Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Nostalgia Overload

As if visiting my old life in San Francisco weren't enough, I took a mid-week flight to my original hometown of Long Beach, California for a friend's wedding. Now, this wasn't just any old friend marrying any old guy. This was Diane, one of Inner Circle gals I've known since First Grade, marrying Jeff Laing, a guy I've known since kindergarten. We always thought she was too picky about guys, turns out she was just waiting to rediscover someone who was around most of her life.

I grew up with a very special batch of humans, an unusually close group of people that have kept the same friendships well into adulthood. I recall even teachers at all of our schools commenting on it. "What is up with your class?" said one in high school, "I've never seen such a glued group before." Diane has kept the same friends over the years, as did Jeff, and yes, the orbits mix and so the wedding was The Reunion of the Century. Even my mother was there.

To add to this, not only does everyone still know each other but quite often, we've married one another and if it didn't work out, switched spouses within the same group. I have two friends who ultimately married the Best Man from their first wedding. As one said to me, "Well, he was the best man, after all!"

I feel quite lucky in this regard as I went through a lot of surgeries as a kid and explained my situation a small handful of times and that was it. Because we never moved, the same kids knew my situation and formed a protective barrier around me.

This all proved alarming to a former beau who came from a tiny idyllic town in New Hampshire. He'd just assumed that Southern California contained shallow friendships and transient relationships. Nothing that lasts, nothing that has roots, could possibly thrive amongst the bikinis and palm trees. He now admits that he was wrong, that "weird pockets of small town" exist throughout LA and its environs.

In this photo, you see the bride and groom in white and the other folks, including me, who all went to kindergarten together. Makes me wonder if my romantic disasters are a result of trying to date outside The Gang dating pool. Should I get out my old yearbooks and see if I missed a possible mate?

Friday, September 21, 2007

My Mother's House

After a trade show whirlwind in San Francisco, I escaped Wednesday evening to Long Beach, California - to my mother's house. It is the home I grew up in and I type this now from my childhood bedroom.

My mother's home is famous among many for its warm, homey atmosphere and its magical sway in making you want to eat and drink. The moment you walk in the door, you feel a sudden urge for meatloaf ... and perhaps a cocktail? The home is located in a tidy suburb along the Lakewood border. When I brought a boyfriend here, he'd commented, "It looks like something out of "Edward Scissorhands." (Obviously, he was referring to the 'hood where the Avon-selling Dianne Wiest character lived, not Vincent Price.) Another friend simply refers to my mother's house as "The Americana Museum" which sums it up nicely.

Mama Iva's place is the Safe House where all are welcome and fed. Friends of both mine and my brother's have lived here for months at a time and many a pal has eaten their way through the kitchen as my mother is famous for having endless amounts of food. Right now, she has 2.5 refrigerators and one giant freezer. We think it may be due to her NoDak childhood where a family could be snowed in for months at a time. The thing is, Mama Iva has been a Californian since her senior year in high school so we're not sure if that theory can explain the giant bags of Swedish meatballs and shrimp cocktail.

Quite simply, the home fully reflects my mother and the essence of who she is. She is, first and foremost, a mother but she is also a mother who is a woman who is an American who is from North Dakota. She likes food (cooking, serving, eating), she likes wine, she likes music and she likes to laugh. She is proud of her family's history and it shows in antiques and old family photographs. It also shows in her care of the 1953 jukebox that gave my dad a hernia when he was dragging it up to the second floor.

I'm especially pleased with the photo of Betsy, the old horse from her childhood that she rode to the one-room schoolhouse every day in NoDak - bareback, of course. Betsy would often flip her off when it was time and little Iva would pick herself up, brush herself off, tie up the old horse and begin the day's learning. That the horse is still beloved and remembered by my mother, well, I think it's pretty damn cool.

Gather 'round children: Before the Internet, little Robbie and Heather Clisby learned everything they needed from this set of Encyclopedia Britannica. Knowledge was more tangible before Wikipedia.

Closets contain magical secrets at Mama Iva's House. This one is the Games Closet which is upstairs, also known as The Party Room.

The contractors thought my mother was crazy when she requested a cutting board for the upstairs bathroom. "For cutting limes, of course!" she replied. Those of you who know me, is it all starting to make sense?

Picture books that sit on the antique piano belie our family's favored regions.

The Disco Ball in the den has always represented the apex of style here at Case de Mama Iva. It hovers above antiques, Sinatra CDs and furniture involving mechanical back massagers. This is the room that occasionally holds the large dance floor my mother had specially made. It takes two guys to bring it in from the garage and piece together. She usually sprinkles it with corn starch to keep her friends from slipping while they boogie down.

Behold, The Party Closet. I'm not making up these names. She'll say things to me like, "Can you grab a bottle of red out of the Party Closet?" She keeps all kinds of goodies here. Just this morning, she apologized for waking me as I sleep in the same room as said closet. "Sorry, Heather, I need to get some chips out of the Party Closet for the boys at work." There are also several Craft Closets left over from the 70s and a couple of Gift Closets too - both are dangerous to open.

