Saturday, July 19, 2008



 Part 6:  Written by Tamara O’Brien Ralston as a birthday gift on Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien

         It's too dry for campfires this year. Instead, we put the children to bed and gather around a citronella candle. It occurs to me this circle of chairs is a good metaphor for our extended family - Impermanent, loosely organized, focused around a single flickering light. Beside me are two empty chairs. I hope no one sits in them. I am saving them for my grandparents. They would be here now, were they not dead. Jack and Clara -they are the reason for the circle, the light in the flame. I miss them. I head for my tent, uncomfortable with a nameless ache. Time passes too swiftly.

         With Saturday comes the official gathering of the clan. About one hundred people have assembled for this tribal feast. Its Officially called the ~O'Brien picnic, a ridiculous understatement. This is a family that likes to eat; and many of those present are shaped like Dufur tumbleweed. In the haste to organize, we forget to say grace, an unacceptable break with tradition, an important ritual overlooked.

         I coax my father into saying a prayer after the meal. He does it eloquently, thanking God for families past and present, bringing tears to my eyes.

         The action begins. My sister is in charge of reunion activities, a task she tried to delegate to me. I researched this odd topic on the Internet and came up with several relays she found acceptable. She now has the bullhorn and is organizing the clan. Blow up balloon. Run to finish line. Sit on balloon. Place plastic spoon in mouth. Scoop jelly beans off ground. Run to finish line. Deposit beans in pie tin.

         "What are normal people doing today?" I ask my uncle.

         There is the ever popular bubble-gum blowing contest and the water balloon fight. 'Create your Family Crest' is my favorite activity. The actual O'Brien crest is topped by a dismembered arm, and backed by an improbable story about an early O'Brien in a row boat, hacking off his arm and throwing it ashore to stake claim to the land. Surely we can do better. Each family is given paper and colored markers. These crests turn out to be a creative way to update the group-at-large on what is significant in the lives of each family.


         A fun-for-all-ages frolic in the swimming pool follows. Adults of all shapes battle youth of all sizes in a rollicking game of 'keep-away.' At dusk we eat again, then reconvene our circle to roast marshmallows over a Coleman stove. Traditional crackle, smell and ambiance is lacking from this pseudo-campfire, but the kids are happy. I am happy too. We laugh until our sides ache - at old stories, new stories, and foul smelling gas blamed on my cousin's chili. The real reunion is now taking place - a reuniting of people - a reconnecting of past with present.


         The weekend is soon over. We shared meals, relived memories laughed heartily. The tent city vanishes even more quickly than it arose. We take a final family photo, exchange hugs, and say good-byes.


"Great to see you." "Thanks for coming." "Your children are beautiful. "

         There are no false promises to keep in touch. The youngest of the clan are brushed off and herded to cars.

         "Benjamin, get your sandals," someone yells.

         Nine-year old Benjamin races creek-side, leaps in the air and disappears over the bank in a plume of dust. Emerging seconds later, sandals in hand, he is completely filthy. His parents roll their eyes. We laugh. It's a final tribute to camping Dufur-style.


"Shall we change his clothes?" his mother asks, "He is going to get the car all dirty. "


"Nah, the dust is everywhere," his father replies.


Yes, It is. It’s in our cars, our clothes, our cracks and crevices.

Some may have even seeped into our hearts -- connecting us to people and a past we have come to honor.


Leaving the park, we head for Dufur's cemetery with flowers for my grandparents. Arriving graveside, my father quickly stoops to pull weeds. Wordlessly, my sister and I follow suit. The weeds come out easily. This time of year it's even too hot for weeds. Like the weeds, we sunk our roots in this inhospitable ground. Like the weeds, we are pulled away, but always return. We continue weeding until we clear the graves. Tidying seems to give us a fleeting sense of control - as though by making things neat we make them right.

         It is not right though. It's not right they were not at the picnic, not at the campfire, not laughing, passing gas and hugging children. It's not right they were not in the final family photograph. They should have been there -- in the center of it all - not here beneath this damn dust. This is not where grandparents belong. I am glad my sunglasses hide the tears making tracks down my dirty cheek.

         "Don't kick up the dust son," my sister scolds.

         My nephew is scuffling the toes of his shoes as we walk back to the car. He is kicking up clouds of dust the rest of us must walk through. Ancestral dust coats us. A bit of scripture echoes in my head, "All come from dust and to dust all return." In that moment, I know why I have come.

