Stars || Patty Somlo




by Patty Somlo

When I started this piece, my intention was to write about the stars. I pictured myself that night, at a charming lodge, in the jaw-dropping red rock country outside Moab, Utah. The vague idea I’d had before putting words on paper was to revisit some of the thousand times I traveled outside the city where light pollution was gone and looked up at the sky. 

Instead of diving into what might have been a glorious subject, cracking open spiritually rich moments, I mentioned my having drunk too much wine. That steered me right off course, as happens in writing, crashing straight into a wall, what I had no plan of thinking about, let alone writing. That was a piece about my mother.

To back up a moment, I was outside Moab, Utah, with a group of strangers, on a multi-day hiking trip, traversing several of this country’s most awe-inspiring paths. On the night I was about to recount, I didn’t know we would end up the following day on what would become one of my favorite-ever trails, which is saying a lot. I have been a dedicated hiker for decades, in national and state parks and monuments, wilderness areas, national forests, and on high cliffs overlooking the ocean, in places as varied as the Grand Canyon, the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon, Texas’s Big Bend National Park, and the often wet and gloriously green Kalalau Trail on the Island of Kauai.

We arrived at the lodge late in the afternoon, following a hike up slickrock, then a short way along a scary, exposed ridge, to see an arch sculpted by water and wind, which all the shots I clicked with my Samsung phone couldn’t replicate. The moment I stepped into my room, I knew I was exactly where I belonged.

The best part awaited down blue, gold and red-tiled stairs. A sliding glass door led to a patio. There, I discovered what I’d come for, all the way from my home in California – a clear, unobstructed, breathtaking view of the green Colorado River, surrounded on three sides by towering slabs of red rock.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I was far enough outside the city to also be enchanted by the stars. I was simply grateful for the cute room, the stunning, postcard-perfect view, and the smart, friendly and funny folks I’d gotten to know on the journey so far. By this time, I had slogged my way through the often-impenetrable grief following the death of my beloved husband Richard. I had signed up for this trip in hopes of taking in a measure of healing that nature usually provides and finding a way to travel and hike, now that my companion for those favorite activities was gone.

We were a small group, seven guests and two leaders. For our first evening at the lodge, we had time to ourselves. Four of us met in the bar for a drink before dinner. I ordered a glass of white wine.

Moving to the subject of drinking, I’ll explain. I am, at most, a one glass of wine girl, never a big drinker. As I’ve gotten older, even sipping a small amount of alcohol causes me to be lethargic and headachy the entire next day.

I should add that my mother was a cautionary tale. Though her consumption of alcohol every night was never a subject of conversation in our family, the youngest child (me, the truth-teller) tossed angry grenades at her, such as “You’re a drunk,” way more than once. 

Four years after my mother’s death from cancer, my brother-in-law quietly suggested that my mother had had a drinking problem. Other than my furious taunts, this was the first and only time anyone in the family would come close to admitting that my mother had a problem. In truth, my mother was a devoted alcoholic.

While beginning this piece and writing that my drinking too much wine made me think of my mother, I have to add that she wasn’t the only member of my family who had a drinking problem. My father was afflicted with the problem as well. But when it came to my thinking, and that of my two sisters, my father’s drinking occupied a different place.

A key difference was that my father lived away from us for significant periods of time. He was a career Air Force officer, and his family couldn’t accompany him for certain assignments. By the time I was in high school, I had grown accustomed to life without my father. Times he was home, he seemed more like a temporary guest than a close relative who belonged.

That wasn’t the only reason we could overlook his drinking but not my mom’s. He wasn’t involved in our day-to-day lives, enforcing rules about curfew or what we could and couldn’t wear or the dress we wanted to buy, which my mother insisted her budget wouldn’t allow. We were also privy to my mother throwing down tall glasses of Seagram’s Seven whiskey and ginger ale, making her slur her speech and repeat the same unintelligible phrases all night. I could hear her vomiting, many mornings in the bathroom before work. Fifty-minute sessions with my kind therapist helped me recognize that I had created a fantasy father, in place of the real one I’d been assigned, making him special, almost a god. That perfect guy couldn’t possibly have a drinking problem, at least anything remotely like that of his wife.

All this is to say that when I left home for college and considered who I wanted to be after growing up, I knew precisely what I didn’t want. I did not want to be like my mom. That meant staying as far away from alcohol as possible.

