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Tonight, I went to Happy Canyon. This is hardly news; I’ve been going to Happy Canyon far too often since my third birthday, when I first attended. This year is special, though, not because it’s Happy Canyon’s 100th birthday (it is), and not because it’s my 55th birthday (which it also is) but because this year My Son the Tubist is playing in the band. We all have certain benchmarks in our lives; for me, this is one. I’ll be writing more about it later, but for now, let me share one of my very favorite Happy Canyon memories–my son’s very first visit to a place where I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time–or I would have, if I was capable of being embarrassed over going to see the same show, over and over again, as often as I can. For years this was so I could shout at an Old Family Friend, who for years got his legs cut off four times a year. It was also because I am something of a connoiseur of Falling Off Horses, and Happy Canyon being what it is, it is the rare show that doesn’t include somebody biting the dirt. But I digress.

This story is included in Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal, but it says something I love about my life–and have loved about it for a very long time. It also serves as an excellent scene-setter. When I get around to writing about this year, you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on. This will allow me to focus on the Really Important Stuff–the tuba brumming away out of sight, a deep gold river of sound connecting my son, out of sight in the orchestra pit, and me, high in the darkened stands. Grab a cushie for your tushie (it’s necessary on those Hard Happy Canyon Benches), fill a flask with hot chocoloate or coffee laced with the alcoholic beverage of your choice, if you’re so inclined, grab a Pendleton shirt, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Painted snowcaps turn gold, then pink, as the first stars twinkle in the evening sky. Dust and summer night lie heavy on my skin. The narrow wooden bench bites into my thighs. I shift. The lady pressed far too tightly against my left side heaves a martyred sigh and looks pointedly at my too-generous hips.

“I can’t get comfortable, Mommy,” whines five-year-old Alex.

“I know,” I say quietly. “Stand up ’til it starts.”

He huffs, squirms, and stares around the crowded grandstand. “Why are the mountains pink?”

“Because the man up there is shining a pink light on them.” I point to the light guy, high overhead in his little nest in the steel girders.

“Why?”

“So it will look like it’s getting dark.”

“But it is getting dark.” Alex’s chubby finger stabs at the stars glimmering above the painted skyline.

“I know.”

“Where’s the man?”

“Up there.” I point again to the light guy’s airy perch in the rafters overhead.

“So why does the man have to shine that pink light on the mountains? Why can’t he just let them turn pink by themselves?”

“Hush!” hisses the lady beside me.

“Forget the mountains,” I say hastily. “Look, it’s starting.” I point down into the sawdust-covered arena, where a tall man in a cavalry uniform is escorting an elderly Native American man to center stage. I recognize Chief Clarence Burke’s heavily beaded buckskins and feathered war bonnet. The cavalry officer looks more like a warden than an escort. I think they might have chosen more tactfully. But this is Happy Canyon. It doesn’t pay to be too critical.

The packed grandstand falls silent. Chief Burke raises his arms and closes his eyes. His cracked, cadenced voice drifts on the night air, faint and rough as pine smoke.

“What’s he saying, Mommy?” Alex asks, tugging on my arm.

“Shhh,” I whisper. “Listen. He’s welcoming us.”

The sounds float over us, as they must have floated over the trappers, the explorers, and the missionaries. Chief Burke falls silent. His arms drop. The cavalry officer steps up to the microphone. “Chief Clarence Burke of the Umatilla Indians welcomes you to Happy Canyon.” They turn and pace out of the arena. Music swells, lights go up on a line of tipis, and we are in Happy Canyon.

I settle back—at least as much as one can settle back on a narrow, unpadded wooden bench.  Alex stares open-mouthed at two Native American men carrying a deer down a switchback trail to the village. A deep, unmistakably Native American voice informs us that one of the young men has shot his first deer and is now eligible to marry. It’s been nearly ten years since I last visited the canyon, but I remember this part and cringe in anticipation.

This is how it has always gone: The happy couple stands on the second level of the four-level stage. Somebody backstage plays a scratched recording of “The Indian Love Call.” Then the newlyweds walk down the path to the first level, perform a wedding dance with their friends and family, and go into a tipi at the edge of the village, presumably to make sweet, sweet love.

Happy Canyon may have been an annual visit for me for nearly twenty years, but it’s Alex’s first time, and I’m not sure that his manners extend to enduring a crackly recording of a song that sets even my teeth on edge.

I lean down and whisper, “There’s going to be an awful song now, honey, but I need you to just not say anything, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispers absently. “What are they doing with that deer?” His eyes never leave the arena, where the village has awakened and people in richly beaded buckskins go about cooking, fishing—there’s a pool down there—visiting, trading, celebrating the young man’s first kill, and preparing for his wedding. I dig in my purse for backup. “Here, have some chocolate milk,” I whisper, thinking that the bottle will muffle any cries of pain or outrage the scratched record may provoke—and in the meantime help him forget about what seems to be happening to the deer.

He sips, still gazing at the village. A woman’s voice, still unmistakably Native American, informs us that the wedding is being celebrated. Sure enough, the couple, their friends, and family are dancing the wedding dance to the beat of drums. There has been no “Indian Love Call,” and I’ve never heard a woman narrate the pageant. Well, well, well. The times, they are a-changing in the canyon.

The dancing ends and the happy couple heads for the end tipi. Village life goes on. Trappers, explorers, and missionaries arrive. A lone wagon creaks in. The woman’s voice, deep, cadenced, and filled with old sorrow, tells of a clash of worlds. Fighting breaks out. A white girl is dragged into the village, screaming. A few minutes later men on horseback pound in, firing blanks into the air. Chaos erupts. The girl leaps onto a running horse and escapes. The villagers scatter.

