Lives & Times of Valley Folk: Cyndee Ahrens-Hollinger

by Steve Sparks, July 29, 2009

I met with Cyndee (Cynthia Dee) Hollinger, nee Ahrens, a couple of weeks ago and we sat down to talk. She admitted to being a little nervous. I assured her it was just a pleasant chat and hopefully it would be painless. She has read most of my previous interviews and soon relaxed as we began our conversation.

Cyndee is the daughter of William ‘Bill’ Ahrens and June Carter. Her father was from Chicago and was an advertising exec working for the Army/Navy Times and Now Magazine – “a hip 60s mag.” Mother June was from Nashville, Tennessee, and the daughter of very strict parents who were often absent. “She was raised by her Grandmother, Cynthia, my namesake, and was to be a schoolteacher all her life.” They were married in Illinois, each at the age of 17 in 1941. Bill joined the Navy in World War II and was deployed on a wooden PT Boat in the Pacific. Following the war Bill and June moved out to California and settled in the LA area where brother Wayne was born in 1946. They later moved to San Mateo where sister Patti was born in 1950, followed by Cyndee in 1960.

“My brother graduated form Hillsdale High, got married, and when I was only five I had a little niece, Erica. We moved into a large house in Woodside with horse properties nearby and my father’s love for the rural lifestyle began around that time and we talked about moving to the country quite a lot. However, my mother liked the urban life, with all its conveniences, and was very unsure about country living. I was the youngest by ten years and you know how that can go, but I don’t think I was spoiled. My siblings might disagree! My parents were very loving, nurturing and forgiving, but I knew very well when I had done wrong and upset them. I had a great childhood and my parents were always there for me. They also managed to live a very hectic social life, dancing often and going out with friends, with my Dad maintaining his links to the service for many years. I attended Woodside High and despite not being a good student I loved it. I had a great art teacher and was a cheerleader and very much into the school social scene.”

Cnydee graduated in 1978 by which time her brother Wayne had got divorced and had moved to Anderson Valley. He had met Valley resident Bob Brendlen many years before and they had ended up good friends, Wayne even moving in with the Brendlen’s for a time. The first time Cyndee’s family visited the Valley was for Thanksgiving at the Brendlen’s in 1968 when she was just eight years old. “My Dad loved Anderson Valley from that time on but my Mom remained unsure. She gradually relented and when I left high school, my Dad retired as the Advertising Manager for the San Jose Mercury, sold our house in Woodside, and they moved to Ornbaun Road in Boonville, to the property where I live today. Patti had moved here with her son Marcel whilst Wayne had met Donna Ronne, the1964 Playboy Magazine’s Playmate of the Year, and they had become common law husband and wife, settling in the Valley. Following their split, Wayne’s daughter Erica moved in with him and attended AV High School. My family was all here.”

Despite this, Cyndee remained in the Bay Area where she “dabbled” in some art classes, led a full social life, and worked as a waitress near to Stanford University. She would visit her family in Anderson Valley every other weekend. She loved these visits and her Mom had set her up with ‘Insta-Friends,’ Palma Holcomb, Nancy Durham, Julie Pardini, Denise Groves. “I missed my family and found myself feeling closer to my Valley friends so in 1980 I moved here. Something about here just drew me in. I found work at several different places including Edmeades Winery, the Redwood Drive-In, Lemons Market and for a time was the P.E. teacher at and cheerleader coach at the High School.”

After a year or two Cyndee attended the wedding of friend in Vegas where she met and fell for one of the guests. “We were smitten with each other and when I returned to the Valley I broke up with my boyfriend, said goodbye to family and friends, and moved to Vegas.” This was in 1983 and in 1984 they were married in a big wedding in Vegas and settled down there, buying a house with help from Cyndee’s parents. Cyndee found work as a liquor sales rep with Southern Wine and Spirits where she befriended a fellow rep, Terry Hollinger. She left this job after a time to train waitresses at the first of the Olive Garden chain of restaurants to open in Vegas but all was not well domestically. “It was a super bad marriage. All sorts of craziness, and I had to get out, so I returned to Anderson Valley around late 1987and moved in with my parents.”

“For the next couple of years I was content in the Valley, working for Scharffenberger Winery and then Parducci Vineyards in their tasting room in Boonville, at what is now ‘All that Good Stuff’. One evening I was in the newly opened Buckhorn Saloon and it was just chaos, an absolute disaster. I had worked all day and had already had a drink but Kim Allen asked me to help in any way I could, knowing I had restaurant experience. I stepped in and we got through that night. Ken and Kim Allen then wanted to hire me so I gave notice at Parducci and went to work at the Brew Pub. It was a good time overall. The ‘Open Mic’ Night on Mondays drew all sorts of great musicians from all over the County — Hansen and Raitt, Pilar Duran and Kevin Owens, an incredible Blue Grass duo called the Fern Creek Boys, and Big Dan who used to do a wonderful version of ‘Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.’ I enjoyed the job although the ownership were very demanding to work for.”

