Oregon Native

Not an obituary.

In February, my aunt passed away. We had the memorial, of sorts, this past weekend — and by ‘we’, I mean my extended family in Portland. Before the coronavirus shut everything down I had been planning to fly back immediately afterwards, to be there, but ended up deciding to stay in London.

My aunt had struggled with medical issues most of her adult life, having accidentally been shot in her 20s by her (at the time) husband in the process of cleaning (what turned out to be) a loaded gun. The gunshot almost killed her, and she was saved (as she often told me) only by virtue of living on a military base with experienced combat medics fresh from Vietnam. Afterwards, they moved back to Oregon, living in rural St. Helen’s, just north of Portland, where they had both grown up. This was before the mountain blew up in May 1980 — an event remembered more in my family for an uncle (my aunt’s younger brother) who also almost died around the same time after fracturing his spine ski jumping on Mount Hood. The extent of the injury was only discovered a few days after the accident, when he had the left side of his body go numb after going over some train tracks in car. He was hitchhiking at the time, and fortunately the driver had the foresight to take him to the hospital for a second opinion.

By the time I was born, my aunt was divorced (but still friends, which tells you something about the kind of person she was) and living in the ‘Painted Lady’, a sagging Victorian heap in Sellwood which was also my first home. Under the influence of her grandmother, who had run a flower shop back in Ohio (where she was born, before the whole family moved West), she had gotten into plants, after a stint running a window blind factory in the dodgy industrial strip on the east bank of the Willamette. She took classes at Mt. Hood Community College, paid for with scholarships from ‘the little old ladies’ as she liked to all them. Later she started a landscaping company with the uncle who (now with two fused vertebrae in his neck) also helped her build a kiln in her backyard, where she made fused glass art and chunky pottery. So that was where I grew up — in the great and glorious mess of my aunt’s house, filled with junk from estate sales and art projects inside, and plants and more junk and art projects outside. We moved out of the upstairs loft before I can remember, eventually moving into a house on the southside of Mount Tabor (another volcano) but it felt like my aunt was always there too. One of the first projects on that house was tearing out the front lawn to put in Japanese-inspired rock garden with native plants, and later we redid the bathroom together with broken tiles — the garden is still there, even though we sold the house years ago. I’m not sure about the bathroom.

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