More wagons roll in. Pioneers climb wearily out and gather around the campfire cooking, singing, and dancing. We in the stadium sing with them: “Skip to my Lou,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” and “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain When She Comes.” Feathered war bonnets appear among the bushes, and more fighting breaks out. The cavalry arrives. A man in a frock coat rides in and the tribal leaders negotiate. The woman tells us how the tribal elders signed away their birthright without knowing it because it had never occurred to them that one might presume to own the earth.

At last the end comes. The tipis are struck and loaded onto horses. The village dies. The woman tells about life on a reservation created from wasteland, about the struggle to maintain a cultural identity in a world changed beyond recognition, about working with one’s enemy for the common good, about salvaging life from destruction.

“When are they coming back?” Alex asks.

“Never,” I say, and I am sad.

The lights go down. “Wham wham wham wham-wham smack!” echoes in the darkness. The lights go up on a frontier town. Dance hall girls walk the streets. The town drunk staggers across the sawdust arena and tumbles into the pool where the Indians fished, pops out, and hotfoots it back to the saloon. The Pony Express rider flashes in, switches horses, and flashes out.

The stagecoach rolls in. A redheaded couple emerges. They supervise the removal of their steamer trunk from the rear of the coach, open it, and pull out eight children, all attired in bib overalls and red yarn wigs. A group of pigtailed Chinese men trot over, hands tucked in sleeves, bowing. The blatant ethnic stereotyping appalls me. I am amazed it has survived. The laundrymen don’t seem to find it troubling; they hustle the family into the laundry. A few minutes later the family emerges clean and pressed. Boys in flesh-colored tights plunge into the pool to emerge dripping and screaming.

“What’s going on?” Alex asks.

He might well ask. Happy Canyon has no plot. Rather, it’s a whole group of subplots, which, because the performance is live, using live animals, antique props, and amateur performers, may or may not happen the same from night to night, or from year to year.
“Just watch,” I say. A mismatched couple drives in, the wife tall and muscular, the husband delicate and natty. He grabs a dance hall girl and bends her over his arm like Rudolph Valentino. His wife spots him and, together with the other god-fearing women of town, attacks him with a broom. The Chinese laundrymen rush out, pull him to his feet, and drag him into the laundry. Moments later he emerges clean and pressed. His wife tosses him onto the buggy seat and they drive off.

“When are the Indians coming back?” Alex asks.

“They’re not,” I whisper back.

The dance hall girls do a lively can-can to a rollicking tune that has us all clapping and stamping. The pageant is nearly over. A Native American man mounted on a pinto pony races across the arena. An American flag flutters over his head. Man and pony zigzag up the trails high into the scenery, and come to a halt on a painted mountaintop. The flag flutters in the golden spotlight. The orchestra strikes up the national anthem. We stand.
Ten years ago, the response was half-hearted. Some stood, hands over their hearts. Some stood laughing and talking. Some slouched in their seats. But this is September 12, 2002, a year and a day after the World Trade Center fell. Today there are two spotlights on the stage. One is trained on the Native American man, his pinto pony, and his flag. The other rests on three uniformed men standing on another painted mountaintop across the stage. The men are three tanned local boys with sunburned, muscular necks, hair like ripe wheat, heavy shoulders. I suspect they spent their summer driving trucks and combines and going into town on Saturday nights to drag race on Main Street and drink beers with their girls in the parking lot up by the old Carnegie library. I wonder where they will be a year from now.

But next year is next year. This year everyone stands, and everyone sings. We sing about rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air, and how we saw through the night that the grand old flag was still there. We sing about spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains, abundant harvests, and about how this land was made for you and me, and I feel again the tug of this land where I was born, and I know again that while some people can leave their birthplace and remake themselves in strange lands, I am not one of them.
I tried. I left as soon as I could, and I only came back under duress. Walking the familiar roads and fields is as much pain as homecoming. Every step holds memories I have worked hard to erase, as well as memories I cherish. And yet as I stand here in this darkened stadium, singing along with a thousand people, staring down at the lit representation of a past that never was, breathing in the heady fumes of beer and popcorn, I am again a little girl, a teenager, a fledgling woman, and the night again holds the magic of endless possibilities.

A whiff of charbroiled hamburger from the Charburger Drive-In across the street tickles my nose, and for a moment I am jammed into one of its battered booths with my sisters and as many of their friends as my Grandpa could shoehorn into his car. Each of us has a charburger, a shake, and fries and dipping sauce on  the table in front of us. And as the crowd we are talks, laughs, and teases, Grandpa looks at us all and smiles. When his gaze falls on me he leans over the table and flicks my french fry box with one gnarled brown finger. “You eat these, doncha, Bodie?” he asks. And I smile and nod and eat a fry to please him, even though the Charburger’s fries aren’t all that great unless you eat them really, really fast, before they cool.

Back in the stands, Alex leans against me and lays his head on my shoulder. I lift him and settle him on my lap, falling into the slow, easy sway that is the mark of mothers in my world. I lean my cheek on Alex’s curly hair and sing softly about Betsy from Pike. But I am not really thinking about the songs anymore.

The falling of the towers has reminded us all that America’s freedoms, privileges, and resources are not givens. We are not sure how to best preserve them, and the debate is growing increasingly bitter, but we are all agreed that we have taken our gifts for granted for far too long.

