Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

A Treasure Chest of Vice, Adventure and Love

Location: Portland, Oregon

Mileage: 7,386

Music: “Portland, Oregon” by Loretta Lynn and Jack White.

Meal: Holladay Plaza Split Pea soup and Buffet Salad

The drive from Kennewick to Portland started out as desolate. One must first pass the Umatilla Army depot in Eastern Oregon where a large plot of land has been used to store chemical weapons such as nerve agents and mustard gas.  I held my breath as I passed by the fields of death, praying that some natural disaster wouldn’t bring them to the surface and cover the dry lands with their poison.  I started breathing again as the highway curved into greenery to meet the blue expanse of the Columbia River.  The canyons rose along its banks creating a scenic gorge of pine trees; an inspiring passageway to the Pacific.

Once I got to Portland I mixed up my usual routine.  Instead of closing down the microbrew bars with friends, I instead stayed in with family.  I took up the role of sous chef for my cousin’s birthday dinner, homework helper for her six year old son, and paid a visit to my Great Aunt at her new retirement home. “I am so glad you are finally back west,” she said.

My great aunt Val is 88 although she acts and looks the same as if she were 58.  Her hair isn’t even fully gray yet.  She was pleased at the thought of an interview and so over a white linen lunch at the Holladay Park Plaza Retirement Center (I was warned to never call it “a home” again) we talked about her story.

To understand a person is to know where they came from.  And so my Great Aunt Val’s story will begin in the early 1900s in the Midwest farmlands with her Grandmother Rose, a renegade woman.  As any good story, this one starts with an unforeseen event.  Rose’s (and her husband’s) ox was struck by lightening.  Not able to afford another hearty animal to work their lands, they had to find work on another man’s farm.  Rose and the farmer host, Charlie, ‘took a real liking to each other,’ the result of which led to two bastard sons.  Her husband left her and her other children to live in sin.  Once her illegitimate lover died, Rose continued her sinful ways during Prohibition by earning money from bootlegging and making booze. There was a time she got caught and put in jail but Rose didn’t mind.  She was quoted as saying ‘It gave me time to focus on my fancy work.”

Rose’s daughter, my Aunt Val’s mother, was so ashamed of the ungodly ways in which she was raised that she ran away from home at age 12.  Left alone, Grandma Rose finally came to her end by accidently setting herself on fire from leaking gas in the stove.  A neighbor burst in to save her by rolling the flaming body up in a carpet.  But it was too late. Rose had met her dramatic end in her own personal inferno.

Hoping to end up in a different place, Val’s mother dedicated herself to the gospel and conservatism, and likely would have made an excellent addition to the Tea Party had she lived that long.

Val’s father didn’t run away from home but he dropped out of school at age 12 to start working.  Back in those days education was a privilege not afforded by many.  Before he met Val’s mother he worked with horses in the circus and was engaged to a circus balloon acrobat.  However his fiancée met her tragic end when her balloon carried her up high and then crashed over Lake Michigan.  He left the circus and settled for a less chaotic life in carpentry with a conservative, non-acrobat wife.

Aunt Val didn’t bootleg or ride up in circus balloons but she was untraditional, unlike her mother’s plans for her.  She was always up for mad adventure, a series of which may have caused her to marry and have children much later than all her 1950’s counterparts. She needed the adventure as much as she needed the escape of an overly controlling mother.  “When she moved to Florida she was still too close to me in Oregon,” Val said grimly.

Aunt Val went to New York the summer after she graduated college with no more than $40 and a round trip ticket.  She was able to get a job in an artist supply studio but it hardly paid enough to cover her rent and a few pathetic meals. “We couldn’t even afford to take the bus-it was a dime.  The subway was only a nickel so we took that and walked.”  However lack of money wouldn’t stop an adventure seeker.  Aunt Val spent her summer getting to know every part of Manhattan.  From singing show tunes with piano players in west village bars to getting inspired by the Met, Val juiced every second she had for sweetness; sleeping and eating were a waste of valuable time. “When I came back home I drank whole milk every day to recoup the ten pounds my skinny frame lost.”  However, even whipped cream couldn’t keep Val in Milwaukee.  Grandma Rose was in her DNA and Aunt Val needed to move beyond a traditional Midwestern path.  “I had a teaching degree and back then teachers were short in supply; most women quit once they got married.  I could get a job anywhere I wanted.”  When Val’s friend suggested they try Seattle, Val was in.  Post WWII Seattle was blossoming into a full cosmopolitan city.

