When I was young, back in the 1980s or even early 90s…and here I must add that I didn’t know in those days that I was still young, or that I wouldn’t always feel the way I felt then, or that everyone’s children would be grown-ups in the blink of an eye, and the people who populated my everyday life would soon be faraway on separate paths entirely…well, I had a certain group of friends then, and we rode bicycles together. I’ve written before about these people and this period of time that seems so idyllic now, even though I know it probably wasn’t.
But I am thinking about the fat-tired friends a lot today because we just returned from visiting a few who live up north of San Francisco. In particular, I want to celebrate two bicycle women, Christine and Donna, who have remained my true blue friends over all these many years and whose company provided solace, reassurance, and laughter during the odd Christmas daze just passed.
First, there’s Christine, who was a coltish teen-age girl the first time I met her. Mike had brought her along to join us for a morning ride in Crystal Cove, and I was intimidated because I’d heard that she was a very talented cyclist who had recently begun racing. The buzz was that she was particularly skillful at downhill tricky stuff, and I guess I expected a competitive little show-off who was going to amp up everything and take all the joy out of the ride. To my delight, Chris was fun and unpretentious, a goofy kid sister as interested in detouring for a leisurely cup of coffee as in pounding out miles.
To be fair, Chris did have an impressive run as a professional cyclist. She raced mountain bikes for Mantis Bicycles and Salsa Cycles during the 1980s, eventually becoming women’s national downhill champion at the NORBA finals, and seamlessly moving into road racing as a member of the UC Davis collegiate cycling team. Then she took her bicycle passion and made a difference in Sonoma County and beyond as a fierce cycling advocate and activist, serving for a decade as Executive Director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and transforming it into an effective organization whose impact is evident to anyone who rides around there. More recently, she has become something of an artisan. Check out her bicycle-inspired jewelry here. Right now I happen to be wearing a beautiful bracelet she made for me out of bead and bike spoke; even as I type this, I keep admiring my own wrist.
So Chris and her husband Rob (along with three dogs and two cats) welcomed us into their home for Christmas, and it was like relaxing on a come-as-you-are island, with strong coffee poured frequently. And while pedaling with her along a bike trail or sitting in a sunlit kitchen alcove watching her make jewelry, I talked to Chris about a lot of things, and it seemed that we connected on a deeper level than ever before, and that the once kid-sisterly friend had become a wise, perceptive woman with profound insights and honest advice. Chris has never been one to mince words, but her thoughts were grounded in hard experience, and I cannot tell you how much she helped me.
Then there’s Donna, whom I first met in the old Mother’s Kitchen in Costa Mesa within days of my arrival in California. I was with Monte on our very first sort-0f-a-date, and Monte knew Donna through her boyfriend and soon-to-be-husband Mike, who at the age of sixteen had come to work with Monte at Sea Schwinn. (I love how bicycles are somehow at the root of all these relationships!) Anyway, Donna was one of those naturally beautiful and radiant California girls, and my first impression was that she must be a dancer, and she is a dancer…in the sense that she is someone who gracefully moves through life as though it is all set to music. Donna is capable in thousands of ways, but for more than two decades she channeled most of her talent into the raising of four amazing kids. She was in fact the first of the friends to be a mother, and although I knew that I would never be as creative, patient, and adept at it as she, I looked to her as a model and inspiration when I had my own daughter.
But don’t be thinking of Donna as a mom-type, whatever that is, because she defines and transcends all roles. Always spirited and brave…riding a bicycle all over the place long before it was a serious sport among women, traveling solo through Europe, an independent thinker who chose her own paths…early marriage and motherhood did not diminish Donna’s spark. In fact, her spark is what made her such a remarkable mother, and she continued to accompany us on our many adventures, often with a kid or two in tow, making the old red VW bus a cozy place at the end of the day. That’s one of Donna’s gifts: she makes a place home.
Indeed there was a sense of coming home when we went over to see her and Mike the other day. There she was in the familiar kitchen, baking cookies of course, and had it been summer, she would have been ready with lemonade. Mike and Donna are empty nesters now and trying to figure out all the ramifications of that, but the house, which is over a hundred years old and charmingly looks it, is still a quirky, relaxed, work-in-progress kind of place with paintings, piles of books, and pictures of family and friends here and there, not chaotic but not yet compulsively organized either. We sat and talked, and Donna’s calm centeredness seemed its own kind of hearth. Then the four of us went for a day-after-Christmas walk, and a few cyclists whirred by us in the park, and we stepped aside, just four older people, invisible and irrelevant –but we had that “been there, done that” kind of feeling. Nothing to prove. Nothing to envy.
So sometimes you can’t be with “family” for the holidays…and sometimes you wouldn’t want to be anyway…and some of us don’t have a crop of young adult kids, either, to come and gather at the homestead and make things seem more festive. As for those with painful things going on in the “family of origin” department, the chronic connection of Christmas and family renders it bleak and unworkable, an old cart with broken wheels, and you’re supposed to squeeze on board and make it work somehow, and I know I am forcing the metaphor, but it’s also damp and cold outside, and you’d just as soon hole up in whatever cozy little burrow you managed to dig for yourself, and wake up when the whole thing is over.
But this is not a pity post! This is a recognition of the precious family that is so often undervalued or overlooked: the family of friends. It’s true family, a chosen one, and with friendships that endure there is history and continuity and comfort and cheer. I have known this all along, but I guess I needed to rediscover it again; I have been blessed with many dear ones not tied to me by blood. And this post is a toast to Chris and Donna, two true-hearted two-wheeled girlfriends, who gave me back some Christmas.