The Long Way Home
June 12, 2013
As soon as she got herself buckled in for our trip to the eye doctor, Alice said, “I don’t like going so far.”
I backed the car out of the space next to her building. “How far do you like to go?”
“Ten blocks,” she said.
“That’s how far away everything was back where I came from,” she added. “I should have stayed there.” She was referring to the Dakotas and Iowa and Minnesota and Wisconsin, where we mostly lived in towns small enough to cross in a few minutes.
She’s always anxious about these visits to the eye doctor. He takes photos of her retinas, submits her to various tests, and may or may not proceed with an eye injection.
The news on this visit, thankfully, was that her sight hadn’t deteriorated enough since the last appointment to make the dreaded injection necessary.
This meant we had extra time, so we headed to Starbucks and then over to the vet’s office to pick up Brio’s special kidney prescription diet. When I returned to the car with the cans of bland food that Brio would prefer I toss straight into the river, Alice was almost weeping at the sight of a small, shapely Japanese maple, like this one:
“We had a tree once,” she said. Because I’d been born in North Dakota too, I knew what she meant. If you wanted a tree in your yard, you had to go get one and plant it, as Alice and Roger had once done. If you wanted a free tree, you could dig up a young cottonwood from the bank of the Missouri River.
But who wanted a cottonwood? “They don’t give much shade,” Alice reminded me. “Not like that grove of oaks on Aunt Christina’s farm. We used to have picnics there. I loved those picnics. All that food!” Spoken like the always hungry child of poor parents.
I reminded her of her current abundance. “Out here we have millions of trees of all kinds.” I realized we were not far from Columbia Park, where a mix of deciduous trees and old growth Douglas Fir stood watch over 35 acres.
And so on this sunny spring day, driving along a main street of strip malls, taverns, car washes, and tattoo parlors, we came upon this magnificent urban forest, alive and breathing and perched like a giant green bird on the edge of a residential neighborhood.
“It’s mostly shadows in there,” Alice said, gazing into the lush plumage, which was lit here and there by a stray feather of pure sunlight.
I slowed and pointed to a bench. “Do you want to sit under the trees?”
“I can’t stir my old bones to do that,” Alice said. “But I like to look from here.”
We crept down a side street at Sunday driver speed and then along Chautauqua, which was such an old and beautiful name I didn’t want the street to ever end. We glanced at the park on one side and at the yards blooming with every imaginable kind of flower on the other.
I understood now why old people sometimes drive so slowly. What’s the hurry when there’s so much to see, so much to take in, especially on such a day as Monday happened to be in Portland, Oregon? Dreamily, we continued on until I looked up and saw a street sign I didn’t recognize: North Willis Boulevard. Well, why not turn here? And so I turned in the direction I thought would eventually lead back to strip malls and taverns.
I tried Bayard Avenue.
We’d been drawn away from our big friendly green bird and off into the lanes and cul de sacs in the Land of Nobody Home.
I don’t have a smart phone, so a picture like this one wasn’t possible:
Pale-trunked trees, whose names I didn’t know, lined these side streets and formed a green archway. Their lacy shade was like receiving a blessing to stay.
Alice continued to take in the roses growing right along curbs. Even after almost five years in Portland, she still can’t get over this (but then neither can I after more than forty). She couldn’t see well enough to make out the kinds of flowers in the yards, but she fell in love with each unique frenzy of color. She chattered about all this while I tried to meet up with the fact that we were, in fact, quite lost. Taverns on a busy street were now a thing of our past, like North Dakota. Someone who lived in this neighborhood would come home from work, pull into their driveway, and find they had adopted a 60-something woman and her 90-something mother, and that would be that. I started to look for a place with a cat in the window.
“We’re lost,” I said.
Alice laughed. “Oh well.”
She hadn’t stopped smiling for the past fifteen minutes.
In due time, somewhere along North Argyle, we spotted our first human being. He was a middle-aged fellow with long, freshly-shampooed hair, and he was crossing the street with two black dogs at his heels, one with a body as large and square as a Costco box of MilkBones, the other dog only slightly bigger than a large toad.
I rolled down the window. “I guess we’re lost,” I said. My voice had no desperation in it whatsoever and so the man smiled broadly. All five of us were suspended in a bubble of sun, warmth, and freedom.
He asked where we wanted to go. Alice ignored him and busied herself with looking at more flowers, while the man kindly directed us out of the maze of streets and back toward the corner of towering firs where, due to road work, we were to turn right and then left and then yes, we’d be back among taverns and tatoo parlors.
Making those turns was not a good feeling, I tell you, and soon I could sense that Alice felt the same, that all thoughts of “too far” had dissolved, and she regretted our finding the man with the dogs and the directions.
When she finally spoke, she again mentioned the grove of trees at Aunt Christina’s farm, back when Aunt Christina was young. then she leaped ahead many decades to the times poor aged Aunt Christina sat in a hot car at the fairgrounds every June because she was too sick with diabetes and other health problems to get out of the car, and her family just left her there to wait for them. “I suppose she told them to go on ahead,” she said. “But the car only had one little curtain over one window. That was all the shade she had.”
I saw her heading back to other grim streets, the ones in her memory that she still travels with a feeling of helplessness in darker moments. When she goes there, I sometimes try to help her get back out. Unfortunately, this almost always involves being reasonable; it never works. I tried anyway. “But why did she go in the first place if she had to stay in a hot car?”
“Well she had to get off that farm once in a while!” she said. What did I want the woman to do, stay out in the country every livelong minute?
The youngsters could have taken her down to the picnic grove while they ran off to the fair, I thought. It would be pleasant there. Shade and good memories. Maybe she could have had her very own picnic. But I knew nobody in that family at that time would have considered such a reckless thing.
The mood had changed and now Alice moved on to Christina’s husband, cruel Uncle Billy, and how he had pulled his boys and one or two of her sisters around by their hair. And worse.
“Tell me more about the picnics,” I said, anxious to leave the now long-dead boys and the even longer-dead Uncle Billy buried. She could resurrect them on a rainy afternoon maybe, but not today, not this pleasant, sun-smacked day.
“Those picnics!” Alice said, and back she went to the big meals spread out on quilts stitched by the women who had cooked all the food, back to the stuffing of small mouths until stomachs hurt, and then the joyful company of her sisters and cousins as they chased each other through the cool shade of the oaks.
A group picture, had one been taken at the time, might have looked something like this, without the luxurious presence of a car. A few horses would have been standing around instead.
Alice usually knows what I’m doing when I redirect her, but sometimes she allows me to do it anyway, as if I am the mother and she is a very young child with no investment in any destination or in anything at all except being safe with me.
She talked more about the picnics and one happy memory led to another until at last we arrived back in her own neighborhood. She was surprised to see the The Place’s chapel spire pop up out of the spring foliage and poke the bluest of skies. “Oh my,” she said, “are we already here?”
Speaking of picnics, here’s one of my favorite children’s books. Two friends set off for a picnic and some completely wonderful and unexpected things happen.
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