The pandemic first became real to me when I had to cancel my spring break plans to visit my Great Aunt Sylvia and her daughter and son-in-law, Joanne and Greg, in the Bay Area. This was the beginning of March of 2020. Aunt Sylvia is the only surviving sibling of my grandmother who passed when I was in high school. It was important for me to visit her when I could to soak up the stories of our family and enjoy her feisty spirit.
During the pandemic, maintaining the connection to family became a priority as we missed milestones. We were grateful to be able to facetime with Sylvia on her 94th birthday in March. She had her bright lipstick on and was ready to celebrate. Once we were fully vaccinated my parents and I planned a trip to visit Sylvia, Joanne, and Greg for July with a visit to Napa Valley as well to stay at my parents’ favorite bed and breakfast.
While we were looking forward to our trip, Aunt Sylvia passed peacefully and quickly on Father’s Day. Our trip changed from being a last chance to connect with Aunt Sylvia to being a trip of remembering and commemorating her.
The first part of our trip took us to Napa County California which has been ravished by wildfires over the past years. It was fascinating to hear about the steps taken to prevent the fires from spreading. We visited a winery that looked out over Napa Valley from the top of Spring Mountain. The owner pointed out how the hills across the valley were completely burned. The fires reached the fence surrounding his vineyard, but the metal framework kept the fire at bay. We visited another winery where the vines survived, but all the houses on the mountain burned. At each location, we asked what steps were being made to prevent the fires from spreading again. Each person talked about how the local government was working to clear all the combustible debris and dead trees that allow the fire to grow. Hearing about the fire prevention methods highlighted the incredible way the community was working together to protect the environment.
The concept of community continued when hearing the histories of many of the wineries. One winery had an abundance of grapes, but nowhere to make the wine while the neighboring winery had just started to plant, but they had a wine-making facility. They worked together to make wine allowing for the first place to learn the wine-making process and the second to have the time to develop their own grapes. Now the wineries work independently, but they are still close friends and neighbors.
After our adventures in Napa, we headed to my cousin’s house in San Rafael. The last time I spent at Joanne and Greg’s house, Aunt Sylvia joined us for dinner. I made my grandma’s, Sylvia’s sister, famous brisket recipe. While the brisket was cooking, we looked through Sylvia’s photo album as she told family stories. That evening is so precious now that she has passed. This visit, we went through all her family photos trying to identify who was in each photo. This process is more difficult since my father is an identical twin.
While we spent a lot of time discussing family stories, we took time to explore parts of the Bay Area that we had not seen. During my last visit, Joanne mentioned the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond. We made sure to visit on this trip. Richmond is located across the water from San Fransico and San Rafael near Berkley. The town remains industrial.
What we thought would be about the concept of Rosie and women during the war was much more about how all aspects of the community came together to support the war effort leading to advances in the care of the workers. The factor was owned by Kaiser. Kaiser saw the need to have health coverage for all his workers which led to Kaiser Permanente as we know it today. The exhibit highlighted how workers of all races came together to build ships, but the subsidized housing remained segregated to white workers only until the 1950’s when it finally integrated. With the increase of families in the area, the importance of schools came to the forefront.
The area saw so much social progress during the war, but once the war ended, all the groups that had entered the workforce, women and minorities, saw their jobs go to the returning servicemen. The museum told their story through artifacts and anecdotes. We learned about a side of the war effort that we never knew before.
The most important part of our trip was to be able to attend the celebration of life for Sylvia at the assisted living facility. They have started having memorials for all the residents that pass for the staff to be able to say goodbye. Joanne had not planned to have a service for her mother until she could bury Sylvia’s ashes with Sylvia’s late husband, Jack in Florida. The celebration of life helped Joanne process her grief while witnessing the incredible community in which Sylvia lived her last years. One of the main themes from all the stories that were shared is that Sylvia always wanted to know what was happening with everyone. She would take care of you, but she would also put you in your place if she needed it. Sylvia helped build the sense of community and family in the facility.
From celebrating Sylvia and visiting Napa, I am left with the importance of community and supporting the people around me. I hope to live by this as we welcome the WNA community back to campus.