This past Sunday was Father’s Day. You are out of the country visiting your other grandparents, so you didn’t get to spend the day with your Daddy. But there have been, and will be, lots of other days you will be together.
My Dad, your great grandpa Lowell, was a fun Dad, like yours. He taught us all about camping and backpacking.
He knew about how to build furniture and often smelled of lumber, linseed oil and campfire smoke.
He taught us all how to build things like bookcases.
And he was a big old goofball who was always making up games and silly songs.
Your Dad is a lot like my Dad. He is funny and smart and loves figuring things out. He also loves showing you how the world works. Maybe Dads learn how to be Dads by all the Dads in their life. And we sure got a good bunch of them!
Your great-grandma Billie and Great-Grandpa Lowell loved to go camping. They took us kids out to the mountains or desert, or even the seaside, every weekend of our lives until brother Tim went off to the Marines, Jim got work, and I went to college. We slept on the ground in a tent, hauled water from the tap, and used whatever toilet facilities happened to be available.
The freedom to explore or fish or just do nothing, the excitement of making a fire and watching the stars come out, was one of the joys of my childhood.
As we kids grew up and the folks got older, Momma decided that sleeping on the ground was “for the birds”. They combined their skills and built a trailer from the ground up, so they could keep camping and not sleep on the ground. And when they went away for their first long haul trip, I gave Momma this Journal to write in. “Oh, I won’t have anything to say,” she said, but I nudged her a little, and she did.
The other day, I got it out. I’ve had it for years, holding on until I “had time” to read it. Well, I figured, I have time now.
It is the daily record of their trip from July 1st to the end of September, 1985. They drove up the coasts of California and Oregon, even walking out on the beach by Astoria, Oregon, to the wreck of the Peter Iredale.
This place is special to me because it is where, just a few years ago, our family got together to place both Momma and Dad’s ashes into a sand castle, to be carried out to sea. That was the end of their journey.
In 1985, however, they continued north to the Olympic Peninsula, across to Glacier National Park, then south through the Rockies and into Colorado, then turning back west to head home. They visited with Dad’s family in Washington and Momma’s in Colorado. They visited every tiny museum and national Monument in their path. They had a really good time.
What strikes me most about their adventure was how ordinary most of it was. They cooked breakfast, went for long walks, did laundry and shopping, wrote letters to grownups and post cards to grandkids. They ate out and played Scrabble and fed the ducks at parks. They rarely stayed up past ten and were usually up and about by six. They were living their normal life…. except when they took a cogwheel train to the top of Pike’s Peak or walked through the millions year old petrified forest.
In reading the Journal, I can hear Momma’s voice telling about her day. She is calm and accurate, and doesn’t get irritated (she doesn’t write about it, anyway) or frightened or worried. Her most emotional writing is saved for seeing her dear sister Hazel and describing a stunning hailstorm that caught them out on a walk.
It has been a nostalgic few days, traveling with Momma on her first long road trip. I will read some of her later Journals, and let you know if I find anything interesting.
Your Daddy David was born forty years ago this week. I was just twenty four and had been married to your Grandpa Nelson for six years. We were out of college and ready to start our adult lives.
Well, we thought we were. We had moved from Southern California where we knew hundreds of folks to Eugene, Oregon, where we knew no one. Parenthood, we said, was the most natural thing in the world.
How hard could it be?
When your great grandma Billie offered to come up and help, I thought she was being a little silly. “You’ll be busy taking care of the baby,” she said. “I’ll take care of you.” Take care of me? What was she taking about?
But, as she so often was, Momma was right. I nursed Baby David, Momma cooked three meals a day. Plus giant snacks to feed my nursing body. I changed Baby David, Momma did the laundry. She made sure there was enough in ME to care for HIM.
And in the two weeks she was with us, I went from helpless noodle to almost-capable new mother. We were so busy, there aren’t many pictures from that visit. But I learned a lot.
I learned how much I didn’t know about mothering, life, and my own strengths. But mostly I learned that motherhood (and life) isn’t a skill you learn…. it is a thing you grown into, step by step. Sometimes those steps are backwards, but that’s okay, too. I learned that all you can do will somehow be enough.
And, with that baby being 40 and me being 64, I am still learning. And I get to watch my son learn those same lessons. Taking steps forward, realizing there is more to learn, learning that you will be enough.
There is an expression,”It’s a sign of the times.” This usually means something is a clear, visual example of what is happening. Today I decided to share some of my signs of different times with you.
When I first started traveling to Europe, I was struck by signs and posters that would not have existed in the U.S.
This 300 year old sign for Jesus Lane is on the campus of Jesus College at Cambridge University in England. In our country, religion has become so politicized and I doubt this sign would survive vandalism.