Ironically, I live in one of the country’s premiere grape-growing and wine-producing regions, Sonoma County, California. A sizeable portion of the population works in the wine industry or in hospitality, serving visitors who come to taste wine. Driving beautiful two-lane, winding roads outside town you pass vineyards. We worry about weather here, certainly as it’s altering due to climate change, but especially over its effect on the grapes, and therefore, the wine.

I like the taste of a buttery Chardonnay, in the same way I love that first cup of dark French Roast coffee in the morning. I also enjoy the mellowness that follows a first few sips, especially if I’m feeling edgy, which is, unfortunately, much of the time. The comfort of being with this friendly group of people, after spending so much time alone as a widow, and the startlingly gorgeous surroundings, made sharing a drink, or even two, seem fun.

By the time dinner was done, I’d gone over the line, drinking two glasses, when I am accustomed to one. I found myself feeling a bit drunk.

I should add that the death of a spouse leaves a void so enormous, it’s as if a several-ton bomb detonated in your house. Yes, the person you love more than you think possible is gone. What you couldn’t have anticipated before he sailed out the door was that he would take with him your very life. 

The ripping away of how you’ve spent your days, of simple habits, meals you ate, and familiar activities you enjoyed, turns you into an alien dropped down onto a frighteningly strange planet. There I was after dinner, a tad tipsy, walking from the hotel restaurant in the dark, with Robert, the only solo male on the trip old enough to not fall into an age where he could have been my son. 

Robert was the opposite of my type, tall, large-boned, with pale skin, while I had always been attracted to men like my husband—slender, of medium height, with dark hair and olive complexions. Outside of his looks, Robert was friendly and interesting, asking questions and listening to the answers, as much as he spoke. He was also married, with three grown children, but had come on the trip alone, claiming his wife didn’t like to hike. 

There wasn’t a hint of romantic interest from either of us. But here we were in this remote place, without many lights, under a black sky. I couldn’t see my feet as I walked on gravel that substituted for pavement. Nevertheless, I struggled to keep my eyes glued to the ground, in hopes of avoiding a fall.

The hotel rooms started a short distance past the lobby, restaurant, and gift shop. Doors faced a narrow, paved walkway that ran parallel to the gravel drive.

Robert’s room came before mine. He threw out a quick, “Good night,” crisp as the air had become, and scurried away. I said, “Good night” back, feeling I’d lost something, but wasn’t sure what.

Then I remembered to look up at the stars.

As most people know, and especially those who spend time in places where Costco and Walmart, Safeway, and malls are nowhere to be found, you can see way more stars when it’s darker.  If a bit unsteady after one too many glasses of wine, it’s a good idea to plant your feet, especially when standing on uneven gravel, before leaning your head back to get a better look at the stars.

I did just that, even though I experienced a momentary stab of fear I might topple over. Once I’d stretched my neck as far as it would safely go, I saw what had been waiting for me during the walk. The sky was ablaze with an untold number of tiny, bright white, shimmering lights.

My husband Richard had left this life just shy of a year before this moment. In between the dark times when I sobbed like a child, happy memories, one after the next, appeared on the movie screen in my mind. 

So, here I was outside Moab, Utah, standing alone on a wide gravel drive, close to a meadow where earlier that day, I’d seen handsome horses swishing their tails against the flies, and I could hear Richard’s voice, as he pointed out the planets, constellations and stars. In the memory, we are sitting in a bubbling hot tub, on the deck of a favorite vacation cabin, a few miles outside Point Reyes National Seashore, where we had hiked that day on a favorite trail and now were gloriously tired. Instead of being drunk on wine, I was high on love and life, marveling at both, along with the awesome power and expanse of nature Richard and I had ventured out of the city to enjoy.

I had no one’s hand to hold now, as I stared at the stars. Rather than feeling wrapped in the warmth of my husband’s arms, I felt cold.

Yet, sad as I was and knew I would be at times for the rest of my life, I felt washed in gratitude for the years I shared with Richard and the life I was beginning to create now. Taking in the beauty and wonder of the night sky outside Moab, I was reminded that you can marvel at the vastness and splendor of the universe only in those moments when it is very, very dark. 

Whenever she’s asked to share a surprising fact about herself, Patty Somlo often says that she learned to dance the hula and play the ukulele as a young girl living in Hawaii. Her most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing, 2018) was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and in the Best Book Awards. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in Parks and Points Essay Contest and for the J.F. Powers Fiction Award, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays.


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