Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Patty Liddy

by Steve Sparks, June 2, 2010

I met with Patty in our living room. It seemed as good a place as any. She is my wife of 23 years and, while this seemed a little strange at first, certainly a little narcissistic, I thought about it and decided that her ‘Life & Times’ are a valid as anyone else’s and, as she is appearing in the current AV Theatre Guild’s production of ‘Dearly Departed’ at The Grange, I thought now was as good a time as any. I hope you enjoy the self-indulgence; we had fun anyway.

Patty was born in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan, young­est of four children born to John Patrick Liddy and Mildred ‘Millie’ Kovich who had Kevin, daughter Robin, and Jimmy over the previous six years. Her paternal grandparents had come over from Ireland in the early twentieth century and settled in Detroit. Patty’s father had served in the Navy in World War Two and had found a steady career as a barber in the northern Detroit suburb of Madison Heights. He was very close to his two sisters, Noni and Mary, who also lived in the area, and spoke to them personally or by phone virtually every day of his life. Millie’s family his­tory is a little murkier, although it is known that Patty’s maternal grandparents came to the States from Serbia in Eastern Europe, also in the early 1900’s, and Patty’s maternal grandfather would eventually settle in Chicago and own a bar there.

“We were a very loving family and as my Mother often said, ‘The first 13 years of married life was very, very happy. Then your father got sick with what turned out to be lupus, although nobody knew what it was for a long time. Dad liked to drink and this was a contributing factor to his illness. The disease and the alcohol fed off each other’... I remember many, many occasions when my Dad was drunk at dinner and you just hoped you were not the one he wanted to pick on that night. He could be very loving but when he drank it was a different story... I got my first acoustic guitar when I was eight years old and could play quite com­petently at twelve. One of my memories of that time was going to the VA hospital to visit my Dad and playing guitar and singing for him. One of the Viet­nam veterans there, who had lost both legs, played harmonica and we would perform together for the guys on the ward. Dad was pretty popular with the other Vets because he was only in for short times at that point and he used to smuggle in booze for the others.”

“I threw myself into my school life and times with friends. I was a very outgoing child with lots of friends and I really enjoyed school all the way through. I went to Madison High School where my favorite subjects were journalism, I was editor of the school paper, and English literature. I was in the Chorus and the Glee Club and was captain of the track team where I com­peted in the high jump and the 4x400 relay. I was a cheerleader from Junior High on through my senior year and was the Homecoming Queen in my senior year. I had a wonderful time and certainly many aspects of my childhood were idyllic but there was always the cloud of my Dad’s illness and his drinking in the background. He would attend many of my brothers’ high school football games (they were both All-State) but invariably he would be drinking and a few times fell off the bleachers much to our embar­rassment. He would also take my brothers drinking with him to the local bars when they were older. There are many stories of their exploits, this wiry lit­tle man with the slicked back hair getting into scuffles and then being backed-up by these two great big ath­letic guys. It was tough; he had a disease. When I was cheerleading similar incidents occurred and on three or four occasions he drove me to school when he’d been drinking and we got into minor accidents. It was a constant issue in my life but he truly loved us all and was able to see me graduate in 1978 and bought me a typewriter as a gift. He died at the age of 52, two months later.”

Money had always been tight and with her father having to stop work at his barber shop job at a rela­tively early age, Patty’s mother found work in ‘bedding and towels’ at Hudson’s Department store and the kids all had part-time jobs as they went through school. At thirteen Patty began her first job at a res­taurant busing tables and later as a cashier at a pro­duce market. “I played and sang in a couple of rock bands, one of which was pretty good and for which I earned a little money, but the really good pay came from being the lead singer in a wedding band from when I was sixteen to eighteen where I would sing cheesy seventies love songs by Olivia Newton John, the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, etc, etc. To this day I can remember the lyrics of so many seventies songs.”

