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Essay

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

By August 1, 2017 6 Comments
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On the first day of school, I remember being handed a sheet of paper. Today we would say it was “landscape” format, wider than high. The paper was coarse, low quality. I think it had flecks of bark in it. The top half was blank, intended for artwork. The bottom was extremely wide-ruled—so wide, there was a light dotted line halfway between the lines where lower case letters should top out.

Then the teacher would say, “Tell us what you did on your summer vacation!”

This is an updated version of that. I feel reluctant, somewhat self-indulgent or vain, in sharing this. I didn’t scale every major peak in the Andes or paddle up the Ganges. Nonetheless, maybe something here will strike a chord or awaken a dusty memory in you.

Go West, Old Dog

Sophie, my wife, Bessie, our dog, and I loaded up a rented mini-van for a drive to Seattle from our home in Pella, Iowa. Our primary goal was to deliver a van full of stuff, detritus from our empty-nester downsizing, to our children in Seattle. What we delivered will tell you a lot about my wife and our marriage—beautiful Persian rugs and east-Asian antiques from Sophie’s family; hearty, middle-American stuff from my heritage.

One item, though, merits particular mention—my grandma’s “canning table” rescued from her farmhouse basement nearly forty years ago. If my grandmother had made a list of her hundred most-prized possessions, this table would not have been anywhere on it—warped and discolored by the chemicals used in canning. But it was sturdy. With our wedding approaching, we claimed it as a kitchen table, hauled it from Iowa to Seattle, and slapped a coat of paint on it. A few years later, it moved with us to New Jersey, then to upstate New York. Meanwhile, countless meals were served on it when our kids were young. Then, full-circle, back to Iowa with us. And now this $3 bargain was making its second Iowa-to-Seattle journey.

Golden Anniversary

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1967, I made the first of many road trips to Seattle in my family’s Chevy station wagon. I can still hear the incessant squeak of the Styrofoam ice chest on the front seat. Last month, as the expanses of Wyoming, and Montana unrolled before us, memories of that trip and my parents were on my mind.

Back then, we were moving to Seattle where my father was to begin a new church—in what was called “church extension” –near to Boeing’s brand-new 747 plant.

Looking through my now mature eyes, I am awed by what they were doing, as well as my almost complete obliviousness to it.

No one in our young family had ever really been much farther west than South Dakota. We imagined we were like pioneers in their prairie schooners. We were moving to a house we had never seen, in a city we had never been to, with no place for the church to meet.

The second day of that  initial trip, we watched as an out-of-control truck plowed into the mountain side.  My father was first on the scene and felt the trucker’s pulseless hand sticking through the windshield.

I suppose it is a truism that we can never apprehend and appreciate all that our parents did and faced until it is long past, perhaps until they have passed. What were my parents thinking and feeling on that long drive, fifty years ago? How could they not be fretful and overwhelmed at what awaited them, while simultaneously trying to cajole and corral my sisters and me in the back of the station wagon? I know I was only a young boy, but how was I so utterly unaware of any of this? As Sophie, Bessie, and I cruised across the prairies a few weeks ago, sweet memories and new-found admiration filled my soul.

We’re Not in Kansas (or Iowa) Anymore

Although I grew up in the Seattle-area, I left a long time ago—pre Microsoft, pre-Amazon, pre-Starbucks, pre-grunge. Seattle became cool about the time I left. I am relatively certain the two events were not related.

One afternoon I went exploring in the neighborhood around my kids’ house. You don’t need to be a spy or a sociologist to observe that it is a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-racial area. But that is all pretty abstract until you actually walk the streets.

My first stop was a large seafood store. I expected most of the customers to be Asian-Americans, but not exclusively so. Not only was I the only white person, but I was literally about twice as big as many of them. Trying mightily not to act self-conscious, I strolled through almost every aisle. I can’t tell you what language or languages were being spoken. Many of the sea creatures on sale were not what I see in my supermarkets. Having snooped around long enough to convey that I really, really, really did not feel out of place, I headed up the street.

A few blocks later, in a rundown strip mall, a restaurant was advertising “Jebena-Ethiopian Coffee.” Nothing ventured…

A woman and a young girl, presumably mother and daughter, were watching cartoons. I don’t know if the little girl was frightened by me or just surprised, but she looked at me as if my hair was on fire. Meanwhile the proprietor and I attempted to communicate. If it worked, I believe she was telling me that Ethiopian coffee was more of a process to make and that it was served communally, not in a single to-go cup. No cultural commentary there.

Growing a bit weary, I grabbed a copy of the free weekly newspaper and an empty park bench. These sorts of papers often provide saucy commentary on local happenings. The first five pages only contained ads for cannabis distributors. The lead article was on Seattle’s upcoming mayoral election. The cheeky writing made me smile. I soon developed a game of noting how many paragraphs before another F-bomb appeared. It was never more than three or four.

I had no ruby slippers to tap together to take me home. I wouldn’t have used them if I did.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I enjoyed this, and you make me want to drive West, but I would have liked a photo of the canning table! What does a canning table look like?

  • Loved it. Especially this late in the summer. I’m guessing I may have eaten a meal or two at the canning table in Princeton.

  • Daniel, a “canning table” is probably just my grandmother’s label. It is simply a small, B-grade kitchen table that she didn’t care if she spilled on or if it sat neglected in the cellar most the year. I don’t know what sort of caustic solutions were used in canning back then, but it really damaged the top. Mark, I am certain you had a few meals at it.

  • Jane brown says:

    Especially enjoyed canning table story as I sit here at my grandpas desk 😊thinking of downsizing we have started-
    and the appreciation of our parents thoughts in midst of moves
    Enjoyed your “what I did on summer vacation” format

  • B. J. Irwin says:

    Thanks for letting us travel along! It certainly stirs my traveling yearnings!

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    You tell a great story, Steve, but I’d really love to hear the stories that canning table would tell if it could. On a rainy day last week I spent some time organizing canning jars from one section of my cellar to another, “fancy” wide mouth jars I bought and used a decade ago upstate arranged beside regular Ball jars my mom used when I was a kid thirty years ago next to the old hinged type that my grandmother and great grandmother used. “I suppose it is a truism that we can never apprehend and appreciate all that our parents did and faced until it is long past…” Redding up the basement certainly caused me to. Thanks for this.

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