“Our family is permanent.” So affirmed my granddaughter Tess on a Christmas card when she was five. She’s now 13.
There are nine of us: Roxanne and I; our daughter Michel, her husband Sid and their daughters Clara and Tess, the Kysylyczyns; and our son Vincent, his wife Amelie and their two year old daughter Neko. Currently we all live here on the south side of the city in separate residences within a few miles of each other. Both Roxanne’s and my parents are deceased. She and I as well as Sid and Amelie come from extended families, and we mix casually and frequently. It’s easy to see how Tess would infer family durability as a self evident truth.
Our nuclear family vacations epitomize all the dynamics composing who we are, maybe more so this year than any other. We have convened in northern Minnesota, of course, and also southern Utah, Normandy in France and Venice in Italy while the Kysyslyczyns lived in Switzerland. Not all together every year, as it’s hard to get simultaneous time off for the working kids. Family vacation in fact revived itself as our kids matured and took a greater interest in spending time with Roxanne and me. We used to go camping and sightseeing around the region when they were little kids. For Michel’s 13th birthday we took a road trip west to Los Angeles, saw Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Hollywood and Compton — it was 1991 and I used to say for that birthday I gave her the Pacific Ocean. Vincent got the Caribbean, Cancun and the Yucatan at Chichen Itza. The teenage years, high school, then college, significant others, jobs, independence leading to an empty nest nurtured a gap in spending extended leisure time with parents. Before Michel married Sid we took an extended weekend to Wisconsin Dells and lived in a water park, rode the Ducks and got an old timey family portrait. I’ve always wished they would come down for a week and stay with us at Ixtapa, but that’s another story. The family vacation revival emerged while our kids grew up and seemed to notice we were still rather viable people who liked to go places and do things. This coincided with the advent of grandchildren, along with the grandparents having the means to front group excursions, and as products of opportunity and common prosperity the family vacation evolved towards tradition. Vincent became an expert at finding cabins on lakes near the Canadian border. Roxanne and Michel collaborated to find accommodations at cosmopolitan destinations or near national parks.
Last summer we planned a week in late June near Rocky Mountain National Park. Roxanne booked a home-away rental at a town called Allenspark, near the Beaver Meadows entrance to the national park. She booked it about seven months in advance and we had until April to cancel and get our deposit back. Last year was ZOZO, the lost year. The covid-19 pandemic wiped out not only that vacation but practically shut down Thanksgiving and Christmas and all our birthdays and most every occasion we took for granted as commonplace. It seemed we saw more of the Kysylyczyns when they lived in Switzerland. Back then we used Skype. During ZOZO it was FaceTime. We formed a pod with Vincent and Amalie so we could sometimes watch Neko, who was out of day care, while Amalie worked from home and Vincent looked for work. We wore masks. We got tested at least three times. We knew well before April there would be no vacation in Colorado that June.
No sojourn to Mexico for that matter.
ZOZO, the long lost year of deprivation and sacrifice, anxiety, loneliness, disconnection and a massive disruption of society as we simultaneously erupted in a great clamor to survive, eventually evolved into a new year of hope and aspiration. In the depth of a petulant winter the vaccines arrived.
Roxanne polled the family and we decided to try again for Colorado. She picked a commodious rental in the town of Estes Park, nearer to the same entrance to the national park.
Spring disinfected the terrain and brought the earth back to life like Lazarus. Construction displaced demolition where the riots of ZOZO burned. Our governor, Tim Balz-to-the Walz, a reasonable and pragmatic, plain-spoken leader who, when he erred he did so out of compassion and too much trust in people to police themselves, lifted significant public restrictions related to the pandemic although he did not terminate his emergency powers just yet. Shyly and tepidly we emerged like kidnapped tourists with blindfolds off at the light of dawn. The numbers were really going down. Despite an unbelievable cohort of yahoos bent on self-destruction through self-delusion and self-centered misinformation, somehow the politics of all being in this together was working, people could actually see that all the cooperation through ZOZO and the self-sacrifice we put in was paying benefits in disease mitigation. Mitigation of the economic impact by the new liberal administration in DC, administrated through our state, kept the wolves from the doors and cracks from swallowing whole communities. Much as people resented the prohibited aspects of the big ZOZO shutdown it was vividly evident this spring that most of us were lucky, it could have been so much worse if we had done nothing. In a predicament where it seemed assured everybody was going to take a haircut, some of us only seemed to take a trim — and got an extra $1400 to go to the mall, soon as it opens. And now, with the numbers going down, we had vaccines.
Three of them. They were the Andrews Sisters of Mercy, all named Maxine. Maxine Pfizer, Maxine Moderna and Maxine Johnson. When Maxine debuted ZOZO was over.
Leaders who predicted herd immunity in the USA with 70-80% eligible Americans vaccinated by the nation’s 245th birthday, July 4, seemed to be setting an easy target. If there was enough Maxine to go around — and Roxanne and I (senior citizens) got both our doses by late February — there seemed no way every eligible person in America would not be vaccinated by the 4th of July. It seemed so simple.
I looked ahead to summer when the governor would terminate his emergency powers and turn to his adversaries who called him a tyrant, and say, “There you go.”
As Minnesota opened up this spring, so too the rest of the country. Some places bragged they never closed — they’re lying but that’s another story. Some places closed more than we did and opened slower. All around I read about local economic rebounds. Word about hiring increases and worker shortages, blaming generous pandemic unemployment benefits for the inflationary wages now demanded by employees. Work from home — or anywhere — succeeded so well the fate of gray flannel suits who worked downtown in Henry Miller’s air conditioned nightmare office towers is in doubt about inhabiting those buildings again. Vincent got a job with the same company that laid him off, not management, less money but pretty good, working from home. The company agreed to let him take vacation time to go with us to Colorado.
The Kysyslyczyns planned to drive. Their family car is a GMC Acadia SUV, suited to a family of four plus luggage. Ground transportation gave them an opportunity to explore. They had never been to the Black Hills (not even Michel) or Wyoming, and the kids weren’t familiar with South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. They had a few days at both ends of the Colorado rental period to bracket the vacation with a road trip across Middle America with stops along the way.
Roxanne and I first considered making it a road trip too. We used to drive all over the place. We spent our honeymoon camping east across Canada from Lake Superior to Nova Scotia in a VW Beetle. Then we recounted our last experience that we qualified as a real road trip, when we flew down to Atlanta, rented a car and drove from there down to Melbourne, Florida, which is on the middle Florida coast, for my brother Sean’s daughter’s wedding. On the way we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, and on the way back Charleston, South Carolina going to Atlanta to drop the car and fly to Minneapolis. We remembered it as a great road trip but recalled complaining of the long, tedious distances and the fatigue of driving and riding long intervals between destinations. In 48 years since our honeymoon the road lost some of its wonder over time, which as too bad because it was the first time we visited the Deep South. We could say easily we’d driven across Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming and South Dakota enough times to expect long hours of nothing much just to get to the magnificent Rockies and back home.
It wasn’t that we don’t have a reliable, comfortable car. It’s an eight year old Nissan Altima with gravity seats. At about 58,000 miles it almost qualifies as a little old couple who only drives to church and the grocery store cars. It certainly wouldn’t hurt it to go to Colorado and back just to blow the carbon out of the cylinders. (That’s an old gearhead joke from the ’70s.) The more we thought about it the less we wanted to drive. We were admittedly not fond of long hours on boring roads. We could skip all that, fly into Denver and rent a car.
Air fair was really cheap. Aviation was trying to get passengers to trust air travel again as Maxine kept driving down the occurrence of covid-19. Masks were required on all flights, vaccinated or not. It was only about a 90 minute flight, and in Denver we would gain an hour on Mountain Time. The problem was in looking to book a rental car. Roxanne saw rates from a couple of thousand bucks a week. We knew we would need two cars to haul around the nine of us. The Kysylyczyns would bring their Acadia and we would need one more — with a car seat for Neko. Our Altima practically has a built-in car seat as much as Vincent and Amalie’s do. They drive a Nissan Rogue, a compact SUV in the style of the Acadia.
They, however, had no intention of driving to the Rockies and back — not with a two year old only child. Neither Vincent nor Amalie could take more than a week off work, meaning they had no time in the budget for leisurely road travel. They intended to fly to Denver and expected to connect up with Roxanne and me providing ground transportation with a car seat to ride with us to Estes Park to rendezvous with the Kysylyczyns.
Roxanne and I knew we had to either bite a big bag of boo and pony up for a suitable rental car with a baby seat or otherwise drive cross country ourselves and getting to Denver in time to pick up Vincent, Amalie and Neko at the airport. In searching for a rental car in Denver Roxanne learned that the rental car market crashed at the pandemic and all the companies sold off their fleets for cash and there was a gross shortage of cars. The weekly rental rates seemed to increase daily for the week we desired. She heard vacationers were booking U-Haul vans for leisure travel because they were still cheap by the day and sufficed to transport a couple of tourists determined to visit.
So it seemed our faithful red Altima would come to the rescue after all. (Bless me, Altima, I’ve been heard to say the past eight years.) Given sufficient lead time Roxanne and I would drive west and rendezvous with the other Kellys and Vincent et al at the Denver airport. At least we would have two cars to caravan the nine of us or go in different directions at Estes Park. It was too bad our Altima sedan would seem so cramped in the back seat for two adult sized people and the car seat, but maybe Clara and Tess would ride with Neko, me and Roxanne. The solution to that was to swap cars with Vincent and Amalie and Roxanne and I take off for Denver in the more spacious Nissan Rogue. This way they could send their luggage with us instead of hauling it on the plane.
So Rox and I resigned to another road trip after all. The Rogue would be a nice car. Newer than ours. Has a navigation system, which ours doesn’t. It might be nice to take a closer look at what’s inside the back roads of our neighbor Iowa. Just where are those bridges again, so famous for a while about thirty years ago, those covered bridges? Madison County. Maybe we could go there, have a bread and cheese picnic thing on our way to Lincoln, Nebraska. Hey, maybe, being late June the Nebraska fields might be kind of green with row crops instead of hundreds of miles of flat black dirt, or mud if it had been raining. Neither of us relished driving at night. Used to be I liked making tracks through the night but now we made a plan to get to every destination before sunset every day. Roxanne chose lodging in towns within a day’s drive without pushing it. We told ourselves we owed it to ourselves one last time to mosey through this geographic heart land of America and gather our observations. I say one last time because I am 69 years old and don’t really care to travel this route again by car unless I really have to.
I didn’t know what to expect. I anticipated possible encounters with hostile forces, Trump fanatics, anti-mask anti-vaccination militants and right wing white supremacists bounty hunting liberals. (This from a guy who once not long ago wanted to walk miles to our hotel across Chicago after a Shakira concert.) Pandemic isolation fostered in me a new paranoia. A comfort zone of introversion. Agoraphobia. Lost confidence in social graces. Depressing lack of esteem for the human race. Palpable fear of facing baskets of deplorables. The lost year of ZOZO sucked away just about everything except raw hope our culture can grow back its exceptionalism.
News of a new sars-cov-2 mutation called the delta variant ignited a wave of infections across India and the UK. Sure enough it made the news as sweeping into the United States via the unvaccinated Deep South. The CDC, NIH and WHO concurred the three Maxines stood up against the delta variant in preventing severe infection, hospitalization and death, even if conceding a 25-30% chance of contracting a mild or symptom-free case. Even so, as the nation gradually opened up to hospitality and commerce in the spring the political posturing kept up its nasty haggling. The debate over the efficacy of masks, vaccinated or not, veered into demands for liberty, the right to common protection, shame and scorn on both sides and showed no sign of truce by next school year without going to court. Our family took note and commiserated.
Further worry about mountain wildfires hexed our planning. The Mountain West was parched. Drought prevailed. Uncontrollable fires already broke out in California and Oregon, also Canada. So far nothing yet where we were going, Colorado, Wyoming or the Black Hills, but it’s happened before — we watched daily.
June was hot and sultry like it was deep July, but it didn’t rain much. Rain clouds passed over us and nested east into Wisconsin and leaving us deeper in drought, Minnesota the land of 10,000 lakes and a zillion rivers. A retreat to higher elevation seemed like destiny so the family voted to keep the plan. Unless covid spiked suddenly nationwide at horror movie numbers like a national superspreader, we assured each other we could follow common sense and science as if we always do and could travel safely and enjoy time together on vacation in the Colorada Rockies. Michel is a licensed working nurse and she saw no reason to opt out. Tess, 13, just got her second Pfizer and would be considered fully Maxined by her arrival at Estes Park, leaving only Neko the 2-and-a-half or so year old the only one of us nine unvaccinated. Vincent and Amalie made plane reservations.
Roxanne said even if all the kids canceled we would go and use the rental home ourselves as long as we were paying for it. I looked forward to being in the Rockies again. I’d never been in Denver or that part of the Rockies. It would be the first trip to the Rockies for Clara and Tess and I anticipated asking their observations comparing Colorado to the Swiss Alps. I missed going on adventures with them, almost jealous not going with them to the Black Hills, where there is so much to discuss.
The week before our rendezvous in the Rockies a heat wave broasted North America like a chicken. Pacific northwestern states used to rainy temperate summers like Oregon and Washington underwent serial days with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as sites in western Canada. In Minneapolis the temps roosted in the 90s. There was a general alert to look out for the vulnerable and everybody seems to know what that means. Roxanne and I got covid tested for the road — negative again. Same with Vincent and Amalie before their flight.
The Kysylyczyns left for the Black Hills the day before Roxanne and I for Lincoln, Nebraska. That afternoon before we left we swapped cars with Vincent and Amelie. Neko objected. Insisted she wanted to keep her own car. We argued lamely. I left it to her parents to explain how it takes two days by car to travel the same distance as two hours by airplane. My parting advice to the child: Look out the window; it will all become clear.
We left home in the early morning with a full tank of gas. Roxanne drove first shift, Interstate 35W south. Beautiful day. No sign of rain. In our absence we asked our closest neighbor to water our flowers if no rain in two days. Other than our flowers we harbored no concerns left behind. We told ourselves we had all the time in the world yet it seemed like we weren’t getting anywhere. Roxanne expressed disappointment Iowa’s fields didn’t roll the way she remembered and I said wait until we passed Des Moines, the topography would change, though I really didn’t know what I was talking about.
When we saw signs for Clear Lake, Iowa I got out the iPod and plugged it into the Rogue’s Bose system and cued up “That’ll Be The Day”. Was there any reason to exit? Any special place to pay our respects? The Surf Ballroom? Is there a corn field within a few miles where there is a marker like Flight 93 so people can mourn? It’s never lost on Roxanne in any discussion of this that the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper happened on her birthday, though she was only 6 and unaware what that meant at the time. It adds to her legend along with the Police song of her name. People assume she has all kinds of rock and roll karma, which in a way she does — she’s got me.
We stopped for gas before Des Moines, which is just past the middle of Iowa and the place to head west towards Denver. I would drive now. Barely mid-day the temp was 100 degrees F. West on Interstate 80 the young corn and beans seemed to crackle with sweat. It was funny, every few miles there were many towns but at every exit only gas stations and fast food, never a real town. We ate at a Subway shop at such an exit. Operated by a crew of teenage boys who lived however far away. Outside the air conditioning we wilted like lettuce. No way as the temp reached toward 105F would we enjoy hiking around Madison County checking out lovely covered bridges on a day like this. It didn’t feel right. We drove on towards Omaha.
The Nissan Rogue drove like a chocolate smoothie. We had good reasons for choosing the Altima in 2013 but the Rogue caused us to reconsider. For a bigger vehicle it handled like a sedan in the elegant way we were accustomed from Nissan. Riding a little higher but not exaggerated as a truck the road panorama looked more harmonious to the steering wheel. Getting in and out at a climb rather than a descent seemed easier for our aging hips. Its seating capacity compared to our Altima was the reason we were driving it to Colorado — and back in 2013 we had two grandkids aged 8 and 5, plenty of room in the back seat then for two, we weren’t looking very far ahead back then; with its permanent carseat for Neko the Altima might as well be a sports car. Ah, but it’s paid for. The Rogue being a few years newer came with features like a blind spot alert and built-in GPS navigation system but in over all design and function the Nissan hadn’t changed in quality in those years.
We were west of Omaha heading for Lincoln with Roxanne at the wheel again when she noticed the dashboard alert for an oil change. We made mental note. Since western middle Iowa the scenery tumbled to humble wooded bluffs approaching the border to Nebraska at the Missouri River. I got us across and through Omaha. We anticipated a hassle through the big city but we glided through hassle free. Seemed the last time we drove this way through Omaha the entire freeway system through the city was under construction, lane diversions past half-cast concrete and piles of graded dirt marked by orange barrels and diamond shaped warning signs through miles and miles of the city. That memory tainted my whole approach to traversing Omaha, which transpired almost twenty years ago. This time the traffic was seamless and Omaha looked like a whole different town, there and gone in the blink. By the time we passed the SAC base and stopped to take a whiz and switch drivers the horizon was flattening out and the freeway cut unbroken lines into cornfield eternity.
After Omaha, Nebraska is the epitome of building the interstate highway a safe distance away from populated towns so you can’t see where people live. Lincoln comes sooner than you might think. Past Lincoln a new day where the horizon stretches wider and the invisible towns hide behind stretches of faraway nothing.
At our hotel in suburban Lincoln we got our first real encounter with the grand reopening of America. The swimming pool was still closed but the restaurant had just reopened, limited in menu and short staffed. All employees wore masks, and we did too except while dining. Only a week or so ago this kind of thing was practically illegal. Being fully vaccinated made us feel bold but not reckless. The fettucini in cream sauce with chicken and mushrooms was surprisingly flawless and I probably undertipped.
That evening and before we checked out the next day Roxanne texted with Vincent and asked him about the oil change alert on the dashboard. He protested, no way it should be due. Maybe by calendar but not by mileage, though he could not recall when the car had last had an oil change. During the pandemic nobody drove many miles. In the morning Roxanne inspected the windshield for a sticker from Midas and learned the recommended mileage indicated an oil change. So we programmed the GPS to guide us to a Jiffy Lube in the heart of Lincoln. A disciplined crew of young tattooed misfit and sketchy individuals in beat up uniform overalls and ball caps cocked forward and back performed the service routine while we sat in the car above the service pit. Checked the fluids. Tire pressures. Windshield washer fluid. There were three vehicles in the garage at a time and the crew performed like a crack squad. They were all white, none as old as twenty five and some as young as eighteen. They all looked shady and Roxanne quipped what I was already thinking, they could be jailbirds. Potential Charles Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugates averted by gainful employment and automotive maintenance skills.
We chided ourselves for our judgemental attitude along the way through the old downtown to a side of the city where we could catch an arterial to an entrance ramp west on I80. A sturdy brown brick city constructed in a commercial grid bridging railroad yards and bracketing a state capitol that sticks up as the skyline’s only high rise like a naked corncob. Named Lincoln you might surmise the capital city and the state of Nebraska dates after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, and the old bones of downtown testify to a bona fide cultural foundation rooted more in the 19th Century than the 20th. The original name of the city was the village of Lancaster and it was renamed Lincoln after Nebraska was admitted to the union (in 1867) and the city was designated as its capital in 1869. There is a flavor to the city that it wouldn’t mind regressing back in time to re-live its heritage. We got gas and beat cheeks out of town, Roxanne at the wheel.
The rest of Nebraska is about guessing how far away the Platte River is according to a tree line on the horizon. West of Grand Island exit there’s a spurt of greenery where the Platte courses underneath the freeway and runs parallel south of the highway beyond the cover of vaguely distant aspens. Further westward the topography gets plainer, as if it’s possible, and as row crops give way to pasture and chaparral the obscure towns named on the exit signs meekly diminished like dropouts from high school. About two hours west of Grand Island the Platte crosses back underneath the highway near the town of North Platte and exiles itself back into hiding somewhat parallel to the north. You get the impression North Platte could be the last real city until Denver.
It should be noted the Platte River actually flows east and we were figuratively driving upstream. It originates in marshlands of the Rocky Mountain foothills as two distinct rivers a few hundred miles apart, the North Platte and South Platte, which merge around the town of North Platte and flows northwest in a loop across the rest of Nebraska until it joins the Missouri River south of Omaha. All the way upriver when you get a look at it the water is so muddy, the current so slow and shallow you can’t really tell which direction it’s flowing, or if it’s flowing at all.
After North Platte I80 traces parallel to the route of the South Platte River, which originates in Colorado. The landscape gets thirstier and it’s hard to believe there is really a river out there except for the vague tree line. Harder yet to believe people might live out there. About an hour after North Platte the interstate diverges and we continued tracing the South Platte on I76 into the northeast corner of Colorado.
Somehow I thought once we left Nebraska for Colorado it magically got better and suddenly the majestic Rockies would appear on the horizon like salvation. It actually got worse. The topography got asymmetrically rougher in places and the soil sandier, but it was still the desert plain with sunburnt skin. Gravel pits and oil derricks popped up among the scrub brush. Exits ceased to designate town names, just numbers or local roads. We passed by several scenes of acres and acres of cattle shoulder to shoulder in corrals, thousands of steers and heifers with nowhere to go. Even with the air conditioning in the Rogue the cowpie stench penetrated our senses and our consciences.
At the exit to the town of Sterling we pulled off to get gas. The town of course was a few miles up the road from the exit. It wasn’t assuring there were no chain store truck stops along the freeway, but we were low on gas with Denver about 130 miles away. Over a hill and around a curve Sterling came out of hiding. A sad and shabby looking town, it wore its resentment of being looked down upon and passed by with practiced indifference to its shame. It summed the region of brown soil and dust living at the brink of ghost town. The first gas station had mittens on the pump handles of its 87 octane gas. A Sinclair station had a couple pumps functional. A hand printed sign said they gave a 3% discount for paying cash. I bought $20 worth and the sullen, maskless cashier punched up the 60 cent discount and slid a receipt, two quarters and a dime under the covid window with a grimace and no eye contact like she never wanted to see me again. I didn’t wear a mask either and maybe should have. Body language works both ways. Maybe it was the Minnesota plates. Maybe it was that I only put about five gallons in the tank. Or perhaps it was nothing but my own awkward self-conscious brooding for people stuck in my judgmental impression of low yield lives.
Fertile ground for nothing more than resentment and prejudice towards conspiracy gossip to rationalize resentment, Trump acolytes thrive like nightshade in such communities who find themselves at the bottom of society with no escape and need somebody to blame. It’s moot to try to explain how Trump victimizes them. Certain themes play well. It might be a hard sell for the Green New Deal in the land of petroleum and red meat. Where are the wind turbines and solar farms? If Joe Biden’s big Infrastructure deal goes through will it matter to the citizens of Sterling, Colorado?
From there the plateau rises ever slightly towards the Mile High City. At about the same time you see a glimpse of the snowcapped crowns of the Rockies on the horizon ahead you sense the gravity of the orbit around Denver. Sparse excavation and construction sites promised future factories and warehouses. A future hotel. A convergence of highways loomed. A route to the international airport beyond the boondocks begged for speculative developers. You could sense a development boom in the offing but it might be ten years away. Closer and closer to Denver the construction sites multiplied until highway construction took over and dominated the landscape. New entrances, exits, wider lanes and bridges in varying stages of completion terraced our route. You may recall my recollection of driving through Omaha several years ago and encountering a whole city of freeway construction. Denver was ten times that, but with clear signage and miles of orange safety barrels we found our way.
Credit goes to the in-built navigation system, programmed to the address of our hotel. I refer to the navigation system as the Garmin, though it’s probably a different brand, I just like Garmin for an ad campaign they ran a number of Christmases ago and because they sponsored a bicycle racing team at Le Tour de France. Anyway, there was not much for sightseeing on the freeways of Denver and not much to see. Traffic bunched and whizzed by. ‘Twas rush hour. No time to gawk at the football stadium or admire any architecture downtown. Any residential neighborhoods hid behind tidy buffer walls. The Garmin guided us to an exit to a commercial boulevard where we found our hotel amid a row of office skyscrapers in the suburb of Lakewood.
The hotel staff wore masks. We were not required because we were vaccinated. The bar and restaurant were closed for lack of staff. Colorado had just reopened that week and the hospitality industry needed a little time to reorganize. Covid protocol restricted capacity at the swimming pool so reservations were required but the pool was booked for the night.
Our room on the 11th floor faced west and we could see the white crowns of the Rockies peeking over the golden foothills. From our window we could look down on Union Boulevard where there was a restaurant decked in a Mexican motif called Jose O’Shea’s. Roxanne checked them out online and they were taking reservations. She booked a slot for us within the hour. The walk took ten minutes including long waits at the crosswalks. We still arrived a little early but the host brought us to a table on a mezzanine right away. The service, the food, the margaritas, the atmosphere all converged as blessings at our table. From the mezzanine we could see the ambience of half the restaurant, the second floor loft above and the main floor below, and all around a general sense of joy flowed through the place. After a day — two days — on the road we let ourselves relax and take our time. Even the chairs were simpatico.
Reminded me of my favorite restaurantes en Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. Jose O’Shea’s was authentic as an American restaurant can be.
A good meal always settles anxious agendas. It took more than a year to arrive at this place at the door to the Rockies. To savor the success of this leg of the trip we ordered a second round of margaritas. No more driving. The hotel maybe two blocks. Our first ever night in Denver — we passed through several times before and stayed in Colorado Springs — and tomorrow we intended to explore, after we picked up Vincent, Amelie and Neko at the airport. The day after that we would go through that door into the Rockies and rendezvous with the rest of the family in the mountains. It was a good summer night (almost, it was two days shy of solstice) to let loose and express how much our family meant to me, the people I loved most in life, how happy and rich they have made me and what good company they have always been, how proud I am to know them and for who they are, all without weeping. We toasted cheers and agreed eye to eye we are blessed.
The Denver airport is deliberately an hour or more out of town. It exists as far away as it can from the city to suck traffic and congestion away from downtown and remove airplanes from the urban equation. It serves as a major connecting hub between the eastern and western United States such that many passengers who pass through its terminal neither originate nor end up in Denver for Denver’s sake. It’s as much a feeder airport as a destination. If you’re starting out or ending up in Denver or the surrounding Colorado community, the extra commute factors into the anticipated distances within the region as a territory of blank spaces on Mountain Time. Otherwise it’s just a layover on your way to Honolulu, LA, Fairbanks or Green Bay.
Denver airport has its own freeway. Miles and miles away from the city and its network of highways to the mountains, the airport freeway leads straight into the parched plains, half back towards Sterling and half nowhere. It may be the perfect place to locate an international airport, unobstructed flatland, uninhabited and undeveloped, uncherished, and easy to get to if you build a modern highway. Along the way the highway engineers made arrays of giant slanted spikes for snow fences to arrest the effects of the windswept prairie wind burying the roadway. This being the day before the first day of summer the slanted spikes in neat rows among the parched prairie grass and sand could have been redundant minimalist sculpture. There was little else to look at. To me the spikes resembled the pikes erected in the French countryside by the occupying German army they called Rommel’s Asparagus, meant to impale paratroopers in the invent of an invasion such as at Normandy. In truth the closer to the terminal the more desolate the location and the more the territory took on the feel of a military base, only no checkpoints. Not yet. The signage was explicit and left no doubt we were going the right way. Ripples on the plain obscured where the airplanes came and went. It seemed easy to imagine the neighborhoods, shopping malls and offices that would infill between metro Denver and the airport the next generation or two. You could feel the hope the airport might suck the urban sprawl this direction, away from more precious land bordering the mountains. But it would not happen soon, no land rush here except Holiday Inn Express. Not even an exit to Denny’s.
Symbolic perhaps, the main terminal comes into view as a group of white cones at the end loop of the freeway like a long driveway to a gated community KOA. The airport is almost twenty five years old but seems brand new and four times as old. The white cones are a series of big tents over the roof of the terminal, suggesting teepees or Bedouin dwellings. A city of transients. Gathering of circuses. It was very easy to find Vincent, Amelie and Neko at the curb for arrivals.
Neko was both nonplussed to see Grandma Roxanne and me drive up in her family’s own car and vindicated to reclaim her own car seat. Vincent drove because he knew the territory, Amelie took the shotgun navigator seat, Grandma buckled into the back middle seat next to Neko and I got the window seat in the back, we exited the airport loop and cruised back to Denver, Lakewood and our hotel. Before being laid off during ZOZO the year of the pandemic, Vincent was a western territories marketing manager for a hearing aid company and he had several retail audiologists in this region he visited on the job. This and both his and Amelie’s travels through the west in their thirty-something years of life well qualified the two to chauffeur us senior aged rookies through the Denver metro and up into the Rockies. In truth I’ve grown accustomed to being a passenger.
Vincent admitted he had never seen so much highway construction in a concentrated area. He hoped it was all on the plains side of the city and the route west into the mountains would be work zone free. Back at the hotel the kids checked in and found their room on the same floor as ours. Grandma Roxy offered to take Neko to the swimming pool but there was no time. Vincent arranged to spend the afternoon with a friend and ex colleague named Tyler at his house with his family. They took the car. Roxanne and I figured out how to ride the light rail downtown to catch a baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers.
The desk guy in the manner of a concierge steered us to a walkway behind the hotel to reach a sketchy shortcut to the light rail platform. We made mental notes to come back the long way via the main lighted street after sundown. The rail platforms formed an end of the line square on a barren tract of plain I learned later used to belong to the army. It felt as if it used to be fenced off. There was room for a park and ride but few cars. A few scattered riders, everyone masked.
The trains were like we have at home — built by Siemens. We bought all day senior tickets. Practically had our pick of seats. Within a few stops the cars began to fill. I was beginning to forget this was Colorado’s first week of reopening after the long pandemic restrictions. Among people again there was an up tempo euphoria to the back beat of getting by. It was Saturday. I tried not to gawk and remembered not to stare. My first true look inside the legendary city of Denver. Unlike cities with subway mass transit, where you pop up somewhere in a neighborhood and didn’t see how you got there, street level light rail escorts you block by block, station to station and everywhere in between and offers a street level sample of what the city is made of. (Chicago offers an elevated view.) As a rule the most elegant accommodations of any city are not built along rail corridors, so the view from the tracks gives an honest look at the community’s cohesion. It was hard to define Denver on one ride. Thus far it offered little personality to substantiate exceptionalism. Lots of middle class ranch style bungalows.
Downtown had a whole different feel. Lots and lots of 19th Century brick and stone. Here was a city built of substance and purpose. Union Station is the fort that holds down the fort. An edifice at least a block square, it’s a temple constituted to last the ages, not a mere temporary depot to reconstruct another time. There is no waterfront to anchor Denver so Union Station stands as its gateway. Off the light rail, we made note of where to return to catch the train back to Lakewood and followed the crowd wearing baseball shirts through the terminal. Most of the dozens of gates were deserted but here and there rope lines formed anticipating buses to come. The bus passengers observed us pedestrians with little interest, their pending trips preoccupying their masked psyches.
We could not keep up with the baseball crowd — that is, yours truly the dawdler fell behind the pace of the people we were following — my excuse is always blaming my deliberate sense of wonder and curiosity though it seems to slow down Roxanne sometimes to the point of annoyance. No worries as we exited the back end of the terminal we joined the flow of more baseball fans and within a few brickhouse blocks we found Coors Field.
Being in downtown Denver unearthed an accidental milestone for my life. Half a century ago or so I read the confessional adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity told by Jack Kerouac. On the Road chronicled continuous back and forth across America between Greenwich Village and San Francisco in the early 1950s, and its geographic checkpoint between east and west was Denver. Specifically a place called Larimer Street. Which is only two blocks from Coors Field. Here was every urban renovationist, preservationist, repurposist — gentrificationist’s — dream. What I heard second hand when I asked around about Denver in my teens and young twenties (“What do you want with Larimer Street for?”) described Larimer Street as Skid Row. A bum slum. It figures. Kerouac was hardly the prophet of the bourgeoisie. Yet today Larimer Street is an open arcade of outdoor dining and pedestrian only zones among bulb lit warehouse patios and apartment lofts. You can see what used to be but it’s clearly not like that anymore.
Coors Field in its iron and brickwork fits its footprint inside Old Town as if on the outside it’s like another neighborhood repurposed rugged old building. Inside it’s a timeless baseball park. Our seats were on the second deck, which meant we had to climb a ramp of stairs. Roxanne’s biggest concern this vacation was altitude. We were now a mile high. She gauged her stamina based on our moseying around Old Town and climbing staircases at the ball park. She reported feeling okay but was glad she didn’t have to climb another deck. We had good seats behind the on deck circle on the third base side, the visiting Brewers. We were outdoors so nobody wore masks. We fell in with a guy in his young twenties, his mom and stepfather. Locals. Fans since the 1990s (i.e. before the young guy was born) the young guy rued the day the team let go of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The mom told us why the team mascot was a purple dinosaur (not a dragon) because during excavation to build the ball field, right about home plate, they unearthed the skeleton of a dinosaur. Set stadium completion back a full season (they played at Mile High, the football stadium). The lady said the mascot’s name was Dinger, but I thought she said Digger. No, Dinger! Seemed obvious to her. Digger, seemed to me more obvious, the subject of an excavation, but never mind. Roxanne was making social contact.
(Dinger is baseball slang for a home run. Due to its mile high elevation, Denver became a haven for home run hitters. It led to a policy of keeping baseballs used at Coors Field in a humidor to try to keep all things equal to the rest of the major leagues.)
It was dawning on me how much Roxanne missed social contact during the pandemic. I would have been content to watch the game for its own sake. Roxanne used it as an occasion to cultivate conversation with strangers. It reminded me of Mexico, where people know me as Roxanne’s husband. Of our countless tours of Europe, where Roxanne engaged random travelers and residents alike while I would have minded my own business or observed from a comfortable distance. Long gone the days when I was the outgoing one and she was shy. I could see how the pandemic confirmed my inner introvert and gave me license to retire to an asocial comfort zone in my advanced age — not anti-social, just indifferent to whether I fit in among social groups. Roxanne turned into a virtual gadfly, asking innocent personal questions and following up the answers.
The Rockies held the lead late in the game but the Brewers rallied in the ninth and shut the Rockies down 6-5. We took our sweet time moseying back to Union Station to catch the train to Lakewood. It was Saturday night in the Mile High City. The first Saturday night since the opening of covid-19 protocols. The sidewalks melded with the rope lines queuing to get into the clubs. Dance music and neon pulsed in the streets. We took the outdoor way around the depot to take in the street ambience. At the light rail platform we learned — confirmed by a transit officer — the last train going where we needed to go left twelve minutes ago.
So much for our all day senior tickets. Who would have thought there would be such a thing as a last train in a formidable city such as Denver? We looked around to get some bearings, street names, looking in vain for taxi cabs. Out of hand we decided not to call Vincent. Much as he said he knew Denver we presumed it would be a stretch to ask him to find us efficiently — and man, would he be crabby. It looked like we had no choice but to bite a big bag of boo and book a ride with Uber. At $84 it cost us more than twenty times the light rail ticket downtown. But what a story for the next morning.
Our Uber driver found us at the designated intersection. A personable guy he hardly registers in the story except as our paid rescuer. If aware of how dependent we bumpkins were he didn’t act like it. The topic of the ride was Colorado’s cautious embrace at reopening since the pandemic. Roxanne remarked people didn’t seem all that reluctant by all the partying underway downtown. Pent up demand, he called it. Getting justification for all the sacrifice. When he learned we were headed to Estes Park he urged us to check out the Stanley Hotel, which served as the setting for the movie of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. (“Here’s Johnny!”) On our way he urged us to check out Red Rocks, the famous open air concert canyon where he said even the Beatles played (which I doubted but did not dispute — I would have been wrong.) At our Lakewood exit the ramp was blocked by road flares and cop cars, lights flashing red and blue. Uniformed cops with flashlight torches waved us away. The exit was closed.
“Probably a fatality,” the driver said and adjusted his speed to proceed to the next exit. “It’s been a bad year for traffic fatalities.” I asked if legalized marijuana took the blame. He said no, he thought the fault lay with the state legislature for not passing a law prohibiting texting while driving. That and the drop in traffic from the pandemic dropping inhibitions of reckless drivers going too fast.
We could see the cop car lights at the top of the exit from our hotel. We could even see the lights flicker in reflections off the boulevard from our hotel room. Roxanne remembered on our honeymoon (as it were) we were on a lonely straight stretch across Quebec on the national highway where we encountered a scene of a massive collision involving at least a dozen cars and a flatbed semi-trailer truck all gnarled and wrecked on both sides of the eastbound freeway in the middle of nowhere, during afternoon daylight, rescue crews putting bodies on stretchers, cops directing eastbound traffic through a creepy crawl between highway flares defining the scene. Yes, I remembered. At the time we tried to calculate whether we could have been in the scene of the crash if we had not stopped to eat at the last town — at a cafe where they charged for each serving of coffee, no free refills monsieur.
Safe in bed high above ground in the mile high city, lying awake on my back in a luxe king-size bed while Roxanne sprawled and snored gently like a white noise machine of the sea, I didn’t mind ruminating in the almost dark. Hotel rooms invariably provide thick light tight window drapes. I like window light to keep my bearings, often moreso than bathroom nightlights. Eleven floors up I felt secure against peeping toms so I cracked the drapes open. Classier hotels like this Marriott include a gauzy inner curtain, and even through the opaque gauze the ambient street light pulsed pale red and blue milk reflecting on the ceiling. A far cry from Larimer Street 1956. I would have been five years old.
