Friday, December 21, 2007

A Trip to Mr. Hooper’s Bountiful Neighborhood

November is typically the month to review things I’m grateful for, but the spirit that wafted into the corners of Christmas this year reminds me that blessings come in all shapes and sizes, unexpected and sometimes preconceived as burdens. I am humbled and amazed by the blessings I have experienced this year, so grateful for the journey that has brought me to this place, and for my traveling companions who have been varied and unique, both from the bits of “road” we walked together, to the unassuming and simple lessons learned; unveiling glory in the very tiny moments of life. This is the gift I offer to those far and near, in search of their own peace this christmas season.

One crisp autumn morning in the not too distant past with nostalgia firmly settling into the corners of my mood, I set out for what promised to be a “real” adventure; returning to my roots and discovering some layers of meaning in them as well. Being the dutiful granddaughter I was brought up to be—feeling a little resentful that this duty had fallen to me—I had agreed to be the chauffeur for a day to my aging grandparents. Our journey, appointed to begin at 12 sharp on a fine Saturday afternoon late in September, began with the “pick-up” of the two elderly folks--my aging grandfather and his second wife, hazel, who for descriptive purposes is at the very least forgetful and generously speaking, known to repeat herself until everyone present has had a chance to memorize her each and every word. On this day we had planned a visit with grandpa’s brother arch and his wife Aileen, in Hooper, a town about 1 hour to the north where the Jones kids were born and raised.

At 85, my grandfather suffers from arthritis, among other ailments, which is centered, mainly in his legs, and he finds it difficult to walk at times and tires easily. Our trip that day was, as my grandpa put it, “what might just be his last chance to visit with his only living brother”. Uncle Arch is the oldest of the nine Jones children in my grandpa’s family and at 91, he and Robert E. are the last two Jones siblings still living. He also suffers from arthritis like my grandpa, but his condition is considerably worse, and he is unable to walk at all showing even greater signs of wear.

We established our rhythm for the day right off the bat as we made the trip from the house to the driveway. These two genteel folks slowly scuttled toward the car, a process taking 45 minutes, during which time we were beset with many roadblocks including two returns to the bathroom, one for a lost purse, several phone calls, a final search for the house key and a confirmation (3x’s) that a check had been written for the boy who was mowing the lawn (he was actually grandma hazel’s grandson, a fact that floated in and out of her memory so that he was simply referred to as “that lovely boy who mows the lawn”.) Two of the calls involved a change of plan. You see Aunt Helen—grandpa’s youngest brother Evan’s widow, would like to go and could we stop in bountiful to pick her up? Yes we could and stop we did, not just onceto pick her up, but twice; first for a bathroom at a nearby gas station, and then in bountiful for Helen.

A cheerful and lively woman, 70 some odd years young, Helen added a chatty flavor to our party and we finished our drive with talk of construction traffic and kitchen renovations. It seems Helen needed a new fridge but couldn’t find one that fit in the space that had all the features she liked. What do you think is more important, an icemaker in the door or being able to get into the kitchen when the door to the fridge is open?

As we finally exited the highway in the direction of Hooper, close to the shores of the great salt lake, my grandpa perked up and began entertaining our party with interesting tidbits of history about his first trip to Salt Lake with the high school debate team, and how one year his dad gave him a plot of land next to the house and told him he could keep the profit of whatever crop he raised there—sadly that was the year the bottom fell out of the tomato market and the factory offered him almost less than the cost it took to raise the vegetables so there would be no money made that year, and finally of each house in town—who had lived there, how they were connected to the Joneses and what had become of them (if he knew). I soon found myself a willing captive on this odyssey—willing to put up with the idiosyncrasies of age to learn the history firsthand of this wizened old patriarch, and in turn some of my own.

We wound our way through town, past the local market, and Aunt Addie’s cottage, to a pleasantly kept old farm house and garden (that I vaguely remembered from a childhood visit) set amidst the building of track homes and developments that used to be fields where the Jones children once rode their horses to school. Entering the farmhouse, I recognized a much older and thinner version of my great uncle arch seated in the living room. Unable to use his legs, he beamed a smile across the room at his brother bob who had come from the big city to pay a visit. Great Aunt Aileen (another second wife—a little younger—relatively speaking, with slightly more mobility) was bustling in the kitchen preparing our meal. She assured us she hadn’t gone to any extra trouble and in fact had simply pulled a roast out of the freezer; the rest of the meal was fresh out of the garden. Comprised of corn on the cob, two types of freshly pickled cucumbers, and the biggest and reddest tomatoes I’d ever seen sliced and eaten plain—Aileen later mused about how Hooper was once famous for its tomatoes and her experiences at the cannery, but technology had influenced a new and improved growth in California and Hooper had lost favor in the tomato industry. Hazel followed suit in storytelling and presented for our memorization through constant repetition, a story of how as a girl she used to take a salt shaker out to the garden and sit in the dust and eat tomatoes fresh off the vine.

The rest of the table was laid with cantaloupes and watermelon from the melon patch, baby peas sweet with ripeness (my own peas that year from my first attempt at gardening had turned out sour so I was thrilled) and fresh baked bread. this meal really “having been no trouble at all” for aunt Aileen was topped off by a delicious, and still warm from the oven, peach pie for which Aileen had spent the morning collecting peaches from the orchard floor because a great wind had knocked them to the ground the night before.

After such a feast, which was “no trouble at all”, you might imagine all involved were ready for a nice afternoon nap. After little more chatting and nostalgia over the past, including a review of all the grandchildren, great grandchildren and all their news and spouses, we set off once more for the return trip. Grandpa, showing wear from this journey, didn’t want to end his day without a visit to the local cemetery where many of the jones family had been buried--including his parents. Not a far drive from the farmhouse, we peeled our now sweaty and weary selves out of the car and stepped back into the afternoon sun to walk amongst the headstones of my ancestors. Over the noise of the rider mower, grandpa, our troubadour and guide, recounted stories of the names we saw carved in marble, and in his eyes I beheld a recollection of a life swelling with bitter sweet memories that kept him company when he was still. Tears formed in my eyes as I learned of my heritage and embraced the simple beauty of the moment. Soon our road weary company piled back in the car and passed a relatively silent and introspective ride home. With farewells bidden to Helen, Aileen and Arch, I safely deposited hazel and bob at their home and left them with a fridge full of tomatoes and squash from Aunt Aileen and promises of speaking soon.

On the drive to my own home and many times since, my thoughts have wandered back this Journey. My heart beats with gratitude and warmth for an aging and somewhat doddering old man, full of the eloquence of years; who shared with me on a warm autumn afternoon, part of his life story and part of himself. I am thankful for the rich heritage in which I proudly take my place. At the time I agreed to make the trip it was difficult for me to sacrifice the time and effort to transport a bunch of old folks to visit in their past, but I gained so much--love, understanding, a common bond from the journey. In retrospect, I realize an even more valuable lesson--In this life we all go through hard times, good times and meet many challenges, I recognize we are all just a bunch of old folks at different stages of aging--searching for love and understanding—creating a common bond, if we are willing to share it, on all of our journeys.

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