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Readers write about Claim

A Long Story

He stood on my porch, hair mussed, and he did everything but ask for money even though his eyes told me he needed it. He told me he was about to be doing well—back to work, a place to stay—even though he'd been arrested the night before. “Crazy story, too long to tell,” he said, and I agreed. I didn't say much at all because I just wanted to hear his voice and observe his sinewy incapacity to stay still, my brother, the kid I read books to when we were boys, and more than anything I wanted it to be true when he claimed he was clean.

A week later I was claiming his things from the empty apartment he had once sublet. He was no longer welcome. He had returned to crash after being evicted from another apartment, which he had made unlivable after sleepless nights blended into days and weeks of unhinged damage. The current place was a mess, enough to warrant the owner to immediately drive from Colorado to Portland, but not enough to press charges.

I kept his things in my trunk for two weeks, hoping “clean” would be more than just evasion and denial, but now I keep them in my backyard shed and wait for the day he'll come by to claim them. There's not much, just some clothes, books, notebooks, paints, and knickknacks, but he has lost literally everything before, and I know how much even just a few old shirts will mean to him, the sometimes-sober man who puts so much stock in possessions.

You hope for the best, and you know compassion will lead to forgiveness even when your anger still makes your chest quake. I'll always claim him as my brother, but I worry that one day, soon, I'll also be asked to claim his body. All I'll have left of him are my memories, and perhaps a few of his things.

Sean Wheaton, Portland

 

Homesick for Nowhere

I grew up in Oregon during the 1940s and 50s, then moved to the East Coast. Most of my family still lived in the Portland area, and I returned for visits every Christmas until Mom died in 2002. After that, I started driving out in summer. In addition to visiting family, I wanted to revisit places from my past and explore the unknown.

One of those unknowns was Oregon’s Zumwalt Prairie. I had read about it in the magazine published by The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages about a quarter of the two-hundred-square-mile prairie. I fell in love with it at first visit. 

Zumwalt Prairie is located in the northeastern corner of Oregon between the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon. It supports one of the largest buteo hawk breeding populations known on the continent, and contains the largest remaining bunchgrass prairie in North America. Bunchgrasses get their name by growing in dense clumps rather than spreading out by runners. The prairie is a nearly treeless expanse of low hills, plains, and swales. Wildflowers are abundant among the grasses, and in early summer there is an excess of color, as if some sloppy god had spilled his paints. The grasses sway not only to the wind, but also to the scurrying of ground squirrels, badgers, and gophers, and to the predatory swoops of hawks and eagles.

During my first visit, I saw one of the most beautiful and prolific wildflower displays of my life. About five minutes after I got out of the truck, a coyote started yipping at me from a low hill about three hundred feet away. He or she kept it up for about ten minutes. No doubt I was messing with the canid’s dinner plans. Corpulent ground squirrels were everywhere, and I kept stepping into badger holes—disconcerting to say the least. It may have been impossible to scan the sky and not see a hawk or eagle. To the east the prairie dipped down into the complex of gorges bordering Hells Canyon, and to the southwest I could see the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains over the shoulder of one of the Findley Buttes. As I got down on my knees to try and identify the wildflowers, I spontaneously said, “This is home.”

Later, I discovered a chapbook titled The Zumwalt—Writings from the Prairie, a collection of essays, poems, and historical accounts. In an essay by local resident Jean Falbo, I found a passage that deeply resonated with my experience on the prairie. The essay is titled “On Becoming Native to Place.”

Before us was a herd of elk, perhaps two hundred animals. They stood tensely still, eyes on us and ears radaring in our direction. Some voiceless decision was taken and the herd moved down slope like a brown mud slide against the dark yellow green grass, gaining momentum as they went. A more distant herd on Findley Butte caught the message and started its own slide over the undulating land and disappeared from view. A bright evening star appeared. “This is A’gamyaung,” one of my friends, a Central Yup’ik Eskimo, said. After a pause, he went on to say, “It means ‘I’m homesick for nowhere.’” Seeing we didn’t get it, he explained that at moments like these, his people said “A’gamyaung”—meaning to be at one with the universe, no matter where one might be physically.

I am now a prairie volunteer. After fifty-five years of voluntary exile, I can give something back to the state that raised me.

Richard LeBlond, Richland, North Carolina

 

The Invasion

The field was ours. We knew every hiding spot, every pit, every pile of rocks. We knew the secret hollow in the laurel bush where our brother kissed his girlfriends. We knew the rocky slope where we built tiny fires and toasted triangles of Hickory Farms cheese on sharpened sticks. We held the triangles of cheese over the weak flames and ate the gooey mess with our fingers. We knew where to hide our cigarettes and which berry bushes had the sweetest berries. This field was ours; we peed in the bushes, dug holes, and piled stones into forts.

The arrival of construction equipment seemed a boon at first. Suddenly we had an endless supply of boards to reinforce the ever-evolving fort we had built in the shadow of the berry bushes. There were bulldozers to climb on and freshly dug craters that filled with water where we tried, and failed, to catch fish. 

The piles of boards soon gave way to the skeleton of a building. We swung from beams and stripped the bundles of colorful wires to make braided rings. We scoured the ground for nails and created elaborate booby traps. Soon there were doors and locks and we could no longer get inside. We scratched warnings on the outside of the building: “Get out” and “No trespassing.”

Our warnings did not keep them from coming. A parking lot appeared, cars, moving boxes, people.  

We saw the new kids first, three boys, peeking over a newly mounded berm. They were looking at what remained of our field. Without thinking, I bent and picked up a stone, letting it fly, swift and sure.  

The smallest of the boys threw up his arms, his mouth a surprised hollow, his hands to his forehead. He fell back and the others briefly stared at us before bending to him. “Run,” I said to my brother. “Run.”