My next birthday I’ll be 70 years old. This was supposed to be my Summer of 69. Whatever that idiom means beyond being 69 years old doesn’t matter, it’s the only summer of my life I will spend being 69 years old. The song by Bryan Adams came out in 1984, when I was 33 1/3 and Bryan Adams himself was 25 — in the year 1969 he would have been ten, way too young to have all that romantic adventure, even for a Canadian. Nonetheless, that year I was 18, perfectly old enough to relate to the rock and roll masterpiece that came later in the year of George Orwell. If as Adams hints the title phrase means a latter-day sensuality, it should be observed beyond the snickers that such a deal requires a mutual commitment that seems exotically arousing to some couples in concept but not so appealing to intimately fulfill, particularly standing — on anybody’s mama’s porch.
That said, my Roxanne partner 48 years sleeping close by, barely touching leg to leg, my mind was divided whether the 69 year path my life has gone added up to a life well-enough lived or amounted to extraordinary luck to have lived so long. ZOZO the lost year of covid-19 could have ended it all. In addition to curtains the windows could be cracked open to bring in the local air, but there were no sounds coming in with the lamplights. No sirens. No motorcycles or growling semi trucks. (Lorries they call them in the UK.) It was not a priority to come to a final conclusion that night… heaven forbid, you might say… the idea behind the prayer Angel of God My Guardian Dear… my next seven, eight, nine days were mapped in front of me among my beloved.
It brought to mind a bronze paper weight my elder granddaughter Clara gave me for Christmas the same year Tess wrote Our Family Is Permanent. The paperweight was a cast sculpture of a stack of ballpoint pens with an inscription on the base attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
So I try… Attempt. Essay…
Morning light lured me awake enough to start coffee. The western sky looked gray but not rainy. Roxanne texted Vincent to let us know if Neko would like to get breakfast with us while he and Amelie woke up. What a nice grandma. Neko of course took her up on it and we walked down to the light at the intersection leading to the freeway exit which had been closed last night and crossed over the boulevard to the Denny’s, promising pancakes. Our timing was very good, we got a booth right away just minutes ahead of the morning rush of the church letout, and shortly there was a waiting line. Staff wore masks and most diners didn’t. Tables were spaced further apart than the usual floor plan. The servants seemed naively cheerful for their efforts. They may have been short staffed and it was Sunday of the first week of the post-pandemic reopening and yet Denny’s made no excuses and acted as if this wasn’t the first rodeo. Just the same we ate up our eggs, pancakes, hashbrowns and sausage patties and toast and got out of there as the wait list swelled and Neko’s attention span spun and she ate what she was going to eat and it was time to hit the road. “Time to mosey,” Roxanne said.
Neko asked to be carried and we said no. It was too bad we didn’t have a stroller with us but it was only a little over a block back to the hotel — most of the time waiting for cross lights — and at almost three she was a kid who knew how to hike. She also was not one to whimper and whine. As a reward for walking we allowed her to wander off the sidewalk onto the lawn into the shrubbery around the office park near the hotel while we watched that she didn’t stray alone into the parking lot. At the hotel she wanted to go exploring so Grandma Roxy escorted her up the grand staircase to the second level to look at the pool while I hung around the lobby like I was casing the joint, as if there was anything to steal. Our fellow guests consisted of the usual riff raff and bumpkins with any excuse to be away from home. Wedding parties. Soccer teams. Young couples just like me and Roxanne only decades younger. Young moms and dads with small children a little older than Neko. Met a guy in his fifties staying there in the interim while placing his belongings he couldn’t take with him into storage after liquidating the rest of his property before embarking by van to Costa Rica tomorrow, where he was starting up his own swimming pool construction company. This guy stood out because he was the only fellow traveler who spoke to me at the Marriott when Roxanne wasn’t there.
If ever there was a time when strangers avoided other strangers it was obvious it was the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic. There was a new look in people’s eyes, even masked people, that seemed to say hello but I gotta go, not making any new friends right now, sorry thanks — and those were the expressive few who made eye contact.
Checkout was as efficient and unsentimental as technology and quasi-sterile conditions can contrive. We loaded our luggage, snapped Neko in her seat, buckled up and hit the road, Amelie at the wheel, Vincent shotgun. We passed the freeway ramp, the scene of flares and torches where we presumed somebody died, and there was no evidence of mishap. No scars on the pavement. Roxanne of course by now relayed the story of our night out. Funny, she said, something bad can happen one night and the next day it’s like life goes on.
The kids talked about their visit to Tyler and Cissie’s. Their kids got along — they have two, one older and one younger than Neko, a girl and a boy. They have a jungle gym in their back yard. They have a nice house in a nice neighborhood not very far from the hotel. Tyler is still employed by the hearing aid company but he and Vincent are no longer colleagues in the same organizational structure. Cissi was a national sales rep for an eyeglass manufacturer until covid, but apparently does not miss the rat race. It’s interesting to listen to our kids talk about their friends and peers as they reflect what they want us to know about their generation. Vincent is 39, Amelie 38. Millennials. Old millennials. Almost can pass as young Gen X.
Late with child, Neko, they are themselves ironically the babies of their families. Married eleven years now, Neko is a sincere, prolonged effort to make a baby and thus have a family. After several and several more cycles of clinically trying, including a heartbreaking miscarriage, it seemed surreal when Neko was born at term a perfectly healthy baby girl. A miracle child. Yet so normal.
The kids met at South High. Graduated a year apart. Dated off and on through their college years and moved in together after they each completed their degrees, Amelie in four years, Vincent in six. Vincent graduated the College of Natural Resources at the local U of M and his first job after college was as a senior counselor at a Boy Scout camp for the Boy Scouts of America in northern Wisconsin. Amelie grew up camping with her folks and spent summers at a girls camp called Menogyn in the northern Minnesota wilderness near the Canadian border, where she metamorphed from camper to counselor to leader of group canoe expeditions into Quetico Provincial Park. She landed a job with the regional council of the Girl Scouts, where she directed the logistics of their annual cookie drive for a number of years. I joked at their wedding that the boy scout married the girl scout. Their mutual enduring love of the outdoors outlasted the joke.
Their careers changed, as careers do. Amelie found a liking for non-profit administration and joined the management of an org that provides crisis child care. Vincent left the Scouts after one season. For a while he worked as a concierge at a suburban Marriott, where he came in contact with people in the hearing aid business at their corporate headquarters nearby. Over time he networked a job at one of that company’s local retail stores and after that managing their national call center, which launched him into marketing and landed him a big western territory which included Colorado before the pandemic upended the company’s entire retail business model and Vincent was furloughed, then laid off. Amelie on the other hand was an essential worker as the pandemic squeezed the stress levels of parenting and she worked diligently from home to keep the crisis nursery viable to meet increased demand from harried parents. Vincent returning to work meant Neko returning to pre-school day care three days a week and one day each with grandparents.
Vacationing with these three — and just the two of them before Neko was born — was nothing novel. At least once a year they invited Roxanne and me to join them at least a few days at rental cabins on lakes up north near the Boundary Waters. We swim and hike, kayak or canoe, hang out, bonfire, cook and eat. They’re good company. During the pandemic and the lost year of ZOZO they were our closest friends, almost our only social life. While the Kysylyczyns lived in Europe they were our only local kids. They looked after us, in an after sort of fashion, independent as we are. We couldn’t ask for our son to find a mate more conducive and complementary than Amelie.
Leaving Denver, Amelie at the wheel, the highway climbed off the plateau into the arid foothills. Vincent narrated the way, which passed the famous outdoor concert venue Red Rocks and he recounted seeing LCD Soundsystem there on a business trip. He liked them so much he came back for a second concert the next night. Amelie signaled to turn into the Red Rocks entrance to check the place out. Vincent was all for it. None of the rest of us had ever been there so Amelie drove into the park entrance for a quick look.
An older African American man with a deep suntan sat on a ledge of rock called out to us to say the park and amphitheatre were open for visitors and waved us towards a parking area. Come on in, look around, he said. How the man was dressed he could have been a park employee or a day hiker. Either way we waved thanks and took him up on his invitation.
The scenery around Red Rocks Park is gorgeous, a perfect lift into the echelons of mountain strata. An abutment of buttes and cliffs in a glimpse of painted desert, all red like rosy rust that never sleeps, striated and etched by centuries of wind and sand, the aura of the place radiated a gateway to eternity. Amelie did not find a parking spot on our first pass through the lot, so she offered to let me and Roxanne out at the amphitheatre entrance which was open free to visitors, no show going on. Roxanne had to use the restroom. Vincent stayed with Amelie and Neko. We said we’d be right back and they said they’d hover.
Up a wide staircase and a ramp (and probably an elevator) the ampitheatre entrance opens to a spacious mezzanine at the back of the bleachers, which descend down to the stage in the canyon. The canyon walls enclosed the seats with intimacy as if this were a room and not outdoors with the open air above liberating this room without a ceiling from inducing tunnel vision. I could only guess at the acoustic effects. I did not hurry. I noticed Roxanne among the crowd taking a look around, she couldn’t resist having come that far to go to the bathroom. More than one other spectator I overheard informing his companions how the great upheaval of what are now the Rocky Mountains, about 75 million years ago, tilted the existing horizontal rock bed and turned it vertical. Most people were not masked, which left me thinking we were vaccinated. People browsed at a social distance. On a kiosk back by the beer stand near the museum gift shop I read a plaque dedicated to the Beatles, who played there August 26, 1964.
So then I ran into Amelie standing out in the crowd overhearing a guy explaining the tectonic upheaval that tilted the sandstone rocks when the Rockies formed. This was her first trip to Red Rocks too. She found a parking spot and left Vincent and Neko there to get a look at this iconic place, and her impressions confirmed I was not alone feeling it was worthwhile.
And then she turned the conversation to the Zombies, the rock band from the middle-1960s. She said they went bankrupt and broke up over the release of their first album because it initially didn’t sell and they couldn’t cover the production costs. They had to reassemble the band to go on tour once their songs caught on. It took a new single “Time of the Season” to break even. I didn’t know any of this. “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” to me were seminal records in the British rock canon, and I asked, where did you learn all this? She said one day she was scrolling the internet and came across a story about the Zombies. I did not ask if she was doomscrolling and checking for the latest on the zombie apocalypse. Why would somebody her age care about a 1960s English rock band? Then again, Amelie grew up with a copy of an album called Buddy Holly Lives! Roxanne joined us as we headed to the exit and I split off on the way out to take a whiz.
Back on the road we wound our way to higher elevation with gradual subtlety. Beyond Red Rocks the terrain terraces from plain to valley to peaks without majestic awesome vistas so much as a constant flow of unsurprising pretty landscapes. Tidy towns. Rolling ranches. All accompanied on the horizon by rocky peaks. Didn’t look at all like a bad life.
At the city of Boulder we cruised the main boulevard through town. Saw the campus of the University of Colorado, the shopping and commerce district, if not Old Town. Via his iPhone Garmin Vincent navigated Amelie to an address near a midtown strip mall where we parked in an alley behind a low rent storefront. A marijuana dispensary. Roxanne stayed behind with the snoozing baby while Vincent, Amelie and I entered the premises via the back door. There was a No Smoking sign on the fence where we parked.
Inside we were greeted in an austere anteroom by a guy behind covid glass who asked for our ids, scanned them and asked us to wait. In a few moments we were ushered behind a security door to the cannabis showroom, where a guy behind a glass display counter welcomed us noncommitally and gave us our ids back. The kids did all the talking. I tried to take in what was said and studied the merchandise. My frame of reference was Amsterdam and its smoky cafe reefer bars along the canal. This being America there was seemingly infinite product variety and no consumption allowed on the premises. The aroma of the place smelled of fruit candy and fresh herbs. Amelie and Vincent asked questions about edible gummies and the properties of different kinds, such as sleepiness or simple anxiety relief. The guy behind the counter seemed to warm up as he answered their questions and described what someone might expect with the products they asked about. I eavesdropped at the display counter next to us where a regular customer placed his order and the guy helping him measured it out from the glass humidors behind the counter. There was a printed sign on the countertop saying if anyone spoke a word about taking the product out of state the transaction would be terminated and the customer asked to leave. (It seemed obvious we were from elsewhere by our id cards but I didn’t expect anything to be left over at the end of the week, and nobody asked.) Amelie asked for some combo CBD THC gummie edibles. Vincent ordered a measure of a certain kind of flowertops, some fruit flavored THC gummies and a few pre-rolled joints. I didn’t technically get anything for myself but was factored into Vincent’s order — and he asked me for $40. The guy filled the order, tallied it up and got us what he called bagged and tagged — everything in a paper bag with the receipt stapled to seal it. At the end we exited the showroom directly to the street out the front door. We had to walk around through the alley to get to the car, where Neko was awake and asking where we been.
Next we drove to the strip mall around the corner where Roxanne, Amelie and Vincent shopped at the liquor store. I hung back with Neko. I said we went to the store to buy supplies for the vacation. Grown up supplies, like beer and Coke. Say, when you were on the airplane, did you look out the window? What did you see?
The airplane wing. Clouds. The sky.
Another hour up into the hills we arrived at the lakeside town of Estes Park. Obviously a vacation town, a tidy central business district decked out for visitors like the Hallmark Channel and outskirts arranged discreetly to veil the residences beyond comely commercial buildings and thickets of Aspen trees and tall red pines. We drove up the driveway to the Stanley Hotel, as Amelie put it, to get it overwith.
Stately and sovereign like a massive Southern antebellum mansion it anchors a wedge in the valley facing downtown like the town’s own White House. Even from the outside you can x-ray see in your mind long white corridors of doors and an endless scarlet carpet. What I recall from the movie (which I’ve never completely watched, and the book I’ve never read) is the hotel is located in a site so remote the winter snows isolate the place so desolately and for so long it drives a man mad, so he goes on a homicidal rage against his wife and kid. You look at the real life hotel and it isn’t scary and you wonder why Jack Nicholson just couldn’t shovel his way out the front door and snowshoe downtown to hang out with guys at the brew pub to watch the Lakers v Nuggets.
Our home-away rental cabin was easy to find. Garmin guided us to the address, which was on an urban like grid off the main road. The landlord named the place Mountain Forest Home, apropos enough. All the way up the extensive driveway we heralded Roxanne, who did it again, booked the nicest, finest, most awesome, appropriate accommodations. More chateau than chalet it was a mansion made of logs and stone. Lofty, split level main floor with a lower level bedroom and lounge and play room, there were four bedrooms in all, three bathrooms and sprawling open kitchen and dining area. Front deck just off the big bedroom, back deck off the two back bedrooms and the kitchen. Picnic area on a patio with beach lounge chairs next to the hot tub.
At the kids’ insistence Roxanne and I moved into the main bedroom and they and Neko claimed the one downstairs. Of course Neko wanted to go in the hot tub. Amelie and I walked her down to check it out. Amelie worked back the hood and showed her child the buttons to push to turn on the bubblers and what not to touch to change the temperature, which was preset. She wanted to climb in but we said not without a swimsuit. She offered to be naked, and we said no. Amelie and I watched over her putting her arms in the whirling water and the mom asked her to push the button to stop the jets, which she did, and then pushed the button to turn them back on.
Here’s the first rule of the hot tub, I said in my grandfather the narrator voice. Nobody goes in the hot tub alone. So Koki what’s the first rule number one of the hot tub? Nobody goes in the hot tub alone. Always only with a grown up, added Amelie, or your cousins.
It turned out Neko didn’t cotton to the hot tub all that much. She found the jet bubblers a little intimidating and the temperature too hot. Content to fiddle around on the stairsteps with her arms up to her shoulders she played with the floating saucer cleaner whenever somebody lounged in the tub, which held six, if four comfortably.
First mission on move-in day was the grocery store. In the weeks leading up to the trip the meal planners coordinated through Roxanne to compile a grocery list, and with said list Roxanne took the car and the Garmin to town while the rest of us made ourselves at Mountain Forest Home waiting for the Kysylyczyns.
All the while on the road Michel kept in touch with Roxanne by text. We knew they had good weather, if burning hot across South Dakota. They were safe. The Corn Palace was not open to visitors in Mitchell. Visited Crazy Horse monument. Saw her very first herd of bison at Custer State Park.
The iPhone and its internet capabilities have linked our family long-distance almost ten years. Daughter and mother kept close dialogues while the K’s lived in Europe and while we toured Europe. I admired their intimacy with the kind of jealousy that arises from respect for both their personalities who mean so much to me. My observation in life is no good comes from mothers and daughters who feud. When I consider how strong each personality I thank my lucky stars Michel and her mother get along so well. To my benefit I get privy into my daughter’s life and insight into her soul. Being close to Michel is important to me and cannot be delegated, but during times when I’ve felt distant I’ve relied on Roxanne to keep me attuned. Hence the jealousy. I remember times I wondered if Michel loved me, but I know better now and don’t think that direction anymore. I wonder how much being her dad may have embarrassed her, and if so how much courage she mustered to consort with me with nuanced pride and introduce me as her father. I wasn’t a bad father, like I wasn’t a bad husband, or a bad worker or bad citizen, but always eccentric and flawed. I’ve often credited Roxanne for keeping me from going over the top by keeping me under the top. To that I’ve tried to be a good father, and as well as I’ve done I can credit Roxanne their mother for helping me expose them to a good life of quality and to step back as they made their way in the wide wide world.
Michel sent a text estimating they were half an hour from Estes Park. In the meanwhile exploring the terrain with Neko, examining the pine cones, along came a young doe followed loosely behind by a young buck grazing their way through the yard under the red pines. We watched in awe together as they moseyed past the hot tub into the neighbors’ properties. When the deer were gone Amelie and Vincent called to us from the back deck: Did you watch the deer? What’s the under-over on the wildlife this week?
The Kysylyczyns arrived before Roxanne returned with the groceries. We greeted them and helped unload their baggage from the car, showed them into the house and the two unclaimed rooms on the backside of the house. The teenagers got the room at the end of the hall and went about trying the lights and the ceiling fan. Sid and Michel took the room at the head of the stairs, though Michel questioned why Vincent, Amelie and Neko automatically got the basement. And where’s Mom? Michel asked why I didn’t go with her to the store.
Not that I was needed at the house to greet them. Not that Roxanne wasn’t a big girl with skills who almost exclusively did the grocery shopping since the lost year of ZOZO. It came to mind to say I wouldn’t have witnessed my youngest granddaughter observing the deer with enchanted stillness a few moments ago. In truth, as Roxanne drove away it occurred to me what Michel was now thinking and I quick stepped into my sandals and chased after her out the front porch and lamely waved after her halfway down the driveway before she took a left and drove to town. So I agreed with my daughter and described how I had a second thought and followed her down the driveway, but she got away.
You didn’t try very hard, said Vincent, who observed my half-assed effort. He explained his option for the basement bedroom because they had Neko.
Michel presented me with a gift bag and a hug. Happy Fathers Day. Should I open it now or save it for a ceremony? I opened it. Hand drawn cards from the girls. iTunes gift cards worth about fifteen songs. A Happy Buffalo milk chocolate candy bar from the gift shop at Custer State Park along with a tiny stone sculpted buffalo the size of half my thumb and a pair of socks printed with bison grazing beneath mountain peaks and pines, also from the Custer gift shop. I was touched. At that moment nothing meant more.
Sid and the girls discovered a clogged drain in one of the bathroom sinks. There were burned out bedroom light bulbs so we began a household hunt for spare bulbs and such, inventorying the small appliances and compiling a list of things we might call the landlord about after Roxanne got back. Sid himself fished open the clogged sink drain with a wire coat hanger (a rag?) so now it was down to sundry light bulbs.
At one point I thought I saw Roxanne pull up in the driveway so I mustered everybody to help with the groceries but it was a false alarm. Both cars were black SUVs and at a glance out the picture window I mistook Michel moving her car in the driveway to a parking space at the front staircase landing. I thanked everyone for their prompt response.
Roxanne’s grocery list was a compilation of advance meal planning by Roxanne, Michel, Vincent and Amelie, who have been collaborating to feed family vacations and holidays as long as we’ve all been together. When Rox arrived Sid watched the little one while the rest of us hauled in the bags. We packed the fridge and the pantry. To make the first night easy Roxanne improvised and bought a couple of rotisserie chickens. Boiled rice. Salad. Broccoli. The teenage girls ate vegetarian, so Grandma brought them plant based chicken nuggets. While we pitched in to lay the table and lend a hand with the food, Roxanne directed tasks with too much urgency, still buzzed with adrenaline from showing up at a full house as if the rest of us wouldn’t have a clue what to do without her.
Can I mix you a gin and tonic, babe? We feasted. This goes without saying, as a family we always eat richly with no shame. I say this boldly because it’s true and it’s a given, our family can count on itself too feed ourselves. At the dinner table it’s all for one and one for all. Unwritten rule number one is Feed the House.
We celebrated a couple of things. It was exactly two weeks since Tess’s second dose of the Maxine. Now all of us were vaccinated except Neko, who was still too young. Ahem ahem, why didn’t anybody explain Neko had a cough, Michel asked around and the rest of us didn’t notice because three year olds are expected to get sniffles as they adapt their young immune systems, as Michel a nurse and mom knows, and besides she wasn’t back to pre-school yet and only spends time with her parents and grandparents. We toasted Tess as testimony to how lucky our family has been the past 15 months to evade covid-19.
We celebrated a toast to Fathers Day, to Sid, Vincent and me. We toasted to our safe travels. The topic turned to the Kysylyczyns’ sojourn in the Black Hills. Their consensus was first impressions of beauty that made you question its isolation, how a place so pretty and serene can seem so alone and ignored. As Minnesotans we grew up giving the Dakotas the fish eye, and still for the sake of teaching our kids kindness, tolerance and open-minded inclusion and diversity we try to keep our criticism civil and expect our progeny to figure out for themselves to trust their own observations in light of what the elders say. Clara and Tess were conflicted over their impressions of Mount Rushmore — not conflicted against each other but innerly conflicted to themselves over the enormousness of the project by the sculptor and its success and the idea that the mountain was sacred to Native people and stolen to sculpt giant busts of white patriarchs. They’re three years apart in school but keep each other up in the ways of the world that sustained them as bunkmates in Switzerland four years, resulting in an alliance of kinship and sisterness, empathy and sympathy bonded in immortal gold. Which is not to say identical twins, though they share the same dialect if not the same point of view. In this instance neither meant any disrespect but the mountain and history could have done without another portrait of George Washington and if they ever commission an additional face it better not be Youknow Who.
On the other hand they saw the monument in progress to Crazy Horse, a different sculpture of a man on a mountain of a different color stone. When finished it is supposed to be the largest sculpted mountain in the world. It will show Crazy Horse on a horse pointing to the sacred heart of the Black Hills. What troubled them about Crazy Horse was the monument completely controlled by a white private family who shared the fame and the proceeds with the Lakota nation at their sole discretion. Sid texted me a link to a story in The New Yorker — “Who Speaks for Crazy Horse?” (2019). Started in 1948 by a guy who had worked on the Mount Rushmore project it’s long from done, and severe critics accuse the family of perpetually milking it for profit with no end in sight. The chief’s face is clear and you are invited to imagine the shape of what will be his body, his horse and his outstretched arm. At $30 per car the Kysylyczyns considered it a stretch value except when they got there somebody let them go in free when they circled to drive away.
The teenagers wanted to bring Neko to the hot tub before sundown, which was still nearly two hours away. Tess asked if the hot tub might attract bears and Vincent answered that it wasn’t the quality of water wildlife prefer to drink, and there’s no fish. Amelie re-stated rule number one of the hot tub, nobody goes in it alone and offered to go with the girls. While the rest of us cleaned up after dinner we encountered our first conundrum.
We made a pot of coffee, which according to the measures at the side of the glass pot there should have been about twelve cups. At the end of the brew it only came to about eight. It was an automatic drip maker like Mr Coffee only made by Braun. Nothing complicated. I in fact made the brew, and I know I filled the pot all the way to 12 and poured it into the reservoir. Sid asked if maybe I skimmed a fast early cup off the first of the brew, but I swore there was no tampering, in the pot it made only 8. Which was sufficient for the five coffee mongers after dinner.
I ventured to suggest maybe a djinni lived in the wall behind the coffee maker below the counter top who extracted a portion of every pot of coffee as a kind of cosmic tax. Nobody really heard me.
Instead the weather seeped into the conversation. Sid and Michel said South Dakota east of the Badlands was a desert of humidity. With temperatures approaching 100F from Minneapolis to Wall Drug it seemed the freeway was an air conditioned tube across a muggy green plain steaming under the sun. At the Black Hills the rise of elevation seemed to lift them out of the soup, and for that Custer State Park was a nice place to stay at a rustic cabin. The drive down through Wyoming only proved the cooling effect of arid higher elevation. Roxanne and I agreed. Here in Estes Park the high temp barely cracked 80F, and even so, the humidity was so low the breezes swept clear your perspiration. Vincent made clear he despised hot weather and these alpine conditions delighted him to mix up a fresh gin and tonic to toast our coffees on his way out to the hot tub.
My parting words on my way to dress for the hot tub were another toast to Roxanne for finding us this vacation mansion. I invited her to accompany me to the hot tub but she deferred to stick around the kitchen island and discuss plans for tomorrow. Maybe later, she said, and besides it might be rather crowded down there. The teenage girls were just getting out and drying off when I arrived and they were the ones who told me Neko didn’t like being in the hot tub and that’s why she knelt on the top step leaning into the first step down into the tub and up to her shoulders just her arms stirring the water. The elder girls were simply done. How was it? Good. I excused myself over the little one and joined her mom and dad in the tub, now not crowded at all.
It was hard to judge sundown as red light faded and shadows turned purple and blue sky only got bluer as it went away not quite night. The hot tub was conceivably the top of the line, jets like shiatsu massage and an over the shoulders waterfall at the back bench. Each corner featured jets directed somewhere else at your back, or feet as it were. I lay back and floated under the waterfall. The spray mist landed cold to my face and chest, which made me immerse more to keep snug. Roxanne showed up in her bathing suit and took her turns in the jet rotation. Neko showed signs of a shiver and when even Grandma couldn’t lure her into the tub on Grandma’s lap, Amelie volunteered to bring her baby indoors to get ready for pajamas and Vincent belatedly offered to take Neko in but Amelie was already committed. Roxanne had just arrived and me too, so we promised to shut down the tub apparatus and secure the cover when we left, and nobody would remain alone.
Vincent and his mom and dad. It was one of those Truth and Soul moments with him when he frankly thanked us for being good parents. Every now and then he does this, and not in an intoxicated I Love You Man way. He sincerely wants to acknowledge his gratitude for his upbringing, how his mom and I raised him morally and provided him with security and opportunity and intellectual stimulus to live an interesting and fulfilling life. He was that succinct. Rox and I feigned no modesty and said he was welcome. I said my greatest fear was to have one of my children on a psychiatric couch complaining about me. As he was learning, fatherhood isn’t an automatic easy, he said, the responsibility enormous and the stakes, a person’s life and way of engaging the world. We did it in the name of love, we say. We love ya, man.
What he needed was reassurance that he was a good father, and he was. He told how good Neko was on the airplane, wore her mask without fussing. The pandemic offered Vincent a golden opportunity to build a father daughter bond few dads in this world ever get and few dads get to choose. I envy him. With Michel and him I had to struggle to satisfy my need to spend time with them when they were little against a work ethic demanding strict dedication to a job and job culture. My true worst fear was ending up like the dad in the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle”. Plus there was contending against my own selfishness, expressed today in what they refer to as Me Time, which included whatever I was writing at the time. For all that, it pleased me Vincent was fond of how I turned out as his dad. For a while in my life my sixth biggest fear was ending up like a different guy in a Harry Chapin song, “Taxi”.
There was a time when I didn’t think I wanted to be a father. I wasn’t convinced it was right to bring children into this badass world. Roxanne helped convince me, and forty-something years ago we took responsibility to foster offspring and try to engender a generation of good people who would do the world some good. I decided I wanted to be a father so I would create someone to love.
Michel and Sid did not join us at the hot tub. The air was pine crisp and chilly. Lights from surrounding homes suggested nobody occupied them. The next to next next best thing to being alone in the mountain woods. We spoke in low after-dark tones in case somebody was really out there, respecting the neighbors. Sound didn’t seem to carry far anyway. No stars so far but it seemed an air traffic route approaching Denver flew above us too high to hear, beacons pulsing. Definitely this was not wilderness camping. Back in the house dried off we talked plans for tomorrow and the rest of the week. Roxanne got us reservations to enter the national park at one o’clock. Sid had been looking on the internet for river rafting excursions and we elected one for Wednesday. Tuesday seemed like a likely day to go to town at Estes Park and get our family portrait taken in an antique style.
Down at the basement level Neko found a Smokey Bear doll. Smokey’s hand permanently held a shovel, but he was missing his classical hat. This doll became a familiar companion. Neko also discovered a little pup tent downstairs, nylon light weight, which she dragged upstairs and installed at the fringe of the living room, which nobody seemed to mind. There she assembled her playthings, collecting knick-knacks such as moose and bear to accompany Smokey and the dolly she brought from home. Neko settled in. Home base.
Sid curated our music through his iPhone and a JBL while we all played UNO, a card game of matching, divestiture and attrition. Even Neko joined us — the game maker wisely included a set of bogus playing cards, but it wasn’t a few rounds before the little one figured out her cards didn’t affect the game and her attention turned back to her toys and tent. With eight of us around the table we thought we would play through quickly and have time for several rounds but the game lasted over an hour. Up and down, almost each of us at one point declared “UNO!” and ended up fattening up on discards in the deck. Being so nearsighted and unwilling to put on my glasses, the playing table so large for eight of us, I had to stand up and lean in every time it was my turn so I could read the card in play. Whenever I couldn’t play a card in my hand and ended up stoking from the draw, Tess who sat across from me would taunt, “Keep pickin’, chicken.” Sid eventually won, thanks to Clara who before him played the exact card he needed to go out.
And so the happy family of Kellys and Kysylyczyns adjourned to the cushy chairs and couches of the living room to relax before retiring. Most everyone scanned a hand-held device — phone, pad, tablet, laptop. It was Sunday night, and even though on PTO Vincent was obliged to compile a report for his boss for the cursory Monday morning meeting. The teenagers each wore earbuds, the new white ones without cords which resembled little meerschaum Swiss mountain horn pipes. Michel and Roxanne could have been checking Facebook or news feeds. Amelie snuggled Neko to calm and cajole her towards sleepy time while playing some simple graphics game of shapes, colors, vegetables and animals on an iPhone. At times like this Neko liked to relax sucking on her nuk. Sid shopped the net for a river rafting expedition Wednesday — morning or afternoon? In the background the big screen TV played by some kind of random consensus the Game Show Channel, which this time of night — every night — ran a couple of hours of back to back to back episodes of Family Feud hosted by Steve Harvey. And everybody except Neko in the room adept at multi-tasking, especially the teenagers, kept up with the questions — you know, 100 people surveyed, top seven answers are on the board…
Let me say, if I ever see Steve Harvey on TV again it will be too soon. As game hosts go he’s probably one of the best, but game shows don’t entertain me (not even Jeopardy) much and the household consensus to default to the Game Show Channel before bedtime left me a little alienated, if forgiving. The Steve Harvey show in prime time only paid the winning team (family) $5 a point and didn’t pretend to be a high brow show. Any TV network or station whose most commercial break advertisers are promotions for its own shows lives in a niche market and I resented this particular niche marketing itself into my family vacation, but I let it pass without comment (until now). For one thing I didn’t want to challenge a consensus that seemed to be working alongside everybody else’s interactions and personal distractions.
My preference would have been CNN but I was aware how exhausted we all were from fierce political clashes and relentless coverage of the covid coronavirus (no longer novel) pandemic, and I with my very own big time iPhone could follow any of that any time I wanted on my own, and that was the point. As the week went on the Steve Harvey network gave over to TBS, a different Steve and the NBA playoffs, themselves whole other kinds of game shows. If there were a Gymnastic Channel either Clara or Tess would have found it. Default seemed to land at Family Feud where the contestants took turns guessing other peoples’ answers and playing foil to Steve Harvey and risking the XXX buzzer of three wrong answers.
In this light it was my prerogative to leave the house and go outdoors to smoke behind the garage. I didn’t expect to be missed and mostly I was right. My role in this enterprise was symbolic. Neither of my teenaged grand daughters sat at my lotus feet saying things that began, Pray Tell, and asking for my situational wisdom regarding the situation of the world. Unasked, I get to keep a lot of things to myself. What troubadour Bob Seger referred to as What to leave in and what to leave out. My official duty as grandfather to this family has evolved to being someone like the Holy Ghost. I have no oppressive authority as a patriarch. Maybe I could if I asserted it, but there’s nothing I would invoke to make it any different from how things go without me pretending to be boss.
Maybe I’m a nuanced whisperer but I behold no influence like Roxanne. I do not exaggerate, the world largely knows me as Roxanne’s husband, and so with my own family I am Dad by grace of Roxanne being Mom, Grandpa by virtue of Grandma Roxanne, and even among my own siblings they treat Rox like their own genetic sister almost like I am the in-law. My grandchildren don’t ask me questions about when I was young — maybe they’re afraid of what I would reveal. Up to a point my own kids expressed very little interest in who I might have been before they were born, and I might have fostered that point of view by treating their lives as being the beginnings of my life. Grown up now, lives of their own, I feel privileged to have honorary access to their existence. In Neko’s instance I participate in shaping her mind and character by minding her a day or two a week, but Grandma’s my boss and Neko can tell. Vincent and Michel can tell. It rubs off on Sid and Amelie and gets inherited through Clara and Tess. It’s not that my heritage counts for an interesting legacy. I am becoming translucent by transparency, almost invisible. I do not fret about being ignored or forgotten and take a measure of pride at being taken for granted, as if my work is done.
Outdoors that first night at the mountain home I think I was looking for shooting stars and actually saw fewer stars up through the pines than I wished. Again I saw air traffic on the overhead flight path to Denver. The next day, Monday, would be Summer Solstice. My dead mother’s birthday. First day of summer in the northern hemisphere of the planet. For some reason the night was not dark enough.
Some people say there’s nothing like a good cry. For me there’s nothing like a good cough. A good rough cleansing of the lungs and hearty blowout of the airways of the chest. I’ve had a cough most of my life. It’s a liberating act. I credit smoking for the impetus to clear my breathing. I know it runs counter to medical science and I would not recommend it to my grandchildren but inducing a deep cough has sustained me from suffocation and ennui. This night I hoped it would scare away bears.
Being outdoors alone gave me a look around the land surrounding us nobody noticed or cared about from inside the house. Despite the density of trees the visibility through the wooded properties went a long way in every direction by virtue of the straight bare trunks with no limbs at eye level until high into the canopy above the rooftops. The neighbor houses seemed even closer in the dark with their yard lights on and strategic interior room lights of nobody home. Alongside the garage a two car dumpster reeked and I hoped Monday might be the day the sanitation truck came to pick up what was in it. There was an iron bar with a latch across the lid to keep it secure from bears. With bears in mind I went back in the house, where nobody seemed to miss me.
In the morning Michel made coffee. She carefully measured the water to the 12 cup line in the carafe. The net result again eight cups. I advanced my theory of a djinni living behind the cupboard who exacted a cut of the proceeds. Eventually Vincent elegantly explained the physics of how the atmosphere at this altitude absorbs boiled water at a higher ratio than where we live. Something about his delivery irritated his sister, who didn’t doubt he was right. I’ve lived with their sibling rivalry all their lives, about forty years, almost before Vincent was born, so this kind of buzz didn’t faze me, raise any red flags or blip my radar. The morning began where the night left off (minus Steve Harvey) only the sunlight shone bright through the pines and lit the log walls through the curtainless windows of the kitchen and living room.
Sid was first up, naturally, and went for a run into town and around the reservoir. His shoes on the ground scouting report gave this neighborhood of Estes Park an excellent rating and he quipped hope we weren’t considered the riff raff, not just tourists. Vincent was up with Neko, letting Amelie sleep in. Michel and the teenage girls got up about the same time as Sid, is why Michel made coffee. Neko came in our room to wake up Grandma.
The place had excellent wi fi. I did my morning banking and scrolled the news from the eEdition of the StarTribune over coffee and a raisin cinnamon bagel with cream cheese. The others ate breakfast and scrolled their phones and tablets too, engaging the wide world through those narrow portals we access to amuse and edify ourselves via the refined metaverse of what God has wrought. Sid booked us a river rafting expedition for Wednesday near Fort Collins. Tess liked Tik Tok and kept up with her best friend and cousin Erin. Clara watched music videos wearing earbuds, occasionally whisper singing softly to herself. Michel could have been checking texts or newsletters from the schools or church or the parent associations including the gymnastic, swim and diving teams and whatever else pertained to her citizen participation. Same with Amelie when she came upstairs. Roxanne double checked our reservations to enter the national park. It was a snapshot of family on a Monday morning. The big TV on the wall was off.
Our reservations were for eleven o’clock. Covid-19 protocols required visitors to make reservations at national parks to try to provide social distancing among the crowds. As we cleaned up after breakfast we prepared for the day trip. In the cabinet below the coffee counter the house came stocked with water bottles so those who hadn’t brought their own could bring water, which Vincent and Amelie reminded us was essential to well being at this altitude. They packed goldfish crackers for Neko. It would be colder and windy up the mountain. Michel reminded us to apply sunscreen and everybody have a mask, just in case such as trailheads and visitor centers.
We took both cars. Rox rode with the Kysylyczyns and I with Neko in the back seat with Amelie at the wheel and Vincent shotgun. We split up that way because Roxanne and I each have lifetime Golden Eagle senior passes to all US national parks, meaning we and our companions in each car got into the park free.
