Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The World is Changing

When I was a little girl, I lived a life often coloured with uncertainty. We moved, we changed addresses, we left this state for that one; once in the middle of the night. Home was sand underneath my feet. It shifted and sometimes we sunk. I got really lucky though, in my mother's family. Specifically, my Grandmother's family were pretty neat people. Many summers, we'd go with my grandparents for a few weeks to fish, camp, swim, pick mushrooms and huckleberries and drive along the back country roads around Dayton, Washington. They were days shot with sepia lenses, faded and better looking as memories than what happened in real life.

If I close my eyes, I can still imagine what it was like to ride in the back of Grandpa's old white Ford truck. There were places where the paint had rubbed off and it was down to metal. There was always leftover hay or straw or weeds in the back and an old spare tire tossed in on its side. In the evenings, when the air still smelled warm and the dust from the day had begun to settle, we'd go for a ride over washboard gravel roads looking for deer and elk and other wildlife. Jeans and tee shirts and old tennis shoes were required, though sometimes we wore flip flops. But otherwise you'd get something stuck to your leg or butt or the sun beating down on the truck all day would make it burn you when you got in and sat for the first time. If I stood up and leaned over the cab while we were going full-bore, then the wind would steal my breath. Occasionally, a bug would smack my cheek or we'd drive right through a swarm of gnats. I inhaled one once and couldn't spit it out. It was stuck in my lungs and I could hear it drowning, beating against my wet lung with it's pitiful wings.

For at least a few days, Grandpa would hitch the camper onto the truck and put my sister and I in the back. He'd pull us over the Hartsock grade to the Tucannon to go camping with my grandma's kin. Then he'd split for a few days and go fishing with his buddy Herb off somewhere else. He taught me to fish, though. Grandma's brothers and sisters and their families and we would bring our campers and trailers and hang out for a week. We'd go fishing and only half hope to catch something. I had to clean my own fish, which I didn't mind, but I did not like the way trout tasted. Grandma would bread and fry them sometimes over the campfire. They'd often keep their heads and skins on and I didn't like the work of dissecting my dinner before I could eat it.

There were other things to eat besides fish. Grandma brought us all the licorice we could eat, and sunflower seeds and snack foods and potato salad we could hold. We never had to eat something we didn't like around her. It was the rule and we knew it. She let us roast marshmallows and hotdogs over the fire; we even got to cut our own sticks with knives we often carried for gutting fish and getting into trouble. And we'd bathe in the crick (that's a creek, only said how Grandma called it) but made sure that our campspot was pretty close to the outhouses. Nobody wants to poop in the woods, though sometimes it was liberating to pee out there. Kinda difficult when it's ten at night and pitch black when you're way out there and the only light comes from your flashlight and the dying embers of the campfire. I'd be holding up my nightgown with one hand and leaning on the other one and hoping I'm on the correct side of the downhill slope and that I didn't hit my foot. If I did, I'd step on over into the crick for a minute.

In the evenings and sometimes in the middle of the day, Grandma and her sisters would get into a card game. Their dad, my great grandfather Abbot, would join in. I would watch at first and see how they played. Grandpa Abbot was a master pinochle player at the age of 86. You laid anything down and he knew what was in your hand. His head was mostly bald with a few nostalgic strands combed over age spots. He was old and hunched over and his wrinkles all but hid his sparkling eyes. Abbot's smile was the magical part though. The corners of his mouth didn't go up like normal; they went back towards his low-set ears and pulled smooth the skin from his face. The result was sort of beautiful because then you could see his blue watery eyes and that there was always something crafty going on behind them. In the evenings, he'd tell stories about the maul cat and how thunder came to the hills.

Pinochle and canasta games were the only times I ever heard my grandma swear, except for the whispered expletives behind my grandpa's back when he made her mad. My grandma's name is Verline. Her sisters Earline and Sis (Whose real name was Alberta), Teddy and brother Bill were the main people who came along and each treated me and all of the other kids running around as though we were interchangeably theirs. My cousins and I did a few chores together, went fishing and played and played and looked for snakes and periwinkles together. We always found plenty of them. When we got bored, we'd lay around and read. When it was too hot to fish, we'd just play in the water. That creek was fed by a melting mountain and even in the dead heat of August, the temperature held at about 12 degrees. It took some getting used to but we'd float down a ways in our swimsuits and flip flops and make friends with other kids coming to camp as well. Sometimes, a shoe would fly off and someone would have to make a dive for it before it floated off down the bend, never to be seen again. This happened pretty often and we got good at retrieving them. I don't think we ever lost one to the crick.

Our world has changed irrevocably since that time. Frankly, it scares me. A lot of my aunts and uncles have died. A few of those cousins are gone too, due to accident or illness. Great Grandpa Abbot and Grandpa are gone too. I'd never think of bathing in a creek; it pollutes the environment to put shampoo into the water. It isn't just a world evolving, it's also about our loss of American innocence and the birth of fear and anger in the wake of 9/11. America is a teenager. And now we have cell phones and blogs and I can't remember how to play canasta. I couldn't imagine a whole week of being disconnected from my technology. I become very frightened about what is happening to our environment, our laws, our fears for safety and the basic freedoms we seemed to enjoy when I was a kid. I wonder about the world I inherited and about the one we will give to our children. I worry about the exponential population growth. I wonder why we need bomb-sniffing dogs in our schools. I wonder when all this political jostling turned into racial, gender and sexual hatred. I wonder why I am so disconnected from the world I grew up in while I have the means to be more connected than ever.

I do things about it. I vote, I protest, I'm growing my own garden and ride my scooter and sometimes my bike to save gas and pollution. I mow with an electric mower even though a gas one would do much faster work. I teach tolerance and hope to open dialog that is meaningful and productive for my students and for me. Will the children in my family get sepia-colored, hay-smelling Kodak instant picture memories? I don't think so, and I mourn that. Sometimes I have to take a break from the news or panic will set in and I will become frantic and depressed.

I've made new memories in Oklahoma. I have experiences with red earth and hiking, coffee shops and friends and conversations about changing the world and the joy that we, collectively, can bring. We philosophize over steaming mugs of fresh roasted beans pressed through a sieve. I cup it in my hand any time of the day and inhale deeply the smell I associate with hope. I remember that even though my childhood is gone, I know people who know those place and who have brought their children up to enjoy and conserve them. People who ski in the winter every weekend and do back-breaking work in the summer on harvest jobs. It brings me back up. I remember that there are many advances in the face of our disasters.

I am lucky today. Most of this is because I get to live the life of my choosing and that I feel I make a positive difference. I don't want children to be oppressed in Arizona, or for people of non-Caucasian origin to have to carry papers to prove their citizenship there. One of the major things I was proud of as an American is that we can go from sea to shining sea without papers. Check that- we used to be able to. I just don't want the national sand to shift, the oil to flow into the gulf or for people to be prevented from marrying because of their sexuality. It would just be better if we pulled up a stump by the campfire and poked at the embers and told stories as equals until deep into darkness.

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