“Look, Mommy, they came back,” Alex says happily, lifting his head from my shoulder. He’s right. The Indians have come back. Along with the rest of the cast, they fill the painted mountains and forests, surround the man on the pinto pony, the flag, and the sunburned local boys. They spill over into the sawdust, buckskins mingling with calico mingling with cavalry blue with sequined velvet and feathers. Alex heaves a happy sigh, lays his head back on my shoulder, and is instantly asleep.

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I drive back to my mother’s house through streets full of what we scornfully called “drugstore cowboys”—all hat and no saddle was how we described them. There is dancing on Main Street. The carnival is in town, as it is every year, and as I ease my car through the crowds on Main Street the lights of the Ferris wheel circle overhead. The warm fragrance of corn dogs and cotton candy fills the car. I speed up as I head out of town then slow down again and creep carefully up the steep, rutted track that leads to my mother’s house high on a hill overlooking the Umatilla River Valley.

As I round the last corner I see that she has left the porch lights on for me. For just a moment my stomach twists in the old, familiar cocktail of fear, love, pain, and aching sweetness that I felt each year at the end of summer. And at last I understand what it is. It is the pull of the land. I was born less than sixty miles from this spot. I grew up here. I ate foods grown in this soil. I gave the land my sweat and my labor. In turn, the land gave me what I needed to survive—food for my body, and food for my soul.

It gave me cool mornings scented with wet grass and alfalfa. It gave me ripened wheat fields under scalding sun. It gave me desert hills split by long, straight roads shimmering in the summer sun. It gave me cornfields rustling in the night. It gave me the howls of coyotes, the clatter of balers, the whistle of the wind, and the cries of killdeer, meadowlarks, and mourning doves. It aged me. It renewed me. And sometimes in the evening when the sky turned to pearl, silver, and cobalt and the chill wind cut through my T-shirt and bib overalls, I hardly knew where I ended and the world began. This land was my land.

And I walked away—ran away, actually, driven by demons I didn’t understand and couldn’t have faced if I had. I ran away, but now I’m back, and as I pull into my mother’s driveway I understand the truth—I might have belonged here once, but I left, and the world from which I fled went on without me. Tonight has been a taste, just a taste, of one of the best parts of the life I left. And now I must walk into the house, and face down the fears that drove me away in the first place. I carry Alex inside, slip him into his pajamas while he sleeps, and pull on my nightgown. The fresh smell of soap and sunshine surrounds me, and I realize my mother has been busy while I have been gone. I lie down beside Alex and pull the fresh sheets over us.

I close my eyes and think about Happy Canyon. I remember the drums, the chants, the measured, dignified dances, the wagon train’s fiddle music and square dances, the can-can girls, and I realize that in spite of past injustices and wrongs, in spite of culture clashes, we who belong to this land—even those of us who have left, and are just beginning to find our way back—have something in common. We have our songs. There are the songs that divide us—and sometimes set our teeth on edge—and the songs we sing together. We would be the poorer for losing either.

I think again about all of us in the stands, singing together. I marvel that so many of us can remember the words, and I wonder. In twenty years, will Alex bring his children to Happy Canyon? Will the stands be full of people who remember to stand, and who still know the words of the songs that bound us tonight, as well as the songs that divided us? Will Alex know our songs? Will I remember them? Will I have made this land Alex’s land? Will I have earned my right to again call it my own?

The next morning Alex and I start the long trip back to our apartment in Gresham. On the way out of town I stop at the music store and buy a song book.

 A note about the illustrations: These are based on some art I developed for a traveling exhibit of the Applegate Trail a number of years ago. The Southern Oregon Historical graciously agreed that I might use them, provided I mention their name. So I did. Thanks, Southern Oregon Historical Society–I wish I lived close enough to still do stuff for you. I think of you often and kindly.

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Here’s The Boy, hauling his stuff to the car. He’s wearing his camp shirt–all the campers wear them the last day for the concert.

Brass camp is over for this year. The House Leroy and I make the two-and-change drive up to Wallowa Lake last Saturday to pick up The Boy. As I saw him walking across the meadow, lugging his tuba, sleeping bag, and duffle bag, it hit me how very fast he’s growing up, and how empty the house is without him in it. Having him home again feels like having my heart back. And yet, we will do this again next year, not only because he loves it, but because it offers him an opportunity to hone a skill, to make friends, to stretch, to play miniature golf, drive go-carts, and meet people who share his love of music.

He went electronically equipped this year–he took his Kindle and his 3DS. However, he says he didn’t spend much time with them–he was busy, and when he wasn’t busy he was having fun.

Camp wasn’t all about music, though–he reported that, during his stint in the kitchens, he learned about why deadheading plants is good for them (shout-out to the kitchen lady who told him that).

Here’s one of the cabins where the kids stay at music camp. Lessons are held in yurts, or in the meadow.

Here’s the lodge–and the family barbecue, held Saturday. Families can eat, then drive down to the town of Wallowa, where the concert is held at the Wallowa Elementary School.

And so we started the drive back. The camp is up at the far end of Wallowa Lake. The boy was full of lake factoids, some possibly true.

Here’s The Boy, posing with Random Stuff From the Back Seat–in this case a book, “Chemorella,” a book I am considering reviewing. The bald lady on the cover seems to have inspired him–he shaved his head last night.

The concert’s quite long–a couple hours–because each camper performs in three groups–a chamber group, an instrument-specific choir, and the massed ensemble. Sorry for the crummy pictures–I was working with ambient light, in a gym.