Death had already begun to haunt Cyndee with the tragic passing of her niece Erica in a car accident at the age of 21, when a girlfriend from Vegas, Earlene, whose husband had died earlier that year, called to say that she was terribly lonely and asked her to go out there and be her roommate. “I thought ‘why not?’ and once again I left the Valley and returned to Vegas.”

It was October 1989 and Cyndee became reacquainted with Terry Hollinger, now a graphic artist for Southern Wine and Spirits, and they began to date. “I got some work as a checker at Lucky’s and then we got married on November 17th, 1990 in a more modest wedding than my first one. My daughter Cassidy was born in July 1991 (‘do the math,’ Cass is fond of saying!) She was born in the Women’s Hospital in Vegas and we had signed up for the ‘package deal’ — five-day hospital stay, steak dinners, and a limo back to your home, very Vegas. Life was good but after my son Gunnar was born in April 1994, we decided to leave town and had found a place called Hamilton in Montana where we thought we’d like to live. We were planning to do so when my Dad got ill and I returned with the kids to Anderson Valley with Terry going to Hamilton to scout out the work and housing situation.”

On November 1st, 1994 he had an aneurism operation and almost died as a result of poor hospital care. He returned to the family home in December. Meanwhile Terry had found a place for the in “the beautiful Bitterroot Valley,” but then Wayne, who had had married again (to Valley resident Margaret Pickens) was diagnosed with the very rare multiple myeloma bone cancer and Cyndee stayed in the Valley longer than planned. “My Mom was shaken badly by Dad’s illness. He had been her ‘Rock of Gibraltar.’ The local doctor was very blunt in telling her that Dad was so ill. He freaked her out in fact. I know you have to be told these things but there is a degree of ‘bedside manner’ that was definitely lacking on that occasion.” On April 9th, 1995, as they watched the US Masters golf tournament together, her father Bill suffered a heart attack and died the next day in hospital. He was 71. After staying around for a month or so to sort out various things for her mother with Wayne and Patti, Cyndee finally moved to Montana.

“It was tough to find work there. We didn’t really settle and moved on in the mid-nineties to Monroe, Wisconsin, not far from Terry’s relatives, where there were more opportunities and the homes were very affordable. Wayne went into remission and came out to visit us and we went to a cousin’s wedding in Iowa together. Soon after this my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. My relationship with Terry had been getting difficult and I was missing my home. I had kept in touch over the years, off and on, with a high school sweetheart and he gave me support at this time. I decided I couldn’t stay away any longer and took the kids out of school, returning once again to the Valley in 1997 and taking care of my Mother, who by this point was carpooling with Wayne to their radiation treatments.”

June Ahrens peacefully passed away at the age of 74 at home on February 19th, 1998. “She had a form of mild dementia in the last few days. The condition seemed to take her gently out of one dimension into another, where she could see my Dad. It seemed to be God’s interesting way of dealing with this. She had amazing hospice workers to help with her care. Ling Anderson for one, and Judy Nelson, an angel on this planet. It was a very calm passing. We all cried but it was very groovy. Her favorite Daphne plants were everywhere in the room, the songs of Perry Como were playing. We had told her Dad was waiting and when I told her we were all there she uttered her final words- ‘It’s about time.’ As she was slipping away, we put our hands around her head, not actually touching her, and you could feel her aura and energy. It was very tangible. I said, ‘Go and dance with Dad to Benny Goodman’ and she passed on. After she had gone we did the same again and there was nothing there.”

What followed was a very tough time for Cyndee. She had lost both parents and her older brother was critically ill. She was going through a divorce and raising two young children alone. Her siblings each owned their own houses but she was at her parent’s house and both Wayne and Patti decided they wanted to sell. Wayne wanted money for his long dreamt of trip to Europe and Patti needed the money. “I was very despondent but it was two against one. Wayne found a buyer, Captain Rainbow, and it was sold for a meager amount. I found myself paying nearly twice as much in rent as the mortgage had been.” Cyndee’s relationship with Wayne’s wife became strained. “I guess these situations are not uncommon and there are two sides of course. I found her difficult to deal with and as time went on whenever Wayne talked it was as if they were her words. Our family thought the difficulties between us and Wayne were caused by her and just before she got really ill I heard my Mother swear for the only time in her life and it was in reference to this.”

