The excitement brewed in me like coffee in a percolator as we made our way through the Columbia Gorge, often fighting severe side-winds over the bridge at Hood River. Sometimes black ice on the roadway threatened to keep us from our destination, but Dad drove on with the concentration of a brain surgeon. The skies were usually growing dark and the overhead lights sparkled through the wet windshield as we held our breath through the Portland tunnel.
We held our tongues from asking, “Are we there yet?” for fear that one more question like this would push Dad over the edge of his concentration cliff. April and I stayed quiet while our insides were aching to yell out with every passing mile. The snow had turned to slush and ultimately it was only cold rainwater that sprayed off our tires, but we had already grown weary of the white stuff at home.
As kids we felt on Christmas Eve as if we were crouching clowns biding our time in the jack-in-the-box. The spring was wound tight just waiting for Christmas morning to set us free with a lunge into a world of noise, bright lights and children’s laughter.
Christmas morning we were up in time to see the deer mother and her grown twin fawns that had long lost their spots and were now the color of the tree bark that offered them protection in the sunlight. We squirmed away from the compulsive teeth of Mom’s comb and the icy cold water that dripped off of them to tame our waves. The time for silence and patience had passed, and the questions were now repeated and increasingly agitated, “When do we go?”
Finally we are in the backseat of the truck, heater blasting, and driving up the long, steep dirt road lined with overgrown Black Cap bushes that hadn’t had the strength to even consider berry blossoms after their vines hung heavy with the juicy fruit in the heat of August. We bounce on the seat more from our eagerness than the rocks in the road and crane our necks to peer over the front bench seat. “There it is!” we both shout with gaiety as the doublewide trailer with the custom-made wrap-around porch comes into view around the bend.
We jump from the truck and ignore the chilly mud as it squirts up onto the back of our tights. We run for the wooden steps and wipe the mist from our foreheads as we pull open the sliding glass door.
The scents reach out to pull us in before anyone even notices us. The smell of warm dinner rolls hugs us with stick-of-butter arms. Peeking through the open kitchen and into the dining room we can already see rows of avocado-colored Tupperware and white dishes with yellow designs filled to their brims with jell-o and marshmallow salads, cheesy noodle casseroles, and brown sugared sweet potatoes.
Grandma, surrounded by busy, chattering children and boiling pots, doesn’t notice us at first. Someone says our names and she turns to look us each in the eyes. Her blue eyes sparkle like she knows a secret she’s bursting to share, and her cheeks flush pink like the peonies she’ll tend in the spring.
“Ooooooohhh,” she coos, “Amy-girl, you’ve gotten so grown up!”
Her embrace is warm and soft like a pillow next to the fireplace smelling of rose water and cinnamon. Yet, her arms are strong from kneading a lifetime’s worth of bread while carrying a houseful of babies into toddlerhood. She is the picture of ‘grandmother’ if you look in the dictionary, and her hug is there too in the definitions of safe and accepting.
As she releases me to take in my sister I make my way through the other cooks and tasters in the kitchen, allowing myself only a sniff or two of the home cooked banquet on the dining room table as I look toward the sofa.
The worn tweed sofa has sunken to welcome Grandpa’s burly brown body as he snickers at the wrestlers prancing and taunting on the television. A grimy gold spittoon relaxes on the floor beside him and a hint of minty tobacco fills the space between us. When Grandpa sits up to see me coming and pulls me to his barrel chest with his brawny arms I brace myself for the whiskered kiss on the cheek.
“You got yourself a red-headed boyfriend?” he chortles.
“No, Grandpa,” I blush.
“Well, here,” he says as he digs into his pants pocket and shows me a quarter from the palm of his creased hand, “I found this big nickel the other day, and I saved it just for you.”
I take it and smile, and he pulls me in for another hug while chuckling and looking back to the television.
As I start to take a seat beside him I hear the sliding door open and wait for the relief of cool air to push through it. The windows are damp with moisture now and the trailer is a fragrant tropical biosphere.
Aunts and uncles and cousins come in throughout the morning all carrying gifts to put beneath Grandpa’s Charlie Brown tree and food enough to feed the entire Northwest to set upon Grandma’s table. After hugs and news of babies still to come the plastic floral plates are dispersed and everyone makes the slow mouth-watering circle.
We eat and open gifts and giggle as Grandma exclaims that every gift is exactly what she wanted. We stretch out our satisfied bellies and listen to Grandpa tell us funny stories about his war buddy’s dubious antics.
I breathe it all in and let it seep into my pours, the air in that trailer and all the warmth and gentleness it holds.