Friday, January 2, 2009

Holiday in New England

Happy New Year! or Shinnen Akemashite Omedetogozaimasu!

We just returned from 10 days away from home, flying to Rhode Island smack in the middle of one of Oregon's biggest cold spells and flying into another record cold spell on the East Coast. I could blame the fatigue on jet lag, but I think it had more to do with the five hour drive between Salem and Portland on an interstate, bumper to bumper traffic going less than 5 miles per hour. Still recovering from that. On I-5, the ice and snow layered with snow and ice had formed small boulders for cars and trucks to bump over as if driving on rough paths cut into the wilderness. We western Oregonians are not prepared for snow.

I noticed right away after landing in Rhode Island and driving to Will's dad and Nancy's home that the compound they live in had its own snow plow and everywhere -- parking lot, sidewalks -- were clear of slippery sliding stuff. Nothing shuts New Englanders down even if they have to take care of it themselves!

Luckily we couldn't afford an earlier flight. We chose to fly in on the red-eye special, late in the holiday season, landing on Christmas Eve. Those who bought the expensive earlier tickets were snowbound in PDX and couldn't get out any sooner than we.

However, I have no regrets. A New England winter is quite beautiful. The steepled churches and old salt box homes, the city with brick buildings from another century present a pretty scene in snow. And, as always, it's good to spend time with Will's family. Our families are very different in a ways that make visiting an event for the other -- Will around a Japanese American farm family, I in New England with descendents of the first English/Scots to arrive at Providence Plantation.

Will's father is passionate about genealogy and history and his conversations are as much about those colonial days in the family as it is the present, and certainly about the time of his parents, Will's Gaga and Gromp. Will and his brothers and sisters visited their grandparents often in Providence at Hope Street House which once belonged to Gaga's ancestor who was governor. Will has memories of when they visited their grandparents, they first saw a complete suit of armor in the foyer and ate around a long substantial table and used finger bowls. Everyone waited for Gromp to pick up his spoon before picking theirs up. No elbows. Will's father may carry on some tradition but is much more relaxed than his father, and he is charming, soft hearted, and at 88, still a commanding presence.

His wife Nancy is a true partner. Although she is not obvious about it, she is always watchful of her husband, taking good care of him. Her conversation, although she holds her own, weaves -- like a good dance partner -- with his. They recently moved from their home on the cliffs of Anawan overlooking the ocean to Mystic into a classy retirement community of active elders. As soon as we walked into their apartment, we couldn't help noticing the quality of light coming through a 180 degree bank of windows warming their home, the comfortable Persian rug, the painted family portraits framed tastefully. History is everywhere. We spent Christmas Eve with Nancy's son, an artist, and Debbie, mother of Will's niece. Although she and Will's brother have been divorced for years, she has never divorced the family and the family has never divorced her. Nancy's son, who is an artist, is also an artist of conversation, listening deeply to each person, asking questions which furthered the sharing. An enjoyable first day of the holiday.

The family met for an early dinner in a fireplace warmed dining room, set with crystal and silver. Vintage place cards Nancy found among her mother's things helped us find our place. We always sat with dinner guests other than our partners and the conversation is always lively around Will's father's table. I sat on the corner by Will's father. On his other side was his granddaughter, a young actress from New York, who loves her grandpa. She dotes on him -- listening to every word, pouring his wine. Nancy said she placed the two women who traveled the farthest by him so we could all catch up. On my left was his daughter Abby's sweetheart of four months. She was a Yalie like Will's father. They had a good time catching up on professors, and campus changes.

She was wisely placed across from Will's brother's present spouse who is also in the same field and they had much to talk about. Abby sat to the right of her sister in law and beside Will whom she hadn't seen for a year. There is always playful teasing when they spend time together, bringing up remembered mischief from the past. Nancy sat at the other end across the long table from her husband -- and as it should be, on either side of her were the brothers.
I am saying this because it occurred to me that it takes time and some effort to set a table that is thoughtful to each person's comfort, satisfying their unspoken wishes, and inspiring lively conversation. That's how I remember our holiday with Will's father and Nancy. Her touch is quite subtle, yet very complete, and designed to seem effortless and for the enjoyment of all present with great attention to her husband's happiness.

