November 30th, 2016 by Karen
If you’ve never been to Eastern Oregon, then you probably know very little about it. If you’ve just ever passed through, but never stopped, then you’ll likely say it’s a desolate place, full of empty spaces, too much sagebrush, occasional cattle herds, and far fewer people. But for me, the high, dry desert of that corner of Oregon holds something amazing…family.
The history of my family in the area is storied and vast, tied up in the pioneer days of the country, and right around the time Oregon became a state. It’s full of hardship, hard times, and hard work. My ancestors founded towns and built roads. It’s the story of immigrants who came by ships to California and to Ellis Island, by wagon across the plains, by horseback, by train, and by foot. So much of who I am is tied to that pioneer work ethic.
We would visit in the summers and every other Christmas to spend time with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and extended family. Visits in my childhood consisted of a whirlwind of activity. Of feeding sheep and chickens. Of milking cows and giving bottles to bummer calves. Of shearing and hay and dirt and the fair. Trips to town where in the summer we were summarily tossed into the local pool for awhile, and in the winter it was to pop into the Emporium, Kinney and Keele, or D&B and to drive around and look at the Christmas lights, then maybe a stop at Albertson’s for something random…it was always cornstarch or bandaids or karo syrup it seemed. And then we would go to the Argus.
Passing through the doors to the newspaper was like entering another world. It smelled of ink and carbon paper, photo chemicals and freshly brewed coffee. While people outside strolled and smiled in a laid back way, inside that building was a bustling microcosm that was spun and danced, at least in my child-eyes, solely at the direction of my Grandma Chris.
She was five foot nothing on a good day with gray hair that later gave way to white and she was always dressed smartly in a coat and skirt or slacks and flat black shoes. And always the swipe of lipstick. In those doors, she was in charge (unless Fran was around, because technically he was the publisher) and we never could stay long because there was always something happening that needed her attention.
Grandma took her coffee black. So black I think you could strip paint with it. I remade more than one pot of coffee for her because it was too weak for her liking. She ran on the stuff.
She knew everyone and everything about everyone. She remembered the history of buildings and houses and who had lived where and thousands of details about places, events, and people long since past. She was the consummate storyteller, and if you were the subject of the story, you may or may not have appreciated it, but she would get the minutia cringingly correct, every single time.
When she wasn’t at the Argus, she became a teacher. Not in the school sense necessarily, but she taught constantly.
At her knee, I learned to pick straw from wool that my uncles and grandpa had just sheared, how to card it, and finally how to spin it. I learned how to collect eggs carefully so I wouldn’t break them and how to can a wide variety of things. I learned how to make pie crust from scratch and how to knead bread. I learned how to properly stack the woodpile (more than once) and how to change a typewriter ribbon. I learned how to knit, again, and again, and again. I learned not to walk behind horses or cows. I learned not to stay on the party line talking to friends because that was rude. I learned how to watch for black ice on the sidewalks. I learned that the top line of notes in the music book at church was the soprano line and that’s what we sang, but her handbell music was very different. I learned she loved Brigadoon and Big Band music, but not Sinatra. Never Sinatra. I learned that she loved Christmas and always treated each of us grandchildren equally, even though we were plentiful, and we each would receive something handmade from her. I learned that even though they bickered and argued, she loved grandpa unconditionally, probably because he was the only man who dared to stand up to her. I learned that family is everything.
She was the first one to put a book about mythology in my hands. In fact, she put a lot of books in my hands. She’d sit me down in grandpa’s tan leather chair next to the fireplace, hand me a book and just say “Why don’t you read this.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Read this. And this. And this. I must have read hundreds of books in that chair by the fireplace through the years. History books about Scotland, England, Europe, Egypt, America, the Owyhee, and the Bannock Indian Wars. Books about ghost towns, archaeology, the Nazca lines, burial mounds, settlers the world over, gardening, animals, and roses. Poe, Dickens, Alcott, Keats, Burns, and Tennyson. If it was in print, she was likely to hand it to me to read.
Sometimes, she’d come to the living room with her camera bag slung over her shoulder and say “Let’s go.” She’d bundle me into the car and we’d go bouncing down some dirt road that almost wasn’t a road anymore to some nearly forgotten family cemetery she’d heard about. She taught me how to carefully pull the weeds from the stones and she’d take pictures of each one. I learned how to use charcoal and tracing paper to get a rubbing of the name on stones that were too faded to read and she’d take pictures of those too. She always made sure that I did a really good job on the stones of little ones. We would talk about why sometimes there would be so many in a short span and I learned about typhoid, and cholera, and consumption. I learned sometimes there were stones outside the fence, usually belonging to horse thieves and rustlers, though as a child I didn’t understand what the genteel sounding ‘lady of the night’ on some of them meant. We took photos of those ones too. I wish I knew where all these pictures ended up, but knowing her they’ve been in the safekeeping of a museum or college for some time now.
My other best memories mostly involve the kitchen.
One time she and I worked and toiled for hours and hours making gallons of jars of apricot jam only to have part of the center butcher block in the kitchen collapse right as we finished, breaking half of our work. She and I stood there in shock for a moment and then just started laughing. Grandpa tried to come through the kitchen right afterwards and all he got for his concern about the loud crash was “Dammit Bill, your boots are muddy! Get out!” which was hilarious because the floor was covered in still hot jam and shards of glass. We must have mopped and re-mopped that floor for two days before your shoes wouldn’t stick to it.
Another time my cousin Jen and I decided that we would clean the entire kitchen for her as a surprise for their wedding anniversary. We took everything out of all the cupboards, cleaned the shelves meticulously, then put it all away. In different places, of course. She did thank us graciously for our thoughtfulness, but then we got to help put it all away properly. It took hours and she sat and drank coffee while we did it.
One year at Christmas, I brought all the makings for tamales with us as a surprise for Joel as it’s his family’s Christmas tradition. I was slapping tamales all alone in the kitchen and she came in for another cup of her famously strong coffee. She watched for a few minutes, then sat herself down with me and said “Well, that looks like something my arthritic hands can still do” and between us we made over a hundred tamales and laughed heartily together at family stories she had told before, but were no less funny for the retelling.
As dementia slowly stole her away in her final years, the moments we shared grew fewer, but no less cherished. In my aunt Nancy’s kitchen we sat at a more recent Christmas, just the two of us, me with a skein of yarn crocheting away and her with her coffee. In silence, we watched my cousins and uncles and the great-grandkids outside as they sledded and played in the snow. Then she suddenly grabbed my wrist and said “You’re Leah’s eldest, but I can’t remember your name.” I told her ‘Karen Michelle’ and she sighed “That’s right. I forget too much anymore. I’ve been meaning to tell you, there’s a cupboard on the third floor at the ranch in Jordan Valley. It’s full of all my yarn that I made and fabric that I bought with my egg money. There might be some roving there too for the spinning wheel, but I can’t remember. I may have already spun it. I want you to have it all.”
I didn’t have the heart to remind her that the third story of the ranch house was long gone before I was born and that I had only seen it in pictures and heard her tell stories of the dances held up there and the bats and the squeaky stairs.
She wanted to give me one last gift. How could I tell her no?
I simply squeezed her hand and told her thank you. And she smiled her huge smile at me and drank her coffee.
I miss her terribly already.