I was certain the boy was dead. Certain I had killed him, that his hands were cold and blood gushed from his forehead.  

We ran. At home there was baked chicken, spelling words, pajamas, my mother’s voice. I was shaking, working on keeping my mouth still. Scared and yet a tiny feeling of pride burned within me. I had defended our territory. I had put a stop to the invasion. Surely no one would want to live where a boy had died.  

Mary Sepulveda, Portland

 

Memories I Own

I remember him dying. I remember it was a Wednesday. I remember it was early and through the window I saw saffron-colored crocus buds peaking out of the earth like little yellow hands stretching toward the sky. I remember the exact pitch and tenor of his death rattle. How it filled the space completely, leaving no room for anything else. As if the house and the air and even I, his loving daughter, became his rattling breath.

I even remember the arch of his left eyebrow the year before as he told me about his illness. I remember the gentleness of his hand when he placed it on his chest, to the right of his heart, to show me where the tumor was growing.

These memories are mine. I own them. They are the last tiles in the great mosaic of memories I keep of my father. Millions of tiny snapshots taken over the course of twenty-six years and diligently locked inside my heart.

At first, I was obsessed with preserving my memories of him. My claim to them was unyielding and possessive. In the first months following his death, terrified I’d forget him, I constantly searched my mind for memories of him. However, as time wore on I learned memories are difficult to own because like a life, they are fluid, ever-changing. More and more as I wracked my brain for a memory, I found only a great, white emptiness, as if my mosaic of memories, so carefully constructed, had crumbled.

In my frantic attempt at singular ownership, I locked my memories deep inside myself and they withered away.

Now, years after that Wednesday morning, my memories feel more organic, more alive than tiles in a mosaic. Each has its own personality and its own timeline. They come and go at will and while they are mine, I do not own them. More often than not, when I reach back and try to grasp onto one I find nothing but that cold emptiness. But I choose to believe that someday that barren, white space will melt away and my memories will return to me. Slowly at first and then with intention and momentum until they shine with clarity in the forefront of my mind, like early spring flowers pressing from the earth.

Emily Coit, Portland

 

Deeds of the Heart

In the 1950s, my grandparents bought a lot on the bluff above the rocky shore of Yachats. They built a one-room shack there, the first structure along that stretch of shoreline. After the Columbus Day Storm demolished the tiny hut, they decided to replace it with something more durable: a one-bedroom vacation cottage built by my great-grandmother’s second husband, a former ship’s carpenter. My first memory of the house is visiting the construction site and seeing the lumber skeleton that would become my special place.

Once the house was completed, my family made frequent visits to Yachats. I remember falling asleep under a cozy flannel sheet on a daybed in the big oceanfront living room, waking up to the sound of the waves, watching chunks of seafoam bounce across the yard during winter storms. The rocky shoreline below the house was the most familiar landscape in my life. The sandy floor of the Slot, a narrow canyon in the rocks, was the best place to find agates. At low tide, sea palms would wave at me from the far end of the big rock outcropping we called Alcatraz. Tidepool Lake was a favorite place to find starfish and sea anemones. I memorized Grandmother’s rules: don’t go out on the rocks alone, don’t step on the slippery “green stuff,” and never turn your back on the ocean. Grandmother kept a guestbook for visitors, and every time I reluctantly left my favorite place, I recorded my comments about the weather, the tides, and the results of my beachcombing expeditions.

When Grandfather retired, the house became my grandparents’ full-time home. Grandmother always spoke of it as the family’s house and clearly envisioned it to be her legacy to future generations. She told me that our last name, Morgan, was Welsh for “one who dwells by the sea.” When I met the man I knew I would marry, I took him to meet my grandparents and the house with its big picture windows looking out at the pounding waves. I imagined our future children clambering over the rocks just as I had.

But once my grandparents were gone, my dad sold our family legacy, an act of selfishness that I find hard to forgive. In my heart, that house belongs to me, my siblings, and our children.

Corrinne M. Crawford, Portland

 

Where Are You From?

As an adult third culture kid, this question often stumps me. I was born in Perth, Australia to an English mother and an American father. I have lived in seven different countries. What place or country should I claim is home? 

My parents met in New York and married in England. Along with eighty thousand other migrants, my risk-taking parents moved to Australia in 1969 by boat. They migrated as part of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, an effort to increase Australia’s population. In exchange for a very low-cost boat fare, they agreed to live and work in Australia for at least two years. 

When I was born, Australia granted me birthright citizenship. The United States also granted me citizenship jus sanguinis because my father was a citizen. 

My parents left Australia when I was two years old. I relinquished my Australian citizenship when I was eighteen years old by not renewing my passport. In the pre-Internet age, we were misinformed that I could not be a dual citizen. 

What about British citizenship you might ask? Could I also claim British citizenship? That is a very good question with a complicated answer. 

At the time of my birth in 1971, I was not able to claim British citizenship. Before 1983, United Kingdom citizenship only passed to the child through the father and not through the mother. This is wrong on so many levels! After all, I passed through my mother’s birth canal to come into this world. 

Despite the law change in 1983, I still cannot claim British citizen. I fall under a loophole for British Overseas Citizens.  

Due to obscure loopholes and misinformation, I only have a US passport. In the grand scheme of things, this is no big deal. I have only been back to Australia as a tourist one time, so this loss is not so painful. But not being able to acknowledge my mother's country bothers me a lot. I have a strong connection to my British heritage and family in England.

Where are you from? I often ask people if they want the long answer or the short answer. Usually, they get the short answer: Chaska, Minnesota. The longer version is sometimes painful to answer.

Kelsey Cleveland, Hillsboro

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