Due to her family’s financial circumstances, she applied for and received a scholarship and was accepted by Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, where she studied religion. “Dad was a practicing Catholic as were most of the Liddy family. However, on my Mom’s side, she and her sis­ter, my Aunt Chris, had been raised in this religion called the ‘I Am’. It is an obscure American religious cult formed in the thirties but in terms of doctrine it’s a major predecessor of several of today’s New Age religions. I had been interested in this and all religions growing up so I thought I’d study that at college.”

Patty was at Central for five years and to support herself she worked as a waitress and also a nude model for the art school. “My mother suggested that. Because I always wore big baggy clothing she had said many times ‘you have a very nice body, you should show it off more.’ I also wrote many songs during those years, accompanying myself on guitar. I had quite a following at school and in that part of Michi­gan, playing not just at the college bars but also at some very large festivals in front of several thousands of people and at a series of concerts called ‘Take Back the Night’ which protested rape and the debasement of women. My whole college experience was good for me on many levels. Being from blue-collar Detroit, I had thought that those from more privileged back­grounds were perhaps better than us but hanging out with girls from those backgrounds I soon learnt that if anything they were often more messed up than me and in many cases certainly more insecure. It was helped somewhat that I had partied at high school and being around my brothers I had seen and done some crazy stuff — too boring to go into here. My poor sister — relatively speaking she was a saint, mar­rying her high school sweetheart, having two kids, Jim and Cherie, and living a ‘normal’ life... Anyway, because of my fairly expansive life to that point, I wanted to be serious about my studies at college, and tried very hard, although I was not a particularly good student. I knew I had the opportunity to make my mother proud.”

After graduating in June 1983, Patty returned home and spent the summer at her mother’s where brother Kevin had now also moved, having split from his wife. She found temporary work as a waitress in a Country and Western bowling alley and bar while she decided exactly where she wanted to be. She and Kevin got into many fights. “He was lost. He turned to drink and drugs more than ever. He was a talented draftsman but quit and headed out to Long Beach in California to see Jimmy. On the return journey by Greyhound bus, he was drinking and got into an argument with the driver. He demanded to be let off in the middle of the night on I.80 near to Lincoln, Nebraska. The bus stopped, Kevin got off, and crossed the highway. He was hit by a Mac Truck and came home in two bags. He was just thirty... This had a very traumatic effect on the whole extended family. Kevin was a larger than life personality, the life of the party. He was indestructible we all thought, despite his shortcomings and drink problem. I stayed home for the rest of the summer with Mom.”

Towards the end of the year, Patty’s friend from college, Liz, called from Austin, Texas, to say a one-way ticket was in the mail to Patty so she could come and visit her. Patty arrived in Austin in January 1984 with a suitcase, her guitar, and $50. Liz worked near to a submarine sandwich shop, ‘Thundercloud Subs’ which was hiring. “Liz said they made delicious sand­wiches, always played great music in there, and she could give me a ride to work every day. I went in and asked for a job application from the person at the counter. He was a very grumpy Englishman. He just turned round and went to get one without saying a word.” (I cannot believe I was like that really! — Ed.).

Patty joined a crew of mainly illegal English guys, including the apparently grumpy one. She was sick of men anyway and told everyone that she was a lesbian. “I had been in several relationships and was not ready for another, and with all that had gone on with Kevin I just wanted some time to myself. However, over the next several months the grumpy guy, Stephen Sparks, and I became good friends. He had a girlfriend he had come from England with and our relationship was purely platonic. Then one day, he just gave me a beaming smile and, just like cupid’s arrow, my heart was struck and I fell in love in that instant, promptly telling him that I wasn’t a lesbian, to which he replied, ‘I know you’re not.’ We remained friends for some time, hanging out for a drink after work sometimes or doing laundry together. He and his girlfriend split up towards the end of the year and he asked me out. Our first date was to see the classic film, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in early December 1984.”