Here’s the whole group–there are too many kids to fit onto the stage, so they spill out onto the main floor. The music is amazing. If anybody has video or audio, I’d do a good deal to get a copy (or a link, if it’s posted).

For us, the trip to Wallowa involves two mountain ranges: These are the Wallowas.

The Wallowas again…

Between the Wallowas and the Blue Mountains (the second mountain range we must cross to get home) lies a high, fertile valley full of farms, fields, horses, cows, and lovely old barns. I would have pictures, but I fell asleep, which is how I prefer to navigate the twisting roads through the Blues.


Here’s Holst’s “Second Suite in F for Military Band.” This is played by a whole band–we we just heard the first movement, played by a tuba choir–amazing.


Here’s a YouTube clip of “Hornpipe,” from “Sea Sketches,” by Ian MacDonald. The part we heard starts at about the five minute mark.

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The Boy is in the band. I knew that. Three days ago he informed me he was also in “Honor Band,” and would be playing in the Oregon Music Educators Association District VI Honor Choir/Honor Band Festival Concert. I signed the permission form, coughed up money, and then for two days got up at obscenely early hours to get him down to the school to catch the bus for an hour and a half ride over to the heart of Cow Country, which is where the Festival was being held this year.

Last night as the sun was setting over the harvested wheat fields I made the drive over to the heart of Cow Country myself, to hear the best high school musicians in our part of the state play and sing. It was amazing. I don’t have a DVD yet, and wouldn’t know how to share it if I did, but I’ve got YouTube and found my favorite pieces to share with you. I even tried to match sound and tempo, as much as possible.

So imagine that you live in Cow Country or thereabouts, and that I’ve pulled up in front of your house and honked the horn. You’ve grabbed your jacket (nights are cold here) and your purse (if you’re female), locked your door, and hurried down your front walk to the street. My mom’s already riding shotgun, so you climb in the back, but first you have to push aside the blankets smart folks always carry in their cars around here this time of year. You also have to push aside The Boy’s middle school football jersey and pads, which I have been meaning to take back to the school and keep forgetting. But no matter, you’re in, and the door has closed. All is well. We go through the Umatilla India Reservation and pass the casino, then get onto the freeway. This is what we have to do in order to get to the concert–up here many roads snake through the back country, but they are field roads, and sometimes end without warning. Also they are not paved. To get from our part of Cow Country to the part of Cow Country where the festival is being held the freeway is necessary; it’s the only paved road for miles.

There’s a funny squeak under my hood and I worry that the belt tightener I had replaced a few weeks ago is perhaps not all it might be. It came from a junk yard, after all–who knows what it’s been through? I give thanks privately that my mother is along, because I forgot to charge up my cell phone before I left home. If the belt tightener gives up the ghost I’ll borrow Mom’s cell phone and call Triple A. All is well.

We find the school (the nice thing about small towns is that it’s pretty easy to find just about anything), identify the door we will enter, park, go inside, and pay the $2 the man at the door is asking for. And here we sit, in the auditorium in the middle of Cow Country, my mom (who I have picked up in another corner of Cow Country and brought with me), you, my best pal Jeanne, who I have known since I was five years old, and me. Turns out her sister’s girl is also in the concert, which is a nice surprise to all of us, since her sister has neglected to mention anything about it. While we wait for the music to start we catch up–Jeanne shows us her wallet pictures of her grandchildren, her son in the Navy (or something with a sailor hat, anyhow) and then the band files in to sit on the other side of the auditorium while the choir performs. Jeanne hurries over to track down her flautist niece, and learn if her sister plans to come to the concert. I read my program, which lists the names and schools of all of the participating musicians and band directors, and discover that one of The Boy’s fellow tubists comes from the tiny town in an incredibly remote corner of Cow Country where I was born, where I spent my summers working on the ranch where my dad was foreman. The youngest son of my dad’s ex-boss is now the band teacher in that tiny town. I look around and try to spot him. I can’t, but this is hardly surprising. After all, I last saw him when he was about three.

A gray-haired man stops by my seat, leans down, and informs me that back in the days when I was too young to drive on the highways he used to work harvest at the ranch. I remember him well–he was my first crush. I am very glad I’ve covered all the gray in my own hair. I’m still a stout middle-aged lady, but at least my hair looks nice. He tells me he has a print brokering business and a daughter performing in the choir, then leaves to find his seat. Jeanne comes back. She has found her niece. Her sister may or may not show. The lights go down, the choir files in, and magic begins.

This first number is “Requiem,” was composed by Eliza Gilkyson. It was written for the tsunami victims a few years ago. Here’s a choir singing it (not our kids, obviously, but you get the idea.) The words are incredibly complex, and combined with the music incredibly touching (for me, at least)

Here’s a spiritual, “Wade in de Water.” This was The Boy’s favorite.

Intermission

We talk amongst ourselves while band directors and men they have dragooned into helping tear apart the choir risers and haul them off the stage, then set up a hundred chairs and music stands. And then the band shuffles in, carrying their instruments. The percussion and brass sections go in first, and there is The Boy, tallest kid on the stage, all in black except for a white shirt that he’s wearing under a black sweater, hair freshly cut. I look at him and think how beautiful he is, but of course I don’t say that–there are limits to how much a mother should brag on a given night, and I’ve already passed mine. I look at the other tuba players and wonder which one comes from the town where I was born.

