After three sets of company in a week or so, I’m almost overwhelmed with information to process. This is the real cost of guests I haven’t seen for many years or haven’t ever seen before. They were generous about taking me out to dinner, paying for the gas to drive around looking at things, paying for the gas to get here at all, enduring the strangeness of a small high prairie town with its undependable weather and interesting but inexplicable inhabitants. Some enjoyed my geology and history lectures more than others.
Part of being a writer is digesting experience, though it is a mistake to digest so much that one is digesting one’s own “stomach” rather than this other “nourishment” offered by the world and events. So this is the real contribution of company, though it is dangerous for them, and dangerous for the relationships themselves. What might be seen that was always safely hidden before? What panic, what affection, what new decisions about, well, how to live.
The first set was my cousin and her husband from Santa Ana. They are just a bit older than me and far more conventional -- or so I think. Maybe they aren’t at all. The husband is computer-literate and a source of those right-wing Fox/Beck jokes that another friend sends me. I just forward them all on to the other one -- pass the crackers. Now and then I zap them -- just too nasty. What I discovered is that this husband is aware, that he often has his tongue in his cheek, that he is more worldly than I thought. He has just beaten back a virulent cancer that kills most, with the help of chemotherapy and a Kindle. These guys read their way through life.
His wife, my cousin, brought me a stack of magazines. You saw my review of “Selvedge.” The interest in fabrics, sewing, design, goes back into our mothers and beyond them to our grandmother-in-common, homesteading on the prairie with limited resources, endlessly remodeling the clothing on hand, not just patching: redesigning. There is no need to patch for my cousin. They have done well in life, made it to retirement in a lovely home with a stoop-free garden of raised beds for healthy meals.
This couple raised four boys together, the oldest of which is fifty. I simply cannot comprehend this. In my mind they are barely in high school. They say that raising boys keeps the older folks aware, challenged, and informed. One of them is a chef at Big Sky. One is a spectacular photographer. All are lively, hard-driving, informed men who take their father off once a year for “male-bonding” on a deep-sea fishing boat.
The second batch was the daughter of another cousin and her computer-matched boyfriend. My two cousins, both on my father’s side, made very different choices in life, much more mainstream than me, so it is interesting that their children have stepped away from the conventions and risk losing all prosperity. These youngsters are nearly thirty, still living at home, use the computer as extensions of themselves, and live what I might call “scrutinized lives” esp. when it comes to food and gizmos. This young woman is also a gifted photographer. She had not known about the photos by the son of the other cousin. We are all geographically separated, unlike my two cousins and I who were often together at family events.
The third batch was not related to me at all. Mike Burgwin is the best boss I ever had and guided me back to life in a time when I really wouldn’t have cared much if I’d died -- an attitude that made me usefully brave as an ACO. (Animal Control Officer.) Burgwin, at eighty, had a blast of a birthday party and is following it up with a tour of his friends around the West. Lorna, my age, was just getting acquainted with some of us. Burgwin, a big man in several senses, was as full of mischief and intelligence as ever, but some of the surprises of a risky life had not been happy ones and he’s processing quite a lot of experience -- which may be part of the trip. He and I told one wild story after another while Lorna kibitzed. Mike also had four sons, the oldest of which is sixty and yearning to write even if it means life on the streets.
The first guests rented a motel room in town. The second ones stayed in my “bunkhouse.” The third splurged at the Stone School Inn Bed and Breakfast which turned out to be a major success, esp. the breakfasts! I went over for coffee -- can’t eat special Montana pancakes and other treats anymore, but they could. Yogurt, fruit, a table side fireplace, plenty of banter. It was terrific.
I’m not used to company and I’m not used to thinking of others. We only came to grief once. My young company insisted on washing the dishes, though I asked them not to. They were raised in the suburbs with all the amenities and their mothers taught them to help the hostess, but washing dishes in a household with no dishwasher is different and I have many small techniques: separating kinds of dishes, for instance, “cat kosher” so I never eat from their bowls; dishcloths that are changed every second or third day and then washed in laundry; air-drying rather than wiping dishes dry; using bleach for some kinds of dishes and for some of the flatware but not all. I ignored the first night they snuck around behind me to wash the dishes anyway. The second night I came down hard and it was apparent that they were NOT used to anyone rebuking them so loudly and definitely. Good thing it was late in the visit. We had stumbled into a whole different set of terms.
One of the reasons I like to wash the dishes after the company has gone, even if it’s only to bed, is that it gives me a chance to relive the evening. I call it “replaying the tapes” in my head while I go through the small routine. The main insight of all three visits was how much difference there is between generations, between cousins who made different choices, between different educations and contexts. There’s no point in saying one is better than the other, but it’s clear that we should be wary and forgiving.