Cascade Observations: Stories we tell

Everyone has a story within them, and these personal stories may be shared deliberately or by chance. Either way, it’s important to have eyes and ears wide open, ready to catch the next one that passes by.

Recently, my husband and I headed east to Sherman County to explore Oregon’s newest state park, the Cottonwood Canyon. Our first visit to this lovely park, but it won’t be our last. We encountered wonderful hiking trails, the beautiful John Day River, and dramatic basalt cliffs and canyons. In the silence of a lovely autumn day, as we strolled toward the river, we happened upon some wonderful stories, told not by a guide, but rather by carved sheets of rusted steel.

Tucked along a fence and silently waiting to be shared are words burned into the metal, telling stories of the people who lived in this lovely, austere place. Herewith, two of the stories, short in length but rich in imagery:

“Children born in the night. Cries echoing off cliff walls. No doctor for miles …”

“Planks we cut for the floor of the school. Real glass windowpanes carted down in a straw-filled box. Mrs. Strode road by train to teach letters and numbers to the children of the county.”

Stories need not deal with significant experiences to be compelling. A talented storyteller can turn the most mundane of experiences into an evocative story. Rick Bragg is a good example. Bragg, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and professor of Writing at the University of Alabama, recently published “The Best Cook in the World — Tales From My Momma’s Table.” The book is much more than a cookbook. David Holahan, a writer for USA Today, writes the book is “a collection of stories — rollicking, poignant, sometimes hilarious tales about how generations of Bragg’s extended family survived one meal to the next.”

In order to write the book, Bragg had to listen carefully to his “momma,” whose recipes and memories were all in her head, not copied from a book. In a story about making hamburgers in his Alabama home town, he writes, “It is hard to describe the beautiful simplicity of a good blue-collar Southern cheeseburger of that era. Or more accurately, it is hard to explain its appeal in a world of massive half-pound bacon cheeseburgers made from elk meat and buffalo butts and covered in Asiago and pork belly and served with a side of truffle and rosemary-scented pumpkin fries and a habañero-infused pickle spear, and a Diet Coke. The problem is, much of the time, that the aioli went afoul that morning, and the bright-red meat in the middle of the rare patty is just worrisome in the aftermath of a thing called Mad Cow. The 32-grain bun, studded with seeds of an unknown origin (but they appear to be mostly pine nuts), is crumbly, tough, and toasted hard to hide the fact that it is stale; no amount of Bavarian mustard on this planet can make up for the fact that the pink, mealy tomato was pulled green and rode a thousand miles in three tractor-trailers before it finally met the knife, which was likely wielded by a young man with a lip piercing and a hair bun and a full-body tattoo of a carp.”

Later in the book, he describes his mother’s dread of winter. “She sees the winter as a kind of purgatory, and behaves as if she lives in a frozen tundra, huddled in some gulag. She wears layers and layers of flannel and thermal and quilted everything, and punches at her television, trying to find a weatherman, this time, with a sunny disposition. She would settle for a kind lie, rather than one more forecast for 37-degrees and rain with a chance of something called ‘a wintery mix,’ as if it were a party snack. She says, over and over, the same thing: If she can just get into March, if she can just get started on her garden, she believes she would feel all right.”

Around our house this fall, we’ve been telling stories about the garden of 2018. My husband is the creator of our garden, and I’m the consumer and convertor of the fruits of his labor. My specialty is tomato paste. He plucks the orbs of tomato deliciousness ripe from the vine. I wash and cut them up, then cook them slowly in a large skillet over low heat. As the tomatoes soften, I crank them through my trusty food mill, separating seeds and peels from what’s left. Then I return the sauce to the skillet, where it thickens into an ambrosia deserving of a more elegant title than “paste.” When just the right thickness, I transfer the paste into ice cube trays to freeze. Once frozen, the ruby colored cubes are packed away in the depths of our freezer. Come winter, their flavor will fill everything with memories of summer — from pizza to a pot of chili. The 2018 garden stories linger as my husband begins planning for Spring 2019 planting.

This fall has not only been a time to remember our garden, but a time to remember, and tell stories about, friends and family members who are gone. Recently, a group of us gathered to tell stories and toast the memory of Jerry Miller, a consummate cook, storyteller and beloved local educator who passed away a year ago. For our gathering, his niece dug and cooked razor clams, Jerry’s favorites, and told stories about Jerry’s skills on the beach and in the kitchen. Every story of another fabulous meal cooked by Jerry elicited laughs and lip licking. Jerry didn’t cook opossum like Rick Bragg’s mom, but he was famous for his Dancing Crab and Dirty Rice.

In 2017, Portland writer Brian Doyle succumbed to the same cancer that took Jerry too soon. In “The Grail,” one of Doyle’s last published pieces, he wrote, “People like to tell their stories, people are itching to tell their stories, and some part of your craft and your reason for being is to be open to stories, to elicit stories, to savor stories.”

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