Over the next six months, Patty became increas­ingly unsettled in Austin. “I wasn’t making much money, our social crowd still included Stephen’s ex and it was awkward. In the early summer two friends from college invited me to San Francisco where another friend, whom I’d grown up with in Detroit, also lived. I told Stephen I was going and he was wel­come to come too. Despite having several English friends in Austin with whom he had grown up, he said he wanted to go with me. We left Texas and drove to San Francisco in his 1970 Chevy Nova that he’d bought for $300 two years earlier. It was a tough drive, we did not get along at all, and by the time we arrived our plan to live together was dropped. I moved in with my girlfriends in the Lower Haight district and he moved in with a strange Russian guy, a friend of a friend, a few blocks away. To this day I think if we’d moved in together at that time we would have broken up. As it was, we dated and explored that great city both together and with our friends, in his case ones that he made through work in construction.”

Patty worked on the database at Chevron in the City for a year or so before becoming an administra­tive assistant at the UCSF Medical Center in the pediatric hematology department. “This was in 1986 when the AIDS crisis was everyday news, particularly in San Francisco. For a year or so Stephen was the only straight guy on a six-man painting crew — all but one of the others died of AIDS in the next ten years or so... I was drawn to this work and felt I was making a difference with all the contact I had with our patients, often children with AIDS. I was comfortable being around sickness, having spent so many hours in hospitals visiting my Dad and it was the first time I felt really capable in a job.”

“Stephen and I were married in May 1987 in the City’s Alamo Square that overlooks the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ Victorian houses. Many family and friends came from Michigan and England and we moved in together on Fillmore Street at Hayes. In October 1989, along with a friend of Stephen’s from his college days in England, we opened a pub in the Lower Haight district, at Haight and Fillmore, called ‘The Mad Dog in the Fog.’ The earthquake was six days later but unlike most bars around we were able to remain open that night. It was an incredibly busy night. Everyone needed a drink! I stayed at the hospi­tal because we both received benefits and had no idea how the pub would do. He threw himself into the new venture and it proved to be the right place in the right location at the right time. That first year I hardly saw him it seemed and we spent a lot of time apart, as I either hung out alone, played guitar with friends Lisa and Lynda, or threw myself into the study of Wicca (white witchcraft) and tarot. I’d had my first tarot deck at ten.”

The bar continued to grow and in time there were 30 staff on the payroll. The bartenders could make very good money indeed and Patty was getting increasingly stressed out at the hospital. In 1991, she left and became a bartender at The Mad Dog, work­ing the very busy Friday and Saturday night shifts (amongst others), doing supply runs for the bar, and booking the Saturday night bands. “We had some great employees, which were a real strength of what was achieved, many of whom became our friends, and to this day we have a reunion almost every year. I would go out with the girls for karaoke and Stephen would often go to the Giants with the guys. The pub had a great atmosphere on both sides of the bar. It became very well-known, even becoming the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question!”

In the summer of 1991, through two sisters who had a vintage clothes shop in the Lower Haight and whose father lived in Yorkville (Gareth Birch), Patty and Stephen heard about a classic old-time County Fair in Mendocino in the town of Boonville. They visited that Fair in September 1991 with their new Border Collie puppies, Frank and Bing, and met local shepherd Kevin Owens, who was competing in the sheepdog trials. “We had been looking to buy some­thing out of the City but not this far away. However, we checked out the realty notices in the window of North Country Real Estate and met realtor Don Hahn. One thing led to another and in July 1992 we bought ten acres on Gschwend Road, and spent the next ten years visiting for three days and working at the pub for the remaining twenty-seven or so each month.”

Patty’s brother Jimmy never got over the death of their oldest brother Kevin and he too turned to drink and drugs. “In the early nineties he was in San Fran­cisco and at one point, when he lived in the Tender­loin, he contracted A.I.D.S. from his use of contami­nated needles. He was in the S.F. General Hospital for a time then returned to stay with Mom in Madison Heights. He had a good last year, trying to make amends, tidying things up, and at the age of thirty-three died peacefully in his sleep at home, with Mom at his side.”

