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)



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