By Tracy Chocholousek
Special to the Daily Planet
Each morning for the past 28 years, give or take a day, Geneva Agnes Gates Foote has traveled the same path between her Berkeley home and her morning cup of coffee.
Though the path has transformed from dirt to pavement, people in her Westbrae neighborhood have come and gone, and her destination point has changed over time with the opening and closing of Gilman Street coffee shops, her journey has been a constant source of inspiration.
These days her little dog and loyal companion, Betsy Jingle, dances to and fro as Gates Foote walks slowly and cautiously along the path. She holds tightly onto the back of her wheelchair, guided by her husband Abbot Foote. Along the way, he describes the people passing and the blooming flowers.
For many years the path, that runs south under the BART tracks, beginning at Gilman and Curtis streets, revealed itself to Gates Foote through colorful sights and familiar faces. Since she lost her vision in 1972 from complications of diabetes, Gates Foote has relied on sounds and smells and the gentle touch of passersby to envision her surroundings. Her blindness sparked a newfound creative outlet and she began to write.
“Once in a while, a poem would appear and I would write it down. When I was going blind, a lot of poems came to my mind,” she said. “When you can’t see out, you start seeing in, and that’s where poetry lives.”
Since 1998 Gates Foote has self-published five books of poetry and prose. Each carries a resonating theme, be it nature, her past, the colorful characters she’s met along the way, or the pathway she
“If there’s anything,” she says, speaking of what most inspires her, “it’s love and caring. They are the only reasons we are here. It’s too bad we don’t seem to learn that early on.”
Her fourth book, entitled “Geneva’s Path,” celebrates her relationship with the path and sparked the chain of events leading to a dedication ceremony held earlier this month. On June 3, friends and neighbors gathered to witness the dedication of that stretch of land she calls her own which is now officially named the Geneva Agnes Gates Foote Path.
“There is a treed and ivied spot to the right of the paved path which goes from Neilson over to Gilman and Curtis. This path has been mine from the beginning,” she writes in “Geneva’s Path.”
“I know it’s a big ego thing, but maybe someone would think to name it after me.”
And the community pulled together and did just that. With help from neighbors and friends, a petition was circulated gathering more than 100 signatures from the community. It was submitted to Councilmember Linda Maio and Gates Foote’s wish turned into a reality.
“I’m not used to having a fuss made over me. One thing to being blind, you really feel quite invisible,” she said.
At the ceremony Gates Foote’s characteristic strength gave way to sentiment.
“Emotionally I don’t usually tip, but I knew the tears were somewhere back in there,” she said.
Maio presented Gates Foote with a proclamation from the city celebrating the poet’s contributions and commitment to the Westbrae community.
“I was so pleased to be able to finally make this happen,” Maio said. “Geneva is a person who has really learned to get joy from the moment. She reminds herself all the time that even though she may not be able to see the flowers anymore, she can smell them, she can feel the petals.”
As to what she feels is her greatest contribution to the community, Gates Foote believes that an open heart and a listening ear are her most commendable assets.
“I think I just kind of know what people go through and the way the mind works. I always seem to have time to listen,” she said.
In the proclamation from the city she is recognized for her dedication to the maintenance and construction of the path.
“Geneva’s vigilance over the path during its history includes asking her friends to dig trenches along its sides to allow for drainage, calling the city to clear garbage or debris and seeking help when light posts would fall or trees would become uprooted,” it reads.
For 61 years Gates Foote has battled diabetes.
“Sometimes it’s almost impossible, but here I am,” she confides. “Everywhere the people would help me. It’s been really kind of a joint effort to keep me going.”
While holding tight to her strength and self-sufficiency, she has also learned the importance of accepting help from others.
“She still has a natural talent for finding people to help her,” said longtime friend Jean Jaszi.
An occupational therapist for disabled children in her working years, Gates Foote has always been committed to helping others. And because of that selflessness, she has also benefited from an abundance of generous people within her community.
“I’ve had moments where I’ve been aware that everything in my life fits,” she said.
As to what the future holds, Gates Foote has confidence in human nature and at the same time is curious about what’s in store for her.
“I don’t know if I believe in a divine being, but the divinity that is present in each being is enough to live on and to leave with,” she professed.
Two green posts mark the end of Geneva’s Path. She has named them Scylla and Charybdis after characters in Greek mythology. They act as nostalgic mile markers on her path in life. In one of her poems she writes metaphorically about the two posts.
“I wonder about that final path.
Will it be smooth or bumpy?
Will Abbot and Betsy be there to cheer me on?
What will happen when I pass between the posts?”
– from, Between the Posts, in “Geneva’s Path.”
Although she feels a special guardianship over the path, Gates Foote emphasizes that it belongs to anyone who cares to follow its meanderings.
“The path may say Geneva’s Path, but it’s everybody’s. We’re all on the same path, living our lives,” she said.
Born in Boston, Gates Foote has lived in the East Bay for nearly 50 years. She was honored as Woman of the Year by the city in 2001. Her next book of poetry and prose, “Traveler of the Dark,” will come out next month. Some of her books can be found in Westbrae neighborhood shops such as Tiddly Winks and Natural Grocery or at Hida Tool on San Pablo Avenue and Pegasus on Solano Avenue.