Sunday, May 17, 2009

Family matters...


I spent last week in Boise, the city I grew up in in Idaho. When I returned to work, everyone asked me how my vacation was.

It was not a vacation. I was there to deal with family matters.

I should define family here. One of the schisms I have discovered about having a wife and children of your own who have become your "family," is dealing with the other family -- the ones you grew up with. I left my family at home in Washington to go deal with my other family in Idaho.

I feel bad putting my other "family" in the category of something to deal with. But once I left Boise, I entered a psychological witness protection program of my own creation that in essence reinvented me for me. I could, on the surface anyway, unload all of that baggage of childhood and teenage angst that hold us chained to the bottom of the lake drowning if we plant ourselves in the place we grow up in.

It's not that I had a terrible childhood. But I always felt out of place in Idaho, smothered by a conservative mindset that frowned on liberal thinking or creativity (despite what the Idaho Tourism Board would have you believe).

Idaho to me is a place of farms, deserts, pseudo cowboys and trailer parks. Boise is a strip mall of urban sprawl laced with every known chain restaurant known to man. For some reason, the only forms of recreation in the city seem to be drinking, eating and going to movies. The city didn't even have a shopping mall until after I left in the early 1980s.

Boise depresses me. Maybe that is because I felt depressed there growing up. Maybe it is the legacy of my roots. My great, great grandfather moved there with his family in the late 1800s. My genealogy work show he spent time in a mental institution as a young man in Ohio. He recovered enough to fight in the Civil War, get married and raise six kids and then my grandmother (after her mother died during childbirth giving birth two her second child who also died).

My grandmother married a field hand at aged 17 and had 13 children. My mother has nothing good to say about my grandfather. My research shows he was in the army during World War I but never left the United States. My grandmother divorced him once mid-stream of having the 13 kids and then remarried him in a weak moment (or was it just survival). I have never been able to confirm what he did for a living other than work around farms and ranches and beat his wife and children. He died in his early 40s.

My father was adopted by a childless couple in Portland when he was 5 years old. They moved to Boise in the mid-1920s. My grandfather worked at the Idaho Statesman newspaper in the print shop. My grandmother was a self-proclaimed Belgium princess and the bane of her daughter-in-law's (my mother) existence. After marrying my mother in the early 1950s he accepted property that was right next to my grandparents as a gift to build his tiny suburban castle one.

My mother still lives in the castle. It has had many additions over the years, and is surrounded by various forms of development that would be a land-use planners worst case scenario for suburban growth. Rows of multi-family "skinny" townhouse structures have replaced many of the single-family houses that used to skirt my childhood home. My grandmother's house still stands next door but has suffered renovation by a Salvidor Dali inspired nitwit who added a pond in the backyard, a plant shed, a hot tub and other out of place additions before going bankrupt. My mother is unclear who, if anyone, lives in the house now. Neighbors I grew up with have since died or moved out and been replaced by foul mouthed white trash drinking beer while racing their riding lawn mowers.

My mother still parcels out her day with gardening, chopping wood, breaking rocks with a 10 pound sledge hammer and babying a mangy mutt named Duchess who is three times her size. I went to Boise concerned about her health and hoping to get her to put aside her Christian Scientist leanings to get a check up and left, unsuccessful, but mildly comforted that my mother is amazingly vital for an 84-year old woman. I am grateful that she is able to stay in her house for now rather than wasting away in an assisted care facility.

The bright side of the trip was that all three of my mother's sons were with her on Mother's Day. I don't think that has happened once in at least two decades if ever. We gathered the day before and took my mother to a Chili's restaurant for dinner. My oldest brother groused a bit about going to a Chili's on a Friday night. He was sure we would have to wait for a table. It is something he inherited from my father. My father would panic if there was any kind of a wait to get into a restaurant and would immediately think of alternatives. Because God knows waiting 20-minutes to be seated is worth driving 30-minutes across town to find a restaurant with a table that is ready right now.

There was no waiting at the Chile's. Mom sat across from me intimidated by the glossy, multi-paged menu and the din of Chili's Saturday modest and basically young evening crowd (does Chili's have a senior citizen clientele at all).

My oldest brother ordered for my mother. I am not sure why there is ever any confusion about what she should order. She always orders cheeseburgers and then looks baffled at how big they are and how to eat them when they arrive. When this one arrived, my mother sat there staring at it and I encouraged her to dive in. She motioned towards my brother and his wife and I realized that, being born again Christians, they were saying grace. I shook my head and muttered, "Oh Lord," a little too loudly. No one heard me. My brothers have never heard me.

Mother's Day, everyone met at my middle brother's house to go out for breakfast. He wanted to go to some "Everything Egg's" restaurant that had opened up in a strip mall near where they live. I asked him what they served and he answered, "Eggs." My brothers never hear my humor either. The restaurant had a wait so we immediately all left and drove to an IHOP where there was also a wait. I resisted asking my brother what they served at the IHOP.

My mother sat staring baffled at the multi-paged, colorful IHOP menu. I am sure she would have ordered a cheese burger off from their lunch menu, but my oldest brother stepped in and ordered for again. As the oldest brother, I believe he thinks he has to step up to the plate for such major decisions (the ones about trying to get my mother to a doctor are left to me). My mother looked even more baffled when the french toast with a side of pancakes arrived. I just hunkered down to my chicken fried steak and eggs and drank bad IHOP coffee. After breakfast, we all went back to my middle brother's house. My oldest brother and his wife were driving back to Oregon, so they said their goodbyes and transferred my mother to me to get her home.