“I can’t see my niece,” Jeanne says. “I think she’s behind that girl in the front row.” We spend the rest of the concert trying to find her niece’s face. And then the music starts, and we quiet down enough to be annoyed by the woman in the row behind us, who is either crushing croutons or eating Chex Party Mix out of a crackly bag. I’m sure it annoys you, too, but never mind. Ignore her. We are. All is well. The band director steps up onto his little box, and here we go. Here’s the “Jackson Lake Overture.”

… and here’s “Polly Oliver,” an English folksong. There’s a little added drama here when somebody in the percussion section kicks the bass drum over into the boy playing the sousaphone. But never mind. We wait while they roll the drum back to their section and wrestle it back onto its stand and the sousaphone boy rights himself and checks his instrument for new dents. All is well. The conductor lifts his arms, and …

…and “Prairie Dances”…

… and finally, the number The Boy and I agreed was probably the best, “Fairest of the Fair,” a John Phillip Sousa march I’d never heard, composed in honor of a beautiful woman manning a booth at a fair where Sousa was playing. He composed a song for her. The year was 1908, the same year my Grandpa was born.

And it is over. Jeanne leaves us in the parking lot. We get on the freeway again and follow trucker tail lights through the dark, empty fields to Mom’s house, and then it’s just the two of us. You fight free of the football pads and climb into the front seat and we start the last leg of the journey. I speed a bit, because the bus is due back at the school in half an hour, and we have about 40 minutes of driving to do. I drop you off, and make the last of the trip in the quiet car, listening to the funny noise under my hood. I breathe a sigh of relief when pull into the school parking lot and the bus is not there. I have made it in time…unless they’ve already been and gone? I worry. But then I realize that, because I broke the law, I arrived well before the bus was scheduled to arrive. All is well. If the part under the hood gives way we can get a ride home with somebody. We are among friends.

And there’s the bus.

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Yesterday the House Leroy and I drove up through the Blue Mountains and into the Wallowas to Wallowa Lake to retrieve The Boy. It’s a good time of year for it; the fields down here in the valley are a patchwork of green, gold, and brown, but as we drove up into the Blues the fields turned to green meadows filled with wildflowers, and snowmelt streams still edge with icy lace poured down into the swollen rivers. As we reached the summit of the Blues snowbanks still lingered in shadows, and banks of daffodils bloomed by abandoned cabins.

This used to be a big area for logging, but since the industry basically folded years ago the only real industries are ranching, and in some places, tourism. People come here to go rafting, fishing, and hiking. Some come to pan for gold. We came to retrieve Patrick, The Boy, from Brass Camp.

Oregon is  a state of contrasts. We have the urban, civilized, and agricultural Willamette Valley corridor. We have the agricultural north central part of the state, where I live. And we have thousands of square miles of empty space divided into desert and forest. Traveling from my home in the agricultural north central part of the state up into the Wallowas is like going to another world. The very energy of the mountains is different.

As we drove I pursued my usual hobby of picking out houses I love. It’s become something of a joke on car trips. By now both Patrick and the House Leroy can pick out my houses for me, with some accuracy. But when I started picking out old farmhouses situated in meadows and log cabins tucked into the forests Leroy said, “Yeah, right..you, a woman alone living up here. You’d better learn how to shoot straight.”

Turns out Leroy was just remembering what I should have remembered from my childhood in the mountains: People who move to the backwoods in Oregon generally do it for a reason. Some, like me, just love the energy and solitude. Many do it because they Don’t Play Well With Others. Some even Run With Scissors. Living alone in what is essentially wilderness demands a certain set of skills–and a certain type of personality. If you don’t come with it, I suspect you acquire it. And in all that wilderness, there’s not enough civilization to knock the rough edges off. People who live in Oregon’s wild places have a Strong Flavor. For many that’s an unaquired Acquired Taste.

I thought of myself squatted by my front door, sighting down my rifle barrel at a troublesome neighbor come to steel my firewood, and while I didn’t stop picking out the houses I loved, I did stop speculating about possibly moving into one of them.

And then we were there, at the camp, and there was Patrick, walking toward me across the field between the lodge and the parking lot. He said hello, and then he fished his DS out of the back seat, lifted it in his hand, and said, “Going to go get some pictures…fond memories!” And he walked away.

And that set the tone for the rest of our time at the camp–he brought his stuff from his cabin, and put it into the car, then headed off for his tuba–and forgot to come back. I watched him wandering through the crowd by the lodge, talking to friends and snapping pictures. He started back toward the me, then turned around and went back for the forgotten tuba. We got it shoehorned into the trunk and then went to stand in line for the barbecue.

We ate our hotdogs, fruit chunks, potato salad, and jello sitting on the grass in the sun–and then he was off with his DS, talking to friends and shooting pictures. And then we started back through the mountains toward the auditorium where the last event of Brass Camp was scheduled–a concert.

We parked the car, got out the tuba, and Patrick disappeared with it. I went into the auditorium and found a seat. Parents and family began to stream in and fill the other chairs. By the time the camp director welcomed us the room was full.

The concert began. A five-piece group. A nine-piece group. A stageful of trombones. A stageful of trumpets. The music was incredible. I sat there listening to the bright, clear notes of the trombones and trumpets, the smooth mellow notes of the horns, and then, at last, the deep, velvety tones of the tubas.