“We loved San Francisco and for many years our needs and desires suited our lifestyle there. We just never found time for kids. I suppose if we’d both really wanted to have them we would have. In 1996 we bought out our partner and ran the business with the help of the wonderful staff. I was in a women’s Book Club; wrote an advice column called ‘Agony Aunt’ for an SF magazine; did Tarot Reading at a place called the Psychic Five and Dime; and once a year we’d either go on a road trip to Michigan or fly to England (and on to France, Spain, Holland, Ireland); and also try to get to Mexico for a short break to ‘decompress’ at least once a year. After twelve years it had become too much, and yet we were there for another year beyond that. Despite the financial success and the very popular establishment we had created, the stress was too much and our whole life revolved around The Mad Dog. It was time for a change. As it happened, we sold our house and the pub on exactly the same day in May 2002 and headed to Anderson Valley for what was supposed to be about six months. That was eight years ago.”

After a month or so in The Valley, Patty found two jobs in the wine business — at Roederer Estate and Esterlina Vineyards on Holmes Ranch. “I enjoyed both jobs but decided to leave Roederer after about six months to become full-time at Esterlina, and I’ve worked there for the Sterling Family ever since, now managing the Tasting Room and sort of running the place, almost as a member of the family. I am a very social person and we soon found ourselves embracing whatever the Valley had to offer. The Crab Feeds and the Tri-Tip bbq’s are among our favorites. We spent many evenings at The Buckhorn Saloon in Boonville when owned by Diana Charles and then later when it was The Highpockety Ox... In more recent times The Boonville Lodge was our scene and for a time I ran the Karaoke Night there. I am involved with several women’s social groups including the Independent Career Women (I.C.W.), ‘The Sassy Ladies,’ The Women’s Manifestation Group, The Women’s Din­ner Group, and The Lions Club. In 2006, I was at a party and playing guitar and singing when Rod Base­hore approached me to join the AV Theatre Guild that he had started. Although I had performed since I was four it had always been singing or guitar; I’d always wanted to act. I have wanted to be Carol Burnett for most of my life! Anyway, I joined and have loved the experience, appearing in four of the five productions that have been produced so far, including the current one at The Grange, ‘Dearly Departed.’ Then for the past two years I have co-hosted The Variety Show with Captain Rainbow, also a lot of fun. I continue to love my life here in the Valley, helped in no small way by more additions to our Border Collie ‘pack’ which now includes rescue dogs Rose and Fred, plus brothers Alan and John, and siblings Winston and Beth, not to mention the four cats and thirty sheep. Stephen and I get to England and/or Michigan ever year although hanging out with our friends here in the Valley is equally as enjoyable; people such as Espresso Natalie, the women in The Sassy’s group, the Theatre crowd, The Lions, and of course all the ladies in the ICW.”

Despite being 81, Patty’s mother died relatively unexpectedly in March and sister Robin is visiting the Valley from Michigan this week as the two sisters plan to spend some quality time together. Robin’s son, Jim, and his wife Danielle have a baby boy, Donovan, so Patty is now a great-aunt and while she did enjoy visiting Detroit in January when she had some special and precious times with her mother, she has no plans to live anywhere else but here for now. “I cannot see myself back in Michigan although we have never discounted the possibility of England. Who knows?”

“My favorite thing about The Valley is that it is very ‘live and let live.’ I think I may've coined a phrase the other day. My urban sensibilities coupled with a love of country living means I'm a “pinkneck.” I think there are a lot of us here; we're here because we like our solitude, but we can come together and be a great community when we need to be. A pet peeve of mine about life here is how politically correct some folks are here, cloistered away from the outside world. I mean, I guess having lived in big cities most of my life I just don't find I have the right or inclination to be telling other people how they should feel or act. Peo­ple get so smug sometimes living here and it’s easy to think your way is the only way, but it just isn't how the real world works. So in other words, I don't care whether you watch television or not, or who may be a tea-party member, or who eats junk food at McDonalds. These do not reflect the content of your character. I just can't get that picky and opinionated about issues that are not as black and white as some would have you think.”