The park entrance could have been the back door out of Estes Park. We joined a line of about a dozen cars. More than half were turned away because apparently they had no reservations. Some you could see arguing with the ranger, who calmly withheld the map and day pass and waved them around the entrance hut, and a few of those gunned their engines on the way out but everybody obeyed. In a few hours the park would open to visitors without reservations at an attrition basis as reserved visitors left the park. A separate line of cars would soon form on a first come basis. We were waved in with smiles.
The two lane highway beyond the park entrance curved and curled as we climbed the timber cushioned canyon to the crossroads at Bear Lake Road, where led by Sid we attempted to enter. Our reservation did not include Bear Lake Road, so the ranger at that station waved us around to go back to the main road, which we did with smiles. We actually already knew our reservation didn’t include Bear Lake but Sid was of a mood to test the system; we’d heard Bear Lake was a cool destination and told ourselves nice try; the ranger reminded us as we departed this route would open to non-reservations at 3:00. We proceeded back to rejoin the main road US 36 to the Beaver Meadows visitors center, where we registered our tickets via Roxanne’s cell phone and we officially entered the park.
Tess put on her mask and went directly to the desk to register for the Junior Ranger program, get her booklet and a pencil. She knew what to do, she already had badges from about five other national parks. Clara passed on the opportunity, in her mind had aged out of the program and preferred to approach the experience like an adult tourist like her dad — no offense to her sister, whom she generally assisted anyway in spotting flora and fauna to complete the answers to the booklet.
We chose an easy place for our first hike, not far off the road with gradual uphill ascent near a rushing stony stream. Neko immediately made for the water’s edge, drawing a slew of guardians all around. The rest of us meandered up the stony hill, scattered to stake out preferred vantages.
That morning I’d read a blog by my friend Thom Amundsen about a hike he took up a mountain in Minnesota. He recalled advice from a friend for hiking steep terrain, pick up two stones about palm size and clasp one in each hand and hold them as you walk, transfer energy with the stones with every step. Two stones on the trail I walked volunteered themselves. They did not match in color or composition. One was rounder, the other slimmer and oblong. The rounder one suited my left hand for volume and the other fit tight between my knuckles and palm. Right away I felt a surge in my steps generating from my hands. It was a sense of propellant up my shoulders and back down to my hips. It wasn’t the first reference I’d heard regarding stones in hands — Thom’s friend could have been Fernando from Zihuatanejo — but his most recent reminder served as a cautionary consideration for myself as to whether I had any business hiking up mountainsides.
The lost year of ZOZO cost me more stamina than I could count. Months and months confined to my very own big time psychiatric couch did nothing for my muscle tone. Like it was one big long Lent I practically gave up swimming and walking. The YWCA was closed — beside a pool they’ve got a big field house with an elevated indoor track for walking laps when the landscape outdoors offers slippery risks or it’s just too cold. Didn’t walk the beach or swim at Ixtapa — didn’t go. Didn’t meander Mall of America. Even when weather conditions allowed safe passage I remained reluctant to go outdoors even to mosey through the neighborhood much less avail my city’s opulent lakes and parks except to please Roxanne, who fought stir craziness with exercise and warned me against rot if I lived this leisure life on the couch. I knew she was right but couldn’t rise to the urgency in a world where it may not matter and didn’t make a difference and I actually lost six pounds. Thus I drew what force I could from the two rocks I carried up the stony trail, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
Roxanne caught up to me and questioned her own stamina at this altitude, which was at least 8,000 feet. I told her about Thom Amundsen’s method and showed her my fists. She readily found her own two stones and passed me on the trail to catch up with Tess and Michel. Sid and Clara led all ascenders. The view was not spectacular but it was enchanting. Down by the creek Vincent and Amelie coaxed the little blond kid uphill among the rocks. So this is why they call it the Rocky Mountains.
We drove our little caravan further up what twisted and curved above the canyons to emerge to Trail Ridge Road above the tree line. The views ranged from enchanting to evocative to hypnotic. I was so happy not to be driving. Where we pulled off the road to wander and look, Tess brought her booklet and kept her eyes out for wildlife. I asked Clara how the Rockies so far compared to what she remembered of the Alps. She said similarities aside, the Alps seemed more densely peaked with steep valleys between, where the Rockies seemed more spread out and contiguous. Along the ridge Tess, whom I call Kitty, sidled to me to observe the view, a rolling cushy valley of tundra descending into a dark abyss that rose rocky and sturdy on the other side.
“Don’t you wish we could just roll and roll down that hill Grandpa? Doesn’t it look almost fluffy?”
“It’s a long long way down, Kitty. We’re seeing illusions of perspective. That green lushness down there is actually prickly treetops.”
“Even so, it looks entreating.” She had already identified a marmot and a tiny pika, a bighorn sheep and a white-tailed ptarmigan, a tundra bird that looks like a grouse. Or so she told me.
We reached tundra where the plant life exists like inch-high sprigs like succulents, too fragile to allow wanderers to trample. Signs posted at the crest of Kitty’s rolling hill prohibited foot traffic, and the slope of Kitty’s hill looked deceptively gentle enough but the tundra vegetation would be too slippery to climb back up, so the prohibition was probably more for the safety of humans than flora.
Near the top of the ridge we parked near a visitor center where a trail led up through the tundra to the peak of the mountain, over 12,000 feet. The ascent up the bare-ass tundra looked gradual enough. There was a rock formation like a fortress at the top. I joined Sid, Clara, Kitty and Michel on the hike to the top. Neko was cranky and otherwise too little for this trek for trek’s sake. Her mom and daddy and Granma Roxy stayed behind with her to savor the view from the edge of the ridge.
I had my two rocks in the pouch pocket of my hoodie, and when I carried them in my hands the rounder one still fit my left palm, the narrower one firmly clenched in my right. The trail was a bee line path bisecting an asymmetrical panorama of mossy prairie all the way to the horizon, which seemed further away with every step but at the same time a finite place in time at the fortress of stone. Soon I could see beyond that were other mountains peak with snow. The wind was gusting stiffly so I had to adjust my wide-brimmed hat and lace the string under my chin if it blew off, though the wind was at our backs going up. Thus I found the ascent surprisingly facile. Even so Sid set the pace ahead with his daughters. Michel escorted me much of the way, but along the way I tend to dawdle anyway and lag behind, a shepherding tendency as well as the advanced age prerogative to not hurry a new experience.
I knew I wasn’t alone. If needed I knew Clara and Tess would come back for me like they did a few years back on vacation at Bryce Canyon, when they, their dad Sid and I did the whole Queen’s Garden Navajo Loop trail, a magnificent descent to the floor of an effervescent desert canyon oasis and a captivating climb along the walls of timeless red rock which eventually climbs to about a dozen final switchbacks which seem eternal when looking down deeper backward into the canyon and realizing there is no going back, and up is the only way back to the real world from the surreal. When the guidebooks say the Navajo Loop going up is strenuous, take them for their word. The final dozen switchbacks are not suited for leisurely rambling conversation. Clara and Tess kept up with their dad, who was way ahead of me, maybe two switchbacks by the time he emerged. Yet the girls still took turns doubling back to walk with me and even hold my hand part way until I made it within the final two switchbacks. Compared to Bryce Canyon this tundra was a cakewalk, even three years older, this my summer of 69. Holding hands with stones.
At the top the horizon curved such that you couldn’t say we reached a peak but just and egg shaped dome. The stone tower was a formation of irregular stones that arose in staged crags about twenty feet tall and fifty feet across on the spongy tundra. A group of five or six boys, mostly strangers to one another, climbed the windblown crags and stood at the top flats and sat among the jutted rocks like this was their territory, not menacing but cocky. Their adult companions meandered across the dome of tundra. The presence of our teenage girls seemed to motivate the boys to recede to the shadows but the girls didn’t take up the invitation to climb.
Surveying the horizon edges around the slope of this giant, fuzzy egg it struck me that there were no posted prohibitions to walking on the tundra itself off the path up here. Except for stepping from the rock fortress to the paved trail I felt guilty walking on the tundra turf. At the same time the turf looked no worse for wear from the soles who meandered to explore beyond the path. There were no big crowds at any park mainstays, likely due to the reservation policy and the crowd mitigation of the park service. At this place there wasn’t a whole lot to explore, but I recalled Roxanne’s and my first and only visit to Yosemite, where huge crowds overran every square inch of available ground at every mainstay where people elbowed each other for grand vistas. Yosemite was the most egregiously crowded tourist attraction we ever saw, perhaps because the valley and canyon offer such critically limited space to share such immense natural beauty. I could complain about all the attractions I’ve been for the crowds, from Grand Canyon to Eiffel Tower. I feel guilty for my selfishness to wish to savor for myself and my intimate companions the glorious majesty of compelling sites without sharing the worthy experiences with thousands of strangers distracting my vision and crowding my space. The guilt comes from the reality of the public places, which are established to share the grandeur with everyone, not just the elite and privileged, especially wonders of nature but including works of humanity. Most times while touring I take the approach of people watching to see what they might be seeing, a sort of crowd bonding of not only sharing space and time but purpose. There’s a duality I can live with, like visiting the Greek agora in Athens to treat agoraphobia. At Yosemite we got a close up look at overpopularity threatening the park’s very existence, its sacred availability to the public domain allowing overpopulation by humans to erode away its natural environment, the reason it is so popular. As Don Henley sang, “Call someplace Paradise, kiss it good bye.”
Not so much this first day of summer at Rocky Mountain National Park, beautiful if not paradise and well shy of crowded. The covid pandemic which turned every public space into a potential superspreader kept a vacation like this unthinkable a year before, and this being the first weeks of official opening of institutional restrictions, it was still a sign that the habits and practices of the lost year of ZOZO were still with us high on the tundra under blue sky at 12,000 feet in North America in a stiff but not icy wind on solstice day and all the tourists scattered across the fuzzy horizon keeping relative social distance like a Stonehenge of people on the plain.
Even on the walk down slope to the cars I came in last. Every hike I take, no matter how fast I feel I’m going I always fall behind. Is it my shepherding tendency? The wind at my face was almost cold but I had my rocks in my hoodie pocket to keep me warm. My hat blew off but my chin lace kept me from having to chase it up the tundra. I never said wait for me, did I?
We regrouped at the parking lot. Neko napped in her car seat. Having reached the top of the ridge line we retreated back to our mountain forest home for lunch. Again I was happy to not be driving. Not that it was a harrowing or dangerous drive, it was simply too beautiful to keep my eyes on the road. Going back the other direction was not a simple repeat of where we came from but the unveiling of new angles and vistas revealed as if the mountain range rearranged itself behind our backs.
Outside the park entrance at the base of the valley, where a disciplined line of cars waited for a turn to get into the park as cars like ours left, Sid turned their car into the visitor center while Amelie drove directly through town to the house, where we laid out a spread of deli cold cuts, cheeses, hummus and breads on the vast island in the center of the kitchen. This center island served as buffet table and central meeting space the whole of our stay, the living room aside. After a look around the merchandise at the visitor center store, the Kysylyczyns and Roxanne joined the buffet. They said they saw a lot of interesting stuff but were too hungry to linger and buy anything right then.
Tess worked on her Junior Ranger booklet. She said she missed Erin, her cousin the same age and lifelong best friend. Two years ago, before ZOZO, Erin rode along with Sid, Michel, Clara and Kate on a family road trip to Tennessee, where they dropped Clara at a gymnastics camp outside of Nashville. While Clara practiced gymnastics at a camp with her peers they toured Nashville and the Great Smoky Mountains. At Smoky Mountain National Park Tess and Erin competed to complete their study guides to be first to get the Junior Ranger badge, which Erin won, Tess said by jumping the line. Erin spent a lot of time at her cousins’ house and hanging out with their activities and I half expected she would be with them on this trip to Colorado. I could see why Tess missed her, but they kept in touch by smartphone and their separation wasn’t that dire, not like the years Tess lived in Switzerland, and for me offered an extra opportunity to spend time with Tess.
Clara set up a shop of sorts at a portion of the big coffee table in the living room, arranged her array of colored threads and went about weaving bracelets, starting with Neko. The little one was fascinated and sat beside her teenage cousin and watched the process. She picked out the bracelet threads but otherwise didn’t interfere with Clara’s layout or procedure. For her patience she got a bracelet for each wrist and lessons how to create them herself whenever she ever felt so confident.
After lunch we got back in the cars and re-entered the park. The Bear Lake area was still closed to those without reservations until 3:00, and we had seen on the way down there was still a considerable line of cars, so we instead drove to Marys Lake, a tranquil little byway fringed by mountains at the edge of the woods with a level walking trail around the lake. Signs posted at the lakefront warned that swimming was illegal. Sid said he encountered signs like that posted around the reservoir in town where he ran that morning. The reason was, Victor explained, the water in this vicinity was typically so cold you could catch hypothermia and die quickly. Michel grew irritated whenever Neko was allowed to go the lake’s edge without close accompaniment and her brother countered that his little daughter had more impulse control than to worry about her. The lake was rippled but calm, no surf waves or tumbling rapids, and the edges sandy with reeds, grass and short trees of aspen and willow. Neko followed little blue dragonflies into the grasses. Tiny frogs hopped toward the beach and into the trees. Redwing blackbirds escorted us along the trail. This was yet early in the season for this ecosystem. No butterflies. Most wildflowers were yet to bloom. Eventually about four-fifths around the lake Neko started getting ornery and demanded to be carried. Victor and Amelie, Uncle Sid and Grandma strung her along and the girls said stuff like You Got This until it was clear, she would walk not another pace and her mother picked her up in her arms and cradled her and carried her the rest of the way, enjoying the blackbirds with red shoulders perched in the aspen along the marsh grass.
If I ever come back I would like to walk the trail the other way, clockwise around the lake. For the same reason to pay attention to the scenery both ways up and down the mountains because it’s different. Not that it’s likely I shall pass this way again, I don’t know why except that it was solely for the sake of my family I was there at all, not that I was drawn especially obsessed by Old West American History which by this time sailed right over my head, my focus more affixed by the geological and geographic history beyond the time of first humans and to admire it within the context of what humans have erected and created around such abundant natural beauty. This was where my family picked and chose to meet up and spend vacation time together for the simple sake of exploring a strange new place together or more simply spending time at leisure and recreation. We certainly didn’t have a family business, nothing dynastically commercial between us. There was no more reason to be there than simply wanting to be on a retreat together just to keep each other company exploring somewhere new, or at least new to somebody, and share whatever understanding keeps us, as Tess put it, permanent.
Everybody is presumed to want something from this vacation. Roxanne’s motives reinforce my own, to spend intimate special time with our kids and grandkids while we still can. Everybody includes even the three year old, who wants attention and affection no matter what, places to play and secure protection. The rest may be in it for lots of reasons. The teenagers because their parents said so, and after practically their lifetimes touring and exploring geography far from home, what Tess used to refer as real life, they overlap being exposed and exposed to places they may not ordinarily think about or come across at their ages except on a screen or in a book to being curious about the details of where they are. Sid and Michel travel as part of their nature and rarely revisit any given place except like Paris or Zurich, and go at it with destinations in mind and looking for excursions and collecting mementos. Rox and I have traveled with them, and given their life expectancies they will far and away go more places on this earth than I will, and already have. Their mutual attraction to travel vacations project onto their daughters awareness of a wider world which will continue to benefit them when they grow up and create their own real life lives. We all want our children to have a better life. Vincent and Amelie prefer to travel to obscure and wild places within North America, preferably near water, where they pass their wonder of nature to Neko. The adult kids all see vacations as paid time off work. Everybody might say this sojourn in northern Colorado was due for the reason of celebrating having survived the lost year of ZOZO, even though that long sixteen or so month year was barely over and this is more or less the same vacation we planned for a year ago before pandemic. Everybody had their own reasons to participate, lots of simple and complex motives of their own, none less than to accept Roxanne’s (and my) extravagant generosity.
Tacos for dinner. The kitchen island served as an excellent buffet for all the fixings. Around the table we could not stick to one topic. The new delta variant of covid-19 could overturn all the progress made against the pandemic just when restrictions were being taken down. Back home our governor announced plans to relinquish his emergency powers and call a special session of the legislature to finish appropriation bills. American vaccination rates lagged depressingly low considering copious availability of vaccines and it looked like President Biden’s national goal of 78% by the 4th of July would fall short. They called it vaccine hesitancy but we knew it was a polite euphemism for organized resistance. When Trump was president it was all about developing a vaccine at Warp Speed and now his supporters refuse to get vaccinated. So far the vaccines seemed to be effective against severe disease and death from the delta variant. In the coming weeks each of the teenage girls would be attending camps. It would take an overwhelming surge of serious infections and panic to bring back lockdowns, and even then the resistance would likely prevail and laissez-faire compliance render authority unenforceable. It seemed as if society was willing to let everything slide just when we were this close. Then again, we have been conditioned to accept dire prognoses. Dr Mike Osterholm’s name came up, our home town epidemiologist known for being too often right about his pessimistic predictions. We had come too far to let it get our goats.
In the hot tub with Clara and Tess as dusk eased its shadows under the red pines I asked them about this past school year, whether in fact they had become dumber. Oh no, not them. Clara had been a high school sophomore, barely a freshman year into high school society when distance learning kept her home attending classes over wi fi. She had no trouble keeping up her lessons and getting good grades. The experience only reinforced everything she learned about technology her whole life. Same with Tess — maybe more so. Clara missed social life being in a building in classes with rooms and students, even if she grew adept at group projects in virtual laptop sessions, such as choir practice and eventual concert, all shot from home. Homes. Tess said she didn’t miss going to her school and didn’t care if she returned to in-school learning (especially when she would attend a new middle school in the fall due to boundary changes) and didn’t seem to miss campus social life, she had all the social life she wanted without it. Tess was every bit as tech savvy as her older sister and also got good grades, and to her if that’s all that mattered for school she would rather go at it that way from home, her own studio.
I summarized with the chorus of a song I exposed them to when they were little: “I’m doing all right, getting good grades, the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”
Don’t forget climate change, said Tess.
Poverty, added Clara. The murder rate.
Grandma Roxanne and Michel showed up and we made room giving them the corner jets. Grandma wanted to hear about their upcoming camps. They would forego gymnastics camp in Tennessee another year because of covid. Instead Clara would go back to Tennessee to a Methodist church camp in Appalachia to do social service work for a week. Meanwhile Tess would attend a diving camp at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter MN, an hour or so south of the Twin Cities. Clara and Tess both attended a diving camp the summer before the pandemic as an offshoot of gymnastics. All their lives they dabbled in diving off the board at the swimming pool in their other grandparents’ back yard. Clara made the varsity Southwest high school diving team her sophomore year and Tess hoped to make the Southwest junior varsity squad her upcoming final year of middle school and make varsity her freshman year. Tess was a year too young to attend the church camp and still hadn’t gone through confirmation at their church. Clara needed to contribute social service to fulfill church commitments made with confirmation and could add the experience to her resume of public service towards her application to the National Honor Society.
The girls had enough and went back up to the house. Grand Ma and Ma Ma continued dialog about the girls, summer plans and keeping them busy during school break. Sid and Michel always kept their kids busy. They were pleasantly surprised how they adapted to home learning when the pandemic shut down their schools. Gymnastics was Clara’s only sport since pre-school track and field until high school diving. She broke her ankle on a faulty dismount from the beam a couple years ago and never quite recovered despite two surgeries. Whether she continued at the high school level or not she would require one more surgery to remove bone spurs. The gymnastics studio she and Tess belonged to shut down for a while too from the pandemic — one of the coach’s spouses died from covid — and league competition stopped. Year ZOZO squelched the gymnastic season for the girls and closed their social club and cost Clara a part time job coaching little beginners. Tess had played basketball and soccer and competitive swimming before focusing on gymnastics as a year round discipline. At three years difference, the younger Tess all her life seemed to trail along behind Clara in sports achievement and in gymnastics she was catching up fast. Now Clara was on the edge of retiring or aging out of their gym studio club, and Tess was approaching a chance to make the high school JV diving team as an eighth grader. The two sports coexisted but their competitive seasons did not overlap. Now that school was out and there were no scheduled team practices Michel spoke of the stress of keeping her daughters occupied.
Grand Ma of course offered to take them places and suggested one or both of them and even their constant cousin Erin might lend hands on days we watched Neko. I lounged deep into the fluming waters, just my face above the churning surface so I couldn’t hear so well, much less see anything but the bright blurry purple twilight sky. The sprinkles of spray in the air trickled chilly to the skin of my face, so I stuck my head out a little more to feel the tingles on my scalp. The moon was high and nearly full, almost straight up in the sky. Was I tuning out the conversation of my wife and daughter? No. I was immersed in serenity.
Next morning I was up right after Sid, who went for a run. He started the coffee before he left and I nursed it along about halfway through the brew cycle adding about four more cups of water to the reservoir to net out a pot of 12 to outfox the djinni. Vincent kept the cannabis up high on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet next to the coffeemaker. Nobody around, which is to say discreetly I extracted a fruity 10 mg edible cube and chewed it with savor like a vitamin diet supplement. Be it said that whole week I availed this stash day to day. This now the second day of summer, my summer of 69, the first summer since ZOZO, my heart was set on savoring this vacation as the pathway for the rest of my life. As it should be. I’ve had new beginnings before but this was not one. Even those old new beginnings were continuations, extensions, extrapolations of this same old charmed life. And being almost 70 I didn’t need an actuary to keep me posted that every year could be the home stretch.
The plan for this day was to go to town after breakfast to browse the shops and seek one of those old timey photo studios to take a family portrait. This would be our third since Amelie joined our clan, or kin if you prefer. The first two we had taken in Wisconsin Dells, where we spent long weekends at a condo at a water park, the first the summer Michel, Sid and the girls moved to Switzerland and the second the summer after they came back. The first one was a classic Old Western set at a public house with us men in broad brim hats and Wild West post-Civil War shirts and carrying long guns and the ladies primped up as saloon divas while the young girls in frilly dresses and wide hats and for some reason flashing straps of cash and cloth bags marked $. The second portrait set us back to the basics of the hardscrabble pioneers of the prairie with buckskin boys — Vincent even donned a raccoon cap and Sid a banjo — and all the womenfolk modestly homestead dressed, dainty caps and aprons, Amelie conspicuously eight months pregnant with would-be Neko, who was then oddly known as Frankie in the womb. Again I wore a wide brimmed hat and carried a long gun. If we were playing the same characters I at least wanted to convey continuity.
At breakfast Vincent seemed unusually grumpy and it grated his sister. Or maybe Michel was grumpy and Vincent was normal. Either way, I sensed the tension between the siblings and as usual didn’t do or say anything about it. He might have dropped a casual F-bomb within earshot of the kids. She may have been aggravated by by Neko running about unsupervised and undisciplined, not that she was into any mischief, playing in the pup tent on the landing above the sunken living room with Smokey Bear and a few wildlife figurines from around the house. I don’t know. The sibling rivalry as I said dates back to the day Vincent was born (maybe longer) and I’ve tolerated and mitigated it what seems like my entire life without solving it and life seems to go on. Maybe I even encouraged it by allowing them to argue. I never really shrugged it off or took sides except under extreme tempers, and they coexisted peaceably at worst and at best like best buds. I hoped the four year gap between them would narrow into adulthood but in time it was clear it wasn’t the difference in their ages or in the age they were raised but differences in their personalities. They tolerated and mitigated each other while unable to reconcile their similarities, which it seemed only Roxanne and I could see. This day it didn’t seem an unusual factor and I anticipated having another good day and ending up everybody copacetic.
Even so, Vincent was less than enthused about taking a trip into town, and not for covid reasons. He just had a skeptical attitude about tourist towns and if not for the importance of our vintage family portrait would have preferred to go back inside the park to poke around, or at least stay home. Everybody else was excited to take the picture and curious about the town. Michel found a photo studio offering what we were looking for and put a pin in it on her Google map. The women fixed their hair. Amelie tried to brush Neko’s flying tangled curls but the kid resisted. Nobody dressed up because we would all be in costume.
Downtown Estes Park was just far enough away to justify taking the cars but according to Sid it would make an interesting hike based on his morning run routes. All the while he was the only one who explored the area on foot. Apart from our activities within the park and our rafting trip, we explored by car. That way we covered a lot of ground. Off the main streets we found municipal parking downtown. A pedestrian walkway lined with shops ran along both sides of a creek through town. On the old main street we found the photo studio. We wore masks while we crammed into the crowded little lobby, which was occulied by another party ahead of us. The proprietor took our name and asked if we would wait outside until our turn, a reasonable request the first week away from covid restrictions. Out on the sidewalk we mingled with other tourists, some masked, some not. Michel stayed close to the photo studio for the signal to bring us in. Roxanne, the girls and Amelie checked out adjoining shops. Vincent ducked into the bar across the street. Sid and I hung out between Michel and the studio and the others and the shops. We walked up the block a little on the old main to eye the boutiques taken over the Old West storefronts and commented on their apparent relative prosperity after ZOZO the lost year. Further than we ventured I spied a music store that might sell records and CDs. I never got there — this mission was not to tie up vacation hours shuffling through music bins auditing recordings I probably didn’t need.
By the time the lady proprietor at the photo studio motioned for us to enter we were all assembled behind Michel at the door, even Vincent. As the previous group chose and paid for their pictures an older lady ushered us behind the curtain to the wardrobe and began choosing and distributing Victorian era costumes to put on over our street clothes. She dressed us in Sunday best finery. The women and girls wore high collar floor length brocade dresses and the guys suits with long coats and ascot neckties. The siblings’ couples stood in back, Sid and Vincent back to back like business partners, their wives at their sides like emerging grand dames. Next row the two teenagers looked like spinsters seated side by side below their parents, and Roxanne and I seated on the other half of the composition looked the matriarchal patriarchal part. Neko stood in the foreground in the middle. All the women and girls held folded parasols except Clara, who held a bouquet of flowers. I held a cane. Sid held his lapel. We all wore hats except Neko. Mine a medium brim gentleman’s hat, Vincent got a derby, Sid a serious wide brim, and the ladies wide brimmed, feathered and flowered. Neko’s wild blond curls rippled and radiated from the center of the frame. The floor was a carpet of an arabesque pattern of a mixture of leaves and the background a paradise wall of an Impressionist canopy of leafy trees.
The main proprietor lady posed us and framed us and took several shots. She was exact in her directions, almost autistically officious. Didn’t make small talk or joke around. Not unfriendly just unsocial. The session was over quicker than it took us to dress and undress. I learned from the older costume lady, more sociable, that she was the proprietor photographer’s mother, who taught the daughter the business, and she was just helping out getting the business restarted after the covid shutdown.
Through the modern technical miracle of computer photography we could see our proofs on screen right away and receive our prints in minutes. There were packages galore and Christmas cards. Each of our three households picked a favorite proof for an 8 x 10. I stayed behind to pick up the tab while everybody dispersed to the street. The proprietor saw my credit card and offered me a discount for cash. I happened to have enough cash to oblige her. In parting I turned back to the mom, putting the last of our hats away and commented how well the daughter learned the craft of the camera.
The portrait was in fact very good. We chose instead of black and white, or sepia tone like our previous two, to print this one in faux hand-tinted color. What the costumes and positions of the figures didn’t provide were conveyed by the postures and facial expressions of the people. Clara and Tess looked like spinsters because their faces are so innocently serious beyond their years. Michel and Amelie glare with fierce aristocratic elegance. Roxanne is forgivably smug as Grand Ma, formidable and graceful. I managed not to look feeble and daft with my cane and not a rifle.
Neko in the center foreground intrigued me by the way she was dressed. In a floor length black dress with a white lace hem and white lace collar and shoulders, she reminded me of Queen Victoria in mourning for her Prince Albert, or of one of those funeral portraits of a deceased child from the Colonial era. I was about to ask the studio ladies about this when, as I pocketed my change and thanked them both, Michel came back into the shop to see what was keeping me.
Out on the sidewalk and on main street the swell of late morning pedestrians caused need for the city to deploy a jolly traffic cop at the main corner to direct foot traffic and keep the walkers safe from the surges of cars from every direction. The crowds made Michel nervous and I was none too comfortable either. Most of our group had migrated to the third of fourth shop down the street, eyeballing t-shirts and earrings and Colorado memorabilia. I found the state flag interesting, big red C in the middle with a yellow sun circle in the C over a field of white bordered by two wide stripes. Nobody saw what they really wanted. Michel and Sid and the girls went on ahead seeking specialty coffee and ice cream. Vincent wanted to go straight back to the cabin. Amelie voted with Vincent on Neko’s behalf, as there wasn’t much to amuse the kid and what she did find interesting at the stores she couldn’t really play with. I and Roxanne were ambivalent. The outlook ahead appeared to be shops and more shops the likes we’ve seen since we were kids from Nisswa Minnesota to Niagara Falls. We would have rather gone back into the national park but we didn’t have a reservation and admission to the un-reserved was a few hors away, so I voted to go back to home base. Roxanne however preferred the back route to the car park along the patios on the banks of the little river. She found an ice cream shop on the way and thus some of us spoiled our lunch with dessert first. The downside of this elegant little scenic route was having to keep Neko away from the edge of the creek.
Carrying iPhones kept us all texted as to our separate whereabouts and cinched our rendezvous at Mountain Forest Home. Bread and cheese, cold chicken, cold cuts, peanut butter and jelly, quesadillas, Nutella, lots of choices and options awaited for lunch. Vincent mixed a gin and tonic and noted it was time to replenish. I decided to mix one for myself an found indeed the bottle of Boodles I’d brought from home had gone down rather fast. The Kysylyczyns arrived sooner that I would have thought, given how much further they ventured up the street. Nobody had any souvenirs. We all talked about feeling awkward among other tourists. Even with masks it seemed hard to make eye contact with strangers. Clara and Tess remarked they wanted to go back shopping at the national park visitor centers, having found nothing special downtown. Roxanne agreed.
While Amelie and Vincent took a trip to the liquor store I courted Neko. Out front of the house on the far side of the driveway a stand of boulders beckoned her to climb. Some as big as cars and trucks, the tallest was as big as a boxcar. Terraced and lumpy with a hollowed out bowl around the backside it almost seemed designed a monument to childsplay except it emerged from the earth like the natural pinnacle of some subterranean peak, even though it was the only rock formation of its kind in the neighborhood. Which meant if it was a landscape design it was not only perfectly executed but probably very expensive, if completely in keeping with the property. I tagged after Neko, who strutted and climbed up, down and all around, only hesitant to scale the dome all the way to the top.
While we contemplated whether she really wanted to try to crawl the pinnacle a muscular elk with a head of antlers crossed the far side of the property and paused to graze the fresh cut lawn of the neighbor. “Elk,” I grandpa-splained in nearly a whisper when I saw she saw. Both of us momentarily awestruck, the lovely animal paused and raised his head high before sniffing his march across the property borders and into the woods behind the house.
“Where is it going?” she asked as I gave her foot a boost up the craggy side of the peak.
“Into the woods looking for food.”
“Will it come back?”
“Probably not today.”
“Help me down.” She lowered herself to a ledge accessible to a plateau where she felt secure to tramp around and I could back off to ground level to observe sitting down on a rock. Not one old enough to appreciate catharsis her attention leaped to the next plateau whereas I fawned over my grandchild, her little mountain and the elk. How will she remember Grandpa Kelly? Even spending days like these with her at home at least once a week, how much of an impression am I making on her memory? The other two grandkids were mature enough now to know me as a vivid person and remember me in specific ways, but Neko got a late start, so much younger, even if she was more fun than ever to mess with her mind it would still take years and years to catch up to the level of value her cousins appreciate me.
Michel appeared on the deck of the front porch and asked where were Vincent and Amelie. They went to the store. So why was I letting Neko crawl all over those rocks? She’s a climber, I said. Climbers climb. I’m watching her.
The afternoon glided like two eagles riding air currents of summer so high and straight overhead you have to practically lean all the way back to observe them at all. The breeze grazed the trees and now and then a pine cone conked down on the needle spread turf. (Whenever out for a smoke and a cough I heeded the voice of Smokey Bear on TV when I was a kid: “Crush smokes out. Dead out. Only you can prevent forest fires.”) Next door, at the property in the direction where the elk appeared, a guy came out of the garage on a light riding lawnmower and gave the grass a run through, then went back in the house. Personally I liked the rustic look of the rest of the lots around us but conceded his pure green, level patch added visual repose under the high dry sun. The weather was perfect.
Indoors we kept the windows open and the ceiling fans circulating. We hung out on the front deck, back deck, the kitchen and the living room couches and easy chairs. Clara had a jag going with Taylor Swift’s album evermore on her phone listening on earbuds so no one else could hear but subtly singing along, murmuring in perfect pitch. Tess either read a book on her phone, scrolled TikTok or texted back and forth to home and her best friend cousin Erin. Sid and Vincent threw Rotten Tomatoes reviews at each other and quoted Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David — something about the time a guy named Poppy peed his pants on Jerry’s couch — I could better keep up with them when they used to reference The Onion. Michel fretted about what she read on her newsfeeds about the new delta variant of covid-19 spreading through the UK and India from South Africa. Not Amelie or Sid or Vincent (just rehired) had returned to an office worksite yet, all working from home except Michel, a nurse, and yet each of their employers were setting vague dates for them to return to the office at the end of summer — would the spread of delta variant upend these plans? It didn’t look like Joe Biden’s goal of 75% of all Americans vaccinated by the 4th of July was going to happen, but 68% by then looked feasible. The fear was that the unvaccinated will spread delta and incite reinfections and stress society and the health care system all over again and ZOZO the lost year would come back, which was a depressing topic for a family vacation. Here we were exploiting the new freedoms of the unlock-down like privileged citizens like we were part of some kind of underground compliance network of entitlements. It would be hard to surrender exceptionalism now after all we’ve been through. Michel, Amelie and Roxanne spoke of caution, toasted cheers and knocked wood to not jinx and spoil the sacrifices of the lost year.
Everybody had a mask just in case, even Neko.
Sid provided most of the soundtrack that week. In the house he live-streamed an app to the Minnesota Public Radio rock station, 89.3 The Current. They specialize in indie and alternative rock artists. That week the station celebrated its 15th anniversary on the air so they highlighted the tunes that lit up the listeners since they went on the air. These days I don’t spend much time in the car (trips like this one excepted) so I don’t listen to very much music radio, but when I did I could almost keep up with what was new and fresh listening to The Current. I could have gotten lazy and stale relying on my stock of CDs and my 859-song iPod Touche if not for the kids. Sid for one makes the effort to connect me with emerging artists with respect to my lifelong communion with rock and roll, back to the early 1950s. He came into Michel’s life fully literate in both Elvises, Presley and Costello (not that he’s a big fan of either — one deceased and the other not yet famous before Sid was even born) and passed on to me his own due diligence of emerging bands like Sun Kil Moon and My Morning Jacket. On this vacation I got to listen to the likes of Bon Iver, First Aid Kit, Trampled by Turtles, Lord Huron, Sufjan Stevens, Julien Baker and Lana Del Ray, whom I would not have taken the initiative to pursue on my own, especially in my depressed state of mind during the pandemic and ZOZO.
So Sid curated the ambient musical soundtrack, to no one’s objection. Without delusion Sid’s presence in the family tree fits like an eagle’s nest. Besides handsome and charming he possesses an intelligence strong yet subtle, the kind that engages without intimidation, gracious and inclusive, ingratiating without being loud or patronizing. Yet he isn’t humble either, carrying himself with an honest arrogance — a sincere arrogance — not borne of any righteous conceit but test based confidence. Thus he has become a leader at the company he works for, an international information firm, and they apparently pay him well, I can’t say because he keeps their family finances confidential between him and Michel, which I respect. I, coming from a corporate world the last two decades I worked, appreciate what Sid has accomplished in his career the twenty some years I’ve known him. The rest of Sid’s character bespeaks how much Michel my daughter loves him.
That Michel picked him, to me pays a high compliment. Daughters marry guys of all kinds for all kinds of motives, sometimes to spite their dads. There is no symbolic drama between me and Sid. Maybe that’s too bad and makes a dull story but I prefer the security and peace of mind of trusting my only daughter’s affections to a partner whose character I not only approve but admire. That he chose her only affirms my esteem.
Good husband. Dad. Brother, uncle, son. Neighbor, citizen. Friend.
Sid’s favorite inside joke about himself is if there’s one word to describe Sid it’s sports. In truth he’s the most actively athletic one in our family since Michel and Vincent played park board basketball, aside from his own daughters who practice gymnastics and diving. He golfs with his dad and brothers in law and skis with Michel and his girls. He has run half a dozen marathons and dozens of 5Ks. He played soccer and basketball through high school. He’s a fan of every sport to varying degrees (it took several seasons to get him to appreciate baseball) and being native Minnesotan knows the fatalism of liking good teams who lose big games. On this trip we looked forward to watching the Milwaukee Bucks take on the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA playoffs Wednesday night if we could pry the TV remote away from Family Feud.
The old patriarch, the new patriarch and the royal uncle would see to it, Wednesday night. This was Tuesday already, still, and as dinnertime approached each of us roused around the kitchen island stirring up and slicing. Roxanne had boiled a batch of ring noodles for tuna salad and put it in the refrigerator. My job was to cook burgers, weenies and meat-free facsimiles on the gas grill on the deck. It was almost a shame to spoil the alpine scent of the woods, even temporarily. To feed the family. Out the kitchen windows I could monitor the banter. It struck me that Michel’s voice sounded like my mom’s and Vincent’s sounded like my dad’s, and they weren’t even talking to each other. She was explaining to Roxanne something about absenteeism at work going up even as the pandemic got better. He was picking some kind of bone with Sid about a congressman from California of suspect ethos. One minute it sounded like the teenagers were engaged with Neko and the next minute Neko was on the deck with her mother. Amelie asked if I wanted cheese on my hamburger, and which kind. I picked Gouda. Amelie drew a graph of the array of burgers on the grill and assigned them by cheese.