There were a lot of them, and they came in different sizes. When Patrick started taking tuba lessons I had thought they were pretty much limited to marching bands and comedy music. Over the years I have come to appreciate the finer  points of the instrument as I listened to him play, and compete in musical festivals. Even so, though, yesterday was a revelation. There were too many tubas to put on the stage, so the director had us help set up chairs and music stands on the main floor. Eighteen of them. And then the tubas came in. I have grown used to seeing Patrick tower of the rest of the band. Yesterday I saw him in a line with ten other tuba players–and every one of those boys was huge. It was like looking at the Defensive Linemen of music.

Then the second row came in. These were the baby tuba players–or, rather, the euphonium players. Euphoniums look like baby tubas. The conductor lifted his hands, and the band began to play. It sounded like velvet, like thunder. It was music to be felt, not just heard. Tuba ensembles demand a response, and it comes from deep in your bones.

When they finished there was a moment of silence as we in the audience caught our breath, and then a storm of clapping. It was more than just fond parents applauding their children’s efforts–it was the just due for an incredible performance. And it happened in a week.

I’m not a great one for promoting products here, or even for offering advice. This is more my thinking place. But I’ve had a week to think about this, and watching Patrick at the camp yesterday, (Patrick, who started the camp feeling homesick, but who finished with “fond memories”), followed by that amazing concert has convinced me it’s time to do both: If you have a child who longs to make his or her mark on the world, suggest band. And if you possibly can, send your child to Music Camps @ Wallowa Lake.

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A few weeks ago, for the first time in something like ten years, I found myself in a church. I’ve known about this church for quite some time; we drive past it when we go through the orchards and out past the old Hudson’s Bay property west of town. It’s one of those little old churches that just screams, “I’m a church!” when you see it: white paint, delicate, nicely proportioned steeple, fellowship hall tacked on out back, gravel parking lot, doors that open pretty much right onto the highway.

We were there because Patrick had been asked to play the tuba at their “Family Fun Night,” and as a loving and supportive mother I was playing chauffer.

Church-going does not come naturally to me. I arrived at the location with my stomach in knots. We found an open door and followed the sound of voices to the fellowship hall, where an assortment of men and ladies were cooking supper.

Patrick and I found seats off to the side and sat quietly. A lady hurried over and informed us that Patrick’s accompanist would be arriving shortly, and that it was fine if we went down the hall so Patrick could get his tuba warmed up.

We slunk gratefully into the cool, welcoming quiet of unused children’s classrooms. Patrick assembled the tuba, played a few scales, and ran through his song. Then there was nothing to do but go back to the all-purpose room. It had filled considerably in our absence.

The tuba marked us as Special Music, just as our faces marked us as Strangers Within Their Gates, and the church members responded accordingly. They greeted us, sought to identify a family or social connection we might have with someone they knew (such is life in a small town), urged us to eat, and then hurried back to cooking supper and setting the tables.

I seized the opportunity to ask a question of my own in one of these fleeting conversations. “What denomination is this church?”

The lady I asked looked blank. There was a pause just a little too long to be comfortable. “I think we’re sort of Congregationalist,” she said at last, “but not like the Congregational church in _____,” she finished hurriedly, naming the next town over. She thought for a moment. “I think our minister used to be Baptist or something.” She smiled sweetly and whirled away, back to the chicken in the kitchen.

Patrick’s teacher–the issuer of the invitation–arrived. And then the minister arrived, and turned out to be the father of some of the “step-aheadians,” as Patrick has taken to calling the regulars at Megan’s school and day camp.

“Eat! Eat!” everyone urged us. We declined–Patrick because he had to play, and me because my stomach was so knotted up I didn’t think food would be possible.

“Can we leave right after I play?” Patrick had asked me on the way over.

“Sounds like a plan,” I had said. “You play, and then I’ll take you out for supper.”

“You might as well eat,” Patrick’s teacher told him now. “We’re going to be having a sing-along after supper, and before you play.”

“Okay,” I said, smiling while my heart sank down to rest on the knots in my belly.

Patrick and I each got a plate and then scurried over to sit with the “step-aheadians.” It felt safe, like a life raft in a storm-tossed sea of church members. I looked around at the familiar faces I knew from Step-Ahead and was grateful.

After dinner we all trooped into the sanctuary for the sing-along. I had been expecting gospel favorites, sung dolefully and probably off-key. Instead we sang “Sidewalks of New York,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and “Bicycle Built for Two,” and on and on, old favorites that reminded me of summer evenings, listening to my Grandpa singing in his soft, cracked voice. Patrick’s accompanist, a tiny, white-haired lady who seemed to carry a bubble of coziness with her, sat with me. Outside, the setting sun shone through stained glass.

The sing-along ended and Patrick played his solo. I had never heard him play better. He and the cozy white-haired lady sounded like they’d been playing together for months. And then another boy played a solo, and we couldn’t leave then, and then it was on to karaoke.

The ministers wife and daughters sang. Some of the other girls sang. And then Patrick got up and sang. I watched him, stunned at his courage at getting up and singing in front of a churchful of strangers, and a few friends. Suddenly I realized that I wouldn’t have missed this evening for the world, watching my son sitting with his friends, experiencing something he never had before, stretching himself in new directions.  Someone got up and sang “Takin’ Care of Business.” When they got to the line about being self-employed the cozy lady elbowed me. “That’s you,” she hissed, grinning at me.

