Without having to ask, the house filled with flowers and food, the coins of Harriet’s realm. So come to the house now and we’ll have a party. I want to hear your stories. Tell me all you can in the time we have today about the life of Harriet Buchanan. And what you don’t get to say today, save for another time. I will be back for more. I think we will all be back for more.
May 14, 1998