On the bright side Cyndee had finally found her calling in terms of her career. She was hired by Jim Roberts as one of his designers at the Taylor Roberts Company in Philo, specializing in merchandising and interior design for model homes. She would be there for almost nine years from 1998 until being laid off when the company folded in November 2007. “We saw the problems coming for a couple of years although we were not sure how bad it would get. It was my favorite job by far and I am very thankful for my time there. It was a fabulous place to work, very professional, and I loved every second of it.” Wayne died at the age of fifty-seven in September 2001 at his home in Philo. Over the final period of his illness Cyndee and he made big strides in healing some of the wounds of the past. During this time Wayne was volunteering for all kinds of research to be done on his case, including some stem cell research at U.C.S.F. hospital and he referred to himself as a ‘lab rat’. “He was lucid to very near the end. Hospice workers Tom English, Larry Nelson, and Butch Paula are some I remember who were there at the end and Wayne said, ‘What are you guys all doing here?’ ”

I asked Cyndee what she most liked about Anderson Valley. “I thank the Valley for welcoming me back a ‘million’ times. The people here are wonderful and have been very good to me, my family, and my kids. It is an eccentric place, exciting, yet often boring. I have always come back here – it’s my home.”...And what don’t you like? – “I don’t like the prejudices that some people have. It is just blind bigotry and normally comes from those who have not experienced other ways of life or cultures. Some people keep their minds closed and yet if they opened them up a little they would become so much more accepting. I have seen it happen. Many people here make me happy, some piss me off. Sometimes it’s the same people.”

I then asked Cnydee about various ‘hot-button’ Valley issues.

The Wineries? “They have provided jobs and seem to be good employers for the most part. Obviously the tourist business they have bought into here has helped many. However, I hope we can have some sort of moratorium on just how many vineyards we can have here. I am also not sure that some of their fertilizing practices have been good for us either. What’s with the six-legged frogs in some of the winery ponds?”

The AVA? “I love it. I appreciate it even though it’s not always correct, and I believe it supports the local school and its sports teams, despite what some have incorrectly said.”

The School System? “I am at a place with the school where I have undergone two very different experiences. My daughter Cassidy has just graduated and will attend a great college, Vassar, in the fall. The school has been great for her overall. Events like the ‘Sombrero Six’ so-called ‘scandal,’ when teenagers on the school trip to Mexico were drinking alcohol, got blown out of all proportion by the authorities. There is worse stuff they can get up to every weekend in Boonville. However, Cassidy rode through this and has come out fine. My son, just like myself, is not nearly as academically inclined and I have to say that the school has been slow to help in the past, although to this point he has always managed to get through. Some of my options for him were under the radar and I was not made aware of them. In my experience, some of the rules and procedures in the Student Handbook have been inconsistently followed. Having said that, the efforts in support of Cassidy’s further education by the school, and by Cass herself, have got her to Vassar. I think the trifecta of school, student, and parent can, if all three pull together, lead to great things for our kids here in the Valley.”

Cyndee is currently employed at The Boonville Lodge Bar and Grill and continue to live as a tenant in the old family home on Ornbaun Road. She is content in many ways with her life in the Valley but does not count out any future moves. “I would love to travel more, to New Orleans, to England (thanks to the Harry Potter movies), and Australia ‘calls’ for some reason.” She is very excited for Cassidy’s future at college but admits to knowing she is not going to deal very well with her departure when the time comes. “I am going to be a complete wreck but I will have Gunnar around.”

To end the interview, I posed a few questions from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture Expert, Bernard Pivot, featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Favorite word or phrase? — “I love you.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “‘It’s not possible.’ When I hear people say that I just want to say, ‘Then step out of the way’ and get it done myself.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Humor. Art in all forms. Hidden meanings and the quirkiness of life.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Lack of kindness between people; by people towards animals. People not taking a few moments to try and understand things, being unable to get past things. Stubbornness, I guess.”

Sound or noise you love? “My children’s laughter. It always makes me smile or laugh myself.”

Sound or noise you hate? “The most heart-breaking is an animal grieving over its dead offspring.”

What is your favorite curse word? “I think it’s now ‘shit.’ I’ve toned it down from ‘WTF’ which friends would probably still say I use the most.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “Films that show justice prevailing usually stick with me; also haunting films like ‘Mystic River,’ although justice did not prevail there. As for songs, ‘Landslide’ by Stevie Nicks has always stayed with me; and ‘Cassidy’ by Suzanne Vega. Not just because of the title but also because the lyrics are very appropriate for her.”

Favorite hobby? “Working, or rather dabbling, with my ‘brain drops’ (business name one day?) in art has always been a hobby, assembling collages in particular. Over the past year or so, my son Gunnar has turned me on to UFC, the cage combat, mixed martial arts sport. It’s for real. Definitely not the World Wrestling Federation.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “Maybe an architect; or something in animation, a cartoonist for Pixar.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Any of those things on the TV program ‘Dirty Jobs’ on Discovery Channel. And I would not work in a slaughterhouse for anything.”

The happiest day or event in your life? “The births of my two children. Absolutely magical.”

The saddest? “The passing of each of my family members. I’ve had enough. I don’t ‘do death’ anymore, I cannot deal with it for now.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I think my sense of humor. I got it from my father and try to find humor in most things. Just last week or so, I couldn’t help but think that Farrah Fawcett must have been angry at Michael Jackson for dying on the same day as she did – ‘Couldn’t you wait one more day??’ she probably said to him.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “It would be fine if he said, ‘You did alright kid,’ And I would reply, ‘Was that it? Seriously, isn’t there any more I can do?’ or something to that effect.”

To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be a Valley resident originally from London, England, Kevin Burke.

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