Passage of the Kissing People
An ancient word, in Miwok or Suisun, or Wappo, or else some tongue that predates them all. There are four recorded translations: “Valley of the Moon,” “Valley of Sickness,” “Land of Chief Bignose,” or “Abandoned Campsite,” according to which source you choose to believe.
Your choices are a romantic Spanish gentleman, a local superstition, the gentleman’s roguish son, and an anthropologist.
Valley of the Moon
The last time I kissed my father was in Sonoma, in the Valley of the Moon. I was a boy of seven. I am fifty now. He is seventy-eight.
Sonoma is a word with a grand sound to it—all open vowels and nasal consonants. It can be murmured with passion, but it also shouts well. Sonoma tastes of hot dust and toasted grass. It blazes with light. The sky in Sonoma is a dark blue force that twists the branches of the oak trees like the limbs of the cerebral palsy patients at the old State Home. Sonoma holds the sound of quail calling in the long golden dusk, and the splash of Joe Marossi skinny-dipping in Yulupa Creek right in front of our house. It is the full moon’s light, soft as Gisella’s hand, and the cool silver weight of the Kissing People.
Sonoma was the first word in my family’s private language. Every family speaks a private language born of childhood books, family history, and chance. Compressed, coined into words and phrases with extra meanings, the language is verbal shorthand.
We began to create the Kohler family language in Sonoma out of the endless raw material there: the headless patient incident, Winnie-the-Pooh, Mom’s Pineapple Nose, and the steam shovel Christmas. Family language gets to the heart for joy or pain faster than any other words can fly. But now, as my father grows increasingly deaf and blind, my sister Mary prepares to become a grandmother, and Mom looks at my beard and says, “Michael, you’re looking a little gray around the muzzle, dear,” I realize how soon it may be that only I am left who knows this language.
My family left the Sonoma Valley in 1953 because of something I said. I was just trying to make a joke. Seven-year-old boys have a crude sense of humor.
My parents were ‘bughousers.’ That’s what the people in the town of Glen Ellen called the staff at the Sonoma State Home for the Feebleminded. The Home.
One afternoon in May, the folks got off work and drove over to the edge of the campus to pick us up at the Bump’s house. Mrs. Bump, Ethel, took care of my sister and me after school. Wally Bump, the huge and ominous Mr. Bump, was Head of Security at the Home. Mrs. Bump would not let us play outside alone.
The main gate of the Home was just down the road beyond the line of oaks that marked Miller Creek. The big lawn was crisscrossed with walkways easing up to the old brick building, adobe-colored cottages on either side.
Wheelchairs dotted the sidewalks. Those wheelchairs were filled with people who scared me: cerebral palsy patients with hands drawn up into bird claws under their chins; hydrocephalics with great round balloon heads; microcephalics with heads the size of coconuts. Every so often someone would cry out and collapse to the ground in an epileptic seizure. Mary, who was nine and braver than me, dubbed them the Chair People.
When Mrs. Bump allowed us out, we played on the side of the house away from the hospital. Across the road lay the vegetable gardens and the farm where the inmates worked. We always turned to watch when the big wagons rolled by. Their rubber tires softly hummed background behind the hoof beats, the smell of hot horse on the breeze. The inmates who worked on the farm or in the gardens wore baggy blue denim jackets and pants. They waved at us on their way back to the Home at the end of the day.
The first violet shade of evening had just started to unroll on the bright California afternoon. It was hot for early May. I remember the smell of adobe earth. Mary wore her dark blonde hair in pigtails to keep out the dust. Mom and Dad said good evening to Mrs. Bump, and trundled us off to our dirty gray Plymouth. Nurses were wheeling the Chair People back inside. Tall black Louis, the inmate who worked in the Bump’s garden, pushed a wheelchair along the sidewalk toward us. In the chair sat a large blue denim laundry bag. Wheelchairs were used to move all kinds of fascinating stuff around the grounds, and the bags were so big two kids could fit into one at the same time.
The Bump’s laundry was in that bag.
The wheelchair hit a crack. The bag sagged to one side. Louis shook it into place and winked at me. “Sit up and behave,” he said.
Dad looked so sad that afternoon that I wanted to make a joke for him. I pointed at the Chair People, then at the laundry bag, then at Louis wearing the same color and fabric. “Look Dad.” I grinned. “Some of the patients have great big heads, and some of them have little tiny heads—and look, there’s one with no head at all!”
Dad’s heavy black mustache twitched, and he almost smiled for the first time since Joe Marossi died. Mary and I giggled. But Mom clutched my arms, and stared at me. Her hazel eyes showed white all around, her long face lengthened even further with the protest of her open mouth. Then she straightened up and whirled toward my dad.
