As four of us descended from the peak of Mt. Hood, an unexpected storm created a whiteout. The fog was so dense we couldn’t see our hands in front of us. We latched ourselves together with rope so we wouldn’t get separated. It was a late afternoon in early June, 1978. Electronic trackers were not yet available. We stumbled along until it began to get dark. We should have reached Timberline Lodge hours earlier. We were lost. I was the only one who had training in mountain survival.
My tupperware sandwich holder became a shovel. I instructed my friends, all of us around thirty years old, how to dig a snow cave. The main thing was to make it big enough to get into but small enough to conserve as much heat as possible. I hung a piece of clothing on an ice axe above the entrance to alert rescuers. We coiled ropes underneath us and lay on top of each other, wrapping our jackets around the outside of our huddled bodies. We rationed what little food and water we had.
We talked about what it might be like to die on the mountain. I’d read that freezing to death is painless. One becomes delirious, numb, and goes to sleep. David and I reflected on how much we loved our sons—his, a three-year-old; mine a baby—and how glad we felt about giving them a good start in life. The other man, I’ll call him John, repeatedly wanted to hike out, confident he knew the way. The hardest part of this experience was convincing him the folly of that plan. John would surely perish.
Never before, nor since, have I had the experience of hallucinating noises. I kept hearing dogs barking and people calling. Several times I scrambled out the entrance to find nothing but bleak whiteness.
By late afternoon the next day the storm lifted. The search party spotted the shirt flapping in the wind. I found out later we’d unknowingly traversed just a few feet above the White River canyon. I marveled that we hadn’t slid to our deaths in the crevasse. I hate to think what would have happened without the plastic tupperware container. Snow had threatened our lives, and snow had sheltered us from the cold.
Nancy Turner, The Dalles
An Inquiry into Home
We Grew Up Here, a brilliant collage of friends, school, shopping, skiing, and atmospheric music, screened in a festival of films by Portland high schoolers. I grew up here too, but not the “here” of the filmmaker, and I moved away, and then back, as many do. A few months ago a new friend asked, “Are you going to have a housewarming? I want to see your place!”
She is that kind of friend who is always herself, a high-achieving imperfectionist, permitting me to feel at home with her. In the wake of sudden shared loss, she reached out with the kind of call I’ve always wanted to receive: “I really don’t know why I called; I just wanted to call.”
At my party my brother, an evangelical Christian, engages in conversation with this friend, an atheist. My sister arrives with a sack of ancient family books, a gift, and also mingles with my new and old friends, one of whom is
her best friend from elementary school.
For three days I am afraid to open the brown paper bag of books. When I do, I see Gordon E. Jaffe, Depoe Bay, OR, 10-9-91 inscribed in a poetry anthology. I know what it means. My father bought that book in a used bookstore in Depoe Bay. He labeled his belongings and established order. He was a preacher and found himself at home in words. Poems, especially. I do, too.
A woman sitting on a sidewalk outside Safeway asks for money. I don’t have any. I offer to buy her some food. She wants a sandwich and a Monster Energy drink. I warn her that I have a long grocery list. She says she will wait for me. She does. (I had a hard time choosing among the shiny rainbow of illustrated cans.) The woman says the sandwich looks good, even though she’d wanted Subway, and offers to help carry groceries to my car, and I say yes. Our eyes speak directly. We feel kindly toward each other and say gentle things. I say thank you. She says thank you. People on the sidewalk are watching us. Are we home? Is home where you recognize the people you see and they recognize you?
TJ Jaffe, Portland
To the Woman Next Door, Who Also Only Has Windows
We never met, and we never will. Honestly, I never even thought of you until one of your Douglas fir branches snapped from its thick trunk, smashed into our fence, and then thudded into our backyard. Dirt swirled in the hot air. This branch, your branch, was the size of a small tree, and it careened right into the spot where my five-year-old daughter drew letters with a stick.
Since I didn’t know your name or number, I went over and rang your bell. At that time, I didn’t even think about not being able to answer a door. I left a note, but you never called.
Nervous that other small trees would fall from the sky, I did not let my daughter play in the backyard, even though Pacific Northwest summers can sour in the blink of an eye. A week later I attached a second note.
A month later you finally called. You said you would take care of it but needed more time. Your voice sounded smooth without a wrinkle in it, but I was huffy and exasperated.
