Sheepishness

sheep in the blue mtns.With my mother visiting for a week, I came up with an ambitious list of things to do in and around Walla Walla. The Colville Street Patisserie. Klicker’s farmer’s market and antiques. Petit Noir chocolatiers down in Milton-Freewater. Main Street and downtown. The Kirkman House, Pendleton Mills factory, Ice Burg drive-in, and the college campus. I added items on the vacation to do list never thinking about my mother’s energy levels or capacity for long car rides. Seems my tolerance for getting from Point A to Point B has expanded since we moved here, like Mercury comparing itself to the gas giant Jupiter.

Reality, at some point, was bound to take over. It had watched me with my black felt pen and growing list and chuckled quietly to itself, knowing it wouldn’t have to do much to stymie my plans.

We did make it to most things in and around town, except the museum. Something about a historic house with a suffrage exhibit just wasn’t grabbing my mother, who obviously takes voting for granted. She did get some sorbet at the Patisserie, and a chance to look around.

“So this is where you write,” she asked. I nodded.

“Hmm,” was her response. It’s a little difficult to ascertain what was layered into such a mouthful, but I think she approved. I know already she thinks I’m a little weird, so that’s not a big deal anymore.

We looked at items in a home furnishings store on Main Street. She told the owner everything was overpriced. I covered my face with my right hand, a 3-year-old’s response of “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me.” I explained to her that most of the shops on Main Street aren’t for Walla Wallans, they’re for the wine tourists from Seattle, the executives who like to show off to their friends about things they’ve purchased. It doesn’t make any sense to this grown-up farm girl. It just sounds like tinny silliness.

Traveling down to Milton-Freewater in Oregon, I show her the obsession they have with frogs. I can’t tell her how it started because I don’t know, and everyone I’ve asked seems not to know the origin, either. But literally every 50 yards there is another frog statue or mural.

“There’s a whole group of people out there who love frogs,” she says, and in my brain I morph it into one of those annoying Facebook statuses: There are two types of people in the world, it begins. People who love frogs, and people who don’t give a shit.

I am in the latter. Nonetheless, the frog statuary are kind of cute.

She takes a while chatting with the chocolatiers in Petit Noir, while I smile and pretend not to worry that we’re there too long. Mom thinks it’s all just nice conversation, and maybe it is, but I’m wondering if as customers, we are using our bizarre power over them to hold them hostage, all for the promise of buying $30 worth of prettily packaged product. I’ve certainly paid people to talk to me before, but there was usually some therapy or counseling going on in the exchange. And I mean that literally, not as some euphemism for “I pay prostitutes for my mental health,” so don’t go there. Mom’s back starts to ache so we head back to the car and head back to Walla Walla, leaving Pendleton unexplored.

“Is Pendleton open on Monday,” she asks.

“Pendleton’s a town, Mom.”

“I mean the mill.”

“Oh. I don’t know.”

“I know Pendleton’s a town, silly.” She laughs, in the same way I’ve taken to laughing.

We go tooling around the next day, east of town, over to Klicker’s, the strawberry pickers. I just made that up. I should sell that phrase to them for a couple of berry buckets. They’ve probably already thought of it. Mom likes the antique store, even though it’s littered with faketiques—things are made to look old, but were mass produced a few years ago. She can spot the real things easily. I pick up the handle on an old phone, the kind with a tube for a mouthpiece and two brass bells at the top like eyes, and marvel at how heavy the ear piece is.

“We had one of these on the farm,” she says, referring to Section 28, where she grew up in Saskatchewan. So the weight doesn’t surprise her. She hands it back to me and I hang it back on the hook. Immediately she flips it over. “It goes that way,” she tells me, smiling at my ignorance.

At the end of a winding road into the Blue Mountains we see sheep, and she gasps. She didn’t have any excitement for the horses or cattle or goats we’ve seen, but the sheep get her to draw a sharp intake of breath. A dog comes out onto the road, barking at us for coming too close to his house. Thirty yards away the county road stops and their private road takes over.

“My back hurts,” she says.

I say I’m sorry, I thought these bucket seats were pretty comfortable.

“It’s not the seat, it’s my back.”

I laugh, and Mom asks what I think is so funny.

“It’s not the hot coals, it’s my feet,” I say. Now she’s laughing.

“It’s not the machete, it’s my bleeding cut.” We laugh harder.

We can coast at 50 m.p.h. on the downward slope out of the mountains. We’re still laughing.

“I can try to tell Gary about this,” she says, referring to her husband, “but I think you had to be there.”

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