Mendocino Graveyard, circa 2006
Part 1: The Backstory
In the beginning of October, I learned that one of my oldest and best friends, Big Bob, had died unexpectedly and I wanted to write about him, but I was recovering from pneumonia and then there was my birthday, and then I had to work, and then we had to get ready for rain, and then there was the puppy, and then there were all the myriad things that make up life and take up living but that somehow keep me from actually doing the things I want to do and living the life I want to live. But as anyone reading this already knows, that’s life.
My original concept of this post involved driving The Bus to the Arroyo and staying inside The Bus to write while Robert walked the Puppy Monster, but that didn’t happen. I pictured a month of Sundays writing about Bob because I have spent the last 27 or so years with Bob on Sundays. When we lived close to one another, we met on Sunday, and for the last 21 years we have mostly just talked on Sundays. I knew Bob was leaving for a trip, and I knew he was excited about it, so my Sundays in October said “No Bob” and “Bob back.” I was not prepared for Sundays without Bob.
I will never be prepared for this, and I will miss him every Sunday that passes. I still wake at six and feel like I need to call him, only now I know that Bob is gone.
How can I explain Bob? He was Big Bob, and certainly he was a large man, standing well over six feet. He was a Muffler Man, and I capitalize that because he would. The way I got to know Bob doesn’t matter here, but what matters is to capture him, share some of his voice, and to remember him. And for those thinking this was a blog about The Bus? Bob knew everything there was to know about cars, and he loved that we loved The Bus, even though he would never have much truck with a German car, much less a sissy car like a VW Bus, although he often told me that in his escapades hauling his friends and children to ride dirt bikes in Death Valley, when they got to the furthest point out, the end of the end, what would they see on the ridge? A VW Bus. “It was the weirdest thing—I couldn’t figure out how they even got it there.” But they did, and someday I hope we will take our Bus to Clear Creek in Death Valley to honor Bob.
Bob used our camera to take this picture on our honeymoon when we met him at the Cliff House for breakfast with brioche.
Over the many years that I knew Bob, he changed my life and I changed his. He supported me when I had no support: financially, morally, spiritually, and with great enthusiasm. I remember being stuck in Houston with my 1984 Volvo overheating and Bob sending me the money to get it fixed. I remember being about to have my gas shut off and Bob sending me a check. I remember having just suffered a terrible heartbreak and Bob driving me all over Sonoma County listening to me cry, stopping to buy French fries, and telling me everything would work out. I remember telling Bob the very worst parts of myself, the things I most feared, and his acceptance and promise I wasn’t a monster. He celebrated me, inspired me, and made me a better person, and as long as I live I will never stop missing him, and I will never stop wanting to hear him say “Broadway Mufflers, Home of dependability, Big Bob speaking,” when I call his shop.
But I changed Bob, too. If I am more sure of myself because of him, and more secure, then he was also affected by our friendship. When I met Bob he was, to use his parlance, a tee totaling, Al-Anon attending (he had never been a drinker, nor was anyone in his family, but he identified with the meetings), Evolution denying (I didn’t come from an ape) Born Again Christian Republican who had voted for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. He avoided card games and dancing, and he regularly tithed to the church. Bob was the epitome of the stereotype of the Evangelical Christian, a long time Nascar Lover, and former hot- rodder, and straight arrow who served in the army and was stationed to Enewetak Atoll, which he described as a barren place with bad weather but good food. Yes, a guy who liked Army food and gained weight in the military, probably from being half-starved when he got there.
However, over the 27 years I knew Bob, he changed his mind about a lot of things, but never about his love for Christ or his love of reading the Bible, which he did every single day. So, what changed? Well, for one thing, I convinced Bob to go to college in his seventies, and there he discovered his love for Geology, going on several field trips, and there his belief in the 6,000-year-old earth died. “I don’t know how it works for God,” he would say, “But even as I kid I knew the dinosaurs were real.” And Bob loved his Geology. I might have been less enthusiastic about this given my long childhood and adulthood with a GEOLOGIST FATHER, but I appreciated Bob’s newfound rapture with the beauty of the earth.
