Thursday, December 06, 2007

7 + 7 = 14 YEARS OLD

Here’s my seven plus seven: fourteen years old in Portland, OR. Actually, Pearl Lee to the far right was a bit older since she came from China when the Japanese invaded. She joined us in fifth grade.

Joyce Thomas to the far left. She eventually married, had two little boys, and was widowed. Our paths diverged after early high school though that first year we were in the same algebra class where Mr. Knudson initiated us into the mysteries of “x.” Next in the lineup is Joan McGowan, who used her college money to buy a pea-green Thunderbird. Many stories there. Third is myself. Pearl married a man from her church, though his name was also Lee which was supposed to be bad luck. Proving that idea totally wrong, they’ve had a long and fruitful life with three excellent kids and much work as Baptist missionaries, esp. when Hong Kong changed hands.

We are standing in my yard just before setting out on the two mile trek to Jefferson High School. We walked down Alberta street and sometimes Joanie’s boyfriend walked along with us. There were no school-owned buses, but we could have taken the Alberta bus. This was 1953 and we were thrifty -- you can see we’re carrying our lunches. No one thought this was good for one’s health. We had a good time. Later in my high school career I was in plays and walked the two miles four times daily. The street was not considered particularly dangerous at night then, but my mother often came for me if we rehearsed past nine PM, and took several others home as well.

This was the family Christmas portrait for 1953. The cat was my eighth grade graduation present IF I would cut my hair. It’s name was Willis, for the Martian in Heinlein’s “Red Planet Mars.” The dog, Duncan McTavish, is at my mother’s feet. He was a Scottie/Sealyham cross. The sofa is a Hide-a-Bed made necessary by my coming of age -- I had to have a room of my own and there were only two small bedrooms upstairs so my parents moved down to the front room.

You can see by our expressions that this was a hard time. Not too long earlier we’d been in a car accident -- hit a stopped school bus from behind because my father was hurrying and arguing with my mother. She hit the windshield hard, but thanks to safety glass did not go through as her sister had done long ago, cutting her throat and killing her. My mother was wearing a thick felt beret that cushioned her head, but her earring cut her neck so there was blood trickling down. Paul, the youngest brother, was sitting in front next to the door because we kids had been quarreling in the back. My mother threw out her arm to protect him and broke her own arm close to the wrist. We had not realized how vulnerable we were. We had not realized that we kids were getting too big to travel around as a family group.

My mother had just begun to understand that something was wrong with my father. He still functioned on his job and so on, but he was at the beginning of what unraveled into something like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s by the time he died in his Sixties. He had sustained a bad concussion while traveling on the job alone in 1948. A drunk hit him head-on at night on a winding narrow coastal road. My mother didn’t understand what was wrong, but she could see she needed to finish her teaching degree “so she could put Mary through college.” She started classes with a cast on her arm.

This was the point where I essentially left my family, though I was there every night in my room, awash in papers, clothes, the dolls I wasn’t quite ready to put away, incomplete projects for school. The cat went out every night, got tired of cold rain about 4AM and wanted back in, so I went down and opened the front door, then went back to bed -- sidling past the opened hideabed. The cat, soaked, always made it back to the bed before I did, which was one reason I wore big thick flannel nightgowns I made myself.

If my father were traveling, which was almost always the case, my mother would get up and study. It took her a while to recover the vocabulary she’d had at twenty -- and anyway, a lot had changed since that pre-WWII time. She was taking classes at Portland State College, a transformation of Vanport College which had been flooded out in the great 1948 flood that changed Portland. Vanport was meant to serve the Korean Veterans, so they were my mother’s classmates and that was a good thing. Trying to address their version of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which was mostly denied in those days, there was emphasis on a kind of sharing and support group (“T groups” they were cryptically called) which my mother probably needed almost as much as they did. Her mother had died of cancer a few years earlier and some of her relatives blamed her -- said it was caused by worry over her marriage in defiance of my grandfather. If her father had died of cancer, the story would have been quite different. But he came through with a loan for tuition and going back to school was the best thing that could have happened to my mother.

This is what shapes families: misadventures, new beginnings, family interpretations -- always pushed along by changing times, natural events, kids growing up and adults growing old. Like a passing parade of umbrellas, a certain way of understanding what happens seem clear and sheltering (sometimes called “canopies” to suggest a religious aspect)-- then that one goes on and there’s a bit of exposure to rain until the next one is there for shelter. In those days we were all supposed to have “good personalities,” meaning cheerful and evasive of difficult subjects. That umbrella still works in Valier. Also, the emphasis on never spending money if it’s not absolutely necessary and clinging to the original marriage homestead throughout life. The family was what counted and still does in many parts of the world.

But now the idea is to strive for individual success, to go as far as you can go in terms of prestige and profit, moving as necessary, discarding partnerships and institutions as is convenient. I’ve done too much moving on to my taste. My cousins have been better able to hang onto the house their parents built or the jobs that started with long ago. On the Strachan side the family still counts, though sometimes it draws in tight to just the nuclear group. Then a new generation forces expansion.

Going to college in Chicago or even going to college at all had not registered with me at fourteen. Graduation from high school was a cliff and an abyss. Unimaginable. I went with a drama group to visit the University of Oregon and stayed in a sorority house, slept on a screened sleeping porch in a bunkbed, and was escorted through the brand-new U of O stage complex. It was like being in a dream. The sorority had a grand piano painted shrimp pink -- the strangest thing I’d ever seen.

We got a television set about this time: smallish, black and white. The big Western series were on -- Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Paladin, and my fav, Cheyenne. Strong men as shelter. My mother’s favorite was Sergeant Preston which came on while she fixed supper. She’d dash out of the kitchen with the dish towel in her hands, watch standing up until the ad break, then dash back to the kitchen for more peeling and stirring. One night about this time of year she was standing there, alongside the front door, and heard a key in the lock.

Thinking it was my father, she reached over and pulled the door open. In came a strange man, hanging onto the knob to stay upright since he was quite drunk. “Wrong house, buddy!” exclaimed my mother as she spun him around and pushed him back out the door, then quickly hooked the screen. She was Sergeant Preston to us.

When my father got home and found the screen hooked, he was a bit miffed until he heard the story. None of us realized that in a way he was leaving the family, too. We were going on without his participation or advice, not even needing his income as much. There was never a legal divorce and he still lived there, but he lived sort of parallel. In the early Sixties he lost his job, held a smattering of new ones, then died. There was a long space and then my youngest brother suffered a similar head trauma from falling -- with similar effects -- and lived with my mother until her death.

In this portrait of the family, the pictures on the walls are still the ones that had been put there when my parents moved in as newlyweds. In fact, many of them were wedding presents. But now they began to change as my mother redecorated with new ideas of how things ought to be. Up in my own room, I painted the walls pale green and papered the bed alcove with daisies. In four years one brother had joined the Marines and the other moved into my room. He sent me a post card: “Roses are red and Cheyenne is back. I’ve painted your room so the daisies are black.” I didn’t care. I’d moved on to Ingmar Bergman, headed for seven plus seven plus seven: twenty-one, another cliff and abyss.

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