Can I share with you my journey? I have just returned from a double journey. A journey both joyous and sad. A journey that began many years ago. I have journeyed back to the place where I grew up many times. This time, all my siblings will be there, too, spending days with Mom and Dad. He is ninety one, she is eighty six. We don't have many days left to spend with them. I give my self enough time, I think, to also visit my friends, other family, children and grand children. I also meet, for the first time, my very first great grand child. His name is Elliot Oscar. A name that rolls stately off the tongue. He has dimples in his knees and elbows. He has serious brown eyes. I heard him when he gave his first robust chuckle, and it turns my heart into mush. It startles him, though, and he listens fearfully to see if he will hear it again.
I get off the plane in Portland, that beautiful city of roses. The city flows gracefully along the banks of the mighty Columbia River. Mount Hood looms up over it, snowcapped and majestic, gaurdian of ancient days. I cross the river to my old stomping grounds, green Washington state, the Pacific northwest. My father brought me here when I was ten, because he loved this place, and its people. "Look, " he would say to me, "see how green everything is?" He tries to persuade me, because I miss the snowy Minnesota winters. Gradually I see it through his eyes, But I always love most the snowy mountains that I can see all around me on a clear day.
I spend a couple days in Kalama, high up on the ridge. At night my grand children and I all pile on the same bed when lights are turned out. The girls are interested in poetry, the boys love nature and history. We whisper and giggle about these things, about Shakespear, and Indians, and the bones of an elk that the boys have found in the woods.When they start drifting off to sleep, I lay quiet, greedily listening to the late night train with its lonesome whistle and the moan of the fog horns down on the river.
I journey for a few days to eastern Washington where my son and his family live. It pours on the morning we leave, a gray, drenched morning. Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, they are all hidden in the clouds. It's hard to beleive they are really still there, all shimmery in the sunlight. Here they are completely shrouded, wrapped in sheets of rain, bumped into by roiling masses of clouds. The river lies flat, except for the rain dimples that splash down on the surface, millions of them. The wind shield wipers dance back and forth, back and forth across the window, down past Multonomah Falls, past Beacon Rock, past the Bridge of the Gods, past train tracks and barges, past the rocky walls of the Gorge, past the green forests.
Suddenly we have come through the Cascades and the sun shines blindingly on the eastern side of the state. Here the river is just as wide, just as flat. Now the water is the blue of the reflected blue sky, and the water is dimpled with millions of sun diamonds. The Land is brown, and Mt Hood stands pristine white behind us. We cross the bridge at The Dalles. Our journey is half way done. It is June, so the wheat fields are spring green. The forever wind rolls over it and it looks like a green ocean. The sage brush is graygreen and you can smell it in the warmth of the sun. Some of last winters tumbleweeds lie plastered along the fences. Far up on the ridges the windmills are turning, turning, the wind like a constant Don Quixote tilting against them in the dreamy haze.
We take a day up in the Palouse Hills. We hike up around Palouse Falls where the water dives into the Palouse River hundreds of feet below. We picnic under a big shady tree, the little ones sprawled off in their imaginary worlds.
I think you could never capture these Palouse Hills in a photograph. You could never quite get the sheer scope of it. The far lonely distance with nothing but the land, nothing but the ache that rises up in your throat and makes you want to cry. A photo could not capture the way it looks so brown and sere but when you get up close you see the purple darkness of the wild vetch, the silvery velvet of the sage, the way the yarrow grows as though some hand has thrown a few white stars here and there among them. A photo could not capture the utter desolation of an abandonded ranch. The road leading to it lost in the sage, the windmill rusty and sailless, the water tank beneath bone dry. The ranch house steps have fallen in, the windows gaze out like sightless eyes, the door bangs with the wind. The barn falls slowly to the ground, the rusty farm equipment hulks silently in the weeds, and an old Model A Ford still looks jaunty, its hood up as though waiting for some work worn hands to come tighten things up. No photo could capture the total insignificance of the miles and miles of barb wire fencing as it snakes along, going nowhere. When I look into that dreamy distance, I can see shadowy figures coming over the rise. A cowboy, dusty and hard bitten, a covered wagon, small and trail worn, bringing in a family, Lewis and Clark, they walk here still in the cloud of years, and an appaloosa, out riding the wind, mane and tail flying, Indian brave crouched low on its back.
Back at Dad and Moms I go on a two week journey with then. It's a journey that I take out of love. It's a hard and fearsome journey, but it gives me strength and hope. The house where they live is in a small clearing in a big patch of woods. The Doug Firs are tall and wide. The branches don't start for fifty feet up. The damp forest floor is green with ferns, lush, high ferns, with oregon grape, with ivy, with holly trees, with blackberry bushes and salmon berry bushes. The moss grows thick and green on everything. It grows on the tree trunks, it grows on the roofs, it grows on the lawn, the cement well cover, my brothers old fur shack, on the patio, because so few feet walk there any more, on the handles of your axes and tools if you leave them out side. Slugs slide across all that wetness. Bunnies hop about in the morning, nibbling the flowers. The deer venture out in the afternoon. They are black tail deer, with reddish coats and big ears. They look more sturdy that our eastern white tails. One deer does a happy dance in the front yard. He rears up and skips sideways, and bobs his head to some inner deer music. I laugh from behind the window and he looks up, then continues his two step.