Bob also fell out of love with the Republican Party and became one of the strongest supporters of the ACLU, public radio, and democratic candidates and policies I have ever seen. How did this happen? Bob started to read, (books, not blogs: Bob didn’t like the internet and hated the very idea of Twitter and Facebook) In addition, Bob listened to my arguments, and he used to say, “Well, you never just had an opinion. I mean, you did, but you also had all these facts and history.” Bob was no Trump supporter, although I am sure people thought he was. In fact, he was appalled by Trump, but he had originally feared Ted Cruz: “A snake in the grass, that one.” I miss talking to Bob about fruitcake (he was a fan), the weather, my life and problems, but I really miss talking politics with Bob because he was so informed, had the background knowledge to understand things I still don’t understand, and he was so pissed off.
But I have tried to explain Bob in these thousand words and I haven’t said anything about the real Bob at all.
Bob having a Date Shake at the Date Gardens
Part 2: In the Time of the Blackberries
Sometime about 1996 I moved from San Francisco to Petaluma. For those who aren’t familiar with Petaluma, it is the home of “Butter and Egg Days,” a celebration of Petaluma’s original fame as the chicken incubator and “Egg Capital of the World” history and thriving dairy industry. What is Petaluma like? Think small town, think rural, think close to Marin County and SF. Think rolling hills and oak groves, widening out to the sea. Think literal red, white, and blue sunsets as the coastal fog rolls up against the heat of the valley. Think the golden rolling hills of California, with red-tailed hawks (for those Kate Wolf fans out there). I was living in an old house around about 6th and E streets, and on Sundays, Bob would come to visit.
We toured around in Big Blue, Bob’s 1970’s Chrysler behemoth, going to swap meets, parks, and rambling drives (about which more later), when we discovered Crane Creek Regional Park near Cotati. Crane Creek was notable for its dryness and giant oaks, but there was a creek running through it, and I first noticed the blackberries. I told Bob that as a child in Southern Oregon I had gone “berrying” many times, and I told him the creek reminded me of home. “I love blackberries, “ Bob said, and after I told him I could maybe make a pie or some jam, we were off to the races (although not the car races, Bob’s true love.)
The next week when he picked me up on Sunday we were primed to go. We had our zip lock bags and buckets, out comfy clothes, and we stopped at the store to get giant sandwiches and our favorite: Fritos Chili Cheese Chips, or, if those were not available, the Honey Barbeque chips. We had Snapples, we had backpacks, we had lunch, we had bags and buckets: we were ready.
The walk to the creek was short but hot, so hot that by the time we made it to the picnic table under the giant oak we felt we deserved a break, and so there we were, under the pale denim sky of California in the late summer, the grass cooked to a pale yellow, eating our sandwiches, getting ready for the berries. I told Bob that I thought the best plan was to get in the water and move up the creek from the waterside because the berries on the banks had been picked and might be sprayed, and he agreed.
I can still remember how cold the water was, and walking on the uneven rocks, sliding at times, and falling, in, seeing Bob nearby or around a bend, his hands and t-shirt and work suit stained with berry juice, for these were the very best blackberries anyone could ever hope to find. Gigantic, bursting at times, sliding off the stems the way berries that want to be picked do. We picked bag after bag, our ankles cool in the water, then packed them into the buckets with ice packs to get them home. “This is like the childhood I never had,” Bob told me as we were picking, and taking a break at the picnic table, a swig from our Snapples, I agreed.
We saw the lazy dragonflies and the minnows nibbling at our cold numbed feet, avoided the bees and yellow jackets struggling to claim our fruit, and we were rewarded with fat bags of blackberries, more than anyone could ever need, and then I took them home, washed them, and made them into pies.
I still had some blackberries left over, so the next Sunday I dragooned Bob into making jam. Bob was not fond of cooking although eager to eat the results of cooking, but he proved to be a reliable helper. We made jar after jar of jam, and planned how we would go after the wild grapes hanging over the Russian River road to Mendocino, which we did, and when we opened the first jar of jam to eat on scones on some unnamed Sunday in the winter, Bob told me “It tastes like summer.” Blackberry jam will always taste like summer for me, and I will never eat it or wild grape jelly or fruitcake or Fritos without thinking of Bob. I always hoped to get back there with Bob to pick more berries, but that was not to be. In my mind, I can imagine us there, and that is something I know Bob would appreciate.
Grief is a funny thing: I think I am over it, and then it comes at me once again, full force, a wave crashing down. Clichés, yes, but they are clichés for a reason…they feel true.
