2014 marks the 25th year since the idea of an AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco was conceived. Below Thom Weyand, former executive director and current board member, reflects on what the Grove means to him.
When I was a teenager bicycling around the edges of my South Buffalo (NY) neighborhood, I came upon a modest but dense beech-tree grove in an Olmsted park. The grove was magical. The leaves of the trees formed a canopy that felt like a hidey-hole. The knobby trunks and low-hanging branches made for an easy climb to a perch that had my name on it (tree-huggers, note: not really). In here I was embraced and the world outside the grove was, well, outside. I connected to something special, something that I would later call spiritual and life-affirming.
Those were the words that came back to me three decades later when my (now) husband Terry and I first descended into de Laveaga Dell and discovered the National AIDS Memorial Grove — in another Olmsted-inspired park.
This Grove is the place that so many had talked of, and now I knew why. This is the place I would visit for nearly two decades — first as visitor, then executive director, and a few years later as a member of the Grove’s governing board.
This is the place I can shed my worries, my fears, my tears. This is where I have a heart-connection with nature, and I am allowed all the expanse I need to feel the loss I have weathered, the grief that comes with so much loss — and now my own personal grief derived from seeing the time remaining in my life measured in months, not years.
For this reason, many loving relatives and friends have been visiting Terry and me of late. If the occasion arose, I’d take them to the Grove’s Circle of Friends, a stellar destination and one I felt fairly safe about reaching in my weakened condition. Eventually I would hear the comfort call of a nearby bench and suggest that the others enjoy a more complete Grove tour, taking in the redwoods, the Japanese maples, the rhododendron trees, the bays and laurels, and any of the several broken-circle hardscape features, broken to reflect the searing tear in our community from the ravages of AIDS.
I didn’t mind resting on the bench while they moved on. Being alone and at peace in the Grove was always special for me. Now, I found myself reflecting on many of its attributes. I looked down the length of the Meadow and I remembered how the Crossroads Circle was not there for years, leading some people to think that the west end of the Meadow must be the western terminus of the Grove as well. But now, with the Crossroads Circle in place, viewing it from the redwoods one’s eyes will venture further — to Moonwalk Way and the North and South paths running along the creek-bed. It is along this creek that the tenor of the Grove changes from a light open space to a cool welcoming darkness. The paths will take them still further west, back to the light, to the Circle of Peace, the Thom Gunn quatrain, Henry Wells’ inspirational words, and to the head of a restored Victorian-era waterfall that begins here. A small conceit: I conceived the Crossroads Circle, though I was too ill at the time to see it built; that would come later when I also first saw the West Portal and Belvedere Overlook, where a snapshot chronicle of the history of AIDS continues to give every reader pause.
I’d further look back on the gifts of so many who have made the Grove possible — the founders, the donors, designers, the gardeners, the skilled site people, the Workday Volunteers who have put their hearts and guts into honoring and memorializing their loved ones, friends, and even strangers — by tending the Grove with shovels, gloves, and various tools. I remain in awe of all the sweat equity, all given freely and unconditionally.
Most of all, though, sitting on that bench while the others roamed gave me time to reflect on the memorial services that were and are held in all the circles, and other places throughout the Grove, countless places. I’d reflect on the people I’d known and lost; I didn’t know I had so many tears.
And I’d reflect on the truth that this was a once-derelict 10-acre space. Turn it 180 degrees and take it two-plus decades down the road: now this National Memorial shines. It speaks of honor, life, and love every minute, every day. Love lives here.
The love goes back to Day One. At the time the Grove was founded, it was common to see men — and some women — hold back from shedding tears in public. The Grove changed that: it provided a safe space for all — men, women, and children to cry out their sorrow — with no fear of recrimination. Not only is it a safe place but the Grove also provides a space for us to take that sorrow and turn it into the loveliest of God’s creations: a garden, a garden that heals, honors, and embraces (not unlike the embrace I felt from the canopied trees of my teenage grove).
I’m lucky. My time at the National AIDS Memorial Grove as executive director, then later as a Workday volunteer and board member, has blessed me enormously over almost two decades. I have watched new hardscape spaces appear and fill needed and in some cases unexpected roles, complementing the entirety of the place. I have watched landscape designs mature and in some cases change, bringing more depth and beauty to this grand space. One year I was proud to be part of the team that gained the Grove a Silver Medal in a national competition of Urban Excellence.
For all this, it is important to remember that the Grove grew organically from a small community project to become a national memorial, a positive expression of grief. But the term national memorial implies a curious mantle: it means the Grove has a greater role to play both in the lives of more Americans and in our national history. The National AIDS Memorial Grove is the repository; it is where people come to hear the stories. Ask any Grove visitor touched by AIDS to tell you a story. They will spill out their heart. It’s that simple. This special, sacred place would only be a shadow of itself without the loving care showered on it by all who made it. Now, together, we must draw on that same spirit, that love to continue to transform this space truly into the nation’s AIDS memorial.
Most likely I won’t live to read and hear these future stories but many of you will. Let these be your inspiration for unearthing and revealing more…story by story by story.