Of course female teachers didn’t get paid much in those days.  Just like in New York City, Aunt Val barely had enough for her rent and bus fare. “I couldn’t afford a car,” she said, “so I didn’t go out too much.”  Although male teachers made a salary sufficient to support a family, it was assumed the female teachers would be financially taken care of, either by a husband or by their own parents.  Aunt Val didn’t have either to rely on.  She lived in a boarding house, and used her meager allowance to bike ride around Green Lake and ski with a ski group during the winters.  It was on one of these ski outings where she met her eventual husband, my Great Uncle Bob.  “He wasn’t really the best skier…I remember seeing him in a turtleneck sweater covered in snow from head to toe,” Val laughed fondly. “But I remembered his eyes.  He had these bright blue eyes that shone through the snow.” Bob was four years younger than Aunt Val but she didn’t mind.  “I was a cougar,” she smiled. “Very ahead of my time, wasn’t I?”

Aunt Val and Bob saw each other around a few more times.  Val once overheard the engineer minded Bob tell a friend ‘”Well, the only purpose I can see for diamonds is in industrial use….” Val thought to herself, “Well, I’d like to make him eat those words.”  And eat away he did.  He brought roses on their second date and Val knew her number was up. “I knew he was serious!  I couldn’t play around anymore!” Three months later the two were married and moved to a tiny blue collar town in Oregon called St. Helens. Val recalls that it was hard to leave a big city for an Oregon mill town. “I didn’t fit in.  For one thing I was older.  I hadn’t married until age 34!  We were educated.  I liked the opera.  Plus my husband was in management, which made us suspicious with all the unions striking.  I couldn’t lie about my music tastes or Bob’s job so I lied about the only thing I could, my age.”

Bob was a gentle husband a devoted father.  “He always wanted to be with me and the girls.  When we were first dating a friend asked him what he saw in me and Bob said, “’Well, Val has everything!’  Now how can you not be enamored by a man like that.”  Val’s eye’s filled up with tears.  We were nearing their marriage anniversary as well as the anniversary of his death last year.  “October is hard for me,” Val said.  “Let’s go upstairs.”

And we left the white linen tablecloths for Val’s apartment with a view overlooking the Willamette river.

Upstairs Val poured wine and we spoke again of her life in Seattle.  I couldn’t imagine living in widespread Seattle dependant upon a bus to take me around.  She then admitted, “I finally did get a car at age 32…but I only had enough money to do so from the accident settlement.”

“What accident?!” I asked.  I didn’t know this story.

“I was in the middle of one of those front bench seats.  We were driving up Queen Anne Hill.  In those days cars were not very good at stopping at all the stop signs and we got T-boned by another car.  I got banged around inside.  However, the driver, the man I was dating, got thrown out of the car and died instantly.”  I stared at her.  Her eyes filled up with tears again.  “He was the man I was originally going to marry.”  Long before she had met Uncle Bob, Great Aunt Val was engaged to a tall Norwegian man named Olaf.  He was an accountant 12 years older and Val had been madly in love with him. “But I don’t have much memory of the actual event—the mind is well equipped to blank out painful things.”

I put my hand on hers.  “Did Uncle Bob ever know this?”  I asked.  She shook her head. “No.  I didn’t want to tell him for fear of hurting him.  And now I have lost two men I loved.”  Although many knew of her exploits in Manhattan, Val had been keeping Olaf a secret for well over 50 years.

A woman’s heart is like a treasure chest.  Our adventures and loves are like rich jewels kept secretly locked up.  Even though our fun filled journeys come to an end and our loves may disappear, we can always protect the memories.  I never knew Olaf.  But I knew my smiling Uncle Bob.  And now Aunt Val has given me another memory to add to my own treasure chest-an image of him covered in snow with bright blue eyes shining out.

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