Jenny and Bob with Old Blue, Honeymoon trip, 2006
Part 3: Driving With Bob
When I first met Bob in the nineties, I didn’t drive. I went to college away from home when I was 17, and I had never learned. At UCSB, everyone rides a bike, so no need for cars, and then living in San Francisco, well, I couldn’t afford a car and wouldn’t have been able to park it if I had one. But towards the end of my time in San Francisco (after Petaluma) my mother decided to give me her car, a little Honda Civic she bought in the eighties. Sadly, that car was totaled in a crash, so she gave me the insurance money to buy a car, and I knew just the guy to call. Bob and I drove around the Bay Area looking at Volvo station wagons. I wanted one because my heartbreaking boy friend drove one; Bob wanted me to have one because they were safe. Actually, looking back, it was a significant change in Bob that he was interested in a European car, but perhaps all those times fixing my boyfriend’s Volvo had acclimatized him to the breed. I do know he bought a brand new one for his wife soon after, impressed perhaps by helping me.
We saw a promising silver one out Napa way, but the engine made a noise Bob didn’t like. We drove down on Sunday to Redwood City to check out a likely contender, but that dog wouldn’t hunt. Finally, we found her, in Sonoma, I think: she was a golden yellow 1984 245 wagon, and I loved her on site. Of course, I had loved all the contenders, too. But Bob took her out for a drive, “putting the car through the paces,” as he said, and pronounced her sound. Given my childhood with horses, I would have known more about an animal, so I trusted Bob. I plunked down the money—the biggest check I had ever written at that time—and Bob drove me home to my flat (people in SF don’t have apartments; they have flats. This flat on Oak Street featured a closet I rented for 500$ a month that boasted a window with pigeons which I peered out of and felt Parisian, and many high, drafty rooms, and a claw foot bathtub overlooking the space between buildings). And there she sat, parked on a hill, waiting for the next Sunday when Bob would teach me to drive. I went to visit her frequently, walking to buy her a Club and thinking all the time that she was likely to be stolen while I was getting the Club, but she wasn’t. I can’t remember when I named her, but soon enough she had a name: Buttercup, for her color, and because she reminded me of a placid cow.
And, oh, the cows we drove past, for Bob taught me to drive in West Marin and Sonoma, the place of cows. We traveled the narrow highway under the spring sky, weeds growing high and green and yellow with mustard, the ribbon of road before us, and no one behind us, all through the little roads that link Novato to Petaluma and pass through places like Valley Ford and Marshall and Tomales. Just like with the blackberries, we took breaks. We often went to Marshall because we had painted watercolors there when I was helping Bob with his painting, and we learned every deli and decent public restroom in the counties. Bob helped me learn to pass bicycles and signal and pull over to let mud-spattered local pick up trucks pass. He taught me how to hold the wheel (between 9-10 and 2-3) and how to ease off the gas before a stop, and how to signal for everything.
However, Bob was a contradiction. In our last conversation, he reminded me that he had never worn a seat belt in his life until he met me. “You told me you weren’t going anywhere with me until I put it on,” he said, and then “But I wanted to go, so I did.” I had forgotten that, but now I remember plying him with statistics about seatbelts. I have no idea if he was wearing one when he died, but he promised me in that last conversation that he would, but in the end it didn’t matter.
In the end, pretty much nothing matters except the life you have led and the people and pets you have met along the way. That was something Bob always understood. He wasn’t afraid of dying because he had his faith, but he did hope to see more things. I know that he was driving to see them when he died, and somehow that matters all the more. There are good deaths and happy deaths and sad deaths and pointless deaths, but all deaths diminish us. I agree with the idea behind the Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the dead, and my birthday. The first death is the body, the second is the grave, and the third is when you are forgotten. As long as I live, Bob will never be dead in the third way, but then, eventually, he will. This is the nature of life. No matter how great we are, we all will be forgotten (see: Ozymandias). But we need to honor those we love now, while we are alive, and that is what Bob always taught me. I never had a single conversation with him, and many lasted for hours, where he didn’t tell me he was thankful for having me in his life. Bob always used to tell me that he was the student and I was the teacher: “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear” –but I am the student, and he was the teacher. Bob taught me to accept those I don’t agree with and provide evidence to change their minds without insulting them. He taught me that we are all human, that we all experience the same emotions, but that some of us have a hard time talking about this. He taught me that there was always more to learn, always more roads to explore, always more to hope for, and he taught me to be thankful. Bob taught me to drive, too, but I am most thankful for that last lesson: being thankful for being thankful.
Wherever Big Bob is, I send him this message: I love you and I thank you. And yes, I still signal!