         This dust has seen the blood, sweat and tears of us, the fruit and harvest of us, the very life and death of us. Kick it up son, I think. Kick it up good. Kick up a great billowing cloud we will see from far away. Help us remember. If we don't come kick up dust each year - we might forget.


This Dufur dust - it is us. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reunion Part 5 By Tamara O'Brien Ralston


Part 5:Written by Tamara O’Brien Ralston as a birthday gift on Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien

In my absence, our homesteaders erect an impressive tent city, complete with folding chairs, and plastic tablecloths. Dinner preparations are underway. I delight to see that my aunt, uncle and cousins have arrived. The gang is all here. My favorite limb of the family tree is still Intact. As a child, I spent many happy summer days with these cousins. Water-skiing. Building rafts. Luring trout and crawdads out of hiding. None of this happened in Dufur, of course.

My grandparents left the dust for life in the city. For this, I am eternally grateful. My father went to college, became a dentist, and was the first in his immediate family to earn a living with perfectly clean hands. Consequently, I spent summers far from here, on a lake, at the beach, in a swimming pool. My cousins and I were lucky - part of the first generation of O'Brien children to spend summers at play instead of doing chores or helping to earn a living.

  I slump into a folding chair. From wagon train to wine shopping, it’s been a wearying day. Closing my eyes, I allow myself a return to childhood. I imagine floating on a lake, buoyed by an air mattress. Waves lull me into a child's sense of peace, a resolute belief that life is good and meant to be savored one wave at a time. I conjure the crisp feel of new comic books. I savor the flavors of root beer sucked through red licorice twists - greasy pepperoni sticks -Bazooka bubblegum, the spoils of a late afternoon, kids-only trip in to town.              I recall how the sound of a boat engine tells me to awaken and be the first skier on the lake. Dying campfires signal bedtime. These memories live with detail, yet are only a sampling of the sounds, smells, and tastes that form a mosaic of childhood summers.

"Tamara, feed your kids," my mother calls, heaping mounds of spaghetti on to paper plates. Back to the present. I am the mother now - a frightening concept. It seems my sister and I have spawned another generation of crawdad catchers. They emerge from the creek, proudly displaying crustacean captives. They had a mud fight, found a secret hideout, built a dam. My daughter has a bee sting. Rites of passage. Things are progressing as planned. Their own mosaics will be crafted of these shimmering bits: cousins, crawdads, creeks.

We have plenty of spaghetti - unlike last year when my sister had to scrape leftovers off the kids' plates to give old Uncle Ferris a second helping. Ferris did not arrive for dinner this year. Now that he has oxygen tubes up his nose it’s harder for him to maneuver his motorized cart. After dinner, we pay him a visit at his little blue house up the road. Ferris is my great-uncle, the only O'Brien male still living in Dufur. He's always full of stories, mostly about being a paratrooper in World War II. But today, he tells us about Nicholson Peyton O'Brien, Irish immigrant, patriarch of Dufur's O'Brien lineage. Nicholson P. was Ferris' grandfather -- my great-great-grandfather.

  Ferris knows why Nicholson P. did not take the Barlow Trail,

  "There was free land for homesteading. Why go on?"                                        Following Ferris' directions we find Nicholson P's original homestead. We also find the ranches and homesteads of my grandmother's family _ Underhill’s and Hudson’s from England. Along the way my father tells old stories. They are tales of hardship -- travel in ships and covered wagons, winters in one-room cabins, babies born on kitchen tables.

  My daughter's favorite is about my great-grandmother. It seems old Emily slipped and fell into a frozen creek-bed one winter up in Shotgun canyon. For several hours she lay in snow and ice. Apparently her courage was matched by her girth. It took six men to carry her out and several hours to defrost her.

  These stories remind us we're from sturdy stock. There is no blue blood in this family. Our progress is hard-won, hand-made. I am awed by the struggle -- the daily battle waged to sustain life.

Returning to the campsite, Dad tells us he and my aunt still own some of the family's land, now a wheat ranch leased to a cousin.

 "Don't sell It Dad," my sister and I implore.

 "Why not? What are you going to do with it beside pay taxes?" he asks.

  We do not have a good answer, but we admonish him to keep the dust in the family just the same. 

What is it about this dust? There is my cousin's little girl, delicate and peach-colored, sitting on the ground with skinny legs outstretched. Mesmerized, she sifts dust through her hands, as though it holds mystical powers. Not far away is another cousin's two-year old, in her third clean outfit of the day. She is completely content to put her tiny folding chair in the middle of the volleyball court and rub her feet back and forth in the dust. They love dust's shapeless texture - it's soft, powdery feel.

