Torn between SJC and PDX

I’m sitting near gate C10 at San Jose International Airport, heading home after my aunt’s funeral. The weather is perfect outside, low 80s, warm but not hot. The hills are still green. After lunch, my father drove me through the cemetery, past Grandma’s house and through many places that evoke strong memories of my past life. Right now I want to stay in San Jose. I want to stop saying goodbye, knowing it will be months before I see any family. I want to be within 10 minutes of them all. I also want to enjoy the work possibilities here. De Anza College is taking teaching applications, and I want to apply.

Meanwhile, I am so Oregonian. I am dressed differently in my jeans, Hawaiian shirt and rugged shoes. I think differently, too, treasuring the simplicity of life in a small coastal town, loving my yard surrounded by trees, my dogs able to run and spread mud all over. I love that I meet someone I know every time I go out. Here, I keep seeing people I think I might know, but I can never be sure. It has been too long. I say “You look familiar,” and sometimes, like this morning when I met the mother of one of my school classmates walking down Fenley Avenue, I guess correctly. But usually I look twice and think, no, probably not.

I found a hat in the gift shop just like the one my dogs tattered. It says San Jose in blue letters on tan, blue, and maroon suede. I considered buying it, but then thought “You can’t go home again.” I know it’s a cliché, but I would add, “You can go home, but it will be different—and so will you.”

I’m part Californian, part Oregonian and will be forever changed no matter which way I fly.

Time to fly again and try not to cry as I watch the city fade away. I have avoided the big sob so far. As I told my cousins, see you online.
Caught between a big man and a crying baby, I stare out the window of the plane. Crowded houses, office buildings and freeways yield to the multicolored waters of Alviso Bay shining in the late-afternoon sun. Beyond that, I name the bridges over San Francisco Bay. The water gives way to brown hills, then snow-sprinkled hills, then the green hills of Oregon, and the multi-hued pastures of the Willamette Valley. Soon we are cruising over the Columbia River as we make our descent into Portland and bump down onto the runway. As I pick up my suitcase at baggage claim, it has all gone so quickly, I imagine I can still feel the warmth of my father’s hand on the handle. Within minutes, I’m in my car, speeding down the freeway as the sun sets on my right and my heart struggles to catch up.


Adeus, Aunt Edna

Tomorrow I’m flying to San Jose for my Aunt Edna’s funeral. My mother’s favorite aunt and the last of her generation, she made it to 100 years, plus 3 1/2 months and she was spunky to the end. I’ll miss her. When I think about her, I hear her voice. She always talked loud and fast with a hint of a Portuguese accent. You knew when Edna was in the building, and she never lacked for an opinion. She was also always fashionably dressed. In her later years, her hair turned the most beautiful white. Her eyes still sparkled and she had a wonderful smile.

Widowed for approximately 50 years, Edna never had any children. Neither did her sister Virginia, who is still going at 92 or 93. They lived in separate houses on the same street in San Jose. Nice houses with beautiful gardens. And they traveled all over the world together. There isn’t much of this planet that they missed. They weren’t all cushy cruises either; not that long ago, they took a freighter through the middle of Europe. Even when Edna started saying, “Oh, my traveling days are over,” we’d hear that she was going again. A stroke finally kept her home, but she lived a lot of years and used them well.

I often cringe at the term “celebration of life,” especially when the person died too young or suffered too long. But I think this truly will be a celebration, and I am selfishly looking forward to seeing my family again all gathered in one place.

I could live without the whole business at the airports, the shuttles, security, luggage check and retrieval, etc., but I have a whole lot of hugs waiting for me down south. Plus it’s warm as opposed to the clouds and cold hugging the Oregon Coast. I might not even need my raincoat. Imagine that.

Yes, that’s my dog

One thing about having a fence-jumping dog is that you get to meet the neighbors. Chico tends to go through the bushes to the large property behind us. The other day, I met Sande. Today I met her husband Jim. Their names are on the sign at the coffee kiosk up the highway. Something about congratulations on 49 years. Must be marriage; they’re too old to be 49 years old. They’re nice people, and they get a lot of traffic from people buying coffee and baked goods.

I also met their golden retriever-yellow lab puppy, who’s probably about eight months old. She is so soft and sweet I was ready to trade Jumping Black Flash for her. But no, Jim came out and called her home. Eventually, I retrieved my guy, panting, drooling and pulling at the leash.

