Several years ago a city editor handed me my first out-of-town assignment in San Francisco and growled: "Make a reservation at the Clift Hotel. You're a single woman. They'll keep an eye on you."
It was the 1960s. Across the bay, Berkeley was erupting with free speech and flower children who were finding themselves.
I was finding myself, too--new in California, alone in San Francisco and chaperoned by a hotel. My parents would have been proud.
The Clift was a bastion of civility and propriety, just a stroll from Union Square. Each night, as I returned from a symposium at the University of San Francisco, I paused by a lectern near the Clift elevators and signed a guest book. The man at the desk watched and smiled.
It was the way I had always imagined the Barbizon Hotel, that legendary haven for newly-arrived working girls in New York City. The Clift clung to its guest-book tradition until 1975 when it became a victim, I assume, of changing times.
Other hostelries have extended familial kindness to me over the years. The Connaught in London has handled emergencies with dispatch and celebrations with grace. Humor and affection are part of the welcome home at Garland's Oak Creek Lodge near Sedona, Ariz., and Jenny Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park.
The Mandarin in Hong Kong taught me the meaning of "a stitch in time" when long hem threads went awry one spring just before the wedding of a friend's nephew in Kowloon. The Mandarin also offered a closet where luggage and fancy clothes could be left for two weeks while I indulged in rugged exploration of the Indonesian islands between Bali and New Guinea.
Some of the gentlest gestures of friendship were from hotels that later died, the victims of war or fire: the superb Phoenicia near the sea in Beirut, the Hafnia in Copenhagen. They had cosseted me with kindness. I felt their loss as if they were not-so-distant relatives.
As a writer who travels--or a traveler who writes--I get post cards from hotels, cheery updates when a wing is added, a menu is changed or a garden is expanded. Such mail always reminds me of birth announcements or graduation invitations. I want to send flowers.
Yet it is to the Clift in San Francisco that my thoughts turn on Mother's Day--and not just because I was well-chaperoned there in the 1960s.
Last month, following a morning meeting at the Embarcadero and an afternoon drive to visit family in Sonoma County, I tumbled into bed at the Clift. It was not yet 10 p.m. As I was about to turn off the lamp, there was a knock at the door.
"Room service," said a soft voice.
I had ordered nothing, but I looked through the peephole and unlatched the door.
"Cookies and milk," said the waiter with a smile. "We hope you sleep well."
The cookies were chocolate chip. The milk was cold. At that moment, nothing could have pleased me more than this new bedtime tradition. The Clift has grown comfortable with the art of mothering in its role of home away from home. Business travelers seem to enjoy being spoiled just as much as families with children.
I had an early flight the next day and was downstairs by 5 a.m. The lobby was quiet and fresh with flowers. A young woman named Ruth was in charge of the desk. She handed me my bill and said she hoped my stay had been pleasant.
"Would you like a cup of coffee before you leave?" she asked. "I made a pot when I came on duty."
In a corner of the lobby was a silver service of coffee and a selection of teas. A tray held porcelain cups and saucers. A basket of sweet rolls was nearby.
"Thanks," I said wistfully, "but my taxi is here."
"We have plastic cups on the shelf below," Ruth said. "You can have your coffee on the way to the airport. Take a Danish, too. It's good for you."
I skipped the pastry, because my purse held a chocolate chip cookie left from the night before. But the rich, black coffee perked me up as the sky brightened over Candlestick Park.
How do you tell someone your sister's age that she's been like a mother to you?