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Monday, September 10, 2007

Small gifts

We arrived, hours and hours and hours from home, by charter bus (having, of course, missed the Los Angeles train connection) in the Coastal Town not far from San Diego, where my in-laws live, at 5:30 in the morning, and took a harrowing, sharp-cornering cab drive to their house. As I brought in the first suitcase, I got a hug (actually the first one ever, after years of handshakes) from my father-in-law, and from that moment began one of the Great Visits.

There is a certain danger in Great Visits. I'm afraid I would become "very traditionally built," like Mma Ramotswe of The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, if I were to live in this house very long. In-laws, like one's own parents, seem to feel a compulsion to check every fifteen minutes to see if you are starving. In self-defense, Beloved and I began right away doing some serious walking.

On one such journey we went a couple of miles, to the pier to spend much of a morning and afternoon watching people fish and surf and so forth. There is often a very brisk breeze from the north at this location, so I tied on a bandanna to keep my hair from blowing away, and climbed up the rampway onto the pier in the bright sun, with my red Miami sundress flapping like a pennant, to find myself staring into the eyes of a pelican resting on top of the ladies' room.

In every direction from here there is much family history. Beloved graduated from high school from the bandshell on the beach, and she completed her training as a San Diego County life guard by leaping from this pier ( a very considerable height) and swimming through the surf all the way back to shore. I am not sure it was a thing I could have done -- certainly could not do so now. She could, though, I think. She is stronger against the elements than I am.

Beloved and I walked out, on the rough, hot boards, to the end, where the water is deep and very blue, observing the intensity of the fishing culture.

Many of those fishing from the pier are Asian, especially Vietnamese or Hmong, and wrap themselves in large hats, kerchiefs and windbreakers or shawls and stay all day. Some stand by the railing, snatching their rods up and dipping them down, jigging with gangs of treble hooks for baitfish from within the long shadow of the pier on the blue water; others sit in camp chairs and let out their lines, with shrimp or chunks of baitfish on them, in search of mackerel, sea perch, or something larger.

On our way back we found the brown pelican sitting rather forlornly on the railing, and I leaned against the rail, close enough to have played gin rummy with him (or her), and carried on a conversation in what I hoped might be passable pidgin Pelican as the sailboats and boogie boards went by, far below. A pelican's eyes are not large, but they are brown and soulful, and it seemed to me to be a fairly deep conversation. When the large webbed feet were lifted to shift weight, and then set down again on the railing, I could feel the thumps in my elbows -- a very heavy, very present and impressive bird, folded up into itself, looking down into my face from less than four feet away.


The following day, Beloved's sisters, who had not met me as I now am, swept into the household spreading zany cheer, hugging us both, talking animatedly with her and with their parents, saying all the right things about the small gifts I had brought them, and making plans for an outing. I was able to hold my own in this environment, but only barely. (Before, I'll admit it, I had been a complete wallflower, so there was a change, and altogether a healthy one.)

To give their parents a rest from all of us, the Sisters piled us into a vehicle, took us out onto the freeway, and stopped at a large restaurant for lunch while continuing to debate where to go. Their minds made up at last, everyone rose in a body and headed for the ladies' room.

I didn't particularly need to go just then, and so, surprising myself a little, hung back. There was a large and very beautiful wooden boat hanging from the ceiling directly above the aisle, so I studied that, and waited there for everyone to return. I realized that I had become shy. Thirty years of going to --well -- a different bathroom under these circumstances seemed a bit much for me to overcome in, as it were, a new instant, even though I have now been doing so for more than three years.

I thought no one had noticed, but Beloved said, as we made our way to the parking lot, that she had looked for my feet beneath all the doors before she realized I had not come in with them. The Sisters grinned at me from beneath their sunglasses, and I realized I had been a bit foolish.

I had always, despite a certain cultural and personal distance, loved them for being Beloved's family, and realized that the feeling -- one which could not diminish even through years of neglect and major life changes -- was one they returned.

Beloved and Risa in Old Town

At the Old Town we watched children demonstrate traditional dances, and shopped, and dropped in on dilapidatedly historic buildings, including the old-time print shop, where I lectured the Sisters a bit on the equipment and procedures on display, and stopped for photos from time to time. By this time I did need to go to the "old ladies" room, and one of the Sisters made short work of locating one, upstairs in a very old adobe-and-wooden-beams plaza that had been converted into a large open-air restaurant, and leading me to it. We went into the two stalls, washed up at the two sinks, and emerged into the bright sunlight together, putting on our sunglasses like smiling twins.

After shopping for only a little bit, Beloved and I indicating that we were tired, we all piled back into the car and onto the freeway, where I promptly conked out and slept all the way back to Coastal Town.

There, while the nap-renewed Ancestral Ones were receiving small gifts from all of us, I was handed a miniature rainbow-embroidered stringbag which contained four tiny dolls, each less than an inch high, by my old-new Upstairs Bathroom Sister.

"This is the four girls going shopping together in Old Town," she said, looking me directly in the eyes.

I hope that I may live a long time. This is going to deserve much.



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