So what’s the point of all this? First, I am very proud of myself for having attended–and enjoyed–a church function. I can’t remember the last time I was in a church that I didn’t go home feeling a toxic cocktail of rage, guilt, and depression. There is a large church along one of the major highways here. Every time I pass it, I think, “I’m so glad I don’t go to church.” Feelings like that don’t happen overnight. It takes a lifetime to pack that much emotional baggage. When we went to this small church Patrick carried his tuba. Though my hands were empty, I carried the heavier load: I was hauling every bit of the emotional baggage I had accumulated through the years. I only went because Patrick had been asked to play, and even then we tried to limit our exposure to the whole church thing.

But it didn’t work out that way, and I’m so glad it didn’t. Because my plan for us to duck in, show Patrick off, and duck out was foiled I got to share an evening with a group of people who might be foggy on what denomination they are, but are crystal clear on what it means to create a welcoming, warm, accepting place for each other, and for those who only come because they don’t see how they can get out of it.

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a regular church-goer–I tend to find Spirit in other places–but I hope we find our way to their Family Fun Night again. Who knows? I might even sing karaoke.

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The Middle School Band, Veteran’s Day, 2009

This Fall has been like a guest who arrives late, and then doesn’t know when to go home. All around us, Fall hit about the time October got going good–very much the usual time. The trees in our town stayed stubbornly green.  A little before Halloween the colors began to show. By this morning, the linden trees beside my front walk had bowed to the inevitable and dropped all their leaves. Across the street, the giant maple is orange, gold and brown. My pussywillow tree–the Liz Taylor of my lawn–is still stubbornly green.

When I carried my coffee out onto the porch this morning and saw the bright blue sky I said, “Oh, good. I’ll get some good parade shots. Blue sky, and lots of colored leaves.”

“You’ll have to do it fast,” said the House Leroy. “It’s supposed to cloud over.”

“Not before I get my pictures,” I said, lifting my chin. And when, as the HL had predicted, the clouds closed in about 9:30 this morning, we all just pretended it was still sunny. Willpower goes a long way at our house.

The reason for all this weather and leaf concern was the Veteran’s Day Parade. Our town has a lot of parades. We have the Christmas Parade, the Easter Parade, the Memorial Day Parade, the Fourth of July Parade, the Muddy Frogwater Days Parade, and today, we had the Veteran’s Day Parade. In fact, just about any excuse is good enough for washing up the tractor or the family car, Sharpieing a tagboard sign, and cruising through town behind the Middle School Marching Band. We do like our parades.

Mostly this is because by and large we also like our neighbors, who are most likely either going to cruise by on their tractor, or wave to us as we pass. I have become something of a professional observer at the parades. This is because I am The Mother Of the Sousaphone Player, as in past years I was the Woman Behind the Stroller. Few people know my name, but by now most of the people in town recognize Patrick as he marches by, head, shoulders, and Sousaphone taller than the rest of the band.

By now we have parade days down to a science. I drop Patrick off at the school, then go to the Burger Hut, where I partake of a Breakfast Bob, Tater Tots, and Diet Pepsi while I crack jokes with the owner (she is the sister to Patrick’s fifth-grade teacher, dated the son of his teacher last year, and is daughter to the woman who runs our other favorite local hangout, the Sub Shop), and then drive to my designated Parade Viewing and Picture-Taking Spot halfway through the series of dogleg turns that connect our town’s two Main Streets.

They run roughly parallel, and when the two halves of our town merged neither town was willing to sacrifice the prestige of having Main Street. Here, we would rather walk than sit in the back of the bus. Parades go from Freewater School, at the north end of Freewater’s Main Street, down to the south end by the beauty shop, through the first dog leg past the senior citizen’s action center that used to be the train depot, through another dogleg past the no-man’s-land between-town area where the Post Office and flower shop are, past the new breakfast place, past the Burger Hut, down the long angled street past the McGlaughlin High School, where Patrick will go next year, and eye doctor, to the now out-of-business dollar store parking lot, and then right to Central Middle School.

The best place to watch is right at the second dog leg by the Post Office. This morning I had company–a grandfatherly policeman in charge of roping off the street and preventing the parade from shooting down side street to the football field and I stood together, me holding my camera, he holding his bright yellow roll of “Police Line Do Not Cross” ribbon.

“So who are you taking pictures of?” he asked.

“My son,” I said. “He’s the tuba player.”

“Oh, yeah,” the policeman said.

The band rounded the first dogleg and came into view, following the town fire truck and four men on beautiful motorcycles, in patriotic do-rags and helmets. I knew about the do-rags because they had been at the diner, too.

“Yep, there he is,” the policeman said. “Head and shoulders above everybody else. He’s a big boy.”

“Yeah,” I said absently, peering through my viewfinder and zooming in on the band. I snapped and snapped as the band marched briskly down the street to “The Magnificent Seven,” this year’s song. Last year’s song was “Rawhide,” and I still miss it, though Patrick told me he was grateful for the switch. “It’s harder than you think, Mom, marching for two miles through a parade playing ‘Rawhide’ over and over and over again.” I wonder if he is finding “The Magnificent Seven” more gripping.

The band wheels through the dogleg. I snap frantically. And then a car cruises into my viewfinder. It’s just a plain little economy car, full of people, all waving and smiling. The tagboard sign says, “Lebanon.” The car cruises by and another one noses into the viewfinder. “World War II,” it says. The next car says, “Viet Nam.” The next says, “Iraq.” “Afghanistan.” “Korea.” And on and on.

And suddenly I can no longer see because I am crying. This isn’t a parade about America. This is a parade about the people in my town, my neighbors, farmers, parents at my son’s school. I want to take my camera down but now I can’t, because everyone will see that I’m crying.