While she made the map I got down on my haunches and spoke to Neko. “Koki,” I said. “When you go back in the house give Aunt Michel a hug.”
“She’s my daughter. If you were my daughter I would want my Koki to give you a hug.”
Soon as she and Amelie returned to the kitchen I saw Koki go straight to Michel and embrace her thigh. Michel bent down and hugged her back. No words. Then the kid ran off towards the teenagers and her pup tent, Smokey Bear and whatever. Amelie came back out with a cookie sheet of marinated asparagus for the grill. By the time the cheeses melted on the meats the asparagus was sauteed and the buffet ready to assemble. Amelie delivered the grilled goods to the kitchen island while I extinguished the grill and gathered the mitts, tongs and spatula.
It could not have been a more humble scene. My family. At table. Dinner. So simple.
I don’t know where the discussion came from or how it devolved but Vincent began to argue with Sid and Michel over the qualities of romantic comedies. Vincent asserted they were all essentially sexist, referring to something called the Bechdel Test (which I had vaguely heard of before but thought it was a metaphor for mercenary natural resource exploitation or something — confused with Bechtel) which measures if there are at least two female characters, whether they talk to each other and the topic of dialogue is not a male. Sid and Michel put up a few of their favorite movies and Vincent poopooed each one, and when it came to Love Actually, Sid’s proffered quintessential rom-com which Vincent called the worst offender Michel got upset and called him “a know-it-all who knows no boundaries of intellectual courtesy.”
Before he could challenge her and I could process what she meant, Tess quasi-frog marched Neko into the scene under arrest for discovering the remote control of the the ceiling lamp and fan in Tess and Clara’s bedroom, where Tess caught her playing with the buttons and creating light and fan speed chaos. Michel gave Vincent the this isn’t finished look as he took custody of the child and set off explaining respect of other people’s privacies, and the mood of the dining room migrated to commentary aligned with meal clean-up. Who wants the last bratwurst? Beans? Salad? Excellent salad, Roxanne.
About halfway through the brew cycle of our evening coffee I added about three more cups of water to compensate for the djinni, and it worked, in the end we had a full pot. I took mine with a spot of Bailey’s down at the hot tub with Tess and Clara to babysit me and be least interested in talking about Bechdel, Bechtel or Bertolt Brecht. Tess shared concern about bears and other roaming wildlife. I assured her that our obvious human presence — noise, scent — was sufficient to warn them away because none were predators of ours and would rather avoid than attack us. Made sense to Clara. Tess reminded us this was their habitat first. True enough, I said, but by generations gone by they have learned we are here and some kind of adaptive cohabitation has to happen if we are to coexist. This kind of win-win philosophy kept up my grandfather credibility for at least one more day.
“Granpa Kelly,” said Clara, and aside to Tess, “(don’t guess). What did the father buffalo tell his boy child when he dropped him off at school?”
Cracked me up.
“Haven’t you heard that one by now?” Tess teased.
“Actually it’s new to me,” I admitted naively.
“Was it ever awkward,” Tess asked.
“Growing up with your name?” Clara finished.
“Were you bullied?”
“Actually no, not really. The world was already filled with people named for plants and animals. Still is. Cat Stevens. Bobcat Goldthwait. Kat Perkins. Tiger Woods. Raven-Symone. Jay Leno. Wolf Blitzer — I went to high school with a Wolf Krause. There’s Dog Hammarskjold, great statesman, and Horse Buchholz the actor. Joseph Mallard W Turner the painter. Bee Lee, you all know, my neighbor. Lemur Kreutz, another kid from a different high school. Rooster Cogburn. Yeti Duginske. Robin Yount, Robin Wright, Robin Hood, Robin Williams and Robyn McCall, Leon Redbone, Leon Russell, Leonardo Da Vinci. Ray Bradbury, Ray Liotta, Ray Muxter, Salmon Chase, Rabbit Maranville, Wren Blair, Spider John Koerner, Mousey Tongue, Butterfly McQueen, Hawk Harrelson, Mink DeVille, Fox Mulder, NeNe Leakes, Bat Masterson, Bunny Wailer, Cardinal Newman, Marten Friedman, Moose Skowron, Seal, Deer Abby, and everyone named Phoebe …”
“Okay, okay, okay.”
“You don’t have to exaggerate.”
“Plus, keep in mind my first five or so years I was known as Michael, or Mike — not even Kelly but Sturgis, my dad’s name. Even when I went to school a lot of people still called me by my middle name, especially family. I was practically in high school when my mom changed my last name, and my life as Mike Sturgis was definitely a life of the past. Anyway, by that time of my life came around there was an expectation of respect for others’ feelings not being hurt. And like I always say, I’m rather proud — vain maybe — to be named for such a noble, symbolic creature, so mistreated and almost driven to extinction but survives.”
Philosophical points were never lost on these two kids. I’ve always leveled with them. It may be my reluctance to dumb down what I’m saying to kids or get caught patronizing them with kidspeak. Which is not to say I won’t explain things as simply as I can, I just won’t condescend. Like I recently told Neko, 3, I was going to talk to her like she’s a five year old. It’s one clear memory I have of my Grandpa Kelly, he never talked down to me. Most of the time I didn’t know what the H he was talking about but I liked that he talked to me as if I did. With Clara and Tess it’s always been conversations framed as widely as I can estimate, whenever I can get the chance. When they recommend books I try to read them (except, ahem, Harry Potter) and I’ll sometimes weave inferences into our conversations. One of Tess’s favorites is The Giver by Lois Lowry, and we’ve talked about cultural coercion and authoritarian society and how we expect to convey ethical behavior to future generations if memories of the past are forgotten by any people. Clara got me to read Purple Hibiscus, a novel set in post-colonial Nigeria by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about a family with a fetishly strict father. Clara wanted me to see the novel as an answer to Things Fall Apart, the novel by Chinua Achebe about the coming of British colonization to Nigeria told to my own generation of worldly readers. It wasn’t only Clara and Tess’s transcontinental displacement to Europe for four years that made time spent with them so precious, it merely made me realize time was precious spent with them whether they lived in Minneapolis or Zug, and it was up to me to get the most of every opportunity to get to know them. The pandemic and lost year ZOZO only made it so much more acute. The result is Clara comfortable using a word like contiguous in ordinary conversation to describe the Rockies.
The sun didn’t so much set as fade from a rosy passion to purple twilight. Smugly the comfort flow of the hot tub culled the catharsis of the day. Adrift within the confined currents it was easy to let it get dark without noticing and to bask in a waning moon already up there somewhere in the trees. The chilly sprinkles of spray caught in space spritzed my face awake and aware that I have reached my destiny, no greater comfort than the unconditional companionship of my family.
I looked for shooting stars. I saw an aircraft on high approaching Denver. The scent of pine resin again superseded cooked meat in the atmosphere, if a little tinge of chlorine — nothing’s perfect. (Olfactory events can be so transitory.) The girls talked about their summer plans. Tess would attend a gymnastics camp at Gustavus Adolphus College in the town of St Peter, Minnesota. Clara was headed to a church camp called Mountain TOP in eastern Tennessee. Tess seemed ambivalent about the gymnastics camp — as for skills development she would have rather gone back to the gymnastics camp she attended with Clara ttwo years ago, also in eastern Tennessee, except it was canceled again this summer due to the covid pandemic. She would have liked to go with Clara to the church camp along with a pair of cousins except Tess was not yet confirmed by her church (delayed by covid) and at thirteen two years too young for this camp. Her best friend cousin Erin, same age and circumstances, wouldn’t be attending the church camp either, so Tess was content with how things would be. Clara was nervous about the camp but reassured by her cousins, who had been there before, and her aunt, one of Sid’s sisters, who would go as a chaperone. I shared Tess’s ambivalence to competitive gymnastics — something fun to keep busy for a week hanging out with girls from the team. My support for Clara was more nuanced — not being a true believer in church evangelism, my enthusiasm focused on the adventure of participating in social service in Appalachia. I had no illusory expectations either one would be a star or a saint, I just wanted for them to be happy and well adjusted human beings.
Along came Sid and the kids indulged the inclusion of their dad until Sid got comfortable and then they excused themselves (literally) and left us to watch over ourselves in the spa. Without the kids the conversation simmered. Not that Sid and I had nothing to say to one another. Sid was easy to talk to, and he was just as easy to enjoy the silence, as Depeche Mode might say. No howling. The hum of the bubblers covered for small talk we didn’t feel obligated to make. It was understood we were in a moment of mindfulness. He in his early forties seemed humbled to be so proud of living a life of rough elegance, old enough and far enough into his career to recognize his fortune, see where he came from and realize where his life is and how it came to be that way and feel good about his chances. Likely he’ll be a grandpa someday. He never brags about his work, which leads me to think he’s satisfied enough with his job to feel secure inside the firm. He’s forever nice to Michel. Everybody loves him. It seemed an act of respect to a fellow Don to grant him the moment of mindfulness same as myself.
Such indulgent solitude doesn’t last, not in this world. We can hold our breath submerged under water for so long and then we come up for air and hear sounds and see light. We might make a sound, say a word. It might be a swear word. Expletive. God. A cry for help. A cry for love. Sooner or later we bump up to another person’s indulgent solitude emerging from their own inner self like ourselves. A moment Robert Bly, or Carol Bly would recognize. Even just to look each other in the eye is enough to set off enduring friendships. Eventually Amelie joined us in the spa and like good gentlemen we shifted our stations to allow her the best set of jets. It was not lost on her and she said as much. She also asked what Sid and I were talking about when she came down, and we both said nothing, we weren’t aware the other was in the hot tub. To which she retorted that we were technically breaking Rule 1 against going in the hot tub alone.
In short order we were joined by Vincent. Grandma, auntie and the cousins were watching Neko, ostensibly to get her ready for bed. Roxanne brought her down to the spa to say good night but she wasn’t having it. She insisted on playing in the water leaning over the top step up to her biceps, getting her jammies wet. This was the opposite of a contemplative moment. Sid was the first to declare he was finished, rose up and exited the tub being careful not to kick Neko on the stairs. Amelie and I stood up next, leaving Vincent alone in the tub looking stubborn to leave. Amelie said she’d take Neko indoors to put her to bed and Roxanne offered to stay to keep Vincent company though she was of no mind to go into the tub. I took a smoke while I toweled off, taking in the alpine chill. It seemed contradictory for the second day of summer to feel a shiver.
Call it a shiver of tranquility. Serenity. Elsewhere in America the heat indexes cooked drought parched landscapes and cities while wildfires torched forests regardless of habitat and here I stood in a perfect place. Together with my family we lucked into a sanctuary of good weather to exercise our privileges to celebrate this summer together, all healthy, all reasonably prosperous and content with our lives, surviving the worst pandemic in a hundred years to rest on our laurels and hardies and congratulations for surviving. It didn’t seem sinful to take pride in how life worked out. If I died that night I knew everything and everyone would carry on, I just wouldn’t be around to know the future, that’s all.
Back in the house Amelie and the teenagers wanted to play Telestrations, a game of making little white-board sketches of images of random words and passing them to the next person for decrypting the sketches, like playing glyphic telephone around the dinner table. I was indifferent to the game but said I’d play — more important to me to participate with the kids than quibble over the brand of activity. Sid said he was in. Michel said she’d play a few rounds and Rox suggested we play a few rounds for fun but not keep score. Vincent abstained to try to rock his naked baby to sleep. Since shucking her wet jammies to the dryer Neko declined to wear a diaper and continued to play in the puptent with dolls and figurines of deer and moose. Michel seemed annoyed at Neko’s lax discipline. Unlike at playing UNO Neko had no interest in playing a drawing game interpreting secret messages she could not read. She busied herself at the periphery of perception to the rest of us while her dad told her it was time for the night diaper. Michel commented the child was old enough to respect a regular bedtime, and Amelie and Roxanne agreed. Vincent credited vacation on top of pandemic irregularities.
“She’s wound up. Did you see her in downtown Estes? She’s never really been around that much foot traffic.”
True, but everybody knew Neko was a free-range child one way or another, acknowledged unapologetically by the parents raising her. Without being enrolled in pre-school day care she spent a lot of time in adult company — dad, mom, grandparents — in domestic settings or outdoors in pod isolation, distanced as we had been among the other tourists when we hiked up the edge of the continental divide the day before. Vacation with her dad’s family to Neko was the epitome of entitlement and she felt entitled to stay up late with the big kids and party. The jammies came out of the dryer warm and snuggly and Vincent seemed to convince her to at least curl up on the couch and relax and snuggle with him and a blanket and relax. That didn’t last. In a few minutes she was back circulating the dining table asking her cousins to show her what they were sketching while the salt in the egg timer sifted through the minute glass.
Michel seemed annoyed at Neko’s persistent reluctance to abide by bedtime. She expressed it as a mood subverting a fostered cheeriness, not by any indifference to the pesky child but to her gadfly brother who wasn’t really playing the game either yet haunted the peanut gallery. Uncle Sid indulged the toddler on his lap about a minute and at his wife’s intuition with a pat on the back and a Time For Bed as the kid rotated back to her mami, the most avid player at the table. Grandma came next to last. To me it wasn’t a matter of being whiny and bratty, she wasn’t. It was Neko’s vacation too, and if she was too nocturnally stimulated to surrender staying up late with the big kids it wasn’t as if we would be doing anything else once she went to sleep except maybe imbibe more wine and gin and beer, and even so not the teenagers, and didn’t completely prohibit her dad already. The kid was looked after by a competent collective of eight and it was no big deal. Neko didn’t come to me after grandma probably because she knew I would expect her to entertain me, not the other way around, and I was having enough of a time sketching stick figure icons to illustrate common nouns. It didn’t occur to me at the time to think any deeper into our family dynamics.
Vincent and Grandma eventually coaxed the baby to take another try at the second biggest couch in the living room where they snuggled under the big TV until Amelie took over once we completed a final telestration. After that the voice and attitude of Steve Harvey chuffing up the siblings and in-law aunties making up the teams getting quizzed mixed with Amelie’s soothing rock a bye philosophical persuasion of her new age daughter — forever we live in a new age after all — to save some of her energy for a new day and get some rest. Said logic affected both Michel and Grandma, who soon called it a night as well. Next the teenagers looking towards the next day going rafting. Still they lasted a few rounds with Steve Harvey: 100 people surveyed, the top five answers are on the board…
I stepped outdoors for a good cough.
In the morning I woke up around sunrise and was surprised I was first, before Sid, who came out in his running clothes while I was making coffee and adding the extra water to make up for the evaporation tax to the djinni. We, along with Vincent and Amelie once she put the baby to sleep, outlasted the teenagers’ fixation for the Game Show Channel and once they went off to bed caught the last half of the late NBA game between the Clippers and the Suns. It was an especially close, intense, grinding, back and forth contest we acknowledged again the morning after, looking ahead to the early game in the East that evening between the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks. We wanted to watch the guy they called the Greek who played for the Bucks. Our excursion to the rafting river wouldn’t be for several hours yet. While Sid went for his run I poured a cup, chewed a gummi from Vincent’s stash cabinet, took a smoke (outside) and curled up in an easy chair with the iPad to check the bank and read my hometown StarTribune while the rest of the family came out to toast bagels and nibble fruit and yogurt.
Two things I recall of interest in that morning newspaper. The first was more than one mention of the emerging trend of spread of the new delta variant of covid-19, the not-so-novel coronavirus. Having emerged in South Africa it was now spreading through the UK and may be detected in Florida. The delta strained was hoped to be milder and less inherently deadly as the original, and vaccination seemed effective against the delta in preventing severe sickness, but nobody knew. The current infection rate in the United States was slumping fast but flattening at a stubborn level where the curve met a ratio of the unvaccinated and so the science experts remained cautious about relaxing precautions like wearing N or KN95 masks in public places too soon. This prompted discussion whether to anticipate more virus variants in the future and updates to the vaccines, more boosters. Would this virus be always with us, as Jesus said of the poor, I wondered. Ironic to be contemplating this in Colorado, the setting of a novel by Peter Heller called The Dog Stars which features adventure in a world after a viral plague wiped out most of the population, it seemed as ironic to learn studying a park map that we were nearby a mountain peak called Mt Chapin and I had been thinking about Harry Chapin the other day regarding my life as a father and the song “Cat’s in the Cradle” and how my life could have been more like “Taxi” without Michel and Vincent.
The second stimulating thing I recall from the StarTribune e-edition that day was an obituary. I usually skip past the obits unless I’m looking for someone in particular, and this day on the iPad had to scroll through page by page to get through the B section to find Variety and Sports. The obit section midweek is usually pretty skimpy anyway. And there at the top of a page my eyes locked on a picture named for Florence F Habegger, the classic supermom of the parish school where I grew up, St Simon of Cyrene, a neighborhood mother of a couple of my childhood best friends. She passed away the past weekend. Just shy of 95. Natural cause. Services at St Simon of Cyrene would be delayed until October due to the pandemic. October 30. Far as I knew I had nothing else going on that morning, the day before Halloween and almost All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos, and I might go. Mrs Habegger. 95. I was 69 years old now, my Summer of 69. Seeing her face even as an old lady there was recognition and instant retrospection of an underappreciated part of my life.
I didn’t mention it to the others — neither thing for that matter, not my occupation with covid variants as opposed to a cheery subject for breakfast. I mentioned Mrs Habegger to Roxanne in passing, which she thought odd since I avoid the obituaries. I said it just popped out at me and the lady was a neighborhood mom where I grew up, a dedicated church lady and trusted elder advisor to my mom — not that she always followed Mrs Habegger’s advice, she trusted it. Roxanne laughed. Since that past Monday would have been my mother’s 88th birthday it seemed fitting to reminisce about my mom associated with Mrs Habegger and her influence on the much younger and overwhelmed Colleen K Sturgis. This for me seemed my year of reflection as I approached age 70. ZOZO may have been a lost year but chronologically for me there would be no refund or deduction.
Cleaning up after breakfast I noticed next door at the lot where the day before a guy mowed the lawn, a group of people set up card tables on the lawn and brought an array of small items like statuettes and knick-knacks from the house and arranged them on the card tables. Looked like an estate sale. By the time we were loading Sid and Michel’s GMC for our day trip several cars pulled up on the road and people browsed the tables.
Roxanne was the last of us to get into the GMC. Amelie, Vincent and Neko didn’t go with us and at the carport Vincent and Roxanne had some kind of argument.
“Why is Vincent yelling at Mom?” Michel in the shotgun seat turned around to me sitting behind her. “He shouldn’t be yelling at Mom like that. Does he do that often?”
“N-no,”I answered, caught unaware and momentarily embarrassed.
When Roxanne got in Michel seethed at her, “You can’t let him get away with yelling at you like that. What was that about?”
Roxanne swept it away as she buckled her seatbelt. “Oh, Amelie asked me the key box door code in case they weren’t here when we get back and Vincent accused me of reciting it too loud so the neighbors could all hear.”
Then Michel said two words I’ve often used: “Even so.”
No matter. Sid had the GPS programmed and steered us around Estes Park up through a snaky two lane canyon towards Fort Collins and the headquarters of the rafting outfitters who would guide us down the Cache la Poudre, Colorado’s only nationally designated Wild and Scenic river.
Somewhere buried in the scenery that rolled like prairie and jutted up like spikes the outfitter’s compound appeared like an act of faith where the GPS voice said it would be. It sprawled a little like a camp, even had big nylon tents and a small amphitheater style bonfire ring. Ample parking. We disembarked and gathered at the check-in tent. The place bustled with maybe a dozen other excursion groups checking in or checking out. Sid got us set up. We signed the consent forms and were issued vouchers for wardrobe. I went with total wet suit and water shoes — no extra charge. It was a hazy sunny day, not expected to be hot and the river water would be predictably cold. No way I was going to jinx this adventure getting soaked and freezing my ass off in just shorts and t-shirt. Helmet and life vest were mandatory.
All the 11:00 groups assembled at the campfire amphitheater for orientation. The leader’s name was John, not Johnny, a wiry and wry guy in a broadbrim hat of indeterminate thirties with missing front teeth and eyes like he should be wearing mirrored shades. Like a boot sergeant he commanded total attention and drilled us with the basic rules of rafting. Number one was always wear a safety vest.
“This is not a life jacket. It is a safety vest. It will help you float. That’s it. How you stay alive if you fall in will depend on your actions in the water.” He proceeded to demonstrate how to roll on your back and ride the current until your guide got your raft maneuvered to pull you aboard the raft. “Don’t try to stand up.”
The other rule that stuck out with me was always hold your paddle with both hands. “And never, never let go of the knob or you might end up with teeth like mine.”
John introduced the individual raft guides, all in their twenties and obviously natural born river rats. They reminded me of surfers — John the Big Kahuna. We were assigned to Justin, the youngest of the lot. We boarded a school bus pulling a trailer of paddles and rubber rafts. Rafts were lashed to the roof of the bus. We rode the back roads deeper into the scenery while John periodically narrated non-sequiturs about the scenery and quips about the difficulty of winning navigation rights to pass between private properties. He reminded us the Cache la Poudre is the only official Wild and Scenic river in the state of Colorado. “Don’t ask me what cache la poudre means. I heard it means something like who stole my cat.”
A few miles from the launch site the road began to run alongside the river bank and we could imagine more vividly what our ride on the river might be like. The river was not wide or especially riven with rapids. Not too scary but not lazy. I sat near Tess on the bus and she was not nervous. Her mood was my baseline. She was a fearless type but not shy about expressing trepidation, not exactly stoic. Here she eyed the river for danger, noted the white caps and calculated the thrills. I’ve ridden with her on thrill rides from Wisconsin Dells to Parc Asterix practically all her life, including the zipline across the roof above the amusement park at our hometown Mall of America and a similar rafting trip three years before on the Sevier River in the Utah desert. She was a competitive swimmer, diver and gymnast and used to alpine ski, play soccer and basketball, so I’ve seen her when her adrenaline ran high. I’ve seen her sing solos on stage at a crowded auditorium. She was not superstitious or a daredevil. (Her best friend cousin Erin was the daredevil of the two.) I admired Tess, whom I call Kitty, for her measured approach to experience and straightforward grasp of what she was doing or about to do. I had the window seat on the bus and she gazed past me out the window and down the steep bank into the white caps determining herself safe and secure among the five of us plus our guide in a rubber raft riding down (all water flows downward, right) this agitated body of water in the gorge below. Her green eyed serenity jigsawed nicely to my own.
“You don’t remember I’m sure,” I leaned back and said into her helmet, “we went to Disney in Florida, you were about Koki’s age or a little more, and after a long day traipsing around and seeing the stuff and riding rides and the night parade and fireworks I got to carry you in my arms to the shuttle bus.”
“Oh I’m sorry Grandpa.”
“No, it was cool. And I remember telling you this within as close to your ear as I am now: I want you to remember this day the rest of your life.”
We both laughed and I said, “This raft ride is going to be really cool.”
At a relatively flat landing along the riverbank the bus pulled over and we all got out to help unload the rafts off the trailer and the roof of the bus and lay them out in an order directed by Boss John on a patch of beach along a slow swirling eddy of the gushing river, the Poudre. Jason our guide assembled our crew as almost the last of six rafts. We were graded as semi-experienced. All of us in fact had rafted before, together in Utah on our vacation to Zion and Bryce. Going further, Sid and Michel had rafted rapids in Switzerland but not the girls. The girls on the Utah raft served as designated deputy coxswains counting out the strokes called out by our guide, but did not actually paddle. Even so, the Sevier river was graded a beginner excursion and posed no life and death plunges or boulders aimed at out heads, and that raft had two additional adults, adept canoists, Vincent and Amelie (before Neko.) Pictures (professionals assigned on the route) of Michel and Sid’s ride in the Swiss Alps depict almost constant whitewater drama, the two of them in the front row frozen still and grimaced, vested, goggled and helmeted with their paddle blades digging and swatting the churning torrents of rocky gorges.
So Justin inspected our chin straps and jackets, assigned Michel and Sid the front row. I sat behind Michel on the left next to Roxanne behind Sid on the right. Tess sat behind Roxanne and Clara behind me. Justin sat in the middle in the back — the stern — when he sat at all, where he called out rowing commands: “Give me four. Give me two.” And narrated a tour of the scenery. And reminded us (me) to always keep both hands on the paddle.
Before we shoved off I looked as far as I could upstream to get any impression I could of the river conditions at the higher elevations where even the advance placement excursions wouldn’t go. Ours was intermediate. Justin our guide introduced himself as an undergraduate in metallurgy at the university at Fort Collins. He grew up nearby. Been rafting the Poudre his whole life. A lifelong raft rat. Remarkably he learned all our names as soon as we embarked.
We weren’t ten minutes into the journey, at the edge of a mildly circulating eddy after a moderate three count paddle through moderate whitewater, Justin lost his balance and fell backward into the river. The girls immediately cried out and the rest of us turned around to look. Reflexively Michel and Sid backpaddled and Rox and I stalled our paddles while Tess laid her paddle across her knees to her sister, grabbed a supporting grip inside the raft and reached back with her other hand to grab at Justin’s jersey. Justin deftly rolled over on his stomach against the raft, braced himself gently on Tess’s arm, grabbed hold of the interior grip and hoisted himself back into the raft. Meantime Sid maneuvered his corner of the current to slow us down enough to intercept Justin’s paddle at the edge of the eddy, retrieve it and get it back into the guide’s hands in time for our next maneuver.
It was clearly the most embarrassing event in the young guide’s life. Besides thanking us for keeping cool and doing what we did, Tess for offering a hand and Sid for retrieving the paddle, he apologized and said that had never happened before and said he would appreciate it if we spoke of it no more.
We all laughed. Observing he was okay — not his first time getting wet, this river rat — who was he kidding this would become a family legend for the archives — hey maybe the hired photographer stalking us down the river to sell us the pictures back at base camp happened to get some shots — maybe the group of beginners behind us happened to witness it. What would the other guides say? What would John? Uh-oh. Justin’s job might be on the line. We could say he gave us a vivid demonstration of what exactly to do if you fall out of a raft. Yes, we thanked him for the lesson.
Perhaps to make it up to us he offered almost a league by league monologue of anecdotes about the river. Cache la Poudre comes from French explorers who hid their gunpowder from their enemies (enemies? French colonialists had enemies?) in the deep caves along the river gorge. Justin pointed to a narrow stretch flanked by aspen trees on both banks where dead squirrels turned up in large numbers along the banks downstream. To get to food sources on the opposite sides of the river the squirrels tried to leap from tree to tree to get across, often failing short and landing in the river. The local department of natural resources strung a cable high in the treetops to give the squirrels a tightrope bridge. And he spoke of the property owners along the river who fought the Wild and Scenic River designation and some who had erected barbed wire at the water line from bank to bank to stop public access kayaks and rafts. (That must have been nasty.) He showed us small sculptures of bears and elk fashioned from retrieved barbed wire displayed in the yards of some properties.
Mostly Justin called out paddling orders. Left side give me two. Everybody four. Right four, left three. Everybody give me three. Now two more. He did not bark his orders or shout. His command pitch resounded just above the sounds of the water and his cadence articulated a tempo to match our strokes. He yelled at me for taking my hand off the paddle knob for just a second to hike up the sleeve of my wetsuit. There was no time for socializing, though Sid got in a few interview questions Justin had limited time to answer. His fall off the raft seemed to enhance his authority and our respect.
The river did most of the talking. My whole life I’m fascinated to watch waterfalls and rushing rapid rivers like staring into a campfire or a red ball sunset. To be alive in the flow of such turmoil, splashing between jagged rocks inside the crest of the waves and somehow depending on my own interaction and my family’s paddling to keep up with gravity and balance our fate, moment by moment in throes of turmoil guided by a voice coaching when to stroke and silence when to abstain. No, it wasn’t all intense tension but it was no lazy river. In the intervals of placid drifting I reset myself, thigh braced to the hull next to the bridge, paddle across my lap to the ready. The day was perfect, the hazy clouds shading the sun from glaring. The cool spray aerosol was like living in a rainbow. Feeling in no way cold or uncomfortable, the wetsuit proved its worth. The long sleeves seemed a little confining but by sleight of hand I managed to hike the sleeves without untouching my paddle.
It was a blast. Around every meandering bend where a rapids appeared there was a rush of delusional anticipation madly fulfilled. All that jagged rock, all those pulsing rapids, all the velocity of dense gravity comes out all right when you act with the paddle as directed and poise your body crouch with the flow of the raft. Like every good pyrotechnic show on 4th of July this river ride had a grand finale. One last run of multiple plunges graced us into a flat sandy pool where we calmly drifted in a shallow eddy towards a beach where the other rafters ahead of us had gone ashore and either disembarking or already hefting their rafts on the bus roof or the trailer with their paddles.
We beached our raft and savored our catharsis in shin deep water when the final raft arrived. Our whole ride we never caught sight of the rafts ahead of us and the one behind never caught up, as if we had the whole gorge to ourselves. Sid, Justin, I and Clara dragged our raft up the sandy bank to the road and helped the crew raise it to the roof of the bus. We loosened our jackets and uncapped our helmets, mingling in the vague queue boarding the bus, everybody a bit giddy and frissoned getting their land legs back and breathing deep and stretching whatever muscles and joints got torqued. On the bus the rousing consensus raved about the trip and some said they wanted to go again on the next bus back, were it possible. If anybody didn’t enjoy the adventure they didn’t say, though a few seemed glad it was overwith. No reported accidents, though to some everything was a close call.
To the crew of guides it was a job and part of daily workouts for greater avocation, like surfers. They talked a few among themselves about an upcoming time trial kayak race they looked forward to doing in a few days. Back at the headquarters they broke into task teams to collect in effect the laundry, the helmets, jackets, wetsuits and water shoes for designated washtubs of disinfectants. Nobody said anything about Justin falling off the raft. Sid and I ponied up a cash tip we slipped to him discreetly after he finished his gig hanging life jackets up to dry.
We bought the digital download of photos of our passage. Spotted the photographer two times but couldn’t exactly wave at the lens or blow a smooch. We all look like we were getting our moneysworth. It was all Tess, Cllara and Sid could talk about once we closed ourselves in the car, Justin falling overboard on the first real spillway, and getting himself back on board, Sid picking his paddle, Clara braced and holding Tess, Tess lending an arm and leaning too give him room to grapple a handle inside the raft and pull himself over the edge too quickly get back in, his paddle waiting for him. There were no pictures of that, and no matter, even so, we were all there. We adults agreed a round of beers was in order, but we were also hungry and the pub fare under the beer tent didn’t appeal to the vegan teenagers, so we rode up the highway to Fort Collins to find a place Michel found on her phone from Yelp via Google and GPS called Slyce Pizza.
Fort Collins sprawls across a high plateau like a small Denver only more encased by peaks. Urbane, germane and suburbanite, it’s a college town and medical center. I heard once the university had a notable mental health department, or maybe I made that up. The GPS voice placed us in hip looking brick and mortar old town probably adjacent to campus. Nothing shabby in the neighborhood for the sake of shabby Slyce Pizza had a plank and glossy paint feel with ample window light. It seemed spooky we happened to be the only customers, though the kitchen staff seemed active. I guess it was early afternoon, mid-week, no classes, not ski season and just ahead of the summer tourists — and the first week being open to dine indoors since the covid pandemic — a reasonably slow day and a good one serving our family on such a gorgeous day.
Three young women about college age worked the front counter. One fulfilled our pizza orders and another our drinks. The third serviced take-out and delivery orders. Roxanne forgot to bring her drivers license and could not get a beer. So I ordered two. The pizza came in wide slices, about a quarter of a pie. They offered a wide variety and mix of ingredients, which pleased everybody. I was of a mind for a simple greasy pepperoni. Pizza is such a commodity most shops differentiate themselves by their crusts or their sauces. Slyce Pizza baked a medium thick crust with a toasty flavor, not too doughy, and a sauce not too sweet or spicy. Everybody liked what they got.
The camaraderie continued after lunch, tooling around residential Fort Collins and complimenting the tidy homes, then winding down to Estes Park. Sid played a satellite station featuring music from the likes of My Morning Jacket, the Cure and Likki Li. The terrain kept me busy, the sly slopes, spreading ranches, fir forests and edgy peaks. We backtracked the way we came but I recalled very little facing the other direction.
Never much for instigating travel conversations it occurred to me how lonely I got accustomed to be the past two years. ZOZO cost more than one year. Seemed ages ago Roxanne and I would regularly fly to Europe and rent a big Volkswagen and drive around the middle of the continent with Sid, Michel and the kids. Visited Normandy and Mt St Michel that way. Riding the rafting bus was the densest crowd (windows open) I’d mixed into and this vacation the furthest from home I’d been in years. Riding with my family again seemed like the commutation of a sentence. Could it be the pandemic was overwith?
All those hours, days, months depressed on the couch, I was surprised I didn’t ache more from the workout on the river. I looked forward to the hot tub that night. For the time being I could have used a nap but contemplated the scenery and meditated to the harmony of the voices in the car.
I remember our last dinner together at Sid and Michel’s before the first lockdown, when Tess confessed the kids at school were calling covid-19 the Boomer Killer. (“Sorry Grandpa.”) I remember their first family visit to our house when the lockdown started, they standing on our open porch like Christmas carolers in masks. At the time the separation we accepted as civic duty but soon the estrangement drove us to furtive pod behavior and guilt from technical violations and paranoia we might infect each other even as we tested frequently in front of planned clandestine reunions. It seemed worse than when the Kysylyczyns lived in Switzerland, when we kept in touch by text and Skype, and at least Roxanne and I could fly over there every six or nine months and we were free to mosey, mingle and congregate. Sadly the shock of social deprivation left me with cloistered and introverted habits and practices I grew used to and comfortable with but I missed Michel, Sid, Clara and Tess as they drifted away. Four years with effort I grandfathered the girls from afar and felt somehow to be keeping up with my self-assigned commitment to build a bonded legacy in their lives. ZOZO shorted the connection. They’ve been home about six years now, about twenty minutes across town. That first four years back we dined together at least once a week and visited each others houses for chats and coffee, took day trips and went out on outings, watched Sid run a couple of Grandma’s marathons, and attended games and meets. Roxanne, I or both would pick the kids up after school and drive them to gym once or twice a week when both Sid and Michel worked. We saw the kids as much as we wanted. Even when they outgrew day care necessity we looked after them and took them places. Then the pandemic.
Gone the continuity of the sessions. Furtive short visits crimped conversation. No movies together, no TV. Not enough time for a thorough lesson in TikTok or discussion about Purple Hibiscus and Things Fall Apart, or A Man Called Ove. No mosey (forced narch) Buffalo Kelly tours of the MIA or the Weisman. No gymnastic meets or diving meets. No swimming races to watch Kitty. No choir concerts or art exhibits. No shared meals. No drop by visits. I can’t remember the last time either of them asked me for help with homework. For all time’s sake I saw my old master plan slip away, my grandfatherly input into their minds wasn’t keeping up because I no longer had ready access to their heads.
They were teenagers now and needed their privacy respected. They were in an age when kids develop greater and greater ranges of independence anyway, which orbits further from grandparents as socio-familial relationships mature. It happens between children and parents too. Grandparents can be taken for granted. They may be prone to ghost a text of random Have a Nice Day. Clara would be a high school junior. Tess had one more year, eighth grade, in middle school plus she would attend a different middle school the coming year because of a redistricting of school attendance going into effect that year, pandemic or naught. Tess said she didn’t care where she takes classes if they have in-person school, and she still preferred remote learning on wi fi. Clara’s past two years had been the strangest high school years anybody knew.
So rather than pry, I rode along listening to Roxanne offering grandma philosophy and getting the girls to comment and project their thoughts. They weren’t controversial kids but weren’t sheltered conventional children either. What I could overhear in the car back to Forest Mountain Home impressed me how challenging their lives have seemed with the pandemic shutdowns, the virtual end of social life, or maybe not, their adaptations to their schooling, the strictures of daily routines. Lucky for them to live within a family with good household wi fi and cable TV with streaming, in a good (if imperfect) school district in a good (imperfect) city in a wider community of decency, with an extended family rich in love and character values that included me and their beloved Grandma Roxanne. I loved them so much all I wanted for them was a life of dignity, fulfillment and happiness.
Back at Forest Mountain Home Amelie was jealous and Neko ambivalent about our rafting adventure. Vincent seemed downright cynical. In response Michel seemed peeved. His attitude peeved me a little too, enough to remark, “We didn’t miss you one bit either.”
Keeping it moving Roxanne borrowed Amelie’s car key fob to drive into town to bring Neko to the Estes Park public park, kiddie playground with a kiddie pool and splash pad. Though it didn’t seem very hot even as the sun hung high, the air temp was around 80F. Grandma and Amelie put a new dose of sun screen on the fair baby girl before buckling her in the car seat.
In and around the house the rest of the afternoon the rest of us sprawled decadently. Michel napped in the big chair beneath the ceiling fan. The teenage girls, Clara and Tess, each read their phones, scrolling lazily at rest lounging as book end opposites on the big sofa. Sid and Vincent paced around the island in the kitchen crosschecking each other’s sources over a gentleman’s argument leading down some rabbit hole of absurdia I couldn’t listen to soon enough to follow, while Amelie anonymously unnoticeably curled in an afghan in the other window chair opposite mine intently reading articles on her phone.
