Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mary Isaak 1919-2007

Mary Isaak transplanting fraises des bois

FOR YEARS WE USED TO VISIT Mary Isaak every week during strawberry season. She was a colorful woman with a huge reservoir of experience, knowledge, enthusiasm, and sympathy. She'd studied music and English lit at university, so she and I had that in common; she'd lived for years on a chicken ranch outside Petaluma, so we shared something of that as well. (Though, thank the god of poultry — Hera, I suppose — our family "farm" was not devoted exclusively to chickens.)

In 1982 she decided to fill some spare hours by growing things for Chez Panisse. Through her daughter Anne, a restaurateur in New York, Mary knew Alice Waters; Alice asked her to plant fraises des bois, and Jean-Pierre Moullé, then as now the chef downstairs, brought a thousand plants from France, just how I have no idea.

She set them out in a backyard garden in Petaluma, on D street. D for Dirt, was how I always remembered which of Petaluma's all-alike streets, every Tuesday when we drove back down from Healdsburg, where I was building our house, to Berkeley, where Lindsey and I still worked, stopping off for the week's harvest. On other occasions, though, she'd tell us ahead that they'd be all picked and waiting at her house off F street, F for Fraises; and there we'd find them on the front porch, and Mary herself sitting on a couch in her living room (crowded with piano, cello, books, magazines, correspondence...)

Mary would be knitting little caps for newborn infants in third-world countries, or manufacturing bovine contraceptives for the feral cows of India.

A good-sized Irish-looking woman with crinkles at the corners of her eyes, a quick smile and a hearty laugh, Mary was a fine woman. After a few years she lost the rights to garden the plot, I'm not sure why, and we saw less of her, especially after we moved up here full-time, after the house was finished and we were both retired.

She in the meantime had, in a sense, built a house herself. Aghast at the growing homelessness she saw during the 1980s, she and another Petaluma woman, Laura Reichek, founded COTS, the Committee for the Shelterless. Over the years the organization grew, and three years ago it opened a 95-bed facility named, appropriately, the Mary Isaak Center.

We got together for lunch every now and then, less often than we should have. We last saw Mary in September or October; we called her and arranged a lunch date, picked her up at her house and went to Della Fattoria for a very pleasant time. We had to remind her how we knew her, but then the fraise garden came back and we enjoyed recalling those days, now a quarter-century ago. What a woman she was!

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