I think of the children who have just passed. I think of my son, carrying the tuba, and his friend capering in his home made school mascot suit and throwing candy. I think of the football team, and the wrestlers.

And all the while, the mid-size family sedans, pickups, equipment trailers, and jeeps are rolling by, filled with men and women who have left our quiet town, where a major holiday involves tagboard signs, frog races, and water balloon cannons, and gone around the world to kill people much like us–why?

There’s got to be a better way of figuring things out, I think angrily, hiding my tears behind my camera. We can’t keep sending our men, women, and children off to die. A tractor rolls by. More cars. National Guardsmen on a hay wagon. I watch, and I wonder about all the men and women who should be in those damned cars, waving and smiling, and who are not because they are fighting demons too savage to allow them to leave the house, in hospitals being patched back together, or dead.

The cost of freedom is terribly, terribly high. But here is the worst part: the cost of ego, of vaingloriousness, of wars fought for unjust reasons is just as high. And so, this Veteran’s Day, I’d like to say two things.

First, thank you to every person who has fought to preserve the things we hold most dear. Just or unjust, righteous war or not, you laid your life on the line for something in which you believed. Thank you.

Second, for the sakes of our children, of our towns, of our country, and of our world, we have to find another way to figure things out. All across America, all around the world, quiet little towns like ours are losing people we can’t afford to lose.

Third, here is my wish–that some day, Veteran’s Days will become things of the past not because we have forgotten the sacrifices we ask of our children, but because we have finally, at long last, learned how to differ without destroying each other.

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(cross-posted from Notes From Main Street)

I say a bad word tonight. I say it loudly, and justifiably. I say it when I look up from working on a client project and helping my son Patrick construct a pie chart at the same time, see the clock and realize that Patrick is due onstage, playing his tuba, in the band concert—in four minutes. The school auditorium is five minutes away.

I say the bad word again as I bolt for the door, dragging Patrick in my slipstream. We arrive a minute late. I drop Patrick off, park the car, and trot for the auditorium just in time to see him sneaking onstage, toting the tuba. Patrick is 6’3”, just finished a season of heavyweight wrestling, and is, as I have mentioned, carrying a tuba. The sneaking is not very effective.

I do a little sneaking of my own and drop into a seat in the darkened auditorium, grateful that no one can see my un-made-up face, my uncombed hair, and my leggings and oversized rugby shirt. Patrick is in jogging pants and a green polo shirt. We are not at our sartorial best, but we are here. Nobody looks at me twice.  We live in a small town, and people aren’t fancy here.

I sit in the darkened auditorium and listen as the sixth-grade band plays. I was in band when I was in school. In our band, we believed that a “good” player was  loud player. Our “best” players were the musical equivalents of ball-hogs—they blasted the eardrums of those close to them. I played second-chair clarinet. Blasting on a clarinet is never a good idea.

When Patrick said he wanted to play tuba in band I braced myself for a year’s worth of untuned, out-of-rhythm, teeth-grating concerts. I even had my patter lined up: “You sounded great, tonight, honey.” “I could hear you…” “Boy, you’re really working at that, aren’t you?” I was ready.

And then, six weeks into the year, the sixth-grade band had their first concert. I hauled my mother along for moral support. I braced myself. And was happily shocked. The sixth-grade band played three short pieces. They were in tune. They had some idea of harmony. They hit their notes. They found and kept the beat.  To say I was stunned is putting it mildly.

Luckily I already had my remarks prepared: “You sounded great…I could hear you…you’re really working at that…” But I actually meant them.

And now here I sit, listening to my son oompa his way through “Barbara Ann,” rolling and rumbling away, toe tapping, holding the beat for the band. His face is beginning to lose its baby softness; his jaw is acquiring a new, sharper definition. His round cheeks are flattening out into smooth planes. Just tonight, as the woman cut his hair, I watched her take quick little swipes down over his cheeks and chin, where downy facial hair is acquiring a new coarseness and color. Tonight he asked for a shotput and discus.

The sixth grade band finishes and files offstage. The seventh-grade band replaces them,  then the eighth grade, then the eight-grade jazz band, As the bands come and go I pick out the boys I have just spent the last few months cheering on the wrestling mats. I have come to see them as wrestlers, one-dimensional. Seeing them onstage, musical instruments in hand, shocks me a little, though it shouldn’t. We are a small town—small enough that students must be involved in numerous activities if we are to compete at all. The fall concert coincided with a delayed play-offs game for the football team; band members arrived onstage sweaty and puffing, still in their gear in some cases.

By this time I have forgotten that this is a school concert. I have lost myself in the music, in marveling at how boys I have come to know as warriors can make such wonderful sounds, at the angle of my son’s cheek far ahead of me, seated with the band, at the fact that I no longer have to fear that he’ll do something horrifying if he’s beyond my reach.

I look up at the school crest set in plaster over the proscenium arch on the old-fashioned stage. I look around at the dark auditorium, and I think, “This is my life.” I have been worried about money lately. Who isn’t, these days? I am turning each nickel twice. Sometimes it seems that the worry never eases. But for tonight, in this dim, safe, music-filled space, watching my son help create something beautiful from a hunk of brass and air, the worry fades, and I remember who I am.

I am a woman. I am an artist, and mother to another. I am a part of this small, old, town. This is my life,  my place, and it is magic and oh, so fleeting. This is who and where and when I am. And I will live it, every second, every day. Because my life is amazing, and I know that, money worries, sleepless nights, and fear notwithstanding, when these days with Patrick are gone, I’ll want them back.

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