 "Oh no,'" I shriek.

  My son is performing, doing a head- stand for the girls. His bright blonde hair turns brown -- the same color his sleeping bag and pillow are about to become. These little ones look like Grandma-Gigi's snickerdoodles, child-sized sugar cookies, dusted with cinnamon.

 (To be continued)



Saturday, June 28, 2008

REUNION: By Tamara O'Brien 1998

 Part 4:

Written by Tamara O’Brien Ralston as a birthday gift on Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien

"Prepare to unload, " she intones in her best school teacher voice. "We have arrived."

Children spill out of windows and doors, racing to the creek. I long to join them, but feel I should help set up camp. I drag a weatherworn picnic table over. My mother deems it unacceptable and has me drag it away for some less discerning relative to claim. I help unload the car, but put things in the wrong place. I attempt to pound tent stakes, break the top off a stake, and impale my foot on it. I pump air mattresses with some success thinking it good for my thighs.

"When it comes to camping, I'm as worthless as tits on a bull," I say to no one in particular.

My sister, who is unofficially in charge of our campsite, responds, "I think it would be very helpful If bulls had tits - that way they could feed the calves instead of just strutting around the farm."

A good point.

"Ok, I am as worthless as a titless cow," I confess.

 "True," she admits.

 "I am going to go buy bottled water and red wine." I say, still hoping to be of some use. The thought of sucking water from a sprinkler head does not appeal to me, and I suspect red wine will help wash down the globs of congealed noodles I spotted in my mother's food box.

"Very Californian of you, but a good idea," my sister concedes.

 I head up a dusty path to town, a distance of about three blocks. Next to the Pastime Tavern sits Kramer's Market. Signs in its windows promote cold pop and home-cured meats. The door creeks open on rusty hinges, and I enter, stepping through a time warp. It is cool inside, and deathly quiet. I notice a distinctive oily smell. Glassy dark eyes stare out from the heads of elk, cougar, bear, and birds that festoon the walls above. I wonder how many of these creatures ended up as home-cured meat.

 "Looking for something?" A voice rises up from behind a metal rack of potato chips. 

"Where is your wine section?" I ask

"Over by the meat counter, but it ain't exactly a section," A young woman's head emerges from behind the chips, smiling. I briefly imagine her mounted on the wall beside the moose, but suspect her body is still attached somewhere behind the Frito's shelf.

Where I live, the Seven-Eleven store has a better wine selection than Kramer's. I purchase the few bottles of red wine that boast a cork and a case of bottled water. The potato chip girl instructs me to leave the money on the counter. No grocery cart stands ready to transport my heavy load. I struggle back to the park, arms straining, sweat dripping.

"Am I having fun yet?"

 (to be continued)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

REUNION: By Tamara O'Brien 1998

Written by Tamara O’Brien Ralston as a birthday gift on Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien

Sure enough, we turn east at the Dalles, and soon enter arid brown hills. No amber waves of grain this time of year. Mile after mile of fallow wheat fields blanket the hills like a patchwork quilt. I am hot, uncomfortable and have to pee. Some pioneer I would have been!

My sister, middle-school teacher and history buff, informs us that The Dalles was a big decision point for Oregon Trail pioneers.

"Wagon trains had to chose between taking the Barlow Trait around Mt. Hood, or following the river through the steep gorge. The river route was considered the worst part of the 2,000-mile journey, so most opted for the Barlow Trail. Dufur was the first night's stop for those on the Barlow Trail route."

"So what happened to the O’Brien’s?" I interrupt. They broke an axel? Got tired?? Were afraid of mountain climbing and river rafting? Why stop in Dufur?

"Some people actually like it here, you snob."

I contemplate this mystery as we drive along. What a struggle homesteading must have been -- coaxing this dry, hot ground to life. Two hundred years ago, my ancestors began kneading these hills until they yielded wheat, supported cattle, and gave bloom to kitchen gardens. Everything was done by hand. Plow, plant, harvest. Feed, water, slaughter. Cut, stack, stoke. Wash, ring, rinse. Spin, sew, mend. Heat, hammer, forge. Survival by hand. Incredible.

My own hands do not know how to bake bread, much less plow, or mend. How far we have come, how much our hands have forgotten. Look down at my hands.

"Damn! Dirt under my fingernails and we aren't even there yet!"

