Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Great and Terrible Ruby

My brother texted me last night that Ruby--my maternal grandmother, formally named June but nicknamed Ruby, for critical distance's sake--was sick and in the hospital again.  Her heart and lungs have been in bad shape for a while and she's been lugging around an oxygen tank.  This slowed her down some, but not much, and last time I was with her (when I was in Idaho for my other grandmother Muggs' funeral) she was still entertaining and terrorizing most everywhere she went.

At about 3 in the morning, my brother woke up wide awake, and shortly after received a call that Ruby's heart had stopped and that she was on a breathing machine.  She's alive now but still on the machine.  She has a DNR, so if her heart stops again, well, that's it.

Here we are again, in that liminal space between life and death.  A few weeks ago, I thought it was Pru's last day, and she's sitting on my bed now, winking at me in her wise way, and if it weren't for the grotesque tumor on her leg, I would not know she is sick.  But the vet tells us she could slide downhill tomorrow and, well, that's it.

Before hearing again from my brother this morning about the heart and the breathing tubes, I had finally decided to pick up the book about Muggs' family, the Browns, in The King's Pines of Idaho.

The author, Grace Edgington Jordan, published the book in 1961.  She writes about my great-grandparents and McCall,

Built at the south end of the larger of the two Payette Lakes, McCall would eventually have become a resort, at least in summer, without any Browns about.  The lake water is a fine sapphire, the air is high and clean, and the hills are spiked with cool evergreen timber.  But without the payroll of Carl Brown's lumber mill, operating many years, McCall would never have become much of a business place.  And without the cooperation, the willing hands and the brains of the Browns and those the Brown children married, the village would not have attained such things as its efficient community hospital and modern high school.  Aided and encouraged by the caring of the Browns, McCall has become a uniquely satisfactory place to live, self-dependent, spirited, and beautiful because it is natural and unaffected.

My chronicling has not been easy.  The Brown left hand doesn't even want to know what the right hand is doing.  If you confront a Brown concerning money or effort that he has given to some good local cause, he may finally admit that Yes, maybe he did do this or that.  And then he begins to play down whatever he did.  To get any of his goodness or charity on paper requires ingenuity and drudgery.

I admit to a little pride over this history, but there is more than that, too, as I read this book in 2011, after losing or about to lose most of my grandparents.  I think about how closely my family's fortunes have been tied to resource exploitation--the Brown's lumber mill and Boise Cascade's exploitation of public lands in the West fairly intimately connected.  My father's attempts to connect to the wealth of oil and gas, and the fact that I received a scholarship from the Western Petroleum Marketers' Association as a college kid, my face on the cover of their annual report.  And that McCall, mostly, has become mostly a resort for the very wealthy.  Most of us could not afford to live there, and even vacationing there is pricey now.

Also, that phrase, "the Brown left hand doesn't even want to know what the right hand is doing."  Jordan makes it sound as if that is all about humility.  And partly, it is.  The Browns and Davies are definitely humble about their accomplishments--pride is strongly discouraged.  But they are also intensely private and even exclusionary, whether they mean to be or not.  They're friendly and personable, definitely, but I don't know if they are embracing and connected beyond their nuclear families.  They seem to marry people who desire those connections, which may be the thing that holds them together at all.

In my own life, this has manifested as my not always feeling connected.  I have a tendency to hold friends and family at arm's distance, even though that is certainly not what I feel in my heart.  I see this with my dad, too.  From my vantage point, he was not much involved with the Browns/Davies, even though he was definitely proud of being one.  This meant I wasn't involved with them either.  I did not see him much, and since he did not see them much, I did not know them hardly at all.

Except, ironically, through Ruby, who made sure I had a copy of The King's Pines of Idaho.  Ruby, who made sure I knew I was related to the Browns.  Ruby, who drove me to McCall every summer and made sure we found a boat to take us by the Davies place so that I could know my other grandparents.

She was a huge pain about it--don't get me wrong.  She believed the Browns/Davies to be some kind of Idaho royalty, which is why she wanted me to know them.  She never forgave my mom for messing up her marriage and marrying someone who was not Idaho royalty, and she made their lives quite miserable at times.  I was also frequently embarrassed by Ruby when we visited the Davies--they seemed so normal, and followed the rules of politeness and distance, and she never did.  She never recognized boundaries and it caused no end of trouble and embarrassment.

But her transgressions at least meant I knew that part of my family, while their recognition of boundaries would have meant I never knew them.

Such a study in extremes.

Anyway, this is what I'm thinking about.  These liminal, boundary-crossing spaces in my head and in my heart and for my grandmother this morning.

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