Turns out Chico has been doing more visiting than I thought. Pat across the street is used to my dogs showing up in his workshop. He’ll chuckle and say, “Oh, your pups came over for a visit.” But I didn’t realize Chico was also visiting the family at the end of the block. “Oh, he’s always over here,” the woman told me today. I thought surely she meant a different dog. “Black dog with a purple collar?” “That’s him.” In fact, she helped me catch him today when he finally grew weary enough to slow down. I clipped the short leash on him and dragged him home, back to his sister, who can’t jump the fence. He drank about a gallon of water and collapsed on the floor. We might say he has had his walk for the day.

One might ask why the dog is still jumping the fence when I spent a fortune having a taller enclosure built and just last weekend had concrete laid down so it wouldn’t be so muddy. Well, once in a while I like to let the dogs stretch their legs in the bigger yard. They mostly run in circles, chasing each other, playing hide-and-attack, sniffing the grass and enjoying the scenery. But all I have to do is turn my back for one minute, and there’s Chico on the wrong side of the fence.

We couldn’t let this happen if we still lived in suburbia. I used to chase old Sadie down Safari Drive, and it was dangerous. Too many cars, too many people, too many loose dogs with attitude. Once she got out on the highway and froze in fear, while cars dodged around her. But here in the coastal forest, where only four families live full-time on our street and everybody loves dogs, it’s pretty safe. I just get a little extra exercise and a chance to talk to the neighbors. Good old Chico.

Working and running in the rain

It’s another rainy day on the Oregon Coast. We have had so many wet, cold, gray days that some of us can’t help fantasizing about driving south until we hit sunshine and warmth. The weather reports from back home in California taunt us with temperatures in the 70s and a big “S” for sun. My computer says it’s 39 degrees here right now at nearly 9:30 a.m.

But Oregonians are tough. They know that if they don’t work in the rain, nothing will get ever get done. As I type, the concrete guys are back. A couple days ago, these bold gentlemen in their slickers dug out the mud and scraps of lawn in the shady side of the new dog enclosure to prepare for the concrete. Now they’re laying strips of metal within the wooden forms and getting ready to pour, even though it’s raining sideways. If the rain continues, the slab will be stippled with raindrops. It seems appropriate.

I’m tempted to run out and write something in the wet concrete as soon as they leave. Meanwhile the dogs and I keep looking out the windows, the same mixture of eagerness, curiosity and anxiety on our faces.

Being unable to let the dogs into their enclosure the last two days has been a challenge. Chico jumped the old fence twice yesterday. On the next block, I met a neighbor named Sandy. “You’re the writer, aren’t you?” she asked as Chico zoomed past me and out of sight. “Yes,” I said and resumed the chase. Lord, that dog loves to run. He darted in and out of the driveways somewhat in the direction I was going. We arrived home at the same time. As I opened the door, he skidded over the step and across the carpet, his tongue hanging out like a foot-long piece of baloney. Whew!

Now it’s concrete

I’m going to be calling Chico and Annie the million-dollar mutts pretty soon. I just met with a concrete contractor to cover up the mud in their newly fenced dog yard with $2,000 worth of concrete. I must be crazy. Mud-crazy. The dogs have dug out all those holes I filled a couple weeks ago, and they’ve made several more. The grass is trashed. When I open the door, they cover my clothes with mud. It’s so thick on the laundry room floor I could fingerpaint in it. Outside, the mud sucks at my feet as I pick up the poop and claim the fence stakes Annie has pulled out, approximately 30 of them. The dogs and I have tracked black footprints all over the kitchen linoleum and the den and living room rugs. Sometimes I can catch the dogs and wipe all eight feet before they get in, but they’re quick, and once the floors are muddy, I just give up until bedtime when I mop the kitchen again.

Their whole yard won’t be concrete. They’ll still have a patch of grass and dirt, but they’ll have 12 feet of concrete in the area where the sun never hits. It’s the north side of the house and that section never dries out. In fact, I need to power-wash the mold and dirt off the walls. Welcome to Oregon.

The concrete’s coming next week. Meanwhile I bought some stepping stones at Wal-Mart so I had a dry place to walk. The dogs are using them, too. They’re not dumb, those canines. I think when they see their new yard, they’ll stretch out on the concrete, thinking, Ah, no mud.

