I’m on the road currently. The ostensible reasons are to get out of Springfield, catch a great concert with my brother, recharge my batteries for another couple rounds in the firehouse and lastly, general tomfoolery. All still going to plan, too. I spent an evening at the local watering hole of my hometown, The Old Cayucos Tavern, catching up with people I’ve not seen in a dozen years or more. It’s always good to know that over time nothing too much changes, except that everyone seems to have kids and jail time under their belts to show for it. Someone is now a commercial fisherman in Alaska, some are working, some are fighting, many broken promises being argued about over the sound of a great band, a band much better than the raucous trash that used to play there when I was a kid sneaking into the joint. All the small town drama is still in full swing, bikers and surfers and ranchers and truckers all living life in a jilted awkward dance set to the rhythm of life in a sleepy beach town.
And while it’s always good to check the ties that bind you to your youth, I’ve also spent time engaged in an act that I’ve neglected for far too long. This trip has been marked with miles on the road checking in with family, blood and otherwise. My mom’s sister, who I’ve not seen in twelve years, recently moved to California to be close to family, so I popped in unannounced, seeing if I could give her a heart attack by ambush visiting her. She’s a delightful and kind soul who spent her younger years getting arrested for protesting acts of animal cruelty, then proudly mailing me the newspaper clippings of her being led off after chaining herself to a mule diving platform. Now she’s toddling around an assisted care facility, walker at the ready, eyes still alive and vibrant with an independent spirit that I recognize.
I also pounded some Central Valley miles out to check in with my grandparents, something that is a bit of a ritual to me now. The parents of my stepfather are old-school farmers, no-nonsense people who raised a large family in Bakersfield and don’t suffer fools lightly. There’s no time for that when you’re carving a life out of the fertile desert floor, and yet despite their stern demeanor that I remember so well, there is an abundance of love in their hearts for family. Grandpa served in the military in WWII, and those years are the subject of our conversations, limited as they are. I’m just grateful, I suppose, not only for his service, but for their accepting me into the family when I was a confused kid, desperate for a place to fit in with my new family. In their nineties now, it’s with a melancholy heart that I realize our short visits won’t be going on too much longer; in those moments, I’m trying to memorize all the details, never forgetting to let them know that I love them before I leave. I’m sure this verbal acknowledgment, while foreign to a generation of tough men and strong women, falls upon their ears and makes them smile, even if a little.
I also drove up to Cambria to visit my mom while she was at her quilting retreat, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a half dozen ladies chirping about and creating beautiful pieces of art for loved ones. They were wearing their pink Springfield Fire Department tee shirts, purchased last year as a collective effort to contribute to raise money for breast cancer awareness. Mom no doubt coordinated the wardrobe for the day I’d visit, a sweet effort from a sweet woman, embarrassed as she is to have brought me into this world. She still refuses to believe I have a tattoo, a point she made to me and anyone else in earshot, and that’s okay, too. As she was explaining to me just how disgusting I would look as an old man with saggy ink, and I was telling her I had no plans on getting old, I had to smile. My mom & I, my earliest ally in this world, the one who has tolerated me from the get go, lecturing a 36 year old me on my behavior. I missed that. She was more than happy to point out my flaws, and I loved it.
Finally, I visited Steve and Joanie, old friends from way back in the day, surrogate parents to a younger, cockier me. I wrote about Steve quite a while back (read here) and, as ever, it was good to be in their embrace, to feel the genuine love that comes from people who you love you despite yourself. I miss them greatly, and as I walked through their house, marveling at Steve’s impeccable style and skill with woodwork, I felt at peace, at home. I got in some meals with my stepdad and uncle, mentally taking me back to a time when they were aggressive framers and builders, catching their coffee at Skippers in the morning fog before strapping on their toolbelts and creating homes of immaculate precision. RoJo and family came up for an afternoon, and to see his son growing up in his image is shocking, indeed. I couldn’t be a more proud psuedo-uncle.
So, that was the first two days. Two days of a mad rush, hoping to cram in time with those I need to recognize more often. Family. That’s the thing.