“My mother warned me he would be easily influenced by what he saw here,” she said. “Henry, we’re moving!”
Ordinarily Mom didn’t make flat-out pronouncements like that. She was not a confrontational person by nature, and besides, if you wanted something from Dad, taking him head-on was not the way to get it. But he must have been convinced this was serious. During the ride home, through Glen Ellen and out the windy blacktop Bennett Valley Road, there wasn’t any conversation in the front seat. Every word of Big Jon and Sparkie on the radio came through crystal clear. But that night after I went to bed, I heard the mumbling rise and fall of our parents’ voices long into the night.
The next day was Saturday. We went to our friend Lily Lonaghan’s house to play. I was being Tarzan in her plum tree, practicing the fine art of swinging from limb to limb. Mary, honoring the Big Sister Code of Conduct, grabbed my foot. I fell, fractured my elbow, and had to spend three boring weeks with my arm in traction in the hospital over at Santa Rosa.
By the time I got out, Dad had taken a job in Monterey. We moved the following weekend. I didn’t see Sonoma again for forty-four years.
In 1996 my stained glass studio in Seattle won a contract to build windows for St. Stephen’s, an Episcopal church on Sixth Avenue near the old Sonoma town square. I was pleased. I’d always remembered the valley with a sort of full moon glow.
My partner in the studio, Doug Randall, went down for the contract signing. He brought back architect’s drawings, photographs and measurements of the site. Doug was owl-eyed and squawked when he got excited, and he was known to sketch his preliminary designs on a cocktail napkin; but after fifteen years in the studio together an understanding develops, or you kill each other. I knew just how far to trust his accuracy, and he knew what he had to give me to keep himself covered. Our partnership had outlasted three divorces, one of mine and two of his.
Doug’s brother lived in Santa Rosa and knew a guy on the church board, which is how we heard about the commission in the first place. We signed the contract in August for installation in time for the following Easter, March 30, 1997. At the end of February Doug’s brother sent us a clipping from the Sonoma Index-Tribune. The article was about the new windows for St. Stephen’s coming soon; there was a bit about us and the studio, and mention of both of our Sonoma connections. The reporter even included our web address. Doug was pretty smug about that. The web site was his idea.
March 6, we were two days from hitting the road. I ran around with my hair on fire all day. After dinner I finally got time to check email and there was a message, “Question for Michael Kohler.” No greeting, no signature, nothing but a single line of text: “Did you live on the Bennett Valley Road in 1953?”
I gazed at the message while a forgotten mental movie played the shade-dappled drive home from the Bump’s house as clearly as if I were sitting in the backseat of our gray Plymouth again.
The return address, firstname.lastname@example.org, was not familiar. I hit the reply icon and typed, “Yes.” For several minutes I sat staring at the single word and the blinking cursor. Finally I signed it “M.K.” and clicked (SEND).
Moments later the computer voice said: “You have mail.” The dial-up connection made the machine grind on for a long time, the envelope icon in flight flickering like a neon sign. The message had an attachment. I opened the message and found another single line of type: “Do you know what this is?”
Unsettled, almost reluctant, I clicked on the attachment titled ‘Photo #1.’ Slowly a ghostly image built on the screen of a flat silver figure the size of a quarter–there was one next to it for scale–floating on a black background.
Of course I knew what it was. The contorted body, the mask face with round mooneyes and strange mouth, tongue stuck out in ritual grimace. The smooth metal would be curiously cool even if it had been in Dad’s pocket on a hot day. His tiki. His good luck charm: the one he got in New Zealand, the one he carried when the Marines waded ashore on Guadalcanal. It hung on his key chain when I was a kid. He lost it when we were living in Sonoma. That’s when things began to go wrong for us in the valley. Though I hadn’t seen it since, I could have drawn it from memory.
I pulled up to the keyboard, but once I wrote, “Yes,” again, a surge of such sadness and longing filled me that I fought back tears. I hit (SEND).
Something told me the conversation was not over. Five minutes I sat there, while the rain whispered coldly against the windowpane.
“You have mail,” said the computer.
“Bring the Kissing People when you come to the church.”
The Kissing People. A name drifted up like the message in a Magic Eight Ball. Gisella Marossi. The Kissing People was our name for her mother’s big silver brooch. Gmd031545@valley.net. GMD. Gisella Marossi with a married name? 03/15/45. March 15: Gisella’s birthday, how could I ever forget that? She was in third grade when I was in second.
I typed, “Gisella?” and sent the message. Then sat and stared at the damned screen.
copyright © 2012 Peter Kahle