As for Will's father, clearly he loves his children and grandchildren and over the years, as pointed out by a truism he actually brought up when asking about our own daughter, his children have come to realize "how very smart their father was becoming" as they themselves grew older. Yes, they do, with a lot of love and respect for their father.

We traveled from Mystic to Will's childhood home in Wakefield with Abby and her partner and sampled several coffee stops. Will and her partner had similar addictions. We arrived in Wakefield in time for dinner -- and Clare, Duncan's second wife who was beloved stepmother to Will and his siblings had, of course, decided to cook. She and her present husband are well matched. She is clever and speaks in run-on sentences that are insightful, entertaining and very adventurous in outlook about politics, about the children's accomplishments, about the arts. And her husband smiles, even giggles at all the right times. Clearly, he enjoys and listens to every word. Sometimes, he will correct her -- and she will accept in good humor. Her husband is an inventor. As long as they have been married we've known he was working on wind power. Now, his invention is in the hands of a university and soon to be a reality. They are both so intelligent in two completely different areas. But appreciative of one another's.

This year was quite special. As Clare's husband watched the ill advised choice of Sarah Palin for vp and the chaotic response to the economic situation on one side, he said he picked the candidate who had a cool head, and a plan, and for the first time voted Democrat for Barack Obama. Clare chimed in, "I didn't know anything about it. I didn't suggest anything to him. He just did it on his own." Later when I talked about the youth generation who voted Obama into President, he said, "Wait a minute now! I voted for him!" I think this 88 year old Republican was quite proud!

Dinner is lively at Wakefield. It is part great food, part lively conversation sometimes everyone speaking at once, and a good part giggles and loud laughter. We ate dinner in the kitchen area by the old fireplace that Will's mother discovered and exhumed from behind plaster and boards when Will and his siblings were young children. Clare's home is the original home of Will's mother's family -- an old New England cedar shaked colonial which had wing after wing added to it, standing with a few other old New England family homes on the family estate which bordered Salt Pond, and the Narragansett Bay. I get confused in the house, little nooks and crannies, the library tucked here, a study there, the sun porch, the formal dining room and sitting room, the cozy kitchen area, and upstairs the bedrooms and master and another set of stairs to what was once the servant quarters. It's always a bit like being a child again, exploring the old house. And this time, I was rewarded and learned that the stairs going to the third floor had a secret. The lower step could be removed and in it were the childhood writings of Will and siblings for their time capsule. Will's, of course, was written on what was left of a cardboard box, a recycler from a very young age. Clare thought adult children would like to claim the pieces just in case she sold the house -- something she does not want to do even if it is sensible. She and her husband want to stay with the house where all the children were raised and all the grandchildren returned to; but they still rent a place in the retirement complex Will's father and Nancy live in. Clare must have prayed hard because the economy faltered and there are no buyers. As for the "time capsule" Will said, "No, keep it in the stairs." Abby agreed. No one wanted their written pieces back. They want it to stay with the house.

The next day Abby, her partner, Will and I followed one another stopping to antique, and to walk through seaside towns aspiring to be tourist attractions on our way to their mother's home. Will's mother is well known as a restorer of old New England homes. She began as a young mother dragging all or any number of her five children with her exploring the countryside for ruins, carefully dismantling and restoring them into the beautiful homes they had been. She is also an artist, a life traveler, an earth lover, a gardener. She makes beauty with her hands, with a hammer, a shovel, and she finds beauty in places weak souls would not go, climbing, bending, leaping over, sneaking through gates. Nothing is a hurdle or barred gate to her art.

While she and Will are in her office figuring out her beloved computer, I can spend the hour happily sitting and looking from place to place in her home. Every point is a perfect picture, serene, simple in earth hues, faded turquoise, grey, crimson, indigo. It is all useable, lived in art. In her home the earth and wood of her travels blend with New England plaster and worn plank floors, simple, rough cabinets. I see Morocco, Asia, the tapestries of Latin America. And this time, in the winter, there is a particular light that transforms her home into the peace of the season. Here at his mother's home, we eat coarse pumpernickel with sharp cheese and crisp lettuce, a soup of winter kale -- yes, kale makes a wonderful soup. Here we always meet neighbors -- and this winter they are Willy and Rhody. Rhody is excited about her trip to Mali the next day, especially since they are going to a concert in the middle of the desert. Willy is an artist and he and Will's mother can get excited by a pair of old shears, the design, the feel of the weight, the inspired and unique usefulness of it. It is not an ordinary pair of scissors, and the fact it can open cans, bottles, crack a nut, and tighten a screw is not obvious, but must be discovered in the gentle swirl and ridges of its design. It is, in the end, a pair of scissors, as simple as that.