At the mowed lot next door all the folding tables and display goods were gone, no sign of anyone around the house and no visitors. Nobody we should worry about bothering. Next day we had reservations to re-enter the national park to visit the moraine area. It would be our final full day together in Colorado. The Kysylyczyns were planning to depart Friday, the day after next, with the rest of us departing Saturday. It was mid-week already. It was only mid week. 4th of July still over ten days away. A lot of summer left. Of the Hundred Days of Summer, there were still 98 left. For me, who rounds up whenever I can, pulling summertime out of springtime on the last day of May and pushing summer’s end as far past Labor Day as we can dodge Jack Frost, my Summer of 69 had at least 100 days in the bank.
Across the rest of the country a heat wave grilled even northern regions with obscene temperatures to gin up the drought and fan the wildfires in progress elsewhere in the Rockies and Cascades both sides of the border with Canada. Our shangri-la of serenity in Colorado defied almost gravity. Talk about charmed life, I thought, stepping outside. To somebody else this might seem like End Times, the End of Days, End of the World, Apocalypse. We had earthquakes and volcanoes. Hurricanes. The AntiChrist. Nations rising against nations. Plague (pandemic). Famine. Floods. How many more signs would it take to ignite the Big Conspiracy Theory in the Sky to proclaim the End is imminent? Maybe eventually it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s been fundamental to human belief systems for ages. We’re doomed. And here we are, living the Life O’Riley as if everything determined to destroy humanity endowed us a free pass from suffering the chaos.
Out of kindness I suppose…
And yet, even so, why would malevolent forces extend kindness? No matter.
Enthralled to the benevolence of kindness among ourselves, my heart fairly rejoiced at our good fortune in the midst of mass misfortune. It was repudiation to the symbolic Stanley Hotel and its curses. It was testimonial to grace and how grace can be preserved and shared among people of good will. Proof of positive intent. Proof of life.
Roxanne returned with Neko. As Roxanne described how the little girl methodically rotated around the playground, climbing, sliding, swinging, then the splash pad and eventually the pool, Michel groused to me why her mom got stuck taking Neko to the park in town by herself all the time. I replied that I go to the park with them sometimes, knowing her real point was to impugn her brother and Amelie for fobbing the kid off. Nobody else volunteered. While Rox and Michel discussed it privately in the kitchen preparing to organize dinner, I escorted Neko outside to climb the boulders along the driveway. Roxanne would say it was an act of pleasure spending quality time with a grandchild. What she would not say is she spent time with Clara and Tess too and nobody accused her and Sid of fobbing. Michel might object to her mom being taken advantage of on her vacation, but Rox would say it’s Vincent and Amelie’s vacation too, and Neko’s.
Out on the boulders I tracked the little nimble toddler back and forth and up and down the crags and crevices like a shadow spotter, not once worried she would slip and fall off her mountain and still watching every move, grab and step knowing she could fall and I could catch her at least on the first bounce. Fearless but cautious she crawled sideways and triangular to cover the boulders in familiar patterns of approach, barely getting cagey with practice until she stranded herself at a sheer slope and said, “Help me, Grandpa Kelly, I can’t get down.”
“It’s okay, Koki,” I said as I reached to brace her abdomen and guide her extended foot to a stepping place, and instead of climbing down she pushed off into my arms and glided to the ground like a fairy.
Dinner and its bits and pieces of slow, deliberate preparation staged us in intervocal conversations giving us all an airing of our appetites and impressions. Clara and Tess confided their motives and satisfaction of being vegetarian in their daily diets the past two years. They drank oat milk and ate beans and greens. Michel downplayed the hassle of sometimes making different dinners as just another challenge to a 21st Century mom. She offered Neko a carrot, the kid spurned it and a celery stalk which caused Michel to muse after Neko seeming to have no meal and snack routine at all. Clara liked salmon, which happened to be this night’s grilled protein, my job. Michel’s specialty this night would be fried rice. Rox and Amelie the breads and salads, cut watermelon and cantaloupe. Neko spurned a thin slice of pear proffered by her mother, causing Amelie and Roxanne to voice observations that the girl ate too little. Still, she possessed energy, didn’t appear either emaciated or obese or show signs of malnutrition, and the opposite extreme would be a compulsive eater.
As I sliced the salmon fillets into portions I listened to Clara and Tess express their choice not to eat meat. Their epiphanies were inspired by exposure to views of Greta Thunberg, a teenage environmentalist, and by curricula at school that explored the science measuring the carbon footprint of raising meat for the food chain. It was a contribution they could make to the environment. No regrets. Seemed to them healthier. They weren’t prima donnas about it, not defensive or judgmental. Clara still liked salmon. They both didn’t mind eggs sometimes, which was part of Michel’s fried rice recipe.
Michel talked about work. Nurse at an occupational medicine clinic she worked the front line through the pandemic without getting sick. Granted, traffic wasn’t as busy but they kept the doors open, even though short-staffed. She told me a bible verse recurred in her head to help keep her going: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1.9
I seasoned the salmon with Montreal steak seasoning and drizzled them with olive oil and lay them on the gas grill on sheets of aluminum foil, left them to sizzle and went back into the kitchen to mingle while Michel fried the rice, fanning it with egg and finely chopped vegetables across the griddle while the others laid the table.
For no particular reason I said to her, “Do I ever tell you how much you remind me of my mom?” This caught her unaware enough to stutter the wave of her spatula. Likeness to her Grandma Mimi is usually regarded as uncomplimentary. “Her best qualities, fulfillment of her amazing potential,” I said. “She was smart and witty, charming and so perceptive and passionate. That’s what I mean, you’ve actualized the capabilities she could have been if she made better choices, organized herself, used her talents, developed emotional intelligence. You personify the best of her genes. Certainly you’re good lookin’. Got style and taste. Sometimes you even resemble her voice.” I felt obliged to hear her rebuttal but she seemed a little speechless for the moment as she sculpted her rice, and I had to go back to the deck to peek after the salmon.
Confident they weren’t done yet I went back inside to mix a gin and tonic and distract my daughter again a few seconds while she coordinated her rice in a bowl with the table settings, saying to her, “I didn’t mean to give you a scare.”
“No, I appreciate what you’re saying. I like to think I have Mom’s traits.”
“O you do. Actually your mom and Mimi shared more traits in common than either would admit. I’m just trying to say I think you’re quite a lady, more than a Hallmark card daughter, and I admire what a person you are.”
The salmon done pink and juicy, I shut down the grill and put them on a serving platter and thought about what I was actually saying to Michel was I was proud to have raised a better daughter than my mother — better than my mother raised me. This was not a subject to pursue over dinner.
Our mealtime banter bounced around like rafting the river, a main theme. Sid saluted Tess for saving our overboard guide. Tess saluted Clara for keeping her balanced that split second. Sid said he was amazed it ended so fast and effortlessly, at first he thought, oh no, here we go. From Vincent a crosscurrent of skeptical humor questioning the credentials and skill of our guide, but I seriously pointed out Jason’s lifelong familiarity with the river and added that he told me he was a third year metallurgy engineering student at the university at Fort Collins. Vincent suggested he might have faked it to teach us a lesson. Not ethical, Michel added, you weren’t even there. In any case, said Amelie, we passed the test. Roxanne confessed it happened so fast behind her by the time she turned around to reach for Tess Jason was back on board with Sid passing the paddle between her and me. That proved he didn’t do it on purpose, said Michel. He lost his paddle after all.
Vincent complimented Michel’s fried rice, which she did not acknowledge. Throughout dinner and into the evening Michel shunned him. Not a new attitude, as I’ve said. She’s early forties, he’s almost 40, I’ve seen their sibling friction since before he was born. I could never cure it, only hoped they would outgrow it, and by this time I was so inured to it and jaded by it I felt no compunction to mediate or intervene, just paddle along presuming this too shall pass, the two of them too civil to erupt into embarrassing confrontation.
As it was, conversation took no specific focus. It may seem ironic but politics did not provoke divisive debate in our family. All in all we were democrats, liberals. Unashamed of our ethics and integrity, we were wary of our surroundings in America’s volatile polarization and weary of the culture wars threatening repression in the cause of corrupting patriotism with big lies, finding comfort among ourselves to speak privately about our feelings. Sid supported Anytown USA. In the news it appeared that Congress reversed itself from its initial consensus to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol like they investigated 9/11. Instead the House with no participation by the Senate would form a committee to hold hearings. Meanwhile the coronavirus mutation called delta was surging in the vaccination resistant populations in the South, following a spike of cases in the UK. The US Canadian border remained closed by mutual agreement. China remained essentially locked down and container ships were compiling offshore at the world’s main ports since the Suez Canal got blocked in the spring. The repercussions of ZOZO the Lost Year were only being realized and clearly the pandemic and the aftermath of the Trump administration was not overwith. It seemed likely the CDC and FDA would recommend booster shots soon for the vulnerable, including senior citizens like Roxanne and me.
Vincent, Amelie and Sid still worked from home — lucky to be still employed even though Vincent was laid off quite some time — with no definite timeline to return to their firms offices. Not a bad thing perhaps, they said, though it posed a disconnection from classic organizational logic, as Sid put it, and disrupted the collegial human element of collaborative effort. Vincent said he didn’t miss business travel, or even the commute. Sid sort of did and would welcome at least a partial return to the office and trips to New York and London. Amelie missed being on the premises of the enterprise, providing nursery services for families in crisis — a facility kept closed due to the pandemic but whose mission made more intense finding alternative referral services while financing its budget all the while. And Michel picking up extra shifts on the front lines couldn’t work from home if she wanted to.
Clara and Tess benefited having their dad home with them while they in effect got home schooled on their laptops. Their iPhones linked their social life like digital play dates. Their gymnastics club shut down, luckily Clara’s high school gymnastics team and swimming and diving team somehow held closed practices and competitive events so they had activities out of the house to hang with other girls and exercise — Tess as a seventh grader made the high school junior varsity, such as it was, the city high schools weren’t famous for swimming, diving and gymnastics. Their church life was all but canceled — no Sunday school, no choir, no bells and for Tess (and her cousin Erin) no confirmation classes — no youth pastor. Tess ambivalently looked ahead to attending a new middle school for eighth grade, due to redrawn boundaries — from a school within walking distance to a school more than a mile away with no promise of bus service — and no promise school would reconvene for in-person learning the coming fall (though she could still participate in athletics at Clara’s high school, where Tess would attend as a freshman the following year.) Clara hoped for a year of normal high school, while Tess barely cared if she ever took another class in a classroom.
Neko barely knew life any other way than pandemic conditions. Resuming day care other than grandparents was envisioned as a means to socialize her with other kids as well as to reinforce social norms expected of her outside the family. Roxanne liked to describe her fascination with other kids at pools and playgrounds where she would watch them interplay, taught to be cautious and shy and to observe distance. Michel interjected a suggestion she might benefit from the discipline of regular meals and scheduled bedtime, which neither parent disagreed. For the time being the little girl enjoyed life as a free range child.
It was during after-dinner cleanup that Roxanne turned distraught. At first she wouldn’t say why, just kept scrolling her phone and saying she couldn’t believe what she’d done. Then she explained, she was doing a routine double-check of her emails and discovered she booked the wrong days for her and my lodging on our way home and now she found the dates she intended were no longer available to us at our intended sojourns. It was rare to see Roxanne so pissed at herself. I went to the road atlas and paged to South Dakota and offered to plot a revised series of stops. She had us at Hot Springs Friday night instead of Saturday and Chamberlain Saturday instead of Sunday. Frustrated finding no vacant rooms in the vicinities of those towns our intended nights — at fair prices — Rox sort of shut down a few seconds and rejected looking at the map, saying she would look at it in the morning. From what she could see on the internet, the weekend at her chosen spa towns were booked solid and a re-route was inevitable. She would fix it in the morning. She was counting on a visit to Hot Springs, and according to Michel the Chamberlain area along the great Missouri River was lovely. She deferred till morning to fix it but the rest of the evening she seemed crabby, even as everybody — even it seemed Neko — rallied around her: We all make mistakes.
Neko curled up on a couch with Grandma to snuggle and read books from home like the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Tess checked TikTok, worked on her Junior Ranger booklet in anticipation of our return to the park and texted with Erin back home. Erin’s soccer team was on a winning streak. Michel, Clara and Amelie went down to the hot tub. Sid, Vincent and I got some drinks and tuned the TV to TNT to watch the first game of the NBA eastern conference finals between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.
There were 16,000-some people in the arena in Milwaukee plus a crowd on the plaza outdoors, watching big screen TV as if this were game 7, fans of the Bucks long denied a championship and denied a season and a half of in-person basketball due to covid-19. They call the plaza the Deer District. Not a mask in sight. It seemed surreal until I recalled with Roxanne our venture to Coors Field and downtown Denver, when the crowds seemed surreal then too. Lifting restrictions let loose a vengeance of social activity enough to wonder out loud if we were begging for a delta surge. Roxanne said it again, it’ll never really be over, sooner or later everybody will catch it and it’s a matter of booster shots, tests, antibodies and personal responsibility. Still, the news reported the infection rates in our world dropping and dropping.
Obviously our culture craved normal. Better late than never the NBA kept up its part providing support for mass nostalgia and preserving the holy game of basketball by holding its annual playoff tournament. Our home team the Timberwolves didn’t qualify, let’s just say. Sid knew the league way better than Vincent and me put together, and even he admitted being distracted away from the game during the bubble season, so he didn’t have a favorite anymore since the demise of the Warriors and the Lakers in the western conference. Mention the Lakers and that’s my team going back to when I was a kid, Elgin Baylor back to George Mikan, and when Vincent was a kid watching James Worthy and Magic Johnson playing late on Friday nights on CBS. Michael Jordan succeeded Julius Irving. Vincent’s and Sid’s generation fostered Kevin Garnett.
When I was a little kid my first favorite basketball player was Wilt Chamberlain, known as the biggest man in the game. I was four or five years old. I thought he was a very important superstar because they named our local airport after him. Wilt Chamberlain Field. Then I learned it was really Wold Chamberlain Field, and after double-checking Wilt’s name in the newspaper concluded Wilt and Wold were different people. Now the airport is MSP, Twin Cities International.
So we came to watching the 2021 eastern conference final series with varying perceptions. Sid more recently saw the Knicks and Celtics at their respective Gardens, on business or visiting one of his friends from Switzerland. We went to some Wolves games when I used to have a shared season ticket (before I lost all faith and found other ways to spend entertainment money) and also of course with Vincent, and even Michel. But for me it’s been years since I actually followed the NBA on TV, much less cared who was playing who in the Christmas tripleheader.
This play date at Forest Mountain Home got arranged around curiosity of the team next door, as it were, the Milwaukee Bucks. In general the family consensus opinion of Wisconsin sports teams trends towards low esteem. Packers, Badgers, even the Brewers in the National League get boos. For some reason, though, we approached the Bucks with a kind of Swiss neutrality. Talk was they could win the finals. The last time the Bucks won it all was about fifty years ago with a team including Oscar Robertson, Bobby Dandridge and the former Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. This year the Bucks featured a guy they called The Greek, Giannis Antetokounmpo — pronounced Yannis — Antetokounmpo, just the way it’s spelled and sounded out, pronouncing every letter and syllable like Spanish or Hawaiian, Antetokounmpo. He grew up (he is 6’11”) in Athens, Greece, born of immigrant parents from Nigeria. When Clara came in from the hot tub and saw us watching him play and learned he was ethnic Igbo descent and Greek she checked him out on Google and Wikipedia — she always loved Greece and learned about Nigeria from reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi — so she watched some of the first half with us.
The Bucks handled the Hawks by five points at the half. By midway through the first quarter Neko went down in Grandma’s arms. Amelie took her from there and put her to bed. Soon after Amelie returned to the living room Michel confessed she was tired and had a headache and was going to bed, after which Tess and Roxanne retired too. To me it seemed early but apparently they had a full day. At half time Clara turned in as well.
This was when the night got interesting and the vacation cascaded into another dimension. Vincent and I went out on the front porch and smoked a bowl of flowertop. On our way back to the living room we swung through the kitchen for gummies and beers. In the third quarter the Bucks went cold and the Hawks went on a run. Antetokounmpo had a big night with double figures in points and rebounds for the Bucks but the Atlanta point guard Trae Young scored 48 points and 11 assists to pace the Hawks past the Bucks by 3 — 116 – 113.
The furious nature of the third quarter stirred us into a mini frenzy. Frustration at the Bucks inability to hold off the Atlanta surge along with our awe at the Hawks guard Young’s determination to score drove our volume in the living room over the top enough for Michel to come out from her bedroom — storm from her room with vehemence to match us — to order us to keep it down for the sake of her headache and everybody else trying to sleep.
We tried. So did the Bucks but they couldn’t pull away.
During the long, drawn out final minute of time outs, commercials and shooting fouls, Amelie and Sid got into a discussion about managing workforces during the pandemic which endured after the game. Vincent and I mixed fresh gins and tonic and adjourned to the comfort of the front porch to smoke a bowl in the dark and talk.
He opened confessing to the wonder and humbling awe of being available to spend his days with his daughter during the lost year, to bond with her and guide her and get to know her and teach her at her most fundamental age. He knew he and Neko would always be close because of this. Fathering was his mission, his vocation, his holy orders. It gave him fresh awareness and awakening, new angles of seeing and understanding, all which he might have missed if he only got to spend time with her before and after work. Getting laid off from covid was the luckiest thing could ever happen. It might be time to send her to day care now but they will always have a special connection forged during the pandemic.
I asked him, how much do you weigh?
He wouldn’t answer and I didn’t guess out loud. He could’ve weighed 300 pounds. The reason I ask, I said, what I’m leading up to is a fear you might have a heart attack at 42, and you wouldn’t like that. He sighed. I apologized if it seemed like body shaming. He acknowledged he could do more for his own health but now was not the time he wanted to discuss it, if ever.
Next instead he asked me questions about myself, history he never expressed interest in before. He began with the Pratt family, how we connected and how awkward was it to have a black maid in the beighborhood where I grew up.
“To call Eula a maid sells her way short of who she was and what she meant — still means — to us. She was our foster mom during some very crucial years. As for what the neighbors thought, our family was light years from caring what other people thought about us. Still, noboody pulled any KKK shit on us the whole time, and she was with us at least five years.”
I sketched how my dad met the Pratts when he sold cars down near Lake and Chicago about 1960, when they just moved from Mississippi. Eula and Ezzie had six kids, most older than I was, some young adults. Dad needed somebody to help my mom, Mimi, who about then had six of her own. By the time Eula left we had four more. Mimi was overwhelmed when Dick met Eula, and sadly Mimi only got worse.
Why did Eula leave?
My dad couldn’t afford her. She made way more money at the Leamington Hotel and didn’t have to look after infants. My dad made good money in the heyday of Chevrolet but he and Mimi couldn’t keep up the payments. Eula of course would say she would work for free she loved us so much. She also said she left us for our own good because our mother, Mrs Sturgis had abandoned us to become too dependent on her, especially the youngest ones who practically believed Eula was their real mom. After Eula left you can guess who had to replace her, namely me, Leenie, Bernadette and Molly. Eula did what she had to do, for us and for her own family. If she wanted to force my mom into taking her responsibilities and opportunities and manage her own household, it did not work. Simultaneously my parents’ marriage collapsed as they tried to destroy each other. Eula didn’t need to be caught in the middle between Colleen Kelly and Dick Sturgis. I didn’t want the job either. At least before she left she taught us to cook, clean and do laundry, and look after Kerry, Sean, Murray, Heather, Nelly and Kevin. I guess when Colleen and Dick divorced we elder kids were not surprised but what was hard was how egregiously unprepared our parents were for the total collapse of our family.
It must have been hard for her all that long undiagnosed with the Kelly disease. What Vincent meant was our family history of depression.
O she was diagnosed, I answered. Had all kinds of opportunities to act to seriously better herself but all she wanted was to be somebody’s Barbie Doll. I couldn’t get over how somebody so intelligent and vivaciously gifted could act so stupid.
And Dick. What made you go live with him?
I wouldn’t have made it on my own, not in Minneapolis. Not at sixteen.
(You don’t know that.)
Well, the odds weren’t good. I had to get out of Colleen’s house, man. It was a zoo. Living with my dad was as good as running away from home. Chance to start over, get normal. Serious, I wanted a normal life. Look at me now …
We laughed loudly, prompting Roxanne to slide open the glass door from our bedroom to the front porch. She said to keep it down in an emphasized whisper and slid shut the glass door without waiting for an answer, defense or explanation. So we took our drinks, smokes and discussion down the driveway and camped at the foot of Neko’s mountain.
What were Dick’s issues? Besides the booze.
Not that I hadn’t thought about it as much as I considered my mother, but I hesitated before I answered. The way Vincent posed the question put it in a context asking for an elevator answer. Sometimes he wasn’t far removed from the regional marketing manager before the pandemic deposed him, so I formulated my reply as a synopsis of my dad’s character in true enough terms to his resume and express historical impressions pertinent to Dick as Vincent’s paternal grandfather.
I said, Dick wanted to be a made man, a wiseguy, an accessory to the boss. He always dressed the part — my mom tells that in high school he wore pressed trousers, shined shoes and cashmere sweaters. Yet life seemed to always find a way to undermine him of any true ambitions. He was Mickey Spillane imagining he was Ian Fleming and coming up aces and eights in some 19th Century saloon in Deadwood. In real life he was a world class car dealer who liked golf despite bursitis, liked bars and nightclubs, paperbacks like The Godfather, a genuinely genteel gentleman, lifelong lost love of Colleen Kelly, and a profoundly bad father. Even to me. He could’ve made a difference when he instead set a bad example. Living with him was living by the seat of my pants all over again, only without Colleen and the rest of my sisters and brothers we both in a way abandoned. My two years stuck in Wausau must have been penance for my selfishness. Old Dick sabotaged his career and social standing again, only this time without the direct inference of my mother, who had recently married a real estate playboy. Old Dick meantime messed his life and credibility not once but twice in Wausau involving two separate women, locals, ultimately dumping me and Bernadette in virtual foster homes for six months. Bernadette didn’t want to go back to live with our mother either. Bernadette stayed behind when Dad went to California because she had a good life going, normal friends, good grades, so she stayed with a girl friend’s family. Famously I went to live with the O’Leary clan — with a C.
So how did you get to know John McCutcheon?
Newman High School class of 1970, Wausau, Wisconsin.
Did you hit it off right away?
No. Yes. We both loved the same girl. She was his ex, and soon became my ex too. I think we both were really in love with her mom but that’s how John and I first connected. It so happened we were both new kids junior year. He had left the seminary school in La Crosse after two years and I came from the Twin Cities. His advantage was he grew up in Wausau and he and his family were well known, he had history, so he fell in with Newman easily. I was an outlier.
But after a standoff you bonded.
Between junior and senior year. The year his family moved out of town to a woodsy place they called the Livin’ End, at the end of a posted dead end gravel road. They had like nine kids. Like O’Learys. John brought me home a couple of times that summer. I gave him rides to visit his girfriend Butter. Even back then he was a proficient folksinger. He had a Peter, Paul, Mary and Barb group they called the New Jersey Turnpike after a song by Simon and Garfunkel. They were the first I ever heard sing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and I recall they were very good and the song blew me away. He made extra money playing organ for wakes at a funeral home. One time, he says, he got bored of the scripted background sacred music so he played an ultra-slow version of the organ music from Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” thinking nobody would notice, but there was a teenager out there who came up to him and gave him the peace sign. I gave him rides to little coffeehouse solo gigs after the Turnpike broke up (Barb had the car). He wrote songs — says he composed while mowing the lawn at the big local cemetery. His old man got him all kinds of odd jobs. His old man kept him busy with odd jobs and sports and college classes at the university extension. Idle hands create opportunities of mischief. Did I tell you his dad never liked me at all … I think his sainted mother prayed their family would rub off a good influence on me. Maybe they did … Let’s say I got glimpses along the way of what normal, functional family life was like from my friends.
I’d say you turned out well, my son said, and I said thanks, acknowledging his affirmation without officially in agreement. I mean it, said Vincent. You’ve been a great parent, you have a solid marriage, a stable home. You’ve kept your head down, built a strong work history and saved your money. Bet your FICO score is way up in the eights. You’ve enjoyed your freedoms and your pleasures and now you’re grandfather to three divine females and can reflect on about a half century or so of good memories. Right? You still have heart. And soul. You survived with a personal life of happiness.
Here’s to me, I said. It’s my Summer of 69. And before I accept the award for laziest retired person may I thank the coronavirus known as covid-19 for enabling me to put all my affairs in order and be at peace with life. I’ve sacrificed risk for mostly mediocre rewards and vintage memories. Have I done my best? Probably not, but you’re right, I’m happy.
White man problems.
White man remorse.
We laughed a lot that night, especially freely once we moved away from the house. We went inside once to pee and refresh our gins and tonic finding Sid and Amelie engrossed in work topics as we slipped in and out like goofball shadows avoiding sight and sound. Outdoors Vincent and I from the foot of the driveway boulders left most of our filters and inhibitions in the woods and made each other laugh over mundane references to middle age advancing on a child of the ’80s, when I approached middle age. This was the same son at the age of 12 I gave a cassette tape for Christmas of Firesign Theater. Now he jokingly confided his disenchantment with his work life, even as he dreaded cranking out more and more resumes to find something fresh that might interest him, only to find other jobs probably as unfulfilling.
I confessed I was glad I wasn’t looking for work, and even more relieved I was no longer a corporate manager.
The news reported a bounty of unfilled jobs as the economy woke from pandemic restrictions. Pundits warned of a Great Resignation as the workforce woke from doldrums to change jobs while the changing was good. It made employment almost seem like a ponzi scheme to get in on the trend early. Quick before all the good jobs are gone. For a while last winter conservative critics blamed the shortage of workers for open jobs on generous unemployment benefits from liberal pandemic legislation, but when the benefits gave out the worker shortage stayed the same and nobody knows where the missing workers went. Was everybody getting picky? Are there no more immigrants stealing red blooded American jobs? Bad as the pandemic was they didn’t die off. Can’t be that many claiming disability, PTSD. Retirement (my bad). Incarceration? Not this year, no. Gig Economy? Entrepreneurship? The underground economy? Staying home minding the kids? Too many citizens working for the state, sucking the workforce dry …
That’s the thing about the world we would agree, inhabited or not the planet would keep spinning and orbiting the sun no matter what we humans choose to do in our meager lifetimes. What we can do is live moral lives and enjoy the pleasures life volunteers us. In ironic conclusion I tried to paraphrase the Serenity Prayer: Accept what you cannot change, have the courage to change what you can, and be wise enough to know the difference. Or what Angela Davis said, I no longer accept the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept.
These and a few more self-serving adages concluded our discussion beneath the pines at the foot of Neko’s mountain, self-aware of our white male privilege and unselfconscious enough to keep passing the Truth Stick of our metaphorical Robert Bly campfire. Not the first such dialogue father and son but the first in a while, catching me up on fatherhood through my son’s eyes and seeing life fresh through Koki’s eyes as well as Koki’s dad, and being asked about times of my life nobody else usually cared about sort of evoked reconciliation with my life before he or Michel were born, an era unsurpassed in disinterest. I thanked him for it. Before we adjourned we toasted Barack Obama and sarcastically blamed the wildfires and scorching heat in the Pacific Nothwest on Al Gore for predicting it would happen.
We gathered our kit and stole into the house like ninja mimes, expecting Amelie and Sid still talking shop in the living room but they had gone off to bed. The TV was off and a floor lamp left on. Half giggling we bid each other adieu in the lamplight and he disappeared into the dark stairwell to the basement while I stowed the drinking glasses in the kitchen sink.
Roxanne stirred when I arrived for bed after I whizzed and brushed my teeth. Sounds like you and Vincent had a Yuk Yuk time, she said. I said no, we spoke of serious issues, but yeah, it was good spending quality time with my son. Well, said Roxanne, we’ll see what your daughter has to say.
That and Roxanne’s sleeping silence left me reeling like a mandala until I fell asleep, not intoxicated enough to doubt and double-question my serenity and sense of well being.
In the morning I slept later than Roxanne. Not especially hung over I dressed and pointed myself in the direction of the aroma of coffee and toasted bagels in the kitchen, where I could hear Roxanne and Michel quarreling furtively but none too quietly. I could tell it was no morning for jokes about djinnis pilfering coffee.
Michel was upset and accused her mother of always defending Vincent’s behavior, enabling his dysfunctional ways, which Roxanne denied. You always defend him, Michel accused and Roxanne cried, I do not. You just did, Michel escalated, you just explained away his attitude and his dysfunctionalities as mere life style choices. Mom, he’s rude and arrogant and crass and he uses the F bomb in front of the kids.
Then as I got my coffee she turned on me. And don’t you try and skate through this. She was furious. You should know better. You’re his parents. I don’t know what to tell my kids. I expect you to be a good example, Dad, and I can’t trust you. You’re their grandfather and he’s their uncle. You left the living room lights on and didn’t even lock the front door! Clara came to me in my room — Mom I think I smell marijuana. Why did you have to smoke it right there on the porch? How could you? I have teenage children, and it’s for me and Sid to have that conversation with them — when they’re ready! I resent you forcing it in our faces. It’s inexcusable. They’re thirteen and sixteen. How can you set such a bad example?
I literally hung my head. She had me dead handed. The fury in her eyes conveyed how deadly serious she was and would not be appeased. She would tolerate no defense. Much as I wished I could make it a funny story, any plea other than mercy would have enraged her to cancel the vacation altogether by kicking me out of the house, if not the family. I took a deep breath. The only way she would ever forgive me and move on would be my unconditional surrender. Otherwise I could only see this dragging into the next generation between us, and the longer the bad blood lasted the deeper the wound and the susceptibility to infection and potential never to heal, and I wouldn’t risk that kind of alienation from my daughter. Not at my age. Not when I was wrong.
I’m sorry, Michel. You’re totally right. I behaved badly, and I’m sorry. Please forgive me and tell me what I can do to make it right.
You can stop favoring Vincent. You’re not supposed to be his friend, you’re his dad. You two always defend him and take his side against me. When will you ever correct him? You coddle and tolerate his slacker mentality, his void of motivation.
He’s an adult, I answered. He’s a grown up, said Roxanne.
No he isn’t, Michel pleaded, steadfast in her fury. And he’ll never grow up as long as you allow him to continually postpone his endless adolescence. Dad, you have to talk to him. Mom, he doesn’t respect you enough. You need to face up to him and call him on his shenanigans.
Well, I said, you need to tell him directly and to his face how you feel, not go through Mom and me.
Fine. Don’t stop me. He’s my brother and I love him, but I just don’t like him. This is the last vacation. I’m never going on a family vacation with him again. And for the time being I’ve had it with you two. You can’t seem to see and accept what’s obvious about Vincent and admit that you didn’t finish raising him.
Fine, I said, reluctant to engage in the very defense Michel baited us to consider. You tell Victor yourself.
O I will.
And last thing, daughter, I really don’t like it when you make your mother cry.
Michel exploded. Make Mom cry? Do you consider my feelings? Are my feelings less than Mom’s? Why should I suppress my feelings to appease Mom? Is that how Vincent does it? Hey, I’m done. It’s your choice.
I’m not dealing with this right now, said Roxanne with toasted bagel and cream cheese, took her plate, mug of coffee and iPad to the furthest seat at the dining table to be alone. I have to fix our way home.
The kids lounged in the bright living room, Clara immersed in her ear pods and Tess making sketches in blank areas in her junior ranger workbook. Neko and Amelie were outdoors already, hanging around the boulder mountain at the driveway. Sid apparently was on his run. Vincent emerged from downstairs and presented himself disheveled as if he slept in his clothes and before he drew his coffee Michel told him to meet her outside on the back deck. On his way out the kitchen door he looked to me and his mother and neither offered faces of hope and innocence, just endurance.
I could not hear the words Michel spoke as she laid into her brother with what must have been holy hell. Maybe conscious of being outdoors and earshot of the neighbors she kept her volume down but from what I could tell she gave Vincent a verbal beating. True to her word she said it all to his face. His stunned face. When she finished she allowed no rebuttal and awaited no apology but came back into the kitchen to serve up bagels and fruits and melons to share with Sid and her kids while Vincent stood dumbstruck out on the deck.
I never said my kids were perfect. I’ve only said they have no criminal records.
Eventually Vincent came back in the house. He went towards his sister and I heard him say I’m sorry. She rebuffed him and called her kids to come and make their plates. Nothing else to say he went outside via the front door to join Amelie and Neko. Sid got back from his run. Things went on as if it were a normal day. As if it were normal not speaking.
Before we packed up the cars to revisit the park Roxanne announced she again had reservations for lodging for our way home after we checked out of Forest Mountain Home. She blamed her error on somehow focusing on us leaving Friday the 25th instead of Saturday the 26th because Michel, Sid and the girls were leaving Friday, a day early, so they could bring Tess to gymnastics camp on Sunday in Minnesota. Thus mixed up, Roxanne had booked us near Hot Springs along by Rapid City in South Dakota Friday night instead of Saturday, and Chamberlain along the Missouri River Saturday night instead of Sunday, and now there were no rooms available at either location the right nights. So instead of Hot Springs we would spend the night Saturday night at Sundance, Wyoming, not far from the South Dakota border and near to Devil’s Tower. Sunday might we would sleep in Mitchell (home of the Corn Palace) South Dakota and go home Monday. For some reason just talking about it made me homesick.
The changes would cost us more. I could never attend Devil’s Tower too many times.
Rallied around Roxanne’s remedial success booking the rest of her and my trip the mood of the troop relaxed enough to resemble normal except clearly Michel and Vincent avoided each other. They would do so through the day and night until the Kysylyczyns left us in the morning. Their methods were so nuanced and subtle the disruption created minimal awkwardness and kept the matter between themselves and not for public discussion. In a way that was too bad but to me it seemed making it a topic for family discussion risked turning the episode into an intervention into everybody’s privacy, and Michel for one was in favor of dropping it while nobody else brought it up, not Vincent and not within earshot of his sister.
Rather we prepped ourselves for our time slot appointment to enter the park to visit the place called Moraine. The word moraine refers to land revealed by a retreated glacier. This part of the park fanned through a grassy valley hedged with slopes and fir trees under a wide open sky. A skinny, gentle creek wiggled up the middle. Foot trails flanked the creek’s bushy banks on both sides. We walked one trail in, crossed a foot bridge up the valley and walked the opposite trail out. There was no discernible slope on either trail, an easy, leisurely hike. There was hardly anyone else around so we spread apart and wandered as if we didn’t know each other, at least not very well.
The one I felt most sympathy for wasn’t Vincent, who obviously felt sad and embarrassed and maybe ashamed, because I was confident he could handle the pressure and emerge better off. We would talk later. I felt for Clara, who carried the body language of awkward adolescence like a beginner, not like her usual confidence and poise. She wore the mark of the squealer. She was the snitch. She ratted out me and Uncle Vincent and we got busted. Both of us tried to convey no hard feelings but that’s a lot to assume for a sixteen year old with no other frame of reference. She shepherded Neko on the hike along with her sister, keeping her out of the creek. She otherwise stuck close to her dad, walking ahead of our loose pack. Not surprising, Clara was a Daddy’s Girl. Her dad was the strongest bond in the world and it was right she would seek his emotional shelter at this paranoid time.
Tess approached a park ranger near the footbridge and handed in her junior ranger workbook. The ranger quizzed her a couple of questions and signed her book and gave back the book along with the prized junior national park ranger badge made of wood.
I conversed with the ranger moseying on the trail. I noticed about one of every five mature fir trees on the moraine was dead. Combination of drought and beetle infestation, the ranger said. Why every fifth tree? I asked. What spares the other four? Why not five in a row? Healthy trees obviously, he said, are in best positions to resist disease. Drought conditions expose vulnerable trees and the bark beetles take advantage. Nothing you can do but watch. Observe, I should say, he said. Everything changes. There used to be a glacier here. You hate to see a fire but sometimes that’s how nature cleans house. We don’t know how this land will look in a thousand years. Enjoy.
Sid had a saying, a mantra, going back to a favorite professor who would say, “The more you see, the more you know, the more you see.” It seemed appropriate after talking with the ranger and seeing Tess sworn in as a junior ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park to recite again the mantra to Sid, but as I did recite it to myself, my two walking stones in my fists, I could see Sid and Clara far ahead on the trail by at least a hundred yards, talking about something, perhaps the mantra attributed to the professor, a good example of some of the ancillary things you can learn in college. Clara would go to college in three years. It goes fast. The more you see …
After the Moraine we agreed to go our separate ways for the day and graze rather than meet for an organized lunch. The Kysylyczyns naturally drove off in their own car, ostensibly to go shopping, while in Victor and Amelie’s car we cruised around the mountain slopes, car moseying, until we ended up back at the house at Estes Park. Miffed that Michel didn’t invite her to go shopping, Roxanne asked if she could borrow the Nissan to shop by herself. Amelie and Victor in turn had old friends, a couple who lived in a town nearby who invited them to meet for lunch. Roxanne agreed to drop off Amelie and Victor to meet their friends, go shop, then pick them up in an hour or so, all if I would mind Neko.
No problem. My pleasure.
I offered to read books. Instead she wanted to play in her pup tent with Beba, her baby doll from home, Smokey Bear (still missing his hat) and various figurines of deer, moose, bears and elk. It seemed that the figurines were Beba’s pets and Smokey with his shovel served as an observer figure like a security guard. Neko apportioned me a bear and an elk who played roles as visitors to the tent, which was the doll house where Beba’s family lived. No room for me in the tent, I staged my visitors from the front porch. Apparently Smokey was Beba’s dad. The figurines were siblings and cousins. Abruptly but to no surprise Neko abandoned the pup tent scenario to climb and tumble on the stuffed sofas and easy chairs of the living room. Grandma and Amelie and Vincent hesitated to bring her with them because she showed signs she might need a nap. Clara and Tess ran her rugged through the grass of the moraine, which in places was ideal for summersaults.