I asked Patty for her brief responses to various Val­ley issues.

The wineries and their impact? “Well, I work for a winery and I think they are really nice folks who are concerned about The Valley. I do worry about all the outsiders who own wineries and who don't really care about Anderson Valley.”

The AVA? “I love the AVA, especially Bruce McEwen’s reports on the court procedures; and of course ‘The Life and Times of AV’ interviews; Turkey Vulture too. The paper often cracks me up and informs me too! And you have to look at the Sheriff's report every week.”

KZYX public radio? “I love KZYX because I really think they try. I support them whenever I get a chance. I think the radio keeps me connected and I had never depended on it before like I do sometimes here living in the country.”

The changes in the Valley? “A few years ago I was getting worried about the changes which seemed to be occurring at an alarmingly fast rate, but after the financial melt down, it seems to have cooled off somewhat. For a while there, it seemed like there were ‘ego vineyards’ going up every day! The first thing some of those newcomers seem to do is put up a big gate and a swimming pool. Let’s hope that little ‘trend’ comes to an end completely.”

The school system? “I don't have much to do with the school system, but I have friends who work there and have had fun with some of the kids from there, doing the plays and such.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire from TV’s ‘Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton’ and some I came up with myself.

1.What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Connection — spiritual, heart-to-heart connection with any other beings.”

2.What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Bullies; people who lord it over others, those who make people feel small.”

3.Sound or noise you love? “The sound of our six border collies eating their crispy dog biscuits in the morning as Stephen and I lie in bed with our coffee.”

4.Sound or noise you hate? “The phone ringing in the middle of the night. It’s never going to be good news; it’s not going to be someone telling you that you’ve won the lottery or something.”

5. Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Noodles.”

6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one-on-one for a conversation, who would that person be? “English classic novelist Jane Austen. She had an amazing perspective on life for her time.”

7. If you were left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with unlimited provi­sions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My guitar, pen and paper, and a collection of good fiction books.”

8. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “Egypt. Mom and I both thought we may have been there at one point in time.”

9. Do you have a favorite film, song, book or one that has influenced you? “My favorite film is ‘Harold and Maude,’ a dark comedy; my favorite book is ‘Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. As for a song, I have always loved “Moon River.”

10. Do you subscribe to any publications or newspa­pers? “Harper’s Magazine, a monthly, general-interest magazine of literature, politics, culture, finance, and the arts.”

11. A smell you really like? “Puppy breath, or maybe fresh coffee.”

12. Favorite word or phrase? “Jeeso Pizza!”

13. Least favorite word or phrase? “The word ‘Should.’ I can’t stand people telling me or others what we should or should not do.”

14. What is your favorite hobby? “I am an avid reader, and I love writing songs too.”

15. Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “Fiction writer.”

16. Profession you’d not like to do? “Working in a toll booth.”

17. Happiest day or event in your life? “It sounds cheesy but it would be our wedding day.”

18. Saddest day or period of your life? “When my Mom died a couple of months ago. We were very close and even though she was back in Michigan we spoke for a long time every weekend and were the best of friends.”

19. Favorite thing about yourself, physically, men­tally, spiritually? “Well, to answer the ‘physically’ part, it would be my ears. Mentally/spiritually? I am a good listener and have played a sort of ‘Auntie Pat’ role to many of my friends when they wanted advice or a shoulder to cry on.”

20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I think I’d know quite a few beings up there, includ­ing our three wonderful dogs. So if he said ‘Frank, Bing, and Grace are here and ready to play frisbee at your family’s reunion,’ that would mean I get to see all my loved ones — perfect.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Karen Ottoboni.)

One Response to Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Patty Liddy

  1. Bridget Reply

    June 10, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    My favorite “Life & Times” to date! Like sitting around having a chat w/my dear friend. And I will corroborate the answer to #4…do not call the Sparks-Liddy household during sleeping hours!

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