As I drove my mother home, I began to feel the signs of the bad cold my children and wife had had in the couple of weeks before my trip working their way through my body. I left my mother happily feeding her dog a Milkbone dog biscuit, retreated to my room at the Airport Comfort Inn, hunkered down and pretended the sounds of the freeway next door was the ocean.

Each day for the rest of the week I would get up, go to the pitiful little workout room with a treadmill and a stationary bike and work out. Then I'd drive to my mother's house, watch her do laundry or chop wood and ask her if she needed anything at the store. She'd tell me that she had plenty of frozen waffles and how she didn't like the chocolate Pop-Tarts she'd got at the grocery store when my oldest brother and his wife took her shopping on Saturday. I wasn't able to confirm until Wednesday that she did need to go the grocery store where we stocked up on dog treats and banquet frozen dinners.

After a couple of hours of watching my mom engaged happily in household chores, I would drive around the city on auto-pilot. I didn't really have any destination in mind. One day I went to the mall. Another I stopped at an antique mall. The next I ended up at the cemetery and visited a few relatives (including my great, great grandfather veteran of the lunatic asylum and the Civil War). I felt like a familiar stranger everywhere I went. Although I grew up in Boise, I have lived in Washington for more years than I did in Idaho.

A couple of nights I went out to dinner with my middle brother and the bulk of his family (wife and son home from college). Both nights were filled with political debates. He if far right and I am middle left in the political arena. Despite my best efforts to change the subject we always ended up slapping each other up side the head with our beliefs. His wife and son sat for the most part in uncomfortable silence. It was a familiar scenario for us all.

My last day in Boise, I checked out of my non-descript room at the Comfort Inn, packed up my leftover chips and sodas to give to my mom and drove over to take her out to one last lunch before I dropped off the rental car and checked in at the airport. My head still throbbed from inflamed sinuses aggravated by my cold and the stale air conditioning at the hotel. We settled on Red Robin where I was pretty sure mom would order yet another cheeseburger that I was pretty sure at this point would end up in a doggie bag that really would be for the dog.

Since my oldest brother wasn't there, I ordered a cheeseburger for my mom and watched her baffled look when it arrived and she pondered how to bite into it. My painful headache made it difficult to stifle my impatience as she turned it around and around.

"Just squish it down and cut it in two, mom," I snapped impatiently. She began giggling and I felt terrible since I know my mother laughs when she is uncomfortable and embarrassed. She began telling me a story about the neighbor named Misty and her husband Jesse. Misty was nicknamed Misty because she always got emotional at family visits and misted up. Mom asked Misty's husband Jesse if he had a sister named Layle since mom brother had once dated a woman named Lois who had had two children named Jesse and Layle. It was, of course a different Jesse, but once my mother's synapses fire in a particular direction, they don't change course easily.

It was the third or forth time I'd heard about Jesse and Misty that week. I wanted to scream that I didn't care about Jesse and Misty. They were renters in a monstrosity that had been plopped down next to my childhood home years after I had left the land of Famous Potatoes and the City of Trees (which really doesn't have that many trees). I told my mother that she had already told me this story. She stopped, blinked a few times, and began telling me about them again, from the beginning as if that would help. I sucked down the rest of my diet Coke to drown the scream of impatience.

I feel like a terrible son and a terrible person because I wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. If I had to be there, I wanted to be talking to my mother about how important it would be to go to the doctor and develop health care plan for her that didn't involve prayer, the Bible or simply ignoring any problems she had. I wanted to be talking to her about how I wanted my children to know their grandmother. I wanted to talk to her about how I wasn't ready to lose my mother even though people keep telling me that she is 84 years old and she has lived a good life.

But I had said those things at the beginning of the trip and been met with a look of betrayal and fear that told me my mother would never go to see a doctor and I was foolish to have taken this trip and tried to convince her otherwise. Now all I could do was sit there and listen to my mother talk about Jesse and his wife Misty and the Poinsettia they had given her for Christmas.

The check mercifully came and I paid it. Mom packed up her cheeseburger for the dog and we drove back to her house. I wandered from room to room looking at fade photos of my childhood mixed in with photos of nieces, nephews and unknown people that I imaged may have been Jesse and Misty. There was still about five hours until I needed to be at the airport, but I told my mother I needed to drop off the car and go. She hugged me and thanked me for everything I did. I hugged her and told her how much I loved her and that she had nothing to thank me for. I hadn't done anything.

The dog danced around her legs as I closed the gate and stepped into the rental car. My mother waved as I drove off. She's happy I told myself. She has her dog. She has her house and her garden and the neighbors who like her. I drove past the grade school I'd attended and headed toward the airport where I dropped off my rental car and then lucked out by getting on an early flight to my home and my wife and children.

The airplane lifted off and Boise settled back into the past.

4 comments:

Romany Angel said...

What a beautifully written, poignant post. I understand your worry and anxiety for your Mother but maybe she really is ok with her lot in life.

I was so relieved for you when you got back on that plane.

Time said...

Thanks Angel,
It is good to hear from you. I have wondered how you are doing. Well I hope.

Naughti Biscotti said...

Wow! You captured me with this one. This should be published. The photo you included may be blurry, but the word-picture you created of your family has never been clearer.

I can really relate to this... on so many levels. But, you know that.

Time said...

NB,
I figured you would be able to relate to it (no pun intended). It is awkward at best to be a tourist in the place you grew up in.

I have to tell you I have pretty much given up on publishing anything outside of blogging or self-publishing. And the only reason I will self publish is so that my children can some day read what I've written and understand where I came from and why I am the way I am.