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My fondest memories as a kid came every Thanksgiving in Calistoga. We would drive for a few (million) hours from our house in suburbia, stuck somewhere between San Francisco and San Jose.
Most of the time during our trips we would play games to pass the time. We would have to go through the entire alphabet, A to Z, finding 26 different highway signs for all of the 26 letters in order. In all truth, it was a dumb game because whoever found some obscure sign with the letter Z would win, even if they had only spotted two or three letters the entire time before that.
When we finally arrived in Calistoga, we had to drive up a giant, elongated, gravel path. It was steep and was made for Jeep Wranglers and Ford F-150’s. It was an arduous task, but it was strangely enjoyable because our two-wheel-drive Pontiac Montana (which, by itself, provided stories that could fill pages after pages of paper) struggled, sometimes hilariously, up that hill. That car was always one traction-control-system malfunction away from my father navigating backwards down a steep, windy, unpaved road while my brother and I laughed heartily that we almost wet our pants, and finished our game of “GoldenEye: 007” on the half inch, flip-down screen of our minivan.
Yeah, our minivan had a TV. And it was actually more like six inches, which didn’t really help all that much because we still had to use binoculars to see what was actually going on. The VCR had broken after about a year, and there was definitely no DVD player, rendering the TV completely useless, except for the fact that we could plug our Nintendo into the A/V jacks (which came out if you pulled too hard). My favorite game was “GoldenEye: 007.” (In case anyone is wondering, which of course no one is, we always played on Temple using the power weapons, because you could get the RCP-90, which was more powerful than the hand of God itself. And no one was allowed to play as Odd Job or Jaws because, quite frankly, it was cheating because you had to aim down to shoot Odd Job and aim up to shoot Jaws.) I loved that game. Some people have a favorite book that they’ve read 100 times and they’ve lost the cover. Sometimes there are pages missing, but it doesn’t matter because you have every single word on that missing page memorized. Well, we played that stupid, pointless game so often. So often that we had to blow in the cartridge because the game wouldn’t start. Anyone who played Nintendo knows exactly what I’m talking about. Someone’s going to hate when I say this, but “GoldenEye” was my Great Gatsby; it was my Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I don’t care if people say I’m a numb-skulled couch potato, but I loved that game. I just loved it.
While my brother Tom and I were trying not to pee our pants, my mom was clenching the armrest and choking on her breath. She always did that when we either almost get in an accident (we never have), or there was the slightest bit of turbulence on an airplane and she thought an engine had failed (it never has). Everyone stared at her. It is awfully funny and she’ll never admit to doing it even after you’ve caught her. Well, our car never broke down climbing that hill, and we drove past the meadow where April Goods’ funeral was held.
I don’t really like funerals, and I always try to avoid them, unless I am hopelessly obligated to show up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t care. It’s more because death scares the heck out of me, to be completely honest. I have only been to a few funerals. My grandmother’s, which I don’t remember, my grandfather’s, which I vaguely remember, my other grandfather, which I vividly remember, and two funerals involving the fathers of my friends, which I don’t much like to talk about. I remember Mrs. Goods’ funeral because it wasn’t in a church. It was outside in a redwood grove, and it was quite possibly the most beautiful ceremony I had ever witnessed. It took a few hours just for everyone to drive up that hill. I only really remember a few parts, but I really remember them. One was when my cousin Clare sang the most beautiful song I had ever heard. I have heard some wonderful singers, but she just knocked me out. I let the tears gather in my eyes without restraint and I felt a thick, sour pain in my throat. You know when you’re really crying because your throat hurts. I just sat there crying, unaware of anything. I don’t know if anyone else was crying, and I don’t know how long I was crying for. I lost track of time. It’s a beautiful thing when you’ve lost track of time because that’s what heaven’s like, since you’re there forever. I stopped crying eventually, after the moment had passed. I only cry at funerals. I’m not one of those emo kids who cries himself to sleep every night. And I don’t die my hair black. I have red hair.
We drove through the grape vineyard up to the house, the Goods’ residence. Jack and April Goods are two of the most generous, warm, loving, and genuine people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They were not my grandparents, but they treated us like grandchildren. They were actually our cousin’s grandparents, or my aunt’s parents, or my dad’s-brother’s-wife’s-parents. Hopefully one of these will work for you. My cousins lived in Watsonville, actually they still do. I like Watsonville; it’s like Monterey, but with no water, and Monterey is my favorite city of all time. It’s really a small city, but it feels like a town. I love it. I love the way the fog sneaks up on you while you’re sleeping and how, sometimes, the sky reins the fog back up into the clouds. Usually it just sits there, though, and you can wear your hooded sweatshirt all day, even if it’s ninety degrees in Salinas, only twenty minutes away.
I love Calistoga. I think it’s because of the way the rain falls from the giant oak trees and mixes with the dirt and gravel to create a thick mud. When it rains everywhere else it’s really a royal pain; but when I’m in the wine country, it’s like winning a contest that you never entered. Maybe it’s all the quaint feelings of nostalgia I get. I think my love for the land changes every time I visit there. They are always short and sweet. We usually stay for Thanksgiving, plus the day before and the day after.