On the other side of the coin, this poster for theater tickets would probably be considered too weird for the American market. It’s ironic that in a country that touts Free Speech there is such a “you can’t say/show/ wear that” reaction.
This street construction warning sign makes me laugh, because of its original nickname in England, “Man wrestling with umbrella.” Also, if you look closely at the smaller sign, horrible things are happening.
Other signs make me smile because of where they are. Seeing this wonderful sign showing an entrance to the Paris metro would mean I am in that magical city.
And not far from that sign is this one, for the narrowest street still existing in the ancient part of Paris. The name means “The Street of the Cat Who Fishes.”
Back in California, this sign touches my heart and feeds all my senses. Crows and cypress trees grow in my happy place at Asilomar, and looking at this parking sign, I can smell the fog and feel the sand between my toes. Oh, and taste the good food at The Fishwife, just up the hill a bit.
And in my new home, there are signs, too. This one, at The Enchanted Forest south of Portland, is greatly improved by Jasper showing his high score on the “Return to Mordor” ride.
And these signs at a protest for the Trump administration’s policy of separating and imprisoning immigrant families touched my heart and let me know I was in good company.
What are your signs of the times? What visuals make you smile, or travel to another time or place?
When Momma and Dad bought the house in Lompoc, the first thing to do was make it ready to live in. The back yard was all weeds and the house had been badly used. Everything needed fixing. But for them, this was part of the fun.
While they worked, they got to know their neighbors and the town. Momma joined the Alpha Club and Dad joined Elks. This was a lucky thing for the Elks, because they were just beginning to build a new lodge, and Dad helped with electrical work and general hauling. He designed and helped build the floats for parades. He even barbecued dinner for everyone!
My folks were natural joiners. They loved playing cards or going dancing with friends, and if those new folks liked camping, so much the better.
After they had lived in Lompoc for about ten years, they bought a fine fifth wheel trailer. Dad got an idea. “How about we go in the road long term?” Momma was against it. She couldn’t imagine leaving her garden or her friends. “Let’s try it for six months,”. Dad promised. “If you hate it, I won’t mention it again.”
So they rented the house to a friend, packed up, and headed off. By the end of the six months, momma was sold on the idea, and they traveled to every state they could drive to over the next eight years. Dad loved history and would visit every tiny museum and library. They went to church every Sunday at whatever church was closest. They made new friends all over the country.
Every now and then, they would swing by our house in Salinas, say hello, and help the kids with their b’nai mitzvah projects, then head off again. They had so much fun!
In September of 1988 they came by Salinas on their way home, and I took the day off to go with them to Point Lobos. It was the last day we got to spend together.
They were heading home when dad had a stroke and died in his sleep. We were all shocked, as he had seemed in very good health. The family got the trailer moved back to Lompoc, and Momma lived in it for a year, right in the back yard. Even after taking care of the many details required of new widows, she wasn’t quite ready to take up regular life yet, having lost “the most fun part” of her life after 51 years.
But one day when we were visiting, she wiped her eyes after yet another cry, and said, “If Lowell saw me sitting here, crying like a baby, he’d come down and kick my butt.” Sometimes, when I am sad, I say the same thing. Thanks, Dad.
This past Sunday was Grandpa Nelson’s birthday, and we celebrated it inside. He is still weak from the bit of sort of Covid he’s had, which has been mostly fevers and fatigue, so it was a slow day.
But even a slow birthday needs some celebration. Auntie Bridgett had made him a beautiful painting of our beloved Laurelhurst Park, so he can visit even when he isn’t feeling well. It isn’t quite done yet, she says. It needs three people (us!) walking along the path. She also made one of her delightful, hand painted cards. Handy Hand was so pleased!
I made a new type of ginger cookies, and they turned out very well. Grandpa had some after breakfast and some more after dinner, because a nutritionally balanced birthday is important.
We ordered ice cream online from Fifty Licks, a local ice cream chain, and Auntie Bridgett went to fetch it. We got two pints for us to share and a chocolate milk shake for the birthday boy.
Auntie Katie and the cousins came by, after she had closed the bookshop, and stood just below our balcony. They banged cowbells and held up a great “Happy Birthday Grandpa Nelson” sign the the kids had painted. I wish I had taken a picture of their smiling, masked faces looking up, but I was too busy laughing and crying at the same time. It was wonderful, raucous, and celebratory.
I lowered some of the cookies and one of the pints of ice cream down in a basket-and-yarn rig that was half Rapunzel and half Swiss Family Robinson, and got the job done with just the right amount of whimsy.
