Friday, January 2, 2009

In Search of a Sense of Place

Washington Journal

I flew to the Midwest in October for the burial and memorial service for my mother’s last surviving sister. Aunt Virginia died at 93 and had been quite active until recently. She bought a new car just four years ago, using it to drive to the Central Christian Church and to the grocery store in Seymour, a town in southern Indiana spawned by the crossing of the Baltimore and Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroads in the mid-19th Century. I remember a thriving downtown from family visits when Eisenhower was president, but Seymour is now flanked by Interstate 65 and shopping centers and the downtown looks deserted. Nonetheless, the rest of this small city seems healthy enough with a new high school and rows of wood frame houses with front porches shaded by towering archways of trees. For me, my brother and my two cousins, it is a town full of good memories.

Virginia Green Otto was born in 1915, the second of three daughters to David Green and Nellie Humes Green. My mother was the first, born in 1911 and my Aunt LaDonna was born in 1917. David and Nellie died in the flu epidemic in 1919 or shortly thereafter. None of the girls could remember exactly. What they all remembered was their grandmother, Carrie Berkeley Humes, taking them into her house just down the road on East Third Street in Seymour and various aunts and uncles, of which there were seven, plus a great uncle or two, sending money periodically to keep the girls out of the orphanage.

Virginia married Donald Otto, also of Seymour, in the early 1930s. They had no children because Donald, whom everyone called Beanie, did not want any, or so Mom said. So my brother Steven and LaDonna’s two children, Dick and Donna, were the closest kinfolk who gathered with spouses and a couple of now grown children for the brief burial service at the cemetery, which we had all visited many times. It was a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and warm, not just sort of warm but eighty-plus degrees warm, Indian summer with the leaves turning and the fields a golden yellow.

There is something about a burial, as opposed to the increasingly popular cremation that imparts the unmistakable sense of a life’s trajectory. For Virginia, as for her sisters, life began at a small house on East Third Street. She went away to Franklin College and for a few years to Cincinnati, but for most of her adult years she lived at 215 Johnson Street. She played golf and tennis when younger and remained active in her church throughout her life. She and Beanie loved to go to the horse races. Whenever they visited us in the Chicago area, they would go to Arlington Park. By one of life’s happier coincidences, I walked in the door of her new duplex at the Lutheran Home several years ago a few minutes before the start of the Kentucky Derby. We each had a beer and watched on her little television in the kitchen.

When Uncle Don died over twenty years ago, she stayed in that little white clapboard house on Johnson Street until recently, when she moved into a duplex at the Lutheran Home on the other side of town. On family occasions she still had so much stamina that we took to referring to her as the “energizer bunny.” Immediately upon my arrival on another occasion, we set out for a brisk walk around the neighborhood. It was close to 90 degrees and humid.

She died there on October 4, and now lies here, next to her husband in Riverside Cemetery. Not scattered somewhere, but here, on this piece of land, under this stone, next to her husband, among her ancestors, where the leaves now turn and birds and insects sing. Here.

The cousins went to dinner afterward at the Story Inn, some twenty miles north and east of Seymour in Brown County. The Inn advertises itself as being “in one inconvenient location since 1851.” It appears that the inn and restaurant actually opened for business in the old general store some thirty years ago, but who can quibble with great advertising? The restaurant consisted of two large rooms set with white table cloths and fine crystal amidst assorted junk still on the shelves from the old general store. Three college kids performed classical music inside on the flute, violin and keyboard, while outside a bar served up beer in bottles to a couple dozen bikers. Thus all generations and social classes come to the Story Inn.

After everyone else had left I sat in the foyer for at least an hour listening to the music and taking in the atmosphere. The place intensely reminded me of Vermont and New Hampshire, where I lived for about a decade. After a while I found some paper and took note of the following:
A hornet’s nest next to the door (no hornets)
Working Coke machine that delivered Coke in the old hour-glass bottles
A huge glass jar full of corks
Blackboard with dessert menu
Antique baby buggy suspended from the ceiling, below which sat two kids playing checkers with bottle caps
Working dial pay phone with slots for nickels, dimes and quarters
Cast iron letter box
Magazines in old wooden ammunition boxes
Photograph of the children of the one room Storey school, ca 1910
Old Standard Oil pumps out front, with illuminated glass crowns on top, meter reading 40.9¢ per gallon
Shelves full of old bottles, brown beer and cough syrup bottles, blue Vicks Vapo-Rub jars with faded wrappers, various indistinct green bottles; cigar boxes, more ammunition boxes; various tools and implements, more jars, gadgets, gewgaws, krimkrams, whatsits, flooglemeisers, whatchacallits, thingamajigs . . .

In addition to grief for the passing of Virginia and for the knowledge of life’s fragility and brevity, I was swept by a powerful sense of peace and gratitude for the beauty of this land, for my family, for their stories, for us the living standing under the trees, where the sunshine felt warm on dark slacks and coats, amidst rows of stones marked with family names: Green, Humes, Burkley, Schneck, Martin, Otto.

I flew back to California the next day, taking the bus from San Francisco Airport up to the Napa Valley, which became my home in the spring. I picked up the battered old Toyota pickup – 300,000 miles on it, a beaut -- I had been driving all summer and stopped at Peet’s Coffee, where a deep, dark, creamy, complex triple espresso brought me back to life, then drove up Highway 29 to Saint Helena, stopping at the health spa where I work for a swim and a hot soak. There is not a lot to do in the Napa Valley besides eat and drink, hike and bike, and drop into one of numerous of spas and health clubs that dot the valley floor along with wineries and restaurants. But one does all of these things extremely well and I have grown to love the place.

I spent much of last winter in Washington working on applications for various fellowships, networking, getting around town to attend the literally dozens of panels, lectures and presentations that take place in the nation’s capital. When it became clear in May that none of these applications was likely to yield anything soon, I departed for Napa and settled in for a good six months. It was summer when I arrived in May and still essentially summer in November when the anticipation of a new administration pulled me back to Washington for another try.

(That’s right. Those columns I wrote this summer “from Washington” were written in California. Heh-heh-heh.)

I got to know the local restaurants and some of the bartenders, who were often happy to offer a taste of whatever wine was open, and grew accustomed to a glass of red wine after work. I met a lot of people through my landlord, who became a good friend, the sort of guy whom people spontaneously call “Dude!” The dude even lent me his truck, above. I also met a lot of people through the spa, the Rotary Club, and two churches in town, where I was invited to preach a couple of times.

Most days it was more than fun to practice massage in Saint Helena. It was warm enough to be outside in an enclosed garden. The setting is not as spectacular as at Esalen, where one works on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, but it was very peaceful and allowed for deep and meditative work. Sometimes I describe this work as making the world a better place one body at a time, or use the Biblical concept of “tikkun olam,” – repairing the world.

Here in Washington it has been unusually cold, but the severe storms all passed to the north of us, as usual. The latest one is just giving us a dusting of snow and some freezing rain. My favorite liturgical experience of the Christmas season remains the service of lessons and carols broadcast live from King’s College, Cambridge. This year I was particularly struck by one of the prayers:

Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.