Then I arrived home from work one day, a screaming child at my side, and felt the emptiness of our backyard even before I saw your branch’s vacancy.
I didn’t think of you anymore, which makes me wonder if anyone ever thinks of me anymore. When I heard you were gone—something about you being on disability for years—I still didn’t care more than a “that’s too bad.”
But then my head smashed against the stubbly concrete of our driveway, and I became disabled, unable to answer the door for friends with casseroles or neighbors with tree fiascos. All I can do is gaze out my bedroom window. My words tangle easily. Taking a shower leaves me resting for hours. I can no longer read.
I picture you in a chair by the bedroom window too, like I’ve been for years, watching the bare branches of the plum tree sprout leaves, watching those leaves disappear with gusts of November wind.
What I really want to say is that now, if I could, I would borrow a chainsaw and slice your fir branch into logs for your fireplace, because I imagine a fireplace in your bedroom and that this crackling blaze could keep you warm while you stare down at the street.
Kristin Moran, Portland
Toward a New Beginning
In 2019 and 2020 I experienced the most challenging period in my life. My wife was dying of Alzheimer’s, and COVID was at its peak, meaning family couldn’t be in attendance. We had elected hospice care, so she and I were at home with no doctors or nurses. I felt completely alone and isolated.
In the midst of all this, a dear friend of decades invited my daughter to Tucson to visit her home for a change of scenery and a bit of renewal. Our friend, who had a beautiful Portland home, purchased her Tucson place as a respite from dark, damp Northwest winters. My daughter called me from Tucson and said, “Dad, this place is a sanctuary, and if you’re invited you should visit. The sunshine, birds, wildlife, sunrises, and sunsets over the mountains are magical.” She returned to Portland, renewed, refreshed, and ready to move on. In the meantime, I began doing the New York Times crosswords with our Tucson friend. She would fax me the puzzle of the day first thing in the morning, and we would spend a couple of hours together completing it.
My wife died at home on April 10, 2020. For more than a year, my friend and I continued our daily crosswords. I saw the Tucson home every day on FaceTime, enjoying sunrises, sunsets, and wildlife. Meanwhile both of us were seeking vaccinations for COVID. We finally succeeded, and on March 24, 2021, I bought a one-way ticket to Tucson. We’ve been partners ever since.
So did I fall in love with the Tucson home, or her? The two are inextricable. I needed sunshine, a refuge, splendid isolation, and love to work my way through grief, toward a new beginning. The shelter of the Tucson home, with its sweeping views of three mountain ranges and spectacular sunrises and sunsets, was beyond my expectations. But I also needed the shelter of true love.
Shelter is at the center of our story. It’s far more than a roof over our heads. It’s what Georgia O’Keefe said about the Southwest: “I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted me exactly.”
Walt Pollock, Pacific City
Weathering the Storm
My memory of the storm can be told in color and sound. Black and white checkerboard tiles on the floor are giant extensions of the black and white keys of the piano we huddle behind. The floor-to-ceiling plate glass of the daylight basement shudders as wind gusts alternate with eerie stillness, as if the air is being sucked out and pushed back again in waves. The sky is a strange gray-green, and the wail of the tornado warning races through it, unhindered by other sounds of daily life. Everyone is taking shelter from the storm.
During a tornado, the idea of living in a bright house full of windows seems more hazardous than healthy. My family of nine is too many for the corner behind the piano, and we bump elbows and knock heads as we shift and squish. Our heightened anxiety and breathless waiting make the contact both comforting and annoying all at once. I am scared, but I am also safe. I have faith that this storm will pass, and the colors and sounds of normal living will re-emerge with the sunshine.
The memory of the tornado descending on my home in Minneapolis is decades old now, but the idea of shelter still intrigues me—how it embodies a feeling of safety as well as the fundamental need for a secure structure.
Why don’t we prioritize shelter as a right instead of a privilege? We speak of “taking” shelter as an action, an acquisition. In my privileged world, I’ve never been without shelter, in people, places, or resources that are within easy reach. In contrast, an epidemic of houselessness grips our nation as the ever-growing population of displaced people search for shelter daily. For them the tornado warning blares “danger” without ceasing, but shelter is already claimed. Property is owned and protected, green spaces are managed and patrolled, even sidewalks and street curbs are safeguarded against trespass. We treasure our pristine public spaces and the peaceful, unimpeded tidiness of civic order more than the unhoused who struggle for a moment’s respite from life’s unrelenting storms before being told to move on. We keep an uneasy distance from their chaotic lives, spread out for public display. Where can they go except among us? Restructuring society is complex, and solutions are not easy, but shelter is a fundamental human right.
