wandering roots

treasure box

We all have our exceptions, like this box of treasures, the hand-carved and -painted container a souvenir from extended family members traveling in Russia years ago. I saw similar folk art myself in Poland in the mid-1990's. But the box itself isn't important.

When I was younger, I defined myself as a traveler. I have lived abroad twice. Now it's been almost 15 years since I left the U.S., though I suppose Hawaii could be a qualified exception. (I used to think I'd rather go anywhere but Hawaii, where all middle-class West Coasters vacation, until the plane landed and the air smelled of flowers and mountains were shaped like heartbeats, and I walked in a bamboo forest, crossed a swinging rope bridge, fell in love with a smiling white-and-brown goat—and never wanted to leave.)

travel coins

For years I've been trying to put down roots, to stay for a change, like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty in Mississippi or Flannery O'Connor, who had an "ancestral farm" in Georgia—longing for that kind of rootedness, sense of place. The thing is my ancestors were nomads, drifting in wagon-dust clouds from the deep South into Texas and Oklahoma, up to Montana, down to California, up to Oregon, or from Denmark to Colorado to Oregon, or from Canada to the Ohio-Indiana border to California. And this was mostly back when horsepower wasn't figurative. For European-Americans with any generational history on this continent, once a family line hits the West Coast, there's nowhere to go but backwards. My family somehow ended up in the remote high desert of southern Oregon, of all places. But I have their genes and couldn't stay. Few of us can, really. We disperse like tumbleweeds, collecting in the digital cloud on Facebook (though I tried even that and couldn't).

vintage matchbooks

My three remaining grandparents died within a year and a half after I returned to the States from Korea. I miss my maternal grandmother the most because we were most alike: readers, morning-coffee lingerers. I regret the questions I should have asked; I thought I would have more time. Yet from experience, I understand her better now, see why she had grown bitter, why she carved up my silent, stoic, alcoholic, navy-vet grandfather with her tongue (though that doesn't excuse it).

vintage 1930's postcards, Oregon

Most of my maternal grandparents' possessions were sold at a garage sale while I was off elsewhere. I wish I had more belongings of theirs, more than a black ceramic horse and a few trinkets: postcards of the southern Oregon mountains where the family often camped, matchbooks from Southwest truck-camper road trips in the '50s and '60s, the remaining Old Maid cards from a set played by at least three generations, and a random old key—symbol of what's both lost and possible.

vintage Old Maid cards, vintage #7 key

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