Jetty meditation

Yesterday I parked at the edge of Newport’s south jetty, my getaway place, opened the car windows, removed my shoes and socks and stretched out in the front seat of my Honda Element. It was one of those days when I needed to get away from everything and do some hard thinking. My husband’s Alzheimer’s and his move last month to a care home, possibly forever, has turned my life upside down and I’m still trying to figure how to deal with everything that has suddenly changed.

Back in San Jose, I used to drive to the Alviso district. Once a bustling port for ships moving freight from the South Bay to San Francisco, it had turned into a stinking mudhole. Sulfur rankled the air, sea grass grew up through the muddy water, and broken beer bottles littered the parking lot. With its falling-down shacks too near the landfill, Alviso had a bad reputation. But in a big city, it was hard to get away from the crowds and find a bit of ocean to stare at.

Newport’s south jetty is not like that. The beauty there between the Yaquina Bridge and the ocean simply dissolves stress. I stare out at the water and watch cormorants and rhinoceros auklets dive and splash. A sea lion pops up, ducks back under, then comes up yards closer. Gulls glide overhead and squirrels skitter over the rocks of the jetty. On a warm day, I would sit on one of those rocks with my notebook, but most days aren’t that warm.

A sailboat floats near the north side of the jetty as a turquoise-blue fishing boat motors under the bridge, heading seaward. Between the two columns of rocks, the water is smooth, but it gets choppy where boats climb the invisible barrier between bay and ocean. Riding it in the Discovery Tour Boat a few years ago, we slapped that water hard as spray drenched anyone daring to stand near the front. Fishermen have died in this transition area, and tourists have been washed off the wet rocks during high tide.

But where I sit in my car, it’s safe. As I stretch out my body, the knots in my mind untie. Sometimes I write poetry, sometimes I play my harmonica, sometimes I weep, sometimes I just sit and look. Meditation comes in many forms. Last week it was shoveling dirt; this week it’s staring at the jetty until the chatter in my mind stops and I finally pay attention.

Shoveling dirt

Guess I’ll lie on the floor awhile.

I have just finished shoveling 16 fence holes worth of dirt into the holes the dogs have dug. After about the fourth one, you start to sweat, your back starts to ache and then it begins to spasm. You guzzle cold water but never need to go to the bathroom. About the 10th hole, you realize the reason the wheelbarrow pushes so hard is that it has a flat tire—and you have no idea how to fix it. You daydream about a handsome man dropping by and insisting that you hand him the shovel, but no one comes.

You shovel and you shovel and you shovel. You take breaks, sip water, lie on the deck trying to straighten out your back. You put on your dead mother’s hat to protect your already sunburned face. You shovel until the dirt is spread everywhere. You learn that mud is heavier than dry dirt but stays on the shovel better. By the the last pile of dirt, you have fallen into a rhythm. Fill the shovel, walk it over, dump it. Stop thinking, feel the rhythm. It must be how men who do this all day keep at it. Their muscles develop as mine have not. I will be very sore tomorrow.

It’s late, you hurt, but it’s done. You know the dogs will scatter some of the dirt around again, but you hope enough is left that when the fence people come tomorrow, they’ll see it and say, “Wow, you did all that by yourself?”

I probably should have called someone to help, but it’s done now. I go out to the far end of the yard, remove my mud-caked snow boots, my woolly gray socks and Mom’s hat, and stretch out under the Sitka spruce. I feel the grass and pine needles tickling my back through my tee shirt. Looking straight up through the branches at the blue sky, I can see red blossoms where the sun hits. I admire the rough bark of this tree, so old, so strong, a wonderful home for birds and squirrels. I remember lying on the grass at my childhood home on Fenley Avenue and think this is now as much my home as that is. I have earned possession of it by my hard work.

The wind chimes tinkle in E minor. A squirrel chirps. A hummingbird buzzes by. A Monarch butterfly glides past. They don’t care if there are holes in the lawn, but I am proud of my work. I hope the rain and seed will bring out the grass and make it lush again.

I finally stand and walk barefoot across the lawn. The grass feels good on my feet, cool, soft, sap-full. I feel the warm wood of the deck, the cold roughness of the sidewalk, the colder smoothness of the concrete laundry room floor and then the nubbiness of the carpet that massages my toes.

Finally, after so much winter, I am warm.