I asked if she was hungry and she ignored the question. She climbed the steps into the kitchen for a look around what she could see for food on the countertops, maybe looking for sweet rolls, cookies or candy but finding bananas, apples and pears. She didn’t eat much so far as meals and didn’t default to food to keep herself busy. She had a solid little kid build, no signs of malnutrition or chubbiness. No concern of mine if she ate or not except my implied duty to provide nutrition or a snack on demand. I asked again if she was hungry and she again ingnored the question.
I knew she heard me. She was old enough I could tell this would be one of her traits, acting as if she isn’t listening. Is my voice invisible, Koki? I crouched down below the level on the countertops and skulked out of sight around the far side from her around the kitchen island. I could hear which way she was coming around and managed to crawl hands and knees whichever way to stay out of her sight, which she apparently found hilarious and didn’t try very hard to confront me. Then she stopped, stood still and made sounds of whimpering panic. I crawled to where I found her standing in a puddle of pee.
I scooped her up and brought her to the nearest batchroom and placed her on the potty and took her wet pants and panties to rinse. This was not a potty chair but a big potty and she looked a little overwhelmed hanging on. She began to cry. Hold on, I said, and go potty if you have any left. She cried harder. Neko wasn’t a crier. I wrung out her wash and scooped her up to carry her to my and Roxanne’s room to place her on the bed while I went downstairs to her parents’ room to find their suitcase of Neko’s clothes to at least find dry underpants — or should I diaper her? I chose pants. I dropped off the wet stuff in the laundry room. She was still crying when I came back to her sort of sideways fetal as I left her. She cried as I re-dressed her and while I held her in my arms and walked the floor with her up and down the hallway of the bedrooms.
It seemed to soothe her. She wasn’t a little baby any more. She was probably ashamed and embarrassed, so near to potty trained and to lapse. She lulled in my arms and I thought there might be a fifty-fifty she might fall asleep. As I crossed from the bedroom corridor towards the living room I crossed the landing above the front entry. The door swung open and Neko began to cry all over again at the sight of her mommy.
Oh honey, Amelie implored as she took her child and I explained why she was crying and the mom took it from there. As I said, Neko wasn’t known as a crier so it seemed a relief to tell my side of the story, whoever listened. Then Roxanne in the kitchen shrieked. The puddle of pee remained on the floor. The good thing about pee, I said as I mopped it up, urine is sterile.
Even so, Roxanne replied.
I went outdoors to my hideaway behind the garage for a smoke and a good cough.
Vincent joined me for a smoke. We couldn’t help but thinking along the same track. How could we have been so short-sighted? Bordering on stupid. Stupid. No air conditioning at the house, all the windows wide open. Smoking weed — and cigarillos — brazenly on the front porch, we were asking for it. We dared ourselves to get busted.
We couldn’t blame Clara. She smelled what she smelled and went to her mother for advice. She possibly didn’t suspect it was us. In retro, she never intended to get us in trouble. Now you can tell she feels bad she put us in the doghouse. It would be a delicate matter to approach her with her mother watching over her. And her dad. I don’t envy Sid for this. We’ve put him in a tough space. He’s good at improv, though. Yes, and …
We laughed reminiscing about when Vincent got kicked out of the DARE program at Seward elementary school. I brought it up. He said it was on account of his libertarian principles, he wouldn’t take the oath and sign the pledge. I recalled being proud of him then in a strange way. DARE meant Drug Abuse Resistence Education, ostensibly a worthy cause. Vincent said he didn’t like the cops’ attitude who produced the program. Said in retrospect they were recruiting a Secret Police for their deep state. We could laugh now. Was that the same year Vincent went trick or treating for Halloween as Ross Perot? Libertarian principles…
Returning to our current worry, neither of us could solve Michel. Vincent sensed her animosity worse than he considered fair for his mistake, and he realized I was in no position to take her on to defend him, which he would have asked under a normal everyday tirade by his sister. He frequently accused me and Roxanne of favoring her and all but pleaded with me to stick by him this time. I told her I’m sorry for what I did, he said, but I won’t apologize for who I am.
In the house Roxanne showed me a gray Rocky Mountain National Park hoodie sweatshirt she bought Vincent for Father’s Day. She wished she could give it to him, sort of as a ceremony that night while everybody gathered at the freplace to make smores on the Kysylyczyns’ last night, but given his status with Michel’s grievance she didn’t want to add more stress, so she decided to give it to him after they left for home. I couldn’t think of any therapeutic or redemptive value in making a big deal with the hoodie and suggested she just personally give it to him like on the sly, but of course there was a greeting card involved which I was expected to contribute a handwritten message and sign it for both of us.
When the Kysylyczyns returned from exploring and shopping Vincent was retired to his quarters for a nap. I myself dozed on a couch listening vaguely to CNN. A beachside 12 story condominium in South Florida collapsed vertically in half overnight with about a hundred people missing, as if Florida didn’t generate enough bad news. I thought I heard the US House of Representatives resolved to form a select committee to investigate the events of January 6 that year when the mob stormed the Capitol — that might be Witch Hunt number 9. And the Justice Department announced the number of people charged with crimes for that insurrection so far exceeded 500 — all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. Portugal and Russia reported alarming spikes of covid infections, which seemed odd, Russia reporting bad news about itself and Portugal making news at all. Here in America the western wildfires and northern heat waves gained ferocity as drought spooked the central breadbasket states. And President Biden might get a bipartisan infrastucture deal through Congress after all.
Not a perfect world, is it. Ever. Try to pull the edges of the earth together to bind it into a believable, comprehensive whole like Gaia and there will always remain seams, leaks and bubbles of daylight, noise and vapor escape and infiltrate the sanctity of the soul at peace.
The Kysylyczyns settled in without fanfare or fuss. Sid asked me if I minded if he played some music over the JBL while he did some work-related reading on his laptop, and I clicked the remote to mute the TV. He took an easy chair and asked if there was an update on the search and rescue at the Florida condo. Clara and Tess encamped opposite each other on the other big couch and took up their smartphones. Clara wore airbuds and breathed melodies from Taylor Swift’s new evermore album while scrolling. Tess checked TikTok and Instagram. I asked her if she was concerned about her private information being spied on by the Chinese Communist Party and she said no, what’s to know, I’m just another decadent westerner. Clara reported the death toll in the Florida rubble kept rising but the mission remained search and rescue. Scenes of the rubble looped in and out on the muted TV. No foul play suspected, Clara said. Sid added, as if terrorism would make it seem less horrfying.
Michel kept to herself in her room for a while, packing. Resting. Nobody talked about her in the third person while she was absent.
Tess asked if I had any paper and if she could borrow a pen to make sketches. I tore a blank page from my journal. Or two. This more or less affected isolation. Like Clara in airbuds. I wasn’t comfortable getting chummy with Clara enough to quiery her out of her trance with small talk about mundane things about being sixteen in a bad old world. I was a teenager once, and I remember it far too well. This was just the wrong time to invoke grandfatherly wisdom, my credibility on that score not keen. Best to wait them out, the two grandkids. It’s a shame to squander the bonding good dialogue can evoke, but I selected to sit tight and observe. Maybe all I could do is show that I would not disappear and be invisible — and that went for all the rest of them.
From what I could tell, Clara and Tess didn’t care for Facebook or use Twitter. They preferred Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok or You Tube. I didn’t know if it was by choice so much as parental supervision, a generational thing. They avoided long reads, which ensures they don’t read my blog. I’ve seen no evidence they’ve declined in literacy since they they acquired tablets, laptops and phones of their own, and in fact seem to read books more than I do. Tess was recently notified a poem she wrote on assignment for school would be published in the annual COMPAS anthology of poetry by K-12 students around the state of Minnesota, she from seventh grade. The text of the poem alone amazed me, but she also made a recitation video for a COMPAS podcast later in the year. They are both literate kids, no question. Even if they both seem to went to ee cummings and kd laing school of never using capital letters in everyday texts and emails (e-mails?) and still write grammatical papers for public school credit according to school rules and pass their courses with A’s. And after all, isn’t that the goal of every kid’s parent? When a kid hits those goals there’s respect due to the kid.
I would have liked to ask Clara to explain her upcoming missionary camp to the Tennessee Appalachians besides an obvious commitment to doing community service at an impoverished community. Without questioning her faith or the sanctity of the beliefs of the organization sponsoring the camp. Also without either of her parents coaching her answers. Matters of faith I leave up to the individual, and young individuals get guidance from their parents, their families. If I could guide Clara for when she is an adult individual and ask about her choices I would persuade her to be choosy about her core beliefs. Even if I cannot offer anything better than the afterlife heaven promised by religion. I suppose I am a mortal of low expectations of afterlife, though it is the one thing we all share in common equally, we all die. Is it worth all the propaganda to conform to a basic common morality?
Even so, here it’s impolite to remind anybody that I am a geezer of a certain generation in my family clan and as years go by the eventual will meet the inevitable sooner or later, the actuarial statistics narrow the time until I’ll die and no longer be a living person among them. Religion may help them rationalize my afterlife but it will do nothing for me.
It troubled me to consider myself selfish, whether I really cared about Clara’s spirituality and her commitment to public service or would I use my quiery about this organization in Tennessee to initiate a debate between doing good and doing God. Another time, another place, I thought to the tune of that line in the Dire Straits song, “Lady Writer” — in my head, not from anyone’s iPhone, Bluetooth or JBL.
Tess interrupted herself to show me what she was doing. Sketching succulents. Her deliberate pen strokes converged forming brazen visual echoes of the plants in a style I thought in common with Vincent Van Gogh, such as his olive trees, and I told her so. I learned long ago it’s not sufficient to say to a child, I like that, or that’s good, you need to give a detail or a reason to show you’re really paying attention. Usually self-deprecating she said nothing when I handed them back and went to work where she left off. She knew I would save them and look at them later and remember that moment with awe.
As in, awwwww…
Amelie reintroduced Neko to the scene after a lengthy hike through the neighborhood, which Amelie noted was mostly not fenced so they could meander through back yards and stay off the road. Neko came back with a stash of sticks, needles and pine cones which she showed off by littering the coffee table like a collage of forage. About then Michel came around offering to start dinner. Vincent emerged from hibernation mixing a drink and hovering at the fringe of the kitchen with no banter.
I would grill bratwurst, polish sausage and a hot dog for Neko (if she pleases) and plant-based nuggets for the teens. The rest of the nightly smorgasbord came together from leftovers in the fridge, even some chicken to go with your salad or fried rice. Tofu. Beans. At least three cheeses. Roxanne scrambled an egg for Neko with cheese and she ate about half. She asked for yogurt and ate about half, ignoring the fruit. Eventually she ate her whole hotdog — no bun, no condiment, just the lonely wiener — and about half a portion of cottage cheese. I observed she was at least eating something, even if not in sync with the rest of the family, what sync remained.
Somebody whispered as loud as she could: It’s a bear!
I was laying out the tray of sausages at the kitchen island before I even lit the grill when I heard the word and instinctively headed to the front door to discover the rest of the household scrambling to the back deck through the doors from the kitchen and Michel and Sid’s room. I joined them in time to see an enormous fat brown bear ambling on a straight path along the presumed lot lines away from us on all fours at a pace suggesting it knew where it was going and in no hurry to get there and expected no obstacles. Nonchhalant. Oblivious. We watched its big round butt and stubby tail and thick rear thighs disappear in the woods between the cabins downhill. For all the iPhones on the premises no one got a picture.
It gave us a whole new topic to talk about. Everything from what if somebody had been outside by the driveway boulders to why didn’t it just come in through the front door. How much danger were we really in? It looked like it might have been headed towards town — should we have called somebody? Will it come back? This offered Vincent chances to talk, offering his observances of bear behavior near Yellowstone, he basically assured everybody that if you leave them alone and not harass them they actually prefer to stay away from humans and mind their own business. Like bison. As we went about dinner reassuring ourselves we were safe plus lucky, the thrill of the sighting incited fresh mutual accomplishment. Tess added the bear to her list of animals seen in her junior ranger workbook even though she didn’t technically see it in the park and why expect a bear to respect park boundaries?
Was it a grizzly? Technically maybe not, said Vincent, its hair was too smooth. Anyway, it was one big brown bear. Everybody saw. Neko from the arms of her mother who snatched her out of the highchair at the first whisper to protect her baby like a bear mama. No cubs trailing this bear. Most of us guessed it was male. It looked well fed, but we reminded ourselves not to leave food on the decks overnight. Where did it come from? (That way.) Where was it going? (Town?) Why?
Conversation around the dinner table did not easily deviate from the bear but distracted from worry over the victims of the Florida condo collapse and its implications for mass housing in that state. Absent was a nostalgic celebration of the effective conclusion of our family vacation, except for references to the bear and our river raft excursion. I could see Michel could hardly wait to leave. Sid seemed a little sad to depart but probably disillusioned that it had to end in dissonance and mixed feelings. The teens were teens, ready to move on and get home. Speaking of home, Amelie reminded us that tomorrow the court would sentence Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
The clean up process took on a finality like a dress rehearsal for putting the dishes exactly back in their place, who might want shares of leftover grapes, watermelon and apples. (Chicken anyone?) Be sure to clean the coffee maker, including the brew basket. Since we deliberately kept recyclables separate from waste garbage, Amelie half-verbalized a plan she was working on in her head to personally run our bags of recyclables to the local recycling center rather than toss it in the big dumpster with the rest of the trash.
The sad closing ceremony arrived with the building of a fire in the fireplace to roast marshmallows to make smores. Amelie built the fire like a boundary waters camper. No way with the world we lived in would we risk an outdoor campfire, especially with Smokey Bear on the premises — maybe he doesn’t wear a hat in the house out of good manners. The kids gathered in a semicircle with Michel around the hearth like Christmas. Grandma outfitted each kid with the steel picnic wienie roasters brought from home with thick jumbo marshmallows stuck on the prongs. If one caught fire Amelie was there with Grandma to blow it out. Michel and Grandma provided the graham crackers and Hershey bars. And paper napkins. It was like fishing, once the kids marshmallow bait was set then Roxanne, Michel, Amalie, Vincent and Sid made up their own. Only I abstained — I don’t like marshmallow — though a graham cracker and a cold Hershey with a cup of coffee and a shot of Bailey’s appeals to me. They let the fire die down as interest waned from the teen girls basically trying to coach their three year old cousin how not to set the marshmallow on fire and Neko essentially rejecting the cracker-chocolate-melted marshmallow sandwich in favor of raw marshmallows and bites of chocolate and torching marshmallows for fun. Until her mother said, Koko that’s enough.
Michel directed her kids to get packed. Through the evening the Kysylyczyns positioned their family baggage adjacent to the front door. Vincent disappeared. From the back deck I found him down in the hot tub by himself. Quickly I went to my room and put on my swimsuit and grabbed a towel. In passing I told Roxanne where I was going.
Vincent was sobbing. Even as I approached he could not stop crying to save face.
You broke rule number one, I said as I slid among the burbling jets.
Why does she hate me? he begged. It’s been this way long as I remember, she’s hated me.
She doesn’t hate you.
Yes she does, and you allow it. You take her side. You reward her for it.
That’s not true.
Tonight — twice — I complimented her fried rice. She just ignored me.
Dad, I just don’t know what she expects of me. Tell me, am I really that bad? How have I failed her? What expectations — what right, what self-righteous right does she have to impose her expectations on me? I know I’m not as successful as Sid but I do all right.
that’s none of her business anyway, I said. She does say you drop the F bomb indiscriminantly around the kids, including your own.
Well fuck that shit, he answered with the kind of sarcastic contempt that his sister objected to and didn’t think was all that funny. Like her kids live in a bubble world where nobody hears trash talk. Like marijuana — she tolerates it from Sid’s old pals from high school. Don’t they all get together with their wives and kids in the fall down in Palm Springs and there’s old Jeff and those guys, tokin’ away…
Discreetly I’m sure.
Vaping probably. If Michel wants to disown me on the character of my privacy she’s violating the privacy of my character. She doesn’t know me and doesn’t seem to really care who I am. Doesn’t respect me. I’ve made the effort time and again. I text her and she ghosts me. I try to be friends and she acts like she’s ashamed to know me. Doesn’t show any interest in my life, what I might be going through. Her life’s such an ideal. I’m her family afterthought. It doesn’t make sense according to Christian traditions. It’s not like we aren’t aligned politically.
In some ways, I mused, it’s worse than having a Trump believer in the family.
I don’t know what to do. I may have to believe we’ll never be close. I know, Dad, you’ve always said someday she and I would find ourselves eye to eye face to face more alike and akin and recognize we are the only two of a kind, well that day is highly impossible. She hurts me too much to reconcile and I can’t see her retracting her hate. Just please don’t facilitate her case and be her enabler. You and Mom shouldn’t suck up to her so much to prove how much you love her. You’re always doing things for her and her kids, I admit before Neko I wondered if you would ever pay half the attention to a kid of mine. Travel all the way to Europe a few times a year just to hang out. Pick them up and drive them around after school, gymnastics. For a while didn’t you used to cook them dinner? Yeah. I can’t see how she — or at least Sid — doesn’t see how much you do to prove you love her more than me. I know, I know. She’s older, your first kid. (That’s why I identify so much with Tess. Second children.) Some of her favoritism is understandable and maybe some of it earned but it’s never fair. If she’s an overachiever that’s her prerogative and I applaud her status even if I tend to criticize her as a social climber, it’s meant to be good fun. I think she’s a controlling parent but hasn’t steered the kids wrong, not yet, though you know what I think about church. You and Mom seem to overcompensate with her and her church.
Amen, I said. There’s been an appreciated pause in attending services through the pandemic. Appreciated by me at least. It’s set Tess back at least a year in confirmation training.
Too bad, said Vincent. Maybe she’ll figure out she’s being groomed by a deep state theocracy. Just sayin’s all. Sounds like they’ve already got Clara. I can see you making a face defending Michel for whatever and why freedom of religion but you and Mom condone it way too much.
It means a lot to her.
There you go. It’s okay, I know a lot of it is the kids’ performances, reading texts, ringing bells and singing and getting baptized and so forth. It just underscores how much extent you go to prove you love her and she takes advantage of it to try to undermine your love for me, which is plainly unfair. You seem to see it her way and I get leftover love.
That’s not true. Mom and I always rely on you for companionship and a place in your life, all along and especially now with Neko. We can’t help the Kysylyczyns took off for Switzerland for four years, but you looked after Mom and me day to day. And think of all the vacations we took up towards the boundary waters while the Kysylyczyns were gone, memories exclusively with you. The good parent favors neither child, you know that. Or you will know when you have another child. We love you both. I am determined that this will heal, though I don’t know just how. Mom has a lot of influence here and maybe she’ll talk her through it all rationally. Sorry but I got recused from the case with a clear conflict of interest, but I think in time, with Mom’s help I can convince your sister what a good soul you are.
We left the hot tub refreshed towelling off in the mountain air. We shut down the apparatus and covered it assuming no one else would use it that night — and if they did, well, they (plural) would know what to do. We adjourned our conversation before ascending the stairs to the deck and the kitchen and agreed to meet up again at the far end of the boulders along the drive later that night to continue our dialogue.
In the house in our bedroom where I went to change out of my bathing suit I found Roxanne crying on the bed. While I was in the tub with Vincent she and Michel had it out on the front porch over whether we loved him more and held her to a higher standard. Roxanne described the argument through tears. Michel accused her mom of laying the groundwork for her brother’s delinquency by waiving away his slacker behavior and later defending it as just a lifestyle choice. Roxanne said she denied using a defense of a lifestyle choice but Michel insisted that’s what her mother said that morning in the kitchen. It sounded as if Michel twisted what Roxanne actually said to justify a broader accusation that in our minds and hearts we let Vincent get away with anything he wants while she has to qualify for our approval. We never recognize her good worth while her brother gets approval for living less than his potential. She said we allowed him priviliged attention by paying less attention to his shady dodgy attitudes than by taking her accomplishments for granted. Roxanne was especially hurt when Michel accused her of virtually dropping everything to help Vincent and cover for him as if she never received equal or more attention. It came down to us loving Vincent more and Roxanne interpreted Michel’s final stance as for us to choose between them, him or her, but not both.
She even got on my case for us doing routine Face Times with Vincent while we were in Mexico. Nobody said she can’t Face Time too, but I kept gathering she’s too busy. I never realized she cared. Where does she get the idea we love him more?
He says we love her more.
I don’t get it. Who gets to keep track? Why does this have to come up now? I don’t know how to fix this.
Not by tomorrow.
I don’t like what I’m hearing from you. Do you think this is funny?
No, I said laughing a little at being accused. I do believe we will resolve this. Like Tess said, our family is permanent.
When did she say that?
She wrote it in a card she made for her mother for Christmas when she was about six years old. You don’t remember?
No but I’ll take your word. What are you going to do to mend this? You don’t have a clue, do you. You just think it will all blow over and we’ll all make nice again, well you’re not taking this as seriously as you and I need to, Mister Buffalo Man. Michel’s talking about taking a break. From us. I can’t believe she would put us in exile over so many misperceptions. I feel framed for murder. At least treason. You’ve got to talk to Vincent and get him to reach out to her to stick up for us for a change.
No rush, I advised. All this reparation and reconciliation could keep until we were all home at our own habitats. Good riddance to dear Michel tomorrow, sorry to say. Let her cool off. Sid and the kids will do her good. Somehow. I’ll talk to Vincent. Tonight.
So what are you going to say?
I’ll say he’s carrying the future of our family on his big shoulders and it will be up to him to walk the high road.
What’s that mean? Funny but both Roxanne and Vincent asked the same thing, and I said it means somebody besides me has to approach Michel with humble integrity to persuade her to listen to you.
Yes. Everyone loves Roxanne. From here to Zihuataejo we all rely on you to speak simple truths. Vincent needs to humbly steer the dialogue back through you, where it broke off. When it comes back I’ll help you with that.
Vincent’s take on my answer was less than wonderful. He questioned why he should look like he was hiding behind Mom. I could see that angle, I conceded. He needed to get his image away from being mama’s boy. He thought that was funny. We left the subject agreeing it would be nice if when we got home he would be open to opportunities to be extra nice to his sister, as if to kill her with kindness.
This while calibrating the breeze and our distance from the house to smoke cigarillos and a bowl, keeping our voices deliberately low and sipping beers. Full moon practically straight up in the pines. White pie in the sky.
What ever happened to the girlfriend befallen between you and John McCutcheon?
She married a local gearhead greaser, I answered as if to phrase the answer so as not to get sued.
And what about her mother?
She died the summer of our graduating class.
I’m sorry, he said. That must have been sad.
I guess, I answered uncharacteristically indifferent. I wasn’t there, I said. I was in Southern California. The summer before I met your mom.
So you say you had an alibi? For the ex-girlfriend’s mother’s death.
I got the joke and wondered at Vincent recalling the detail about the mom. Yes, I said, they tried to frame me for her kidney failure.
On the way to bed I made sure to lock the doors and turn out the lights.
Thanks to Vincent I learned overnight how much more compensation I had to overcome among my selective memories to present myself to my grandchildren. Nobody ever asked me about my adolescence so I guess I assumed all this while they assumed they knew all about me already — as much as they cared to know — and there was no requirement for me to interrupt every program with bulletins defining my younger years or to stage series after series of lectures beginning with the phrase When I was…
I had no obligation to volunteer stories and impressions of my younger past or share memories of personal times and events gone by. I had every right to remain silent. Or to be selective of what I share. Yet I felt for the first time the night before, when Vincent queried me about some of my teen years, an obligation to answer every personal question put to me if Clara or Tess should ever think important to ask, like Vincent, or Michel, or Sid, or maybe eventually Neko.
Roxanne already has those privileges — I wouldn’t say she enjoys the privileges, but she knows my history for better or worse and always relies on true answers from me. To the world you might say my life is nobody’s business, especially now when I have no employer to embarrass if I do express deep thoughts of my own or act unpopular, free to compose what I want voluntarily to say in this space. To interview myself. The older Clara and Tess get the more room they will have for their own retrospection and the chances will increase one or both of them might read something their Granpa Kelly wrote and ask me to substantiate what I said based on my real life so they can relate it to theirs. I can offer good and bad examples. It’s the bad examples I would not want them to applaud or copy. I would not cheer for them to steal an evergreen to give a local convent a Christmas tree, for example. I don’t know why all this seemed to come to me as an overnight revelation but I woke up that Friday morning with fresh remorse for some of the choices I made between about 1965 and 1971 I hadn’t really even thought about or remembered or taken seriously in a long time and I realized I kept all that experience buried so deep in the past it didn’t count any more, as out of date as my first job on my resume, it didn’t matter — no one needed to know my past sins, I would never run for public office.
But my grandkids might ask why I got such bad grades in high school. Sure, I could lie and pretend I was straight A’s and maybe get away with it enough because they grew up already thinking I’m smart. They know I don’t have a college degree, though I am college educated, but they don’t know as far as I know that I actually technically shouldn’t have a high school diploma either.
I woke up thinking what my alibis would be by refusing to give straight answers to questions about where I was and what I was doing when I was young. Everybody is ready to blame the Boomers for letting the Dream die off and I’m of the defensive saying we tried to advance the Dream as best we could and now every generation comes of age and spotlights the failures to blame on the eldest living generation for not being perfect enough while we had the chance.
There are good reasons to keep quiet and to not brag about adolescent mischief, even if it was fun and got away with. A grandfather could get canceled.
I got up early Friday and made coffee thinking about this. In the novel Clara recommended Purple Hibiscus there’s a father so strict in his Anglican Catholic ways he abusively punishes his daughter making her stand barefoot in boiled water for visiting the forbidden home of her pagan grandfather and walking on pagan ground. That’s an aspect of the novel I would have liked to talk about over coffee in light of any taboo her mother might cast on me since this vacation. Another time, another place.
Sid I could tell was out for a run and had started the coffee just minutes before I came along. I added the djinni water. Tess was the next one to emerge, phone in hand and looking for a bagel and Nutella, then Clara with long, disheveled hair wet from a morning shower. Neko in jammies looking for a muffin and a glass of milk, which Clara obliged. Michel just as the coffeemaker matured, her hair tied severely in a bun, wearing her wide-eye glasses and working from a mental checklist, reminding her girls to strip their beds according to the check-out rules. She arrived with a bundle of her own sheets and pillowcases to make a pile in the laundry room. She acknowledged my good morning with an offhand burst of air and I approached and hugged her clenched frame around her shoulders and kissed her temple, then retreated out of her way, a gesture of only a second but something I needed to do to start my day.
Roxanne joined next, reciting a litany of foods — frozen waffle, grapes, cereal, yogurt, cottage cheese, toast, scrambled egg — to Neko in the high chair making a mess crumbling her muffin and dunking chunks in her milk. The child paid no attention.
At a moment when she poured her coffee and half and half and satisfied herself with a first sip, when Michel and the girls were busy or distracted, Roxanne said to me in a low voice that something strange just happened. She was putting on her capri pants that morning when for no reason she just fell to the floor. Her leg collapsed, she lost her balance and went down on the bedroom rug. Are you hurt? No, I don’t think so. I feel fine. It was so weird. I didn’t black out but for that one second I lost control and ended up on the floor. Should I be worried, we both asked as we hugged. As I held her I felt her back and hips for any twinges but she was rock solid as ever.
Might be just a fluke. I looked in her eyes, clear and tawny looking back into mine for a sign I saw or felt something wrong, and I did not. She said she felt no after-effects. Okay. Let’s keep this between us for now. I don’t want Michel to know, she said. She’ll either think it’s a ploy or send me to the ER.
Because why did you fall down, Grandma? Neko heard it all and got the gist.
We’re thinking it through, I answered, and Roxanne said, I don’t know why, I did not trip or slip. I’m okay. Do you want a banana? Don’t mix milk with the crumbs on your tray. Here, let me get a rag.
The idea of the ploy made some odd sense to me as much as keeping it mum made sense as an anti-ploy. I regret to admit when my mother had her first heart attack at barely 50 I suspected she faked it to get attention. My own heart filled with regret for having compared Michel to my mother the other night, mostly ashamed to now encounter personality outbursts of emotion like my mom’s furies of old. Michel had Colleen’s genes all right, just like I did and Vincent. Right now Michel didn’t need to know about Roxanne’s tumble putting her pants on or to travel home with her family thinking her mother might have had a stroke, or one of thse pre-stroke strokes, possibly caused by the anxiety of being yelled at unfairly by a daughter mad at her brother and dad.
Sid showed up jolly and jovial saying he really liked this as a running route. Just enough elevation and shade and variety of scenery to keep it interesting. And thanks to the djinni input the coffee for him was plenty. He showered while Michel and the girls began loading the car. Sid and Clara completed it when Sid was fresh. He hastily downed a toated bagel and cream cheese as the girls made their farewells to Neko, Amelie and Grandma while Michel solitarily and stoically sulked in the driveway. Sad.
When Vincent emerged from hibernation Michel was already seated at her shotgun seat. Her brother groggily made his way around his nieces for hugs and bien viajes, ending up in abrazo with his brother-in-law.
So I took Clara aside a moment to say: I’m sorry and I apologize for behaving badly. She was awkward and a little embarrassed but didn’t avoid eye contact much and acted as graceful as a beam walker, smiling forgivingly. Relieved that I broke the ice. I said I intended to read Americanah soon and reminded her we hadn’t really talked about Purple Hibiscus yet, my effort to show continuity. She recently had gotten off her braces and had a wise, mature smile and kind blue eyes — she would get along well in Appalachia. I’ll see you before you go to Mountain TOP, I said and hugged her. She’d grown into a tall, substantial kid. I love you, I said and turned her loose. You should listen to evermore Grandpa, she said as she picked up her grip. I think you’ll like it, it’s a really good album.
Tess seemed to be waiting for me by the door, standing with her backpack. We hugged profoundly. She too was growing into a solid frame. For some reason I offered her no apology, feeling as if I didn’t owe her one, as if she wasn’t offended. She said, I love you Grandpa, and I said I love you too. She smiled widely, broad with braces, her green eyes like water lilies. Have a great time at diving camp… Gymnastics, she corrected… and I’ll see you when you’re back.
Lastly I embraced Sid. I’m sorry and I apologize for behaving badly, I said. He nodded with a bemused smile half shadowed by at least a week’s growth of whiskers. I added, I don’t know how to elegantly solve what’s between Michel and Vincent. He thinks we love her more than him. She resents him for not reaching the full potential of his gifts and blames us for setting a low bar because we love him more than her. She’s always scared me, you know. He said nothing, just nodded. He had steely blue eyes like Clara, who did not have ocean blue eyes like me. I gave Sid one more abrazo for the road before he climbed into the driver’s cab. Good jouney and safe travels, I said and circled around to the passenger window where my Michel stared back in her big-eyes sunglasses like Jackie Onassis at the beach. I blew her a kiss and she wiggled her fingertips bye-bye.
Tess lowered her tinted window to wave extravagantly and cry out, Have a safe drive home, I love you, as the vehicle did a Y-turn and rolled down the driveway, me standing there waving after them like a Beverly Hillbilly. A Muswell Hillbilly at least, all conflicted into kinks.
Pathetic to say it felt a relief they were gone. Neko broke the spell like Harpo Marx swashbuckling across the front deck in her jammies and pineapple sunglasses wielding a long striped feather like a magic boa. Where di you get that, I asked and she held it away. I asked Vincent, what kind of feather could that be and he guessed it might be some kind of hawk. Did she find it in the house in some kind of semi-floral arrangement in a vase? She hadn’t really been outdoors yet, and it’s unlikely she would find it on the deck. (Unless a hawk actually swooped down to snatch her and lost a feather in the failed process — very doubtful since no startled cries or fuss, and too much action going on just about then in the driveway and Neko no chipmunk prey.) I let her keep it until she set it aside and discreetly found its probable proper place in a vase setting of dried flowers and sage.
Noo need to sneak around or wait until certain individuals went to bed to partake of flower buds and gummies.
Amelie announced the news to us from her phone source Derek Chauvin was just sentenced to 22 and a half years for the murder of George Floyd. Just sentenced, I asked, or just 22 and a half years? Both, she answered. I guess it’s safe to go home now, said Vincent. Consensus: that part was over. The killer was off the streets. Now what to do about the rest of the killers still out there.
An so we passed our true final day at Forest Mountain Home lounging and grazing and talking behind Michel’s back, so to speak. Vincent with sincere compassion introduced family mental illness into the discussion, and I have to believe he meant no malice toward his sister and sounded reflective over the passing of a day and a night towards coping with a familial trait common to him, me, Michel and Neko — Colleen Kelly’s genes. Mimi’s genes. With them the family craziness, to put it bluntly. That borderline condition on the edge of depression and sage insight. That place where you almost could be a genius but that might not be a good thing. Our anxiety propels us and lets us fly in a world mostly indifferent to our ultimate fate except bits and pixels of what can be monetized from what we Like. It’s natural someone would want acceptance for whoever they are or want to be. It’s a challenge to know who you are enough to accept yourself worthy. That chronic self-doubt cycle. One doesn’t have to be (air quotes) damaged to come undone and be broken. I don’t know why we just didn’t break down and have an old fashioned intervention. On which one of us? Good point. Roxanne’s probably the only one here from a sane family. Hold on, there’s subtle dysfunction there too in my family that’s probably genetic. Nobody’s family is perfect. Just permanent, right? What?
To get away for a while Roxanne borrowed the car and took Neko to the kiddie pool and splash pad in town, leaving me, Amelie and Vincent to worry behind her back whether she should be driving. She had confided to them her episode falling down and conveyed her confidence she didn’t feel any worse afterwards so it seemed a one-off thing, and probably related to her left leg more than brain neurology. It didn’t take much to get anybody to take Roxanne’s word. They came back in an hour or so bragging about having fun and getting good at mixing with other kids and saying, Hi my name’s Neko.
Lunchtime brough us back around the kitchen island for another smorgasbord of cheeses, coldcuts, salads, beans, greens and whatever remained in the fridge and shouldn’t be left behind. The remains of six days. Feast.
After lunch I asked if I could take the car back to the park to go shopping at the visitor center. Rox offered to drive. No offense, she said, but you’re stoned. On route I asked how she felt and she complained of soreness of her right butt where she landed, but not too bad. She was grumpy and couldn’t let go of the feud with Michel. She hardly said goodbye, Rox lamented. Might mean she’s not finished, I offered. You aren’t taking this seriously enough, she lamented. Yes I am, I said, I just know this will work out. How? Don’t know yet. But it will, the means will present itself, we just need to be alert for when it does we will use the opportunity to get better.
At the visitor store I liked two t-shirts. I found a ceramic coaster for my coffee table with the design of the state flag on it like painted on barn wood. And I bought a medium small Colorado flag on a stick. And a Rocky Mountain magnet. Roxanne could find nothing she liked enough to want. She didn’t wear t-shirts, didn’t feel comfortable with the tailoring. She asked if I was having some kind of tourist munchies with my sudden mad appetite for souvenirs. I get souvenirs everywhere, I said, which she knew to be true because our house teems with them. Colorado deserved honors in the galleries of mementoes. There was no shortage of merchandise on the shelves, upstairs and down, the store hyperstocked for the next 90 days of summer and the pent up tourist surge to come.
The 4th of July was almost ten days away. Lots of summer. No rationing, no need to hoard, there’s enough to go around. America was back in the world. I would remember Colorado 2021 for jump-starting something. Significant. My Summer of 69. In this rectangular state of the Union that keeps promising to make itself into a more perfect one I bought some stuff on my credit card at the visitor center store. The clerk lady thanked me appreciatively and charged me ten cents for the brown paper shopping bag. Roxanne bought nothing. Nothing to landmark this family vacation except that old-timey Victorian style family portrait which nobody seemed to like except me, and an XXL hoodie sweatshirt for Vincent for Fathers Day. Official summer was less than five days old. If Colorado would mean anything as a landmark of existential revelation or not really, I had a flag, a coaster, a magnet and two t-shirts to rah rah. Colorado gets its Andy Warhol fifteen minutes worth of silkscreens. The rest of my life I get to brag I went there on vacation and whether it matters as a pivotal key moment of my life would remain to be seen, but the chances it would matter significantly were minimal compared to most of my favorite memories. What ever this vacation jump started had strangely nothing much to do with being Colorado.
This final final night at Estes Park was left open as maybe a pizza night, but nobody really wanted to go to a restaurant or even drive to town for take-out. We still had a pack of tilapia we could heat up. Some sliced turkey and beef. Bacon, lettuce but no tomatoes — nobody but Roxanne and me liked tomatoes. Cheese. Even the last of the chopped rotisserie chicken. White bread and wheat bread. Salami! For the second time that day we scavenged the entire refrigerator with imminent gratification in mind and an eye for what Roxanne and I might pack for home in the cooler and what might go to the dumpster. Dry goods and canned goods of course didn’t matter. Tilapia on the grill took no time at all. A hotdog for the kid barely needed no heat at all but I scorched it just for effect.
We ate around sunset on the picnic table on the back porch.
Afterwards I scraped and scrubbed the grill, as per good manners. Made sure all the gas taps were righty tighty. Covered it with the shroud.
Into the evening we putzed around packing, tidying the house and persuading Neko to give up her puptent. Drained the gin and tonic water. Separated waste from food we would place in the cooler and made more ice in the freezer for the morning. Donated half a jar of mayonnaise, a quarter jar of pickles and half used squeeze containers of ketchup and mustard to the house and anyone who came after. There wasn’t much left to pack or dispose. Scraps of rotisserie chicken rated comic disdain as the least predictable waste item and the most durable in the fridge.