Dust. It's everywhere. I surrender, letting the dust carry me away, transporting me back four generations to a time when my great-grandmother was my age. I imagine dust coating her throat as she walks between furrows, calling men to lunch. It stings her eyes as she moves cattle to secure pasture before a storm. It's embedded in the cracks of her hands. Not even the Saturday night soak will remove its spidery lines.

Great-grandma's stained hands pass mashed potatoes down the table at Sunday supper. Her rough fingers smooth a crocheted tablecloth, clearing plates for dessert. Everyone's hands look the same dry, chapped, worn.

"We're here!" the kids yell in unison.

They interrupt my time travel just before great-grandma's hands cut hot blackberry pie. I would rather have her homemade pie than her hometown dust. The dust rises up in welcome and escorts us along the gravel road through Dufur's city park. We head for a tree-lined strip of dirt by the creek.

"Red alert! Squatters in our campsite!" my sister announces.

The O’Brien’s are a territorial bunch, returning each August to the same spot on Fifteen Mile Creek like spawning salmon. What to do? Strangers have seized the family turf, an unthinkable travesty.

"Kick them out Mommy," plead my nine and twelve year-old nieces.

"Shoot 'em in the weenie," yells my six-year old nephew.

"Not to worry," I say. "Let's camp under this tree, near the pool and playground."

Nearer to Indoor plumbing and a shower I think to myself. My sister makes the decision, pulling the monster truck to a stop beneath the shade of a huge maple tree, far upstream from the poachers.

 (to be continued)


Saturday, June 21, 2008


 Part 2:

Written by Tamara O’Brien Ralston as a birthday gift on Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien.


Dufur. It’s an apt name for a tiny fossilized relic of an eastern Oregon outpost. Main Street boasts a market, hardware store, bank, and a couple of taverns. The town's only hotel closed indefinitely for renovation, but re-opens when someone the owner knows requests a room. A room - perhaps I should have booked a room at the Balch Hotel. No, I cannot deprive my children of the tent and out-house. This will be a pioneering experience for me and my two city slickers. We will sleep on ancestral ground! Grovel in familial dirt!! Discover patrimonial roots!!! I am suddenly certain that no one will care what any of us are wearing.


Leaving San Francisco's cool fog, we travel toward 100 degrees in the shade. My parents collect us at the airport and deliver us to my sister's home. My four year-old son and eight year-old daughter are jubilant. They love their cousins with a passion akin to hero-worship. This will be the highlight of their summer. I have to admit I am warming to the idea as I help my sister commence preparations for the following day's trip' up home.'

Dawn brings a frenzy of kid-herding, car-packing, lost sneakerseeking, escaped dog-chasing excitement. My sister's suburban, affectionately called the 'Monster Truck,' appears to have swallowed the entire contents of house and garage. It sits bulging and heaving on oversized tires, begging us to stop jamming things in its rear-end. Somehow we manage to wedge five children in to crevices between camping gear, ice chests and a large slobbering dog. The monster truck jerks to life with a belching roar.

There are a few moments of hysteria at the outset. I n the seat behind me, Hannah the Labrador sits In front of an open window. As we enter the freeway, shifting airflow sprays dog slobber all over my neck and into the children’s faces. My sister calmly pilots into traffic, oblivious to the uproar. Disgusted, I shut the dog's window and attempt to de-slime everyone. I cannot help casting a wistful look back at my parents, who follow in the quiet sanctity of an air-conditioned Blazer.

The din from the back seats eventually subsides, and I begin to enjoy the ride. Leaving Portland, we follow the Columbia River east, tracing in reverse the route mapped by Lewis and Clark. Traversing the Columbia gorge I am struck by the river's artistry. For 25 million years it has relentlessly sculpted whatever time and nature have placed in its path. The result is a ruggedly beautiful, forest-rimmed canyon.

A roadside historical marker reminds me we are traveling the Oregon Trail.

"This must've been an inspiring sight to Oregon Trail pioneers after so many months on the boring plains," I comment.

"Those boring plains are just where this little wagon train is headed honey, " my sister responds, breaking into an off-key rendition of "America the Beautiful. "



Saturday, June 14, 2008

REUNION: By Tamara O'Brien 1998



Written by Tamara O’Brien as a birthday gift on

 Jan. 15, 1998 for her father Ron O’Brien.

 Part 1:

It all began with an off-hand remark meant to appease my mother,

"Maybe we'll come to the family reunion in Dufur this summer."