We were chatting, and just then your Daddy David called us for a ZOOM video chat with the whole family! After a few minutes’ adjustment, and Auntie Katie and family dashing back to their own house, we had the three of us, both our kids and all their kids, looking at each other. It was so nice.
Auntie Katie and the cousins ate their ice cream and cookies, and you all had your dessert there in Salinas. We talked about what art and video games we had been doing and how tall the kids were. Everyone was even able to toast Grandpa Nelson with a glass of whatever they were having. The call went on for two happy, silly, hours.
By then, Grandpa Nelson was pooped. Everyone logged off and we three sat quietly for a while, listening to our nervous systems as they quieted down. I showed Grandpa Nelson the slide show I had made of photographs of him from when we has a little boy to now, and it was a nice walk down memory lane.
When we finally had to let go of the day, we ambled upstairs and drifted off to a happy, exhausted sleep. I am so glad you all got to celebrate with us.
Now that you are almost seven, you can read real words all by yourself. Yesterday I wrote you some stories that are based on our time together…. cooking, building a playhouse, and going on an adventure with the stone Panther at Hartnell College. I hope you like them.
In my bigger story, the story I have been working on for more than two years now, I have been frustrated. I was having doubts. It felt like it had gotten too big, too complicated, that I had tried to show too much about Portland in 1903.
I set it aside and started a lighter version, one that leaves out the broader context of the city, its history, and its people. It was just about a little girl. But I don’t like it. So I am walking it back.
Do all writers go through this? Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed, but never done anything with, because when I get to this point, I give up and put the story in a box. It’s too hard. It feels pointless. I should do something else with my time. The self-doubt and backtracking are exhausting.
For support, I went back and read Anne Lamott’s essays on the difficulty of writing, of pulling her novel apart and laying it on the floor, bit by bit, and re-organizing it to make it better. Yes, this is something writers DO. Maybe this is what writing IS, after all.
I am feeling better! Yesterday evening I walked around the block, did laundry, and even took the trash out. I will live!
Feeling so good, I will spend today making soup for Auntie Bridgett (who isn’t well yet), walking to do some errands and working on the story. But this morning, I was wondering what I was doing two years ago today. Do you remember?
I was packing up to come down to Salinas, to live with you for my last few months of teaching. That was the strangest thing…. leaving my home here in Portland to live in your home there, going back to a job I’d done for almost thirty years… Getting to see you every afternoon but having to work every day… such an odd combination of new and old, normal and weird.
And now I am retired, not getting up at six o’clock to teach until three and work until four; snacking when I want, reading what I want, walking where I want. I feel very spoiled.
And, except for missing my adventures with you, I’m okay with that.
In 1990, when my teaching partner, Laurel Sherry-Armstrong and I moved from Hartnell College’s Child Development Center to University Park Elementary, we were happy to become part of an elementary school community. But we were sad to lose the lovely playhouse at the Center.
We mentioned this over dinner one night with my parents, who were visiting from Lompoc. My dad (your great grandpa Lowell) said that he could design a playhouse, and would even build it, if the District would allow us to put it into our new classroom. Weeks of drawing and discussion, proposing plans and changing them, became months of waiting for the District to get back to us.
Finally, there was good news! They approved the planned two story playhouse, with stairs and a railing, to be built in room 13. Dad took the plans, built the house in pieces (walls, floor, railings, stairs), and drove it up to Salinas.
He and Great Grandma Billie, Grandpa Nelson and I, Uncle David and your Momma Katie (who were 10 and 8 at the time), Laurel and her husband George, and our friend Rick, all worked to paint the pieces. Then we put it together, laid carpet on the top floor, and even installed a bookcase and pile of pillows for reading on.
The kindergarten kids loved the playhouse. It was part kitchen, part pirate ship, part reading loft, and part cave. It was good for quiet times and silly conversations. It has been climbed on by, I guess, more than 700 kids over these 28 years.
And now, the kindergarten classes are moving, and the District hasn’t said that it will approve the playhouse for the new space or move it there. The teachers have no guarantee that it will even be on campus when they return for the next school year. Technically it belongs to me, but I only have two days left in Salinas and no way to pull it apart and move it anywhere.
This makes me very sad. There are so many things right with the playhouse, things that are missing in education these days. Imagination, thoughtful quiet time, and changes in perspective.
My only remedy was to get up extra early this morning, get you dressed, and take you up to play on the playhouse before it (maybe) goes away. You had so much fun! I looked at every inch of it, from the plaque Laurel put on after Great Grandpa Lowell died to the railing on the stairs, rubbed by hundreds of tiny hands.
When it was time for us to go, I cried a bit and said goodbye to yet another old friend.