My mother owns tons of great albums and she has been a quiet influence on my musical tastes over the years. It was she who opened me up to Billie Holiday, Sinatra and Les Paul, not to mention the joy of big bands. I've openly admitted that I plan on 'borrowing' at least one album per visit with only a vague intention of returning it. As I now enjoy mostly vinyl (another blog post entirely) these days, I feel it makes the most musical sense. Let's hope MI agrees.

As I mentioned, antiques galore decorate the place. Here are some shoes that belonged to my Grandma Myrtle (who was married to Wilbur - that's how White I am.) The shoes on the top were those she wore on her wedding day in NoDak.

This typewriter belonged to my Grandpa Wilbur and he LOVED it. He would type with his two index fingers and made labels, wrote letters and used it long before it became mainstream. It's strange but Wilbur had a specific typing style and family members might say, "Oh, Wilbur must've written that - you can tell by the typing." The tradition has been carried down as my mother prides herself on her secretarial skills. I used to play 'office' on this machine as a child and as an adult, was once clocked at 95 words per minute with zero errors. I owe it all this baby, right here.

Then, there is the teddy bear that my brother and I had as children. It is the only possession that we get competitive about. "Hey, my teddy bear!" he will say. "No, that's MINE!" I will counter. My mother will sigh and inform us that it was simply passed along and to just move on since it's now hers and hey, how about a glass of wine?

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Double Life

My existence is a bit manic as it involves straddling two worlds - my old life in San Francisco and my spanking new life in Denver. As my client insists I show my face in the Bay Area at least once a month, I'm never given a chance to fully miss my fabulous former hometown. I welcome the opportunity to keep in touch but there are moments of confusion so profound that I find myself forgetting where I live.

This afternoon, I had to call my pal, Gins, to ask an important question: "Where do I live? I have a faint memory of moving somewhere, does that ring a bell?"

She reminded me of my Colorado address, the garden, my new friends and the little cat waiting for me to come home. "Okay, yeah, that's what I thought. Just checking," I said.

I've spent the last few days staying at my old apartment (now my cousin's place) and enjoyed a fabulous night on the town (saw Sinead O'Connor at the Davies Symphony Hall) with my former beau. I'm now sitting the in the same office I sat in for years and suddenly, it feels like nothing has changed.

This is good and bad, depending on the day, but it's mostly just plain creepy.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Never Underestimate a Dead Tree

When my family visits North Dakota, we always stay at the same place, The Forestwood Inn in Walhalla. We've seen it through many incarnations and owners and it's now the best it has ever been - a new convenience store/movie rental place now attached, free continental breakfasts (with faux Fruit Loops!) and a sweet, welcoming staff. This year, we gifted homemade desserts and homegrown tomatoes to the ladies and they were even nicer.

In front of the motel on the same lot, is the Walhalla Inn, a local restaurant and bar - the only type of that combo in town. There is a gravel dirt parking lot between the two buildings and we always seem to be there on Bingo Night. (Tip: Aoid the sad little salad bar and just order a big-ass steak; that's really what they do best.)

Alongside the inn, facing the town, are three wood sculptures, each carved from a single tree. One is definitely Teddy Roosevelt and another is, I believe, General Custer. The third is a Native American; I'm not sure if he a specific person or a representative. I should find this out next time. My gosh, I don't even know who carved them or how old they are! It just seems like they've always been there and I've only come to appreciate them the last decade or so.

Many years of below-freezing temperatures and hot, muggy summers have weathered their faces into something quite God-like. I have photographed them numerous times; always, I feel drawn in. This year, first time with digital SLR, I shot them again in my usual routine way.

I always ponder the irony of these beautiful works of art planted right next to an ugly square air conditioner. Or heater. Or whatever the hell it is. The contrast of something that represents nature, spirits and our nation's colorful history next to a cold hard example of our modern comfy lifestyle - I never seem to get enough of it.

So, when I got a chance this month, I trotted over and took the usual shots. Even though the wood carvings were chained up, I'm always amazed that they are basically left alone - never any graffiti or carved initials. Teddy and Custer are always together and the Kaw-Liga character was always off on his own, sulking, it seemed.

This time, as I was taking shots of the Indian, I felt an unmistakable tug. There was something in his eyes that I didn't see in the other two - Teddy looked past me, Custer, right through me. This guy was looking me straight in the eye. Peering through the viewfinder one time, I nearly jumped.

I don't know why but I felt a wave of emotion that came from out of nowhere, something deep and horribly sad. My eyes teared up and my camera got a bit wet, so I put the camera down, to collect myself. I just kept looking deeper into the Indian's eyes and suddenly, it felt like a two-way street. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and then, I saw it: the same track of tears falling down the Indian's face.

I just sat there, dumbfounded, and held his woeful gaze. At some point, I mumbled aloud, "I'm sorry. I am so, so sorry."