Sarah comes to visit us -- Will's youngest sister, born on his birthday. She is a black belt aikido martial artist as well as a masseuse. I was tempted to ask for a massage but worried she would not let me pay. She is so much like Will -- no nonsense, honest to the core, quiet spirit, animated when funny. It is not a mystery why they have a special bond although his father was the historian/business executive, public official and her father designed and built well-respected wooden boats. Sarah was born on a boat her father and their mother salvaged, restored and sailed up and down the east coast, "Kalmia."

As always, there is an adventure visiting Will's mother. I was not disappointed this time. Behind her home and out buildings is a woods. She has played a bit with the woods, of course. The unexpected rustle of the bamboo, a pond, some flowering bushes. I love the New England rock walls that wind through the woods that were once a pasture before it became a forest of maple, oak, hemlock, birch, cedar. She bent down to pick twigs and branches. The heavy snows (which had disappeared in the warm wind) and the winds had broken several. We followed suit. All along our way was neat piles of branches and twigs, spaced so that we always had a place to leave our armfuls before it became a chore. There is so much satisfaction which comes with the task, and our breathing becomes deep and even. The fatigue from travel swirls away with the wind tossing the upper branches of the trees. The rains came -- softer than Oregon rain -- and we are barely wet because of the trees. All of it is exhilarating, the soft rain, the sound of the wind, the forest smells. She talks admiringly of Tony, who is Guatemalan, and works in the forests. She worried that he wanted to do more clearing than she would wish and said, some things like to be where they are, you know. He convinced her to let him do a certain area as he wished and if she didn't like it, he would do less. She pointed, and said, "isn't it perfect," shaking her head at the artistry. I loved that walk.

On the day we were leaving for the airport, from upstairs in our room I could hear a man talking loudly but could not hear the words. Later I came downstairs and saw Will's mother contemplating a picture. She was smiling to herself. Tony had dropped by a Christmas present -- a picture of Jesus and Mary framed by a swirl of colorful light -- gold, red and green. It was something that could fit someplace in our house, but I was trying to imagine it in her home where the light came in through the windows or burned low from old lamps and candles, and the gold was replaced by pewter, or were threads woven into tapestry, and reds and greens faded by years of loving caresses by many hands into earth colors.

I learn a lot on my trips to visit Will's family. Although wealthy, the families all enjoy the simple things and are quite frugal. They spend their money with thought. All of them patronize environmental protection groups because of their relationship to Salt Pond and the bay. They support humanitarian organizations, enter into public service. Some support hospitals, some political parties, and his mother, of course, dedicates her life to restoration, and building of community. As for themselves, they keep gardens, use and reuse, teaching the generations the same ideals, and all of their children's generations work with their hands, are unafraid to fixit themselves rather than call someone to do it. Will's brother is a contractor, one of his sister's sews drapery and upholsters and the sews the sails for her husband who builds boats. Abby, the business woman, runs and hikes and goes on weeks long survival camps.

I can't help seeing the patterns of parenting apparent in the children in different combinations, rendering each sibling unique. The eldest daughter inherited her father's love for genealogy and has taken her place "in society" while Will, her brother, moved in his twenties to Oregon and never left, inheriting a bit of his mother's choice of a different path and his father's gift of telling a good story. Taking down houses and watching their mother put them back up again may have inspired Elisha to build and Nicole to decorate. Abby learned her business smarts and sense of responsibility to a team from her father.

They all have an eye for design from their mother, a sense of who they are historically from their father (and love for ice cream) and from Clare, a sense of belonging to a home place and growing from the compliments freely given by her, their lifelong cheerleader, who is always proud of them whether they are part of the hospital ball committee, doing a video on justice, attracting a good client, appearing on "Extreme Home Makeover," or making a good choice in love. What Will receives from his family prepared him for things he loves and believes in. It was never and never will be about caste, but rather about a work ethic, a sense of being part of the land, and civil discourse no matter how deeply felt the differences may be. And as for myself, now as a part of the family, I love this many layered, deeply complex, dynamic, warm and loving family, each embracing us home in their own, unique, completely satisfying way.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.