“Here Fievel; poor, poor Fievel,” Sonny bellows from her couch in her small one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. She begins humming a song from the popular 80s animated film, American Tail, which is about a young mouse (Fievel) who emigrates from Russia to the U.S. with his family by boat and is tossed overboard during a storm, leaving him alone, separated from his family.
“I have a real mouse trapped in my closet and don’t dare open the door because we won’t find him again,” explains Sonny. “I’m going to get someone from the building to remove him immediately.”
With a glance around her home, I can see that it’s tidy and slightly cluttered. Fortunately, the mouse never made an appearance while we chatted. She offered me what she says is her favorite snack: pork rinds, popcorn, junior mints, and sour cream and onion potato chips before we settle in to talk.
Sonny, age 76, knows all too well what it’s like to be alone. She married her childhood sweetheart at an early age. She says her father-in-law “owned half of Castro Valley” at the time and they lived a life of privilege with not a want in the world.
“You know JR Ewing” [from television show Dallas] I was Linda Gray,” Sonny says with a smile, likening herself to the character, Sue Ellen.
The Castro Valley native and professed mountain girl lost one son after birth and another son to suicide. Her remaining son, who she talks to by phone almost weekly, moved out of state to start a family in Austin, Texas. She’s also a widow twice over.
After her husband passed away from brain cancer, Sonny met another man, eventually married, and moved to Livermore in the 70s where she became a Registered Nurse and raised two sons. A decade later and at the beginning of the AIDs epidemic, she decided to move to San Francisco to put her RN skills to work helping others who were afflicted with the terrible disease. Sadly, her second son was diagnosed with AIDs and during the last stages of his disease, which she says he could no longer bare, he took his own life. Shortly after, her second husband passed away as well.
After those tragic life-changing events, Sonny realized that for the first time in her life, she no longer had the comfort of being financially stable, and worse, she was living alone.
One day in San Francisco, Sonny says she came across a group of homeless people and wondered what it would be like to be homeless, so she asked them if she could join them and teach her about San Francisco.
“When my [second] son was 9 or 10 years old, we would come to San Francisco during Christmas to deliver dinners to the homeless everywhere,” says Sonny. “I’d cook hundreds of meals and we’d prepare plates of food to give to the homeless.”
The experience was a way for her to show her son about individuals who were not as fortunate as they were and who truly needed a helping hand. Ironically, nearly 20 years after that experience, she found herself identifying directly with the homeless individuals she showed compassion for.
What started out as curiosity, resulted in Sonny remaining homeless for almost two years. She lived and traveled in a group that was, for all practical purposes, her new family. They looked out for each other which she says was particularly important for a woman living on the streets.
Around 2007, while she was homeless, she suffered a stroke. Doctors at the hospital told her if she didn’t get off the streets, she would die. Officials helped find her a home in San Francisco first on Treasure Island, which is where she lived for 11 years, and then earlier this year, at her current home at OpenHouse.
Sonny is very grateful for her new housing as well as the Meals on Wheels program which she signed up for almost nine years ago. Today, Sonny is not physically able to leave her apartment and struggles with a variety of medical issues including extreme vertigo. But, she is very thankful for the roof over her head and for Meals on Wheels which she signed up for almost nine years ago.
Meals on Wheels drivers check in on Sonny three times a week while delivering meals that she enjoys including fish dinners, fruit cups, and cheese sandwiches. Her caregiver Joyce helps her regularly as well making sure the place is tidy and groceries are put away, among other duties. With the combined help, Sonny is able to live independently.
“Many of us are lonely and feeling isolated,” Sonny explains. “Meals on Wheels needs to be kept intact.”
One of the things that strikes me about Sonny is her optimism. She says that even though she’s 76, her mind is like a 25-year old, fresh and full of ideas and creativity.
“The only thing that works for me right now is my brain. I’ve had heart attacks and strokes,” Sonny half-heartedly chuckles. “Now they [doctors] think I may have cancer, I mean come on, bring it on…I don’t know why God is leaving me here for so long but I’m sure there is a reason.”
In many ways Sonny is like the little mouse, Fievel, alone finding her way in the world and embracing all of the adventures along the way.