The sign as you enter the town declares, or at least it once more prominently declared it was a “Sportsman’s Paradise“. It is because of the hunting and fishing and the skiing at the resort up the way. It is mostly farmland, a small valley surrounded by large hills a little too small to be mountains, but enough to hold snow to ski down.
My childhoods were spent on Grammy’s farm on The Flowery Trail in the summer. It was a 6 hour drive from Seattle, and every time we would come around the bend to see grandmas big old farm house, still there like always, right as rain. Maybe grandmas hanging up laundry to dry, always greeted by a welcoming committee of friendly slobbery dogs that needed to be brushed and petted.
There was a big old farm house, a chicken coop, grandpa’s shop where he went to tinker and a big barn that had paraphernalia indicated that it once held animals, though it never did so in my lifetime. There was also a crick that you could walk up, fall into, jump over, and find horses taking cooling sips off of it. In short, for a little kid it was a discovery paradise. And all the little kids in our family loved it. My cousins and my brother and I would sit int he camper till the wee hours of the morning laughing at things that little kids laugh at, making up ghost stories.
We found endless ways to occupy the time, trying to milk the goats, raiding the freezer for Schwan’s treats, braiding each others hair, doing some water colors, making up plays, tormenting each other, chasing the feral kittens, collecting eggs from the hens, going exploring in the woods, riding little dirtbikes, messing around the crick, investigating the barn, climbing into the hay loft, checking for strawberries in the garden, running through the sprinkler, swimming in a fishing hole, taking pictures of things the sun caught the right way, catching toads with our fancy flashlights strapped to our heads (this I did only 5 years ago).
The one thing you never ever were to do though (although we all broke this rule at one time or another) was go up to grandma and say “I’m boooooored,” Not unless you wanted to unleash the furies of hell from grandma, who might have held you as an endearing, if not pesky, cherub moments earlier, the dreaded boredom declaration was one only to be used if you wanted to really bite the hand that fed you.
Grandma endured the coming of age of many children on the farm, when we suddenly weren’t interested in jumping the crick, but instead, we wanted to go see if we could find some Chewelah hoodlums and see what they did for fun.
In college I was once at some group of people, and in order to get to know each other, we talked about our grandmas. All the girls there had these stories of grandma’s who baked cookies, reminded them to keep their knees together in their dresses and taught them things like quilting, sewing and knitting. But when I thought of my grandma, an image of her came to me riding around on the John Deere tractor in her overalls, picking of piles of this and that to take here and there, weedeating the crick, fixing the pump to the crick, cutting down sunflower stalks and giving me the heads to plant in my own garden (which I didn’t have as I always was living in apartments) and chopping up some vegetables from her garden with her old strong hands. I omitted the part of about the glass of wine that she kept all day and the cigarettes that she would light and then walk away from as she went to finish another task. I felt really out of place. I never went back.
At one point I think I did want a grandma that baked muffins and wore frilly aprons and smelled like a fresh cookie.
But then I realized rather recently that I had something far better. I had a grandma who had taken her whole family to live in the South Pacific for a couple years, a grandma who was a voracious reader and gardener and cook. A grandma with infinite compassion for all things living. A grandma who until her 84th year was a social activist before such a thing really was ever cool…writing letters to the newspaper about things she felt weren’t right, organizing people to make a veteran’s history project at the high school, getting together a group of folks to take care of the pioneer cemetery that Chewelah is home to. Grandma knew every person in Chewelah, and she walked right up to them and said whatever it was that needed to be said, and she could always think of something. I venture to say, there was not a more alive person in that town than she.
This weekend when I drove up there, the biggest attraction the town advertised were a couple casinos that have popped up in the depressed town. That and the ski hill which still attracts the diehard skiers with fancy cars from all around. I didn’t see the “Sportsmen’s Paradise” sign, but I saw lots of empty fireworks stands, the magnesite factory that showed advanced wear and graffiti with big piles of white God-knows-what laying around and scraps of metal twisted into aggressive shapes of nuclear farm animals. beyond this vista entering the town there is a bank, a hospital, a museum, a small library, a woot woot golf club (who’d a thunk?), a nice park, a grocery store and a really decent mexican food place. All of it holds scads of memories for me.
This weekend the occasion was not something jovial like skiing or visiting the farm, but visiting grandma in the hospital. In the past five years she has contended with some major congestive heart failure, pneumonia, a broken hip, an ongoing UTI which requires that she is catheterized. She can’t get a nurse anymore, she moved off the farm and now is living in a little house with a view of fields of large rolls of wheat and some nice large hills that aspire to be mountains. She has a garden with the richest soil I have ever encountered…truly as black as soil gets. But she can’t grow anything there anymore, she can’t go out and weed, in fact on Tuesday she broke vertebra L3 and due to a compression fracture, she is laying in St. Joseph’s hospital whithering away, under direction to not move on her pneumatic mattress.
Her house is up for sale. I can’t imagine what her future holds, she can’t even sit up. When I see her, how can I not cry? She ordained herself the matriarch of our family, and without her, I can’t imagine our family. I won’t go into the troubles that the brood of offspring up there has, suffice it to say, in a little town without much to do and parents who are only partially there or not there at all, the kids have all gone astray. Most recently my cousin, with whom I had fun on the farm, “borrowed” all of grandma’s money and took it to aforementioned casinos. The child with control of her assets, retired now, a wealthy and successful man, can’t seem to pull himself away from his hobby to get up to see his mom. His hobby is in a bottle.
I can’t imagine a happy ending to this story. My visit with her I tried to make her happy. I rubbed her feet, cut her nails, brushed her dentures, put some lotion on her legs and read to her. I brought the photo album of very old fotos, of her childhood, old pictures of her mom and dad and uncles. She couldn’t look at it, she said “too many good memories”.
They are making a brace for her, so maybe she will be able to sit up, get in a wheelchair at least. She was wobbly on her feet before, now I think there is no hope that she would walk again, despite how vigorous she was just 5 years ago.
That’s what I did this weekend.