I didn't mean it. I said it to soften the blow that we planned to spend a week on a Michigan lake with my in-laws, instead of making our normal July trek home to Oregon.

I should have known better. The moment I uttered the word Dufur - ancestral voices began to chant. News of our anticipated attendance at the reunion quickly spread throughout the clan. I received phone calls, mailers, and personal notes from long lost relatives. What began, as a remote possibility was fast becoming a fait accompli. I resisted, stalled, forgot to make airline reservations. At last, my mother could stand it no longer, and detonated her sinister weapon of submission: guilt.

"Do what you want, but if you don't show it will be a bigger disappointment to your father than the fact that you've managed to avoid it for the last twenty five years."

She said it in a resigned exhaley way that left no room for rebuttal. Our fate was sealed.

I hung up the phone and stared at the fish tank. No, it would be impossible to drown myself in such a small amount of water - better to accept my fate and make the reservations.

The O'Brien family reunion is a bizarre event, difficult to explain to the uninitiated. It involves camping; not beside a mountain lake, but in the city park of a small, dusty, wheat-farming town. It requires the ritualized eating of beans, potato salad, and other runny foods that make paper plates leak and arteries tremble. There is fly swatting and small talk. There are games in which people put string down their pants and entwine themselves with shirttail relations of all ages. Individuals with whom I have nothing in common but a distant ancestor will embrace and kiss me.

"Oh goody, I can hardly wait," I moan, dialing Southwest Airlines.

But wait I do, through an unexpected volume of calls for low summer fares. I hold, wondering, why Dufur? With Oregon's abundant beauty - rugged coastlines, fertile valleys, alpine forests - why did our ancestors homestead In all that dust? I suppose because dust was free to those brave enough to call it home. My trip there is not free. It costs $600 to secure three last-minute round-trip airline tickets from Oakland to Portland. We are just days away from the tribal tent camp.

"Don't go if you don't want to!" my husband commands. His idea of camping is spending a night in a Holiday Inn. I do not invite him to Dufur, nor do I attempt to explain the unseen force propelling me there. What does one pack for a weekend in the wheat? I own business, cocktail and black tie attire. I have casual clothes, athletic gear of every type, even resort-wear. I do not have Dufur-wear, whatever that may be.


To Be Continued: There are 6 parts to this story by Tamara, and I will give it to you in short segments so you have time to read it.



Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Those of us who left Ireland left because we had such a strong desire to survive and give our children a better life. We never gave up hope for the future. Some of the people who came to America went to New York, or Canada, or New Orleans, Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, St. Louis, Texas or Little Rock, but we had family in Ohio. Ohio is where we were headed.

         No matter where our people (I mean the Irish) settled, the men found jobs and went to work as soon as possible. They found work in factories, went to school, farmed the land and some taught. We lived normal, decent, hardworking lives. Many Irishmen became politically active in their new communities. William and I were among the many Irish immigrants who came to America but never became famous or made the headlines of the local paper.

William had not been able to find work in Strokestown because our families owned land. Gentleman did not work for other people. When we moved to Ohio, William found work in the woods but since he had no work experience he soon had an accident. While cutting wood one day, he cut off his finger. When it healed he found another kind of work that was not so dangerous.

         Life in America was so different from life in Ireland. I had to learn so many new ways. But it was also exciting and I had known it would be different. The children learned the new way of living faster than I did. I was homesick for my parents, but I was the mother of this family. I had to be strong and not show my sadness and frustration. I am so glad we spoke English at home in Ireland. After a while I even learned to be comfortable with my new life and the new ways of America.

         We settled in Lorain County Ohio, first in Grafton then moved to North Eton. Sarah Frances was born on January 13, 1854 in Grafton, Lorain County, Ohio; and Susanna Caroline was born on May 3, 1860 in North Eton, Lorain County, Ohio. Now, William and I had eight children.

         Later we moved to Allegan, Michigan where we still live. William died in 1888, and is buried in Lindsley Cemetery, Cheshire Township, Allegan County. Michigan reminds me of the old country: green with the rivers and many lakes. I can’t believe we have lived in America for nearly 40 years.

         Now I am old and I don’t think I have many more years on this earth. My life has been good. My children are grown and have children of their own. I am proud of all of them.

         I still have the little box Mother gave me so long ago. When I look at it I remember Ireland and my family there, and I especially remember my Mother. I want Mabel Frances to have my box. I hope she will cherish it and care for it as I have done.