Jaynie C. Mitchell, McMinnville
The Refuge of Young Friends
I didn’t imagine I would learn another meaning of shelter from a group of millennials, stalwart friends of our younger son. Gratefully, we had accepted an invitation to the Medford wedding of one of these young men. We drove from Portland with our son’s best friend, a tall, lanky guy with a keen sense of humor and an even better heart. We arrived early, as older folks do, at a beautiful hillside vineyard outside the city and watched friends of the groom spill in, all grown up, sporting coats, ties, and trendy footwear. They greeted us warmly.
On the sloping lawn we sat on wooden chairs, then stood as the beautiful bride strode down the aisle with her father to meet her soon-to-be husband, a scene that never grows old. Several years before, this friend had sheltered our son when we made the wrenching decision to remove him from our home. Our son slept on his couch, showered in his bathroom, drank coffee in his kitchen. We never talked about it, but in that painful time, this generous friend was shelter in a storm.
At the wedding we hugged one young friend after another, all of them forging their way in the world: one a CPA, another a teacher; one in insurance, another in industrial design. One came from Switzerland where he works for a sporting apparel company. All were bumbling teenagers at one point, classmates who played Friday night poker in our dining room or video games in the basement, complaining about homework. Who knew then that their friend, our son, would succumb to wrenching despair? Each came up to us to say how much they missed him, that they thought about him each day. “Really,” one said, “I just spent thirty minutes talking about him, wishing we could see him on the dance floor tonight.” Another confided tearfully, “A new Zelda game is coming out, and I can’t talk to him about it, and it just about kills me.” Their memories, like ours, keep him alive in spirit. A type of shelter.
In this beautiful wedding celebration, so filled with hope, these young men, our son’s loyal friends, provided us such kindness, such refuge. They recognized that we sincerely celebrate their happiness, even as we mourn our son. Each hug they gave, each story, each kiss on the cheek, each gentle hand on a shoulder—all were shelter.
Sara Salvi, Portland
Home, like my heartbeat or the North Star, is a singular noun with multiple powers. The word evokes a center of gravity and a directional force. Yet it pulls me off balance. Which home? The one I once had, now have, dream of? Each one, under its roof and within its walls, holds presences and absences, moving boxes left behind.
When I cannot sleep I conjure my ideal shelter; it’s meant to comfort me. But often I feel bound by my actual dwelling and long to escape it. The security I now have can feel like confinement.
Yet it is not the same trapped feeling I had as a child in the suburban house on Turkey Hill Road, where my parents’ disapprovals and disappointments tightened the air and where, while I caught praise for using a vocabulary beyond my years, I lacked the words for the softness I craved.
And it is not the same false feeling I had in my college rental on Stewart Avenue, where I made stifado for my Greek boyfriend, peeling dozens of white onions the size of blueberries so I could feel capable of kindling something warm between us.
And it is not the same distressed feeling I had in the tiny cottage on Bobs Avenue when the man I chose to be my ally in a freer life received 3 a.m. phone calls from his inebriated lover—calls I answered, first humiliated, then infuriated, then driven to free myself.
I cannot blame those houses for failing to shelter me from parents who could not love enough. It was not the fault of the tiny cottage that we entered it hand-in-hand but had to leave it one at a time, stepping over our flattened promises on the way out. Still I look to those residences as witnesses offering clues about what my home means to me.
Like hermit crabs, we slide into adopted shells and must shrug them off when they no longer fit. Once outside, we can look widely, stretch our limbs, fill our lungs. It is when I am out of doors that my best thoughts land in me. I carry them back, cupping fragments of language that say something genuine, my mind like hands cradling a bird’s egg. I carry them back to the place where I live, and can write about them, and make a story of home that actually shelters me because it is true.
Bija Gutoff, Portland
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This reads like an elegy and reminds me of the first Duino Elegy of Rilke: “Children who have gone do not require us. Weaned, they need no mother’s breast. Our joys and sorrows don’t concern them. But we, for whom the mysteries are golden, still unsolved, our very sustenance- can we exist without them? Grief is our spirit’s fodder.”
William John Mittendorff | September 2023 | San Diego