￼During my mother’s monthlong visit, I was at my wits end scheduling activities. We had just spent a week in the land of palm trees, sea turtles and Pele’s steaming craters. When we arrived home, she knew I needed to work.
I heard her start to pace outside my office door. Her footsteps echoed throughout my 1919 redwood shingle house. It put me on edge. She had finished her morning coffee and wanted someone to talk to. I raised the volume on Ludovico Einaldi’s calming music and tried not to feel guilty.
Mid-week she hinted she wanted to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. She didn’t mean on-foot: not when she needed a cart at Hawaii’s Botanical Gardens. “I’ll do one better,” I told her, knowing you can’t really see the bridge from a car window. I signed up with Hornblower yachts and promised her a view of the bridge that she’d never forget. How many degrees of boredom can a brunch cruise eliminate? Several, we discovered.
I came into the kitchen Sunday morning and caught her eating breakfast. “Mom, we are going for brunch,” I said. “Do you know how much food there’s going to be?” I had stopped eating the day before so I could splurge. I would be failing in my duties as host and tour guide if I didn’t insist that we show up with prodigious appetites.
She put away her toast.
The San Francisco Spirit was docked at Pier 3, a hop, skip and a jump from the Ferry Building. We boarded and went to the bow for an elevated view of the waterfront and financial district. “Take my picture and make sure you get those in,” my mom said, pointing over her shoulder to a row of Canary Island palm trees beneath a blue sky. My mother wore a black-and-white cotton knit pants suit and a white wool cap. She looked like a sailor.
Behind the trees, sunlight glinted off the steel and glass buildings that stood five rows deep. It was winter on the calendar, but the weather said otherwise. The day was turning out to be a real stand-out. The visit wasn’t just about whisking her away from the worst of the New Jersey winter. I wanted to make her visit special. I snapped her smiling face against a background of palm trees.
“Hey, look what followed us from Hawaii,” I said. Seagulls were gathering at the stern, hopping along the railing, angling for scraps of food. They were out of luck. The sign said do not feed them. The gulls scattered as the engines rumbled and the boat pulled out.
Downstairs in the dining room, the server brought a flute of Domaine Chandon Rosé. It left a sunny taste in my mouth. Dorothy from Union City offered to take our picture. I squatted beside my mother and felt the sun’s heat on my face. Our table was against the windows which curved onto the ceiling to enlarge the view. I squeezed her shoulder. This would be our last week together. Dorothy smiled at us. “I’ll take another. Just in case.”
We got up and surveyed the burgeoning buffet tables. I went to the carving station for roast turkey. My mother tackled the tables in order from cold salads, to side dishes, to entrees. Her salad plate had spoonfuls of shrimp, caesar salad, Asian noodle salad: the rest I couldn’t distinguish. At the entree table, she took a taste of each main course; then went back for a proper helping of the baked tilapia.
“Mom,” I said, “the boat stopped.” The engines had died down and the tables were empty. The colossus of San Francisco Bay filled the port-side windows. We ran onto the deck and stood arm-in-arm gazing up. The boat lingered, giving passengers a long look at the orange span and its fluted towers.
“Take a picture of me looking up,” said my mother, beaming. The couple from Milan who sat next to us in the dining room clutched the railing as the boat rolled. Children from the birthday party raced around. Voices mingled, inside-out, upside-down and in all directions. A stew pot of laughter. Voices hot. Voices spicy with a cinnamon twang. A gurgling voice. A buddha voice (belonging to a solemn young man in a suit proposing to a blonde decked out in violet-suede gladiator heels and a thigh-high cocktail dress who said yes, the pianist announced later).
Voices whirlpooled as the boat passed under the Golden Gate Bridge.
A seagull launched from the flagpole and snapped at empty air with its beak, a reflex from when passengers tossed them stale bread. The bird was the only unhappy creature in sight. I felt a sudden weight on my heart, seeing my mother’s beaming smile. The moment passed but not the happy/sad emotion. The rest of the day in her company I felt as if I were drinking from a well that would someday run dry.
“The chef is bringing out more desserts; should I take a look?” I said. We were cruising past Angel Island and Alcatraz. He brought out cherry chocolate layer cake, carrot cake and white cake with lemon meringue filling, balancing the cakes on each arm. I smiled at my mother and said, “Remember how much I loved your lemon meringue pie?” I requested this pie on my birthday just so I could lick meringue off the beaters.
We had two helpings of dessert, or was it three? The number wasn’t important. Aboard the Hornblower on a sunny day in February getting tipsy and eating desserts by the plateful, my mother was light-years away from 10-degree temperatures.
The engines hammered to a stop. Chains rattled and the gangway dropped. We walked toward the Ferry Building as sunlight skated between buildings and lit up the Embarcadero Plaza like a dance floor. Home by 3 p.m., we sank onto the living room sofa and read Vogue magazines, making comments about “the fashions,” waiting for a respectable hour when we could climb into our pajamas.
Food wasn’t mentioned for two days. When my siblings checked in later in the week, my mom talked non-stop about her wonderful day, saying, “It was like the first day of spring.”
—text and photography by Donna Peck.