Then, I wiped my face, checked the perimeters for witnesses and took my shot. Shaken, I packed up my gear and headed back to the Forestwood, but not before stumbling over his chains.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Today's Lessons

Imagine that I came home today and a Ward Cleaver character asked me the inevitable, "So, what'd you learn today, kitten?" Here's what I'd say:

"Thanks for asking. Here are three fun facts I picked up today while swimming around in the world:

You can FedEx horses.

Fewer jobs in rural areas means more young people enlist in the military. As a result, these families suffer more casualties per capita than the rest of the country.

In ancient Ireland, a king's subjects ritually demonstrated their submission by sucking on the ruler's nipples.

So, um, what's for dinner?"

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Family Legacy

It's a long story but here's the short version: My grandfather, Wilbur Paton, collected enough old stuff and buildings illustrating North Dakota pioneer life to create a museum called "Paton's Isle of Memories." Since his passing in 1976, my family has lain awake many a night wondering what to do with his passion project located in the northeast corner of North Dakota - not a high traffic area.

Bit by bit, the collection has finally found a home.

It began a few years ago, when we donated the crown jewel of the museum to the Pembina County Historical Society which installed it on their grounds at the Icelandic State Park. It was the homestead house that my great-grandfather, Adam Currie Paton, built for his family in 1882. As an old-timer pointed out to me, it was widely-known the first saw-cut house in the region (so cutting edge!) and, more importantly, it was where my grandfather was born. Here it is being lifted on its foundation - a delicate process which takes hours. I must have chewed off all my nails watching this while my mother stood nearby, fretting.

After days of inching the antique building up and over, it finally hit the road, the drivers careful to choose routes with no telephone wires. My family fell in hot pursuit; it was a surreal feeling to follow your grandfather's house along a country road. "Pleeeeeeease don't tip over," was all I could think. Built in 1882 and filled with ancient furniture, I could only hold my breath those long 16 miles to help the house reach its final destination.

Eventually, Grandpa's house reached its final resting place, the Icelandic State Park. For the last few years, the Pembina County Historical Society has carefully inventoried every single item in the house (including the hay beds, chamber pots and clothing from the late 1800s) while cleaning and repainting the building. This year, we revisited and it was such a joy to see it set up for public viewing. A placard had been placed on the front of the house, giving credit where it is due, especially to my mother, who was clearly pleased with the progress.

When the house was initially moved, it was a sad day for my family - the end of my grandfather's dream. The house had been nestled between an antique church, the one-room schoolhouse (attended by my grandfather, grandmother, mother and many others) and a quonset hut that included a music room, blacksmith shop, barber shop, country store, kitchen and machinery collection. With the house heading down the road, my mother stood where the house had been and cried, "It looks like a missing tooth." It was an emotional trip.

This visit brought more closure for us, in more ways than one. While we were at the state park, we noticed a young family visiting the grounds. The young mother of two approached us and I immediately introduced my mother, by now a local celebrity.

"Yes, they told me who you were," she said, "I just wanted to thank you for sharing your family's history so we can all enjoy it." I couldn't remember the last time I'd witnessed such a poignant moment.

My Mom just smiled, her face happy with relief. She did good.

To be continued ...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I'm Back

After several days on the open road, I am reluctant to reconnect with the 'real' world. (I'm only forced to do so because I have over 300 photos that must be downloaded, labeled, tagged and, in many cases, deleted.)

Being in places where the population is small and the sky is big, the world feels different. Slower, of course, but also more connected. With room to think, you ponder silence and how rare it is. Beyond the wind, a distant 'moo' and the hum of a nearby tractor, the High Plains are dead still.

You see a way of life that is slowly dying and an agriculture industry that has long gone corporate. You see grain elevators and forgotten churches, one-room schoolhouses and a variety of roadkill. You see the two-fingered wave that locals automatically give to another passing car. You see boarded up businesses, hay bales and lots of cows.

Funny but even though there is no one around, you always get the sense that eyes are on you. Small towns have that feeling that whatever you do, someone will witness it and by lunch, everyone in town knows you wore your pink shoes to pump gas. I remember feeling this way in Africa. Sure, it looked like no one was out there but as soon as we stopped, people would seemingly come out of the grass.

I dug it. Seems like the perfect mix of solitude and community. Then again, I imagine it's even better when you're just passing through ...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Deep in Dakota - Please Hold

Joy of joys, I am posting from North Dakota, my favorite underdog state. I hit the road last Saturday - me, some snacks and a ton of CDs. MAN, was it a beautiful drive. I always get terribly emotional about my country when I drive across it. Going through Nebraska while listening to "Mercy" by Mary Gauthier and I just started sobbing. Made me realize there's a ton of love behind all my political rage.

So, I've been without cell phone or Internet until just a few minutes ago. I've taken a shitload of gorgeous photos - editing is gonna be hard.

I'm now hanging out with my brother in a motel, watching "Gunsmoke" and eating cheese and crackers. I spent the afternoon making friends with six horses. They looked tough but I came bearing carrots and that was that. Once I gave one a head rub, they all wanted one. JOY.