Being kids, we couldn’t sit on couches drinking wine and catching up. We were always getting our new shoes dirty somewhere on the property. We did a lot of stuff. We would put on cheap bicycle helmets that you didn’t buy at the bike store, but at K-Mart. They usually were on clearance because they had some washed up superhero decals on them. We were kids though, so we never noticed those things until someone pointed them out years later. With our cousins, we would pack two kids into a shakily constructed Radio Flyer and steer down the other side of the hill that led down to the house. It was a steep hill, probably too steep for little kids. We would take the handle that was supposed to pull the red wagon and pull it over the wagon into our laps, using it as some crude steering device. Needless to say, it didn’t really work. It did slightly steer the red wagon, but us being grammar school-educated scholars, we didn’t quite understand the laws of physics. I think I remember one time when we were headed straight for a giant rock, and we bailed and jumped out and rolled in the dirt. Good thing for those helmets! Then Aunt Kristi made us all take showers before dinner, and we all casted dirty looks at her all evening long as we dropped bits of asparagus under the table.
We played touch football (it was tackle, who am I kidding) on the lawn that was supposed to be for decoration. It was about the size of a few parking spaces, but for our purposes, it was 100 yards long. They were arena-league, high-scoring affairs, with my team always winning. My cousin Clare and her little brother Jake were no match for my brother and I who were ruthless benders-of-the-rules, who forced their littlest brother, Michael, age four, to cover my brother, age eleven. Being the quarterback of my flag football team back home, I exploited the match up like an NFL veteran. It was fun for me and Tom, but probably not for them.
We would run through the vineyard, playing tag. Sometimes we just ran for fun, because that’s what kids do, until you give them a uniform and 400 meters of all-weather track, which suddenly makes it a lot less fun. We ran through the mud with our Christmas shoes that we had gotten in October and promised to keep in a box until December. Not a great move by my parents. They would get filthy dirty and we would have to scrub all the dirt off of them in the laundry room when we got back home. We would hide behind the grapevines, and sometimes we would eat the grapes. I don’t know if you’ve ever had wine grapes, but they’re better than normal grapes. Plus, they provided us with seeds for seed-spitting contests, which make them that much better. Whenever I hear the Bowie song, “The Man Who Sold the World,” I think of the vineyard, because it was such a massive piece of land, and who in their right mind would ever sell that land; I sure wouldn’t.
Before dinner we would have to take showers and put on ugly sweaters that we got from our parents for “special occasions such as this.” And you can’t forget the fact that it was Thanksgiving. There was enough food to feed a whole village in Africa. Jack Goods would buy some overpriced turkey from somewhere back East and have it shipped out for Thanksgiving. It was for some charity or something like that. If you want my honest opinion, a frozen turkey from the supermarket would have served me just fine; they tasted exactly the same to me (he swore it was better).
We laughed and told stories at the dinner table and the moms and dads would drink wine most of the night. After all, we were on a vineyard. There were about seven different kinds of gravy, none of which I enjoyed, so my mom brought canned Franco-American gravy from home. It was usually cold outside while we ate, so we lit two wood fires on opposite sides of our knights-of-the-round-table-table, except for it wasn’t round, but it was humongous and wooden, if that counts for anything.
After dinner, most of the women and a few of the men would clean the dishes while most of the men and my cousin Clare would head to the patio to play guitar and sing folk songs. My brother Tom and my cousins Jake and Michael would go back to the dinner table and throw everything and anything into the fire. I would check on them from time to time, to make sure they didn’t burn down the house (while lighting a few sticks on fire). I usually went back to the patio when I heard my mother coming so that I wouldn’t get in trouble. The patio overlooked a valley of dry grass lined on both sides by giant redwood trees. It looked almost magical when the stars came out at night. One of the Goods’ cousins, Blair, had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird guitar with a custom fret board. I pretended to play my cheapo acoustic guitar in perfect harmony, but I just strummed a few chords here and there. We would sing everything from Neil Young to Jack Johnson, and my Uncle Keith would end up playing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” by the Grateful Dead after my Aunt Kristi got angry at him for being obnoxious.
When the guitar session was over, I would head out to the dinner patio to “check on the boys.” We threw dead leaves and acorns into the fire, listening to them crackle while they quickly blackened and disintegrated. One time I found what I thought was an old cigar butt, so I threw that in the fire, too. A few minutes later, Uncle Joe Goods came out looking for his fifty dollar Cuban, and when he saw it lying in ashes, I was the unlucky recipient of his fury. I went and sat in the car and cried to my watery eyes’ content (one of our earlier trips to Calistoga). Twenty minutes later, Uncle Joe came out to the car and told me that he could replace his cigar, but if he threw me into the fire he couldn’t get another one of me. Oh, thanks, that makes a ten-year old feel a whole lot better. Years later I think he finally forgave me.
At the end of the night we would eat pies and more pies, and we would crack nuts, mostly to hide them under the couch because nuts don’t really taste that great. Hours later my dad would give suffocating hugs and uncomfortable kisses to every single person (the kisses came after a few glasses of wine). He had a rating scale; if it was a weak hug, you would only get a two or three, and a ten was the Heimlich maneuver. My dad says eights and nines, somewhere between suffocation and death, were the best types of hugs.
We slept in Aero beds in Grandpa Jack Goods’ office next to the house, because I guess winemakers have offices, whether they need them or not. A day later we would leave for home. The next school day, I would put on my blue school sweater and drudge to class, reenacting, in my head, every little event from the past trip in math class.
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