Dear Friends of the Grove –
I remember the very first memorial service I experienced there. It wasn’t yet even officially the AIDS Memorial Grove. We, my friends and I, were aware that this place was happening, and, when our dear friend Mike died, there was no other place we’d consider gathering to remember him. These were such awful, clouded, dark days in San Francisco. Men were disappearing within weeks of being diagnosed…a virtual death sentence, almost every time. Guys would come from receiving their diagnosis to find their possessions on the street in front of their homes, evicted by terrified roommates.
We lived scared, most all the time. A previously-unnoticed freckle could spark panic, an insidious terror that underscored our lives as, day after day, our friends withered and blew away before our eyes. It was an act of bravery to hold, hug or kiss someone with AIDS; it was an act of activism.
Mike — he was dashing, handsome, smart, funny, a leader among many in San Francisco. The head of sales and catering for a prominent San Francisco hotel, he came from an even more prominent Marin family, a family who swept him from the City to the family home in Marin and would allow none of us to visit him; would not even acknowledge that he had AIDS, or even that he was gay. None of us were permitted to say goodbye.
So, one grey, early morning, about thirty of us crept and clambered into the Grove and gathered by a fallen tree at the head of what was, at the time, a dried-up creek bed. We climbed over and through bramble and bush to get to the site for our memorial and, as the sun began to shine through the tangle of overhead branches, we began to share memories of our lost friend, another of hundreds – then thousands – we were to lose just here in San Francisco through the first years of the plague.
The Grove — long before it was a national memorial it was simply a forgotten dell in Golden Gate Park where an overlooked and dismissed population could gather and remember. In that public intimacy we shared, we found comfort.
Years later, the power of the Grove was brought home to me again on another early morning, as I took another dear friend to see it for his first time. A restaurateur, I wanted him to take on the sourcing and organization of food for the volunteers on the monthly workdays. Without telling John where we were going, we drove to the park, talking and catching up as I parked and we walked in the morning quiet down the unmarked portal pathway to reach the meadow. As we entered the broad, quiet green space, John put his hand on my arm, stopping me; he looked me right in the eye. In a whisper, he said, “…Kile, is this the Grove?!” Yes, it is. Quiet for a moment, he said, “…what do you want?” I told him. He said yes. The Grove did the compelling asking simply by being there.
Today, the Grove is the National AIDS Memorial. Evolving to embrace our mandate as the sole, nationally-designated AIDS Memorial, our responsibility to articulate and address what has and continues to happen through the devastation of this plague is heightened with each passing day. This memorial must embrace and nurture those dealing with immediate and ongoing loss; it must also articulate, for those who were not there, the bleakness and devastation that decimated a generation. Finally, this Grove must serve as reminder and acknowledgment that we and those awful, dark times are not forgotten – a heady responsibility.
There are so many stories to tell and to represent. With this missive, I share the smallest portion of my own experience. I go often to the Grove and quietly remember the man who gave to me my own experience of unconditional love. Each of you will have your own tapestry of memory around the plague and this place. And, with the passing of time, even those who have not yet experienced such loss must be touched by the Grove.
I share my personal stories to invite your ongoing and renewed financial support. Simply put, I write on behalf of the board of directors in outreach and appeal for personal contributions to support the growth and evolution of the Grove into the National AIDS Memorial it has been designated. As your hearts are open, we ask this of you.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our offices at 415-765-0497.
Kile Ozier, Board Member