Nothing else has the scent of the wet rainy Doug Fir woods. You can't explain it, you have to be there. In this house in the woods, it is gloomy. The windows stay shut, the curtains are drawn, the stove burns. I understand that they are old, and cold, and don't move around much, but up in my bed room, I fling open the windows and draw the drapes. I need fresh air to sleep. and I love to hear the coyotes sing at night and the owls talk early in the morning.
When my sisters are there, too, we fill the house with talking and laughter and much moving about. We are here to have a confab and make a plan about what needs to be done. It's difficult to be the parent to your parents. Some days we feel stressed and sad. We do silly things and we tell eachother about our craziness and we laugh, but it's to stave off the tears. We make our lists and delegate duties, it it all sounds cut and dried, but its not. I love my sisters, and I hope we don't leave to much responsibility for our "baby" brother.
When everyone leaves, I stay on then, in that dim, quiet house. My Father was a man who journeyed. I wonder how many thousands of miles he drove, all through the United States and Canada. I remember being quite young and he would take me, even if my mom couldn't come, and it was always fun. He loved history and he took us to historical places and museums and instilled that love of travel and history in me. Now, I have to take his keys away. I feel mean. All morning he asks me, "where are my keys, Annie?" " I have them, Dad, " I say, trying to smile. When its time to go, he goes out and gets into the drivers seat. He doesn't remember that I have the keys. Like I'm sixteen again, I go to the drivers side door and say, "Let me, drive, Dad?" He sighs and lets me get in, shaking his head at me. I laugh, but it's so I won't cry. He thinks we neeed gas, although we had filled the tank a day or two ago. He pesters me about it. "We need gas. We need gas." We go to the gas station. "We need three of those things," he says. "You need three of them to fill the gas tank." I am puzzled. What things? "Look in my wallet," he says. Okay, now I know. He gets out his three things and totters off to pay. At the pump. he takes the nozzle and puts it in the gas tank, but forgets to squeeze the trigger. Nothing happens. He looks so puzzled. I jump out and sneak my hand under his and get the gas flowing. We stand there, his frail hand over mine, watching until we have used up his three things. We smile at eachother, and he puts up the nozzle. We laugh, but its only so we don't cry.
My Dad has always built fires. He was a boy scout, and eagle scout, he worked in the CCCamps, where he published the camp paper. He went away to war and I have a picture of him, cooking something over a fire in France. He faithfully put a fire in the sauna stove every Saturday night, and many other nights, too. He took us camping and built us campfires where we roasted hotdogs and marshmallows. He taught me to build a fire in the fire place, step by careful step. Now he thinks he needs to have a fire in the stove, so he and mom will be warm. But forgets, and he makes an upside down fire. First he puts in the big wood, then the kindling, then he carefully folds up paper in a thick bundle. He lights dozens of matches before it fanally gets going, adding more and more paper, more and more kindling. He needs to see a real fire.... when the flames leap and roar behind the thick glasss door, then he is happy. He pulls his chair up and stares into the flames.It's eighty degrees outside, but he's oblivious. One day he runs out of matches. I take him to the dollar store, where he tells me you can get two boxes of stick matches for a dollar. We laugh with releif, buts it so we don't cry, really.
My Mom is nearly blind. But she knows where everything is, and she gets along. In the mornings she gets up and makes us breakfast. Shes so happy to get to cook for me again, I feel I can't ruin it for her. For sixty seven years, she has cooked Dad his two slices of bacon, not crispy, two over easy eggs, two peices of toast with real butter, and jam. They are always perfect, in his eyes, and breakfast is happy every day that I am there. They can't remember what day it is, or whats happened yesterday, but they reminisce about the old times. I hear stories that I've never heard before. He tells about how cold and stormy is was on the transport ships, going across the North Sea to land in Le Harve. You washed with icy cold water, and you slept in shifts, when you got up, someone else crashed into your bed. She tells how when he came back from Europe, they got married on his first furlough. They spent their honeymoon at his family home in Minnesota. They were all so glad to see him, she felt lost in the crowd, some nights he slept out in the tent with his little brother, she cried herself to sleep all alone. Then he was sent to different places around the country, so she would stay at her home until he found a room for them, then she would have to get on a train full of whistleing soldiers to go meet him.
Neither of them can hear very well, so it sounds odd to hear them shouting at each other. They never squabbled. Now mom cries when she has to shout at him to make him understand. I hug her. and we laugh, just so we wont cry. He always had a book to read. Now he sits in his chair, the book open in his lap, but its on the same page when I leave, as it was when I came. She asks to sing a song at bed time. She knows all the hymns. She has even written songs. Now she can't see to read, but she still needs to have a song book. I find the page for her, and point out the words, and she's happy. Her voice is scratchy, his a squeaky tremelo, I try to somehow tie it all in, and we all three laugh at the way we sound, but its only so we wont cry.
I have to leave. I know they are going on a new journey. I might not get back before they leave. How can I say good bye? We hold hands, and we smile through our tears, and we laugh, just so we won't cry.