Amelie was concerned about our recycling. All week we took the trouble to separate recyclables from organic and non-recyclable waste. We figured out along the way the dumpster back by the garage was the one-stop depository for the waste hauler to take away, indiscriminately hauling all of it as waste. Seemed disappointing Colorado wouldn’t have a distinct recycling system, being such a nature state and all. Was it a presentational ruse, all this nature nature, Amelie pondered. So now her personal solution to the dilemma was unsolved. She had researched online the location of a nearby recycling drop-off center (like what they call the Oki Hof, where I went with Sid in Switzerland) but neglected to note the hours of operation. They were closed now and wouldn’t reopen in the morning in time for us to run the stuff there and make it to the Denver airport in time for Amelie, Vincent and Neko’s flight home. Like it or not, we were compelled to toss the recyclables in with the trash. Like some kind of priest at a burial I sort of blessed the corpses of bagged cans, bottles, cardboard and paper with hope somebody along the chain of custody would recognize what we did and sort it out and send it to the Oki Hof. We were going to have to live with our conscienses. I secured the heavy bar across the dumpster lid and coughed from the garbage odor. The bin had not been collected since before we arrived and raising the lid that much let out a powerful stench barely leaking when shut but strong enough to attract a brown bear. It was after sundown. A witching hour. I made clanging noises. I lit a cigarillo. Isn’t the true term the bewitching hour?
It was easy for me to pack because I never unpacked, just kept rotating clothes by attrition.
In the house Amelie had been admittedly doomscrolling and came across news that an estimated 600 bodies were found on the premises of a former residential school for Indigenous kids in western Canada. Schools were set up like these in several North American territories since exploration and colonization in the mid-1800s where kids were taken from their parents and villages to baptize them and de-Indianize them. The residential school method was also practiced in the United States through various missions and social services. In Canada they were mainly run by the Roman Catholic Church. Some schools were allowed to operate until as recently as 1970. Amelie’s sorrow was of course compounded by her professional field of providing facilities and services to prevent child abuse and neglect. She was enraged by the stories emerging about Indigenous residential schools and now there were bodies. Hundreds of bodies.
Another good reason to cancel the Catholic Church, I thought. Michel once asked me, Dad, if it weren’t for the priest sex abuse scandal would you still be Catholic? No, I answered. I have many reasons. It’s sad to see a lifetime of conclusions and convictions proven true when it comes to the worst suspicions about people institutions. Appalled, but not shocked.
If you think I’m woke then it must be a lifetime of caffeine. The ones who just woke up have some catching up to do, and the ones who oppose to be woke won’t be able to snooze through the atonement due and overdue for fundamental repeat violations of common decency. Denying a history of very self-evident white privilege and supremacy over BIPOC people only pressures more atonement. (Black, Indigenous, People Of Color — a new easy acronym, though when I first saw the term in a headline I thought the article might be about bi-polar people.) Stealing land from Indigenous people and campaigning to eradicate them and their culture from North America is historical fact which should be known by every educated man, woman and child, regardless whether it makes them feel uncomfortable or guilty. There are therapies for that, and I don’t mean acquiring firearms and joining a shooting range. Everyone also should know by heart that African imported slavery underpinned the mercantile and agricultural economy of American colonies and eventually the United States, where a war was fought and over 620,000 died to decide slavery illegal, and so ever since white people systematically placed loopholes, roadblocks, catches-22, criminality and violent repression to convince Black people to give up and go to hell. What’s wrong with admitting all that?
I feel better knowing my kids and their kids don’t have to un-learn or re-learn most of the propaganda of ignorance. Amelie comes from parents who nurtured her with liberal humanitarian values. Sid too. Roxanne and I are lucky our kids found spouses whose families support things we have imparted as virtues. It would be nice to invoke those virtues to help solve our personality problems.
Sociopolitical problems belonged in the realm of being beyond serenity. Content we swept the floors and placed our sacks and bags at the front door landing for morning loading to the car, Vincent, Amelie and I craved one last soak in the hot tub. Roxanne did not. She preferred to stay on the back porch to take the cool pine scented air. And watch Neko, who didn’t care to swim in the tub but played in the water at the steps.
Later we draped our towels along the deck rails hoping they and our bathing suits would dry enough overnight to pack in a suitcase in the morning. Soon the moon rose over the house, almost full. The back deck supported our hospitality this last night. We broke out our last beers — Roxanne and I shared one. Neko went down easy, landing soft from her weeklong flight of extended family aeronautics. Roxanne attended her iPad to double-check our route home and said the drive to Mitchell might be a stretch depending on how long we were at Devil’s Tower. Vincent added, I’d be tempted to stay there all day.
In light that we needed to leave and lock up by 8:00 to get to the aiport on time we kept decent hours. First Roxanne retreated, reminding us to plug our devices for charging overnight. Her phone was fully charged so she could take it to her bedstead and set the alarm for 6:30. Then Amelie retired because she was sleepy and uninterested in any more heavy conversation. Vincent and I did not linger long.
Father and son. I said I wanted him to know I loved him and was proud of who he was. He said I was a great dad and he loved me too. I remembered we hadn’t given him his present, his hoodie sweatshirt. Always tomorrow.
He said he was sorry about the thing with Michel but it was part my fault. I said I was sorry too but they both seemed to have the same issues and couldn’t accept they both had our full, unconditional love. I didn’t tell him his mother told me his sister seemed to put up an ultimatum to choose between them. What would I say, I choose him? Roxanne chooses Michel? Nope. I said again Michel would come around of her own accord. I said facetiously Michel can’t go a month without Mom.
What I want to get back to, I said, is what I said the other night about the weight you’re carrying. I’m sorry if it seems like body shaming. I am not. I am concerned about your heart, and I mean it. From my heart.
Say no more, he answered kindly. I’m contemplating changes. Neko keeps me busy but doesn’t leverage into adequate exercise, and I can’t wait until she’s big enough to cut by me to the hoop. And I shouldn’t drink so much. That’s in the Sturgis gene, right, what did in your dad and Aunt Molly and plagues your youngest sister Nelly, and why most of the rest are in AA, right? It’s a bitchen combination the Dick and Colleen genes, alcoholism and depression. When I contemplate what traits could present themselves with Neko I’m mindboggled.
Before you or your sister were born we tried very hard not to get pregnant. Even your mom was uncertain about whether to create a new life, much less two. When Michel was in high school she asked us, what if you have children and no matter how much you try to raise them right they go wrong? Fortunately that hasn’t been our experience. Short and simple, neither of you were accidents. After about five years together your mom and I decided to have a baby to give ourselves somebody to love. And again a few years later. If we then contributed to the future human race we were responsible for the quality of the learned behavior of you two offspring in our care, but the genes thing can be over-rated. Think of this: from Mom and me you got an array of good genes. Intelligence from both sides. Beauty. But you can’t rely on what you speculate about your genes, even after joining Ancestrydot com and 23 & Me. No. You are who you are in your own goulash of DNA and it wouldn’t really matter if you’re related to Einstein or Kurt Cobain. I’m pleased you’re related to me, if that helps. I do see some of my best traits in you. So for what it’s worth, Buffalo Ha, it turns out Michel decided to have children after all, and you can believe they will never let her down. So trust yourself with Neko. You’re fine. She’s fine. And if it ever gets hairy you can rely on Mom and me, we’re your Crisis Nursery.
When I got to bed Roxanne was still awake and she asked what our son and I talked about behind her back. Speaking of which, how’s your bum, I asked not risking to touch it. I told her what I said about worrying about his girth and his heart and what he said about his drinking. She said her butt was okay and as she got up to go to the batroom she asked if I mentioned smoking reefer. When she got back to bed I said, what kind of performative hypocrite do you think I am?
I awoke in the morning at first light through the curtains and got up fresh and rested. Made coffee. Skipped the djinni water. In a short while I heard the throbs of Roxanne’s phone alarm. Shortly she and Amelie joined me for some brew. The half and half people had to take it with 1% milk. Amelie let Vincent sleep in another fifteen minutes. Neko was out to the world. We started loading the car before Vincent declared himself functional, and about then the baby got up and needed greeting and tending and dressing for the airport. All what remained to load into the car was my and Roxanne’s travel bag and what Amelie and Vincent intended to take on the airplane. Roxanne’s and my suitcase and stuff were packed with the food and items belonging to Amelie and Vincent that didn’t need to fly home. Along with that Vincent asked me to transport the stash, what were remaining buds and a small cannister of fruity gummies, which he didn’t care to transport through international airports.
Referring to the fruity gummies he said, When you get within about ten minutes of Devil’s Tower chew a couple of these.
After a couple of final run-throughs we locked up behind us and put the key in the lock box. Amelie behind the wheel, Vincent snoozing at shotgun and I, Roxanne and Neko across the back we headed back down the mountains for the plain and Denver’s airport. We joined the maze of tangled construction projects at the edge of the city and Amelie untangled us to the airport freeway for the tedious approach to the cone roofed terminal. She pulled up to the drop-off curb for their airline and everyone got out, unloaded their grips and embraced farewell. They thanked us for our generosity and we emphasized they were welcome. In minutes Roxanne was behind the wheel with the keys and I was settled in at shotgun with our go bag in Neko’s car seat and we were on our way out of the airport freeway and on our way to Wyoming.
It seemed fiendishly liberating without the kids, just the two of us again — we both confessed the same emotion. With a full tank since Estes Park she found cruise control and headed north on US85 towards Cheyenne and making a beeline for the border. We could have stuck with the Interstate freeways to go faster and debatably safer and unobstructed by staying on I25 from Fort Collins through Cheyenne and take it northwest through Casper up to the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, and then go east on I90 through Gillette to US14 exit to Sundance, a few miles from the South Dakota state line. That approach seemed needlessly long, however efficient as Interstates go. To elected to stay on US85 all the way north up an eastern ribbon of Wyoming bordering the western edge of the Black Hills.
The chapparal was parched but showed greenish signs it might have rained the past few days. The red sand had a porous sheen like wet gravel. Skies partly cloudy, partly blue. Cloud shadows cut sweeping contasts on the edges of the buttes where sturdy firs and pines guarded the cliffs and rugged reefs of boulders climbing the canyon walls. A lonely highway. Forgettable miles and miles without a homestead. Here and there a mobile home on a gravel driveway. Road signs for towns unseen. Here and there we would catch up to a truck pulling a trailer with a fishing boat. There was a turn off to a silvery lake or reservoir behind a hill. Flat valleys occasionally showed distant cattle. In its lonesomeness Wyoming seemed kind of pretty but not dainty. Nothing dainty about Wyoming.
Mystique yes. Hard to accept the concept of a whole state that size with a scattered total population smaller than just the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul. It seemed so spooky to observe so much wild, open uninhabited space and imagine there were even fewer people than it looked, and it looked like nobody lived there. Stretches without utility poles and power lines. No railroad tracks. Good highway suface though. The state could not muster enough population to qualify for more than one seat in the House of Representatives, whereas Minnesota has eight. That sole congressperson was named Liz Cheney, conservative Republican with clout and not incidentally daughter of George W Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, a powerful politician at the turn of this century when jihad wars came of age.
Liz Cheney faced fierce demonization by members of her own party for disloyalty to Donald Trump, voting to impreach him and consenting to serve on the House Select Committee to investigate the events of January 6 of that year when a riot stormed Congress to stop the certification of the state electors certifying Joe Biden president-elect of the United States of America. If would appear the Republican party would prefer to cover up the insurgency than let the truth be exposed that Trump revved up the crowd and set them loose sicced upon the Capitol to try to steal the presidency by fraud and insurrection including lynching Vice President Mike Pence. Congresswoman Cheney simply wanted to know the facts and to make the facts known, but her party wants to disown her for exposing the the brazen corruption of its de facto leader, a man who would be Fuhrer, exposing the whole party as a fascist facade to regain power at all costs behind Trump.
On TV dramas and journalism video Afghanistan is portrayed as desolate and remote with scary mountains and caves. Here in Wyoming the desolation has got to be way different if just as desolate. The only similarity between the two places other than unpopulation and undevelopment is a predetermined political outcome to favor an orthodox conservative point of view. There’s the Taliban and there’s the Trump Republican Party.
Liz Cheney was known as an arch-conservative foe of the creeping socialist left wing Democrats. Now she was known as a traitor to her party for sticking to bedrock fundamentalist conservative values of law and republican democracy. 2022 would be an election year. What would her voters do? Wyoming seemed like a calm and reasonable place, if lonely. As a state it practiced women’s suffrage first in the nation. There was no reading the face of Wyoming and compare its reputation for coal and the brutal murder of a gay college kid named Matthew Shepard in the late 1990s in Laramie. It has a city named Casper. Casper?
Somewhere midway to our destination there was a billboard: WELCOME TO WYOMING. DON’T DO ANYTHING STUPID.
It might be hard to describe what and where Wyoming is to a foreigner to the United States. It’s not really near anything, although Yellowstone National Park is wedged against its far northwest corner, next to Idaho, another place hard to describe. It’s out there in the wild wild west where almost nobody lives. There’s no Disneyworld. No Statue of Liberty. No Hollywood. There’s a town with the intriguing name Jackson Hole. A mountain range called Grand Tetons. A city name of Casper.
Who am I to talk, you rightly ask. I thought about the gas station back at Sterling, Colorado. I come strutting in to pay cash in my Keen sandals and cargo shorts, with my Joe Biden haircut, wide-brim Tilley hat and prescription shades in my Stafford pocket-t from JCPenney like I feel all sorry for the cashier stuck living in such a dusty, greasy nowhere town that can’t even support a Village Inn restaurant. No wonder I sense petulance from her behind the bulletproof glass that pre-dates covid, so old it’s almost green, as she counts back my change through the slot convinced I didn’t want to be there, couldn’t wait to leave and I’m never coming back. The difference between my white privilege and hers is a thousand mile diameter of sagebrush, chapparal, gravel and pity. At home I have blue earth, water and luck.
All through the strip of Wyoming from south to north nothing changed enough in the landscape to mark progressions or distance, as if we were riding a loop stuck in time. I could see why state politics could be conservative in an outdoor region almost perfect the way it was for what it was, no good reason to change. It might reflect upon the state culture, which is 94% white by population and numbers fewer resident citizens than almost half the casualties of the Civil War. They get two senators like every other state, but one member of the House, the bare minimum. Three electoral votes for president. No major league sports teams unless you count rodeo. First in the nation to let women vote. No water port, virtually landlocked against a continental divide. Home to one 2.2 million acre Indian Reservation called Wind River which operates the state’s only two casinos and houses about 12,000 Native American residents, mostly enrolled in Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes. Boasts to be the true Cowboy State and features a city named Cody dedicated to the memory of a dubious namesake of mine, Buffalo Bill, the greatest cowboy showman of his era and meat provider to the gangs of gandy dancers who built the transcontinental railroads. Those railroads haul coal from the mines around Gillette in trains miles and miles long of just coal cars and black tanker cars of tar juice petroleum, much more of what God’s grace has shed on thee taken for granted in the state of Wyoming, where every border state around it is a buffer zone and the nation at large thinks of it as afterthought sunk in obscurity. It seems so eerily self-sustaining and ambiguously self-righteous. Few billboards, as if they were illegal. Or STUPID.
The evergreens grew thicker on one side of US85 than the other and the terrain sort of tilted that way, to the east. To the west the pastureland rolled like buns with cattle herding far away up the slopes.
So how’s your rump? I happened to think and asked Roxanne. Didn’t bother me all morning but it might be getting stiff after this time in the car. Cruise control really helps. Can’t figure. All at once I was down. Are we close? Yes, in maybe fifteen miles past this coming turnoff to Newcastle we leave 85 at a place they dared call Four Corners, where we take a left on 585 for maybe another thirty to Sundance. How’s gas? Fine. We have another ninety miles, it says. Getting good mileage. Why didn’t we get a car like this?
As the terrain flattened the grasslands spread between the evergreens more evenly on a plateau of footlands to the Black Hills. The route to Sundance was scrupulously marked along with signs pointing the same way to Devils Tower. I almost suggested we keep going and get a gaze at it today, but sunset was coming soon and we both were hungry. It would be there in the morning.
We stpped for gas on the main straightaway into Sundance both because we needed it and it was cheap. Cheap as peep. Cheapest the whole ride. Must be an itty-bitty state gas tax, we figured.
We took the main drag downtown. At the central park the Sundance Bank had banners celebrating its anniversary and proclaiming a free ribs barbecue, and there looked to be musicians ready to play at the gazebo bandstand. The queue of people with plates lined up to the ribs tent extended in a bee line to the edge of the park and curled towards the playground. We found the Bear Lodge motel just bearly at the last second, its sign reflected off the glass across the street easier to read than on the mansard roof of its building. It had a drive-in awning entrance to the L-shaped motel with car parking inside the elbow and facing the backside of the motel next door. A teenage girl cheerily worked the counter with perfectly defined pigtails with a symmetrical part perpendicular to her bangs. She wore a Bulldogs hoodie vest. She showed us the wi fi password was Bulldog too. Breakfast would be served there in the check-in lobby from 7 to 9. The key to out room was a real key on a plastic tag with our room number on one side and a mail-back pledge on the other, in case we accidentally left town with it we could drop it in any mailbox.
Is there a nice supper club where we could get dinner? Yes, one block over at the Longhorn, she replied. But the bank is sponsoring a free ribs barbecue at the park and you and everybody’s welcome. We placed our go bag, suitcase and road atlas in our tidy little room and walked the direction Bulldog Girl pointed, finding the Longhorn Saloon and Grill on the next street, which bordered the park where the line for ribs moved rapidly but never seemed to shorten.
Inside the Longhorn it was busy but we got a table right away between the bar and the copious dining room. A sturdy rough-hewn place with bare timbers for wall studs and a lofty raftered ceiling, antique glass lampshades, oak tables and brass chandeliers, this was obviously the formidable establishment of the town. Reminded me of a resort supper club Up North without the lake. We ordered two Black Tooth brown ales brewed in Sheridan (approximately two hundred miles away). Not Guinness, it was a smooth, tasty stout. We each chose the same entree, the 10 oz top angus sirloin (Is this cattle country? Most definitely) with salad and baked potato. We even ordered the same salad dressing — ranch.
In the main didning room was a long central table seating at least a dozen people of what I noticed on our way in to probably be an extended family or families with a few young adults and a couple adolescent kids. My back faced them so I couldn’t watch them or observe who they might be. One man in his early fifties seemed to dominate their conversation. I tried not to follow his words because there was something unsavory about his sarcasm. Something charlataneque about his point of view and something pointing towards the Big Lie with his sociopolitical assertions, so I tried to tune him out.
A few cuts into my steak I could not help overhear him say something about “hellholes like Minneapolis and New York” and I fought the urge to turn around and give the guy a glare. I resisted, thinking he was looking right at me for a reaction, as if he knew who I was, and to deny him any satisfaction with a confrontation I ignored him and hoped somebody at his own table might talk him down. Roxanne said later she thought it might be an anniversary party. They broke up and left before we finished our meal, giving my nerves the night off and serenity for dinner, although I tried to get a look at the guy on their way out after I heard him say, “I married her because she was good in bed.”
I suppose he’s mayor, I said to Roxanne. Some people’s children… His wife didn’t contradict him, Roxanne replied. She laughed when he said it, seemed to think he was funny. Another reason he married her, I said. He thinks she thinks he’s funny.
It was dark in the sky when we went back to the motel. The street lamps of downtown lit all the pavement like shadows were illegal. The park hosted picnic tables of people with paper plates and a band with a steel guitar rocked country less loud than one expected on a Saturday night. We went around a couple of blocks, half the downtown, before surrendering to the motel. Nothing on TV but a repeat rerun of Blue Bloods. Vincent texted they made it home though the plane was stranded about an hour on the Denver tarmac, but Neko was an angel. Michel did not text, not where they were or how the day went. This troubled Roxanne but didn’t surprise me.
Fortified with scrambledegg patties and Jimmy Dean sausage, toast, orange juice and coffee, we checked out midmorning for the road to Devils Tower. Half the motel was gone from the parking lot when we left, which nudged me with a strange anxiety we would be late to arrive, they would run out of space. We coursed the two lane road to the monument behind one RV and one camper pulled by a truck, which we caught up to behind a couple of passenger cars. Roxanne again drove.
The first few glimpses of the monument in the distance are brazen teasers obscured by forested hills in turn obscured by rolling plains distorting perspective that this landscape should not be able to hide such a unique thing. The closer you get the more obscure it becomes. There it is, and there it isn’t. At the park entrance you can’t see it at all, it’s just about too close.
We got in line facing the ranger booth behind at least a dozen vehicles waiting for attrition, for one car to come out of the forest to exit so one car could enter the park. There was a stoplight at the intersection of the park entrance connecting two competing trading posts, but what the semaphore said didn’t matter, you could either go into the park or you couldn’t. The line slugged along, surprising how many early birds already leaving.
Devils Tower National Monument is administered by the National Park Service and treated as if a national park. It was the first national monument designated in the US. Our Golden Eagle senior park pass got us admitted free again, and when we arrived at the ranger and he looked at our credentials he handed them back with a big smile and a map, waved us through saying, Come on in folks and enjoy your day, even though no car approached coming the other way.
From the ranger booth it’s still a few miles into a forest uphill to the base of the tower. Along the edge of the woods a plain stretches flat for a few hundred yards with no trees, just some holes where a colony of prairie dogs live. You can pull off the road and watch them. The road bends away from the plain and plunges up into the tree line. From the parking lots the Tower is still hidden in the canopy of pines until, from a short hike uphill it reveals itself whole and alone, about a thousand feet of fluted rock straight up into the sky.
It can take about an hour to hike around the Tower. The foot paths are groomed and maintained to minimize stumbles amid the rocky and rooted terrain. On the day of our visit the northern half of the trail was closed for maintenance and the southern half recently restored and reopened. The scent of the dry pine needles on the ground emerged in earthy aroma of alpine breeze as we hiked the south and westerly perimeter.
This was our third visit together, my fourth. Our last visit, Roxanne’s second, included Vincent, a wayward road trip the long way to my sister Leenie’s wedding to her second husband about nineteen years ago in Colorado at the Renaissance festival at Larkspur, near where they lived in Colorado Springs. Her first was with me on a sprawling trek across Wyoming to the hot springs of Thermopolis and eventually Yellowstone and the Tetons. That next time with Vincent Rox and I walked the full perimeter while our son scaled one of the verges as high as he could climb by hand. He said that was his third trip. My first trip was a road spree camping trip with my friend Jim, my first visit to the West except California and the desert states south of Oklahoma. With Roxanne I wanted to share the awe again and again like the rites of renewing vows. This visit renewed the awe and we found ourselves holding hands at certain viewing points and kissing.
The trail moves up and down and is no set path but a swath of walking room from the forest to the rocky base of the Tower, room to meander and gaze. It’s populous but doesn’t force visitors to form lines to navigate. Downhill from the trail we observed fallen trees placed strategically terraced parallel to the walking path to deter downhill daredevil mountain bikers from attempting a harrowing ride descending the slope through the woods, the landscaping scattered as if to look naturally non-threatening.
A couple of park rangers had a tent set up at the end of the trail with some card tables and chairs and bottled water, the place to turn around due to maintenance around the rest of the way. It left the view of that side like the dark side of the moon, at least for the time being, while the Park Service sculpted the terrace. This closed the true view from the back side of the Tower of the tumbling plain where the spaceship docked in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The day was kind of hot, more so than Colorado, and we hung out in the pine shade and refreshed with water. We listened in with maybe a half dozen other visitors as the two rangers engaged in a conversation with a bearded gray guy who said he was a metallurgy engineer, debating how the tower formed itself. The two main scientific theories agree it formed from molten magma rock of a volcanic nature. How it came to be exposed above ground and so different from the surrounding geology is not settled. The prevailing theory says it formed as the neck of a volcano gone extinct. The other more convoluted theory says it formed from a mass of igneous rock pushing up as a bulge in a bulge into sedimentary rock as the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains formed, only this an isolated mass within a flood plain. Both theories hold that the land around the hardened mass of igneous rock eroded away over 40 million years leaving the curious mountain structure stranded in a relatively flat terrain with nothing like it nearby. To me both theories sound alike and I left the rangers and the engineer to haggle out the geological details.
However it came to be and to reveal itself, as you walk the grounds there is an undeniable aura in gray that draws spirituality from the earth and trees and projects upward and outward an abundance of holy vibes. No wonder it is a Native American indigenous base of sacred feelings. A portion of the forest is dedicated to the placement of tribal icons in the trees made of ribbons, twine, beads and feathers, such as dreamcatchers. Native legend describes the origin of the Tower as a refuge from a giant bear who stalks two kids (one story says they were tribal princesses, another were young male braves) who escape the bear by ascending a magical butte rising alone on the flatland. The bear pursued them by attempting to climb the butte but on all sides failed to reach the kids, and the scratch marks of its claws remain the striations of the Tower walls. The bear is a central figure shared in the imagery of the monument among the people of the Arapahoe, Kiowa, Crow, Cheyenne and Lakota, who called it variously Bear Lodge.
The off-putting moniker Devils Tower was of course bestowed by a white guy, a government employee on a US Army expedition in 1875, who was misinformed by his interpreter that the Native name for it meant Bad God Tower, so indelibly on American territorial maps the site reads Devils Tower. Which is too bad. There’s nothing inherently satanic about the place or any of its legends and environs. One has to associate volcanic activity with hell or Native spiritualism in general to sinful pagan beliefs to twist together a tie to Lucifer, even if the bear is the bad guy in the stories — one which pitches the frustrated bear into the sky to become Ursa Major, aka Big Dipper — is there a Devils Constellation? Hell no. You don’t hear about NASA peering into the universe for a galaxy called Hades. There’s a big cultural aversion to anything suggesting Satan. For good reason, the devil should take the hindmost as the universally known maker of Bad Shit.
If Devils Tower wasn’t named for the Devil the place would attract triple the visitors every year and would be a National Park instead of a National Monument. People squirm when it comes to associating with anything to do with the Devil. They’re taught to cheer on images of St George and St Michael slaying the fetid beastly soul of ghoul. Yes, there may be some people attracted to the site because its name is Devils Tower, but that proves the point, they are people of suspect beliefs who most people who might like to go there would rather not associate with. It’s a subconscious thing, programmed into our fundamental notions most of us don’t think about but affect our preferences. Chocolate cake is delicious but call it devil’s food and maybe we’ll pass on dessert because it might not be healthy. Or another example, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team drew hardly any fans and their ball team sucked until they dumped the Devil and changed their name to just the Tampa Bay Rays and wham the team got good and draws a big crowd. And of course in college basketball everybody who doesn’t hate Duke University cringes when they hear them called the Blue Devils. No Christian wants to own an appliance callled a Dirt Devil.
Defiantly Devils Tower stands 40 million years old, or since the flood of Noah’s time according to Genesis bible believers, a true miracle of nature alone in the loneliest state of the union near its loneliest border, shunned as an afterthought off an isolated stretch of highway, beloved by those who bother to go out of the way to get there and gaze in the awe of the transfigured.
Roxanne and I took a last gaze. Climbers dangled ropes like window washers a hundred stories high. People speculate what it’s like up there on the flat top. There’s supposed to be grass and rainwater and wildlife, especially birds, but no bears. We stopped at the ranger station at the visitor center to get a junior ranger guidebook and badge for Tess if she cared to graduate via remote class, and got a magnet for the fridge. A few steps down towards the parking it was gone, obscured by the pine canopy.
Why is it, we discussed on the backroad 24 to Spearfish, that certain places we visit almost for the purpose of knowing we may never go there again? But sometimes we return and think we may never go again, and go again anyway like Paris and Barcelona. Grand Canyon. Devils Tower. Minnehaha Falls? Nah. There will always be Minnehaha Falls. It’s our fallback. What about Niagara Falls? I’d go there again. If I was in Canada.
Roxanne still behind the wheel we motored east on the flat horizon to the South Dakota border. Before checking out of the motel I took the liberty of chewing four THC gummies. We were both hungry and as soon as I could get bars from a cell tower on my phone she wanted me to find a restaurant in Spearfish for lunch. No immediate change in the plain terrain, the highway surface changed exactly at the state line. No worse, no better, the asphalt changed color from reddish to slate gray. Then the trees came back. We crossed a creek winding back and forth, same creek, new bends and gullies. We entered the edge of the Black Hills National Forest under the town of Belle Fourche, pronounced Belle Foosh according to my sister Molly who lived near Deadwood several years. From Belle Fourche to Spearfish was only five miles.
On Main Street we chose Spearfish Brewing. Good pub food. The place was only reopened to indoor dining a week and the tables sparse and spread apart. Not a lot of patrons or staff but the atmosphere cheerful. No masks.
After lunch we elected instead of getting on the Interstate at Spearfish we should loop the alternate route 14 down Spearfish Canyon to Lead (pronounced Lede) where my sister lived, go through Deadwood and catch I90 at Sturgis, just to say we went to Sturgis.
Spearfish Canyon highway is well worth the trip, going up or down. The route skirts the flow of the tumbling Spearfish Creek amid thousand foot balconies of timber and rock so densely wonderful each switchback descent thrills the traveler with narrow peeks of splendor, no wonder motorcycling is so popular in these parts. But there is constant temptation to take your eye off the road to indulge the splendid scenery from top to bottom in the niches of the narrow canyon walls where waterfalls pop up like flashdancing.
At the bottom lies Lead, a one time gold mining town turned almost ghost town and brought back from the dead by tourism and a reclusive pioneer spirit. Molly used to jive us to move there for beauty and freedom and a lifestyle of acres of evergreens. Talk was either they were either going to start the old Homestead gold mine back up soon, or else some top secret physics lab was going to make it into a supercollider. Either way Lead’s proximity to Deadwood four miles away saved its bacon. Boosting its reputation as an Old West town of ill repute, and drawing momentum from a wild western TV series, Deadwood resuscitated itself by getting the state to legalize casino gambling within its city limits. There are about twenty of them now, none Native Anerican owned. Investors rebuilt downtown as a neon resurrection of Old West architecture and nostalgia with knockoff 19th Century facades all salooned and gartered around gaming parlors where you can walk a block from one emporium of slot machines and poker tables to the next, casino to casino without having to walk outdoors. The hope is to leverage the gaming attraction to promote itself as a music and entertainment venue to rival Branson, Missouri and maybe build a water park to rival Wisconsin Dells.
At the city border with Lead we passed by what looked like an old gas station and car wash which was the site of my sister’s attempt to start a cafe restaurant called Ms Molly’s Blue Moon Cafe. The sign still hung above the tin awning. She put part of her share of our mom’s estate and continuous sweat equity with her odd-job husband into shaping the land and building into a viable business. It never quite got off the ground beyond a few catering gigs. We visited it once and the potential and finished renovation impressed us. The bought all the kitchen stuff at auction and scavenged the tile. She served us broasted chicken. The decor was pop culture collectibles including guitars autographed by Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller, and a huge black and white poster of Marilyn Monroe with deep cleavage. The remodeling of the main dining room never came together. Molly got sick, stayed sick and got sicker, then died.
I never liked her husband Pauly. Our mom Colleen thought he was a great guy. Molly said he was kind and a hard worker. I didn’t trust him. To me he was not just ignorant but stupid. A barbarian with no pretense of manners. He may have been a good freelance carpenter, mason, electrician, mechanic and plumber but I knew him as a racist fascist neo-cowboy gigolo who lured my then middle-aged empty-nest sister into pursuit of a perfect country and western lifestyle. They got by. She head cooked at a nursing home facility. They bought and semi-fixed up a big Victorian manse veritably hanging off a cliff overlooking a yard of slag and scrap steel at the mining side of town. They collected antiques. He kept feeding Molly more booze until her pores overflowed and she could barely talk on the phone, and then he would drive her the 600 miles to the Twin Cities to drop her off with one of her daughters or sisters (never me) who would make some calls and get her placed in a treatment center. She would work the program, sober up, get a 30-day medallion and get herself released, go back up to Lead against all advice and go back on the booze and eventually get to the point again where Pauly would call our mom on the phone and say he couldn’t control her and Mom would get somebody in the family with AA connections to get Molly back into treatment. Rinse and repeat over about two decades. Throw in a stint in the state slammer for repeat drunk driving. Along with the booze she complained of diverticulitis, which nobody seemed to cure. She was sure she had colon cancer but it wasn’t diagnosed, so we joked around the family she had semi-colon cancer. She malingered. Rode a wheel chair to our mom’s funeral. Eventually she got her wish and got diagnosed with cancer, not of the colon but the pancreas which spread into her shoulder bones and liver. Hospice care was set up in her sunroom at home. Roxanne and I visited her there where her daughters and several family members besides most of our siblings gathered. Pauly kept trying to get her to eat. Our sister Murray, a nurse, administered morphine. We did not attend the funeral, Rox and I, which was okayed by Molly. We had airplane and hotel reservations to Ixtapa, and Molly said, Go. I would.
I felt guilty not attending, but not too much. Of all the brothers in law I didn’t like, Pauly wasn’t perhaps the worst but I still found it hard to be around him. The hour Molly died he kicked everybody out of the house and forbade anyone from taking mementoes and looting his stuff. Those who stayed for the funeral told of and extra cold wind blowing through their bones that January day. For a while I regretted not being there as our clan elder to stick up for my nieces and sisters who wanted to take home something dear to remember Molly even if they had to pay him, but her stuff was not for sale. For that I ignored his ask to chip in for her headstone. I haven’t seen him since before she died.
In Deadwood Roxanne pulled in to the Information bureau at the former railroad station and I asked the guy directions to the Oak Ridge cemetery and he drew some lines on the town Fun Map and pointed me down the road toward Sturgis. I texted my niece Macushla as to how to find the gravesite of her mother, who texted her son Hogan, who texted back to me a decent description where to look. Formidable headstone really. Kept rather tidy. Somebody left a dime. Who, Boz Scaggs?
Unless one prays there’s not much more to do at a gravesite than move on. We headed toward Sturgis, another accidental namesake of mine although as I have said our family has no ties to the town or to the fallen sergeant of Custer’s army at Little Big Horn for whom the town is named. The annual August gargantuan motorcycle festival defines the town’s identity and fame to the world, and if my mom hadn’t changed her and all us kids’ surname to Kelly in the divorce we could have basked in false acclaim wherever we went and dined on a pack of lies for eternity. Molly and Pauly used to set up a barbecue tent somewhere during the festival and sold grilled steaks, baked potatoes and boiled sweet corn to the bikers and the tourist wannabes. As I said, they got by. They seemed to assimilate into the culture, proud to live nowhere near a big city (excusing Rapid City, fifty miles away, as mostly just a place to go to the store) and living the Sturgis biker creed of freedom and good times every day, not just August. I have never been to the festival. When it first started out I was curious — like Hunter S Thompson maybe when he first heard about the Hells Angels — but I’ve heard enough stories about predictably crazy ass shit and on top of it the festival did not pause itself for the year of ZOZO and defiantly gave the finger to all covid-19 protocols and just about deliberately staged a superspreader event, crazy ass shit business as usual. An institution like this festival organization not acting sanely on behalf of its participants’ health as well as the fact that these bikers and fans come from all over and go back to wherever they came, the whole event doesn’t deserve respect and support from me, a tiny upside to carrying the surname Kelly.
We did not linger through the wide main drag downtown but found the I90 entrance ramp headed east and merged traffic easily ahead of a semi. To get home we had to skirt the edge of Rapid City on our way out of the Black Hills and it was suddenly way too bad to be a part of a commercial vector on the plain after such a cozy ride through the Black Hills and its blankets of pines. The Black Hills are not a mountain range with snow capped, rocky peaks. The slopes get the name black from the dense forest of evergreens that never lose their color or change with the seasons and both in sun and shadows make the landscape so deep green it looks black. In the snow the contrast is even more sharp against the white. No wonder my sister loved this landscape.
From the neutrality of commerce and traffic skirting Rapid City we left the forest behind and met the plains head on, straight and flat as poster board. The grassland looked yellowed, stressed for rain. The air temperature ramped up too but not as bad as last week, and we were windows up and running the A/C. Heading towards the Badlands. Another National Park. We did not enter even though for us it was free. We’ve gone through before, driven through, and it is an unforgettable sight. Mile after mile of what look like pyramids of bone white gravel rising out of sunken valleys of grit. Miles and miles.
Aptly named the bad lands the territory serves as a monument to the scraps the federal government left to the Indigenous Natives. A great example of the land treaties made and broken by the government, like the assignment of Oklahoma as Indian Territory only to take the land back when it was discovered to be good for agriculture, cattle and petroleum exploration, the Black Hills were granted to remain in Native possession for eternity until gold was discovered and the feds took it back. Seems the feds outsmarted themselves negotiating with the tribes when they offered what they estimated to be land nobody white would ever want, like lakes in freezing northern Minnesota, and then when the guess goes wrong and the white demand for the land goes up the deal with the Indians gets cancelled and maybe the feds can find them worse places to live in their sovereignty. Like the monumental gravel pyramids of the Badlands.
Just outside the western door to the park is the parking lot to the gargantuan trading post known as Wall Drug, an above ground catacomb of touristy foods and merchandise of all kinds not necessarily related to the Badlands, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Native Americans or even the state of South Dakota. Wall Drug gets pointed out here because its presence dominates the highway with signs posted for half the state going westward announcing where it is as if the whole world depended on going there at least once in their lives just to see what it’s like. Juxtaposed across the street: Badlands.
I offered to drive and Roxanne declined. With cruise control, light eastbound traffic and straight line roadway she said it was easy. How’s yerass, I asked. What? Oh, fine, no bruise, the hip’s good. Glad I have padding, I guess. Well, I said with lame sage levity, hips don’t lie.
Check what’s behind us, she said. I turned around and the light of the sun was yellow as neon mustard with a black cloud wedge overlapping the light towards the left of the highway and turning the blue sky into a race to escape to the eastern horizon ahead. A storm was chasing us. Looked like it could be fierce. The cloud and crazy light gained and partly overtook us like it was positioning itself to the highway to make a perfect pounce. We were just coming to Murdo, still almost two hundred miles from Mitchell, about three hours away from our hotel. Running a little late. We were still a little shy of a hundred miles of Chamberlain, our original intended destination for this night, and we might not get that far before dark. Then again, the original plan didn’t go to Devils Tower or Molly’s grave but skipping Hot Springs actually cost us time on both ends of the day’s trek. Again I offered to take the wheel the rest of the way but she said she felt pretty secure, the road was practically perfect and she didn’t mind keeping busy in the rain. When dark came if it was still raining it might be more of a strain. I said I’s ready. The darkness in the sky ahead pinched the horizon.
Then the rain poured down. All at once. No windstorm. No hail. No thunder and lightning. It just rained straight down like the sky was a lake turned upside down. It was not a good moment to notice flaws in the windshield wiper blades, but at full speed they were adequate, most of the blur on my side of the windshield and I wasn’t driving. There was a lull in the torrent though it continued raining hard the next hour with no sight it would let up. It was conceivable this weather could hover and stall over us overnight at Mitchell and follow us all the way home to Minnesota. Wouldn’t that be nice for the drought? After about an hour it let up enough so Roxanne turned the wiper speed to medium.
So we talked about our kids.
We forgot to give Vincent his fathers day gift, I happened to think. Shoot shoot, she said. Oh well, we’ll see him tomorrow.
Roxanne asked me to reach for her purse in the back seat and check her phone in case Michel sent a text. She didn’t. All I said was Vincent had a right to his lifestyle, Roxanne said, rehashing their arguments in her head. Maybe lifestyle was the wrong word, but she jumped all over me. I tried to explain my meaning wasn’t to defend his drinking or his reefer or confuse his personality or identity with lifestyle. I can’t say I agree with all his choices but he’s an adult and I can’t make his choices for him. That ship has left the station. And he’s not a bad person. In fact he’s good. We’re proud of him. I said, I’ve always thought she would eventually discover what a cool guy he really is and that he would figure out Michel’s depth and sincerity and they would grow old as good friends. They’ve shown spurts, Roxanne said. I thought they were close when he was in high school and she was at UMD. She used to invite him up to Duluth to hang out. I don’t know what derailed that road. She resented him since he was born — I added, I think she got too used to being an only child. Roxanne disagreed, I think she was ready to be a big sister, she just didn’t realize it takes a baby a while until they grow old enough to play with and she was frustrated, she expected him to be born ready to play. By the time he caught up a little she was way gone into her own things. She picked on him. Physically. A shove. A punch in the arm. It’s always the one counter punching who gets caught and gets yelled at. That’s why he says we always took her side. She used to goad him and tease him. He got on her nerves. Remeber how they argued over nothing? I felt like the supreme court. He says I always favored her. She says I’m biased for Victor. I really can’t remember the trivia that would get them going but when they each presented to me their opinions and facts, I recalled, as fair as I could decide who prevailed it never was supposed to determine the fate of the cosmos. And it’s not that they never ever got along. Hell, if they fought like that all the time we would have been in family counseling just to keep me myself sane, Roxanne reflected. I couldn’t stand it. Michel can be so mean, she doesn’t even call names, she just throws her baggage in your face. He can hold his own with her, I said. Sometimes, said Roxanne. He’s pretty sensitive and he sulks. She fumes. I suppose we’ve seen all this coming a long time. Question is, how will it end up? Nothing really ever ends up, Roxanne. I don’t want to hear that, she replied. I want it solved. What if it never is? What about Christmas? Birthdays? Neko? I can’t live with this, this dicotomy.
I didn’t want to discourage Roxanne’s pessimism with false hopes but I had to be honest. We don’t control the ultimate outcome, babe. They have to work this out themselves but we can help. We have our own issues to sort out with each of them, and in that we have responsibility to use this chance to show the best example of how to reconcile and get along. We raised them, Roxanne lamented, isn’t that enough? You wish, I answered. Ultimately there’s nothing to bind those two together except their own choice. Maybe they will some day realize that bond I’ve always hoped they would find — in our lifetime — and we’ll rest happy. Meantime we’ll love them both.
Michel said a strange thing, Roxanne said. She brought up us Face Timing so much with Victor when we’re in Mexico. Didn’t we used to Skype at least every week with her in Switzerland? We could’ve Face Timed her too if she expressed any interest. She said we pay more attention to him, and we’re nicer to him.
He’s always been nicer to us. Don’t tell anybody I said that.
The sun went down but we didn’t see it. The night simply went blacker beyond the headlamps, and the rain soaked the highway pavement ahead like a wash basin. At this latitude a clear sky can retain its twilight glow until after 10:00 this time of year. We had reached the Missouri River and the Chamberlain area while daylight was a pale gray and we could barely see what we were missing. After hours of relentless flat grasslands with practically one tree every square mile the land changes to smooth hills and bends with foliage and hardwoods and small towns within sight of the freeway. Except to cross it we saw nothing of the mighty Missouri just billboard references to river recreation, hospitality and entertainment. Past the river the bluffland gave way again to the great flats, these plains vaguely dedicated to tilled fields and pasture. Then it got pitch dark and only the highway mattered and distant strobes of faraway lightning to the southeast told us somewhere out there it was worse.
Steady at the wheel Roxanne got us to Mitchell where we checked into the Days Inn. A trip to Burger King still open on Main Street proved how desperately hungry we were. Roxanne lamented her mistake booking our lodgings. The mistake and re-route cost us extra time on the road. We usually paced ourselves to reach a sleepover destination well before dark. Granted we could have skipped Spearfish Canyon, Lead, Deadwood and Molly’s grave, but we didn’t know a storm would chase us, we figured the penance of extra hours on the road wouldn’t be but a minor inconvenience and we could make Mitchell by twilight and we would be that much closer to home the next day. What nagged her the most was the cost in dollars for having to cancel bargain hotel rates booked way in advance for last minute available rooms at double what we would have paid.
That’s what you call bitin’ the bag, I said at Burger King wolfing a double whopper with cheese. Sometimes you bite a big bag of boo.
At our room Rox got ready for bed right off, brushed her teeth, checked her phone and curled up in the king sized bed seious for sleep while I tried to adjust the air conditioner less cold if I couldn’t crack open a window. She expressed no desire to waste the TV and I figured we missed the local news anyway — back on Central time again — so I dawdled my way to bed with her, went out for a cigarillo and a good cough, washed up and brushed my teeth hoping I could just fall asleep like she did.
In hotels I like to allow a small opening in the drapes to allow sunlight to get in, which sometimes means letting street and premises light act like a cozy night light in a strange dark place, not as a distraction but a balanced lumination until daylight took over. It wasn’t the window’s fault I didn’t sleep right away. I would not classify it as insomnia but I couldn’t help thinking and keeping myself awake.
For a long time I used to wonder if Michel really loved me. Or if she just put up with me because legally I was her dad and married to her mom. I couldn’t put a finger on any time when she was in middle school or high school when she made me feel she was proud of me as her dad no matter how proud I was she was my daughter. Not that she acted ashamed of me, I was somewhat a ghost. Or an annoyance. An embarrassment. A nuisance. She never picked on me the way she did her brother or showed outright disrespect but rather an attitude of casual neglect, as if she hardly knew me or cared who I was even though I was always present in the household, always there for her. It bugged her I coached her middle school basketball team, an endeavor I got into from desire to play with my kid. In high school she utterly forbade me from volunteering to chaperone school dances — never said what she would do if I did it anyway but implied she wouldn’t attend them and I would be responsible for her unhappiness missing out on her high school fun.
Michel was born five weeks premature due to a low leak in Roxanne’s uterus caused we think by a traffic accident about a week before her water broke altogether despite caution to rest. Tiny Michel rested in an incubator under UV lights about a week, including three days after Roxanne’s discharge. We had to visit her in the infant ICU ward during strict visiting hours and bottlefeed her through a porthole in her incubator. The hospital allowed Roxanne to lift her out to breastfeed as needed. I got to take her out to hold her for an hour once a day. I wondered if that set a sad pattern of isolation between at least Michel and me. She wasn’t a daddy’s girl who sat on my lap or curled in my arms affectionately, and I missed that kind of attention. She wasn’t much for hugs, didn’t resist them but hardly initiated an embrace. Is this what I get for not giving her constant warm cuddles the first week of her life?
Much of the time when the kids were growing up Roxanne and I sort of tag-teamed child care around the kids’ clocks. That is, we arranged our work shifts as best we could to have one of us home when the kids were off school — even enrolling them in summer school programs. Here or there we put them in a latchkey program but largely relied on our own selves for child care. It was difficult to see how Michel related to her mother when I was not around but what I could observe was around the house Roxanne was boss. I could understand how Michel could have a tighter bond with her mother than with me, being female and actually spending more time with her at a stage when I worked a lot of evenings and weekends in the retail trade and Roxanne worked regular M-F hours. I have said before, I am jealous of the bond between Roxanne and Michel — or should I say I admire it reverently — and it pained me to see their relationship fall apart so bad it would make Roxanne cry.
When Michel was thirteen it was her surliest, nastiest year. Hypercritical of everything, school, friends, society, television, music, her brother, herself — her hair was never right, she looked dorky in glasses, she wore braces on her teeth and hated to smile, and her clothes were all wrong. Though she didn’t criticize her mother and me (much) she made sure she showed us her nasty side. When sulking silently or even reading a book she made sure she looked nasty. It might have been a little onset of puberty. Understandable. It was the 1990s. In many respects we’re lucky she expressed herself to us so honestly and without restraint. It wasn’t even crude, profane or obscene. On the contrary, then as now she made her point in plain speak. If rude sometimes, but big kids like us can take it, and dish it back. Maybe I let her sass me too much. I believed in free speech.
Once in high school she lit into me for us living in a neighborhood she called a ghetto, endangering our lives.
As she got older she got nicer, but age thirteen was tough. Still she kept her grades up and didn’t skip school. She used the phone a lot (the old family land line) which was fine because telemarketers couldn’t get through (and we had voice mail service in case anybody needed to leave a message). Her disposition improved so much when she turned 14 it was an unremarkable year. It seemed all the teenage years after that she got nicer and nicer. She flattered us with nice behavior as she aged towards driver education classes. Her Grandpa Ed and Grandma Helenn, Roxanne’s parents, were in the market for a new car and instead of trading it in or selling it they asked if we could use it, and Michel eyeballed it as her car, an ’80s Datsun Sentra hatchback, so she cozied up to us as she turned 16. Plus, the Datsun had a manual transmission and she needed me to take her out practice driving to suffiently master the clutch and the shifter — she was driven — and Roxanne had no such patience.
All along Michel wasn’t one to ask our permission, she would just tell us what she was going to do. Sleepover at a friend’s house. Mall of America with a friend. Get contact lenses. Take a job bussing dishes at the Mad Mad Mexican down on Lake Street one evening a week, her first job at 15. She switched from JV basketball to cheerleading soccer and dance line. With a car she took a new job as a clerk at a sporting goods store at MOA. The next year she worked at Snyder Drug in Highland. One spring break from high school she informed us she was flying to Nashville with a girl from school and her mom to go see the girl’s grandma. When it came to spring break senior trip down in Mazlatan without chaperones there was no doubt in her mind we would consent — she wasn’t 18 yet. By the time she graduated high school we could say she’d gone treating us sweet. We let her do whatever she wanted.
And she never got in trouble. Went to school, got good grades. Never broke curfew. Drove safely. Received a Wallin Scholarship at South High that paid half her four-year tuition to University Minnesota Duluth, where she met Sid. Took her Datsun hatchback to Duluth until we bought a Plymouth Neon to replace it, and it had a stick shift and clutch. She graduated in four years with a double major criminal justice and sociology, double minor psychology and criminology. First job as a claims invesyigator in the Mental Nervous department of a workers disability insurance firm. Years later studied nursing and changed careers. Raising two beautiful children. There are hundreds of reasons to be proud of Michel and be happy for her, praise her successful life. I can take some credit, I guess. Much as she ignored me, I did help raise her.
She was in high school when I published my first novel. She acted as if nothing unusual was happening those first weeks when I was famous. Negative reviews knocked it off the charts and I was fortunate to fall from acclaim through ill-repute to oblivion in less than ninety days. Michel was unfazed. All those nights typing away when she was asleep gone kablooie and she never acknowledged how sad it was for me to reach my dream of publishing a novel and then face rejection at a higher, more profound level. Her indifference depressed me. I could have used the consolation but she was busy being a teenager. It wasn’t a YA novel and I doubt she ever read it. If some of the personal criticism that the novel aroused ever got back to her ears, she never showed that either, which ironically made it easier to get normal at home after my literary failure.
Before sleep at the hotel I dwelt on my favorite time Michel got mad at me. She and Sid got engaged and announced it to us about midnight on a Saturday night after Sid’s eldest sister’s wedding. Got us out of bed to show us the ring. Woke us from a sound sleep. We were a little stunned but happy. Congratulations! Not only were we less than enthused enough, she accused me of being so unsure of their engagement I didn’t burn up the telephone lines that very minute to call my mom and sisters to spread the good news. Same with Roxanne. This the age of the land line, before the commonplace of smart phone texts. She took it as a sign we didn’t believe in her. She was never less right.
Could this have all been caused by isolation in an incubator the first days of her life?
When I see other fathers hugged and embraced by their daughters I feel sad and jealous. Like Clara, Tess and Sid.
I concluded Michel’s problem with Vincent was that he wasn’t living up to her expectations. That might go for me as well. I pondered that thought off and on the rest of the way home.
Daylight woke me through the breach in the curtains, a brilliantly sunny morning in Mitchell, SD. While Roxanne still slept I went out for a smoke and stopped in the breakfast lobby for coffees to bring back to our room rather than us messing with the in-room coffeemaker. She was awake and just starting to scroll her phone to begin the day. Still nothing from our daughter, not even a Facebook post of the kids. Vincent on the other hand texted us good morning and safe travels, which was odd since he doesn’t usually communicate until after 10. We checked out and loaded our bags in the car but didn’t depart before indulging the free breakfast, a semi-buffet standard at chain hotels, Jimmy Dean sausage and patties of packaged scrambled eggs. Orange juice and coffee. Roxanne toasted a bagel and frosted it with peanut butter. One could make their own waffle. They offered apples, oranges, bran muffins and of course bread for toast. All in all not bad if not high cuisine.
One wonders how much of this hospitality in the industry was suspended or restricted during ZOZO and the height of the pandemic. In Mitchell is was hard to perceive the restrictions back home and in Colorado were lifted just over a week ago and hereabouts it didn’t seem as if there were ever any imposed in this state. Except passing by the famous Corn Palace cruising through the main avenue, which was closed due to covid-19. We visited there once on a visit to my sister Molly. Inside it’s a museum of exhibits of all things corn, from kernal art mosaics to the glories of agribusiness and the history of pioneer farmers, homage to hybrid seeds and development of machinery. We were not disappointed to lose a chance at a second visit but we were disappointed at the blank facade of the building, which is traditionally inlaid with a mosaic mural made of corn which changes every year. No such. Evidence of the reach of ZOZO, I thought.
I insisted on driving the first leg and Roxanne gladly deferred. My thought was I could go the whole ride at the wheel marathon style like she did but she said we should decide that later in Minnesota, another 200 miles. We got gas before departing Mitchell on eastbound I90. It was a spectacular sunny day on the Dakota plain. I set cruise control at 79. The pavement was clean and smooth. Evoked a Tom Petty song.
Our kids grew up on Tom Petty. It was a shame he died the night the bump-stock machine gunner rained bullets down on an outdoor music show from an upper floor of a Las Vegas hotel — for a short while I wondered if there was a connection, not a conspiracy but like a heart attack out of empathy for the crowd and the musicians, but the two events were pure coincidences. Roxanne set up the iPod wired into the car stereo and I requested she play “Runnin’ Down A Dream” to begin the shuffle.
Along the way we caught up to and passed an odd vehicle. It was a white miniature hearse shaped from a PT Cruiser. That’s sad, I said. Must be for children, Roxanne said and reached for her phone. She said, I always wondered what that S-shaped design on the side of a hearse means. In a minute she said, they’re called a landau bar. Apparently… they don’t appear to mean anything or symboloze anything. To me they look like casket handles for pallbearers. But it says nothing about any functionality. It traces back to horse carriages with semi-convertible roofs. It mimics the hinge and frame design. It’s a carryover from horse-drawn hearses.
Enduring the endless plains as a passenger Roxanne found cell service but no messages. She read off and on from an e-book borrowed from Amazon she had been following all week. Off and on she inquired how it was going at the wheel.
I was thinking mostly to myself about the rift between our kids and how to help make it heal. The same alibi that they were adults and no longer subject to my influence seemed like an excuse to recuse myself from their lives. It was a pleasure to have an empty nest the past fifteen or so years but I couldn’t let go completely of my fatherly obligation to guide them through the world. If Michel thinks I let Vincent down because I failed to guide him to value achievement, then I have to examine all the ways I may have failed to guide him. Didn’t I take perverse pride in his getting kicked out of the DARE program?
He being a big guy, did I fail to encourage him to go out for the South High football team just to get him to get into a physical fitness regimen? As it turns out his decision not to play football may have saved him from CTE brain injury from contact sport concussions. Still, he’s a big guy, over six feet — people seeing us together at ball games or concerts have said to me, hey whose your bodyguard? As he enters middle age I worry about him going obese, being vulnerable to covid and cardiovascular disease. I tried to bring it up but he dismisses the subject the way he dismissed going out for high school football — he would make his own decision with no further discussion.
I could be at fault for his cavalier attitude about achievement. In middle school he was an honor student. He could get high grades in any subject if he cared to, even science. This carried over to high school, only his motivation to care declined until halfway into his junior year he got found out for frequent truancy — a biproduct of living a block from school — and Roxanne had to put him in a remedial program so he could catch up enough to graduate on time. An upside to his remedial path to graduation was opportunity to enroll in college level classes through the University at no tuition cost and the courses would not only count towards his high school credits but also qualify for college credit towards his freshman year at the U.
With Vincent’s obvious intelligence he could have gone far in academics as a professor or professionally as a lawyer or captain of industry. A political leader. Media influencer. Architect or engineer. I never steered him. Opportunities, yes. Instead he found his interests foraging through philosophy, comedy, history and natural science. His best friends were musicians and hipsters. Perhaps I should take responsibilty for giving him a Firesighn Theater cassette album for Christmas when he was 12. At least he did not become a master criminal — Michel would really pin me for that.
Michel perceived him a slacker. She expressed awe at his intelligence and lamented what he could have been. (Reminds me of me.) Of course Michel was every bit as intelligent and blessed with every opportunity as her brother — born in time for Title IX and benefit of recent decades of feminist progress, a good time to be alive for American women. Michel pushed and pulled herself through one accomplishment after another and wasn’t satisfied by just one goal and out. True to say she’s lived an exciting and fulfilling life and to anybody’s examination might set her apart as a living example of a good example — a mom everybody wishes they had, a true blue friend and confidant, a spouse beyond compare, village intellectual and professional esteem. There is no undoing this state foreseen in her future either, the way she does what she wants in life the way she always has she should succeed because she always puts in the necessary effort. Her brother apparently can’t take his big sister’s hints.
Defining success for Vincent depends on a different scale. I can’t take credit for motivating Michel to be an achiever even as I gave her license to make choices and do what she wanted without restriction and especially because she was a girl. There’s no denying her determination and stubborn discipline. She has faced few serious obstacles. Hers is not the story of a deprived and tragic ghetto girl of any color (no matter her suntan) rising above all odds to get where she is today in life. Whether it’s been easy or not is a wide survey of what it means easy. And what makes hard. Michel seems to think because he’s so talented his success should come so easy for him and he’s wasting his talents.
Vincent sees the limits of overachievement. Whether learned from me or not he sees the absurdities of the human condition and weighs carefully how much to get involved. Michel apparently lost patience with his Late Bloomer defense. He took six years too get his college degree — that with his high school head start. Always working part time, kitchen at Joey D’s, dorm custodian at the U, concierge at the Marriot. His first full time job out of the U’s College of Natural Resources was with Boy Scouts of America as staff counselor at one of the biggest scout camps in the country. He found his way into the hearing aid industry by networking some contacts he made while serving as concierge at a hotel near the headquarters of a major manufacturer. He worked his way up from managing their phone room to regional marketing manager until the pandemic torpedoed the marketing plan and they laid him off. Recently rehired in a lesser role, Vincent tells me he’s glad to be earning a good paycheck again but he’s ambivalent about the job. He lacks passion for it. He talks about continuing his career search for something he can get excited about but acknowledges he lacks hope that there is any job out there that will make him feel fulfilled.
Funny but that’s how I felt almost my whole work life. My father might say the same: You do what you gotta do. To try to convince my son there was some great rewarding career for him out there that would pay him more than money would be abject hypocrisy when I never could convince myself I would find anything of a vocation beyond a means of material well being. So if one has to work to get by or prosper one might as well fake enthusiasm if you have to, cope and keep at it with the best possible face because the alternative could depress you to death.
You don’t hear Sid complain about being trapped in a dead end job. Roxanne never complained, a research scientist at the U 43 years.
I thought it was high enough ambition to love and raise my two children to be upright human beings, to be good people. I thought I’d succeeded but it appeared I could not retire, my work was not done.
Michel said she loved Vincent but she didn’t like him. At least I could say I hadn’t yet failed. Love was how the whole thing will work out, I told Roxanne.
Sounds pretty vague, she responded, and it was. Vague. Love is vague. Even in that famous letter to the Corinthians St Paul could not pin it down but mainly described it for what it wasn’t. Like, on the other hand seems to have a clear definition in this world.
At least Michel didn’t say she hated him.
The Sioux Falls exits came and went without much notice. We were past and almost to the state line before I looked around to realize we had passed by the state’s largest city and couldn’t tell. The Minnesota border came on suddenly with a highway sign (Minnesota Welcomes You, no admonitions) across the culvert in a corn field. Not a river border, this borderline was a straight line up and down drawn by land surveyors when the states were divided. One side looked same as the other. Plain. And simple. To a point. Deeper into Minnesota there might be a few more trees, more buildings and more frequent towns, but not much more. We could have driven the interstate freeway the whole way home if we stayed on I90 all the way to Albert Lea, where we could intersect I35 and make a virtual beeline north to Minneapolis. I90 skimmed a straight line about twelve miles parallel to the Iowa border, so what land didn’t resemble South Dakota looked like Iowa. At Worthington, Minnesota we left I90 for state highway 60 to cut an angle northeast towards Blue Earth County and Mankato. The speed limit could be slower but Hwy 60 cut miles off our journey. The interstate offers speed and guaranteed safety in its limited access. The backroad offered touch with towns. The interstate in rural America is engineered to occupy land as far away from towns, homes and populations as possible and still benefit from coast to coast ground transportation. State highways like 60 link the towns who don’t need interstate freeways to go town to town to intersect. They don’t necessarily go through downtown but they show where to turn to go there, and usually don’t involve many stoplights.
From Worthington runs a long, straight runway of concrete across the plain with grain elevators and crossroads and a tree or two among the crops every mile or so. More than halfway home I asked Roxanne, Babe could you fish around and find me a dose of Tylenol?
No, my arm aches. My Tommy John.
About twenty years ago, just after the turn of this century, in a rainstorm we had a flat tire on I394 in St Louis Park just west of downtown. It was a Sunday afternoon in early October and we were on our way to dinner with Roxanne’s family to celebrate her sister’s husband’s birthday. When I felt whatever I ran over blow the tire I kept going slowing down fortunately to a quick exit with a Holiday station store where we could use their pavement to change the tire. I got out the jack and the doughnut spare and jacked up the car a little, worked the lugs, all in the rain, no umbrella. Roxanne rain into the store to use the pay phone to call her sister to say we were running late. While she was gone I got the flat tire off and chucked it in the trunk. I got down on my knees to hoist the spare to line the holes with the lugs when a snap of elastic pain shot up my right arm from my inner elbow and I dropped the wheel. The pain in my arm remained consistent whether I used it or not, but the strength was gone. I managed to use it to balance the wheel enough to use my thigh and left arm and hand to line the rim up with the lugs. I was hand twisting the lug nuts when Roxanne returned and I asked her if she would please drive. Job done I rode shotgun to dinner rather dumbfounded from the pain trying to describe the pain and how it started. After dinner she took me to our network clinic and I was diagnosed as detached ligament. Like when a baseball pitcher blows out the ligament at the elbow. In baseball the surgery to repair the arm is called Tommy John.
Nobody ever told me I needed surgery. It did not get well and heal on its own. I got used to diminished strength in my right arm after the pain subsided and I gave it considerable rest. It didn’t affect my job, maybe slowed my typing. Ruined my already suspect bowling and bocce ball skills. I compensated with my left hand when I could. I didn’t want to go through life with a stiffarm like Dr Strangelove. I used my right arm like I do today, favored and allowing limitations. I don’t kid myself I could ever throw a slider but I tried to rehabilitate myself with reasonable expectations for an average man in his 50s and 60s. Most obvious to others might be my handwriting is erratic. My right hand trembles sometimes. The muscles in my arm and shoulder have adapted to compensate for no tendon and sometimes the arm gets fatigued and aches. I call it my Tommy John.
The occasionally shaky hand gets attention sometimes when it isn’t plainly caused by shivering temperatures. It does not impair my control but it’s a weakness I sometimes supplement with both hands. My left hand trembles too, slightly and not as often. What got me thinking was when Clara once asked me why I kept nodding my head for no reason. I answered that maybe I was boppin’ to some music only I could hear in my head.
Roxanne asked me to show my primary care physician at the annual Medicare physical a few years ago. He already saw me through the usual cognitive tests and observed my tremors and referred me to the clinic neurologist, who tested me, examined me, watched me walk and pour water from one glass to another and back until he was satisfied there was no Parkinsons. We met six months and then a year later to record and measure any changes, and there seems to be nothing progressive occurring of any significance. The neurologist recommended I relax and not worry, it’s normal for aging people to wiggle in the fingers, he said. He called such a condition Familial Tremors. He said Familial Tremors are common. If things change for worse or out of control I’m supposed to call him. I haven’t seen him since before ZOZO and I can’t say I’m worse.
The neurologist is also aware of my Tommy John condition, but that’s not his expertise. By now an operation to reattach the tendon might be considered elective surgery. It’s certainly not life or death. Seems now, as when I blew it out, not worth the hassle. No quality of life lost, no golf or even pickleball. Sometimes it aches when I use the arm, and sometimes it aches when it hangs idle too much. I hate to baby it. I struggle sometimes to remember I’m 69 years old. At almost 70 I might feel entitled to feel the aches and pains of life, but at my age there are many who have much worse than simple aches and pains to worry about and complain. I don’t want to be an old man who complains.
It’s like what I heard from Lou Holz: Don’t tell other people your problems. Half of ’em don’t care and the other half are glad you got ’em.
So Roxanne gave me Tylenol and some bottled water to wash it down and we decided to stop for lunch up ahead at the town of St James. She proposed that from there she would take the wheel home. I said, We’re see.
St James appeared to be a quiet town, but not distressed like so many towns with empty store fronts on the main. There wasn’t a lot to offer on the one street main but it wasn’t dead. It was the middle of a work day in a farming town, after all. At the outskirts stood a Golden Arches but we passed by to the heart of town where there seemed to be choices for something like home cooking. We picked the Home Town Cafe, an eatery that looked like it sounds. We parked across the street in front of a Mexican mercado grocery store. The cafe was spacious, moreso by distanced placement of the tables and chairs per pandemic recommendations left over from the emergency mandates. The staff all wore masks, so we put ours on too. The decor was simply what has come to be called mid-century, plywood, chrome and formica from the 1960s or so. The menu featured typical American cafe cuisine. The staff was all clearly Hispanic, friendly and fluent in English without Spanish accent. They served breakfast all day and seemed to have no trouble keeping up with customers, mainly elders from the surrounding area or like Roxanne and me just passing through.
We both craved the skillet breakfast and ordered two, with a short stack of pancakes to share, wheat toasts, coffees and a glass of orange juice for me. The platters arrived hot. The skillet included fresh sauteed green peppers and onions and freshly cut cubed potatoes, and the eggs were perfect.
So, did you have a good vacation? Roxanne asked as we divided the pancakes. Other than…
Other than that I had a blast. Really…
I can’t always tell. The pandemic made you such an introvert. You need to get out more. Just staying in and laying around the house every day isn’t stimulating enough for you no matter how much reading and writing you do and your household chores. They say there will be a vaccine booster for us seniors in September.
I realize, I said. You’re right. I’ve lost some muscle. Seem to’ve lost savvy for social situations, almost agoraphobic. Can you sense what it’s going to be like at Estes Park next week and the Fourth? Can you sense it building up? How about you, how is your vacation other than?
Fine. I’m not sure I’d go back to Colorado again, even Denver, but it was good to go there. To see the Rockies. Makes me curious about Montana and Idaho, but anyway it was good to get out and get away. I’d say overall I had a good time. I don’t know about a blast. We should look at where we can go next. Somewhere around here is a park of ancient native petroglyphs, and the Pipestone monument. I saw something on Facebook about Upper Michigan, a place on Lake Superior with painted cliffs — not spray-painted but with natural rock minerals. So how’s your skillet? Perfect, I said. So, she said, How’s your Tommy John?
I extended my right forearm parallel to the table as if blessing the food and the hand held still. I think it might be residual from the river rafting. I admit I’m out of shape. The acetaminophen eased the ache. How’s your you know?
Fine. Not a problem. I just can’t believe it happened.
How’s your mind?
Too clear. Wish I could forget about the kids.
You’re a classic mom, you’ll never retire. Trust me when I say their love for you will guide them through this. You keep being loving. I’m backing you up, I got your back. You be the good example. Love will mend and transcend this. And if you want to drive the rest of the way it’s fine with me.
I drove anyway. Pulling away through St James Roxanne said she used to come to this town in her earlier years at the lab at the U when her team made field trips to observe and sample soybean crops grown in the vicinity. All she said she remembered of the town was the giant grain elevator by the railroad yard in the center of town, still there. She didn’t remember there being a movie theater, which was obviously dated back to the 1940s at least. I pointed to the marquee and said: There it is! In plain sight, the inspo catalyst behind all the reckless high-speed driving going on these days: F9.
All through town were signs both subtle and obvious of a populous Hispanic community formed over a generation of migrant farm and animal processing workers who settled and raised families in the region and now operated commercial enterprises in town. The mercado offered remittance services indicating ties with families in the Old Country, predominantly Mexico I guessed. Made me wonder at the nationalities of the pioneers of the 19th Century who settled and cultivated the blue earth of this prairie and founded its tiny towns and started this place as a community attractive to immigrants to keep it alive and infuse its vitality another century, not a bad place at all to end up living, or being born.
State Hwy 60 hooked us onto US169 north at Mankato, the last leg home. Farms and pastures lolled amid tree lines at the various creeks and brooks of southern Minnesota approaching the valley of the Minnesota River as it arcs toward the Mississippi at the Twin Cities. Mankato may sound familiar as the historical location of the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men executed for insurrection in the Dakota Uprising of 1862, the largest mass execution in US history. The city also is the home town of Maude Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy books from the 1940s, nice home grown American stories. Rox and I know Mankato as the home of a super-competitive gymnastics club that competes in the same association as the one Clara and Tess have devoted so much energy into, and we have driven down to watch the rivals compete at several gym meets.
See, said Roxanne as we recalled our trips, not just Mankato but Winona and Willmar the past five years since they came back from Switzerland to support them at meets, sitting on end in uncomfortable bleachers through the routines of teams of girls we could hardly care about just to clap for our own — doesn’t that show how much we care? I’ve always bent backwards to keep everything equal between them. (I know, I agreed, you even keep tabs of the worth of Christmas presents.) I do! Birthdays. Anniversaries. If we seem to spend more time with Vincent it’s because of Neko, but we spent as much time as we could with Clara and Tess. We couldn’t help it they lived in Switzerland. And she can’t blame us for going up to the Boundary Waters or the North Shore with Vincent because he invites us. It makes no rational sense. (So let it rest and stop badgering yourself.) We love them equally. We raised them equally — same rules, same expectations, same consequences, same opportunities. Maybe it’s because she got out on her own sooner in life and he relied on our support a couple years longer.
I wonder if it was payback for leaving her alone naked except a surgical mask for a diaper in that incubator the first days of her life without snuggles.
That was sad, Roxanne lamented. I’d like to think we made up for it. I’m sorry she was born premature. Just think, if she had come to term she would have entered kindergarten a year later and graduated a class later and gone to Duluth a year later too, and may not met Sid in class.
Unless somewhere along she skipped a grade because she’s so smart.
Closer to home we noticed signs of recent rain. The air smelled of wet dirt, sod and tree pollen. Home. Familiar brands. Landmark towns like St Peter, where our Tess was at gymnastic camp, Le Sueur, home of the valley of the Jolly Green Giant, Belle Plaine with its sonoric French name as pretty as the Beatles song Micchelle, and Shakopee, pronounced locally Shock-ah-pee, named for a famous Mdewakanton chief from the 18th Century.
Spontaneously I told Roxanne a story from when I was a kid I went to Catholic Youth summer camp. One of the mess hall songs the guys liked to sing was about the Three Jolly Fishermen. It went, there were three jolly fisher men, there were three jolly fisher men — fisher fisher (half the hall called out) — men men men (shouted the other half in response) and so the song went. They sailed their boat to Amsterdam, they sailed their boat to Amsterdam — Amster Amster, dam dam dam. They ended up in Shakopee — Shocka Shocka — pee pee pee. Everybody loved to chime in on the response to that one.
Boys camp I take it.
As traffic condensed closer to the metro area I braced for rush hour but it was too soon, early afternoon, just a busy business day in the Twin Cities. We joined the flow to the Crosstown and stayed put in the middle lane to go past I35W and hold out for the Cedar Ave exit by the airport runway and twirled around the cloverleaf towards Lake Nokomis and home. Except for orange cone street alteration out front of a construction project near the parkway, traffic on Cedar flowed our way at a cadence allowing us to coast through most of the stoplights. The city was still there, alive and pulsing, pretty with its lush arbor of boulevard trees. Turning into the neighborhood, so unchanged, the local park with its playground of day care kids, there was a sense of suspense, as if we would turn that last corner to find something radically wrong, like a hole in the corner lot where our house used to be.
No such ending. Our gracious neighbor next door kept our potted plants and baskets watered in a tray Roxanne set up in our back yard, and probably watered the garden too though it seemed to have rained overnight. The turf in our yard still resembled the chaparral of eastern Wyoming but with a light mow might not look so bad. We unloaded our belongings from the car and opened the house and turned on the ceiling fans. Later we would swap our cars with Vincent and find out how was Neko’s first day back at preschool, Tierra Encantada. For some reason the mail and newspaper delivery wasn’t scheduled to resume until tomorrow. It seemed almost too quick and easy to unpack. There was no jetlag. Eventually we had nothing to do except laundry. I found my two hiking stones in the pouch pocket of my hoodie.
Roxanne texted Michel we arrived home safe. Within perhaps an hour a reply came back, the Thumb Up emoji. That’s something, I said.
Meditating on my couch after watching the sun go down red from the window of the upstairs loft about 9:30, setting behind the rooftops of the neighbors across the alley bordering our western next door neighbors, setting at an angle about as far northwest on a western axis as it gets where we live. Not an ocean view, or a lake, or a mountain, but sunset all the same. Which I contemplated later in the twilight with no room lights, on my ZOZO couch musing and contemplating my mindfulness, grateful to be home.
This was my Summer of 69. Living for sunsets. Tonight the afterglow turned nearly purple pink. Roxanne made herself a snack and read an e-book in the TV room. On my couch where I spent the pandemic meditating through depression and talking myself through cognitive self-therapy to talk myself off mental ledges I wandered onto looking for a longer, deeper view, this night it seemed I might be trying to induce a depression just to get that old time ZOZO feeling again, solving all the dilemmas on earth I am not qualified to judge by immersing myself into twilight metamorphosis of free-range imagination.
Some depression sufferers say they fight or battle depression. Ever since I learned what it was I tried to learn to use it to cope meaningfully with the world and help me get insight into real life, if perhaps from a bottom level point of view at times. Depression calms me. Makes me feel alive. There were low times during ZOZO when I remembered my mom when she couldn’t make herself get out of bed she was too stricken with depression to face the day, and I didn’t understand how or why but I knew she was mental and she was unhappy. Every morning of ZOZO I woke up with hope the coronavirus disappeared itself overnight. When of course it did not I might nap away the day hoping tomorrow would bring relief. The difference with me at this time of my life (and I’ve gone through it before) I believed (and still do) I was (and still am) a happy person, and if I’m mental then that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The next thing for me to work on to get off the couch is to change the meditation and mindfulness from relying on depression to stimulate a comfortable state of mind for appreciating life and engendering creativity. Instead of depression as my baseline for awareness and analysis I dwelt on searching for inspiration from alternate sources within my personality and from reflecting upon observations of other people, looking for an upside to the daily news and mustering the energy to get up off that couch and move around just for the sake of moving. Lethargy leads to atrophy. Yet the couch is so comfortable. So good to come home to. My Beautiful Reward, as Springsteen calls it.